No, we're not doing brain research at Regional School Unit 13. But there is a connection.

The connection is that brain research can tell us a lot about our students, as it does the rest of us. Most importantly, it's starting to tell us more about why some students succeed and others don't.

And we can use this research to make real and lasting change in our schools.

Change for struggling students, change in the classroom, change for teachers, and change in the entire school culture.

Because if we address the needs of struggling students accurately and adequately, we help everybody.

Any teacher can tell you that when they are in front of a class of challenging students, with poor attentions skills, disruptive behavior, and learning difficulties, they're stressed, and the entire classroom is stressed.

But that's where we're coming from in this new brain research, or the role of "stress" in a student's life. It's research that tells us that chronic and toxic stress in a child's life greatly impacts his or her ability to learn.

Just recently I was listening to a story called "Back to School" on the national radio program "This American Life," and it floored me. As a clinician in mental health in our area and as a school board member, nothing made more sense to me and merged so well the fields of mental health and education like what I heard here.

In this program, they focused on a recently published book by Paul Tough, an author and writer for the New York Times. His book is called "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character," and it has amazing information that we can utilize in RSU 13.

He draws upon research about the brain, the conditions of learning, and the diminished learning capacity of students who have been through toxic, traumatic, or chronic stress. These are kids growing up in extreme poverty, or experiencing serious abuse and neglect, or perhaps living in violent and chaotic homes. Or perhaps all three. Unfortunately, it happens far too much.

As they reported:

When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids' brains. And especially affected in this situation is a specific part of the brain that's called the prefrontal cortex, which is where a lot of these non-cognitive skills happen — self-control and impulse control, certain kinds of memory and reasoning. Skills they call executive functions. If you're in a constant state of emergency, that part of your brain just doesn't develop the same.

In a nutshell, chronic and toxic stress for these kids is like being chased by a bear in the woods, but the bear never goes away. In their brains, it's like being chased and living with that fear 24 hours a day. When fear is that high, reasoning skills and self control don't have a chance. Is there any surprise they can't learn at school?

Like a doctor on the show said, how is a student supposed to sit quietly in English class when they and their brains are on a constant state of alert?

And this is the main point of this brain research. A large segment of every classroom and of every student body is living under toxic and chronic stress, and they probably have been for most of their lives. They come to school and everybody expects them to learn like other students. But they can't. In fact, this research tells us their brains literally can't do it.

These are issues probably a lot of teachers know already. And they are issues most people in mental health know intuitively. Now we have evidence, or excellent research to back it up. And that means we can use it in RSU 13.

I don't know exactly how we can use it at the moment, and I know we have a lot of excellent behavioral programs and outstanding student teachers and paraprofessionals helping these kids right now.

But I think with this research and some of the interventions already applied around the country, we can go further and not only help the students in need but also our teachers and and the entire classroom experience. An attentive classroom and an engaged student body is good for learning across the board.

Please stay tuned, and please think about these issues as we look for answers. We need everybody's good ideas, and we need everybody's commitment to making this change.

We talk a lot about scores in our district, and the government and politicians always wants data.

Well, it looks like our data would drastically improve if we understood how brain research can help us here in RSU 13.

Loren Andrews is a Regional School Unit 13 board member.