Trust
vs. Distrust
Do You Know
the Difference?
Your Brain Does
By Kevin Baird
three rock climbers hanging on the side of a mountain
Trust
vs. Distrust
Do You Know
the Difference?
Your Brain Does
By Kevin Baird
In a room filled with educators, I would expect a sea of “yes” nods in response to the statement “Building trust with students is key to overcoming barriers of student confidence and growth mindset.”

But how to do that? Our classrooms don’t have a “Curriculum to Build Trust.” Given the infinite diversity of student experiences, student misconceptions, student fears and histories, it is difficult to implement a standardized set of “best practices to build trust” in the classroom. Indeed, many times school policies including discipline, attendance, homework and grading practices can present barriers to trust building outside of the control of the teacher.

There are two neuroscience facts which may help us in our pursuit of “Trust Building.”

Trust in uppercase letters on a small piece of wood
Fact Number One: Distrust is an autonomic, automatic reaction which takes place in the amygdala – the ancient, oldest part of the human brain – where fight / flight / freeze responses are controlled. Once triggered, the reaction cannot be avoided. The amygdala releases cortisol, the human stress chemical, into the body, stimulating a set of instinctive biological reactions.

Consider the following explanation from Judith E. Glaser in the Harvard Business Review:

In situations of distrust, “the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself… and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So, we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him or her).

https://hbr.org/2013/02/break-your-addiction-to-being

It is exceptionally difficult to teach a young person to regulate their “distrust” reactions. As an educator, I can know and work to avoid the triggers of distrust, but once activated it is important not to blame the student. Distrust is biology, at work.

Fact Number Two: Trust is a decision, an action, that occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where prediction of social rewards is forecast. It is a decision required of the brain each time it meets a situation, based upon a prediction of the future as compared to a memory of the past.

The last part of that sentence is most important. The human brain uses a variety of inputs to create a model of expected future results. As educators we don’t necessarily get “credit for our past interactions” with a student. With each new interaction, the student’s brain “reforecasts” future probabilities. If their unique brain chemistry predicts a negative outcome, no matter our past interactions with the student, the brain will not “opt in” to trusting us.

Beliefs like “my effort on this task doesn’t matter because the teacher hates me anyway,” indicate that the student predicts future punitive behavior by the teacher. Or a belief that “I am going to fail this class anyway,” indicates that the student has predicted a low possibility of future success.

brain illustration with red to green gauge
Trust is a decision, an action, that occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where prediction of social rewards is forecast. It is a decision required of the brain each time it meets a situation, based upon a prediction of the future as compared to a memory of the past.
Understanding that distrust occurs as an autonomic reaction in the amygdala, and that trust occurs as a forecast of future rewards in the predictive part of the brain, can be helpful as we seek to build trust and student confidence. At Achieve3000, a critical component of our design is to ensure that text difficulty is within each students’ Zone of Proximal Development – not too hard, not too easy, but a level of challenge which stretches student skills while rewarding them with success. Students come to predict that they will succeed when reading Achieve3000 content. It’s that simple. As well, students are not “punished” with repetitive practice if they fail, or with negative indicators like decreasing levels or “points”. Achieve3000 is designed to be a highly predictable experience of success with few if any triggers for distrust.

Trust is also at the heart of the Achieve3000 organization. Our teachers and school partners trust us to deliver experiences which accelerate student learning, and to be immediately responsive to their needs when a concern arises.

That’s a big reason we chose to become part of the McGraw Hill family of learning solutions. As one of the oldest, most respected publishers in education with a strong track record of helping teachers and responding to educator concerns, McGraw Hill is a partner we can trust, because they are a provider that educators have trusted since 1888.

Understanding that distrust occurs as an autonomic reaction in the amygdala, and that trust occurs as a forecast of future rewards in the predictive part of the brain, can be helpful as we seek to build trust and student confidence.
multiple hands together in a circle
Understanding that distrust occurs as an autonomic reaction in the amygdala, and that trust occurs as a forecast of future rewards in the predictive part of the brain, can be helpful as we seek to build trust and student confidence.
In November, as we become full partners in meeting the needs of schools to accelerate literacy, math and comprehension skills, Achieve3000 and McGraw Hill will continue to deliver future, predictable positive results. That is the foundation of trust… for our school partners, and for student confidence.

As educators, we must work every day, in every moment, to earn the trust of our students. They literally “opt in” to trusting us with each and every interaction. So too, must Achieve3000 and McGraw Hill together work to continue to earn the trust of our school partners. We look forward to a future with broader content horizons, increased opportunities to help teachers change the lives of students, and a continued conversation and commitment to meet your needs as responsive, trusted partners. Onward!

About the author

Kevin Baird (MBA, ALEP) serves as chief academic officer for Achieve3000. He is a noted leader in college and career readiness content, strategies, and standards. He has taken part in educational research on every continent save for Antarctica; consulted with governments to create college & career readiness initiatives; and has served as trainer and consultant for states and districts across North America. Kevin has served as chairman and senior faculty at the non-profit Center for College & Career Readiness and has collaborated with Achieve3000 for over 15 years; and contributes as a member of our Educator Leadership Council.