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Reducing the “Tigers” in our Classrooms

Allison Posey
Allison Posey
November 24, 2020
How to Stop the Fight or Flight Response and Help Students Excel

How to Stop the Fight or Flight Response and Help Students Escape the “Tigers” in the Classroom.

Do you remember having that feeling of dread in school, perhaps it was when you were asked to read out loud in front of the class, or when you had to do a math problem on the board, or maybe it was when you were asked to do in-text APA citations, or when you had to work in a group? When were there moments – or years – where fear, anxiety, or nervousness stopped your learning, participation, or engagement in school? 

We each have metaphorical “tigers in our classroom,” or times where our appraisal of a situation triggers a fight or flight response in our nervous system – as if a tiger were in the room. Heart races, blood pressure increases, our body channels energy to our muscles to prepare to flee the scene – and cognitive processes like memory and executive functions are reduced. These “tiger moments” happen at unique times for each of us and for each of our students. For some students, these “tiger moments” may last a long time, for example, if they do not feel included, interested, or like a valued participant in school. For some students, it may be shorter in duration, for example, if they do not like a particular topic, assignment, or activity. These “tiger moments” really matter for attention, memory, engagement, and learning. 

A challenge for educators is that there is so much variability among our students, each will experience these “tiger moments” in different ways and at different times. How can we possibly design instruction to address this emotional variability?

Tips on how to design instruction to address emotional variability:

  • Work to better understand and share about the learning brain and variability
  • Reflect on how there are barriers to learning in the design of our environments and in our curricula that impact equitable opportunities for students to develop as expert learners. 
  • Use frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) to reduce barriers and to design flexible options for students to use as they progress toward the intended learning goals. 

Research on the brain shows that emotion is always involved in learning. We do not learn without emotional engagement. However, educators may make the mistake of focusing primarily on content delivery in our teaching, instead of incorporating emotional design for learning strategies. When we shift our focus to facilitating flexible, goal-directed learning opportunities, then we can begin to apply emotional design for learning in our day-to-day collaboration with students – to ensure that all students are able to access and engage in meaningful learning and to reduce the “tigers” in the classroom that impact learning. 

If you are looking to learn  strategies to support emotional design for learning, explore the online course, How SEL and UDL intersect


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