Teaching kids about their brain provides them with a strong foundation as understanding how their brain works is the cornerstone of developing emotional intelligence and resilience. When we teach our kids about their brain, we need to make sure it’s age-appropriate information, simple to understand, and most of all, fun. You can start by sharing these five big ideas.
Number one: Our brain is the boss
Most children have an image of their brain as a squishy thing that’s inside their head and is used for thinking stuff, but that’s only a small part of what our brain does. Explain to your child that our brains are the boss of our entire body and control everything we do – breathing, digesting food, feeling different emotions like being happy, sad or grumpy, and lots of other important things that keep us alive. I often use the hand model of the brain described by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson, in their book The Whole-Brian Child to illustrate how our brain works for kids. Holding my arm up with my thumb tucked into my palm, and the other four fingers curled over the thumb I explain that my arm is the spinal cord, that the base of my palm is the lower part of our brain where we carry and keep our feelings and that the four curled over fingers are the higher part of our brain the thinking part (I call it our wise leader). Then I uncurl my fingers so they can see my thumb and explain that this part of our brains is like a security guard that keeps us safe. That when it gets scared, anxious, or frightened and thinks we are not safe it will take over and tell our wise leader to take a break, and we flip our lids (fingers flip upwards). I explain what it feels like when the wise leader is in control and what it might feel like when the security guard is in control.
Number two: We need to keep our brains healthy
When we take good care of our bodies, we are taking care of our brains at the same time.
A leading Australian researcher, Dr Felice Jacka from Deakin University, and her team have revealed that eating junk food can impact on the areas of the brain linked with both learning and memory as well as compound the possibility of psychological problems developing. Dr Jacka and her team have been collecting a significant amount of evidence that indicates our diet is as important to our brain and mental health as it is to our physical health. Therefore, one of the best ways to help your kids take care of both their body and brain is with good food. Both our bodies and brains require water to survive – our body is 60% water, and our brain tissue is 80% water. We need to help our kids develop the habit of regularly drinking water. I often found their drink bottles got lost or forgotten, so I used to remind the kids to get at least eight drinks from the drinking fountains each day – even if it was a mouthful or two at least, they were keeping hydrated.
Sleep is as essential to both our physical and mental health and well being as food and water. It helps foster resilience and keeps our bodies and minds performing optimally. Consistent sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, poor immune function, diabetes, anxiety, and depression. Regular exercise and physical activity help reduce, manage or even prevent stress, anxiety, and depression. They also help our brains function better and are a crucial pillar of mental fitness for both adults and children.
Number three: Our brain is like a house
Another idea I gleaned from The Whole-Brain Child for explaining our brains to children was the idea that it’s a house that has an upstairs part and a downstairs part. The upstairs part is where our thinking brain lives, and it helps us be creative, flexible, calm and problem solve. The downstairs part is where our feeling brain lives, and that is focused on keeping us safe and making sure we can run, fight or hide when there is danger (similar to the wise leader and security guard I talked about earlier in the chapter). The upstairs and downstairs are connected by a set of stairs that lots of messages go up and down and that helps our brains to work well and calm themselves down, get along with people or think of new ideas for stories to tell. Sometimes the downstairs brain takes over when it thinks there’s danger and it takes charge – telling the upstairs brain they can take a rest till the danger is gone. When the stairs connecting the two no longer work, the brain flips its lid. This concept of a house gives us a common language to use with our kids and help them learn how to manage their emotions and keep their brains working well.
Number four: Our brain can change
It is easy for kids to see that they are growing taller and that their hair is getting longer, but it’s harder for them to understand that their brains change too. We need to teach our children that their brains are growing and changing every day. We can explain that people aren’t born with a set amount of intelligence or skills that stay the same throughout their lives. They can learn that even though the brain is not a muscle we can help it get stronger, like we can work at making our muscles stronger, by trying new things, learning to play an instrument or sport, learning a different language, or a new skill.
Number five: We all have different brains
One of the most important things to teach children is that different people have different brains. It’s important to understand that although brains work in similar ways, each person has a brain that’s unique to them, and they have their own thoughts and feelings that might be different to ours. This discussion also provides the opportunity to develop their understanding that each person has their own special talents and skills and that no-one is better or worse, just different, and that’s ok.
Teaching our children about how their brain works empowers them to learn how to control their brain, manage their feelings and control their actions rather than feeling overwhelmed.
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