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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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