Chemical Reactions in the Classroom

I just wrote this blog for ASCD. I hope it impacts other educators as much as it has informed me in researching it.

Chemical Reactions in the Classroom

 By Dr. Stephanie Knight 

Instead of student engagement, we should think BRAIN engagement! It is possible to impact students’ brain chemistry. This means that a student would be wholly and fully engaged. Educating the whole child takes on a whole new meaning when an educator can engage all parts of the brain throughout the class time.

Many have attempted to describe what is student engagement. One of the foremost experts is Phil Schlecty. He (1994) would note that students who are engaged are enticed by their work, persist no matter the difficulties, and are excited about their accomplishments. Adela Solis, Ph.D (2008) from the Intercultural Development Research Association adds that an engaged student, who is substantially engaged (vs. procedurally engaged by just following the rules), pays attention to the routines of instruction but also “interacts with the content of the lesson in a deep and thoughtful manner.” (Solis)

So if we know the meaning of engagement, then we must know how to achieve it and cause certain chemicals to react The noted chemicals that can be influenced and affected in the classroom are, according to brain-based education expert Eric Jensen (2013), serotonin, dopamine, cortisol and norepinephrine. Stimulating these four neurotransmitters will lead to the brain being fully engaged, therefore creating the ideal learning environment.

Serotonin sets the mood: The environment

Serotonin is the mood regulator so how can we raise it in the classroom? Jensen (2013) notes that classroom rituals, community and friendships can boost levels. Another aspect of this familiar comfort feeling is creating a “living room” effect in the classroom via the environment.

Imagine that students have just entered the classroom. Instantly their emotions are engaged and their minds and are attending to the atmosphere. According to Marzano and Pickering (2010) in their highly acclaimed book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, they discuss that students ask themselves certain questions when they are present in a classroom. One of them is “how do I feel?” One way to look at this question is the physical environment. What is it like?

Dr. Sheryl Reinisch (2012), director of Early Childhood Education Programs at Concordia University discusses a study of twenty-five first-graders whose classroom was made over during a period of four months, and it included student work, plants, and comfortable place to read; it led to an appreciation for the aestheticism of the environment and a much more conducive arena to teach and learn.

We do it for our guests. We do it for our customers. Let’s do it for our children.

The environment can also be influenced by what is going on within the four walls. Is the classroom a safe and valuable place for learning? Teachers must set the tone by first being positive and enthusiastic themselves. Greet each student at the door. Say each student’s name. Smile. These create emotional bonds and help set the tone for the upcoming class time. In a study by Klem and Connell (2004), students who perceive teachers as creating a caring, well-structured learning environment in which expectations are high, clear, and fair are more likely to report engagement in school. Moreover, it seems as though if one can create a personal connection with each student and show that he/she cares, this behavior is modeled for the students. We need to raise the comfort level of the classroom environment the minute the students walk through the door. Serotonin levels raise and brains are ready for learning. But, it doesn’t stop there.

Cortisol and lowering stress: Priming the pump

Do students shut down when the class begins? Shutting down is the result of something bigger than not tuning into the lesson. Students come into the class with anxiety from perhaps too much screen time, lack of nutrition, or home stressors. This causes cortisol levels to be elevated. Relational difficulties can also cause cortisol to rise. If then they enter the class with peer difficulties (within or outside of class) or lack of any emotional bond from the teacher, then the learning will be even more obstructed. As educators, we must prime the proverbial pump and prepare the brain for learning. What we expect of our students and our own behavior affects students, and what they already bring into the classroom may be difficult to overcome. Furthermore, if when they enter into class, they know there will be adversity from peer challenges or lack of emotional connections, this can bump the cortisol levels even higher thus shutting down learning. Jensen (2013) explains that this is the “body’s way of prepping for surviving.” So, before the lesson even begins, educators need to ensure that the peer relations are positive in the classroom. This may mean doing some icebreakers and setting up rules for social interaction to be constructive; any putdowns will not be tolerated. Educators must invest time into cooperative learning strategies to allow for social connections. This may take more class time in the beginning of the year, or when needed during the year, but the payoff is worth it.

Dopamine: Tap into the pleasure and reward center via the lesson

Now that the stress levels have been tempered by social positivity and supportive openings, the meat of the class is ready to begin. During the anticipatory set of a lesson, how can we make it more pleasurable so the chemical dopamine is released? Simultaneously, we want them to listen and hang on every word! If dopamine can be released, we have a better chance of retention. But how!?

