Hypervigilance in America's Schools

I founded Calma after working as a behavior interventionist for KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a nationwide network of schools in under-resourced communities. Unfortunately, I encountered many students who lacked self-regulation skills, the ability to calm themselves down when emotions began to escalate, and worse, many more students who had a hard time even calming their minds enough to simply be still, and engage in a lesson. Having worked in Psychiatry research with military soldiers suffering from PTSD in my previous job, I was very familiar with the term hypervigilance, the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat. I noticed the children I was working with were expressing similar symptoms: increased alertness, sensitivity to their surroundings, constant worry, stress and fear.


I dug into the latest research on childhood cognitive development from books like Helping Children Succeed, Thirty Million Words and Teaching with Poverty in Mind, and found that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for working memory, self-regulation and executive function doesn't just develop in a positive way on its own, but is highly susceptible, and reactive, to the environment in which the child is exposed to. Therefore, if a child is raised in a warm, loving home with a positive language environment then the prefrontal cortex should develop just beautifully. In contrast, if a child is raised in a stressful environment with negative or volatile parent talk, the development of the prefrontal cortex (and, therefore, self-regulation and executive function) is stunted, compromising the child's ability to deal with the basic stresses of life, their immune system, and their mental health. (Suskind, p. 112). The child simply will not have developed the ability to regulate him or herself emotionally or cognitively if this brain development is hindered in the first three years of life. Unfortunately, according to Paul Tough in Helping Children Succeed,  currently 51% of our nation's children are raised in such environments due to the chronic, toxic stress caused by poverty. When I read this, my mind exploded; the children I was working with didn't lack the will to self-regulate and concentrate, they lacked the cognitive ability to do so.

In addition, a child who has poorly developed self-regulation and executive function will have a hard time learning because the part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that would have allowed them to focus on a single activity for an extended period, or the ability to understand and follow directions, or the ability to cope with disappointment and frustration, or the ability to interact capably with other students, was not developed in the first three years of life (Tough, p. 29). Instead, the child experiences a constant state of hypervigilance where the brain spends all of its time in the "fight or flight" mode, and when amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight mode) is activated, the prefrontal cortex (responsible for learning) cannot be activated because the amygdala takes over. As Suskind bluntly states in her book Thirty Million Words, "if a child's mind can't, in a sense, quiet itself or concentrate on the information being presented, that information will not be absorbed by the child. It's that simple."

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Around that time, I began practicing mindfulness for my own mental health purposes while parenting a colicky baby. Mindfulness allowed me to notice my negative thoughts, and simply observe them, as opposed to getting carried away by them as they manifested physically. When I returned to the classroom, I began practicing mindfulness with all 650 K-4th grade students, and saw incredible results. It allowed children a space where they felt safe, and also gave them the time to practice letting go of any negative thoughts from something that happened previously, or that may happen in the future, and simply focus on being present in the very moment they were in. It completely changed the environment of my classroom to a safe and peaceful space where children's thoughts, minds and bodies were calm, and, therefore, ready for learning. In addition, research shows that mindfulness not only fosters skills of behavioral regulation but also builds the very part of the brain responsible for learning, the prefrontal cortex. 

At the time, I wasn't able to find many resources that both addressed the social-emotional aspects of mindfulness while also helping students understand that calming the mind was essential for effective learning. We specifically wanted the program to help children who may have experienced chronic, toxic stress at home so that they would be able to develop the skills they needed to self-manage and build positive relationships, all while growing their prefrontal cortex. Therefore, we wrote the curricula combining the latest research on social-emotional learning, psychology, mindfulness and cognitive development. Check it out by clicking here.

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Unfortunately, since 2016, when we started our work on the Calma curricula, our nation's children have experienced literally more than 100 school shootings, according to the New York Times. And, that number rises weekly, if not daily. No longer can we only be concerned that 51% of our nation's children are growing up experiencing chronic, toxic stress due to poverty, but that all of our children are experiencing chronic stress due to gun violence in schools. This is observed every day by millions of educators across the country, but was highlighted nationally when 13-year-old Benje Choucroun was called on as he sat among the White House press corps. He said his school recently had a lockdown drill, and that one thing that affected students’ mental health was “the worry about the fact that we or our friends could get shot at school.” This constant fear experienced in our schools is the same hypervigilence experienced by our nation's veterans suffering from PTSD.


