Sticks and Stones – AND Words … The Brain Science of Social Rejection

Kipling D. Williams, Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University developed a game called Cyberball, in which research subjects engage in a simple game of 3-way toss. A Functional MRI captures images of the subjects’ brain activity during the game. After a few rounds, the avatar players begin to toss the ball back and forth without including the subject – and guess what happens? The subject reports feeling ostracized and rejected, and the FMRI lights up with activity in the very same brain region where we register physical pain (the anterior cingulate cortex)!

The human brain evolved to ensure safety; we are not a very fast or a particularly strong species – so our ability to connect and collaborate with others has been critical to our survival. Acceptance within groups ensured access to food, shelter, a mate … So our brains tend to be hypersensitive to ostracism, responding – as though to physical danger – with spikes in cortisol.

Social rejection in childhood causes more than superficial and momentary discomfort – In fact, it can have long-term negative impacts on physical and mental health. Studies show that social rejection increases anxiety and depression, causes spikes in blood pressure, and impairs the immune system. The impact on academic achievement can be catastrophic also – children who are subjected to social rejection at school cannot activate the necessary executive functions for memory and learning because their limbic systems are on high alert.

What can schools do about this?


– Create caring, inclusive, communities

– Teach social skills and TEACH EMPATHY (more on this coming soon)


– Regularly assess overall connectedness

– Notice exclusionary social dynamics when they first emerge


– Use restorative and educational responses

– Silent Mentoring / Peer Mentoring

Share your own ideas and best practices!!

social inclusion

Stand Up to Bullying!

Mike Dreiblatt, from Stand Up to Bullying. will speak at our upcoming professional development experience:  The Maine Event – A National Conference on Positive School Climate!

Make sure to register early for this important, national conversation!  Discounted room rates at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel are still available (and can be applied for up to 3 days before and after the Maine Event … maybe you’ll be in Portland for 4th of July??)


AWEsome! … The experience that expands your perception of time and makes you a better person!

A recent Stanford study  illustrates how the experience of “awe” actually changes our perception of TIME!

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  ― W.B.Yeats

The publication opens with:

“Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being Time might be the scarcest commodity for many people in modern life … This feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it—or “time famine” – has been linked to undesirable side effects including trouble sleeping, stress, difficulty delaying gratification, and postponing seeing a doctor when ill (Lehto, 1998; Vuckovic, 1999; Zhang & DeVoe, 2010). In light of these findings, we asked, what could be done to shift people’s perception of how much time is available?”

Researchers described awe as “the emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas”.  In other words, awe causes us to change or expand our existing mental frameworks in order to accommodate the experience! (Imagine that!  The notion is awe-inspiring in itself!!) Think of all the dendrites and synaptic connections that are formed when we have to change up our perceptual frameworks …!

The study shows that when we experience “awe”, our perception of time actually expands “… due to awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time. Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”

 …  And regular incidences of awe cause increased feelings of personal well-being, increased compassion, and increased altruism!

The researchers found that a wide variety of experiences can elicit awe – powerful memories, Nature, Art, Science, and meaningful human interactions are some examples … And we can even deliberately cultivate this by tuning our attentions toward the profound and mysterious beauty inherent in everyday phenomena (like children naturally do)!

We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.” – Richard Dawkins


When They Look Back 50 Years From Now …

Hindsight is 20-20: During the past decade, concerns that our Industrial-Age-Education model has been failing have risen to a crescendo.  Back in the day, the proliferation of technology that could quickly mass-produce uniform items created a cultural shift that shaped the educational experience for generations of American students. The urge to efficiently create millions of “products” by applying a standardized approach was irresistible!

More recently, we have recognized that human beings – especially in a diverse, free society – really don’t respond predictably to a one-size-fits-all approach, and public education has evolved remarkably to take into account individual strengths, interests, desires, and limitations.  Teachers in classrooms have been “customizing” the educational experience for students in many ways all along – legally-enforced ways (as in Special Education for students with disabilities), and quiet, heroically persistent ways (as in the hours of extra time, attention, love, and inspiration).

My guess is that fifty years from now, sociologists will talk about the days when we all bought in on the Digital-Age-Education model. The proliferation of technology that can quickly process, sort, mine, and colorfully depict data points, they’ll say, created a cultural shift that shaped the educational experience for generations of American students … The urge to measure outcomes, and to sort and compare them, was irresistible! The allure is understandable – it’s so efficient; it tells us how we are doing; we can see who is best and who is worst …

But in our rush to make use of wonderful digital capabilities, they will say, we had to make quick choices about what to measure, and when to measure. So we chose to measure what was easiest to measure – at least that would provide some data to input into the systems, at least that would satisfy the seekers of accountability.  And I bet they’ll say that over the decades, we recognized that the test scores of human beings – especially in a diverse and free society – didn’t make very predictable products either.  What’s more, we may discover that we placed too much emphasis on what was easiest to measure, infusing it with artificial importance – and that it was to the detriment of some of the truly important stuff.

What is truly important to measure? Ask a parent what he wants most of all for his child.   Ask an employer what qualities are most important to success in her company. Ask philosophers and philanthropists, artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators what attributes are most important to successful, fulfilled participation in our democracy, our country, and our world. The answers are not likely to be congruent with the data points we presently pursue.

Also, ask a teacher from one of the countries who regularly “outscore” us on international standardized tests why they visit American public schools to see how creativity, individuality, entrepreneurialism, innovation are fostered.  The things we do best in our schools keep miraculously surviving our efforts to homogenize, standardize, and create measurable products! And that’s pretty cool!

Here is a final thought – our education system is pretty amazing!  We need to always, always improve, because this work is next to sacred – and, so far, we are not reaching every child – but we are already doing some phenomenal things!

Huge economic engines are fueled whenever public opinion wanes.  Failing schools in the headlines means big payouts to consultants, software developers, textbook companies, testing companies … Pressure from powerful groups and individuals who stand to gain much has created an unhealthily competitive “culture of accountability” that rests its case on measures that are not necessarily valid or even truly important. Common Core standards are almost impossibly high – developmentally inappropriate, in many cases, in fact – AND THEY SHOULD BE! We should set our standards way, WAY up there.  But high standards are only good for the input end of education! High standards are how we know what to teach, and formative assessments help us to know how kids are doing and how to adjust our instruction to move them along the continuum toward the VERY high standards.  Very high standards, however, when applied to individual human beings with infinite variable life and learning factors, will often translate out to lower standardized test scores. Great for the consultants, the publishers, the testing companies – but a damn shame for kids, teachers, and school leaders.

REAL School’s Summer STEM Adventure!

REAL School’s Summer STEM Adventure!.

Resources for Working with Students At Risk (SAR540)

Examples of grant proposals that have been funded:

AmeriCorps grant proposal

21st Century grant

teen aspirations grant




Big Picture / Philosophies / Theoretical / Cool Research on At Risk Issues:

Accountability 2.0!! Let’s teach and assess what is IMPORTANT!

In yesterday’s NY Times …

Accountability 2.0!! Let’s teach and assess what is IMPORTANT!

Adventure-Based Learning

Activity, exercise, and new experiences all trigger production of a protein-based hormone, BDNF, that causes NEUROGENESIS! It’s like Miracle Grow for your brain!

“Challenge by choice” activities, that require us to step outside of our comfort zones create the ideal conditions for learning… Click the underlined link to see how The REAL School uses therapeutic adventure…

Brain Science and HAPPINESS

Happiness and your Brain
The underlined link above connects to another recent presentation … This one offers a framework for understanding the ongoing “battle” between the brain’s cognitive and emotional centers and strategies for actually increasing affective well-being (happiness)! School culture is shaped by individual behaviors, attitudes, affects, and interactions. Brain plasticity (the super cool phenomenon wherein our brain structure/archetecture changes in response to experience) is responsive to everything we see, hear, do, and think! Teachers and school administrators (or anyone else, for that matter) can use strategies in this presentation to increase both personal well-being and ORGANIZATIONAL well-being, enhancing the educational experience for everyone in the school!


