No-Nonsense Nurturer® and the Social Needs of the Brain

I remember a time in elementary school when my friend and I were pulling at our Velcro shoes (making a scratchy sound) during a lesson when we were expected to be quiet, and the teacher sent me to my desk for being disruptive, but my friend did not get in trouble. I felt betrayed by this unfairness and feared that my teacher favored my friend over me. I remember these negative emotions and not wanting to do my work that day. Years later, in my career as an educator, having studied neuroscientist David Rock’s ideas in Managing With the Brain in Mind, I now understand that on that day in elementary school, the perceived unfairness that I felt activated a threat response in my brain that blocked my ability to learn. Rock suggests that much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the brain has five social needs. When these needs are met, learning is promoted, and when unmet, learning is deterred. The social needs he identified are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. The framework Rock identifies to remember these needs is SCARF:

  • Status is about relative importance/value to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of choice/control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety, connection and belonging with others.
  • Fairness is a perception of just exchanges between people.

In my current role, I train coaches across the country to coach teachers on the No-Nonsense Nurturer [NNN] Four-Step Model to create safe and positive classroom learning environments. Since the classroom is a social setting that involves collaboration with, and influencing of, others, I keep Rock’s SCARF model close at hand. No-Nonsense Nurturer was developed over several years by observing highly effective teachers in action, then creating a coaching system to support teachers as they adopt these effective strategies in their classroom. I’ve seen that in countless classrooms, when the NNN Four-Step Model is implemented with integrity, the classroom supports meeting Rock’s five social needs of the brain. For example,

    1. When teachers give precise directions, this communicates a sense of certainty and autonomy to their students.
    2. Positive narration (noticing ‘out loud’ when a student is following directions) provides a sense of status to students when they hear their name.
    3. The consistent use of a pre-determined and explicit accountability system (i.e. classwide incentives and individual consequences) communicates a sense of certainty and autonomy, where students learn the cause-and-effect relationship of their choice to follow (or not follow) directions in class. When a teacher holds all students accountable to these systems, students experience a sense of fairness.
    4. Life-Altering Relationships build a sense of status and relatedness.

However, as with any model, the No-Nonsense Nurturer model can be misinterpreted, resulting in a potential threat to students’ social needs. In my experience, when establishing a No-Nonsense Nurturing classroom at the beginning of the year, educators should be aware of the following common misuses of the NNN Four-Step Model. These pitfalls, if gone unchecked, can jeopardize the social needs of students’ brains.

  1. Inconsistent precise directions (threatens certainty and autonomy)

Teachers give directions all day long. It benefits students when the directions are precise every time they are given. Without consistency, students aren’t able to predict how to be successful and don’t know how to have control over their own learning, thus impeding a sense of certainty. Without precision, directions don’t provide students with a sense of choice or autonomy. The No-Nonsense Nurturer model has a formula for giving directions precisely every time. Look at the two examples of directions below.

Imprecise Directions: “Ok, students. Today, you will find evidence for the claim your group generated yesterday. Let’s get started quietly.”

Precise Directions: “When I start the timer, you will have 30 minutes to work at level 1 voices in your groups to find three pieces of evidence for the claim. If you finish early, write a counterclaim. If you need help, send the messenger from your group to the back table. The timer has started, go!”

The second example follows the guidelines in the NNN model and is precise, providing certainty. It also supports students by providing scaffolding, therefore increasing the ability of students to develop autonomy.

  1. Unintentional or inconsistent positive narration (threatens status)

By positively narrating behaviors immediately following directions, and continuing to narrate throughout the lesson, teachers send the message that their directions are important, encouraging students to meet stated expectations.

A positive narration for the directions above might sound like this: “Jose and Araceli are using level 1 voices to find evidence for their claim.”

When students hear their name during narration, they quickly recognize that they are being acknowledged for meeting stated expectations. When teachers narrate various students throughout the day, the teacher communicates that he/she sees each student as an important part of the learning community. When teachers scan the room before providing positive narration they’re more likely to authentically notice and narrate all their students meeting expectations throughout the week (verses consistently narrating an obvious few). Intentional narration decreases a possible tendency towards favoritism and promotes a sense of status and fairness in the learning community.

Often teachers rely on consequences as the primary step in addressing off-task behavior. This misstep serves to undermine students’ sense of autonomy. When positive narration is utilized effectively, consistently, and fairly, students learn to recognize the teacher’s narration as a way in which the teacher thoughtfully and respectfully builds relatedness, encourages excellence, and provides opportunities for students to self-correct their behaviors. When a student who may not have heard the directions hears another student being called out for following directions, the first student is able to get back on track.

