Learn More

40 Hour Workweek

Education Trends, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 5, 2023

What neuroscience teaches us about co-thriving with students

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What neuroscience teaches us about co-thriving with students

By Angela Watson

Want some practical strategies backed by brain research that can help you and your students co-thrive together?

I’m talking with Dr. Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D. She’s a school psychologist, speaker, and author on a mission to help children thrive by supporting educators, mental health providers, and families. She is the founder of The Thriving Students Collective and Thrive Hive TV™  Network, online platforms for boosting the mental health and learning needs of children. She is also my co-creator for our professional development course called How to Reverse Educator Burnout.

Read (or listen) as we discuss:

  • What can people who aren’t current classroom teachers add to conversations about educator burnout?
  • What are the brain research-based markers of thriving in life and in work?
  • What are some specific practices backed by neuroscience that teachers can use to make their classrooms a place where they co-thrive with kids?

Let your school or district know that How to Reverse Educator Burnout is 50% off through March 10th, 2023, and purchase orders are accepted. This is relevant, practical, and enjoyable PD to help schools go beyond talking about self-care and burnout, and instead provide support to educators with practical tools.

Listen to the audio below,
or subscribe in your podcast app

What do non-classroom practitioners have to offer on the topic of educator burnout?

ANGELA: I want to start by addressing the elephant in the room: almost everyone I interview on this podcast is a current K-12 teacher because I myself am not, and I think it’s important for resources designed for teachers to highlight the experiences and expertise of those actually doing that work every day. And when it comes to topics like burnout, there is rightful skepticism among some educators about how people who are not in the classroom can tell others how to avoid burnout in a job they themselves aren’t doing. 

At the same time, I think it’s difficult for classroom teachers and those working in full-time school-based positions to devote the time and mental bandwidth to becoming an expert in all of the countless aspects of teaching that are essential to the job AND have time to write articles, produce podcast articles and courses, etc. to help their fellow educators.

I think it’s valuable for teachers to learn from people who devote their lives to the study of a particular topic that’s relevant to the classroom. For me, that’s been teacher mindset and productivity: I started learning about those things in my third year of teaching twenty years ago, and have devoted more time and energy to it in recent years as I no longer had a full-time classroom position that needed to be my top work priority.

I think I have valuable insights and perspectives to offer obviously, or else I wouldn’t be producing this podcast, and I believe you do too, or else you wouldn’t be a guest! So to me, it’s not that we know more than classroom teachers, or that we know less than them: we just have different insights and perspectives, and each perspective has value.

So I’d love for you to tell listeners about the expertise you’re tapping into, your unique lens on neuroscience, and how it can help educators.

Thanks, Angela. I think what you brought up is extremely important. I know that when I graduated from UC Berkeley as a brand new school psychologist 20 years ago, I was armed with a ton of research and a ton of ideas about how to prevent burnout and how to do my job well. And then I got into the reality, and I was like, Wow, this is not the same.

There’s an analogy that research is really like being in the hothouse, right? If you’re gardening or something, we put it under perfect conditions and we see what flourishes and what grows. And then I was like, well, “I’m not in a hothouse. I’m in a hot mess.” How can I really apply what I know in research to reality?

So I’ve spent the past 20 years really trying to be an ambassador for research but in the context of reality. And my passion really is bridging that research-to-reality gap.

When I first went from being a full-time school psychologist to doing what I do now full-time — which is supporting educators, school psychologists, and parents across the country — I was like, Am I not gonna have any street cred anymore?

But then someone told me, “You know, you have 20 years of school psych experience, and you don’t have amnesia.” I very much remember what it’s like to be a full-time school psychologist and being stressed.

So for folks that have some healthy skepticism about folks not currently doing school-based work, you want to look for people — and I think you fall in this category, Angela — who have street-level data and satellite-level data.

What I mean by street-level data is that lived experience of the day in, day out of teaching, of being a school psychologist, of having all of the stressors, but then also that satellite-level view looking above, hovering above everything and saying, “Okay, well here’s what the research says about this thing, and how can we bridge that?”

