I originally wrote this article in 2013, but as we are in a time of stress and anxiety, it seemed timely to share this again now, especially as while helping my youngest child with his learning this week, we discussed this very thing. When a child is stressed, they are unable to learn. This article explains why.
In an effort to teach my then 7 year old son emotional regulation I introduced him to the idea of the “upstairs brain” and the “downstairs brain”. This is a concept that I “borrowed” from ‘The Whole Brain Child‘ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
The Downstairs Brain
The downstairs brain is the primitive, instinctual, emotional, intuitive part of the brain and includes the amygdala, the area behind the “fight, flight or freeze” mechanism, the automatic response to sensory stimuli, the unconscious component of emotion. The downstairs brain is fully developed at birth and is concerned with basic survival. This is sometimes called the lizard or reptile brain.
The Upstairs Brain
The upstairs brain on the other hand is the seat of executive function, the base for self regulation, planning, organisation, problem solving, impulse control and the conscious component of emotion. This is the area at the front of the brain, part of the frontal lobe, and includes the cerebral cortex. This area of the brain develops throughout childhood, and is finally fully developed around the age of 23.
Upstairs vs Downstairs
The downstairs brain is very reactive. It increases our heart rate and alertness to what is happening around us. It is designed to keep us safe by inhibiting some of the higher brain and body functions while you react to the threat. This includes the pre-frontal cortex in the frontal lobe area of the brain, which is responsible for learning, reasoning, planning, decision making, problem solving and organisation.
For someone who has strong emotional reactions it is important to engage the upstairs brain to slow this reaction and think things through.
By just naming the responses which are generated by his upstairs and downstairs brain, I am showing my son that he can be in control of his reactions and his body states. It slows him down enough to help him clear his mind and help him self regulate. If he has a strong emotional reaction, I tell him “that is your downstairs brain talking. What does your upstairs brain say?” A few seconds later he has calmed himself in order to think clearly and gives me a considered answer.
If this doesn’t work, and the child is still under the control of their downstairs brain, there are other things you can try. One technique that worked for us this week (one that was once shared with me by a teacher) is “name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste”. I started to ask him these questions, and this encouraged him to engage his upstairs brain as he answered them. When we had completed this activity, he was calm enough to continue his work.
This is the most effective emotional regulation technique I have discovered, more effective than simply telling him to take deep breaths or another meditative technique. His body is calming itself automatically as his brain is distracted.
What ways have you discovered to calm your child’s downstairs brain?
Read next: Emotional Processing and Regulation