Image of amygdala
Amygdala, what is it and how does it react to stress?

Hurricanes are stressful!  Preparing for hurricanes is stressful!  That’s what I did this past week and it got me to thinking about my amygdala and how it affects my actions and reactions in stressful situations.

So, what is the amygdala?

The amygdala is the emotional center of our brains.  It’s a small almond shaped organ deep in our brain.  It’s the first part of your brain to react to emotionally significant events.  It can cause you to overreact.  It assists in memory formation of emotional events.  In short, it is emotion central for us human beings. It’s that fight or flight response that kicks in in high stress situations.  It can cause us to react swiftly and strongly without much thought.  My amygdala was on high alert for almost a week as I learned a very large, Category 5 hurricane (Irma) was headed for Florida and that practically everyone in the state was going to experience its effects.

How does the amygdala affect me?

When you are in a situation that is highly intense and emotional, rational thoughts can be hard to come by.   Pressure builds up, we struggle to control our emotions. My amygdala tells me I am under threat!  Primitive instincts kick in.  Our reactions and decisions are based on our emotions rather than using the more rational thinking part of our brains.  I can overreact to something that isn’t life threatening if I allow my amygdala to take over.

We spent days leading up to Irma hearing about the devastation that was potentially coming our way.  The news media assaulted us continuously with dire predictions of destruction and the imminent danger to our lives if we did not prepare or leave the area.  The media used dramatic, strong words to describe the impending peril to spur people to action.  In reality, they were stimulating our amygdalas to react.

Some people in our neighborhood experienced a similar scenario before and Irma triggered an even more automatic response of evasive action.  They took immediate action to prepare their house and pack up to leave the area until the threat had passed.  Our memories are good at reminding us of similar threats and spurring us to action.  For me, with no experience, I had to decide how real the threat was and whether or not a knee jerk response was necessary.  I decided that I had time to consider all the options and develop a plan to stay safe.  Partly this was true because I knew about my amygdala and how it could affect my decisions.

How can we calm our amygdala?

I knew that the amygdala could cause me to think that the hurricane was a problem with unknown implications.  Not knowing the implications can cause me to react urgently and quickly with perhaps not the best results.  Learning and practicing techniques for calming down my amygdala has benefited me before.   Therefore put some of them into action for this situation.  I also knew that following my gut or intuition usually provides me with good results.  I knew staying calm and developing a plan, I could calm my emotions and make sure my decisions came from the higher level thinking part of my brain and not my fight or flight response.

Here are some good techniques that I use in stressful situations that may be helpful to you too.

The outcomes of amygdala regulation

It isn’t always easy to manage your amygdala as an emotionally driven human being.  We fail at times.  Acceptance and learning from those times can be a huge benefit to our emotional and physical well-being.  Each time I can calm my amygdala and work my way through a tension filled situation, it gives me confidence for the future.  Being aware of the physical symptoms accompanying emotions can instantly disconnect the messages that are sent from the amygdala. Allowing calming to take place.  It takes a bit of practice but common sense can win out when you don’t react from emotion.

We took precautions to stay in our home during Irma.  We prepared the best that we could by listening to all the experts, spent time focusing on the blessings that we have and staying calm, and had a solid plan to evacuate if needed.  How grateful I am for understanding my amygdala and how it works!  If you are interested in finding out more about your amygdala, I would recommend this website:  http://www.effective-mind-control.com/amygdala.html

Let me help you learn techniques for amygdala regulation, using evidence-based programs click here.


What do you call SEL skills? Does it really matter?

Lots of people are talking about social and emotional learning (SEL) these days.  Is it something new?  Nope!  Has it been called other things?  Sure!  How about Character Building or Growth Mindset or Soft Skills or 21st Century Skills?  Just a few of the descriptive terms used by Anya Kamenetz’s, lead education blogger for NPR. Check out her blog here.  Her most recent blog agrees a focus on skills beyond academics in education is vital to our future.  In the two years since she originally wrote about SEL though, not much progress has been made in specifically landing on an agreeable term for everyone.

