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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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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