Martha Burns (2012) notes that dopamine is released in the brain when we are rewarded; so, likewise, learning about new things can be an adventure and very rewarding, and dopamine levels increase in the brain to help that new information stick. But for some learners, if dopamine levels are low, the new information flees as soon as it enters. She stresses that we must make learning new and exciting. This new and exciting learning must be reinforced with positive feedback and therefore will raise the self-efficacy of the learner. She continues in saying that “carefully used, reinforcement is one of the greatest memory enhancers in the brain because it is so powerful at increasing dopamine.” He/she will believe that he/she can learn the concepts and therefore will continue to want to pursue learning further because dopamine levels will have risen.

In terms of making learning new, Ann Connelly (2011) discussed how to create a strong anticipatory set that keeps the students engaged. Teachers have to begin with something relevant to students’ lives. Therefore, she suggests starting with a problem. What are the characteristics of this problem that make it attractive? It should demand the students make some educated guesses. Sometimes, maybe it gets the students up and moving in a structured cooperative learning way; it is challenging enough that it has multiple approaches for solving, and it allows students to collaborate. When planning a good solid question, run it through this filter and think of how to make it new yet relevant to students. Starting out this way, but making sure ALL students are involved with structured cooperative learning makes learning fun and new.

One cooperative learning strategy that can be novel is a brainstorming activity called Pass the Plate. This requires a group of four to pass a paper plate stopping at each person to write his/her idea on the plate. Upon finishing, the teacher can call all the “two’s” at each group of four to stand and share. The teacher can also time the group, assuring time on task.

Next, we must interweave exciting moments into the lessons whether they be unpredictable moments or some out of the box experience like turning the lights out for an audio exercise. The first thing to realize is that it is difficult for anyone to sit for a long time and remember everything. Having a ten-two rule in the classroom makes all the difference. After every eight to ten minutes the teacher can change it up for two minutes to let the learning be processed. They can do a cooperative learning activity like think pair share or walking and talking to music to reinforce concepts.

This is where including music in the classroom can add to the excitement. The right music at the right time helps create a more imaginative classroom. This can allow the brain to be more receptive to information because dopamine levels have risen. For example, students can walk and talk to lively music while processing information; they can write to sixty beats per minute music to enter a mind-wandering mode. Before any test, the Rocky music can play to anticipate the “excitement” of a test. Music definitely adds enjoyment to any environment if chosen wisely.

The final piece to increasing dopamine levels is the importance of reinforcing learning and giving effective feedback. This can be done individually and as a whole class. A student will be more likely to engage in a given activity if he/she has a sense of self-efficacy which is a belief he/she can do it. Bandura originated this term, “self-efficacy.” He defines self-efficacy as ‘people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances’’ (Bandura, 1986, p. 391). Marzano and Pickering (2010) even included this in one of their four questions in the aforementioned book, A Highly Engaged Classroom: “Can I do this?”

For example, when a teacher says “good job” to a student it may fall on deaf ears. Effective feedback is specific and timely. It shows that the teacher is paying attention to what that student needs. So, instead of “good job,” maybe the teacher could frame the words in a way the reinforces the desired behavior like, “I loved how you overcame that last grade with better study habits. I can tell you are really trying.” It’s all about framing words in a positive way.

There is more, however, when talking to a whole class. Jensen (2013) talks about the “framing effect” in speaking to a class. For example, the teacher could say, ‘Well, you all bombed that last quiz. Only one of you did well and the rest failed.” What message does this send the brains? How about this instead, “I can see many of you tried on that last quiz. Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to help us master this next one for all “A’s!?” The point is that we can say the same thing framed with a positive spin to help students feel they are capable. This adds to their self-efficacy and also to a teacher appearing that he/she cares. Reinforcement, being novel in the classroom, and having exciting moments….they all raise dopamine and open up the brain to learn and to keep the information alive.