So that’s what I’ve been doing in a real-time, sort of laboratory with my thriving school psychologist community. I bring the research and then we get on Zoom, we connect with each other, and they say, “Well, here is something that’s new that’s happening in our system, there’s some new hot mess.” And we talk about ways to bridge it: this is what we know about the research, but how can we bring it to our everyday life?

So you get the street level data — what’s happening in the schools — but then the satellite level, too. As you mentioned, it’s really hard to hover above yourself when you’re in it. It’s hard to look beyond the weeds when you’re in them.

What can neuroscience teach us about the markers of thriving?

I actually began my quest into diving into the research on how to move from surviving to thriving as a decade-long “me-search” project. I say me-search — it was really research but it was in the spirit of I was ready to quit — I was burnt out and I was crying on the way home from work.

I loved my students, but I really hated my job and I knew something had to change. So when I started diving into the research it was really about how to figure out how to make it in a system that’s very challenging, and what I uncovered was really four pillars of thriving. This was done through some street-level data from interviewing school psychologists who’ve been in the field for 30-plus years.

And at that moment in my life, I was like, How? Why? I was so burned out that I couldn’t even imagine being in it for 30 years. And I know there are a lot of folks out there who can feel like they’re just doing time until retirement and they don’t have that joy that they once had. So I wanted to know what it would take to thrive.

I uncovered four pillars of thriving that applied to school psychologists and educators in systems that are challenging. And one of them is what you talk about a lot, which is streamlining your workflow, getting organized, and getting systems in place to automate and eliminate bureaucratic nonsense.

The second pillar is really around cultivating passion projects based on your strength and being able to operate in your zone of genius. That amazing thing that you and only you do.

When I use this analogy, it’s like when you find the perfect gift for someone and you give it to them and you can’t wait for them to open it. You’re just so excited because it’s perfect. You have a passion project out there, deep inside you that you know that you have to give and you can’t wait to give it, but maybe you’re bogged down with other things so it’s been sidelined.

Another one is connecting with others, that great juicy connection with students, but also collaborating with other folks who get it.

And then lastly, the fourth pillar is practicing the science of burnout prevention. I really geeked out on habit formation and the neuroscience of wellbeing, and I’m pretty excited to announce that I have a new personality test called Thriveogram, which helps you motivate and get through things, and focus on what pillar you need to cultivate a bit more. It’s a strength-based assessment and you can identify what neuroscientists call flow.

Flow is that feeling where you’re like, Wow, all this time just passed and I was having so much fun, I didn’t even notice. It helps identify what gets you in that flow, and then using that information to cultivate what we talk about in our online course together — the thrive ratio — which is that delicious balance of things that lift you up, things you love with some of the obligations that you have that maybe aren’t in your zone genius or things you don’t enjoy, and really using the science of microhabits to make it all come together.

So essentially when we think about our students, we want to tap into their strengths, but we often don’t turn that onto ourselves. We don’t even really think about what our strengths are. And so the first step is to assess, What are my strengths?

I know that both you and I have taken some surveys on our strengths and I believe yours, Angela, was creativity and perspective. When I took this assessment, my top strength was love of learning and my second one was forgiveness. And so when I’m in a stressful situation, I try to really conjure up those strengths. For those of you who know the special education world, we have a lot of really contentious meetings, hard meetings, IEP meetings…

And so right before those meetings, I will say, Okay, what are my strengths? My strengths are love of learning. So I’m going to learn something about how to present difficult news well. I am going to learn something about advocates who come at me and criticize my report and how to handle that. I’ll also show forgiveness for a parent who maybe is coming in hot and very angry with the results and feels unheard and it’s not directed at me and so how can I forgive that parent? Because they’re just coming from a place of wanting the best for their kid.

So you can really think about your strengths and that’s what the Thriveogram is all about. I’m actually co-creating it with Dr. Byron McClure and Dr. Kelsey Reed so that we can make sure that we’re focusing in our educators on what’s strong and not what’s wrong.

What does it mean for educators and students to be co-thriving together?

