Understanding what’s happening in the brain is the first step to empowering students with tools to respond to their experiences.
More often than not, our students can be overwhelmed by their big feelings – anger, fear, sadness – and not know what to do with these feelings when they arise.
Having a basic knowledge of the brain gives us the ability to normalize and make sense of what is happening. It also empowers us to communicate our emotional experience to others more clearly and respond to our feelings more effectively.
This knowledge is equally powerful for our students as for ourselves as teachers: knowing how the brain works allows us to better understand and relate to our students, as well as support them when they need help.
To start, let’s look at the brain.
Limbic System = How we FEEL about the world
The limbic system is located at the center of our brain and includes a famous structure known as the amygdala. Its function is to determine emotional responses by classifying sensory input as either pleasure or threat. Detected threats will initiate an immediate reaction: fight, flight or freeze.
What’s important to note is that the amygdala does not discriminate between real and perceived threats. In modern life, this means that the amygdala can often trigger false alarms from perceived threats and give rise to potentially problematic behavior.
For example, a student may perceive a neutral glance from another student as a threat, leading to feelings of anger and ultimately a fight response. Or a student may perceive a test as a threat, leading to feelings of agitation or frustration and ultimately the inability to perform on today’s test.
Prefrontal Cortex = How we THINK about the world
The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer surrounding the brain: the wrinkly layer that you see. It’s responsible for how we think about the world and solving problems.
The cerebral cortex includes the prefrontal cortex, which gives rise to executive functions. Executive functions can be thought of as the mental skills we have to help us get things done or manage ourselves to achieve a goal. In other words, it’s self-regulation. The prefrontal cortex allows us to make well-balanced choices, problem-solve and learn optimally.
When we provide ourselves time and space to consciously process our sensory input, we allow the prefrontal cortex to regulate the amygdala’s knee-jerk reactions and choose the best response instead.
Picture the Brain as a House
In the book The Whole Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson introduce the concept that the brain can be imagined like a house with upstairs and downstairs sections.
The downstairs section (or the limbic system) is where important, basic functions are – emotions, reactions, and vital functions – similar to the downstairs of the house with the basic kitchen, bathroom, and living room. This is where fight, flight, or freeze live.
The upstairs section (or the prefrontal cortex) is more complex. Its functions include thinking, problem-solving, planning, and regulating – collectively, the center of our executive functions. In a house, this would be the equivalent of office space, library, or bedrooms on the second floor.
Flipping Our Lids
Our brains work best when the upstairs and downstairs brain work together or are integrated. In the house analogy, imagine that the staircase connecting the section of the house is strong and well-developed for high traffic. This is integration.
When the downstairs brain takes over, imagine that it blocks the access to the upstairs so that the two sections of the house are no longer connected. This is known as “flipping our lid.”
We all flip our lids, but children often flip their lids more frequently than adults. Think tantrums in the grocery store, crying over not getting ice cream.
Why? Because while the downstairs brain is fully developed at birth, the upstairs brain is under construction until a person is in their mid-20s. Therefore we must be conscious of the expectations we place on our students because sometimes, calming down and getting it together right now is just not neurologically possible.
That said, providing ample opportunities to understand and strengthen the integration of the brain supports our students’ brain develop during these critical years of construction.
teaching activity: personifying the brain
To make this easier for students to understand, you can personify the sections of the house with the characters that inhabit them. Introduce students to the concepts of the upstairs and downstairs brain. Then, start to brainstorm who lives in the house (for younger students, it may be helpful to come up with names yourself).
The downstairs characters are feelers who are focused on our safety and survival. These characters identify dangers, spark emotions, and respond quickly.
Ideas: Anxious Andy, Angry Amy
The upstairs characters are thinkers and problem solvers. They help us regulate our emotions and plan our responses.
Ideas: Problem Solving Penelope, Calm Carlos
When the stairs are connecting the upstairs and downstairs, the characters can run up and down between the sections of the house with messages for one another.
Brainstorm with your students what this looks like (e.g. we are able to play with our friends, solve problems when they come up, calm ourselves down in difficult situations, and make good choices).
Sometimes our downstairs brain will spot danger and we will flip our lids. The characters block off our upstairs section of the house so the stairs are no longer connected until the threat is minimized. This looks like our fight, flight, or freeze responses.
Ask your students when these reactions would be safest. For younger students, start with unlikely situations so that they do not get scared.
Let students know that we all flip our lids, and share a light-hearted example of how you recently flipped your lid.
By doing this activity, you work with your students to establish a shared language to understand and more freely communicate their emotions. It also helps to remove the personalization and judgment around our emotional reactions and enables students to learn functional ways to have conversations about them.
teaching activity: draw the house
Ask students to draw the house and characters that live in the house. Draw what happens when the two parts are connected. Draw what happens when we flip our lids.
Mindfulness and the Brain
Mindfulness gives us tools to calm down: soothing the limbic system (downstairs brain) and activating the prefrontal cortex (upstairs brain). When we are calm in our bodies, we are calm in our minds and can make well-balanced choices more easily.
Being mindful means drawing your awareness and attention to the present moment, observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they happen, without trying to analyze or correct. It involves getting quiet and curious so that you can notice what’s happening in your inner and external environments without letting your mind get carried away by anxieties about the future or regret about the past.
The evidence shows that mindfulness practices such as meditation, focused breathing, and yoga activate and strengthen our prefrontal cortex so that we are better able to pay attention, regulate our emotions, and make better choices. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we strengthen these abilities.
The Mind-Body Connection
Yoga puts mindfulness into action by engaging the mind-body connection. Breathing techniques, yoga poses, and relaxation exercises teach students how to use their body to help them consciously calm now.
To get a feeling for this, when you feel fear or anxiety, how do you breathe? With quick, shallow breaths into your chest. The reverse is also true: taking quick, shallow breaths can trigger feelings of stress and anxiety in the brain.
On the other hand, taking conscious, deep breaths into the belly send a message to your brain to calm down and relax. Give this a try.
Yoga techniques actively trigger the relaxation response and interrupt the quick reactivity of the downstairs brain by teaching us how to actively calm our bodies to calm our minds. In our character analogy, yoga helps the downstairs brain feelers settle down so that the upstairs brain problem solvers can be heard again.
here are three yoga techniques to share with your students.
Why it works:
Stress and anxiety are held in your jaw, shoulders, low back, and hips. By opening the mouth and making an audible exhale, you consciously let go of the stress and anxiety tension stored in the body.
Forward Fold at Desk
Why it works:
Forward folds calm the body down by reversing the blood flow. It allows students to take a moment and let their focus go inward to inquire about their behavior and then make a choice to shift into who and how they want to be.
Why it works:
This pose is energizing. By standing up tall in your body and taking a few deep breaths you awaken the mind and the body.