I am far from certain what, if any, policy or law can be put into place to prevent these shootings from happening. But I do know that if children don't feel safe in schools, then they're not learning in their classrooms no matter how fancy the curricula, how experienced the teacher, how bright the student, or how loving the parents. We must create environments in our classrooms and schools where students feel safe enough to put down their guard, and open their minds to be able to absorb information. Below are simple, yet meaningful tips to help your students, our nation's children, feel welcome, comfortable, loved and safe in your classrooms. I heard in a training once it takes 10 positive interactions with a child to overcome one negative experience, so we've got our work cut out for us. May Calm & Loving Minds Achieve in your classrooms. 



Speak softly.

Shake hands.

Make eye contact.

Practice Mindfulness.

Greet students at the door.

Call each student by name.

Ask how they're doing & really listen.

Learn something personal about each student, and ask about it the next day.

Create time for community-building- talk to your administrators about setting this time aside every day. 

Use positive framing. Instead of "don't" do this or that, tell them what you do want to see. i.e. Instead of, "Don't run in the hallway" say, "Please walk in the hallway". Instead of, "Don't just yell out" try "Please raise your hand to get my attention."

Belly Breathe

One of Calma's Mindful Parenting Workshops focuses on Mindfulness as a preventative behavioral approach for toddlers and kids. Most of the research comes from these two books: The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline, both of which I HIGHLY recommend. We are living in a fascinating time when it comes to the brain. Due to advances in technology, we now know so much about what is happening in the brain in response to our environment, including what is happening in a child's brain before, during and after tantrums. The authors use the latest research to provide practical, firm and loving approaches to tackling these terrible tantrums based on what we now know about a child's brain. 

I, for one, was so happy to revisit this information because I am in the thick of it with my two-year-old. A couple years ago, I wrote a blog post about these two books called The Rules of Two to Tackle the Terrible, Terrible-Twos, not because I was desperate for the information for the sanity of my household, but because I was desperate to learn about tantrums and melt-down for my sanity at work. So much of their research explained exactly what I was seeing from 5-7-year-olds as a behavior interventionist. I would see kids go from being just a little bit upset because someone had stolen their pencil to knocking over desks, kicking down chairs and running out of the room and down the hallway in a matter of seconds. Nine times out of ten, once the child had calmed down, he (or she) would usually start bawling, feeling terrible for exhibiting such a reaction. He didn't want to react this way, but once he began to escalate, there was no stopping it. 


The authors, Dr. Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel Siegel explain that this type of tantrum describes a "downstairs brain" tantrum where a child completely loses his mind, literally. We've all seen it. And, the way we approach this type of tantrum is completely different than the way we approach a child who is negotiating, arguing or trying to convince because two different parts of the brain are at work in these situations. When a child loses it, the amygdala has taken over the brain, and that child cannot calm down without connection from the adult. Counting, threatening, yelling, or giving one.last.chance. will never work here because the reasoning part of the child's brain has been taken over by the part of the brain that is supposed to protect the child. Until that amygdala monster is tamed, there is no moving forward. The authors suggest remaining calm and connecting with your child by holding them, using a soothing voice, singing and breathing slowly. 

An "upstairs tantrum", on the other hand, is when a child is choosing to terrorize you. You can tell this type of tantrum because, no matter how ridiculously out-of-control he or she seems, if your child is negotiating or arguing with you, trying to manipulate or convince you, they are using their upstairs brain. They are physically able to control their emotions and body, to be logical, and make good decisions. In this case, the authors recommend: never, ever negotiate with a terrorist. This calls for firm boundaries, and a clear discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

With either type of tantrum, self-regulation skills are so important for your child. If it is an upstairs brain tantrum, calming down can prevent the tantrum from escalating to public embarrassment. If it is a downstairs brain tantrum, self-regulation is the only way a child will be able to calm down. But, the key is to practice these skills before they find themselves in either situation. Self-Regulation (being able to regulate your emotions once they begin to escalate) is hard for even most adults, and our brains are fully developed to handle such situations. I learned this the hard way as a behavior interventionist. I, just like most other adults, would tell children to "just calm down". It wasn't until I realized that calming down is a skill that has to be taught that I had much success with my challenging little friends. Imagine if we expected our kids to know how to solve math problems, or to spell without teaching them. Self-regulation skills are not something that come naturally to children; they must be taught.