When we were creating our course together last fall, you introduced a term to me that I hadn’t heard before, which is “co-thriving.” That struck me immediately like YES, this is the goal! We want educators to be able co-thrive along with students so that schools can be supportive places where everyone is flourishing. Talk to us about co-thriving with kids.

First, I just want to name something that has evolved in our system. When I first started out as a school psychologist 20 years ago, people were talking to us about preventing burnout by tapping into your bigger why about the kids … everything for the kids. Then it evolved to needing self-care more, like self-care Sunday. I swear if you say self-care to a teacher right now it’s like, Really? A lavender bath is really gonna help me right now?

There’s a perception that if you’re burning out, it is a self-care fail. You’re not doing enough self-care and that feels like a burden. So what I’m seeing now that I think you’ve always been a champion for (and why I think we geeked out so hard on this course together) is that it’s more than just self-care activities you do after work. It’s mindset shifts and it’s things that we do during the day when the stress is actually happening rather than an off-the-job proposition.

One of the things that I’m super passionate about is the science of burnout prevention, but also the science of wellness and the science of happiness. You talk about how it’s good for kids, it’s good for us, and there’s that overlap. Well, happiness helps your students — it helps you be a better teacher and it helps you be a better human.

One of the things that I love to share is Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory. She’s the one who cultivated this ratio of positive to negative — one corrective piece of information needs to be counteracted with three to five positives.

She actually has looked at her research around happiness promoting the following things, and as I share this research, I want you to think, Would this help me feel better as a human and be a better educator?

“Positive emotions like happiness broaden our minds. We’re better problem solvers, we’re more creative. It literally expands your peripheral vision so you can see things you otherwise wouldn’t see. And that can be opportunities. You organize information faster and you retain information better.” Do any of those seem handy in your life? And in your work? All of them, right?

The other one is positive emotions build resources. You have better physical health because when you are happier, you have lower anxiety, lower stress, increased focus, increased connection, and social bonds. And the term is — psychologists love to name something and make it sound fancy — positive resonance and embodied rapport, which means that when you’re connecting with someone and you’re vibing, you’re enjoying it, you’re both enjoying your time together. You want that for yourself and your students.

Being happy isn’t just nice to have … being happy is cool. It actually broadens your cognitive skills and expands your emotional resources. I don’t know about you but think about the last time you were anxious or upset or worried. You were internal and in your head, and not available for the people around you, right? So when you’re happier, you have more social bonds and more connections because you have more availability.

And so now let’s talk about co-thriving, and first off, one of the things is building your cognitive and emotional skills — that’s in and of itself a worthy goal. As we’ve talked about in our course, there’s the little spooky sci-fi lesson about mirror neurons, which essentially is the foundation for something I’ll talk about for co-thriving, which is co-regulation. So co-regulation is when the nervous system of one person can up or down-regulate the nervous system of another.

For example, when your classroom is in chaos with a lot of energy, and you bring the calm — your students are actually evolutionarily pre-programmed to match your emotion. When your class is too low energy, what do you do? You bring it up with your energy, and get a little more excited, a little more animated, and your students’ energy comes up.

So the spooky sci-fi lesson is this: if you interact with another human — this is all subconscious, you don’t even realize it happens in milliseconds — you’re evolutionarily pre-programmed to detect the mood of another. And within 0.3 milliseconds, you start to match it.

Okay, so here’s the spookiest thing of all. We know that stress is contagious in a very subterranean way. Have you ever walked into a meeting where no one says a word and you’re like, Something is funky in here?

That’s what I’m talking about. Or you walk into another teacher’s classroom and you’re like, this is a joyful place to be, but no one’s really said anything. It’s the vibe. So that vibe is neuroscience and those are mirror neurons. So the idea is when you bring a calm, regulated nervous system into your school and into your classroom, not only does it feel good for you, but you’re helping your students too because they are evolutionarily pre-programmed to match your emotions.

What does it look like to co-regulate with kids?

So one of the things that my good friend Kathy has said before is we have a lot of interventions for students’ wellness, right? We have a curriculum, morning meetings, and we have mindfulness lessons. But my friend Kathy says that your regulated nervous system is a research-based intervention for students. So what we need to think about is being calm and regulated and in a happy psychological mood is actually a gift you give your students.

