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.



Peter Benson, from the SEARCH Institute, describing SPARK and what we really want for our kids.

REAL School’s Summer STEM Adventure!

REAL School’s Summer STEM Adventure!.

REAL School’s Summer STEM Adventure!

REAL School’s Summer STEM Adventure!

Awesome pilot program – thanks to Maine Women’s Fund and AmeriCorps!

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…

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