Tips from the Neuroscience of Behavior, Engagement, and Learning

Here is a link to one of my recent presentations – It addresses (basic) adolescent brain development, the impacts of trauma/poverty on development, and the importance of a relational approach. It also provides several tips for improving outcomes for students at high risk. Hope you find it helpful!

REAL School Agriculture and Culinary Arts Program – REAL Lunch!

Personal Responsibility through Restorative (instead of Punitive) Discipline

Resilient, effective people have strong, internal locus of control. They accurately understand the connections between their actions/decisions/words and the resulting circumstances. They recognize when they are wrong, acknowledge and repair any harm done, and make a plan for avoiding the same mistake in the future. There is a certain power inherent in the ability to take appropriate, personal responsibility – a confidence that comes from the knowledge that mistakes will sometimes happen when we take productive risks, that almost anything can be fixed, that a heartfelt apology can build a bridge, and that all challenges bring unexpected gifts.

Punitive disciplinary practices in schools tend to build inaccurate connections for kids. They learn to associate their behavioral mistakes with adult hostility instead of with their own need to learn/grow/improve themselves; they learn to avoid being caught, or to lie, or to externalize the blame … Precious emotional and cognitive energy ends up wasted on cover-up efforts, deflection, finger-pointing, and denial… And worst of all, precious opportunities for growth and learning (that are the inherent gifts hidden within mistakes), are lost in the process.

An apology can be very empowering, when you think about it. It is an act of heroic optimism and unshakable confidence – Yes, I messed up, but I will fix the damage and learn to be better. The fact is, though, that most children hate to apologize; they have been socialized into believing that mistakes are shameful, and that fessing up is somehow a sign of weakness.

At our school, we use a 4-step Restorative Learning Process to help students: 1) take personal responsibility for their actions; 2) acknowledge the impact of their behavior on others; 3) come up with a way to repair any harm that was done; and 4) develop a plan for getting their needs met in a more adaptive and successful way in the future. This practice (in lieu of suspensions, expulsions, or even time-wasting detention practices) keeps students in school – moving forward in their educational processes, and breaking the ineffective cycle of punitive discipline.

One student explained it recently like this: “If we punch a hole in the wall, they give us drywall tape, Spakle, sandpaper, and paint so we can fix it back to as good as it was before – or better. If we punch a hole in the community – through put-downs or disruptions – we have to come up with a plan to repair that and to give something positive back to help the group become stronger.”

When Summative Assessment Drives Instruction, We Lose Sight of What Matters Most

Since it is difficult for us to measure what is truly valuable, do we have to value that which is easier to measure?

We need to be very careful about our priorities when it comes to “high stakes” testing. With national and international pressure to weigh in with a norm-referenced score to prove where our schools fall on the big sliding scale of standardized test scores, it is quite possible that many smart, ethical, passionate educators are forced to place too much value on students’ acquisition of the skills and knowledge bytes that make for successful test-taking. While some of these tools for achievement are important to have and to hone, others are becoming archaic while the ink dries on the new test bubble sheets … and even the most important and relevant items are still really just tools. It is much easier to assess that a mechanic does, indeed, have a wrench in his hand than it is to determine whether or not he can fix your engine properly. We can’t necessarily judge the seaworthiness of a boat based on the fact that it appears to have a rudder and a fog horn, and we wouldn’t recommend a brain surgeon just because she owns a scalpel and  can define several neurological terms.

When schools and teachers are publicly judged (and compensated/penalized) based largely on their ability to get students to demonstrate skills and information outside of authentic contexts, we are giving priority to the wrong things.  When teachers are busy preparing students for standardized tests, they have little time left over to provide the sort of instruction that fosters necessary 21st Century capabilities.

Recent research on brain development and learning practically insists that we engage students in complex, loosely-defined challenges and activities that require them to struggle through ambiguity, ask questions, and work together to find innovative solutions. Project Based Learning, Service Learning, and Design Thinking all help to support development of synaptic connections for improved learning. This type of instructional practice also fosters important executive functioning skills – the ability to plan, prioritize, delay gratification, predict consequences and outcomes, engage in abstract thinking, and interact in positive, productive ways with others.