Now here’s the challenge because of mirror neurons: you’re also going to be triggered when they are acting out, when they are angry, etc. We are not all zen masters, right?

What we’ve talked about a lot in our course, and you probably in interviewing others, is taking these mindful pauses when you’re triggered. Even just a minute of a deep breath before responding, that space between stimulus and response gives you time to respond and not react.

So if you go into your classroom and kids are acting out or they’re stressed out, you’re going to feel that because of science. So if you can take a mindful pause before responding to that energy, you are going to be better able to help your students with regulation. It’s really a gift you give yourself and your students.

The other thing I want to talk about is the neuroscience around this. Because of neurons, kids just by design are egocentric, which means they are thinking about themselves — not egotistical, that’s different — egocentric, meaning they think things are about them. And if you remember when you were a kid, you probably thought everything was about you, because that’s just how your cognitive development was.

So if you as a teacher, as a school psychologist, as a social worker, if you had a series of unfortunate events in the morning before you went to school, and you get to school and your classroom is there and you don’t let folks know what’s going on, the kids are going to think it’s about them.

There’s this concept I love called the emotional whiteboard. We walk around all day long and we almost have this whiteboard on us where our feelings are written all over it. Whether we say it or not, when someone’s like, “Are you okay?” And they’re like, “I’m fine.” You know that person’s not fine — you can tell. And your kids can tell when you’re stressed.

One way that you can build psychological safety in your classroom is if you’re having a stressful moment, you don’t need to share all of the details of your series of unfortunate events, but what if you modeled for your students to clear that emotional whiteboard because anxiety and stress are written all over you anyway? Whether you say it or not, they’re going to think it’s about them.

So what you can say is, “Miss Angela has had a really rough morning. Raise your hand if you’ve had a rough morning before. What I’m going to do is before we get started, we’re all going to take three mindful breaths together. I need this because right now I’m so stressed out and I’m in brainstem. Brainstem is this part of your brain here.” And you can touch your neck where you are in fight, flight, or freeze. “And when you’re in that, you’re not in your frontal lobe where learning occurs. So for Miss Angela, let’s all just take some deep breaths together. Okay? I feel better. I feel like I’m already engaged.”

So what have you done? You’ve calmed your nervous system. You’ve modeled for them what to do, and you’ve built psychological safety. This so-called clearing of your emotional whiteboard builds psychological safety and it helps your students.

Another thing that I know you talk a lot about and I really love to share neuroscience-backed principles. This is something that we cognitively get, but we often don’t act on. We talk about how rest is productive; rest is not a reward for a job well done. We have better productivity, better physical health, and increased creativity when we’re rested.

But as you know, as well as teachers reading this, is that it’s really hard to shut it down at the end of the day — it’s more like a dial and not a switch. You can’t just say, I’m home now. I’m no longer thinking about work. It’s really difficult to do that, and so what I like to do is think about these mind hacks or things you can tell yourself at the end of the day to help you shut down.

In neuroscience, the default mode network is the part of your brain that works on problems when you’re rested. Have you ever had a problem and you go to sleep and you when you wake up you say, “Oh, I know what to do now.” Your brain had time without any other data coming in to work on that problem. It’s the reason good ideas come in the shower sometimes! Or maybe after the summer break, you’re like, “Here’s a new way I can work with my students.” Rest is productive, so you’re more creative and you get more of those aha moments. So we know this for a fact, it’s neuroscience.

But how do you at the end of the day, shut it off? I remember the moment when you look at your work bag on Friday and you’re like, Should I, shouldn’t I bring it home? I’ll bring it home and it’ll sit on the side of my house to haunt me from the corner and I won’t do it and I’ll feel bad about myself. Or I will do it and then I’ll feel bad about myself because I didn’t practice self-care.

How can you get out of that trap? So what I would tell myself looking at that bag is that rested, happy minds are more productive. Its science. And so I would give myself permission to leave it there.

