Taming the Palace Guard one Breath at a Time

The amygdala is such a small part of the brain, and yet it plays such a huge role in our ability to function optimally. I was recently at the National Middle Levels Conference in Portland and had the opportunity to hear Shauna King, from UpsideDown Organization, talk about the brain science behind bullying. She talked a lot about the amygdala, and she wisely compared it to a palace guard. I had never heard this comparison drawn; however, it made perfect sense. Like the palace guard, the amygdala’s job is to protect above all else. Information and emotions need to get past the palace guard to get to other parts of the brain. If the palace guard deems it safe or pleasurable, the information is let in. If the palace guard feels it is too dangerous, it will stop information at the gate and prevent it from moving on. Put the palace guard on a state of constant high alert and it is no longer distinguishing between real threats and perceived threats. The gates are closed and nothing is getting by. In addition, you can also send the palace guard into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When you get to this state, your palace guard, or your amygdala, has taken over but at the expense of the frontal lobes where learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and focus take place.

If you have ever had an opportunity to visit London and see the palace guards in action, you will know they lack all emotion. On a past trip to London, I remember watching a child frantically waving his hands and trying to get the attention of one of the guards. I also remember the look of confusion on the face of the child when he was met with no response. This is where the amygdala and the palace guard differ. The amygdala remembers the emotions behind memories.

Take a moment to think about a happy memory. If you are like many of the students and adults I teach, you will find yourself starting to smile and will feel a certain sense of happiness. Your brain has encoded the emotion behind that memory. In the same way you felt happiness at remembering a joyful memory, you also encode the emotions behind memories that are not so happy. In children, the memory may be distant, or even gone, but the emotion behind the memory is still there. For example, a couple of years ago, I had a student who came from a family that was less than kind to him. When another student teased him, he flew into a rage I had never seen in him before. Once he was calm, I asked what had happened. He started by telling me he didn’t know but, as he talked, he related the issue in the class to similar teasing at home by a parent. When the student teased him, he didn’t think about his parent or the teasing that had taken place years ago, instead, his amygdala kicked in and sent him into “fight” mode without him even being aware. The challenging part is that the amygdala is often the dominant part of a child’s brain and “taming it” requires practice.

Students who practice mindful awareness are training the brain to slow down and process sensory data. One of the best ways to practice mindful awareness is through deep belly breathing, or brain breaks, as they are called in the MindUP program. Focusing on the breath helps calm the body by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and sharpening focus. When children pay attention to their breath, they are also supporting the strong functioning that takes place in the frontal lobes or prefrontal cortex. Controlled breathing also calms the body and mind and decreases the anxiety that sends our amygdala into flight, fight, or freeze mode. This practice primes the brain to be more reflective and less reactive. Over time, this strengthens neural pathways and connections and mindful awareness moves from being a state to a long-term trait.

For an excellent video on the connection between the brain and deep breathing, check out this fantastic Dan Siegel Video.

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Using the Power of Stories to Introduce the Concept of Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has written a number of fantastic books on mindfulness for adults, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” While this is a great definition for adults to ponder, use this same definition with children and you will likely be met with a sea of confused stares. The way we explain mindfulness to students must be much simpler and must be built on a foundation of making connections between the concept of mindfulness and the child’s own life.

Introducing students to the concept of mindfulness, or to what it means to be mindful, has become a lot easier with picture book authors embracing the topic. Using picture books to introduce mindfulness gives students a foundation from which to make connections to their own lives and serves as a starting point for rich classroom discussions and activities. While this blog post was going to include my favourite top 5 books on mindfulness, a recent purchase bumped it up to a top 6 list.

If I were to recommend any book on the topic of mindfulness, Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda is my favourite. In this story, Monkey can’t quite figure out why Panda is always so calm and relaxed. Panda and Monkey compare their day and while their activities are the same, they do them in a very different way. While Monkey is always doing one activity while thinking of another, Panda focuses on the activity he is doing in that moment. Panda explains to Monkey that his problem is that his “monkey mind” is jumping around too much. In contrast, Panda is mindful, which he explains means his “mind” is “full” of the moment. This is a fantastic launching point for an initial introduction to what it means to be mindful.

What Does it Mean to Be Present is another favourite. It also serves as an introduction to what it means to be mindful or to be in the present moment. Students learn that being present in the moment is about listening to yourself and others, focusing on the now, being grateful, and learning from mistakes. It is also about slowing down to focus on the beauty that surrounds us each and every day. While Amazon says this book is coming soon, for now it appears it has to be purchased through the publisher “Little Pickle Press,” who also puts out one of my favourite books on the brain, Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. They also sell the wonderful poster pictured at the beginning of this post.

For younger children, Take the Time: Mindfulness for Kids is a great book to introduce the concept of mindfulness in a simple way. In this beautifully illustrated story, we follow a small child as they navigate mindfully through the world, noticing the things they feel and experience along the way.

Someday is the story of a little girl who finds herself pulled between the present moment and her dreams for the future. Throughout the book, she goes back and forth between imagining what life will be like when she is bigger, while trying to be content with where she is at in the moment. This book is beautifully illustrated and is rich with sensorial imagery. Someday reminds us that while dreaming big is wonderful, sometimes just enjoying the present moment can be equally as sweet.

The Listening Walk is a great introduction to mindful listening or how a simple walk can turn into a lesson in mindfulness. As the little girl in the story focuses on her walk, she is able to hear, see, smell, and experience things she otherwise would not. At the end of the story, the main character invites us all to take a listening walk. This story serves as a great starting point for a lesson on mindful listening, or for a listening walk of your own.