It is possible to measure student achievement through authentic assessments.  Rubrics, portfolios, and actual performance tasks can all contribute to a system that gauges truly important outcomes like  critical thinking and collaborative skills, interpersonal communication, creative innovation, entrepreneurial risk taking, flexibility and adaptability under conditions that fluctuate, and other necessary competencies for success in the fast-changing present and future world.  The Authentic Assessment Toolbox offers excellent rationale for authentic, performance based assessment AND practical ideas and strategies for implementing these assessments.

Since there is national interest in revisiting the NCLB rules these days, it might be the perfect time to reconsider what it is we really want for our students, figure out how to measure that, and make sure that classroom time and energy are devoted what is truly important.




Always, Always Building Bridges or Walls …

Here are some thoughts on the interactions between teachers and students .. Most of us can remember how we felt at some point when a teacher either ignited a fire inside of us or made us feel inept.

Adults in the classroom never have the luxury of being neutral. Everything you say or do is either building a bridge or building a wall. Seems like a lot of pressure, I know – but teachers (by which I mean all adults in a classroom, since the kids are learning from all of the adults) are the most powerful people in the room.

Sometimes teachers can feel powerless when faced with apathy, disrespect, and other assorted expressions of negativity in the classroom – but it is really important to remember that you hold at least 2 types of power at all times: “official power”, because you ultimately have the final say on what happens in the classroom (how rules are enforced, who sits where, who gets to talk, what lessons and activities will happen, etc) and “perceived” power, because most of the students are under the general assumption that you are in charge here (if you don’t believe this – watch their eyes when something goes wrong – they all will look to you to see how you react and to find out if everything will be OK). You can also develop “social” power when the students see you as the person who makes sure that everyone feels respected, safe, and cared about.

All this rambling about power is just a reminder that – even on the toughest day – you have what it takes to make or break a student’s experience at school. They watch your face and your body language, they hear every twinge in your voice, and they look to you to provide an example of how a smart, capable adult handles stress and surprise and joy and etc….

Here are some strategies (habits of heart and mind) to help build bridges:
1. Speak to students as though their parents are in the room with you.
2. Notice something great about an angry disaffected student and bring it to his or her attention in a meaningful way.
3. “Creative Visualization” to help create compassion when you can’t feel it in the moment: Picture a big, angry student as the 3-year-old he once was … picture him “playing school”, watching the school bus go by, and getting excited about someday going to big-kid school. Then picture him in Kindergarten – running open-heartedly into the classroom, only to learn very quickly that he didn’t fit in there (his “walking feet” were “running feet”, for instance, and his “listening ears” didn’t work well; his circles were not round and didn’t sit well on the line).
4. Learn the secret language of the disaffected learner: “This is stupid” means “I don’t understand this”. “I don’t care what you say” means “I still have to figure out if you’re for real or not”. “I can’t do this” means “I feel like I can’t do anything, so why bother trying and looking stupid again?” “No” means “Not until I get some need met”. “You can’t make me!” means “I need to feel in control of something because I feel powerless.”
5. Remember that when students exhibit challenging behaviors, they are usually trying to mask their fear of rejection or of looking / feeling inept.

The Ultimate Learning Outcomes?

What do we really want for our kids?  What do they really need?  According to some arguably brilliant people (Tony Wagner, for instance, or Yong Zhao … just to name a couple), our students need to become autonomous, imaginative, confident, articulate, creative, passionate, collaborative, innovative, critical-thinking, problem-solving individuals who participate fully as effective, productive, happy, fulfilled, global citizens.