I also love the mantra that I use with my school psychologists all the time. There’s the greatest myth, and maybe teachers have it too, where after this week things will settle down. Or I’ll just get caught up this weekend and then I’ll be caught up. But guess what? Kids are never done. So you will never be done with work. I hate to break it to you — and if you keep working until you’re done, you’ll never stop working. I love these little mantras — kids are never done, so I’ll never be done; or rested, happy minds are productive.

In our course, we talk a lot about how it’s one thing to have these rigid boundaries like, I’ll never bring work home. But then if you’re at home and you’re thinking about work, and it would make you feel better to simply finish something, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s muscling yourself into doing something that you don’t want to do. If you want t finish something at home, great — do that. But it has to be done mindfully like you’re making a choice. It’s not just a default mode.

I have kids and if I want to have downtime with them, and they want to watch some show together but my mind is on work and I just need to get that one email out — I’m not going to be able to focus on the movie. So I’ll just excuse myself and say, “I’m going to just do this one email and I’ll be right back and then I’ll be fully present.”

Stress comes from being divided and pulled in many different directions at once. It wasn’t even the stress of the email. It was that I was muscling myself to enjoy family time when I really wasn’t. I had to get that off my plate. Another mind hack that I love to share is this — is it urgent or is it anxiety? I asked myself this, when is that email urgent? Or am I just worried about it? And then it gives you a pause before responding.

How can we get those extra dopamine hits by tapping into gratitude?

When I say gratitude or in training, I say, “What’s something you’re grateful for?” I can almost see a collective eye roll. It feels heavy.

So I want to think of gratitude as what is the very best thing that’s happened today. Gratitude lives in these micro-moments. Like when your cat snuggles up on you and then a little tail brushes your face and you can’t help but nuzzle it. Or when a kid in the hallway is like, Is it my turn Dr. B? I wanna come back again. These tiny little micro-moments can literally alter your brain.

This is fascinating research — when you practice gratitude, it increases dopamine and serotonin which are happiness neurotransmitters, keeps your gray matter functioning, increases stimulation to your hypothalamus which regulates stress and boosts your immunity, and it’s really about cultivating gratitude.

Now because of biology, it’s very hard. Dr. Rick Hansen is a positive psychologist who talks about how the brain is like a Velcro for negative and Teflon for positive — we are evolutionarily pre-programmed to scan for danger. Now it’s not sabertooth tigers any more, but psychological danger.

Do they like me? Do I feel safe? Do I feel psychologically safe? Those kinds of things our brains are constantly scanning for. What I like to do to trick my brain into scanning for positive is pairing it, which is called anchors. You’re more likely to make a new habit when you do it with something that’s automatic and already a habit.

So for instance, at the end of the day, you’re in the teacher’s parking lot and you maybe just had a day to remember and not in a good way. You can click your seatbelt and say, What clicked today? Scan your brain for a moment that was good. At the end of the day, look at your to-do list and reframe it. Say, This is not my to-do list. This is a contribution list. Look at all the people I get to help. I love helping. It turns something mundane into meaningful.

As a school psychologist, and maybe you’ve read reports like this, we write really long reports. And maybe teachers have a lot of things that they have to do that feel really mundane to them. And so I tried to trick my brain into making it meaningful. I’m not writing up a psychoeducational report with statistics. I’m helping a student with dyslexia not feel dumb. You see how that makes that sort of mundane thing more meaningful?

Lastly, we want to create a culture in our schools and in our classrooms where gratitude is baked into the DNA. One of the ways that I’ve seen this done is through something called the praise prism, which I learned from Shawn Achor who is a really fantastic positive psychologist. And something that I learned from him is when you receive praise, that feels good, right? Have you ever had a smile file? Like the things that people have emailed you or little notes that kids have given you? You can create a smile file in your inbox which is another way to do it. Put all those positive parent emails and read those on a bad day. The praise prism is when you receive praise, give it back out, and it magnifies it.

For instance, someone says, “That was a really great psychoeducational report, I really felt like I understood the kid.” And I’m like, “Wow, I really couldn’t have done it without that huge survey that you filled out as a teacher. I really couldn’t have done it because I got more information about how the kid is in the classroom, which is very different than one-on-one.” And then the parent is witnessing it too. So there’s a collaboration there as well.

