Tag Archives: teachers

How Our Brains Reinforce Our Biases

By Department of Radiology, Uppsala University Hospital. Uploaded by Mikael Häggström. [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Brain researchers talk about two systems of thought in our brains – one that reacts quickly and intuitively and the other that is more complicated and methodical. The busier we are, the more we rely on the first one to make our decisions for us. Unfortunately, even though that system makes fairly good choices sometimes, the more we rely on it, the stronger it gets. Also unfortunately, because that system takes a lot less energy and time, we default to it more readily.  And over time, this decision-making system is self-reinforcing; meaning that it learns and uses past experiences to inform split-second decisions in the moment.

Not engaging the second system to reflect and use our inquisitive powers to make decisions can significantly affect our world view and the way we absorb information and ultimately reinforce the biases we have.  Because our brains and our culture haven’t evolved to take the time to challenge assumptions and really dive in to complex questions, it takes practice to overcome our knee-jerk reactions. But even more than that, the reason we can make those instant judgments is because of associations we’ve learned to make.

Our brains largely remember things based on how they relate to other things. That’s why we have to work so hard to memorize random dates and names, but if we put them to music or create some system around them that makes more sense, we can more easily lodge them in our memory banks. But sometimes those associations are simply manufactured, and this can be terribly harmful from time to time.

If you grew up in a family that taught you to associate people with a certain skin color with danger, when you’re in a hurry or otherwise engaged, you’ll fall back on those biases and  make choices based on them. Even if you “know better” or have friends of color, you’re more likely to make snap judgments based on associations you have. It takes real effort to examine the narratives that drive our behavior and interrupt those associations that are not valid.

If your knee-jerk reactions are rooted in fear or discomfort, the way our brains work, those thoughts have more weight than other thoughts, which means it takes more effort over time to dismantle them. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance and, in fact, we are often considered “efficient” when we don’t take a long time to make decisions. As I said, often, those choices are perfectly fine and even beneficial, but when they involve relationships with other people about whom we may have biases, it is important to slow down and really pull apart where we might be making thought errors. The more we can do this with adolescents, the more comfortable they get with it and the more likely they are to be able to challenge their thinking errors over time – with respect to themselves and others.

One important exercise teachers can do with students to illustrate this phenomenon is to set up some common, everyday decision points and have students share what their first reaction would be and what it’s based on. Write those down and see if there are patterns. Are some of the choices based in fear or risk-avoidance? Where can students challenge those assumptions? Given an ample bit of time to access their reflective brain, would they make a different choice? It’s true that often our instincts guide us in beneficial ways, but there are times when it’s more in our best interest to stop and question whether those choices are rooted in things that aren’t accurate.

Next time: how our unconscious biases affect the way we see ourselves.

What is Non-Violent Communication and Why Does it Matter?

Bhuston at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the foundations of The SELF Project’s parent and student curriculum is non-violent communication. For people who haven’t encountered this term before, it can seem a bit strange, but it is an important piece of understanding how to have strong, mutually respectful, healthy, compassionate relationships.

So what is it?

The term itself was coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist, whose life’s work revolved around the notion of compassionate connection and individual needs. He believed that if we could distill our communication with others down to which of our needs we were trying to get met, we could then begin to find strategies to meet those needs in concert with others rather than at odds with them.

Non-violent communication does not involve guilt or shame, power or control tactics, or manipulation. It is a way of communicating where each individual is sincerely interested in the needs of the other and validates their right to have those needs. It also involves taking personal responsibility for one’s feelings, actions, and sometimes, coming to terms with the fact that your needs cannot or won’t be met.

Why does it matter?

As teachers and parents, we generally assume a level of power and authority that can lead us to set up communication patterns with children that are rooted in violent communication (that is, shame/blame, power/control, manipulation). And while those tactics might work to keep things peaceful for a while, they aren’t long-term strategies for creating trusting relationships.

Threats of punishment, taking away privileges as a punishment, tit-for-tat rhetoric or behavior, and “because I said so” are all examples of this kind of violent communication. They might be effective at squashing behaviors short-term, but they won’t foster relationship or ultimately teach the child skills that will serve them as adults.

