Social Emotional Learning & Neuroscience with Dr. Lori Desautels (Ep 40)

March 08, 2022/ By

Dr. Lori Desautels has been an Assistant Professor at Butler University since 2016 where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate programs in the College of Education. Lori was also an Assistant Professor at Marian University in Indianapolis for eight years where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium. Currently, the Symposium is in its eighth year, and now sponsored by Butler University College of Education. Through these conferences and symposiums, educators, parents, and the community learn to implement the tools to help our students be successful and feel a sense of purpose and connection as they walk into their classrooms. Because of her work, Lori has been able to attract the foremost experts in the fields of educational neuroscience, trauma and adversity, which significantly grow the conference each year.

Lori’s passion is engaging students through the application of neuroscience as it applies to attachment, regulation, and educator brain state, and teaching students and staff about their neuroanatomy, thus integrating Mind Brain Teaching learning principles and strategies into her coursework at Butler. Lori has conducted brain institutes and workshops throughout the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, and Dubai on Mind Brain Teaching and Learning. She has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain.

Lori is co-author of the social and emotional competencies for the State of Indiana published in January 2018. She also has authored a series of articles for “Inside the School,” an online publication providing strategies to administrators and educators alike. Lori’s articles are published in Edutopia, Brain Bulletin, and Mind Body Spirit international magazine. She also was published in the Brain Research Journal for her work in the fifth-grade classrooms during a course release partnering with the Washington Township Schools in Indiana. Lori continues her work in the Pre-K classrooms and is currently co-teaching in fifth grade and working with St. Mary’s Early Childhood Center in Indianapolis for the second consecutive year. Lori has met with hundreds of school districts across the country, equating to more than 60,000 educators, with much more work to be done! Follow her on Twitter @desautels_phd and visit her website at

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts


Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. Today's guest is Dr. Lori Desautels, and she is an expert in neuroscience, and she is going to share with all of us the effects of the study of neuroscience in the classroom. Now, Lori is an assistant principal at Butler University in both undergrad and grad programs. She's the author of four books and is back in the classroom, teaching these practices to students and educators. Hope enjoy the episode.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Lori, I am so super excited to have you on the show today. Thanks for being a part.

Dr. Lori Desautels: Nathan, I'm really excited to share with you and thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. I have been a big fan of yours for a while, a big follower of yours for a while. I completely, as the listeners know, I'm a big kind of nerd when it comes to educational research. And so the fact that you're on the show today makes me super privileged to be able to have this conversation. I'd love for our listeners to kind of hear about what you're up to because you're in a very unique role right now, because not only are you a professor of education and an expert in neuroscience, you also are in the classroom, which is a very unique role. So share a little bit kind of about what you're up to right now?

Dr. Lori Desautels: Well, thank you for sharing that. And I would love to be able to explain a little bit of what that looks like. So seven years ago, when I was teaching at Marian University here in Indianapolis, I was teaching undergraduate and teaching graduate courses, and we were just beginning to delve into brain aligned work, which now as I understand this, it really operationalizes social and emotional learning. And so at that time I was going into schools, I'm a former special education teacher and a school counselor. And so part of that role was to observe first and second year sped teachers.

Dr. Lori Desautels: And as I would move through the days and going in and out of schools for 20 minutes, 40 minutes, I realized that I was not walking the walk. And it had been so many years since I had been really at the ground level, being in the classroom, interfacing with students. And there was a hole in this work and it was a gap. And so I went to our university and I asked our dean at Marian, if I could return to the classroom, I actually wanted to go back full-time for a semester and to co-teach. But that wasn't possible, but I was given a course release. And so for the last seven years, now that I'm at Butler, our dean, Dr. Ena Shelley at the time had the same vision for this work. And so she was very open to me returning to the classroom.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So I was given the course release. And so for the last seven years, I have been in large public school districts. We have several here in the Indianapolis area and I literally am co-teaching. I've been in every grade level, including early childhood. I was at St. Mary's Early Childhood Center for the past three years, along with 7th and 8th grade. So I was doing both.