Norepinephrine: Move and learn

Finally, the final neurotransmitter we want to release and increase is norepinephrine. This, according to Jensen (2013), affects many areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which can influence where we direct attention. This means it is influenced by all of the above activities, but one thing that can encourage its release is movement. We want students to focus and be less distracted. When norepinephrine is released, this is what occurs. When students are moving in the classroom the “part of the brain that processes movement is the same part that processes learning.” (Jensen, 2005) The implications for this are endless when we consider the ten-two rule. Every ten minutes, a bit of movement like stand up hand up pair up, walk pair share, or even brain break stretching, can make all the differences for releasing norepinephrine and other transmitters to retain learning and open up the channels for increased focus and engagement

Engaging students means engaging their brains wholly with the release and increase (or decrease in some cases) of the four main neurotransmitters. The takeaway for all of us is to make sure we think these things:


Increase serotonin HOW: With positive mood-enhancing environment from the classroom setting and positivity
Lower cortisol levels HOW: deflecting stressful situations and charging students with positive peer relationships
Increase dopamine HOW: increase the fun and excitement along with positive reinforcement
Release and increase norepinephrine HOW: get the students up and moving throughout class time


Make the most of the class with these chemical reactions!



Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Burns, Martha, PhD. “Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators.” Scientific Learning. 8 Sept. 2012. 31 Mar. 2016.

Connelly, Anne. Tips to make your anticipatory set interesting to students. 8 Apr. 2011. 30 Mar 2016.

Jensen, Eric. “Teaching with the Brain in Mind.” Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2005.

Jensen, Eric. “What Brain Insights Can Boost Your Student’s Classroom Success?”

Brain Based Jensen Learning. 1 Jan. 2013. 30 Mar. 2016.

Klem, Adena M., Connell, James P. Relationships Matter:Linking Teacher Support to Student Engagement and Achievement. Journal of School Health, September 2004; 74:7.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Hefelbower, T. (2012). The Highly Engaged Classroom. Bloomington, ID: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Reinisch, Sheryl Dr. “How Comfortable Classrooms Lead to a Better Student Community. Concordia Online Education. 19 Oct. 2012. 29 Mar 2016.

Schlechty, P. “Increasing Student Engagement.” Missouri Leadership Academy. January 1994.

Solis, Adela. PhD. “Teaching for Cognitive Engagement
Materializing the Promise of Sheltered Instruction.” Intercultural Development Research Association. 2008. 31 Mar. 2016.









Tatum’s FIRST conference

I cannot believe I am attending my first parent conference at Tatum’s school. It’s weird to be on the other side of the table since I’m used to being the teacher!

When we arrived, her teachers, Miss Kristin (and asst. Miss Hailey) were beaming with smiles. First, they showed me her tracing had improved since January (she’s been there two months now)

Then, they got into the meat of the conference: How they see Tatum! I was proud to hear that she is one of the kindest in the class. They said she plays with EVERYONE, not just Robert. In fact, she shares and often will go up to different groups of kids and play. She’s not afraid, and she’s also filled with compassion if one has a problem. IMG_2632

They also said she has a HUGE vocabulary and will tell very creative stories that make them all laugh. She also is one of the first to come to the circle and sit in the front criss-cross applesauce and listens without interrupting. (HOORAY! All the hard work is paying off!!!)IMG_2628

I often have wondered if there will be fruit after all the “practicing” we do at home with her behavior….being kind, attentive, and QUICK to listen!
Also with her letters, numbers, shapes, and colors! She is way ahead supposedly. IMG_2631 IMG_2630 IMG_2629

They had ZERO issues to share with me, only to tell me she’s extremely bright, kind, and very funny.

I continue to pray for guidance and wisdom in raising her. The key for me is keeping it fun too! I want to challenge her, but ultimately, I want her to shine the light of Jesus in all she does. The school is doing such a great job in reinforcing what I value at home. Thank you Paradise for Tots, Miss Kristin (right), and Miss Hailey (left)IMG_2603

Will you be my Valen”slime”?

Our “love”ly friends, Jennie and Robert had a Love party today. We made homemade slime, and it sure was fun! We all had a turn stirring and adding in all the ingredients. It was a definite Pinterest success!

Robert, Tatum, Lainey, and the cousins all got to stir!

Boom! Red SLIMEIMG_2452 IngredientsIMG_2451 IMG_2450 IMG_2449 IMG_2448

We had such a great time…to be continued.

Building Social Emotional Skills through Cooperative Learning

Building Social Emotional Skills through Cooperative Learning

Dr. Stephanie Knight

It seems as though the kids who enter my classroom have more needs than ever before.  Sure, they need the three R’s, but they also enter with social emotional deficits. This impacts their learning! On one hand emotions have the potential to boost students’ thinking, but conversely they can inhibit learning. Daniel Goleman, the expert on Emotional Intelligence, would stress teachers need to be not only discussing feelings but adding this emotional intelligence quotient into the day. (Goleman, 2001) I have found that Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills embedded into the curriculum + Cooperative Learning structures + Reflection = Optimum learning for life long skills.

