Blog #3. Neuroscience and our PRU students: the how, what and why?


At the conclusion of my last blog, I stated that the activity of asking students what they would expect to see when the cover was removed from images of the brain in different emotional states would lead on to the next session of introducing neurochemicals and the effect that they have in our bodies.

However . . . having reflected on the last session, I realised that students were really struggling with the vocabulary needed to describe the sensations they would expect to feel when getting anxious. Further, I realised that students need to feel these sensations in order to describe them, and importantly, feel the sensations that are individual to themselves.

For this reason, I did not blog last week but have included the two related sessions into this third blog.

We started with the students being given 32 cards of adjectives to describe possible sensations. There were also some blanks included for them to use synonyms or add their own:


The idea of this activity was to keep increasing the anxiety levels, but with the proviso that any student could stop at any time.

We then read and discussed the adjectives eg. queasy, nauseous, and where in the body we might experience these sensations.

It was then time for an activity to attempt to raise anxiety levels.

Firstly, I showed the group two boxes, one coloured red and one green (thank you to Michelle, @shellb1207 for sharing the safe box idea with me).The boxes contained exactly the same items: just shredded paper, a part filled balloon and some pipe cleaners:


The boxes were coloured red and green just for my own curiosity: would more boys choose the ‘riskier’ red box than girls? As I say, hardly scientific, but as it happens, only one girl chose red but 50% of the boys chose red.

We then blindfolded each student and made the sound ovf moving some chairs and tables. At the same time, the students were constantly asked to think about sensations they were feeling and where they were feeling them.

The idea of this activity was to keep increasing the anxiety levels, but with the proviso that any student cowuld stop at any time.

The students were then lined up and asked to put their hand on the shoulder of the person in front. I guided the front student around the supposed ‘obstacle’ course, while again asking them to think about sensations.

The students were then asked to remove their hand and were given verbal instructions in the form of turning left or right and how many steps to take.

I then guided each student’s hand to the box they had chosen and asked them to feel around inside. With the more confident students, as the students put their hand into the box, my colleague burst a balloon . . .          x

With the activity completed, the students chose relevant vocabulary cards from those discussed earlier and pinned them to the parts of their body where they had felt the sensations.


My intention was to personalise and individualise the experience; they were able to see that not everybody felt the same sensations, in the same way or in the same part of the body.

We took photographs of each student and gave it them; this will hopefully be a reminder that when they start to feel these sensations, their levels of anxiety are increasing and that they will be able to recognise these in the future. They can then use techniques that will be learned in future sessions to decrease the effect before it reaches intolerable levels.

The next session focused on why students feel the sensations they felt in the previous session; the basic neuroscience behind feelings of anxiety, being afraid, angry etc

We started by looking again at the triune brain (as we have in every session); we then focused on the amygdala and its role in ‘threat awareness’.


I used the analogy of a battleship’s radar to assist understanding of the amygdala by firstly looking at short YouTube clips of a ship’s radar and radar screen:




Continuing the analogy I asked what would be the (battleship’s) options if its radar detected a threat? After some thought, the groups came up with the answers of ‘fighting or running away’.

This provided the perfect opportunity to introduce the term ‘Fight or Flight’ (I have decided at this point not to mention the freeze response) and how it relates to our own ‘radar system’ – the amygdala.

It was now time for Ed the torso (so named by students because his ‘ead keeps falling off!) to make a re-appearance (he was last seen with the ‘sensations’ post-it notes a couple of weeks ago).

Ed is being used to assist learning the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA Axis). It’s important at this point to emphasise to readers that I am only outlining the basics to students.

The fight / flight process was outlined to students as:


This was a lot easier to explain to students by pointing and gesturing!

However, the important part of explaining this to students is not so much the HPA axis (and especially remembering names such as hypothalamus) but the role of the hormones and chemicals that are released by the adrenal medulla (glands) in preparing the body for flight or fight. This offers an explanation for the sensations that students described earlier.

We focused on just three of these chemicals:


I explained that although we need a small amount of these stress hormones to function eg. digestive system, strengthen the immune system, an overload can result in ‘flipping your lid’ or crippling anxiety.


