The Neurochemistry of Working with Tricky Students

Excerpt from Guerrilla Tactics for Teachers by Andrew Fuller.
May 22, 2024
It's like a jungle sometimes, some strategies to stop you from going under.

Two brain chemicals teachers would usually like to see less of:
• Adrenaline
• Cortisol.
Two brain chemicals teachers would usually like to see more of:
• Dopamine
• Serotonin.
The big message here is: You can’t change behaviour until you have changed neurochemical balance.

When students are stressed or threatened, the full repertoire of human behaviours are not on the shelf for them to select from.

They won’t just become agreeable by you saying, “Cheer up and get on with your work.” You will need to think about how to shift their neurochemical balance.

Over the next few pages, we will cover how to discern and alter neurochemical balance. It is important for you to keep this information for your own use. For example, it could be extremely unwise for you to share with a parent something like, “I think your child is low on dopamine or serotonin.”

Adrenaline = Action - all pumped up with nowhere to go.

Adrenaline is at least partly responsible for the revved-up, “redcordial” high. Living on adrenaline energy causes people to burn the candle at both ends. It makes people less flexible, and it makes it harder for students to change their moods.

When there is a lot of adrenaline, the amygdala (the fight-flight area of the brain) is very active. This is the part of the brain that works to defend against threats or tells you to run away from them.

In fact, this part of the brain can get so active that it takes over almost everything else. It is very powerful.

You might know this yourself. Perhaps you’ve had a day where someone in the morning has said something to you that was mean or nasty and you just haven’t been your usual self for the rest of the day.

That is at least partly because you were threatened, and your adrenaline levels were raised, and your fight-flight response was activated.

Once a student gets an adrenaline rush, trying to change their behaviour is a complete waste of time until you’ve lessened the amount of adrenaline.

Signs that a student is having an adrenaline rush include driven behaviour or the “I gotta have it” attitude, difficulty getting to sleep, lots of energy, silly “hyper” behaviour, running off in an upset state, or lots of conflict and disagreement.

Having classrooms where a lot of repetition and rituals occur can lessen adrenaline. Giving an adrenaline-affected student a clear calm message that this is the way we do things in this class helps them to feel safe. Less stimulation such as quiet times can also help.

Every so often you might want to increase the amount of adrenaline, because it is an energiser. One way to do this is time trials. Consider purchasing an audible timer like those you see in hairdressers or use the timer on an interactive whiteboard.

Cortisol is the other main neurochemical and hormone worth watching out for. Cortisol is the stress hormone, and it gets released with adrenaline. Terrific, huh? Stressed and revved-up!

Cortisol lowers language functioning. Have you have ever been shocked speechless where you temporarily couldn’t put your thoughts into words? What was happening was that cortisol flooded into the Broca’s area of your brain (the language production centre), shutting it down for a time. Students who are under lots of stress often have great difficulty putting their thoughts into words. That’s why you sometimes get monosyllabic grunts, especially if they are teenagers.

Cortisol lessens students’ ability to change tack. It makes them snappy and easily rattled. It also reduces the ability to filter irrelevant information, which partly explains why students who are stressed can find it difficult to prioritise. This is why note-taking systems are important.

Cortisol can also disrupt declarative memory (being able to say what you know about something) and can lower motivation levels in boys on tasks that do not involve rewards.
Signs that your students have elevated levels of cortisol include being worried and watchful, easily upset, on edge, easily tired, noncommunicative, unusually defensive, and over-reacting to things.

Teachers often want to lessen the amount of cortisol in their classrooms and instead to have a calm and happy life. Alongside routines and rituals, making students feel safe from violence, ridicule, or humiliation lessens cortisol. Ensuring that kids do not have too much sugar and that they drink enough water also helps to reduce cortisol.

Getting enough sleep lowers both adrenaline and cortisol.

Fluorescent lighting has been associated with elevated levels of cortisol. Switch them off whenever you can.

Andrew Fuller’s book is available through Amba Press here.

Image by Jonny Lew