Why Self-regulation Skills Are Essential Tools for Today’s ChildrenPosted May 10th, 2013 by Leah Kalish and Wendy Phillips Piret
Stress is everywhere. Learning how to de-stress when young is essential to our children’s nervous systems, brains and personalities. Research now shows that normal growth and development can be derailed by chronic or excessive stress with damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health for a lifetime.
Self-regulation / mindfulness techniques and activities are crucial because they press the reset button on the stress response. They enables us to move out of our fight or flight survival mode and into a more optimal physiological state. Daily, regular participation in self-regulation / mindfulness exercises reinforces one’s ability to sustain an optimal state and more easily manage stress.
Let me offer a simplified overview of the brain, one you can share with your children to help them understand that the brain has different channels and that with awareness and self-regulation, they can shift themselves from one channel to another. According to the widely accepted model established by Professor Paul D. MacLean, the human brain, which is command central for our thoughts, behaviors and choices, consists of three sections that represent increasingly more complex evolutionary purposes:
The Reptilian Brain is the source of our primary instincts and survival. When we are in a state of stress, the brain stem becomes the star player, re-routing oxygenated blood from the digestive track and the brain to the large muscles of our limbs. In varying degrees, we are adeptly ordered to do three things: freeze, flee for our life, or chase something down to defeat or eat. Unfortunately, the brainstem, particularly in the brain of a child which does not yet have mature impulse control pathways or a mature prefrontal (rational thinking brain) cortex, does not differentiate well between the stress of modern life and the stress of a true survival situation.
The result: children and adults under stress are less, or unable, to think clearly and behave in socially acceptable ways. And they often remain in a state of chronic stress because their bodies never expend the burst of energy generated by the rush of adrenaline and reset / relax back into the parasympathetic, peaceful, nervous system.
We do not have to remain in a stressed state or stand by and let a child learn the habit of being ruled by these triggered survival mechanisms. We can change the emotional state of our being by recognizing the signs of stress and choosing to take positive action via self-regulation practices.
The Limbic System, or Mammalian Brain, lies in the mid-brain and identifies, categorizes and organizes our emotions such that we can center, stabilize and steer ourselves thoughtfully. It is at this level that we emotionally connect with others. We learn to play and coordinate and eventually to connect with our hearts as we fully access the final level, the Neocortex, the thinking, planning, idea generating, rational brain.
Ease, confidence, and joy profoundly affect our access to the neocortex, particularly the pre-frontal cortex where the ability to self-reflect and control our impulses originates. In order to access the higher levels of the brain, we must first address and meet basic survival needs. When stress affects us negatively, and we are unable to make a positive choice and change our reactions, we lose the capability to think clearly, we revert back to the Reptilian Brain where instinct rules the day. And that is when Ronnie (age 5), who is tired because he went to bed late, ate a donut for breakfast, and now simply wants to play with his truck, has a complete melt down when it’s time to gather for circle.
Breathing exercises are an easy and effective way to start introducing self-regulation / mindfulness to your children. Before you teach them these 4 breathing techniques, show them about the 3 parts of their brains. Explain that by changing how they breathe, they can change how they think/feel and which part of their brain they are operating from.
Then, check out the Movement & Mindfulness bundle. The 9 yoga/movement story videos, parent / teacher guide, and 13 health and self-regulation flash cards make it easy to enjoy movement and social-emotional enrichment playtime at home. Help your children get more exercise and learn a set of self-regulation tools that support them in not only being physical fit, but also emotionally stable and learning able.