Dr. Lori Desautels: And then this year, I am in a large district, Lawrence Township, in a school that is 1st-6th grade. And they're a struggling school in that many of the students come from significant poverty and significant adversity. So I cannot tell you Nathan, how this has changed this work for me, because two mornings a week, or a morning and an afternoon, I am back in the classroom seeing and applying this research in ways that build into their content. I'm making mistakes, I've got great moments, I have horrible moments. It's just a mixed bag, but that's the beauty of this work, is that I can go into schools and districts around the country and around the world and actually share this application of this research, that's not out of a lab or a textbook.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So I just came home right before this interview today from my 3rd and 4th grade classes. And with COVID happening right now, it's extremely challenging for families, for children and for educators. So our cases are higher than they've ever been. So we are constantly reminding... The kids have been fabulous, but reminding them to put their mask above their nose and they're exhausted from doing it, and especially if they have a stuffy nose or they're irritated. But I cannot tell you, it's just so exciting. Today they wrote an advertisement. They actually took a deep look into their own brain and bodies, and they pulled out strengths today, and they pulled out just anything that they felt they could advertise about their brains. And it really ties into so much of the content that they're learning.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, thank you for sharing all of the amazing things you're doing right now. I love to see the research work in tandem with the kind of practitioner based work that you have in the classroom. It's obvious that passion is exuding from your voice right now. So it's obvious that you truly have that heart of a teacher that truly cares about your students. And I think it is such a unique time that you're able to apply your research, you're able to conduct research, but in a way that you're able to kind of share with your students, you have a relationship with your students. I know you do a lot of social-emotional work.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And as a side note too, when we're recording this episode, you mentioned the pandemic, we are middle of November and we're at the highest number of cases per day. So for those of you listening at a later date, that's kind of where we are right now. So we have no clue what's happening, unfortunately, with how this is going to work, but we know that there are many challenges. And obviously Lori, you are doing the best that you can with the current struggles and challenges.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So what I'm wondering is that as a educator and as a kind of neuroscience expert, we have really been, only in really the last 200 years, have we been able to from literature review and from research studies been able to kind of get a picture for how a brain science is connected to learning. And I think sometimes we get really ambitious and we say, we know this exactly about learning. And then later on, we'll find out that, well, maybe it's a little different than we thought. Like there are some foundational things I think we can be pretty sure about. Like, we know that there is a hierarchy of needs. And we know that those are aspects that have to be solid and foundationally met before we can dive into higher cognitive thinking.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So I think we would say, it's safe to say we know that, but I think there's so much that we're still discovering. So all of that is [inaudible 00:07:57] this question is kind of based on what you were researching about neuroscience and thinking, and then whenever you're able to give back into the classroom, did you have any kind of surprises or aha moments where you had to kind of reconsider what you thought you knew about thinking and learning?

Dr. Lori Desautels: Well, I love your question. And first of all, you're exactly correct. We know so little about the brain and yet we've come so far. And that is what is challenging about this research is that it is 24/7 for me, because I want to make sure that I am sharing the latest research. And also we need to be very careful as you also alluded to, that there's much that we don't know, but safety and connection are the two conditions that we know will not change. And those are brain aligned conditions that if we, as human beings do not feel safe in our environments. And if we do not feel felt, and we don't learn. And so there are structural and functional happenings in the brain that create those conditions of safety and connection.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So one of the surprises, and it was a great surprise when I returned to the classroom is that the students absolutely love learning the science beneath their behaviors. And I cannot emphasize this enough, because we in the educational arena are often very quick to classify or to label to want to fix. And we really limit the possibilities that neuroplasticity, which is the brain's beautiful ability to change structurally and functionally with every experience. But those conditions of labeling and classifying and ruling can really stagnate our sense of mastery and autonomy and purpose.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So what the big fabulous surprise is, is that kids feel relieved and they feel empowered when we start to talk about their brain and body states rather than behavior. And this is a big part of this applied educational neuroscience framework. We are moving away from talking about behaviors, even in 3rd grade, 2nd grade, kids already walk in with preconceived notions, with values, with belief systems where they deep down within may not be conscious, maybe it is, they know how people see them, they know their labels, and sometimes they will give up before they even give it a go because they come in with these notions that have been a part of their growing experiences.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So the resistance for this framework, as it builds into discipline is not from kids. They just love it. So we are using a lot of applications that ask the students to really self-reflect and more than that check in, and these are what we call touch points. So they're talking about, "Boy, I came in today in my prefrontal cortex. I'm feeling pretty peaceful today. I'm feeling content." Or, "I'm feeling open, curious." Or this morning I had a sweet little 4th grader and I could tell her posture, her non-verbal was just shouting at me. And she went over, didn't say a word to me. And she took her cardboard brain off the, we have a chart and she moved it below the line. And I said, "You know what, sweetie, if you want to talk about it, I'm right here." And so it really is empowering for the students to be able to have these choices and to be able to really focus on the science, and we're integrating it into the content. So they are brilliant geniuses when it comes to learning this discipline.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Lori, this is fascinating. I always thought that I was kind of just extremely cerebral and just kind of way too nerd it out on these. But it's fascinating to see that a lot of kids respond positively to knowing the connections between the brain chemistry and those kind of neuropathways and their mindsets and how they respond, and also how their emotions are tied to the structures in their brain and those pathways. I think that's fascinating because I feel many of us were probably raised in an environment of compliance. And we knew that this is how you behave because my teacher said so. Or this is how you behave, because I will get a negative reinforcement if I do X, Y, or Z. But what you're saying is that allowing students to understand those connections, they're able to... I'm going to throw out a word here, self-regulate, and able to adjust a mindset or maybe not even adjust, just recognize, "I'm feeling this way because of this." And they can kind of tie it back to an experience or a source. Am I correct on these assumptions here? Am I in the right [crosstalk 00:13:43]