What’s the question?

So why am I blogging about a blog?  It peaked my curiosity and got me to thinking about whether or not it is important that we all use the same “term”.   If we use any of the terms above, are we talking about the same thing?

Well, the first thing I thought would be helpful would be to look up the terms in the dictionary.  Could I use the definitions to either show similarities or differences.  Guess what?  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary didn’t recognize any of them!  How can that be?

Let’s define them!

Next, I did what all good detectives do, I put “definition of” …into a google search and came up with lots of options to check out.  In fact, 10,600,000 results popped up in .62 seconds for character building alone! As any good problem solver knows, you have to identify your emotions, determine possible solutions and consequences and decide what the best plan is for you.  So, I took a deep breath, decided to check out just a few of the definitions and create my own summary for you.

Character Building:  Becoming a better person by improving good or useful parts of your character (ie things like respect, self-reliance, endurance, and courage).  Do we all agree on what it takes to be a “good person” of character? Does it look the same for everyone?

Growth Mindset:  Having a self-perception that you can change yourself through hard work, learning new skills, persistence, and practice.  Someone with a growth mindset potentially views challenges and failures as opportunities to learn.   Is this an “attitude” rather than a specific set of skills?

Soft Skills:  A combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, and attitudes that help people navigate everyday life. This term is typically used in relation to employment and the ability to deal with people, have common sense, and have a positive flexible attitude. Basically, getting along with others and navigating work and social situations.

21st Century Skills:  Identified as critical and needed for our society and workplaces and at times are also referred to as “soft skills”.  Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, flexibility, social awareness, and initiative are just some of the words I found to describe them.

Social and Emotional Learning:  Typically identified as five core competencies:  self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsibility decision making.   These five core competencies are necessary for people to be able to manage emotions, achieve goals, and be empathetic to others as well as having positive relationships and making good decisions.

Does it matter what term we use?

I am most familiar with social and emotional learning because that has been my focus in my work.  I tend to feel that the term social and emotional learning is the most comprehensive because it is clearly defined what each competency is and what it looks like.

In the grand scheme of things, I am not sure there really is a right or wrong answer.  Any work that is done to build a kinder, more emotionally stable, empathetic world is good work in my book. What do you think?

If you want to learn more about how I can help you with SEL in your school or organization, find out how to contact me here.

Teachers are Miracle Workers!

Teachers are miracle workers in my book!

Teachers are some of my favorite people ever!  My admiration for them is immense. Think about it.  Elementary teachers have a class of students that they spend the entire day with through thick and thin.  It’s like being a parent to 25-30 children AND getting them to accomplish multiple tasks while addressing different learning styles, behavior challenges all while making it fun!  Middle and high school teachers probably deal with 100-150 students in a day, keeping them focused on the specific material and concepts that are their specialty.  I am amazed and in awe when I work with teachers!  Their passion for helping our future generations become our future community comes with a lot of responsibilities which can lead to STRESS!


Consequences of Teacher Stress

Teacher stress is real.  In an issue brief produced by Penn State University supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 46% of teachers report high daily stress during the school year.1

There are consequences that come from teacher stress. We continually add federal, state, district, and school policies that increase procedures and accountabilities for teachers we start to see an impact.  Stress can impact teachers personally.  Lower performance, illness, lack of positive emotional health, higher absenteeism, and higher than usual turnover rates are just a few things that can cause impact in a school. If teachers aren’t functioning at their best level due to stress it can cause other unintended consequences.  Lower student achievement as teachers are struggling they have more behavior management issues which means less time for teaching academics.  Less continuity for students if teachers leave which can lead to lower student achievement.  Higher education costs from dealing with teacher turnover.


What can be done?

We know that stress management is crucial for teachers and that professional development focused on coping strategies can be helpful physiological and psychological benefits and can support great academic achievement.  Workplace wellness programs that encourage lifestyle changes that focus on physical ways to reduce stress. Mentoring programs connecting more experienced teachers with new teachers have also shown promise.

