Have you ever wished you could assist a child in calming down and dealing with a difficult situation?
Children are often encouraged to be calm, positive and attentive without being taught how to acquire or sharpen these skills. Nor are they told the real brain-based reason why self-regulation so often fails.
Giving children the knowledge of how their brains work in an acute stress response—in a simple, fun and memorable way—can make them feel more in control.
Most importantly, kids become empowered when they understand that they’re not mean, cowards or “stupid” – it’s just a normal brain mechanism that can be developed!
Continue reading to learn about a simple and time-tested method used by educators, psychologists, and parents around the world to help children understand their bodies’ stress response and learn to manage difficult emotions.
If you are in a hurry, you can scroll down to the infographics.
Why is it important to learn self-regulation at an early age?
Learning self-regulation at a young age is critical because it lays the groundwork for many important life skills. Strong self-regulation skills in children increase their chances of academic, social, and emotional success.
Academic success, social and emotional development, and overall health and well-being all benefit from self-regulation. Parents and caregivers can set their children up for long-term success by developing these skills at a young age.
Learning self-regulation at a young age is advantageous because the young brain is undergoing rapid growth at the same time that the brain is reorganizing itself.
“Part of this reorganization process includes the pruning of disused neural connections. This growth and pruning are affected by environmental experiences and reshape the adolescent brain.” – Neurobiologist Dr. Arlene Montgomery
This is one of the reasons why self-regulation training can be so effective in childhood and adolescence: the pathways that promote empathy and impulse control are used and strengthened, benefiting the child for the rest of his or her life.
How to explain the stress response and brain to children in a fun and memorable way
When my son was two years old, I made up a fun science-based story to help him understand why he sometimes did illogical things when he was upset.
Seriously, consider how strange and bewildering this must be.
It must be confusing for children to see themselves suddenly behave in ways that they later regret.
It’s as if you had a car that suddenly took control and decided to drive in the opposite direction.
So I decided to explain why this happens, and in order to do so, I needed to introduce the key players in our brains who are responsible for the entire thing.
I made them fun animals, of course :-)
Amy, Tex, and Hippo thus became the new names for the key parts of the brain.
Now, it’s time to meet the Brain team!
Here’s how to explain the brain to kids in an engaging way.
The Brain Team
These three parts of the brain are essential for success in challenging situations: the amygdala or Amy, hippocampus or Hippo and prefrontal cortex or Tex.
Amy is a superhero who protects you, but can’t differentiate between emotions and real-world threats.
Tex is the sheriff who helps with reading, writing and decision-making.
Hippo is a librarian who remembers memories and stores what you learn.
When Amy senses danger, she gets nervous and mad, and doesn’t listen to Hippo or Tex.
However, it’s possible to calm Amy down and enable clear thinking and better decisions.
To my surprise, these amusing characters quickly gained traction in the fields of child psychology and mindfulness.
Why the success?
The Brain Team concept is now used over the world. Amazing teachers and parents are implementing this science-based teaching concept, from Brazil to Australia, the United Kingdom, and Texas.
I heard that a Texas school district has implemented the “Brain Team” model! Isn’t that amazing?
Please email me if you use the Brain Team (Amy, Hippo and Tex) to teach kids, I’d love to hear about your adventures ❤️
I believe the Brain Team concept became popular because it allows readers to teach their children how to manage their emotions in a fun and memorable way. And it’s so simple!
Now that you’ve met the key parts of your brain, you’ll see what happens inside your amazing brain during a stress response.
What happens inside your brain during a stress response?
When a child tells you that she felt like she was “dying” when she had to solve a math problem in front of the class, she is telling the truth. Her autonomic nervous system responses are the same whether she is nervous or feels physically threatened.
When a child pushes or hits another child and later claims he has no idea why, he is also telling the truth!
The impulsive reaction, triggered by emotions such as fear or anger, arises from the amygdala (Amy) – one of the oldest parts of our brain. These parts have evolved to respond to threatening situations by defending themselves.
If we can delay this reactivity, the newer prefrontal cortex (Tex) of the brain can respond based on reasoning and thinking.
The prefrontal cortex is involved in maturity and executive function, including regulating emotions and behaviour and making wise decisions.
