I was blessed to have recovered from fracturing my skull playing baseball during the summer before my 2nd grade year. The experience ignited my curiosity and convinced me that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. While I did not choose that as a career, I have grown to be fascinated with the power of the brain, its capacity for learning, and how it responds to stress.
We know that the lower brain is the source of involuntary emotional reactions and automatic bodily functions like breathing. Higher-level thinking and long-term memory are functions of the upper brain. More simply stated, the lower brain is responsible for doing, the upper brain for thinking. Naturally, the upper brain should guide us in making reasoned and thoughtful decisions. Unfortunately, that can be derailed by a number of factors, including stress.
In a recent publication of School Administrator, Dr. Judy Willis said when children are “stressed by fear, frustration, alienation, anxiety or sustained boredom” communication to the upper brain is blocked. As you might expect, this limits the ability of their brain to make good decisions. This architecture for stress builds barriers to learning. Dr. Willis goes on to say we must be “lowering the barriers, not the bar” when it comes to expectations for our children.
A priority in doing this is minimizing the conditions that can bring about stress. Schools are an important part of making this happen and parents overwhelmingly believe they should be. According to the Phi Delta Kappa survey, the vast majority of parents want schools to provide after school programs, mental health services, and medical staff. This support is strongest among families who live in poverty. Stressors, however, are not bound by socioeconomic classes. Every child has exposure to it.
Like many school systems, Sylacauga provides an array of supports for our students. We have six school-based counselors, one system intervention specialist, and four school nurses. The schools provide children with nutritional meal options. Academic interventions and programs are in place to respond to student needs. We partner with SAFE for a robust after-school program, Altapointe to provide a mental health therapist, and community leaders for mentoring. Our schools and partners are literally wrapping supports around our students so they can be successful.
Unfortunately, this is not enough. It takes the collective engagement of families, schools, and the community to break down barriers. Leadership author Simon Sinek says this about engagement: “When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute”.
The emotional investment needed to have a high performing school is more important than money, modern facilities, or abundant resources. I can think of no stronger emotional bond than of a parent to their child. There is certainly no better investment for a community to make than in its young people.
The Ad Council popularized the saying that “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. The good news for children is that their brains are developing through the mid to late twenties. The chances for children to overcome learning deficits brought about by stress increase significantly when more caring adults are in their lives. We lower barriers, raise the bar, and transform lives when the entire community is engaged in and contributes to nurturing the minds of our future generations. That is architecture for success!
Dr. Todd Freeman is Superintendent of Sylacauga City Schools. Almost 2,400 students are enrolled in Sylacauga’s school system — Sylacauga High School, Indian Valley Elementary School, Nichols-Lawson Middle School, and Pinecrest Elementary School. Follow Dr. Freeman on Twitter at mtfreeman or visit www.sylacauga.k12.al.us.