Dr. Lori Desautels: And what I love about this, what just brings tears to my eyes is that for many of our children and adolescents, when they begin to learn about how the brain is wiring and firing based on experiences that they've had in their lives, that they look at you and they say, "Wow, I'm not a bad kid." They don't say those words, but you can see [crosstalk 00:14:12]. "There's nothing wrong with me. This is the way my brain has learned through the experiences that I have encountered through my life." And we always share with the students that your brain is an organ, but it acts much more like a muscle. And so when I go in, for instance, in August, this year, when I went in, I said to them, to my 4th grade, I said, "You all are in the coolest time ever because your brain will never, ever, ever learn as quickly and as well as it will right now."

Dr. Lori Desautels: And so we talked about the second greatest time of brain development. And so I told them, "From upper elementary, all the way through high school, compared to my brain, you're going to be able to pick up new things so fast and so well that whatever you want to do in five years or 10 years or 15 years, start doing it now." And it makes such sense to them. It even brings some clarity and some buy-in for even homework, because we do brain intervals where I pick an activity that's novel and they can't do it very well at the beginning. And then they practice it and then they become experts. It's just something simple, like making a peace sign and an okay sign. And then I have them switch back and forth as fast as they can. And they can't do it when I share with them. And I tell them that it's because there are no connections in your brain that are firing right now because you've never done this. But once you begin to practice it, your brain starts connecting up and it becomes an expert at that activity.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Your last part of that was kind of leading into my next thought or question for you because I think naturally as teachers, we think about how this helps with making positive decisions in the classroom. It helps with being more empathetic, it helps with a mindset of, "I can do this." And you see perseverance happening in the classroom. And so those are sort of some of the, maybe more obvious benefits and actual tangible things we can see in the classroom. But then my next question was, and you just kind of introduced it, was that when they're learning, do you see some positive influences in their critical thinking? So, are you seeing students able to think at higher levels or more critically, or demonstrate a higher creativity because they understand these neuroconnections now? And if so, kind of as a teacher, how do I start down this path of, maybe we call it metacognition, but where students are actually able to understand, they kind of think about their own thinking.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So another great question, and I can give you a couple of examples. So the answer is yes, because what we begin to see, we begin to see the students make connections, and they start thinking, because it's interesting, it's novel, and they're curious about it. So I'll just give you a specific example that happened today. The 4th grade students are reading the book, Hoot. And so we started talking about the characters in the book and their brain and body states. And they went wild for this because Khaleed would raise his hand and he would say, "Yeah, Carl was in his amygdala. He was really, really angry." And then another student said, "Yeah, but he was also feeling afraid."

