An Introduction to Integrating the Brain (with Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson)

I just finished reading The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson and I keep telling all my friends and family members about it. The book is all about teaching kids how to practice healthy mental habits while also better understanding their own neural processes.

According to Siegel, fostering mental health is like paddling down a river. On one bank is “chaos” and the other “rigidity”. Fostering mental health, in both adults in children, involves maintaining a balance between these two banks. This is done by using their “whole-brain” or helping the parts of the brain to become better integrated. In The Whole-Brain Child, they explore a variety of ways to better integrate the brain.

Left and Right Brain Integration

While the left brain is “logical, literal, linguistic (likes words), and linear, the right brain is “holistic and nonverbal… intuitive and emotional” (pg. 15-16). Siegel and Bryson explain that when a child is reacting in a way that seems irrational, it may be because their brain has been “highjacked” by the right side.

In order to actually bring a child down to a place where we can even begin to logically reason with them, it is essential to reach out to them and affirm their emotional state. Since The Whole-Brain Child is written specifically for parents, it suggest hugging or cuddling your child until they have calmed down, and then slowly bringing logic and reason into the conversation. This is a strategy the authors refer to as “connect and redirect”.

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“Wallpaper 961723”, courtesy of Jinho Jung, Flickr CC 2.0

When it comes to potentially traumatic or emotion-laden events, they suggest parents “name it to tame it”. Rather than redirecting a child’s thoughts away from a traumatic experience (their example was a car accident), Siegel and Bryson allowing the child to retell the traumatic experience, but follow up by assuring the safety of everyone involved. In their example, where a child and babysitter were in a car accident, the parents consistently retold the story with the child, but consistently reminded the child that when they had visited the babysitter after the accident she had recovered and was safe. This way the parents helped bring closure to the event, and prevent it from coming an unconscious source of anxiety.

Upper and Lower Brain Integration

Siegel and Bryson explain the upper and lower brain like a house. Downstairs is the brain stem and limbic region. These lower areas are often described as “primitive” because they handle basic functions like breathing, and “innate reactions”, (fight, flight, freeze) and “strong emotions” like anger and fear (38-39).  Meanwhile, the upstairs brain is made of the parts of the cerebral cortex. The authors focus particularly on the middle pre-fontal cortex “where more intricate mental processes take place, like thinking, imagining, and planning” (40). The authors explain that without upper and lower brain integration, it’s almost like there is a baby-gate keeping the child in their fight or flight.

I also found this helpful infograph on the Blissful Kids blog and thought it expressed those basics in a helpful/accessible way.

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Siegel and Bryson explain that kids sometimes throw tantrums because they are trapped in a lower-brain reaction. They emphasize that there are certain differences between upper and lower brain tantrums; upper brain tantrums are an intellectual attempt to manipulate, while lower brain tantrums occur when kids aren’t able to access their higher thinking processes. They also provide a few strategies for dealing with a lower-brain tantrum, which I’ve included below.

“Engage, don’t enrage”: This strategy involves helping a child intellectually engage with their feelings. For example, if a child shouts “I hate you” you try to get to the root of their reaction BEFORE you explain that their behaviour in inappropriate.

“Use it or lose it”: This strategy involves training kids to engage their upstairs brain by involving them in decision making, discussing emotions and self-regulation, having conversations about how to be empathetic towards themselves and others, and generally delving into discussions about morality and what is right.

“Move it or lose it”: This strategy involves exercising the body in order to nurture the mind. For example, running or exercising when anxious, smiling even when you don’t feel happy, mindfulness exercises, etc.

Further Integration Techniques

The Whole-Brain Child goes on to explore a variety of other ways to integrate the brain, including “Integrating Implicit and Explicit Memories,” “Integrating the Many Parts of Self,” and “Integrating Self to Others.” While I won’t be exploring all these elements of the book in this post, the video below summarizes the other key strategies for teaching integration for kids.

If you are a parent, or work with children in any capacity, I would highly recommend reading this book. I found it an accessible read, and it even provides a variety of helpful tools like this Refrigerator Sheet, which sums up the main points of the books.

Inquiry Interview: Jennifer Clarke, School Counsellor

I started my interview with Jen by asking her about her experience with childhood trauma. What I hadn’t realized, however, is that she typically refers kids who have experienced any sort of abuse or major trauma to a specialist. There are specific agencies that have more resources for dealing with trauma than what she has access to as a school counsellor. She did touch on a few resources I may want to look into. For example, she mentioned that the “stages” of grief are no longer held to so concretely, but that I may want to look into the “tasks” of grief, which can appear in any order. She also lent me her copy of The Whole-Brain Child, which touches on the need for students to talk through their experiences in order to connect their left and right brain activity. She lent me several other resources as well, which I’ve touched on at the bottom of the page.

While Jen doesn’t often work directly with many students who are working through experiences of trauma, she does spend a lot of time working with kids who are experiencing anxiety or distraction in general. From what she has encountered and read, anxiety is on the rise for kids. She’s worked with students separation anxiety, even in middle school, and students who suffer panic attacks. Many parents don’t know how to deal with their child’s anxiety, so they allow their students to avoid school or switch to homeschooling. Unfortunately, one of the worst things you can do to deal with anxiety is allow the student to avoid whatever is making them anxious, since that will only embed their fear and inability to face it. Instead, she is pushing for teachers to be more flexible and have lots of empathy for their students so that the classroom can become a less overwhelming space.

Because it can be such a life-long struggle, her goal is to provide students with tools they can use when they leave school too.  At her table in her office she has a variety of fidgets for students to interact with. She also has several meditation sites on hand so that she can lead students through different mental wellness exercises when they are feeling overwhelmed. While she mentioned that cognitive behaviour therapy (exposure, in particular) is a big part of dealing with anxiety, she also mentioned that a large part of her job is just listening.

Referring to Carl Rogers’ “Client Centred Theory”, she explained that many of the students just want someone to talk to. Parents and families have increasingly busy lifestyles, so many students don’t have the opportunity to talk through their frustrations and feel validated. Parents also often feel the need to “fix” situations for their children, when in fact it may be more beneficial to listen and lead children towards solving their own problems, when possible.

My conversation with Jen was really helpful for identifying ways I can make my classroom a safer space for students with anxiety. She also pointed me towards several helpful resources, which I’ve included below.

  • The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
  • The MindUp Curriculum Trademarked by the Hawn Foundation
  • Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare
  • The Explosive Child and Lost at School by Ross W. Greene