There has been a lot said about teaching children social and emotional learning (SEL) skills and I would like to add that it is important to teach teachers how to teach their students SEL skills. Give them the freedom to learn and practice SEL strategies that will support their students in the classroom but will also allow them to do their own self-reflection on their strengths as teachers, remind them why they became teachers, and help them understand that we don’t expect them to be super heroes or miracle workers.  Encourage them to take care of themselves emotionally and physically so that they can be their best in the classroom.  It’s not   a “new” concept to take care of yourself in order to take care of others.  That’s an old adage.  Let’s start focusing our teacher professional development on decreasing teacher stress to give them the tools they need and deserve keep up with the increasing demands of their profession!

1Copyright 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation | September 2016

Gang members have leadership skills, do you agree?

An article I recently read titled A New Recipe for School Design by Cesar A. Cruz, caught my eye for a couple of reasons.   First, I am always interested in outside the box ways to educate youth.  Second, this sentence, ”What if when we caught a young man selling drugs at school, instead of sending him to the principal’s office, we sent him to Harvard Business School?” grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.

Outside the Box Concept

No, Cesar isn’t suggesting we reward young people for selling drugs!   He is, however, suggesting that we look at what skills and talents these young people have and guide them to using their skills and talents for things that are beneficial for the community.  We tend to write these kind of young people off and try to avoid them. Cesar has jumped right in and said, “Let’s help them make the most of their business skills.” in a safe and beneficial way for the community.   Sounds like a win-win to me!

What Do We Know?

Cesar has done a lot of research.  For the last year, he has traveled across the country seeking out students who are struggling in school, recent drop-outs, and gang members to find out what their dream school would look like.  Makes sense to me, ask the people you are trying to help be successful.

Cesar makes a strong case for understanding what benefits some youth get from a gang. They are the same benefits that other youth might find from belonging to an organization like the Girl Scouts.  They get a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a mentor, rites of passages and a place they think is cool.  Really youth need a sense of self and belonging to grow and this can happen in different ways.

How Can We Support Positive Leadership?

Here are the six things that Cesar is focusing on as he works towards building his Homies Empowerment School:

  1. Culture as healing.Help them see that their roots/culture is just as valuable as anyone else’s.   It supports their sense of purpose.
  2. Understanding their desire to be independent and helping them to transition to adulthood.
  3. Care management. Helping students meet their own needs whether it is basic survival or self-discovery and resilience.
  4. Exploring careers, not jobs.Exploration of possible career paths, provide paid internships for that exploration.
  5. Self‑expression through the arts.Give young people space to find their voice and develop their talents.
  6. Physical movement as healing.Self-care through sports and developing team unity.  Help them to recognize the power they have in their minds and bodies.

If you want to read a fascinating story about Cesar and his dream to “Empower Homies”- Not Demonize Them, check out more here.

Emotion Characters
Emotions – looking at yourself from the inside out!

Emotions drive behavior…it is as simple as that!  Our “insides” influence what happens on the outside!  Our brains are flexible but contain some hard-wiring for emotions.  Regulating your emotions is necessary so that you can be focused, remember, and connect all the new information that we already know.  If your brain is continually in a state of negative emotions, it can leave you in a state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness can take over your logical, thinking brain.  Not a good situation to be in for any length of time.

Inside Out and Upside Down?

Remember the movie from a couple of years ago, Inside Out?  If you haven’t seen it and are looking for a way to look at emotions in a simple straightforward way, I’d recommend it.  Inside Out is a very accurate portrayal of our five core emotions:  joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust.  As with any Disney movie, there is exceptional detail in the research and science behind it.

A character represents and conceptualizes each core emotion throughout the movie.  The emotional characters come alive in the brain of 11-year old Riley.  The movie is a delightful way to learn how emotions can change our thinking processes.  It also puts a visual picture to creating memories and how those memories are attached to emotions.   Eventually those memories attached to emotions become part of who we are.  Although sometimes we may want to ignore or suppress our emotions, they do provide us with information that we can process.  This information serves a purpose and informs you what to do if you take time to use it.