Dr. Lori Desautels: So we talked about how the limbic system, the amygdala, which is our emotional smoke detector, it's our vigilance center. It can fire. And when we are feeling afraid or when we're feeling angry, or even when we're processing excitement, doesn't even have to be negative emotion, that area of the brain is activated. So even just relaying and relating what they're learning to characters in a book or documentaries that they see, sharing it with families, all of these practices that I'm implementing and co-teaching and sharing in the schools are not asking teachers to do anything more because that's the beauty of this. This framework is built in to your procedures and your routines.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So when we talk about operationalizing, social and emotional learning, it's how you begin the day. It's a ritual, it's your morning meeting. It's your brain aligned bell work. It's how you transition from the hallway into the classroom. It's how you end the day. And we are intentional, I think that's the word I want to share today Nathan, is that this framework is intentional about creating and priming the brain to be in the cortex, to be in the prefrontal cortex. That's what we're always trying to do because so many of us will come into school and we are carrying in pain based behavior, ACEs, adverse childhood experiences affect the developing brain and body. So if I am really wanting to teach well, then I have to be intentional about the brain and body state of my student before I begin to talk and to teach. So this is so critical and it really isn't asking teachers to do more, it's asking for intention.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, absolutely. It's interesting because many times we, as teachers may find a learning protocol or maybe a social emotional learning competency, and we'll share that with our students, but the process that you eliminate kind of what the hell was happening in your brain, I feel like that's going to get students to buy-in more, I feel like it's going to be more, I like to say connect to their intrinsic motivational flow, because they see the differences making biologically, then it makes more sense to be able to start to have these specific learning dispositions and maybe behave in a certain way. So yeah, I feel like it's... Again, you and I are both a lover of science, so it just, whenever we're able to eliminate the science behind the way we think, learn and behave, I feel that is kind of like the more information we have, the more we're able to continue to build and grow and thrive.

Dr. Lori Desautels: Absolutely. And we see the students beginning to not only make connections and analogies and being curious with their own brain and bodies, but they will start recognizing what they see in their siblings, or they will talk about their caregivers or parents. And we, for instance, today, they're creating because of COVID right now, we can't share space like we normally do. So they are, instead of, they have their own medulla bags. And so the medulla bags are practices in their bags that they can call upon when they start to feel rough. That's what we say in our house, when you start to feel rough, which is irritated or worried or angry, we are giving students right now, the tools, so that at eight years old, at five years old, even at 10 years old, at 15 years old, that they will have for a lifetime because these practices will become a part of their self care.

Dr. Lori Desautels: And so that really social and emotional learning for me needs to be brain aligned. And it needs to really help students to understand brain development and understand how contagious emotions are. And that is huge. We talk about that so much, it's like the virus, that those emotions we can pick up and we can get triggered by a sound, by a smell, by the way someone looks at us, by a tone of voice so quickly. So those are things that they're learning right now. That for me, they're invaluable. And honestly, Nathan, I would have been a different mom to my three children when they were little, had I known what I know today. So this framework really blends into our personal lives. It's not just about what I'm doing at school. It's about making this into my life as a person and into all my relationships. So that's the beauty of this too.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. And you mentioned earlier, this prefrontal cortex development, I'd love to hear more, especially as teachers who are just kind of getting into at a novices at neuroscience, why is this development so important at this age? And then part two of that question would be, are there any practices that are happening in our schools right now that are hindering our prefrontal cortex development?

Dr. Lori Desautels: Well, so first of all, the prefrontal cortex, and again, I'm being very schematic to all the neuroscientists that may be listening today, so my apologies. But because the brain does not work in specific sections, it's so complex. But the prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain, that really is the seat of what educators know as executive functions. And so those executive functions are skills like sustained attention, working memory, problem solving, emotional regulation, response inhibition, all of the things that we need to do life, as we say, and to be successful in school. And this part of the brain, the research is sharing now that it's not really fully developed until oftentimes late twenties or early thirties.

Dr. Lori Desautels: And so what develops the prefrontal cortex are the opportunities to exercise those functions. So for instance, we are teaching children and adolescents and adult focused attention practices, because still, when you say meditation in schools, there is somewhat of a, not negative connotation, but people think more of religion [inaudible 00:25:30]. Meditation is an executive function exercise. So that's the answer to the first part. So we are providing opportunities to build those skills so that the students can create pathways or neural networks to get to the cortex, but that some of the negative practices that we unintentionally will activate in school are practices where we just begin teaching with words and start lecturing, or we might call a student out that has come in pretty rough. And you and I could have five podcasts on these different topics because all of this-

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Be careful what you ask for Lori. [crosstalk 00:26:20].

