Teaching How The Brain Works To Kids (Elementary Students)

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If we can help children better understand what going on in their brains, we improve their ability to process their feelings, thus giving them choices.

This information is actually beneficial for adults as well.

As adults, when we understand how the brain works we can better teach kids about the brain, as well as better respond to our children’s problems more adequately.

The brain is more powerful than a computer.

It can, and does, process information even when we are asleep.

For children, it’s easy for their brains to become overwhelmed with emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness.

It can hard for children to process these emotions when they don’t fully understand what’s happening.

Providing children with a way to figure out what’s going on in their brain is helpful in this regard.

It’s also beneficial for children to have words to express their emotional experiences that others can understand.

Think of it as code, if a group shares a common code, it’s easier to share information with them if everybody knows what they are talking about.

So how do we discuss a serious topic with kids and make it easy to understand while keeping them engaged and interested?

That’s what we’re going to look into right now…

How To Teach Kids About The Brain

The Brain House: The Upstairs and The Downstairs

A very effective way to explain the brain to children is to tell them to think of their brain as a house, which has an upstairs and downstairs.

This idea came from The Whole-Brain Child, a book written by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

This simple analogy is really effective for getting kids to conceptually understand what is going on in their brain.

Expand the house comparison by adding characters who live in the house.

Create stories about the characters who live upstairs and the ones who live downstairs.

With this, you introduce the parts and functions of the thinking brain – the neocortex or the upstairs, and our feeling brain – the limbic system or the downstairs.

The Characters From The Upstairs And Downstairs

The upstairs people are the problem-solvers, the logical thinkers.

The ones who are sensitive and perceptive of other people’s feelings, the adaptable types.

You can personalize them with names like Calming Calvin, Problem-Solving Prudence,  Artistic Arthur, and Adaptable Adam.

The characters from downstairs are more connected to their emotions.

Instinct and intuition are what moves the downstairs folks.

They are the voice that keeps us safe and makes certain that we get what we need.

Our gut-feel and survival instincts come from the brain’s downstairs.

The downstairs characters alert us to be on guard, to run, to fight when dangers are present.

We can call these characters Warning Wanda, Spooked Spencer, and Big Shot Steve.

What you name the characters does not matter.

What’s important is when the names are mentioned or discussed, you and your child know and understand what is talked about.

Have fun coming up with names.

Try animal names, cartoon-inspired names, names for boys or girls, even silly made up names.

Base the names on movie or book characters that your child will relate to and already love for easier recall.

Losing It: When The ‘Downstairs’ Takes Over

Stairs connect the upstairs with the downstairs where the characters take messages up and down to each other.

The interaction between the upstairs people with the downstairs folks helps us make the best decisions, pick the right choices, form friendships and get along, invent new games to play, relax when we get too worried or excited, and figure out how to get ourselves out of a pickle.

It happens, in the downstairs brain Warning Wanda senses danger, Spooked Spencer becomes afraid, and Big Shot Steve raises an alarm telling your body to be ready for danger.

Big Shot Steve will be calling the shots and he would tell the upstairs folks, “We are in charge for now. Upstairs guys, you can work later when we are out of danger.”

This scenario is the downstairs brain “losing it”–or to take a page from Dr. Dan Siegel, “flipping the lid”– on the upstairs brain.  

When this happens, the stairs that connect the two sections of the brain no longer function when the lid is flipped.

The stairs that regularly connect the two no longer function when the lid is flipped.

When ‘Losing It’ Is Could Be The Safest Thing To Do

If the body senses danger, the brain house will be agitated and confused from all the noise all the characters are making and this makes it difficult to hear what each character is saying.

When this happens, Big Shot Steve will keep the upstairs brain quiet so the downstairs guys can get our body ready for the coming danger.

Steve can also tell the other parts of the body to power on (or off).

Steve can make the heart beat faster to make it ready to dash away, or tensing the body muscles, ready for a fight.

He can also send messages to other body parts to be very quiet and hide until the danger is gone.

Steve prepares the body to keep it safe.

Introduce these scenarios to your child in a playful way so they do not get frightened.

It’s a good idea to come up with situations that wouldn’t actually happen in real life.

An example to use is, “What would your downstairs brain do if you find a dragon in the park?”

Everyone Has Experienced Losing It

Think of some examples that you can share with your children about how even adults lose it.

Give examples that aren’t too tough for kids to process or will hit too close to home.

The idea is to explain the concept of losing it to kids and not have them  go through a meltdown themselves.

Here’s a scenario I might give as an example of adults flipping their lids:

Remember the time Mommy could not find the car keys?

