Two Resources for Understanding Survival Brain


When you look out over your classroom of students, what do you see? Students talking, students writing, students texting, students wiggling, students with their heads down, students staring at nothing.

Which of them are ready to learn? And which of them are just trying to survive?

There’s no way we can get inside a student’s brain, but we can look at students through our trauma-informed lenses. One key concept in our trauma-informed work is the understanding of the stress-response system. Our bodies and brains react to danger in order to keep us safe. But childhood trauma can make this system less effective, causing our stress-response system to activate whether or not real danger is present. And real danger is often present for students, whether that danger comes from an abusive adult, the impacts of racism, or the stressors of poverty.

Much of the information about survival brain can get technical, exploring the neurological systems behind the stress response system. That’s important to understand, but it’s also essential to consider the lived experience of our students.

These are two stand-out resources on survival brain that help to develop an empathetic understanding of what it feels like to exist in survival brain:

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain: in this video, Jacob Ham illustrates the differences between a calm state for learning and a brain attuned to survival. This is a wonderful visual for introducing this concept.

What Survival Looks like: these incredible handouts detail what it might look like and feel like for students to go into the various modes of survival: fight, flight, freeze, or submit. Reading through these will help develop your empathy for students who enter into survival mode at school.

How might you take this knowledge and make some changes so that your classroom fosters learning brain? What might you do to help your students develop a sense of safety and belonging? Check out these resources, and then let me know what you think!

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