Brain’s Responses to Emotion: With Strategies that Promote Perseverance and Growth Mindset

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Brain’s Responses to Emotion: With Strategies that Promote Perseverance and Growth Mindset

University of Washington

College of Education, LIFE Center

June 24, 2015
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

Engaging Students from the Start

The Brain’s Structures -- Viewed from Left

The Impact of Emotions on Learning and Memory
Common teacher concerns:

Some of my students ‘act out’ or ‘zone out’ in class. What can I do?

What we do for students who do not "get it" and for those who already "have it"?
This section answers the above questions with information about attitude, the amygdala, and achievable challenge.
The Emotional Filter

Amygdala: The amygdala is a part of the limbic system that is found in the temporal lobe of the brain. The amygdala can be thought of as a “fork in the road” or a “switching station” on the way to the “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex). Stephen Krashen described this as the “affective filter.”

  • After information passes through the RAS, it enters the amygdala. The amygdala then directs the information to one of two places.

  • The information can be sent to either the lower REACTIVE brain or to the REFLECTIVE “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex).

  • In the reactive lower brain, information is responded to with an automatic fight, flight or freeze response.

  • In the reflective “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) conscious thought, logic, and judgment can be used to respond to new information.

What determines if the amygdala directs information to the reflective “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) or to the reactive lower brain?
When a person is in a state of high or sustained stress or fear:

  • New information coming through the sensory intake areas of the brain cannot pass through the amygdala’s filter to gain access to the reflective prefrontal cortex.

  • Incoming information is conducted to the lower, reactive brain.

  • The lower, reactive brain has a limited set of behavior outputs: fight, flight, or freeze animals – “act out” and “zone out” in students. Be aware of students who act engaged, but are bored or fearful of failing to achieve highest goals.

  • Stress can reduce the ability of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to promote efficient working memory, emotional self-control, and attention focus.

Sources of school-related stress:

  • Until the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is more mature, students are more reactive than they are reflective, especially when they perceive stress.

  • Stress comes in many forms for students:

    • The boredom of already having mastery of the information being taught

    • No personal relevance: not being sufficiently interested in a topic or aware of how the topic relates to a student’s own interests or prior knowledge

    • Frustration of previous failures, being confused, and falling behind. This is equally stressful for students who get failing grades and for students who repeatedly fail to achieve the goal they (and their parents) set such as #1 in the class or all “A’s”

    • Fear of being wrong if asked to speak in class, answer questions, or present their work orally

Promoting Transfer of Input through the Emotional Filter
Reducing Stress

If stress is reduced, and a person is in a relaxed and alert state, information can pass through the amygdala and on to the reflective “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) for long-term memory and executive function processing. Students can build skills that allow the prefrontal cortex to over-ride the lower brain’s reactive impulses.

• Participating in new learning requires students to take risks that are often beyond their comfort zones. Steps should be taken to reduce stress during these times.

• Students can learn how to become aware of their own stress and strategies for relaxing and refocusing.

Teach Students about Their Brains

Learning how the brain processes input helps students develop more reflective PFC control over their reactive lower brains.

Related Articles and Websites:
  How to Teach Students about the Brain link:

  What You Should Know about Your Brain link: 

Promote Growth Mindsets
People with a fixed mindset believe they are born with a certain amount of intelligence and skill, and that is all they will ever have. They believe that once they fail, there is no point in trying again, because they have reached their limit.
Those with a growth mindset believe that people are given a certain amount of intelligence and skill, just as they have a certain body type, but that people have the potential to grow their intelligence and skill with hard work, just like a muscle. (Carol Dweck)
The Video Game Model for Mindset, Engagement, and Perseverance

The Video Game Model in the Classroom

Video Game Model Includes:

  • Goal buy-in

  • Individualized achievable challenges

  • Frequent feedback or awareness of incremental goal progress

Dopamine-Reward System

Dopamine is usually thought of as a neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells). Neurotransmitters allow for information to travel from neuron to neuron throughout the brain.
Power of Dopamine

Dopamine, when released in amounts that exceed what is needed for carrying signals across synapses, travels throughout the brain. The extra dopamine now acts as a neurochemical with more widespread impact. Increased dopamine is associated with (it both increases and is increased by) pleasurable experiences and the anticipation of pleasurable experiences. Its release also increases focus, memory, and executive function.

