How to Strengthen the Neural Foundations For Learning

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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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