Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How to Strengthen the Neural Foundations For Learning (Video)

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Transcript

At the moment our worlds are colliding and our roles are colliding too. Parents are finding themselves as teachers, back to parents, back to teachers, and it can be really tough. It’s tough for our kids too who aren’t used to their parents being in the teacher role.

Something to remember and something to keep in mind is the way to the learning brain isn’t necessarily through the learning brain. It’s actually through the emotional brain.

Imagine the brain divided into three parts and at the front is the thinking brain, it’s the prefrontal cortex. It’s the thinking brain, that’s the part we want switched on for learning. It’s the part of the brain that calm big emotions and problem solve, think, retrieve information, put it all together. We want that part of the brain for learning.

Behind it is the emotional brain. Now for the thinking brain to be able to do its job, it actually needs the backing of the emotional brain, so it needs the emotional brain to be relaxed and calm, not hijacking the brain. When the feeling brain – when feelings get too big or anxiety or stress gets too big the feeling brain hijacks the brain. The first thing it does is it shuts down the thinking brain. So it is completely impossible, it’s impossible for our children to learn anything when they’re in big anxiety or big stress. It’s just impossible.

So the best thing we can do for our kids isn’t always necessarily teaching them the stuff that they need to learn – that will often come when we provide the conditions that are conducive to that learning brain being switched on, active and ready to kick some goals. The way we do that is through the emotional brain.

Now the emotional brain, what it needs to be able to do its job is safety and connection, safety and social support – safety through social support. So that means helping them to feel calm and relaxed through connection, through being a strong, steady, loving, warm presence ourselves. That’s why sometimes parents as teachers doesn’t always go so well, because that anxiety can heighten, heighten, heighten in both of us because as parents, we are wired to become distressed when our kids are distressed. That’s what loving parents do. It’s meant to be there. It’s meant to be that way because when we’re distressed, we’re more likely to mobilize to meet their needs. But in times when they’re learning, or when anxiety is kicking on when it doesn’t need to switch on, their anxiety is switching on when it doesn’t need to and it will switch on our anxiety and distress when it doesn’t need to. Remembering that part of anxiety is fight – it’s fight or flight. So that’s why we can all get into arguments. However loving and supportive and nurturing our relationships with our kiddos are, when we go into teacher mode, it might not always work out so well. So the best thing we can do for them is to nurture that learning brain and strengthen it by creating the conditions the brain needs to learn. That is by being calm, relaxed, connected.

If you start to see their anxiety or their stress starting to peak – the brain needs a little bit of anxiety and stress to learn so a little bit is okay – it’s when it is too much too soon or when it goes on for too long, it shuts down the thinking brain. So if you imagine we all have a baseline level of stress and then we have a point where our stress goes through the roof and that’s when the thinking brain switches off. We want it to be within that threshold. So when they start to be approaching that upper level of stress, one of the ways we can support them is by encouraging them to take a two-minute break and it can – the calming down after stress – can happen in two minutes. It might be a two-minute walk, it might be sending a text to a friend – that relational regulation. It might just be sitting and having a chat with us, kicking a ball outside. Movement is really great for calming an anxious brain and getting that learning brain ready. But connection with you is also massive in terms of supporting that learning brain.

So if we think of this time that we’re going through at the moment in isolation, it might not necessarily be the time where they are learning the content that they need to learn, But what we can certainly do is be strengthening them and priming their brain so it is so ready to learn. The brain learns, wires and strengthens through experience. So this is a really great time for us to be able to do that and not just strengthen it for the short term, but strengthen it for the long term as well. So lots of play where they’re discovering and exploring themselves. Play for our teens too. They need to play. Opportunities to move, to get their body moving.

If, when they start to peak, they can take a few deep breaths or do some grounding – just look around you, what do you see, what do you hear, what are you feeling outside your body? That’s another way to bring the brain back down to calm.

There could also be a really big temptation at the moment while we’re homeschooling to get the work done really early – to just sit down for a big chunk and get it done, but it’s just not how the brain learns best. The brain learns best when it takes small breaks and that’s because brains are designed to be curious and to snap to attention when things are different, when there’s a change. So if they’re going to learn something difficult or something new, the best time for this is after a break, so it’s the first thing they do. Definitely not towards the end of a session or in the middle of a session if their anxiety is already peaking. So if they can have two or three minute breaks every 20, 30, 40 minutes, move around, do some strong, steady breathing, connect with you, connect with a friend, that’s the way that they’re going to regulate.