The amygdala controls emotional responses by categorizing sensory input as pleasant or threatening. It blocks threatening input from entering the prefrontal cortex, causing an immediate reflexive reaction: either fight, flee, or freeze.
In a sense, the amygdala serves as the brain’s alarm system. Like a smoke detector or a superhero looking to protect you from danger! Its purpose is to detect danger and prepare our bodies to react to it.
The amygdala doesn’t differentiate between perceived and real threats. This can lead to “false alarms” and reactive behavior, including freezing when faced with non-life-threatening activities like public speaking or taking a test. During these times, we become disconnected from logic and become impulsive and reactive.
Furthermore, even if we have conflict resolution skills stored in our memories, the stress response may prevent us from accessing them because the amygdala inhibits memory recall and storage.
The same is true for learning. When a child is stressed, tense, or does not feel safe, learning becomes highly challenging because the brain does not function optimally.
However, when we have the opportunity to consciously process sensory information, we allow the prefrontal cortex to analyze it. Instead of an immediate, impulsive reaction, we are given the opportunity to select the best response.
Here’s what it looks like:
What the stress response looks like and how you can explain it to kids
What can we do to make Amy less jumpy?
That is an excellent question! The solution is straightforward.
To begin, we can help children understand the mechanics of our brains.
The next step is to teach them concrete activities that will assist them in self-regulation.
Studies have found that mindfulness practice promotes executive functioning in school-aged children, from attention and self-regulation to social skills (1,2,3,4). Our friend the prefrontal cortex or Tex is best known for executive function.
Executive function and self-regulation skills provide critical supports for learning and development, and while children are not born with these abilities, they are born with the potential to develop them (5).
Mindfulness has also been linked to activating the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and reducing activity in the amygdala (7, 8, 9,10,11,12,13). Furthermore, studies have revealed that people who are more mindful have smaller amygdalas.
A basic mindfulness exercise for self-regulation
A basic mindfulness exercise is to teach children to focus on breathing. Mindful slow-paced breathing helps calm the body and mind by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and improving focus.
Controlled breathing can override the fight, flight, or freeze response set off by the amygdala, and instead enable mindful behavior.
Mindful deep breaths can reduce physiological arousal in children, but they require guidance and benefit greatly from a visual aid to grasp the concept (6). Which is why I’ve designed mindful breathing games that make slow-paced mindful breathing easy to learn. Check them out if you want to teach and learn mindful breathing the easy way.
More Brain Team resources to empower kids!
Now, if you like the Brain Team concept and you’d like to receive ready-to-use Brain Team materials such as a curriculum, activities, posters, printable puppets, cue cards and videos…
… to help children soothe Amy and make Hippo and Tex stronger and ultimately help them develop their mental and physical wellbeing …
… then sign up here to be notified when our science-based children’s wellbeing toolkit and training becomes available.
You will receive a fun Brain Team gift with Brain Team finger puppets when you sign up!
Yes, we created new Brain Team finger puppets for you to print and color with the kids. These, as well as stories, videos, and fun activities, will be included in the upcoming wellbeing kit and training.
The upcoming toolkit and training is a science-based, playful program that teaches children how to use their brains and minds to improve their well-being, happiness, and success. And it will make it easy for you to teach it all.
In the following article, I will show how two amazing mindfulness teachers from Brazil are teaching children about the stress response and self-regulation using the Brain Team concept.
Here’s a preview :-)
Founder of Blissful Kids
Get notified of the upcoming toolkit and children’s wellbeing training featuring the Brain Team and other fun concepts children like by signing up here. I’ll email you when it’s done :-) You will receive a fun Brain Team gift (the Brain Team finger puppets) when you sign up!
Chris Bergstrom is a bestselling mindfulness author, a leader in the field of mindfulness, and the founder of BlissfulKids.com, a community of parents, educators, and therapists dedicated to children’s mindfulness and psychology, with over 15 years of experience facilitating meditation and psychological interventions to people of all ages.
Chris is a certified mindfulness facilitator, trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12, and has received psychology and mindfulness training from UPenn, UCLA, UNC, Mindful Schools, and Mindfulness Without Borders.
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