I was worried because we were running late for school.

I kept looking for the keys in the hall drawer and pulling out stuff from it over and over.

Mommy was frantic because the downstairs brain has taken over.

I flipped my lid! The upstairs, thinking part of my brain wasn’t working properly then.

When the Downstairs Brain Gets It Wrong

During times of panic and we flip our lids, you can emphasize to the kids that it’s best to remember the upstairs guys Calming Calvin and Problem-Solving Prudence can really help them.

Tell the kids that evreybody has lost it at one point int their lives and that children flip their lids more often than adults.

Big Shot Steve easily gets excited and hits the panic button that sets off tantrums and meltdowns over the smallest things.

This is because the upstairs part of a child’s brain isn’t fully developed.

It wouldn’t be until their mid-twenties.

To stress this point, you can ask the kids this questiont:

Have you seen your Mom or Dad, or any grown-up get on the floor in the supermarket kicking and screaming they want candy?

The reaction would often be giggling and that’s a genuine reaction.

It means it is  still light and playful, and more importantly, the children are engaged and learning.

I tell the kids adults love chocolate the same as their children do, maybe even more, but they don’t throw tantrums.

They don’t throw tantrums because they have had a lot of practice as adults getting Calming Calvin and Problem Solving Prudence to work with Big Shot Steve.

By working together, Calvin and Prudence can stop Steve from raising the alarm when he does not need to.  

It’s going to take a lot of practice, heart to heart talks, and reminders but you can balance this by telling the kids that their brains are still learning new experiences and building from it.

What this really boils down to is helping children to learn functional ways to handle their emotions.

Having conversations about things that happened before can help children identify where things went wrong.

Learning About The Brain House And Managing Emotions

When you have identified and given names to all the characters in the brain house, you have a common language you can use to help your child learn to manage and navigate their emotions.

You can say, “It seems Big Shot Steve is getting ready to raise alarm bells. How about letting Calming Calvin send a message of ”taking big, deep breaths”?

The use of brain house language also helps kids to talk more openly about their mistakes.

The language is playful and non-judgmental.

Using the language makes talking about mistakes separate–“externalized” in psychological parlance–from them.

It might be difficult for a child to say “I hit Jade at school today” compared to “Big Shot Steve flipped the lid today.”

Some parents worry that using this approach gives their child a free pass on bad behavior..

This all boils down to empowering children to learn practical methods to manage overwhelming feelings.

Having conversations about previous mistakes is a teachable moment.

Take the opportunity to talk about your child’s mistakes without them feeling judged, and guide them to use what they learn about the brain house and problem-solve together.

There is no free pass, the kids don’t escape the consequence of bad behavior.

As you talk about what happened, they’ll be able to process their emotions and reactions with the right questions.

You can try asking, “do you think there could be anything you can do to help Steve not to press the warning button and keep the lid on?”

Learning about the brain house is also important for parents.

It lets them think of a proper response when their child is anxious, fearful, sad, or angry.

It’s automatic for parents to tell their children to calm down when they’ve lost it and are in full-blown tantrum mode but it doesn’t always work.

When this happens, parents understand that Calming Calvin is upstairs and can’t go down to help Big Shot Steve until the lid is back on.

In times like those, parents and other adults need to help kids put their lids back on and they can do this with lots of patience, empathy, and many deep breaths.

What To Do Next?

Learning the brain house and the characters that live in it may take a while. Introduce your child to the concept and keep repeating it in conversations.

For younger children, you may want to introduce the characters one at a time.

You may also need to find creative ways to make the concepts stick.

Here are some ways to incorporate the ideas in your talks:

1. Draw a head shape with an upstairs and downstairs. Draw the characters that live in each part of the brain house. You can use the illustration to tell your kids about the brain house.

2. Make finger puppets with craft paper to introduce the characters of the brain house.

3. You can also use the puppets to role play scenarios of interactions among the characters when somebody loses it.

4. Draw a scene of what it might look like inside the brain house if the downstairs guys flip the lid.

5. Create comics about the interactions of the characters inside the brain house.

6. Use a dollhouse or two shoe boxes stacked together. Fill it with characters from the upstairs and downstairs cut from comics or magazines.

These are just a few samples of how you can make talking about the brain house fun and lively. Your kids will be engaged and the concepts will stick. By engaging your children in the brain house talk at an early age, they will learn the foundations of emotional intelligence, be grounded in the concepts, and have a better handle on their emotions.

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff at MindBodyPal is a team of experts led by Tyson Chiu. We love tacos, lattes and Funky Fridays.