Our brain can serve as a map for showing us how we learn and why we behave the way we do. Neuroscience provides a wealth of information that can help us and our children become better thinkers and healthier people.
It is important to introduce children to brain research since they are fascinated by facts about their brains.
Sharing scientific information about how the brain processes information and is wired to react under stress is a great way to introduce a challenge to your children: How can we learn to react differently, helping our brain make wise choices about our words and actions?
As children become more familiar with three key parts of the brain involved in thinking and learning, they’ll begin to understand how their feelings arise – and that they have the ability to change what they do in response. This understanding lays the groundwork for them to monitor and self-regulate their behaviour by calming themselves in the face of anxiety, focusing their attention, and taking control of their learning.
Linking to brain research – Key players in the brain
First – before talking about key players, make a fist with each hand and put your fists together with right and left knuckles aligned and thumbs side by side pointing upwards.
Your thumbs are the prefrontal cortex – helping make good choices and pay attention.
Tips of your pointer fingers are buried deep inside – they are the amygdala – the “security guard”.
Tips of your middle fingers are your hippocampus - the “memory saver”.
The limbic system controls emotions and motivations from deep inside the brain. A key player of the limbic system is the amygdala. The amygdala is a pair of almond shaped structures that reacts to fear, danger and threat. The amygdala regulates our emotional state by acting as the brain’s “security guard,” protecting us from threats. When a child is in a positive emotional state, the amygdala sends incoming information on to the conscious, thinking, reasoning brain. When a child is in a negative emotional state (stressed or fearful for example) the amygdala prevents the input from passing along, effectively blocking higher-level thinking and reasoned judgement. The incoming stimuli and signals are left for the amygdala itself to process as an automatic reflexive response of “fight, flight, or freeze.” Remember the last time you were angry? Think about whether or not you “shut down” or “yelled” or “left.”
The hippocampus is another limbic system structure. These twin crescent-shaped bodies reside in the central brain area, one behind each ear. The hippocampus assists in managing our response to fear and threats, and is a storage vault of memory and learning.
Information from the limbic system is fed to the prefrontal cortex – the learning, reasoning and thinking part of our brain. This highly evolved area of the brain controls our decision making, focuses our attention, and allows us to learn to read, write, compute, analyze, predict, comprehend, and interpret.
Learning about these key players helps children understand how their brains respond to stress and prepares them for creating a calm mindset for thoughtful decision making.
To illustrate how the brain processes information under stress – fill a plastic bottle with water, an inch of sand, some glitter, and metallic mini-confetti.
To demonstrate the way the amygdala on alert scatters information, shake the bottle and mix up the solution. The settling solution now represents the calming mind – eventually bits of information flow in a clear direction, some of them to the prefrontal cortex for thoughtful decision making.
Talk to your child(ren) about a time when their brain felt all shaken up and confused – like the sand, flitter and confetti.
Ask them what helped them to calm down so they could think. Imagine this: You are asleep. A loud crash wakes you up.
How does your body immediately react? What are you thinking? How does your body feel?
Providing real-life scenarios about different types of reactions and eliciting experiences from children gives them useful examples to attach meaning to.
Familiarity with brain parts and their functions helps children begin to think about thinking- how they learn, remember, solve problems, and understand themselves and other people. This lays the groundwork for an involvement in their own learning and social interactions.
Jody Downie (M.S.W., R.S.W., Certified HANDLE Screener and Intern Practitioner) is Executive Director of Parry Sound Family Service. Parry Sound Family Service provides individual, family, and group therapy based on a fee for service. Visit www.psfamilyservice.com for more information or contact 705-746-9789 for more information.