Something for teens that might be helpful if they have to learn something difficult and they’re really struggling with it, is have them go over it before they go to sleep as long as it’s not going to interfere with their sleep, of course, because the brain really needs to be able to learn, really needs to have sleep to be able to learn the next day. Tired brains don’t learn very well. But what happens if it can be something that they look over before they go to sleep – when we’re asleep, the creative part of the brain becomes really active because the brain isn’t using resources to do the things that we usually do during the day, like balancing or talking or eating or focusing. The creative brain is free to take a bit of reign and that’s why when you sleep on it – you’ve heard the saying sleep on it – you wake up in the morning and you’ve got a different outlook on something or you’ve come up with a solution to a problem, it’s because while you’re asleep, your brain can get busy creatively problem-solving things. That’s just another way that might work for our teens.

So the thing to remember during this time when we’re isolating and finding ourselves doing things that we don’t usually do, like being the teacher, or teaching our children at home, the way to the learning brain isn’t necessarily through the learning brain. The most powerful thing we can do for the learning brain is through the emotional brain and making sure that it’s calm and relaxed and making sure they are feeling connected and safe and happy. If they can be in a joyful state, that is a perfect state for the brain to learn. It’s wired, it’s ready, it’s interested, it’s curious, so play is really important, movement, sleep and connection. And if we can do those things, even if we aren’t able to teach them the content that they need to learn right now, that’s okay because there is something else that we can do which is at least as important, I would say even more important, and that is giving their learning brain the foundations it needs to really move them forward, be open, curious, and ready for learning.

 

 


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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.








Hey Sigmund on Instagram

The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to fight or flee anything that presents itself as a threat - and shame, punishment, judgement, exclusion, humiliation all count as threat, even if they come with loads of love.
.
When our kids or teens mess up - which they will, because they’re humans not robots - the way we respond can open them up to our influence or shut them down to it. It can expand the fight and the disconnection, or it can shrink it. In time they will learn to be more in control of their urge for or flight, but for now, we will need to lead the way. (Of course, we are also human, and sometimes despite our biggest efforts to stay calm, we will step into the ring rather than wait for them to step out. We’re human. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay.)
.
If we want them to be open to our influence, we first need to calm their active amygdala (the seat of anxiety and big emotion) by sending the message that we aren’t a threat. We can do this by validating their feelings or the need behind their behaviour (if we know what that is).
.
Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with them, and it doesn’t mean approving of their behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we want to understand the world through their lens. ‘I can see you’re really upset about this.’ ‘It sounds as though you’re worried I’m going to get in your way. I can see this is important to you. I really want to understand. Can you talk to me about this?’
.
When we do this, it sends a message to the protective, powerful, emotional amygdala that it’s safe and that it can back down. This will start to switch off the need to fight us or flee (ignore) us and open them up to our influence, support, warmth and guidance.
.
It also doesn’t mean giving them a free pass on ‘unadorable’ behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we see them, and that we understand there is something important they need. When things are calm, they will be much more open to exploring their decisions, their behaviour, the consequences of that (including any consequences for them), and what they can do differently in the future.
⠀⠀

The need to feel safe is primal. We’re wired to fight or flee anything that presents itself as a threat - and shame, punishment, judgement, exclusion, humiliation all count as threat, even if they come with loads of love.
.
When our kids or teens mess up - which they will, because they’re humans not robots - the way we respond can open them up to our influence or shut them down to it. It can expand the fight and the disconnection, or it can shrink it. In time they will learn to be more in control of their urge for or flight, but for now, we will need to lead the way. (Of course, we are also human, and sometimes despite our biggest efforts to stay calm, we will step into the ring rather than wait for them to step out. We’re human. It’s going to happen. And that’s okay.)
.
If we want them to be open to our influence, we first need to calm their active amygdala (the seat of anxiety and big emotion) by sending the message that we aren’t a threat. We can do this by validating their feelings or the need behind their behaviour (if we know what that is).
.
Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with them, and it doesn’t mean approving of their behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we want to understand the world through their lens. ‘I can see you’re really upset about this.’ ‘It sounds as though you’re worried I’m going to get in your way. I can see this is important to you. I really want to understand. Can you talk to me about this?’
.
When we do this, it sends a message to the protective, powerful, emotional amygdala that it’s safe and that it can back down. This will start to switch off the need to fight us or flee (ignore) us and open them up to our influence, support, warmth and guidance.
.
It also doesn’t mean giving them a free pass on ‘unadorable’ behaviour. What it means is letting them know that we see them, and that we understand there is something important they need. When things are calm, they will be much more open to exploring their decisions, their behaviour, the consequences of that (including any consequences for them), and what they can do differently in the future.
⠀⠀
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