Brain Basics (Joshua MacNeill)

"Our brains are amazing and complex instruments at the center of everything we do." 

Given how central our brain is to everything we do, it makes sense that understanding how it functions would give us more insight into how we function. Simply understanding that when our kids (or ourselves!) are reacting strongly, it is a physiological reaction that they don't always have control over can help us help them find better ways of handling these strong and often scary feelings. 

Money quote:

Just like hunger, our students’ behaviors are not necessarily rooted in decisions we can punish them out of since they are natural occurrences within the body. In the same way you need to be fed to curb your appetite, you need to stimulate the brain region a child is operating from in order to get them back up to the cortex.

In a nutshell, our brain is made up of the following regions:

  • The cortex (higher level thinking and problem solving)
  • The limbic system (our emotions)
  • The midbrain (large and fine motor skills)
  • The brainstem (basic life functions)

When under stress (which can include academic stress!) the brain reacts as if it is under a threat and shuts off higher level processing. How our kids are reacting can give us insight into what brain region they are working from:

If you hand a difficult math problem to a child and they dive right in, you can make a strong assumption they are operating from their cortex and have the best possibility of being successful with the assignment. If you hand them the assignment and, after looking it over, they begin to sincerely ask why you hate them or say they are mad at you or declare they can’t do it because they’re are dumb, this implies that they might be operating from the limbic system. Lastly, if you hand them the assignment and they tear it up, storm out, or punch a wall, this could indicate that they are operating from their midbrain or even their brainstem.

Our goal then becomes to gently provide what their brain needs to get back up into their cortex:

If a student is operating from the brainstem, think of their basic life functions. Supply them with food and water if needed, and then focus on breathing. These breathing exercises do not have to be formal or rigid—you can play games, blow up balloons, or blow bubbles. Almost anything you can do to focus on breathing helps stimulate the brainstem. If they are in the midbrain, supply controlled movements such as heavy lifting, moving books or even furniture around the room. Encouraging fine motor skill work such as doodling or crafts can also help. If they are in their limbic system, make sure they feel safe and cared for, and give them a chance to work with you or another partner on a simple task. Lastly, when they are in the cortex, you know it is a great time to do work.

Just think of the how empowering this information can be for our kids, not to mention ourselves!


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Posted March 13th, 2018
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