I’m going to give you a non-school example of the praise prism and how it helps the person giving it, it helps the person receiving it, and it helps a witness. My youngest daughter was at the toy store and saw this little toy mail truck. She’s like, “I want to give this to our mailman.” And I was like, “What? Sure!” You think about it, the mailman is in the background, you don’t really notice or think about them. Your mail just comes right? But you do notice when they don’t come.

And so she put this little toy mail truck in the mailbox and was like, “Thanks for being our mailman,” which is adorable in and of itself — she felt good, right? So we spied on the mailman as he got it, and he pulls it out of our mailbox and his face looked like he was going to cry because he was so touched. He put it on his dashboard and then wrote her a thank you note and she was delighted. And then she wrote him a thank you note, to thank him for the thank you note.

I got to witness it all. And it just started from that one little gesture — she was praising him and then he praised her, and then I witnessed it. And so in our schools and in our communities, if you can cultivate the praise prism — that micro habit — if someone praises you and you praise it back out … it creates that climate.

With gratitude and other positive habits, it feels like the more you do it, the more it becomes habitual. You get that positive sentiment override where you’re trained to look for the positive and you notice the positive. Because I think if you’re in a really low mood, that kind of stuff is hard to do. It may not happen that day. But I’ve found that I can let myself off the hook, where it’s okay to have a low mood, it’s okay to have a day where you just don’t feel like looking for the positive and you don’t feel like finding things you’re grateful for.

Then if I have a better day the next day, I can really try to cultivate those habits then. I feel like the more that I practice these kinds of habits, the more good days I have, and then the more habitual it becomes. Then those low-mood days, where it’s like, “I just can’t get myself into the mood to do this. I just want to be cynical and complain and just be in a bad mood,” are fewer and far between. 

I think the little mailbox truck is the perfect example of how something so small — if you can do that when you’re in the right mood — will cultivate so many more positive emotions so you can show up like that more often. And that, to me, is thriving. And that is co-thriving with the people around you too. That is such a sweet story.

What you mentioned is absolutely true. This is not about toxic positivity. This is not about ignoring negative feelings and just pretending like everything is great. Honor those feelings. I’m having those feelings. And at the same time, there is probably something that has happened in the day that’s positive and your brain loves patterns. Your brain will start to scan for positive when you start to put your attention on it, and you can routinize it too. I think habit formation is about routinizing.

I’m an absolute coffee fiend — coffee is my love language. I have it every morning and I don’t even need to be awake to be able to be like, that’s a habit well formed. So I pair coffee with gratitude. As it’s brewing, I think about what am I grateful for today. Your brain loves patterns. It’s called positive priming. And you may have noticed this when you’re interested in getting a new car of some brand or variety and then everywhere you look there is that car again, right? Why? Because you’re primed. Your brain is like we’re thinking about a car so let’s look for that everywhere.

Your brain will start to look for other moments of gratitude, even in the low moments. It’s really kind of exciting to think about how you can trick neuroscience into scanning for positives in really challenging circumstances. And I do want to say it’s rough — educator burnout is real. And it is not about just pretending that everything is fine, but it is about understanding yourself and what you need, tapping into your strengths, and being the change you want for your students and in the world. We know that this is one of the things that we hear all the time, but doesn’t always land —self-care isn’t selfish.

Want to learn more from Rebecca and I on co-thriving?

Let your school or district know that How to Reverse Educator Burnout is 50% off through March 10th, 2023, and purchase orders are accepted. This is relevant, practical, and enjoyable PD to help schools go beyond talking about self-care and burnout, and instead provide support to educators with practical tools.

A “groovy” new resource for reversing educator burnout

The Truth for Teachers Podcast

Our weekly audio podcast is one of the top K-12 broadcasts in the world, featuring our writers collective and tons of practical, energizing ideas. Support our work by subscribing in your favorite podcast app–everything is free!

Explore all podcast episodes
Apple Podcasts Logo Spotify Podcasts Logo Google Play Podcasts Logo

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
Browse Articles by Angela


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!