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.

My Field Experience Inquiry Question

The main assignment in our Field Experience course is to come up with an inquiry question, then to compile as much knowledge as possible on the subject, then exhibit our findings at a gallery walk at the end of the semester. I’ve included my inquiry question below.

How we can support students with a history of trauma when their history begins to affect their classroom learning experience?

Specifically, I aim to

  • do some basic research on how children process a painful experience. This could help to prepare me for the ways that process could play out within a classroom setting.
  • learn the kind of terminology that recognizes “inappropriate behaviour” as the complicated event that it often is so that kids no longer view themselves as “bad” but rather recognize that they are processing a bad experience.
  • compile as many useful tools as possible that could could allow me to maintain a safe environment if/when a student’s behaviour begins to escalate in a way that could threaten the safety of other students.
  • identify key strategies to prevent these situations from happening by teaching students to recognize their own emotions and identify ways to deal with their particular struggle in a way that is appropriate for them.
  • (If/when these situations do happen) outline some exercises that could help students debrief about a situation they may have found traumatic.
  • find resources for teaching empathy to students who witness another student’s outbursts.
  • compile all of these resources on an easily accessible space (this blog) so that other teachers can also look through them for inspiration or ideas.

Throughout the semester I will attempt to write short posts about resources that I find extremely helpful. To prepare for the gallery walk, I will compile all these posts into a table of contents so that I can easily refer back to them later.