When dopamine levels go up, the following behaviors are more prominent:





Persistence and perseverance

The following activities increase dopamine levels:

Positive interactions with peers

Enjoying music

Being read to, or told a story or anecdote

Acting kindly

Expressing gratitude





Feeling the intrinsic satisfaction of accurate predictions and challenges achieved
The Brain Seeks Pleasure

Video and computer games are compelling because they offer individualized achiev­able challenges and frequent feedback of incremental progress that are physiologically rewarded with the intrinsic satisfaction produced by the brain chemical dopamine.
At the outset, a player is presented with a goal. The player begins at level one, and through trial and error (feedback) builds enough skills to ultimately pass level one.
The next level challenges the player’s newly developed skills, but ultimately, through sustained ef­fort, practice, and persistence the player succeeds and continues to progress through the levels.
The player receives ongoing feedback and the dopamine boosting pleasure of incremental goal progress – reaching the next level. She feels the pride of know­ing that her effort caused her success (intrinsic reinforcement). The player then seeks the greater challenge of the next level so she can continue to experience the pleasure of dopamine reward.
Goal Buy-in – Personal Relevance

With goals designed to connect with students’ interests and authentic performance tasks that they consider relevant, students want the knowledge tools they need to succeed. Students are then in the ideal state for motivated, attentive learning because they want to know what they have to learn.
Personal Goal Relevance

  • Connect a unit with current events

  • Read aloud something curious that relates to the topic at hand

  • Personalize information by connecting the topic to a person or place relevant to students (e.g. book author anecdote). Before a lesson or unit, tell a narrative about the life of the author, scientist, historical figure, or mathematician when he/she was about the age of your students

  • Discuss the “So what?” factor. How the topic connects to the “real world” or to their lives.

  • How are they going to use the new information after you teach it to them (e.g. project, performance task, teach it to younger students)?

Curiosity & Prediction: Invite students to predict about a curious object, picture, sound, or discrepant event at the onset of a unit. Let them see how the learning they will acquire will be a source of revising their predictions to reach the reward of correct predictions.
It is important that all students make predictions. To make their predictions powerful students needs to “bet” on their predictions.

Options include:

  • Writing the prediction on an individual white board or “magic pad” or using an electronic student response clicker. Dozen Assorted Animal Magic Pads

  • App for student responses: has an app that provides a digital response system for students. It allows students to respond to polls or quizzes, whole class poll data display, and reports on student performance.

Your Self-Assessment For Buy-In: How will I promote buy-in?

  • How will I gather and use knowledge about my students to inspire their interests in new learning?

  • How will I relate the value of the learning beyond the classroom?

  • Do I engage students in using what they learn beyond the classroom?

  • Do I use the power of questions and “I wonder…” statements to engage students’ attention and thinking?

  • Do I pursue learning myself so that I model the endless nature of mastering new concepts and abilities?

Achievable Challenge

Lower the Barrier, Not the Bar
What we do for students who do not "get it" and for those who already "have it"?
An achievable challenge is one in which a student has the capacity (or skills to develop the capacity) to meet an ambitious goal. As Goldilocks would say, the challenge is “not too hard, not too easy, but just right!” An achievable challenge exists within Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”.
If a challenge is too easy a student will become bored, which leads to stress, and ultimately disengagement from learning. If a challenge is too difficult a student will experience frustration and hopelessness, which, if sustained or frequent, also leads to excessive stress. However, when facing an achievable challenge that is just within their reach, students avoid the detrimental states of stress, and the amygdala is able to pass information to and from the prefrontal cortex.
Achievable challenges prevent stress by avoiding boredom and frustration: One way of helping students to develop a growth mindset is to provide them with achievable challenges and alert them to their progress.
Achievable challenge lowers stress by reducing boredom and frustration and motivating perseverance and effort.
Students are most motivated by the expectation of a dopamine reward when they learn at their individualized levels of achievable challenge. Providing students with achievable challenges reduces the reactive states resulting from the stress of boredom or frustration and promotes the intrinsic motivation of the video game model.
In the ideal video game model all students would be learning in their personal zone of achievable challenge at all times. Frequent and ongoing assessments would guide the setting and resetting of instruction and skill practice throughout learning with the individual support needed to sustain the student’s efforts to overcome setbacks and obstacles.
Although this individualization is not possible for all students, options will increase as technology provides resources for online learning “games”, lectures (flipped classroom), and enrichment opportunities for students already at mastery. While some students build basic math facts within their personal zone of achievable challenge with well-designed, interactive online learning programs, their teacher can guide others on inquiry projects and collaborations.

What can teachers do to enable students to work within their achievable challenge level?

Lower the barriers, not the bar:

Communicate high expectations for all students and provide differentiation and support so students can achieve their goals. At the start of a unit clearly define the learning goals, success criteria, and types of assessments. Take time to provide examples of how students’ interests will be incorporated into their learning and how their strengths will be included in the assessments.