For adolescents the effect is amplified to an even greater level: during adolescence the amygdala grows, so heightening their state of threat alert. However, at the same time, the pre-frontal cortex which amongst other things, controls our impulse control and decision making, is temporarily reduced by pruning.

No wonder teenagers fly off the handle so easily!

Pre-frontal Cortex

Cortisol is often called the toxic neurochemical because of the debilitating affect it can have on us physically and mentally if too high an amount is always present in our systems. Following a dramatic increase in anxiety or the activation of a fight or flight response, cortisol can remain in the system for up to 16 hours. This means that they are constantly on ‘high alert’ for potential threats (the window of tolerance will follow in the next blog).

The implications of this for us in the education system is huge; if an adolescent (or child) has experienced, or is experiencing, adversity in their lives eg. at home on a regular basis, cortisol is almost always present in high amounts in their system. Even if adversity is not present, if for example, an argument occurs at home, with friends or school, it is likely that high levels of cortisol will still be present the following day. Again, they will be constantly on high alert and the simplest (perceived) action can trigger an overwhelming reaction.

Something for us all to bear in mind when ‘dealing’ with that stroppy teenager.

Blog #2: Introducing neuroscience to our PRU students

wk2 4

So, continuing from my first blog last week on why I believe our PRU students should have a basic knowledge and understanding of neuroscience:

I decided that the first session should focus on introducing the triune brain as this will be referred to throughout all of the sessions. However, as soon as the word ‘neuroscience appeared on the smart TV as a title, there was a bit of murmuring . . . “we’ve already done science” . . . .”I’m not doing it again!” . .

So, after eventually convincing students that I wasn’t trying to con them into doing an extra science lesson (they enjoy science, but by their very nature they are alert to being duped – and besides, I am not a science teacher!). “Clever tactic” I could see in their narrowed eyes as we warily (them) and enthusiastically (me) continued.

Interestingly, when the subtitle, “why we feel, think and behave the way we do” appeared, the room was suddenly more receptive. I truly believe that most of the pupils at our PRU do not choose to behave the way they sometimes do, and most certainly do not choose to be constantly anxious and/or hypervigilant.

We started by looking at a 3D foam model of a brain:( When I asked “what do you think this is for, what does it do?”, I expected answers related to intelligence and being ‘brainy’. However, in all of the groups, not one student said this; they obviously have some previous knowledge which is a good starting point and mentioned that it controls breathing, movement and is ‘connected to nerves’. But neither did one student mention the word ‘emotion’ or any words connected with emotion such as happiness, anger etc.

I then introduced the triune brain and the basic functions of the cortex (thinking, decision making, impulse control etc), the limbic system (our ‘emotional brain’) and the brain stem (controls vital functions such as breathing, heartbeat, temperature). I had to re-iterate at this point that this was not a science lesson as it was distinctly starting to resemble one!

To reinforce each system we looked at:

  • A crocodile brain image (a reptile brain) and asked the students to think about its function in relation to what a crocodile uses its brain for.


They came to the conclusion that this can loosely be associated with the human brain stem in that its function is mainly about survival, smell and controlling vital functions.

To illustrate the limbic system we did the same with an image of a canine brain and came to the conclusion that a dog is limbic system dominant ie. in relation to its cortex and brain stem.

Finally, with the human brain image, the students worked out that as the cortex is so much thicker than in other animals, this must be the ‘thinking’ part of the brain.

In addition to the value of using their deduction skills, these images will hopefully assist students in recalling the function of each part of the brain, even if they cannot remember what it is called.

I then gave time for students to explore more of the brain, to identify other parts such as the left and right hemisphere and the corpus callosum. There is a fabulous website I discovered which not only shows the brain in 3D, but additionally enables students to rotate the brain and view only certain areas in the context of the whole. Have a go, its great fun!      we



And so onto emotions. As an introduction I asked students to think of a stressful situation they might have encountered or could encounter (care has to be taken here as many of our students may have experienced trauma in their lives (ACEs) and I did not want them to recall these). They were then asked to think about the physical sensations they might experience: what they feel like and where in the body these sensations occur. As I want writing to be kept to a minimum, we used a model of a human torso and asked students to write a sensation on a post-it and stick it to the relevant part of the body. Here are some images of the results:

week2     3 2

The vocabulary used is mostly basic and includes ‘breathless’, ‘shaky’, ‘pumps fast’, ‘dry [mouth]’, ‘achey parts’, ‘drops’ and ‘butterflies’. The intention is to expand on this vocabulary and give students more words they can use to describe and recognise sensations, which as well as expanding vocabulary, will in itself hopefully reduce frustration in that they will be able to use words to themselves and others to describe what is happening (it wraps language around an abstract sensation).