All students should receive positive narration throughout the week, and students who received consequences should receive positive narration as soon as they get back on track. 

  1. Inconsistently providing and ‘taking back’ individual consequences (threatens certainty, autonomy and fairness)

In a high-functioning classroom, teachers are trusted adults and are responsible for being predictable and neutral in their response to unproductive behaviors, and providing consequences. Through the NNN method, teachers are coached to positively narrate three student behaviors before giving each consequence whenever possible. When teachers do follow this ratio and deliver consequences after positively recognizing other students, it builds students’ sense of certainty and fairness. When teachers do not follow this ratio, it can shame students and provide a threat to these needs. Look at the two examples of providing a consequence below.

James, that’s a warning, what are you supposed to be doing right now!?
James, use a level 1 voice, that’s your warning for today.

The second provides information and presumes the student may have forgotten the expectation, whereas the first provides the consequence without an explanation and the rhetorical question implies that the student intentionally broke a rule.

Similarly, some teachers think it is necessary to take back consequences that students have earned if the student corrects his/her behavior. For example, they may say, “James you are quiet now, so you don’t have a warning anymore.” Students learn from receiving clear and non-severe consequences for unproductive choices, so when consequences are inconsistently removed or reapplied, consequences can inadvertently highlight a teachers’ unconscious bias and favoritism, threatening students’ sense of relatedness and status in the classroom community. The removal of consequences is often challenging for teachers and students to monitor, and if teachers make mistakes in this process, it hinders the perception of fairness in the classroom.

No-Nonsense Nurturers consistently keep consequences aligned to a pre-determined (and visibly posted) hierarchy of non-severe consequences in order to ensure that larger consequences are not needed. If a student receives a consequence, the teacher uses narration, ‘stay in the game’ and restorative conversations to repair status and relatedness, rather than removing the previously earned consequence.

  1. Inconsistently providing individual classwide incentives and taking away incentives (threatens certainty, autonomy and fairness)

Class-wide incentive systems are meant to be systems that motivate a whole class of students to work collaboratively towards a meaningful academic or classroom community goal. The idea of working together to earn a pre-determined incentive (i.e. free and short rewards, such as a math game or a science video on YouTube) promotes relatedness and status amongst the students.

Common misunderstandings with class-wide incentive systems include taking class points away after the points have been earned, excluding some students from class incentives even though they were part of the group that helped earn the incentive, or putting off the incentive for weeks after it’s been earned until the system loses meaning or student investment. These misunderstandings threaten all five social needs of the brain and the cultivation of a positive classroom culture. Incentive systems are a critical and positive way to build autonomy and relatedness in the learning community. 

  1. Not prioritizing relationship-building for students and their families (threatens relatedness and status)

It’s commonly said that “your students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” A teacher’s investment in their students plays a critical role in securing trust and cooperation. Students can, and will, put forth their best effort to meet or exceed whatever expectations teachers establish as long as they believe that their teacher truly values and cares for them as individuals.

When teachers do not plan sufficient time to build life-altering relationships with students and their families, both in and out of class, they miss a tremendous opportunity to promote their students’ sense of relatedness and status. Home visits, lunch with students, positive calls home, and attending students’ extracurricular events are some ways to build relationships outside of class. Inside the classroom, there are many ways for teachers to build relationships with students during their daily practice and lessons, including having students collaborate to solve problems, and celebrating each member of their community. No-Nonsense Nurturers report spending, on average, an hour a day on relationship building with students, and report that this time and effort contributes greatly to effective instruction.

Teaching is complex and requires various skills to effectively influence and manage students. The NNN Four-Step Model is intended to create a learning environment in which the five social needs of students’ brains are met, and the teacher is freed up to focus on relationships, rigor, inquiry, and differentiation. The objective is for students to thrive and for the teacher to spend less energy managing student behavior throughout the year.

As is the case in any task worth doing, implementing this model with integrity and avoiding the pitfalls mentioned here requires building new habits and support. This is why we recommend Real Time Teacher Coaching® (RTTC). During RTTC, teachers get efficient on-the-job training to be able to quickly internalize the NNN method and become predictable and consistent. With students’ social needs met, the result is a classroom environment in which students and teachers feel less stressed and teachers have more energy to focus on meeting the academic needs of their students.

by Leah Pearson, CT3 Associate

For related reading, visit the posts below:

Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families, and properly addressing important issues in the classroom and school.
Category: Culture, Teaching