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'Renowned neuroscience educator equips teachers dealing with the teen brain'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Renowned neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis has given Karamu High School teachers, who he says are at the coalface of adolescent wellbeing, tips on dealing with the teenage brain. Nathan, who is based in Auckland and has built a career on studying human brain development, spoke on the basic anatomy of the brain, the impact stress and trauma can have, and the changes that take place during adolescence. He also presented key strategies found in literature to help reduce anxiety and depression amongst students and increase resilience. Nathan says adolescence is a very emotional time in life, second only to that of a toddler, where their thinking is overwhelmed by feeling.

"To understand adolescence, is to know that between seven and 27 for about a three year period that frontal cortex is going to be shut for renovations. "So, the adolescent literally goes backwards in their ability to control their emotions, see things from other people’s point of view and regulate their behaviour."

Ninety per cent of the time, they are programmed to be in the "emotional brain". "It is important to understand adolescence. If you want to have effective relationships with them, and want to help them manage stress and anxiety, we’re going to have to do it in an emotional way. "It is not just about cognitive strategies. Their emotional brain is going to have to be catered to as well." He says mindfulness such as controlled breathing is the most "effective" way to calm the brain stem and reengage the frontal cortex. "That practice seems incredibly simple but when you understand the physiology of how stress works in the brain, you understand that your brain stem can’t stay aroused if you’re engaging your cortex.

"By breathing in 6:4:6, it sends a direct response to the sympathetic nervous system that you can’t be in a state of stress. It overrides the anxiety." He suggests a two to five-minute mindfulness exercise at the start of the day is a "really productive" use of time, and means students are able to take more in during the rest of the lesson. He was originally meant to speak at Karamu High School in August last year but was unable to due to the country going into lockdown.

Nathan spoke to nine schools (primary, secondary and ECE) in the Whirinaki Kāhui Ako via zoom. Principal Dionne Thomas says she is pleased they were able to utilise Nathan’s expertise as part of staff professional learning development. Their 2021-2025 strategic plan reflects the importance of well-being (staff, student, and community) with an equal focus between teaching and learning and well-being. "Knowing or acknowledging our students as young, vulnerable, 'crazy' adolescents is where great relationships start."

Mrs Thomas says that is what Karamu prides itself on, as relationships between staff and students are key.

"Not only with the current challenges we as a community are facing, but the challenges of social media, the digital divide, social change, and economic injustice - we need to remember it’s people who come first. "If we can look after our people, we will continue to support our vision of championing successful members of society who leave the grounds of Karamu High."

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