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Tips to help children sort out the emotional brain

Students cannot learn when they are caught in an emotional brain. By understanding how the brain works, we can help kids react logically.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — How can students learn when they are trapped inside an emotional brain? Understanding the emotional brain and how it impacts attention, learning and productivity is incredibly important.

Lauren Spigelmyer, founder of The Behavior Hub and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, starts with teaching children about three parts of the brain:

  • The Thinking Brain – Prefrontal cortex
  • Limbic system – Emotional control center
  • Brain Stem

Based off a system developed by Dan Siegel and Georgetown University, Spigelmyer breaks the emotional brain down into two sections – the barking dog and the wise owl. Using a hand signal, she shows people how reacting emotionally to a situation (the barking dog) will scare away the wise owl. Losing the “wise owl” means you’re no longer able to react logically to a situation.  

“Find out what you can do, or what kids can do, to neutralize or calm the barking dog,” Spigelmyer said. “And then when that happens, your wise owl can fly back.”

Spigelmyer believes this is especially important when it comes to children learning in the classroom.

“If the whole point of school systems is to have [children] learn, they can’t learn if their dog is barking,” Spigelmyer said. “If you’re stuck in your emotion brain, if you are emotionally volatile or reactive, you can’t think logically, so you can’t learn – you can’t retain information.”

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If the goal is to learn, Spigelmyer suggests starting with getting the emotional system under control, so that we can access the logical reasoning system, which allows students to learn and think clearly.

Spigelmyer focuses on three areas to help control the emotional brain:

  • Psychological Support
  • Diet and Nutrition
  • Physical Exercise

“It could be resistance work, it could be deep breathing,” Spigelmyer said. “And you’re working on both at the same time because as much as you’re trying to stabilize your barking dog, you also want to strengthen your prefrontal cortex.”

Ideas for how to strengthen your prefrontal cortex according to Spigelmyer: meditation, mindfulness, and yoga.

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“Rewiring the brain, working on brain connections is a slow process,” Spigelmyer said. “It takes time, it takes consistency. So if you want kids to learn to meditate, you don’t need to have them start with five minutes – 30 seconds is plenty.”

Getting in control of your emotional brain allows you to stop and pause before you react to a situation. Spigelmyer describes it as a buffer or a barrier of time that prevents you from reacting impulsively to everything happening in your world.

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