What can I do?

One of the first steps to becoming more in tune with your emotions is to recognize that they are not good or bad, right or wrong.  Emotions can be comfortable or uncomfortable.   Another step is to recognize what emotion you are feeling in a given situation and label it.  By creating a bridge between the thoughts and feelings and naming the emotion, you can actually decrease the intensity of them.  The organization Six Seconds has a great article that explains this phenomenon that you can read here.  Take some time over the next week to be more actively aware of your emotions.  Journal them, share them with a friend or spouse, or just simply observe them as you go throughout your day.  You might be surprised what you find!  I’ll leave you with this quote…

Be an observer of yourself.  Pay attention to what you feel and how those feelings contribute, distract, enhance, or challenge you.  By Dawn Karner

SEL isn’t just a feel good idea, its science!

I am excited and encouraged by the work I do!  You may wonder, why?  I love that there is brain science that shows that our brains can grow and change.  It’s called neuroplasticity.  Haven’t heard of neuroplasticity?  It’s a big word, but easy to understand in the video!

SEL and Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity means that social emotional learning takes place at any age!  The competencies of emotional awareness, emotional management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making can be taught and learned.  The even better news is that even in old age, the brain can change! That means old dogs can learn new tricks!

It’s like learning reading, math, or a new language. It takes practice! When we actively learn different ways to perceive our emotions and have new thoughts about managing them, we carve out new pathways in our brains!  That gives me hope that anyone can “train their brain” to be more self-aware, manage their emotions, and become better at relationships and problem solving.

This cool info-graphic by Big Think helps us understand the ideas behind neuroplasticity and how our brain works.  Read up on the really relevant information about addiction, habits and triggers, rewiring the brain, and mindfulness. It all starts with simple ways to train your brain to be less distracted.  The more we understand about ourselves and our brains, the better we can get at using the power of neuroplasticity to be happier and healthier.  Think about teaching this power to young children!  Our world can look a whole lot different if we combine the ideas of neuroplasticity and social emotional learning!


Definition of Empathy
Empathy isn’t always as easy as you think!

Empathy seems like a relatively simple concept and talked about a lot in the world of social and emotional learning these days.  If we create empathy, we create connection, and connection supports healthy relationships.

In its simplest form, just “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” and you can understand how they might feel in that situation or know what they should do.  One of my strengths is being a “relator” or someone who builds lasting relationships. Relating also allows me to have a unique depth of perspective on other people’s lives and triumphs. I enjoy close relationships and working with my others to reach goals.  So it would seem that I should be naturally empathetic, right?

Well, that isn’t always the case and it isn’t always easy for me.  I do think I have a fairly good amount of natural empathy for others.  Life has given me a wide range of experiences from which to pull when it comes to relating to others.  I’ve noticed though that sometimes I still unintentionally put my own “spin” on things if I am not fully focused on intention in my listening   I may relate my experiences and emotions to a situation that someone else is experiencing.  I haven’t experienced that exact situation myself but “think” I know how it would feel.

It takes hard work to connect fully to the intensity of emotions or experiences that others have.  Have you ever had something like this happen to you?  You are having a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad day and you share those experiences with a friend or colleague.  Their response?  “Well, yeah that’s bad, but you know what happened to me today?”  or “Well, at least “this” didn’t happen to you.”  Their response can make you deflate even more.  All you probably really wanted was some empathy. Someone to hear your feelings and experiences and connect with them.  To say something like, “You are right, that was a pretty horrendous day.”

Your friend or colleague isn’t intentionally dismissing or minimizing your feelings and experiences.  As Brene Brown explains in the Empathy vs Sympathy video, they are “silver lining” it for you because maybe your painful feelings or experience make them uncomfortable.  Acknowledging that discomfort and being ok with allowing it is something that I am striving to achieve.  I don’t have to “fix” things for everyone but rather intentionally listen and allow them to share.  Encourage them that their feelings are their own and ok.  That’s what most people need.