• Use pre-assessments

• Activate prior knowledge

• Offer flexible groups

• Use scaffolding and enrichment

Online Learning Games for Scaffolding and Enrichment: These can be used for skill practice and feedback at the student's individual level of readiness

  • Edutopia links to my blogs about On-Line Learning Games for foundational knowledge and practice:

Online Learning Game Resources:

  • Graphite is a free service listing many apps, games, websites, and digital curricula. Archive of more than 500 articles each at five reading levels, organized by category and reading standard. Students take quizzes and view progress

APPS for schoolwork organization

InClass: consolidates schedules, homework, deadlines by voice, typing, or video (iOS)

Studious: android version of InClass

Quick Graph+ (iOS) Graphing Calculator (Android): graphs equations in 2-D and 3-D dictionary plus thesaurus and audio pronunciation
Awareness of Incremental Progress
Students will experience the intrinsic pleasure of incremental progress if they experience ongoing formative assessments with feedback, reteaching, opportunities for self-corrections, and metacognition. With this exposure students can build understanding and progress at achievable challenge levels of success. In general we experience an intrinsic reward when we realize that we are making progress due to our practice and effort. Even noticing small changes can be helpful. For example, having students keep a graph of how their reading fluency improves depending on how much they practice can be very motivating.

The video game model gives students the opportunity to recognize both the intrinsic pleasure of incremental progress (“I got it” experience) and the cause/effect that putting in effort towards prac­tice and review brings them progressively closer to their goals.

Effort=Progress to Goal Graphs
Help your students use graphs to see the connection between their work, practice, effort, and their progress. Goals can range from time spent preparing for tests, number of answers correct on spelling tests, to progressing up rubric levels of proficiency in any subject. Help students build their own goal-directed behavior patterns by selecting the progress points they want to achieve on route to the final goal. Use small post-its or write in pencil when they believe they can reach each goal subdivision. As they progress they examine the accuracy of their projections and revise subsequent goal achievement dates and strategies accordingly. Sample graphs:
Analytic Rubrics for Incremental Progress Awareness
Analytic rubrics are consistent with the amygdala positive benefits of the video game model of achievable challenge and incremental progress. Rubrics allow all students to:

  • Understand what is expected and how they can achieve steps of incremental progress along the way toward overall goal

  • Experience the choice (a dopamine booster) of achievable challenge – where they will focus effort

  • Develop metacognitive awareness so they can self-motivate (dopamine from intrinsic gratification)

(REFERENCE: Nancy Pickett and Bernie Dodge. "Rubrics for Web Lessons." October 2001)
Rubric Generator Websites

Audio feedback can also be left in documents that are turned in through

Your Challenges and Opportunities

Start with One Student

  • Start with your achievable challenge – you need the validation of success to keep your dopamine-effort up

  • Select one student where your efforts to “individualize” will have evident impact

  • Be alert for improvements: ambient classroom noise, tardiness, more participants in discussions, more good questions, less disruptive classroom behavior

Emotion Summary

• Emotions influence where new information is processed in the brain. For learning to become memory it must be directed through the emotional filter (amygdala) along the route to the reflective, higher brain – the prefrontal cortex.

• High stress reduces information flow through the amygdala (emotional filter) to and from the cognitive/reflective brain (Prefrontal Cortex – PFC).
• During high stress, the survival instinct takes reactive control and responses are directed by the involuntary “lower” brain with output limited to fight/flight/freeze responses (act out/zone out).
• The mammalian brain is wired to withhold effort when experience predicts a low prob­ability of success.
• The human brain can be “rewired” to reverse effort withholding when instruction follows the video game model: buy-in, achievable challenge, and frequent feedback of incremental goal progress.
• The power behind the video game “model’s” impact on motivation and perseverance is the intrinsic reinforcement of the dopamine-reward response to accurate predictions and feedback of challenges achieved.
• Goals that are clear, personally relevant, and believed to be achievable challenges are needed to promote brain “buy-in” and effort when previous efforts have not yielded goal success.
To promote a positive attitude so that information gets to the prefrontal cortex (PFC):

  • Use curiosity promoting questions/demonstrations and make learning personalized for “buy-in”

  • Have students work in their zone of “achievable challenge”

  • Teach students how to recognize their progress towards a goal

Questions to Consider in Planning Units and Instruction in the Video Game Model

  • How will students buy in from interest and relevance?

  • What hooks will connect them from the beginning and what will sustain their interest in learning and understanding (predictions, audience relevance)

  • How will I use assessments to provide student feedback about effort to incremental progress on route to the final goal? developing understanding, emotional comfort, and my success?

WEBLINKS My website with lots of links about strategies for positive emotional state and ways to use the video game model for mood, memory, and mindset across the grades and subjects.
Website showing multiple examples of curriculum contents adapted to the video game model:
Sample RAD lessons/units at ASCD edge Website
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

© 2012 Judy Willis

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