PMP:070 How Your Brain Resists Change

When I was in high school, my dad reenlisted in the Navy and we moved to New York where he was stationed while his ship was in dry-dock.

Photo by dierk schaefer – Creative Commons Attribution License

For a country boy from West Tennessee, New York was a culture shock. I remember being so afraid to speak because I didn’t want others making fun of my southern accent.

One day I was standing in front of grocery store in Brooklyn when a man stopped to ask me what time it was. I realized I was wearing a watch and he wasn’t. So I just held up the watch without saying a word and let him read the time.

With time I began to slowly adjust to my new environment and eventually enjoyed the change and new opportunities. But the changes weren’t over. During high school, as my dad’s ship changed ports, I attended school in three different states. Each move created its own set of new challenges and opportunities.

Over the years, I’ve learned to face transition and change with a sense of optimism. But no matter how upbeat I am, new experiences always present some level of stress or anxiety. When I began teaching, for instance, I was simply overwhelmed at times with the new tasks and responsibilities. But over time, I learned to not only survive but to thrive in the calling. I’ve faced the same emotions in school leadership.

Why You May Be So Stressed

Lately, I have been reading Britt Andreatta’s book Wired to Resist, and I have been reminded why changes are so stressful.

Change in any work is inevitable. If we don’t change, we don’t grow. Andreatta’s studies show, however, our biological reactions to change by looking at the different cortexes of the human brain. Understanding how our brain works in change may help us be more patient with ourselves and others.

Parts of the Brain Affected by Change

1. Fear Response:

The Amygdala is the part of our brain that reacts to change with flight or flight reaction. Even in organizational change, our amygdala kicks into gear when we are asked to do something new, innovative, or disruptive. Educators know that disequilibrium is a powerful force in creating learning opportunities. But as school leaders, we must keep in mind the difference between disruption and destruction.

People cannot operate or think clearly when they feel deeply threatened by change; however, when we guide, direct, coach, and anticipate change, we can help relieve some of the stress that naturally takes place when the amygdala floods the brain with danger alerts.

2. Personal GPS:

The Entorhinal Cortex of the brain helps us navigate new settings, situations or changes. Sometimes people react new environments with curiosity while others may react with panic. It is important to understand that whether someone is optimistic or resistant, they still have an uphill climb mentally when they are facing a new change.

Think about the first time you worked in a new school or classroom. Until you figured out a place for everything and had organized that new environment for habitual use, you burned a lot of brain energy adjusting.

The same stress happens with any other changes: email upgrades, website changes for absence requests, curriculum mapping programs…any time we introduce anything new into the daily tasks of our team members or students, expect some resistance as the entorhinal cortex kicks in the navigate the changes, memorize patterns, and establish new habits.

3. New Habits:

The Basal Ganglia is the third part of the brain cortex Andreatta describes. This is the part of the brain that helps us move from identifying new patterns to memorizing them and storing them into our brain as newly learned habits. The longer we practice an action, the more engrained it becomes in our muscle memory.

And this happens because the basal ganglia allows us to transfer information into stored memory that if practiced long enough can eventually become almost second nature.

Here’s the quick takeaway: Understanding how our brains react to change helps us realize no matter how well we understand the brain, all of us are affected by the biological phenomenon that happen when confronted with change.

And understanding these responses can help us think about strategies we can use to prepare for changes we are managing with school communities.

Practical Application in School

Consider this example of change from my school:

Attendance policies — Next year we are adopting a stricter policy on attendance that more closely matches the schools in our county area. Reducing the number of days students will be absent is a change that we hope will increase better attendance among our students.

But rolling out that change began in the fall of last year when admins from each building met together to study other policies, rewrite our district policies, provide drafts for admin teams to review, submitting to our school board for approval, and providing information mail outs, handouts, and notices to parents by the end of the spring semester.

Throughout the summer, we will continue to share out the new policy and will showcase it during schedule pickups and parent/student orientation meetings when the 17-18 year begins. All these steps anticipate change far in advance. Inevitably, the change may not be as disruptive as other changes have been. But anticipating the change has allowed our admin teams to notify and communicate far in advance of implementation.

I often advise school leaders when possible to plan for major changes a year in advance. We’ve used the same strategy with beta-testing new schedules a year in advance, and preparing for 1-to-1 student Chromebook implementation by piloting a year in advance.

Caring For Yourself During Change

Andreatta also gives advice for how to take proactive steps for self-care during times when you anticipate the stress that comes along with change. The three strategies I liked most were:

• Self-care
• Mindfulness
• Play

Just like you may increase good nutrition, sleep, and vitamin intake to increase your chances to stay healthy during flu season, taking care of ourselves through healthy practices allows us to better manage the stresses that happen to our brains, bodies, and emotions during times of change.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Feelings of stress and anxiety have followed me in every change of my life and career: moving to new schools, becoming a teacher, being an assistant principal, serving as a high school principal, or speaking in front of crowds. But it is encouraging to know that each time you do something new, your brain learns how to adjust so that over time you can master new skills.

Maybe you’re preparing for a new transition in your school, with your team, or in your own practice. Realize ahead of time that no matter how well prepared, your brain will react with the normal impulses it has to all changes. At the same time, being aware and preparing for these stresses is helpful in navigating the shift with more awareness and acceptance.

Now It’s Your Turn

I highly recommend Wired to Resist if you want to better understand the processes that happen to all us during change. Andreatta also shares multiple strategies and tips for leaders who must guide, direct, and coach others through changes.

What is a change you are anticipating for the new school year? How have you taken time to plan in advance for the change in order to minimize the inevitable stress that comes with change? What steps do you need to be taking now to anticipate what’s coming?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker