Tips from a neurologist
Dr. Judy Willis is a neurologist, an authority in brain research related to learning and the brain and, more recently, a classroom teacher. This article appeared on the Edutopia Web site on May 22, 2012. Thanks to Kay Provolt for sending me this link when I really needed it, and to the author for her permission to reprint the piece here. You can visit Dr. Willis’s website for more information about her work.
For many of you in the northern hemisphere, the school year is coming to a close, and with it comes a likely drop in the stressors that build up and promote teacher (and administrator) burnout. It therefore may not seem timely to suggest interventions to prevent or reduce burnout. However, it is often not until we are away from a high-stress situation for a while that the brain can move out of reactive survival mode and into a relaxed state where it can ponder the big picture.
The burnout interventions I am about to suggest are likely to be ones that you already know. The problem is, when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences may have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time— or you’ve tried things like this before and didn’t notice any change. So you stopped.
My belief is that when you understand what happened in your brain to build up the hopelessness and frustration of burnout, you’ll connect with the logic of the interventions. Then, with the addition of the video game model to the boost the neurochemical benefits of the activity of your choice, you’ll literally deconstruct the resistance network your brain constructed, and reset your circuits of confidence and motivation.
Know It’s Not Your Fault
Teachers often blame themselves for problematic student behavior, failure to “cover” every standard, and not differentiating instruction to suit the needs of each student. Know that you are not alone, but part of a growing majority of educators questioning their abilities to continue teaching. You are teaching at a time when it takes profound commitment and creativity to meet expectations. There is pressure to teach excessive quantities of information and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students— yet the supporting resources needed are dwindling.
Burnout feelings are not a reflection of your teaching skills. Teachers who question their ability to do their jobs properly are often among those who hold themselves to the highest standards. They also put in the greatest effort. When they must deal with external forces— beyond their control— that limit their ability to attain their goals, self-doubt builds, confidence drops, and burnout sets in.
If You’re Burned Out, Your Brain Has Rewired to Survival Mode
What I offer from the nexus of my dual careers as a neurologist and classroom teacher are interpretations and correlations from the neuroscience research to teaching and learning. Neuroimaging studies reveal the metabolic changes in regions of the brain where activity increases or decreases in response to emotional or sensory input.
There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain structures associated with stress. In the high-stress state, subject’s scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that directs involuntary behaviors and emotional responses. Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain, and corresponding decreased connections in prefrontal cortex conscious control centers.
The explanation of these changes is generally attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity of “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.
As you internalize your thwarted efforts to achieve your goals and interpret them as personal failure, your self-doubt and stress activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. As these circuits become the automatic go-to networks, the brain is less successful in problem-solving and emotional control. When problems arise that previously would have been evaluated by the higher brain’s reasoning, the dominant networks in the lower brain usurp control.
Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!
The good news is that you can apply what you now understand about your brain’s survival mode to take back voluntary control of your choices. You can activate the same neuroplasticity that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state to construct a new, stronger default response. With more successful experiences achieving goals, you can reset the circuits that will direct your brain to access its highest cognitive resources for creative problem-solving. You can build up new, improved circuitry, switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE!
Since a repeated pattern of effort-failure set up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen the pattern of effort toward goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own neurochemistry— dopamine and the pleasure it brings.
The plan to guide you comes from the video game model that works because of three components: buy-in, achievable challenges, and frequent awareness of incremental progress en route to the final goal.
See these resources for a full description of the video game model:
- A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool
- How to Plan Instruction Using the Video Game Model
The fuel that motivates the brain to persevere through increasing challenge, even through failed attempts, is dopamine. This neurochemical produces the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction, and increases motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is released when the brain makes a prediction or achieves a challenge and gets the feedback that it was correct. This can be in situations from the “Ah, I get it!” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon.
Just as the video game model can be applied to building a growth mindset in students, the same model can help rewire your mindset regarding your ability to achieve teaching goals at school. As in the video game model, to get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition feedback of incremental progress. You should set your “rewiring” goals by their desirability and by the goals‘ suitability to be broken down into clear segments. This way, you can chart your goal progress as you achieve each stepwise challenge. The pleasure burst of intrinsic motivation that will accompany your recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep your brain motivated to persevere.
Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING
Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your efforts will yield progress, even through increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do but won’t really look forward to doing, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal. Select a goal that you would enjoy en route and at the finish.
Usually goals are tangible. Some are visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel. Others are auditory, such as playing an instrument, or physical, such as learning tai chi. But your goal can also be the increased amount of time you sustain an activity such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.
Sample “Rewiring” Goals
You’ll find your own goal for buy-in, but here are some examples to give you a sense for how to structure your new goals.
Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and if you enjoy running, the goal for achievable challenge could be first building up to the distance starting with the baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding .5K a day or a week. The increments will depend on what you consider both challenging and achievable. Once you reach 10K, speed can become the next goal, again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.
Possibly after seeing The Hunger Games, archery has new appeal. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. Start with a home dartboard (a low initial investment) and throw from a close but challenging distance. As you get better in accuracy, move farther back. Record your results, noting the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that the dartboard no longer challenges you, try that archery!
Learn a Language
But try this one only if the buy-in is strong enough, such as definite plans to go to a country where the language is spoken.
If it appeals to you to make high quality videos or PowerPoints using advanced computer software, go for an early success, such as the videos you can make on animoto.com.
Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite
As you meet your incremental goals and have repeated experiences of dopamine-reward, you will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote neuroplasticity, and this makes a neural network that expects positive outcomes into your new default network. This is because your “rewiring” goals helped your brain build stronger and more connections into a memory pattern where effort brings pleasure. As with other networks not used, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed, the one that caused you to react to problems, will be pruned away from disuse.
You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew your positive expectations. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, you’ll be able to access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you return to the classroom.
Just be sure you take time to recognize each small success and creative problem-solving opportunity. Keep up the habit of breaking down big challenges into opportunities for recognizing incremental progress and receiving your well-deserved dopamine reward. The brain needs that battery recharge to sustain the positive expectations that motivate continued effort—so that you can stay engaged and move to the next step toward your teaching goals.
© Dr. Judy Willis
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