Helping Students Be Their Best

October 5, 2012

Punahou made the most of its time with Horacio Sanchez, ensuring that the national expert on resiliency intersected with students, faculty, administrators, staff, parents and the broader O‘ahu community during his recent campus visit.

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Whether discussing “The Four Underpinnings of Human Behavior” with teachers at an all-faculty meeting, explaining “What Every Parent Should Know,” during a public evening event, or sharing “The Secret to Success” with seniors during Chapel, Sanchez tailored his neuroscience-based presentations to inform diverse audiences during his visit Sept. 25 – 27, 2012.

Based in North Carolina as the president and chief executive officer of Resiliency Inc., Sanchez has merged brain research, science and practice to create a framework for understanding human development, addressing societal trends affecting the ability of people to focus, demonstrate empathy and resist impulsive behaviors. Brought to Punahou by the School’s Institute for Teaching, Learning and Instructional Innovation, Sanchez also spoke to faculty, deans, supervisors, counselors, students, administrators and parents at a variety of smaller gatherings.

He described the four underpinnings of human behavior as heredity (“Where you start”), temperament (“How you react”), exposure (“What you adjust to”) and high emotional experiences (“What you do when stressed”). Since all stimuli are filtered through the amygdala (the “emotional brain”), which continually seeks safety and familiarity, schools can enhance resiliency and empathy among students by creating socially comfortable conditions on campus. Greeting rituals that emphasize commonality are a good place to start, he said, leading faculty through the game “I Knew I Liked You For Some Reason.” Audience members high-fived each other with gusto as personal attributes they shared flashed on the presentation screen. “Commonality is a powerful, powerful thing,” he said. “We are more the same than we will ever be different.”

Sanchez told teachers “the kids who need you the most will present in a fashion that makes it least likely that you will help them.” Shy, anxious children might adopt a quirky façade, he said, while angry, depressed ones could take on the swagger of a bully. “It’s the job of teachers to set a climate of comfort,” he said. “Too often we allow the group to make outliers of the most different.”

In a small-group talk with faculty and staff, Sanchez said that establishing a routine for waking up in the morning, eating a healthful main meal with family or friends, and going to bed at night improves anyone’s ability to bounce back from stress. “Those are the anchor points of life: wakeup, main meal and bedtime,” he said. “If you regulate that, your whole life will be better. Repetition and pattern are huge for the human brain.”

During the evening talk geared toward parents and the general public, Sanchez explained how the brain constantly adapts to the ever-changing environment and shared research documenting troubling trends: Rising rates of obesity and eating disorders among young adults, and a decrease in empathy and in the ability to focus.

The best defense, he said, is “is parents being parents. You are more than capable of setting the limits your children need.”

That means avoiding overuse of technology (“all of you who think you’re a good multitasker are actually lying to yourselves.”), making healthful, shared meals a priority, and teaching children to delay their own gratification and to serve others.

“Family meal time has more to it than you think,” Sanchez said, explaining how the brain secretes oxytocin during positive social interactions, dampening the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. “We need to spend face time with each other. That’s how we develop empathy, and empathy is the thing that keeps us human.”

Sanchez built on that message during his talk to seniors, who are grounded in the importance of service to others. Community service is a graduation requirement, and Punahou’s Luke Center for Public Service provides numerous opportunities for students to connect with others on campus and off.

He discussed the neuroscience confirming that people who can read others well and make them feel comfortable possess a powerful skill set. “The Secret of Success” lies in forging that human connection, he said, whether to lead a community-service project, excel in college, or later, in life, succeed in a chosen career.

“Notice people, read their needs, make them feel safe, connect to those who are different,” Sanchez urged the students. “That, combined with your world-class education, will take you far in life.”

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