Sure, our students need to learn the hard skills of Literacy and Mathematics, and they need to understand certain Social and Scientific concepts  – these are often prerequisites to all of the above.  But to get at the OUTCOMES we really want, ask why a student needs to “learn and be able to do” any of the standards (either Maine Learning Results OR Common Core Standards)… Seriously – choose a standard … any one of them – in any content area … and then ask WHY the students need to know or be able to do this.  The answer is going to lead you directly to the ultimate outcomes we’re hoping to achieve – that our students will become responsible, involved citizens;  effective communicators; creative problem-solvers; critical thinkers; collaborative, compelling, curious, innovative folks who care for others and who receive care in return.  (These are not frivolous, soft aspirations for our students, by the way – these are necessary capacities for competing successfully in a global and swiftly-changing economy).

Some wonderful standardized test-takers have gone on to become fairly ineffective citizens.  And some of the most astounding innovations, the most profound acts of kindness, the most heroic sacrifices, the sweetest victories, the best music, the finest art, and so many other superlative feats have been accomplished by unremarkable standardized test-takers.

We might want to rethink a system wherein schools are forced to squander considerable fiscal resources, time, and energy on standardized testing (and on teaching to those tests).

What matters most cannot always be quantified.

Think about the child you love most in your life – what do you want for that kid?  How should this be measured?

Even Without a “CIRCLE”, Customizable Restorative Justice School Disciplinary Practices Work!

What is the purpose of school discipline? What are our intended outcomes as we respond to student behavior?

Most “misbehavior” is actually the developmental job of children and adolescents, who push up against (and sometimes through) the barriers, guidelines, rules, and expectations we set for them in their ongoing quest for self-regulation and independence. Chronic and extremely maladaptive behaviors can be signals that a child/adolescent has unmet needs, unsolved problems, or lagging skills (Dr. Ross Greene –

In either case, educators and others who work with youth have options when it comes to our responses to student behaviors … Traditional, punitive measures (detention, suspension, expulsion) are usually unsuccessful in changing behaviors or fostering personal growth. These responses tend to marginalize, isolate, and disconnect a student from the community, thereby making future misbehavior more likely. Punishment triggers fear, and often teaches lessons like: how not to get caught, how to place external blame, or how to manipulate the system.

A restorative approach, however, repairs, maintains, and strengthens relationships and connections while teaching self-reflection, empathy, and optimism. Even when it’s not possible to facilitate restorative circles, the critical components of a restorative process can change behavior in meaningful and lasting ways. We share some ideas in our Solutions Webcast:

AND check out this YouthToday article that references our workshop session at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference:

Please Join Us in Beautiful Portland, Maine for Our BEST Conference Yet!

CPI is partnering this year with the Positive Youth Development Institute to bring you the  “Maine Event” National Conference on Creating Positive Climates for Youth! Earn 16 contact hours or 1.6 CEU’s, while improving your ability to develop and sustain a vibrant school or work climate, networking with colleagues from across the nation, and enhancing your practice through targeted strategies for organizational well-being (and even self care)!


Featuring: Frank DeAngelis, Former Columbine High School Principal, and school climate expert; Karen Williams, dynamic speaker, trainer, and consultant on developmental neuroscience; and SO MUCH MORE… Check the agenda and workshop descriptions here:   The Maine Event – National Conference on Creating Positive Climates for Youth!

Customizable Restorative Justice for Schools

Restorative Justice School Discipline doesn’t always have to involve cumbersome logistics … In fact, this approach can be phased in seamlessly to enhance your current disciplinary practices! Check out our Solutions Webcast on Restorative Practices on the National Dropout Prevention Center website!  And JOIN US at the Maine Event: National Conference on Positive School Climate … less than two weeks away!!

A Customizable Approach to Restorative Justice School Discipline: Replacing Ineffective, Punitive Consequences with Human-Centered Educational Practices


The Professional Development Experience that Enhances ALL of your School Improvement Efforts!

Join us for THE MAINE EVENT: National Conference on Positive School Climate!

This professional development experience focuses on PERSONAL, PROFESSIONAL, and ORGANIZATIONAL WELLBEING!  The success of ALL your other School Improvement Efforts hinges on a POSITIVE SCHOOL CLIMATE!

