Nurturing Developing Minds

By Rachel Pallesen Sep 5, 2017

Inspired by this year’s school theme, “Renewing the Mind,” I offered to write an article to be included in each monthly YISS newsletter. I am very passionate about strengthening cognitive processes through the YISS Arrowsmith Program and have seen first-hand the results of neuroplasticity and brain rewiring in my current position and throughout my adult life. I am looking forward through these articles, and quarterly parent meetings, to share how you can be involved in fostering healthy brain development in your children at home.

The majority of information will come from three books that Daniel Siegal, M.D has written or co-authored — The Whole Brain Child, No Drama Discipline, and Brainstorm (which covers the teenage brain in great depth). In my reading about the brain, I have found that this author explains complicated brain processes in ways that can be easily understood, and better yet, can be applied in the day-to-day interactions we have with our children to influence how well their brains grow toward integration.

Our experiences change the physical structure of our brains.
New findings in the field of neuroplasticity support the perspective that parents can directly shape the unfolding growth of their child’s brain according to what experiences they offer. For example, children whose parents talk to them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences. Parents who talk to their children about feelings help them to develop emotional intelligence.

Hours of screen time — playing video games, watching TV, texting — will wire the brain in certain ways. Educational activities, sports, and music will wire it in other ways. Everything that happens to us affects the way our brain is molded, and this process continues throughout our entire lives.

Left Brain & Right Brain: An Introduction
Our brain is divided into two hemispheres. Not only are these two sides anatomically separate; they also function differently. The left brain loves and desires order. It is logical, literal, linguistic and linear. The right brain, on the other hand, is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures.

Regarding development, very young children are right-hemisphere dominant, especially during their first three years. Logic, responsibilities and time do not exist for them yet. But when a toddler begins asking “why,” you know the left brain is starting to kick in. Why? Because the left brain likes to know the linear cause and effect relationships in the world and express that logic with language.

What is integration and why does it matter?
Significant problems arise when the two sides of our brain are not integrated, and we end up approaching our experiences primarily from one side or the other. Our emotions are crucial if we are to live meaningfully, but we don’t want them to completely rule our lives. On the other hand, we don’t want to use only our left brain, divorcing our logic and language from our feelings and personal experiences.

Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting are a result of a loss of integration, otherwise known as dis-integration. The exciting news is that we can use everyday opportunities to interact with children in a way that will help them develop resilient, well-integrated brains.

Try “Connect and Redirect” instead of “Command and Demand.”

When our kids are in a right brain state, dominated by emotion and physicality, trying to address them in a left brain mode with words and reason won't work.

First, we need to connect with them emotionally, using touch, tone, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and appropriate intensity to show them that they are "seen." When their right brain state feels "met," we can then redirect our children with our left brain tools — such as planning what to do next or clarifying boundaries.

I stumbled across this strategy back in the 1990’s when I was in charge of a classroom of a dozen elementary students who all had behavioral issues. I quickly realized that to teach them successfully, I needed more insight into their lives, so I sat down with one of the older students, and asked him about his previous school experience. He began describing how poorly his teacher had treated him his first year of school. The events he described made me tear up, which surprised both of us. He asked me why I was crying, and I told him that no kindergartner should have to suffer the way he did. That emotional connection was the turning point in my ability to instruct him. After that, I took the time to hear each child’s school story, and once I connected with each child emotionally, we had a productive three years together!

This strategy does not take much time, sometimes just a few seconds, if you already have a relationship with a child, but those seconds can make all the difference in our interactions with our children. As the parent, you need to recognize that the left brain logic that you may want to bring to your child’s attention will not be appreciated until you have connected with his/her right brain. The good news is that you can practice this one a lot!

“Name it to Tame it: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions”

A toddler falls and scrapes an elbow. A kindergartner loses a beloved pet. A fifth-grader faces a bully at school. An eighth-grader feels the sting of rejection from someone she thought was her best friend. When a child experiences painful, disappointing, or scary moments, it can be overwhelming from the big emotions and bodily sensations flooding the right brain. When this happens, our children need to have someone help them use their left brain to make sense of what’s going on — to put those things in order and to name the big, scary right brain feelings so they can deal with them effectively.

Research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere of the brain. Sometimes parents avoid talking about upsetting experiences, thinking that talking will reinforce their children’s pain or make things worse. In actuality, telling the story is often exactly what children need, both to make sense of the event and to move on to a place where they can feel better about what happened.

When my granddaughter, Eva, was two years old, she had a frightening experience falling into a pool when her dad’s back was turned, and he wasn’t able to grab her until after she was fully submerged. As Eva recalled this ordeal on the way to her first swimming lesson a few days later, she communicated how scary that particular event was, and it gave us adults in the van pause to consider that her swimming lesson might not go well. Our concerns were validated when we left the pool with a screaming, out of control child a few minutes into the lesson. Over the next several days and weeks, Eva continued to talk about falling into the pool, but instead of changing the subject or trying to downplay the situation, her parents allowed her to share the story so she could deal with it both emotionally (right brain) and logically (left brain). They helped her process this frightening experience, fill in the details, and remind her of the fact that “daddy was right there to lift you out of that pool” so that she could process her fear and eventually get back in the water without having a fit.

Eva’s story is an example of parenting with the brain in mind — being aware that a two-year-old may be overwhelmed with emotions in the right brain, but by bringing in factual details from her left brain, which, at two years of age, is just beginning to develop — this young child was not captive to the memory of a traumatic experience. Through the retelling of the event, she defused the scary emotions in her right brain so that they didn’t rule her.

For older children, this will look a little different as they may be able to tell more of the story and may just need you to listen to them tell their stories when the conditions are right: i.e., you can give undivided time and attention and both of you are in a good frame of mind.

I will share a few more strategies next month, but in the meantime, I hope that you will take some opportunities to try these two strategies.

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