Embedding vs. Explicit

Mastering the emotional intelligence skills (self awareness, managing emotions, self motivation, empathy, and handling social relationships), coined by Daniel Goleman (1995), is crucial for school and life success. SEL is a process for teaching these skills. One way to help students gain these skills (like lessons on empathy, etc.) is to teach them explicitly as part of the curriculum. This takes extra planning and perhaps can replace what must be covered. On the other hand, there is power in the embedded curriculum. Many seem to learn better when the skill is applied, such as a simple Think Pair Share (taking turns and sharing ideas), and Kagan would argue that the Cooperative Learning (CL) structures are a way of teaching by doing (Kagan, 2001).

Yes, but HOW?

CL is not new but many struggle with its implementation. Without structure, getting my students to work cooperatively never worked. However with the use of formal CL in the classroom, students have roles and participate in decision-making. There is safe expression of ideas while they foster positive social relationships. Simultaneously, there is the teaching of accountability and responsibility.

The key is STARTING my year showing that our classroom goal is to be a community. Students must have BUY-IN and that is why we discuss how we will work on the emotional skill goals. These goals are posted along with empowering quotes showing that we will be a cooperative learning classroom. However, practice and constant modeling is crucial. I use the structures for content, but I always will add in a fun icebreaker to keep us community-oriented. Class-builders should be done weekly too.

Practical ideas for using SEL in the CL

Each week, post the social-emotional goal on which you would like to focus. The

following are some great Cooperative Learning strategies developed by Kagan (2001). Again, this is part of the goal of being a community. Self-awareness can start the year because you might want to have students have journals, think pads, and personal space on which they can rely.

1.     Self-Awareness


  • Journal Reflections: Students keep a feelings journal in which they record their emotional reactions to anything which occurs in school including successes, failures, and relationships. (Kagan, 2001)
  • Always allow think time before they respond on a think pad or such.
  • (Each student should have a think pad (a blank notepad) so they can record a thought before answering in class. This also allows one to record any thoughts without blurting out impulsively).

 2.     Self-Control


  • Talking Pencils: This approach works wonders for discussion or even a practice for multiple-choice answers. (“It can’t be “B” because…; or “it might be “C” because…”)
  • When one wants to share his/her opinion, he/she places his pencil in the center of the four-person group. Once each has spoken, he/she cannot speak again until everyone has put in a pencil. When all pencils have been put in, they take them back and start with the next question.

3.     Self-Motivation


  •  Rally Coach: This method allows each student in a pair to solve a problem with coaching from the other partner, fostering self-worth and independence.
  • A pair could be working on a math problem or a lab report.
  • Partner A can work the first problem while Partner B watches, listens, coaches, and praises.
    • This part is going to require practice as many don’t know how to listen, coach, and praise.
    • Students’ confidence will build and they will want to solve problems because they won’t feel like failure is fatal.
    • Next, Partner B solves the next problem while Partner A watches, listens, coaches, and praises. Partners take turns until the task is complete.

 4.     Empathy


  • Jigsaw: With this method, each student on the team masters a different part of the lesson. Each teammate leaves the team, and works with like-topic members from other teams. Students then return to teach their teammates their portion of the content. (Hirsch, 2014)
  • This not only builds empathy as students learn to really listen, but it also builds self-confidence and motivation as other students become experts.
  • According to Hirsch (2014), “Cooperative learning creates what Daniel Goleman calls “cognitive empathy,” a mind-to-mind sense of how another person’s thinking works.”
  • Many Kagan Structures encourage empathy because they involve asking others questions, interpreting body language, and discussion.


5.     Relationship Skills


  • CenterPiece: This approach is a great interaction brainstorming opportunity.
  • Each group needs five pieces of paper per team of four, one paper each and one in the center.  There is a brainstorming topic, and each participant writes his/her choice. He/she says it, writes it, and exchanges the paper with the one in the center. Participants continue to brainstorm, each time trading their page with the CenterPiece.
  • Finally, the teacher leads in whole group discussion of each centerpiece title and allows groups to share/explain responses.  This can work great for writing prompts or reviewing math problems. At the same time, group dynamics continue to strengthen.
  • To build relationships, all of these structures or many others suffice.

