Recently back from speaking to educators in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, I am reminded of the importance of prioritizing in a precise manner when it comes to educational reform. As we consider all the different options we have – more charter schools, longer school days, single-sex “academies” – we must remember a proven fact: Programs don’t change people. People change people.

We make the difference. Not by implementing “programs” with catchy titles and impressive data to back them, but by finding a way to connect with our students, one fallible human being to another, with our compassion and our care.

A teacher asked me not long ago, at the end of my talk, a question she had been asking herself throughout the talk: “If I had to pick just 3 things to start doing differently, what would they be?” It’s a question we all need to be asking ourselves as we each commit to the kind of reform required in education today. Knowing the neuroscience, I am clear about an educator’s first 3 steps:

1. Create a new experience of your body. Right now, we hit the ground running and our body is screaming, “This doesn’t feel good! Stop! Slow down! Take a breath!” We have aches and pains we run from in various ways. We deny ourselves sleep, rest, healthy food, enough water, even trips to the bathroom to relieve ourselves! We seem only to pay attention to our body when it’s too late, when we are sick, run down, and in need of a doctor. If instead, we listened to our body and slowed down, breathed deeper, and took better care of ourselves, we would begin to notice that we can feel good. And that is the ticket! That is exactly what it takes to do well. A well-established neuroscientific fact: We do well when we feel good. It’s true for us and for our students. If we begin to experience our body in a safe way -feeling our feet on the ground, wiggling our toes, noticing the support of the chair we are sitting in, breathing deeply through our nose – it becomes natural for us to pass that on to our students. It’s the health class missing from education right now! Teach them, first by your example. When we slow down we feel good, and we must feel good to do well.

2. Smile more. This was my favorite email from a teacher this year. Three days after she heard me speak, she wrote that all she started doing differently was smile more. She heard me present the neuroscience explaining that when we do, our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones all decrease. This is true for the person smiling as well as the recipient of the smile! She said in two short days she was already seeing a demonstrative difference in her classroom and with her most challenging students. We all need to have more joy in our lives, more fun, more feeling good. If we are focused on making a point, asserting our power, or controlling a situation, we pay too high a price in terms of our health and well-being, and so do our students. We can lighten up. We can. Just do it! The research is clear: The brain needs to play in order to function optimally. We need to play more and so do our students. Incorporate play into your teaching, and if not, at least choose to be more playful. Don’t just watch the difference it makes, experience it.

3. Finally, notice the impact of the choices you make. Whether you are making choices for you or your students, please step back and take note of how that choice affected your brain and body, as well as their brain and body. Is overwhelm increasing or decreasing? Are you or your student becoming more or less settled, focused, agitated, or checked out? We need always be decreasing that feeling of overwhelm in us and in them in order to feel good and do well. Whatever your choice – a word, a deed, an intervention – notice and adjust. If overwhelm and/or shut-down increase, abort! Try something different until you experience and see the change necessary for success, not just academic but human.