I encourage you to watch Brene Brown’s video and reflect a bit on how you can show more empathy today!  We are all works in progress and the more we can connect, the happier we will be!

SEL is ESSENTIAL for Middle School Teachers and Students Too!

I’ve always admired middle school teachers.  I wouldn’t want their job!  They have quite the challenge on their hands when it comes to getting students to learn!  Students in middle school are going through many biological changes. That means the distraction of hormones, awkwardness and everyone in a variety of stages of growth.  Middle schoolers are also going through many psychological changes.  Research shows that is a very social time and academics and school are mostly a secondary focus for them.  I sometimes liken middle schoolers to a puppy who is about a year old.  The puppy looks pretty grown up, but is still awkward and needs to learn a lot.  Not quite ready for full adult responsibilities, but ready for some opportunities to spread their wings and trust.

Middle school teachers are special breed of teacher that takes all of that into account and encourages, teaches, and helps their students succeed.  If you remember your favorite middle school teacher, you probably remember that they spent time getting to know you and building a relationship with you.

What does the research say?

According to the paper, School Climate in Middle School: What are students telling us about their experience in schools? (April 2016) School climate is a really important indicator of students’ well-being, engagement, and academic performance.  It is a really challenging time!  What are students looking for at school?  They are looking for authenticity and feeling a sense of belonging and some sort of significance.

School climate is recognized as a main factor influencing students’ well-being, engagement and academic performance (Osher & Kendziora, 2010). A growing body of research suggests that schools with positive school climates, where students feel safe, supported and engaged in challenging and developmentally appropriate work, have better academic performance and motivation, higher attendance rates and students display stronger social-emotional competencies (Thapa, Cohen, Higgins-D’Alessandro & Guffrey, 2012).1

All makes sense, right? So what do we do to create school climates that support students during this turbulent time?  There are two recommendations of importance that comes from the data collected by researchers from 14 schools located in the US and Singapore and was shared at the 2016 AERA Annual Conference:

  • Middle school students need to participate in strategic planning and program development. Students in our survey had a profound vision of education as well as promoted specific and actionable ideas for school improvement. Participation of students in planning would enhance their sense of belonging, and help students to hear and value other perspectives.
  • Professional development for teachers could focus even more on the critical role of student/teacher relationships. Students are acutely aware of the value of their attunement with caring faculty and are seeking teachers they can trust. Educators trained in SEL could more effectively respond to student needs and find ways to inspire and motivate them.

What can we do?

The themes for students at each age level in school seem to be the same.  Engage them, create a safe place for emotional awareness and help them with strategies to manage their emotions.   Encourage problem solving and give them the chance to understand and relate to people different from themselves.  The solution?   Focusing on the five core social and emotional competencies:  self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills, and decision making for both students and teachers.  If we all get to the same place, school will seem a little less daunting and middle schoolers will be more engaged.

To read the full article on middle school and school climate, click here.

1Excerpted from School Climate in Middle School: What are students telling us about their experience in schools? (April 2016)

Parent modeling SEL = Children learning SEL

As a parent of grown children, quite often, I fondly think back to when they were small children.  Boy, they grew up fast!  Sometimes, I am super proud of how I parented and at other times, I wish that I had done things a bit differently. I did the best I could with the skills I had at the time. One observation in my reflections has been that our own childhoods can profoundly influence who we are as adults and as parents.  Pretty obvious, I know.

For me the memories of my childhood don’t have a lot of “emotion” attached to them.  I don’t remember emotions typically being expressed.  I do remember feeling happy, safe and encouraged from many adults in my life.  I don’t specifically remember being asked, “How do you feel in this situation or how do you think others might feel?”  I don’t remember adults labeling their emotions or talking to me about how they felt or being encouraged to express how I felt.  This lack of experience with emotional expression without doubt impacted how I parented.