Dr. Lori Desautels: ... all of this leads to a new lens for discipline, really. And all of these practices that I've shared today, when we think about focused attention practices and morning meetings and brain aligned, getting to the cortex, all of these are disciplined practices on the front end, it's being preventative, it's being relational and it's being brain aligned. And so that is hard for many educators to get their minds around because we're such creatures of habit. We think of discipline as a reaction to a behavior. So that is, we've got to prime that brain before we begin teaching. And again, kids who come in rough and who come in, oftentimes with chronic unpredictable, toxic stress, traditional discipline doesn't work with these kids. It actually unintentionally escalates the behavior and can re-traumatize.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: In thinking about this amygdala and I've done some research on the amygdala and I've read about the backfire effect and it helping me understand why is it as humans, we get so defensive or protective around something that we've become very comfortable in our worldview. So something that we've done for many, many years, and as soon as we have evidence, that maybe will counter what we believe or what we do, we have a very visceral reaction. I understand now that it has a lot to do with the amygdala and some of the connections there they're being made and how it's a protection system for us. It's our kind of security system. Whenever something threatens kind of the core of what we construct in our mind, it's a way of being able to kind of protect ourselves.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: So I'm wondering in looking at this development, and we think in terms of helping our kids find out more about themselves and helping them learn, I'm also wondering, do you make these applications when you're working with other adults and teachers? Because I know that that's a part of the work we do is getting kind of building a coalition of teachers who also can collaborate with us along the way. And does it change the way that you facilitate professional development and the way that you kind of foster buy-in?

Dr. Lori Desautels: So it actually does. And we focus this podcast on what's happening with students. But when I am asked to go into schools and districts, the very first pillar of this framework is educator brain and body state because the research is extremely clear and it is statistically significant in that a calm regulated adult is able to calm a dysregulated child. But when we are dysregulated, we are unable to share our calm nervous system with a student. And so what happens is we might get a little compliance or obedience and see the behavior lesson for a short amount of time, but we are not getting that sustainable behavioral change.

Dr. Lori Desautels: So with when we go in and we start working and really sharing this framework, there is a huge, significant emphasis on the educator brain and body state and what our triggers are. What is our language of adversity? What is our language of repair? What are our push buttons? Because when we understand and when we self-reflect as the adults in the building, then we are able to share that calm, collective, settled, grounded presence with the children and with the adolescents. And this is a hard shift for educators to make oftentimes, not sometimes, but oftentimes, and it's critical to this work.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It really is. And I agree that when we're thinking about learning theory, we're thinking about engagement into the classroom. I think it's so important that we continually make application to our own learning and our own world. And it just makes sense, but it also gives credence and give structure to the work that we're doing. And we think about our students' behavior, their learning dispositions, and in tandem can think about our colleagues and leadership and how we can start to really create meaningful change in our school systems.

Dr. Lori Desautels: I could not agree more. And when those schools and districts, and it's the leadership too, because teachers could do fabulous things, but if the leadership of a district or a school, and you know this too Nathan, when the leadership is not on board, it makes it so much more difficult. But I guess I just want to end with that, thinking about educator brain and body state is that when we are in touch with the language of the lower regions of the brain, which is sensation, because what you just stated earlier, when we become defensive or protective over something that we have held onto for a while, that is our survival response kicking in, the brain is built for survival, survival rises above everything else in all purposes of the brain. So to understand that even, is empowering.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It really is empowering, and then I'd add inspiring, is something that you have been doing during this podcast, inspiring me to learn more about this. It's fascinating and intriguing to me. And I think our listeners are also inspired and fascinated in the same way. So I feel like we've just scratched the surface of this. How could we continue to follow along, follow the work you're doing and connect with you on social media?

Dr. Lori Desautels: So my website, I have a website that I intentionally and purposely fill up for parents and for educators and really for anyone who sits beside youth and children and it's, And I am on social media everywhere. So you can follow me on Facebook, my Facebook page, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and my own two daughters say, "Mom, you're such a buzz killer, because you're constantly talking about this brain and posting." But we have the luxury of technology right now and we also, our time is precious. So I love to be able to share the practices and I'm doing like I did this morning on social media, just to help teachers and administrators and counselors and social workers, just to take a look at some of these, I don't like to say the word strategies, but really practices that we can begin to implement, to dampen down that stress response system and to open up that cortex.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, absolutely. Lori, thanks again for sharing your expertise. You're just a phenomenal human being, an educator, and I'm so happy to be connected with you.

Dr. Lori Desautels: Nathan, thank you so much. And really, I don't think that I'm all that, but I'm really, really honored. And just, I've loved sharing with you today. And thank you so much for asking me to be a part of this.

Episode tags

Recent posts