Drawing from important current educational research, Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, highlights the essentials for effective teaching today. With a growing number of students coming to school having experienced various levels of toxic stress and adversity, educators everywhere are finding the need for strategies that dial down (rather than up) the challenging behaviors and emotions that get in the way of learning.

Highlighted in Tough’s book is the work of teacher and researcher, Camille A. Farrington, who identified the four key beliefs that when embraced by students, contribute the most to their tendency to persevere in the classroom. They are the following:

  1. I belong in this academic community.
  1. My ability/competence grow with my effort.
  1. I can succeed at this.
  1. This work has value for me.

Paul Tough

Neurobiologically, because of what so many of our students today go through, such beliefs are not easily embraced. Overactive survival mechanisms highjack the executive functions of the brain disallowing such higher-order thinking. However, there is much we can do to soothe the survival brain so that executive function returns and focus on academics is easier.

Let’s look at each belief and how teachers can make it easier for students to embrace them.

  1. Talking openly about what too often is the “white elephant in the room” – the effects of stress on our ability to focus on academics – and teaching seconds-long sensory strategies for soothing helps everyone to feel safe in the room. This gives the following important messages: We are all in this together. We all have stress. And we ALL (teacher included) need to spend 60 seconds at the beginning of the period or the day preparing our brain for learning.
  2. Recognizing and openly acknowledging even small growth and effort so that students can see they are making progress really helps them to believe that their effort is paying off.
  3. When students are being acknowledged for even their small successes and we convey to them that we value those successes (however small), they come to believe that they are succeeding and that they can succeed.
  4. Helping students to notice how much better they feel inside when they are learning to regulate their stresses to focus their brain helps them to believe that the effort they are exerting has value.

It feels difficult to convey these messages when we, as teachers, are also stressed. This is why the first and most important step is to have a built-in daily 60 seconds-long practice to center, ground, and connect to the moment we’re in where everything is possible, including more fun!