Student Reflection and Self-Assessment

Ideally, reflection should occur daily and is perfect inside the journals or on a peer, self, or group reflection sheet. Without the process of thinking back on one’s experiences, one cannot truly grow into a deeper understanding of self. Plus, this creates accountability so students can stay focused on goals.

Choosing to embed Cooperative Learning structures into the regular curriculum enables students to practice using social skills throughout the school day. Optimum learning is contingent on healthy SEL which comes from CL and reflection. If started early and continued consistently, things will change, and the classroom will become a true community.








Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ.  New

York: Bantam Books.


Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Five Years Later, February 23, 2001.



Hirsch, Joe. Teaching Empathy: Turning a Lesson Plan into a Life Skill, February 6,




Kagan, S. Kagan Structures for Emotional Intelligence. San Clemente, CA: Kagan

Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall 2001.

Easy? NO. Important? YES

If we did (or did not (do)) everything we felt like doing, then life would be so EASY! Would it be fruitful? Nope. Would it grow us? Nope. Would it be good role modeling? Nope.

However, having a toddler is not a job. It’s not one that ends when you get home or when you go to bed at night. Even when your toddler is not with you, it’s still a job, and you’re still on “the clock.” I’m convinced that yoga pants and scrunchies were made by a mom and developed for moms. You can always spot a mom when you are out and about because she will look like she just came from the gym yet probably has not worked out in months. We just look lovely!

Here’s the difference, however. We need to be ON all the time. It’s really much like teaching in that I must have that smiley, positive attitude even when I just don’t feel like it. At least with teaching though, you can go have lunch with your buddies or hide in your classroom. Not so with parenting.

Just yesterday, I was T..I..R..E..D and just did not want to be the entertainment committee for Tatum. She decided I needed some coffee: 

IMG_5283 IMG_5287Sweet child shared it with me after she gulped it down. I need to teach her about sipping (not chugging the hot liquid)

It did not get easier through the day either. She likes to say “NO” and “MINE.” (I know..something new in toddlerland) and this just makes life so pleasant. I must (like teaching) “think on my feet” and be creative because I will not battle this child every time she says “no” which is too many to count.

Spelling gets her attention because she knows many letters. I figured I’d stay away from the N..and the O although she does know the individual sounds, just not the spelling! Amazingly she knows the vowels and of course D (DOG!), J (JUMP!), and T (TATUM).


The beauty of parenting (like teaching) is that it is all trial and error. Sometimes what I do works magically! And others? FLOP! That is when I walk away for a “MTO” (Mommy Time Out) so I don’t yell.

The day actually ended beautifully with the cuddling...and why??? My attitude adjusted. Before going “UP” to bed, I sat at the bottom of the stairs and just talked to her like an adult. I shared how much she meant to me and a little tidbit about when I was her age. Then we scooted on upstairs to a nice bedtime bonanza. (Because lately, bedtime is not so delightful).

Feelings: They are pretty powerful, but so is our ability to use a toddler strategy: SAY  ” NO” to how you feel and Y. E. S. to being positive despite feeling _____  (blah).

I love you, Tot.


Happy Veteran’s Day

Tesseract Community Outreach (TCO day) took place on Friday, November 8, 2013. Twice a year, our entire student body spends the day doing something community-minded in order to serve something/someone outside ourselves.

The 7th graders spent the day interviewing War Veterans (from various wars) and recording the interviews. We will be transcribing these interviews and delivering them to the Library of Congress when we visit in April. Here are last year’s interviews:

One of the Veterans, Fred Quick, was a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) gunner from WWII! (He is pictured here with Sgt Ben Luoma who is holding Fred’s Purple Heart and magazine from the rifle)IMG_3493

He noted that he had to carry over 40 lbs worth of artillery. At 150 lbs, that was more than 1/3 of his weight. He was not allowed to carry his gun into school, but I had a chance to hold it. Definitely a power house!


The kids reflected on the day and were overwhelmed with gratitude and understanding of the plight of these Veterans. We appreciate them fighting FOR US. 🙂

The English Teacher’s Halloween

How should an English teacher dress for Halloween? A Part of Speech of course!
The best one is the “connector!” Sure! It has such a vital role, yet unappreciated. Now, the noun and verb are the main parts of a sentence, but how about the conjunction? More importantly, the coordinating conjunction? It fills the relational role of bringing clauses and phrases together!

What are the cc’s? FANBOYS!
for and nor but or yet so