Non-violent communication is also about really understanding where someone else is coming from. Because it involves being really curious about what someone’s behaviors or rhetoric is trying to say about what needs they have that aren’t being met, it fosters compassion. I often use the phrases “hurt people hurt people” and “where there is bad behavior, there is pain.” Both of those are reflective of the notion that we express ourselves negatively when we need something we aren’t getting. Using non-violent communication techniques can help parents and teachers begin to understand what is at the root of certain behaviors or relationship dynamics.

We have all had at least one ‘a-ha’ moment when our assumptions about why a kid was acting out were proven to be horribly wrong. I once knew a mom whose (pre-verbal) toddler was throwing a massive tantrum and she got increasingly frustrated and angry as she tried nearly everything to calm him down – food, drink, cuddling, shushing, threatening. He was arching his back and pulling at his overalls and causing quite the scene. It was only when she finally laid him down to check his diaper that she realized he had somehow slipped a fork down inside his overalls and the tines were stabbing him in the genitals. No wonder he was screaming!

These techniques, when used by parents and teachers, are also a good way to teach kids how to get curious about their own feelings and motivations. So often, we react to pain or frustration in less than desirable ways without even really thinking about it, but the earlier we can learn to identify what is behind those strong feelings, the better. We will be able to express ourselves to people without them becoming defensive or angry and are more likely to get our needs met in the end. It’s an important life skill to have.

Think about how much easier your life might be if your co-worker or boss was able to come to you and say, “I am feeling really anxious right now because I need this report to be absolutely perfect. I know you’re on a deadline, but would you consider helping me by proofreading it?” That is non-violent communication. Unfortunately, there aren’t many adults who talk to others that way – especially when they’re stressed and anxious. What would it be like if more people did? The agitated person in line behind you, the police officer who is worried you pose a threat, your mother-in-law…. Don’t we want our kids to have this skill, too?

It also teaches us how to negotiate by helping find common ground. Because we all have needs, if both the adult and the adolescent can get really clear on what those needs are, they can also begin to work out whether the strategies each person has been using to meet those needs are at odds. If they are, there’s a chance to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

The more we can find ways to work together to get all our needs met, the fewer stand-offs we’ll have. The fewer kids will get kicked out of class or their house. 

Questions? Please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you want to know about NVC more in depth, check out any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg.

What if My Teen Hates Their Teacher?

Without realizing it, we all put artificial limits on our view of the world and other people, and often this happens as a result of our emotional reactions to things others say or do. There is nothing wrong with having an emotional reaction, but it is what happens next – almost automatically – that can cause us problems.

When someone does or says something we don’t like, our brains quickly move from “I don’t like what she said or how she said it” to “I don’t like her,” which becomes, “I shouldn’t have to listen to her.” And then, because our brains like a complete puzzle instead of one with missing pieces, we set about justifying it by making a case that this person is ignorant or mean, thereby condemning all other interactions with them.

In terms of our kids, this can happen with respect to teachers in an instant. But in order to continually grow and learn, we have to expose ourselves to new ideas and new people. Just because we don’t connect with someone else on a personal level doesn’t mean they don’t have something to teach us. We don’t have to like them to listen to their ideas and see how they do things differently than we do, especially if we are going to have to sit in a classroom listening to them for months on end.

Often, students quickly come to conclusions about which teachers they like and don’t like, and those decisions have a great deal of bearing on whether or not they are willing to listen to what that teacher has to say. Helping students understand that whether or not we like someone personally is not necessarily correlated to how much they have to teach us is a valuable lesson that will serve them well as adults.

Thinking critically about the subjects or ideas that someone else puts forth regardless of how you feel about them on an emotional level is important because it can help us to consider different perspectives more objectively. It also keeps us from putting forth our own ideas in a way that feels like a personal attack. We all know that when we feel attacked or judged, we are less likely to share our own thoughts, and discussions can become more about winning or losing than an exchange of ideas.

Rather than letting distaste for one particular teacher become an excuse to disengage in a class, can you encourage your student to set aside their emotions in an effort to determine what they can learn from them?