How the basics of brain science can help kids change troubled behaviors
Several weeks ago, I was sitting in the hallway of my school building talking with a student who was feeling distraught after her involvement in a heated conflict with several classmates. The young girl had lashed out verbally at a group of students during recess. What I’m really trying to say is, she let them have it! I’m talking no holds barred, every-insult-a-third-grader-can-think-of, have it!
After giving her the chance to calm down and talk about the events leading up to the epic tongue-lashing, my student had a lightbulb moment. “My brain just took over my mouth for a few minutes!” she said.
“You probably think I’m just making excuses,” she insisted, “but it’s true!”
I nodded again and affirmed for her, “I understand.”
“You do?” she asked, surprised.
“I do,” I confirmed. “I can help you understand what is happening in your brain, too, during these times when you get very upset. I think this is a very important conversation for us to have because learning about how your brain works when you’re stressed out can help you know how to prevent problems like the one that happened outside today.”
“Am I in trouble?” she asked.
First things are first with kids, right? They need to know that they are safe before they can truly focus on anything else. I assured her that I would help her work through the problem. She nodded and I knew she was ready to move forward.
First, I asked her to raise her make a fist* with either hand. Then, I challenged her to fold her thumb into the palm of her hand and bend her fingers over it. “Believe it or not,” I told her, “this is actually a pretty close model of your brain! Your brain is amazing and has a whole lot of specialized parts, but to help you learn about what happened at recess, we are going to focus on three powerful jobs of your brain for now.
Here’s how I broke it down, as my student and I sat in the hallway that afternoon:
Your wrist represents the brain stem—the part of your brain that connects to your spinal cord (represented by your forearm). This part of your brain controls your heart rate, your breathing, and basically all of the things that your body needs to live, but that you don’t really have to think much about on a daily basis.
Your thumb represents your limbic system. This is the part of your brain that helps you feel your feelings. Lots of times, people call this the “emotional brain.” That sudden and strong rush of anger you said you felt after the girls told you that you couldn’t play soccer with them at recess—that was your limbic system being activated!
Fight, Flight or Freeze Response
Together, your brain stem and limbic system control something called your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. In any stressful situation—whether it is a charging animal that is about to bite you or a classmate who is telling you that you’re the worst soccer player in the whole third grade—this part of your brain can direct how you respond. For example, when classmates say cruel words and leave you out, you might:
Freeze up and not know what to do or say.
Immediately fight back with your fists or your words (or both!)
Run away or take flight from the soccer field as quickly as possible.
These near-instant responses are all times that your brain stem and limbic system have taken charge of your body!
“Which way do you suppose your limbic system was responding today at recess?” I asked.
“Fight!” she declared.
“Right,” I said. “The good news is, there’s still one more part of your brain that we are going to talk about and it’s the part that can help you make good choices, even when your first thought is to ‘fight.”
The front part of your fingers, when wrapped over your thumb, represent the pre-frontal cortex—the part of your brain that controls good decision-making. The pre-frontal cortex is also known as your “logical brain” because it gives you the ability to stop and think before acting on the impulses of your emotional brain.
This is very important because during a conflict with friends—or in any stressful situation—you have the ability to think through your choices and make the best decision for how to respond.
My student looked at me, seeming confused.
What I’m telling you is that even though you were right when you said that your brain took over your mouth for a few minutes, this is not how things have to be! Your amazing brain gives you the power to make good choices, even in bad situations! How cool is that?
My student agreed with me that her brain was pretty cool! She had lots more questions after that—like why it was that her heart felt like it was pounding out of her chest when she got really angry, and why yelling at kids feels so good in the moment even when it just brought her more problems later on. We sat for a while longer and talked about it all—how the activity in her brain stem accounted for her rapid heart rate (and her hot face), how her limbic system directed her fighting words, and how her pre-frontal cortex allowed her to engage in a thoughtful conversation with me once she was calm.
We went on to talk about specific strategies for getting and staying calm during stressful situations, so that she could always let her logical brain be in charge, instead of having her emotional brain take over. To be honest, this student and I had had many previous talks about strategies for calming down, but this time, the conversation was different. Something clicked. Connecting stress management and relaxation strategies with age-appropriate brain science has proven to be a pathway of insight and self-regulation for this child that no previous amount of talking, skill-practicing, role-play, or therapeutic games ever achieved.
Did a chance lesson on neuroscience eliminate all of my student’s troublesome behaviors from that day forward? Of course not. Anyone who knows anything about the human brain knows that behaviors are patterned and that change takes time. Can I honestly tell you, however, that this third-grade student has been able to stop herself from lashing out at peers on a far more frequent basis since our hallway science chat? Absolutely. Does she make use of more of the relaxation strategies I had been trying to teach her all year, now that she knows how calming her limbic system can help her access the logical decision making abilities of her pre-frontal cortex? You bet! She gets it, she is proud of herself, and she is the first to notice that her classmates no longer walk on eggshells around her. Knowledge is, indeed, power.
*The hand model of the brain, referenced above, is adapted from Daniel Siegel’s Brain Hand Model. For more information and to enhance your understanding of how the human brain responds to stressful incidents, check out Siegel’s brief YouTube video, “Dr. Daniel Siegel Presenting a Hand Model of the Brain.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw
-Signe Whitson, LSW