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Horacio Sanchez, one of the foremost authorities on child and adolescent behavioral disorders and resiliency practice, explains how to successfully educate and respond to “at risk” students. Sanchez explains why low academic performance, destructive behaviors, and habitual negative patterns occur, and more importantly, he explains that there is great hope for at-risk kids if schools respond to them in an appropriate way. The following is an abridged version of our interview with Horacio Sanchez.
Q: What should a teacher know about the brain and how it learns?
Horacio Sanchez: Well, the most important thing that has been established over and over again by the researchers: people learn based on what they already know, and you can learn some very complex things if someone can relate them to the information you already know.
But there are certain little things that we did not know before. For example, if I communicate with you and relate things very well to what you already know, the chemical movement in processing that information is low and enables you to perform at a very high ability. If I give you information and you struggle in connecting it, the chemical movement is enough to cause some degree of disturbance in your ability to process it. And the last thing is, if I give you information that challenges something you already believe, the chemical movement is severe and causes some degree of irritation.
So there are multiple pitfalls here. The first one is very simple: if you don’t really spend time understanding what students know the most about, there is no way you can relate to every child. What teachers have gotten used to is assuming the amount of information an individual already has, and building from there. [But] what ends up happening is, certain kids are coming to you without having the same amount of exposure, and those kids struggle because you are assuming things they don’t have. When you give them information, they don’t have things to connect [it] to.
Q: Thinking of an inner city teacher struggling to connect with her students, what can you tell her about brain-based research as it applies to her class?
Horacio Sanchez: Research has probably not changed things as much as people think it has. A lot of what we’ve learned about how people learn [are things that] good teachers already do intuitively.
” … if you’re really going to help children who are academically challenged, create an environment that is predicable and work on your school climate because reducing stress can actually improve cognitive performance across the board, from the healthiest kid to the least healthy.”
The incorporation of multi-sensory approaches to education is crucial. Some of the other things we’ve started to find out are that core information has to be quickly accessible to a child. If they struggle in [retrieving] core information, their ability to move forward at any great level starts to be challenged. Core information must be drilled in a way that it becomes almost automated in recall. And the only way to get automation to the human brain is a degree of repetition.
Q: It’s interesting how strong a case you make for repetition and even — dare I say it — drill. Both have become forbidden words in some circles. Let’s continue to discuss the academically challenged student and how he or she processes information differently.
Horacio Sanchez: One of the things we’ve found from [research] on how information is dispensed in the classroom is that 85% of what is provided to students is language-based. Well, one of the things we know about individuals who have emotional disorders is that regardless of cognitive ability, their ability to process language is completely dependent on their homeostasis, that is, their chemical balance.
We should think about those individuals who are academically challenged because of stress. If you look at the work of Elizabeth Gould at Princeton, what she determined was so crucial. She determined that when the brain becomes stressed, one of the areas of the brain that is so involved in learning, the hippocampus, does not experience regeneration until you get over the stress. The hippocampus, which normally regenerates cells so that a person can maintain chemical balance, will stop regenerating and hunker down to get past the stress.
So, let’s say you’ve been under stress for two years. Even when you get over it, it will take time to regain your homeostasis. That’s why we emphasize to schools that if you’re really going to help children who are academically challenged, create an environment that is predicable and work on your school climate because reducing stress can actually improve cognitive performance across the board, from the healthiest kid to the least healthy.
Q: You advocate in your training the necessity and importance of understanding [what you call] the holistic child. You’ve said in many of your presentations and also in your writings that negative behavior in a child is a result of several factors. Can you tell us more about them?
“If you don’t really spend time understanding what students know the most about, there is no way you can relate to every child.”
Horacio Sanchez: I often break things down into four areas: heredity, temperament, exposure, and trauma or traumatic experiences. Heredity basically refers to what you come into the world with. The reality is that people come into the world with different abilities of their brain to actually even develop. And since development is often sequential, when you hinder some regions of the brain, you often have a rippling effect that retards or slows other processes.
Temperament starts to tell us how you’re going to react to stimuli. New stimuli are more chemically charged than old. Certain people have a high reaction to stimuli. They come with a difficult temperament or a shy or anxious temperament. If you have a high reaction to stimuli, that means you’re already at risk of “chemical imbalance,” which reduces your ability to learn and increases your impulsivity. Well, schools introduce new learning, new stimuli, and therefore schools, especially larger schools, can be terrible places for individuals with difficult or shy and anxious temperament.
Exposure starts to tell us what the person can adapt to. Remember, I’ve said that the brain learns based on what you’ve been exposed to. Kids who have had less exposure tend to have a harder time adapting. If you compound that with hereditary factors, they’re really behind the eight ball.
And last, but not least, is trauma. The part of your brain that governs your emotional response is called the amygdala and the amygdala is actually the part of the brain that reacts to future emotional issues. The problem is, for people who’ve had repetitive trauma their brains can actually become so sensitive to stimuli that when you they become overwhelmed, their brain releases the wrong signal.
If you put all of those four things together, you have a person who will be a problem in almost every school if the school doesn’t start to think about holistic kinds of things like setting a climate that reduces chemical arousal and helps them start to function within a school setting.
Q: Resiliency is a word that you’ve built your reputation on, and you are creating with hundreds of school districts a framework for teachers and other child service professionals to identify individuals who are at risk for poor life outcomes. Tell us more about this resiliency factor and this framework and how teachers can begin to use this predictive instrument.
Horacio Sanchez: Resiliency is one of the most misunderstood things in the nation, Being “resilient” actually means having success in the face of risk. Amy Werner, on the island of Kauai, tracked individuals from birth all the way to adulthood, looking for how they did in life and tracking the significant events in their lives. She found that 25% of them could be called resilient. They had success in life despite having a risk factor. When they went back and looked at them closely, they found out they seemed to have a consistent occurrence of factors that they started calling protective factors and those protective factors actually helped them overcome the risk in their lives.
Q: You have put all these risk factors into something called the BRC — the Brief Resiliency Checklist — which is available on your website. Can you tell us more about it?
Horacio Sanchez: We list all the risk factors and all the protective factors found in the research. There are 31 risk factors and 35 protective factors. And basically, we broke them down into categories, like early developmental factors, childhood factors, family stressors, experiential pieces. When we use this to analyze a child, we have been able to identify the child’s ability to be resilient. Why is that important? Well, you can have a child with a range of negative factors in his life, but still have the capacity to be successful. When schools have gotten used to seeing some convergence of negative factors, they often start to assume that this student will do poorly. This instrument helps people identify kids who may look bad, [but] who still have the capacity to be successful in the general curriculum.
Q: So what does a teacher do? What are some practical ideas that for teachers who may not have the actual BRC profile?
Horacio Sanchez: When it comes to instruction in the classroom, classrooms that do better seem to have a ritualized process. They seem to be more predictive. When it comes to instruction, what we start to know is this: If I were to start an elementary school right now for average kids, I would show people that you really need to start exposing kids because often times the kids who struggle have not had enough exposure to the things that are crucial to base learning on. Unless kids have what is called “normative information” at their fingertips with no effort of recall, they cannot produce a higher level of thinking.