My newest book, Silence, is a beautifully illustrated and gently written book on the power of silence. This book encourages children to stop, listen, and reflect on the experiences around them. Using the qualities of mindfulness, readers are asked to pay attention to the things normally drowned out in our busy, noisy world. This story lends to great discussions about the things we experience when we become still enough to notice.

Any of these books serves as a great starting point to begin a class discussion on mindfulness and they make an excellent addition to any school or class library. Hands-on lessons to follow shortly.

“Glitzing Up” Your Understanding of the Brain

I was recently teaching a MindUp workshop to teachers in my district. A primary teacher asked how to introduce the concept of the brain to young children, or more specifically, the impact of stress, anxiety, and fear on the brain. This is a question I have been asked many times before. From an adult perspective, learning or teaching anything about the brain seems like a complex undertaking. The reality is, we don’t need to be neuroscientists to teach students about the brain or about the impact of stress, anxiety, and fear on brain function. When I teach these concepts to adults, I use the same visuals I would use with a class of middle school students or with a kindergarten class. The key is to provide students of any age with key visuals they can connect to and refer to when needed.

In addition to using Dan Siegel’s “Hand Model of the Brain,” which I wrote about in an earlier post, the most successful visual I have found to demonstrate the connection between stress and the brain is by using glitter balls. The use of glitter balls came from Susan Kaiser Greenland. I have included her video clip below. When I demonstrate how the parts of the brain function in both a calm and stressed out state, I begin by explaining that all the pieces of glitter represent the roughly 2000 bits of information our Reticular Activating System takes in each second. When the mind is calm and clear, like the unshaken glitter ball, information is able to pass successfully to the other parts of the brain. If we need to store or retrieve memories, we can access our hippocampus with greater ease. If we need to solve complex problems, make connections, or focus and pay attention, information is able to travel to our Prefrontal Cortex where learning takes place.

In contrast, when the mind is anxious or in a state of stress, the mind becomes just like the shaken glitter ball. Information is sent to our amygdala, our flight, fight, freeze center, as opposed to where it is needed to go. Like the glitter ball, the mind becomes cloudy and unfocused, information swirls around, and it is much harder for information to get where it needs to go. Can’t we all think of a time when our mind felt like the shaken glitter ball? I imagine it was hard to focus, hard to remember things, and hard to keep information straight.

When I teach students about deep breathing, we look at the glitter ball again. This time, using our breathing, we shake the glitter ball and breathe while the glitter slowly settles to the bottom. This represents the calming effect of breathing on the brain. Students as young as kindergarten can relate to the visual of the glitter ball, and I have seen the image of the glitter ball reappear in conversations and in writing. I remember one of my former kindergarten students, during a particularly tough moment, tell me his brain felt like the glitter ball. His thoughts were swirling around and he recognized he was having a hard time controlling it.

If you can’t find glitter balls, making your own is simple enough. Before I came across Kaiser Greenland’s video, I used the jar of thick oil and small beads pictured at the start of this post. You can also create a more glittery visual by using hot water, food colouring, glitter glue, glitter, and a glass jar. In a small jar, mix a couple of tablespoons of glitter glue with hot water (if water is cold, the glue won’t break down). Stir until the glue is dissolved. Add a drop of food colouring and some dry glitter and shake. For a great book that goes with this concept, try “Moody Cow Meditates.” Since the deep breathing practice (Brain Break) used in MindUP is not considered meditation, I change the book to “Moody Cow is Mindful.” In this great children’s book, Moody Cow is shown how the glitter jar represents his “moody” brain in the same way we teach the glitter jar to students. By the way, for those techies out there, Moody Cow also has his own IPad app.

Once you have used the visual of the glitter ball, I have done a number of extension activities with students. Some of these activities include:

  • Journaling about a time their own brain felt like the shaken glitter jar. What was going on? What did it feel like? How did they calm their mind?
  • Having students cover a paper circle entirely with glitter glue and then write about things that cause them stress, anxiety, or fear. The paper glitter ball can also serve as the center starting point for a web.
  • Placing just a small bit of glitter glue at the bottom of a paper circle to represent a calm mind. Have students write about things that calm their mind or complete a similar web to the one outlined above.
  • Brainstorming a class list of strategies that can calm the mind and then writing them on paper glitter balls that can be posted in the classroom for future reference. This is also a great activity once students are farther into the program and have more information to draw on.
  • Having students bring a small jar from home. Students can then create their own glitter jar that can be taken home, explained to parents, and left at home for future reference.

In short, you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to demonstrate the impact of stress on brain function. No matter how old or young your students, the glitter ball teaches the basics of what students need to know. I also promise you that whether you teach adults, middle schoolers, or kindergarteners, the enthusiastic response is the same. For those students that want to learn more, which some do, you also don’t need to have all the answers. Sometimes questions are the best segue into demonstrating that teachers are learners too. While I feel I have a good understanding of the brain science behind MindUp or mindfulness education, a recent visit to a couple of middle school classrooms in my school left me with questions I couldn’t answer with “complete” confidence. One student insightfully asked whether a photographic memory was an indicator of an overdeveloped hippocampus. Another told me that the reason our flight, fight, freeze mechanism doesn’t always pick the best option is that it is so primitive it does not have the capacity to factor in modern dangers. You don’t need all the answers and, when in doubt, Google!