Fast forward to 2017 and my over 15 years of work in the world of social and emotional learning and evidence-based practices.  The concept that all feelings are ok and we all have them is so easy now for me to appreciate.   We are human beings with lots of emotions which is a glorious thing!  I am much more comfortable with sharing and expressing my own feelings.  I can with less difficulty encourage my adult children to share how they feel and reassure them that their feelings are normal. Even in the toughest of situations.  It is normal to feel happy, sad, surprise, fear, anger, and even disgust.  It has been an evolutionary process for me and my interactions with them.

My work and education have help me to understand the science behind why it is important to label your feelings.  Labeling emotions helps to decrease their intensity. Labeling emotions is the first step in learning how to manage them.  Labeling emotions helps to encourage executive function processes or problem solving.   I try to be a good model for them in all of these areas.  A work in progress we are all and Modeling is probably the most important thing you can do as a parent. Children watch you closely, whether they are younger or older and your actions speak much louder than your words.

What can I do?

Need some resources?  Want to find out how you as a parent how can you model for your child (young or old) to encourage emotional awareness and management? There is a Parent Toolkit ready to help!  It’s in English or Spanish and contains a wealth of information.  Tips, conversation starters, and booklists for PreK-K, early elementary, late elementary, middle school, and high school.  Give it a look and let me know how it goes!


Picture credit:  Captured from ParentToolKit.com April 2017

Teacher Stress and SEL

It isn’t really an issue that needs to be debated.  It’s a fact that teachers are a significant influence in the lives of children and play a huge role in shaping them in to adults.  Not only do they teach them to read, how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, history and science but they also shape socially and support their emotional development.  Fact #2, teaching is a stressful occupation!

From the State of American Schools Gallup report in 2014:  46% of teachers report high daily stress during the school year. That’s tied with nurses for the highest rate among all occupational groups.

More insight on teacher stress from a brief published in September 2016 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in collaboration with the Pennsylvania State University:

“Today, teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S. High levels of stress are affecting teacher health and well-being, causing teacher burnout, lack of engagement, job dissatisfaction, poor performance, and some of the highest turnover rates ever.

Stress not only has negative consequences for teachers, it also results in lower achievement for students and higher costs for schools. A New York City study showed higher teacher turnover led to lower fourth and fifth grade student achievement in both math and language arts. The cost of teacher turnover is estimated to be over $7 billion per year.”

Teacher stress comes from a variety of sources.  Lack of resources in some schools, high stakes testing, behavior issues of students, schools that have ever changing leadership, and a teacher’s lack of ability to deal with all of the other stressors.  Teachers stress has an assortment of impacts as well.   High stress levels causes illness, increases absenteeism, and teachers burn out and leave their jobs.  If you have high teacher turnover this can cause lower student academic achievement, instability for students and parents, and higher educational costs from having to train new staff regularly.

What can be done to support teachers and lower their stress levels? From the same brief from the RWJF, there are several suggested interventions that may require more research to understand their benefits for lowering teacher stress.  From an organizational standpoint, culture can be addressed.  Would creating more open communication, peer support, reducing workload and training help to decrease job stress, increase job satisfaction, and reduce turnover?  No research has been done in this area but is something that could be explored. There are three proven areas that focus on building social support and skills training for teachers and students: Teacher induction and mentoring programs, school workplace wellness programs and policies, and programs that focus on student behavior and social and emotional learning.  All three of these areas have shown benefits at some level.  That last area that is discussed in the brief is more individually focused.  Teachers who participate in mindfulness and stress management professional development are better equipped to handle the stresses of the classroom.

All of this makes sense to me, how about you? I’ve seen the benefits of training teachers to teach SEL to their students. In the process of training them, we discuss how they identify, manage their own emotions and solve problems. We encourage them to model for their students. Modeling social and emotional skills can be challenging for teachers. Given the everyday pressures in the classroom not to mention the stresses in their own personal lives. It’s easy to see that the area of teacher stress needs to be addressed.

The RWJF brief concludes by urging more research in the area of teacher stress.  If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to read the brief and explore this issue more at  www.rwjf.org/socialemotionallearning