Just like we practice our jump shot for the big game over and over, we must practice these skills of self-regulation consistently and often if we want it to be effective when the big emotions start to come. "Unless you incorporate a resistance plan into the hot system (the amygdala), it is unlikely to be activated when you need it most. That is because as emotional arousal and stress increase, the hot system is accelerated," says Walter Mischel in his book The Marshmallow Test, Mastering Self-Control. I, personally, have my daughter practice belly breathing with Elmo, Common and Colbie Caillat, using the below video, at least once a day. Has this practice stopped all tantrums? Nope. But, it's definitely helped. She can now take some breaths as she begins to escalate during an upstairs brain tantrum, and she's able to get back to normal faster when the amygdala monster takes over. For breathing audio for children click here or enjoy using the video below. And, on behalf of all the educators out there, thank you for taking the time to equip your child with this skill. 

Only Calm Minds Can Learn, According to Science

In May I made a split second panicked decision to cancel a trip to Mexico with my best friends and our children because my 19-month-old daughter was on day five of having absolutely insane tantrums. The one at the airport (that ultimately resulted in me returning to the airline desk in tears to retrieve my already checked luggage and carseat) was going on thirty minutes before I decided there's no way I was putting myself in a 3-foot torture chamber for the next five hours with a screaming toddler on my lap and 100's of people staring at me in frustration, or at best pity, no matter how much I craved Mexican culture, the beach, making memories with good friends and relaxation, which I clearly wasn't going to get. After that incident, I began obsessively consuming books with titles like, "No Drama Discipline", "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" and "How to Deal with the Terrible Twos". Thank God for Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought" feature. In all these books, I noticed one common theme, the same theme I saw in every educational book or training I participated in as a behavior interventionist: Only Calm Minds Can Learn. 


It doesn't matter if you're teaching mathematics in a classroom, or teaching little Suzie that she doesn't get a candy every time you check out at the grocery store because its bad for her teeth. A mind that is worried, upset, frustrated or angry can not physiologically absorb information. When we're feeling this way, the part of the brain called the amygdala hijacks the rest of the brain, and stress hormones flood the body, meaning that the part of the brain that allows us to take in and process information (the prefrontal cortex) is not fully functioning because its been taken over by the amygdala. This is why it is so important to calm the mind before the brain can learn. 

In the book No Drama Discipline the authors explain that from its inception, the word discipline has meant "to teach", and remind us that the goal of discipline should not be to punish, but to teach the correct behavior. Punishing without teaching will not foster the correct behavior in future situations. Luckily, parenting books are chock-full of incredibly effective and easy little techniques to use with your children to calm them down. (My personal favorite, and what I found most effective with my daughter, is to remove the tantruming toddler from the situation, then get below their eye level; set them on a counter, or kneel down to speak to them. This removes the authoritative feel, and provides connection for the child when they need it most.)


Unlike these parenting books, I found almost no strategies to use in the classroom to create a calm learning environment when I was an educator. Of course when you're trying to calm one child, similar techniques as found in parenting books can be applied, i.e. connecting, removing the child from the situation, breathing, counting, etc. But, how could I make sure the minds of 20+ children are calm in order for them to learn? This was of particular concern to me working with students from inner-city households because poverty is the number one predictor for stress in children, and high levels of stress hinder the development of a child's prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain mentioned above that controls our intellectual functions, according to Paul Tough in his most recent book Helping Children Succeed (p. 15). Dr. Dana Suskind author of Thirty Million Words says, "If a child's mind can't, in a sense, quiet itself or concentrate on the information being presented, that information will not be absorbed by the child. It's that simple. The result is not only curtailed learning at that moment, but a poor prognosis for future learning, regardless of the child's potential IQ." (Suskind, p. 112). Yikes! 

I had been practicing mindfulness regularly, and noticed that I was not only much calmer, but my thinking was clearer, too. So clear that I told my mindfulness expert, Dr. Bira that I really, honestly, with all of my heart and research from experts believe mindfulness is the key to education because it helps students' minds quiet and the part of the brain that allows them to learn (the prefrontal cortex) is ready to absorb information. We can create all the fanciest academic curricula in the world, but if our students' minds aren't calm and focused, then they're not learning it. Dr. Bira agreed, but said, "I don't know how to work with kids. You've got to do this." It was then that Calma was born, and with the oversight from Dr. Bira, focus groups of very honest kids, and teacher feedback we wrote a 5 week, 5 lesson curricula with grade-specific guided mindfulness audio in order provide teachers the tools they need to calm the minds of their students in order to grow their brains. And, it is amazing to see calm and loving minds achieve. 


Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Empathy

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Empathy

Empathy may seem like a "soft" skill, one that's not very important to acquire, or teach our children in order to be successful in school or life. But, new research on the topic shows that empathy is far from "soft", and actually plays an integral role in predicting kids' current and future happiness, success and overall well-being, according to Dr. Borba's book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Research shows that having the ability to empathize affects our heath, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity faster. In fact, Harvard Business Review named it one of the "essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance". And, just like all character traits, it is a skill that can be taught, learned, cultivated and lived.

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Gratitude

Practicing gratitude might sound fluffy, unimportant, or unnecessary, but hard science shows there are many benefits to having a "gratitude attitude" (sorry, I had to). Having a daily gratitude practice, like keeping a gratitude journal or writing daily "thank you" notes increases your energy levels, improves relationships, and makes you happier and healthier, according to science.

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Focused Attention

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Focused Attention

I once heard at a positive behavior training led by Dan St. Romain that a child's attention span = their age + or - two minutes, up to the age of 14. This means a five-year-old kindergarten student can realistically only pay attention for a whopping 3-7 minutes. An eighth grade fourteen-year-old middle school student can give you 12-16 minutes before he or she checks out. Add in hours of screen time full of fast-paced entertainment, and a child's ability to focus in the classroom decreases, while their need for loud, animated, rapid and exciting entertainment increases. This leaves teachers to fight a losing battle, vying for the attention of 25-30 students while delivering lesson plans of minimal entertainment for more than quadruple the amount of time a child is actually able to pay attention. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Stress Reduction

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Stress Reduction

Have you ever taken a shower, and when drying off thought, "Did I even wash my hair?" because you were so focused on rehearsing that crucial conversation you are supposed to have with your boss that day? Or have you ever driven somewhere thinking about the millions of things you have to do just to arrive at your destination, and realize you don't remember the drive, that you were on complete autopilot? That's ok. Me too. It's not your fault, or mine. Our brains are preconditioned to stress over the past, or worry about the future, instead of focusing on the present moment. Research shows us that this stress is really bad for our health, but also that there's a lot we can do to change the brains we were born with, even into adulthood. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Self-Control

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Self-Control

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent or teacher say, "He just needs to learn to calm down, control his temper, not talk back, stop yelling, or not hit his sister when he gets mad." In other words, he just needs to learn self-control. Expecting kids to just learn self-control is like expecting them to just learn math, but actually even harder because the part of the brain that learns math is developed, but the part of the brain that would help them calm down, the prefrontal cortex, doesn't completely mature until the early twenties. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids

I've mentioned before in previous posts that I started practicing mindfulness, or mindful meditation, back in March when I stumbled upon Dr. Lindsay Bira's meet-up group. (See the video below about mindfulness if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) Mindfulness, again, isn't some weird, fluffy hippie stuff; it is research-based science that proves that you can train your brain to have better focus, attention and emotional regulation. After attending a couple drop-in mindfulness classes guided by Dr. Bira, I began to notice physical and mental benefits: my stress/anxiety level had decreased drastically, I felt like I could think more clearly (no more mommy brain!), and, overall I was calmer and happier. Knowing I would be returning to work as an inner-city charter school educator in the not so distant future, I began thinking about how practicing brief mindfulness techniques in the classroom could benefit the staff, but especially my (K-4) students who seemed to lack the basic ability to focus, emotional and behavioral regulation, and self-control. Coincidentally, Dr. Bira had recently trained an elementary school staff in mindfulness practices, and was happy to train ours. 

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I was talking to my BFF about her son who is in his “terrible twos”. Really, there’s nothing terrible about him; he is wonderful, but he is beginning to express himself, and sometimes his little feelings are angry or stressed. She said to me, “I know it sounds silly, but I am teaching him to just breathe.” I didn’t know how to articulate it then, but after gathering my thoughts (a.k.a. researching what others had to say about breathing as a calming strategy) I was able to write down how powerful simple breathing techniques are for kids because they actually aren’t simple, at all. Regulating your emotions, or self-regulation, is one of the most challenging things to learn for any of us, but according to James Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, an important determinant of a child’s success. Without self-regulation and executive function, there is little chance of achievement in children or, anyone! (Suskind, p. 110).

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