FRANKTON — The 22 students in Jessica Patton’s kindergarten class at Frankton Elementary School were learning their ABCs, dancing and wiggling to a hip, 21st-century version of the alphabet song, when Assistant Principal Joe Bowman asked to interrupt for a short lesson of his own.
“Say ‘amygdala,’” he said, the students following his instruction. “Now whisper ‘amygdala.’ Are you ready to yell ‘amygdala?’ ”
Though that’s a mighty big word rolling off the tongues of youngsters, other words such as “pre-frontal cortex” and “brain stem” also are part of the lesson on the brain and how it affects their emotions.
The interactive lesson on socio-emotional intelligence is part of a new evidence-based strategy inspired by brain science to deal with behavioral issues in students. Bowman and his team of administrators are teaching the lessons in every classroom at Frankton Elementary.
“We want to learn, and we can’t do that unless we’re in our upstairs brain. Did you know that if you’re in your downstairs brain, you can’t learn?” Bowman told the students as a metaphor for focusing by using their brains rather than their hearts.
“The amygdala is the brain’s reset station. It’s going to help us get from our downstairs brain to our upstairs brain.”
Educators like Bowman increasingly are seeking more effective strategies to help students cope with trauma that can be the result of tragic neglect or abuse or simple everyday events like hunger, sleeplessness or worry. That trauma often gets in the way of their ability to learn and can cut as much as 20 years off a person’s life without intervention, he said.
In addition to vocabulary and lessons on the brain, Bowman showed students breathing exercises and how to do a hand massage with their thumbs to calm down.
At the end of the lesson, Bowman pulled out a bin containing a watermelon-shaped squeeze toy, lotions and lavender aromatherapy oil, and a compact disc player.
“These are not toys. These are for you to reset,” he told the students.
Frankton-Lapel Schools is one of about 30 districts in Indiana that are implementing a brain-based framework to combat behavioral issues.
A former kindergarten teacher, Bowman said he became interested in implementing the brain-based strategy this school year because of what he has learned while earning his master’s degree in applied educational neuroscience at Butler University in Indianapolis. He said teachers are desperate for out-of-the box strategies because the punitive methods of the past are unfair and ineffective, especially for those acting out because of adverse childhood experiences.
“We’re exhausting all our traditional resources, and the punitive approaches do more harm than good,” he said. “It’s no longer, ‘What is wrong with this child?’ It’s about what has happened to them.”
The new approach, advocates stressed, is not a program but a mindset or framework, and doesn’t add any instructional burden to the school day. He expects to go into the classroom a couple of times a year to reinforce the ideas.
It also does not mean students don’t have consequences for their actions, he said.
“This does not seem like discipline, but this is discipline. We are teaching them about disciplining themselves,” he said.
Bowman said he can understand some people may be skeptical because the idea of training the brain may seem magical.
“I was resistant at first,” he admitted. “It looks fluffy, but it’s science. When they have the why behind it, it’s hard to argue with science and research.”
Bowman also serves as Frankton Elementary’s safety specialist.
“Students need to learn to handle their trauma and stresses," he said. "We’re seeing that in these school shooters. It will harm them for the rest of their lives."
The strategies the students learn can be used outside of school and throughout their lives, Bowman said. They learn they can regulate themselves even when the adults around them aren’t regulated.
Though implementation of the framework is in its early stages, Bowman said the school eventually also may work with parents so it can be reinforced outside of school — and maybe enhance the lives of students when they are at home.
The results speak for themselves, said Bowman, who added the number of office referrals from teachers are down 50 percent. And for a student who previously would have taken three weeks just to learn three letters of the alphabet, the information can be retained in just one.
Dr. Lori Desautels, assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler, said the framework not only provides lifelong mental health but also physical health benefits. Stress, which increases cortisol and adrenaline in the body, can be a major contributor to a variety of conditions, including heart disease, cancer, asthma and diabetes.
She said though it’s marketed toward educators, pediatricians and business leaders also have found value in applying the principles.
“The emphasis of this framework is how to implement it into our own lives,” she said. “It’s kind of a cultural shift.”
When used as a disciplinary strategy, Desautels said, it’s important for not only the student but the adult to be regulated.
“The adults have to regulate themselves in order to practice this with integrity,” she said. “We never can fix a kid. That’s not what this is about.”
In her third year teaching kindergarten at Frankton Elementary, Patton said she experiences student meltdown on average a handful of times a day.
“I think that it will be very beneficial for even students this young to recognize where they are emotionally and reset in a constructive way,” she said. “If they’re emotionally distraught, they’re not going to hear anything I have to say.”
Patton said the toolbox is likely to be especially effective at the grade level she teaches. Teachers have limited knowledge about where their students come from or what they experience, but having a new framework levels the playing field, she said.
“I think it will be good for them to be able to choose because the box will be full of options,” she said.
These skills, as much as academic skills, will be useful throughout the students’ lives, Patton said.
“Real life is hard, and real life does not always go as planned," she said, "so I think it’s important to know how to cope in a positive way.”