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Editorial: Threat and Impaired Learning
by Kim Tracy
The recent posts on the Texas Teachers Net Chatboard regarding corporal punishment have made me reflect back to what the Brain Compatible gurus say about threat in the classroom. In the book, Teaching With The Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen states:
"Excess stress and threat in the school environment may be the single greatest contributor to impaired academic learning."
I have seen students that are already so angry in the classroom only become more out of control when they are threatened by the teacher. I think part of classroom management is controlling the situation and defusing the problem before it escalates. Continuing to be confrontational with a student only makes matters worse. Teachers often get in power struggles with students for useless reasons. The teacher's temper increases because the student becomes antagonistic. It is as though the teacher must show his/her power over this child: This is my classroom and you will do what I say because I am the boss. Just as the logic of gender domination is out of date, it is also barbaric for educators to extend the same attitude towards the students in the classroom.
The threat that is imposed on students causes learning to be impaired. Neurological research not only shows that our hearts beat irregularly and chemicals become imbalanced when threatened, but our brain's ability for higher order thinking skills and memory becomes affected. Our bodies and brains are built for fight or flight survival techniques. When students exercise either option, it results in adverse situations. Teachers must take that threat out of the classroom in order to create and maintain productive classroom environments. Many educators add negative stress in the classroom which harms the entire learning process. A low level of stress promotes adrenaline flow and may be harmless. Unfortunately, I have seen students being ridiculed on a daily basis. Then the teacher will question why the student does not want to learn or doesn't produce for him/her in the classroom.
Many of our students are already faced with threatening environments at home or in their community. Educators cannot control what goes on after school hours. We CAN make a difference for these students each and every day by providing an understanding, yet challenging environment in the classroom. Many students are faced with significant stressors in their lives such as poverty, divorce, relationship problems, to name just a few. An educator has no right to add to that stress by using threats. We must learn to appreciate the difficulties that these students are coping with daily and facilitate learning by alleviating these problems.
Students that are ridiculed, who teachers often call"unmotivated" are usually the ones that are suffering from learned helplessness. These students are the ones that most need to feel some type of control. These are also the ones that have rules and regulations placed upon them because that is how the educational structure is set up in our society. Learned helplessness is a serious condition that our students are placed under and forced to be in by controlling teachers. These students are the ones that have failed time and time again, and have been ridiculed, put down and told they were unmotivated. When an adult that is suffering from an addiction, whether substance addiction or emotional/physical abuse addiction, it is impossible to turn off the addiction immediately. It takes time and constant reassurances, and positive influences. It takes support from others. This addiction is no different from the addiction to failure that we have placed upon these learned helplessness students. These students need support in a safe, threat-free environment.
Using threats, both physical and/or emotional, causes adverse problems in all students. Educators must teach students how to reduce stress and what happens when they act and react in a negative way. Controlling and dominating other's actions only causes intolerable situations. That is a lesson that not only educators need to teach the students, but one that we must learn ourselves.