Reflections on the Berry Street Education Model: Part 2

It has now been over a month since completing the Berry Street Education Model course. It stands as one of the most valuable professional development opportunities I have had to date. A huge credit to Tom Brunzell and the education team at the Berry Street Childhood Institute.

Hundreds of strategies were offered during the course but I’m going to focus my reflection on three big revelations I had over the four days that I feel have the potential to shift the paradigm for teachers who are working with vulnerable young people in mainstream school settings.

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Before you begin reading…

Please note that these are my personal reflections. I strongly suggest checking out the rigorous evidence-base that forms the Berry Street Education Model as a next step if you’re interested in looking deeper into any of the ideas I touch on in these posts:

Revelation number two: The importance of co-regulation

My second revelation puts the focus back on teachers and how we bring ourselves to the classroom every day.

Evidence suggests that teachers who are authentic and present at school are more positively received by their students, leading to higher engagement and better learning outcomes in the classroom.

The Berry Street Education Model imparts the importance of teachers modelling to students a calm, confident, well-regulated adult. Drawing on the science of human development, and the trauma-informed practices I touched on in my previous post, Berry Street provides teachers with some strategies to bring their best selves to the classroom.

“As much as trauma has opened up things, I think the other very important arm of scientific discovery is how the human connection is being looked at scientifically now and what really happens when two people see each other, when two people respond to each other, when people mirror each other, when two bodies move together in dancing and smiling and talking.” – Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk

Mirror neurons: learning to be

From the first months of life, babies look to adults to learn how to be in the world. They take on subtle social and emotional cues, observing how adults give and receive love, build relationships, and handle stressful situations, among many other things. During these formative years, parents literally build a picture of the world for their children through the mindsets, attitudes, actions, and expressions they exhibit on a daily basis.

Specialised cells in the brain, called mirror neurons, are responsible for this very deliberate process of copying and replicating adult influences. The wonderful thing about mirror neurons is that, as adults, we can model prosocial behaviour for our kids from an early age. The not so good thing… our kids also are likely to co-opt some of our bad habits – including those things we do without thinking.  

For an insight into how mirror neurons work in action, watch the ‘Still Face Experiment’ put together by Dr. Edward Tronick from the University of Massachusetts at Boston:

What this video shows us is that babies can become distressed quickly when they are unable to mirror the social and emotional cues of an adult. Yet they can repair just as fast when a warm, caring adult comes back into their life. When children aren’t given a chance at a young age to soothe their distress, trauma can settle in, setting the child up to believe that they are unloveable, shameful and incompetent.

“It’s a little like the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is that normal stuff that goes on, that we all do with our kids. The bad is when something bad happens, but the infant can overcome it. The ugly is when you don’t give the child any chance to get back to the good. There’s no reparation and they’re stuck in that ugly situation.” – Dr Edward Tronick

Teachers and co-regulation

Some of our kids come to school with their minds stuck in an ugly situation. While our school-aged children are no longer babies, their mirror neurons are still active as they continue to construct the world around them. This means that a teacher can be an important therapeutic influence at school – and a source of ‘co-regulation’.

Berry Street describes co-regulation as the pre-verbal system of communication that supports a child to move from emotional dependence to self-regulation. Practicing a ‘zen mind’, for instance, models emotional regulation by responding calmly and empathetically to a child experiencing a trigger. Going for a walk side-by-side with a student when having a challenging conversation can also activate co-regulation through rhythmic and repetitive movements – stepping and breathing together.

This video, put together by the Atlanta Speech School, is a wonderful demonstration of how harnessing the benefits of co-regulation can transform a child’s experience at school:

Becoming our best selves

Every teacher knows that it is no easy task to show up every day as our best selves in a context where the professional teaching workforce is increasingly experiencing the effects of burnout. Yet, there are some ways we can give ourselves a real chance at becoming our best.

Intention setting at the start of every day can help us to purposefully reimagine our daily routines. Rather than solely relying on long ‘to do’ lists we can prime our day in a more balanced way, asking:

  • Who are we being? — Thinking about our inner worlds of thoughts and feelings. Who is the human being that shows up to do the doing?
  • How and why are we relating? — Thinking about the interpersonal world of relationships. How can I best come together with others in ways that are both meaningful and mutually-beneficial?
  • What are we doing? — Thinking about how we can come together and do the things we need to do. How can we co-create something we couldn’t do on our own?
Image, ‘Being, Relating, Doing’ by Ash Buchanan

To reset our physiological compass and prime our bodies to model a calm, confident, well-regulated person (remembering a large part of co-regulation is preverbal) we can practice a ‘present, centred, grounded’ meditation, asking:

  • Present — How much of us is here today? What may be distracting us?
  • Centred — Where is our centre? And what could throw us off balance?
  • Grounded — Where is our anchor today? What is giving us stability?

The science of human development is a beautiful, complex thing. For all the focus on pedagogy, planning, and assessment, I often wonder why we are not focussing more on building the psychological resources that underpin highly effective teaching. The professional significance of co-regulation — and the importance of priming ourselves every day as calm, confident, well-regulated adults — cannot be understated. Berry Street puts teachers and students on the pathway to higher levels of engagement and wellbeing at school.

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