June 23 and 24th at Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, Maine


  • Earn 1.6 CEUs from University of Southern Maine
  • Four Dynamic Keynote Addresses and 36 Workshop Options throughout the 2-Days
  • Examples of Workshop Topics: Positive Behavior Supports; ESSA; Neuroscience of Learning and Behavior; Bullying Prevention; Title IX Requirements; Leadership in times of Change and Upheaval; Alternative Education Programs; Restorative Justice…
  • Presentation of the Pegasus Awards for Professional Courage!
  • Learn strategies and approaches that TRANSCEND changing mandates to enhance ALL of your school improvement initiatives!


The 2nd ANNUAL Maine Event: National Conference on Positive School Climate

June 23-24, 2016 at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, Portland Maine!!

There is still time to register for this one-of-a-kind professional development experience!


Maine Event 2016 Program

Resources from our Presentation at NDPC’s National At Risk Youth Forum

Resources for school and classroom management, positive school climate, and restorative justice school discipline:


Featured Presentation Slideshow:

The Big List of Educational Grants and Resources | Edutopia

The Big List of Educational Grants and Resources | Edutopia.

Strategies for Strengthening the Brain’s Executive Functions

Strategies for Strengthening the Brain’s Executive Functions.

Defending Childhood Report

See task force recommendations for schools, communities, and juvenile justice systems here:  Defending Childhood Report

Connect to information and registration for: The Maine Event – A National Conference on Positive School Climate!

Final Report from Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Offers Social Emotional Learning / Mental Health Recommendations for Schools:

In section THREE of the final report, the commission describes the importance of a focus on improving access to mental health services and the critical roles of public schools in keeping children and families connected to each other and to community supports.

“Nearly 20% of adolescents can be classified as socially excluded (i.e., being ignored or excluded by others), an experience that many liken to “social death”. Research has found significant associations between chronic social ostracism and participation in risk behaviors… higher levels of depression and anxiety, peer victimization and aggression… Retrospective studies have reported that chronic social ostracism, especially experienced during high school, is a risk factor for suicidal ideation and attempts during adulthood. In short, social exclusion threatens psychological and behavioral systems that are critical for normal adolescent development, health, and life-longevity.”    – Richard Gilman, PhD, Professor, University of Cincinnati Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, written testimony submitted to the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission.

A Few of the Report’s Recommendations for Schools:

– Schools must play a critical role in fostering healthy child development and healthy communities. Healthy social development can be conveyed by role models such as parents, teachers, community leaders, and other adults in children’s lives, but it can also – and should – be actively taught in schools.

– Social-emotional learning must form an integral part of the curriculum from preschool through high school. Social-emotional learning can help children identify and name feelings such as frustration, anger and loneliness that potentially contribute to disruptive and self-destructive behavior. It can also teach children how to employ social problem-solving skills to manage difficult emotional and potentially conflicting situations.

– A sequenced social development curriculum must include anti- bullying strategies. As appropriate, it should also include alcohol and drug awareness as part of a broader substance-abuse prevention curriculum for school-aged children.

– Many of our students and their families live under persistent and pervasive stress that interferes with learning and complicates the educational process. There are many potential resources such as school based health centers that should provide a locus of preventive care, including screenings and referrals for developmental and behavioral difficulties, exposure to toxic stress, and other risk factors, as well as treatment offerings that can address crisis, grief and other stressors. Alternatively, schools can employ the services of community-based mental health providers such as child guidance clinics.

– Schools should form multidisciplinary risk-assessment teams that gather information on and respond supportively to children who may pose a risk to others or face a risk to themselves due to toxic stress, trauma, social isolation or other factors. Schools should look to factors such as social connectedness in identifying children at risk; all school staff should be trained in inquiry-based techniques to apply when disciplinary issues arise in order to deepen their understanding of how children’s behavior can be linked to underlying stressors.

– Schools should work with all providers to enhance community resources and augment services available in schools. For many children schools offer the only real possibility of accessing services, so districts should increase the availability of school guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, and other school health and behavioral health professionals during and after school as well as potentially on Saturdays.positive school culture

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