We continued this session by starting to create a model brain that we will add to every week. The intention is to reinforce learning of the triune brain, but also has the additional value of having to co-operate in pairs or small groups and the therapeutic value of art and using natural clay (with its benefits of negative ions).

a   b c


An accidental side benefit was that I could only find some bubble wrap to cover the table and many pupils found popping this relieved any anxiety they were feeling over the task!

To conclude the session we checked our learning using an image of scans of the brain in four different emotional states: anger, happiness, sadness and fear. The parts of the brain that are ‘active’ are coloured red and those least active coloured purple. These four images were covered and students were asked what they would expect to see eg. the brain stem red, the cortex purple. We discussed and uncovered each in turn:

covered    uncovered2

This activity prompted much reasoned discussion and debate. Most students used the technical vocabulary (those that didn’t soon picked it up from the others) and so this activity served well as not just a ‘check’ but also a peer-to-peer learning activity.

It will also be a useful lead into next week’s session where we will start to link the brain with emotions and sensations by introducing brain ‘chemicals’, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response.


Blog #1: Why our PRU students and staff need to know the basics of neuroscience


Let me start by saying that these series of weekly posts are not intended to be academic in nature but are simply a description written in everyday language of an initiative that I have thought about for over a year and have finally got around to putting into practice!

The initiative? Exploring neuroscience with students at our Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) who are aged between 11 to 16 years.

As staff at our PRU, we receive extensive CPD that obviously focuses on challenging behaviour. Recently this has included Attachment Training (kindly provided by @GwentAttachment) through to ongoing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (kindly provided by @acehubwales). . .and everything in between!

Our PRU has always been big on the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) and this has successfully been at the heart of our approach for many years. And of course there is PSE.

Whilst SEAL has a huge impact on areas such as developing empathy, there has not been anything in place for students to understand why they might feel emotions such as anxiety, anger, depression etc. Why they feel what can be frightening sensations in their body and why they might ‘flip their lids’ (more on that in later blogs).

Further, staff themselves generally have scant knowledge about neuroscience, and while being trained to de-escalate possible outbursts, I feel that having knowledge about what is happening in a student’s brain and body and the physical sensations both being felt by students and observed by staff, can only assist in this vital area of our work. Rather than have a marathon CPD session with staff, I have decided to try the strategy of colleagues learning alongside students in these sessions.

Although the above is an important rationale, the number one priority for us is for students to feel safe; to feel safe both physically and emotionally. Our students have been either permanently excluded or were at risk of permanent exclusion. Most have experienced trauma in their lives and some continue to experience difficulties on some level in their daily lives. Some may have been regularly told that they are worthless, useless, ‘thick’, naughty (or worse!) and the blame is laid firmly at their door; everything associated with their behaviour and the behaviour of others is their fault. Consequently they are almost always in a constant state of ‘high alert’ (more on the ‘Window of Tolerance’ in later blogs) and it does not take much to trigger an extreme reaction. This also includes the’ threat’ of academic work, perhaps from having experienced regular failure in the past, and also having huge gaps in their knowledge and skills from either having been in ‘internal exclusion’ (what an oxymoron!), truanting or being placed in ineffective alternative provision.

To be clear, I’m not talking about ‘low level disruption’ here, (although there is a possible explanation for this through neuroscience which I’ll touch on in the future), but extreme outbursts of anger, possibly involving violence to self and/or others and extreme levels of anxiety The sensations in the body must be terrifying and ‘what is wrong with me’ thoughts occupy their waking moments, which is probably most of the time as sleep is another associated difficulty. These are further compounded by the type of remarks mentioned in the paragraph above.

So, in a nutshell, this is why I decided to introduce neuroscience into our PRU . We have just started our first sessions (one a week for each group) which are proving to be engaging for both students and colleagues. I’ll share what we are actually doing in these sessions starting next week . . .