By Hanna Bogen, M.S., CCC-SLP
As adults, we spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking we've got our students' and children's problems figured out:
"I know why he's mad...it's because he can't get the Legos to fit together!"
"She must be sulking because her friends left her out during recess today"
Grown ups certainly have more life experience than kids, and sometimes we are great at reading between the lines to sense what might be going on under the surface of a seemingly shallow problem. That being said, I'm always amazed at how often I (and others) forget to do the most logical first step in problem-solving with children: asking them what's wrong. I'm not talking about a "grazing" question; the kind you ask when you already have an answer in mind and are merely extending a formality. I'm talking about a thoughtful, considerate, invitation into problem-solving and self-regulating dialogue; the type of invitation that comes along with Ross Greene's initial steps of Collaborative Problem Solving (for more information about Collaborative Problem Solving, visit: http://www.livesinthebalance.org).
Here's the tricky thing about asking a child to describe an underlying trigger for dysregulation: more often than not they don't yet have the awareness and skills to effectively communicate it. The way I see it (stemming from my research brain rather than my opinion brain), you need the following, in this order, to effectively express a trigger for dysregulation:
1. Metacognition: the ability to think about your own thinking and emotional state well enough to figure out what's going on internally. This is where brain learning and mindfulness-based strategies come in!
2. Self-regulation: regulation of your thoughts/attention, emotional responses, actions, and motivation in order to behave in an expected way for a given situation. Self-regulation and executive functioning are inherently tied, since self-regulation sandwiches executive function thinking skills (i.e., using mental schemas to manage complex tasks) by allowing for inhibition of impulses and the ability to follow through with the plan.
3. Strong (or at least functional) verbal and nonverbal communication skills: collective expressive communication skills to allow you to get your ideas from your "thought bubble" into someone else's "mind movie."
I know I'm a speech-language pathologist, and therefore would typically hone in on the third step of this structure. But I'm a unique breed of SLP when it comes to my areas specialization, and I actually live far more in the domains of steps one and two. In my adventures (and misadventures) of working in the world of self-regulation and executive functioning (ok, ok, they're essentially one in the same), I've become very clear that kids need to understand their brains. More generally, everyone should have a basic understanding of their brains that goes beyond "It has a left side and a right side." As therapists (and teachers, and administrators, and psychologists-hi everyone!), we are, at the core, brain specialists. If we want kids to get to step three (effective communication of their triggers), we need to start by TEACHING them metacognition and self-regulation.
This matters so much to me and my fabulously brilliant colleague, Carrie Lindemuth, M.Ed/ET, that we created a curriculum designed to teach students about key concepts and functions of the brain: Brain Talk. This narrative-based curriculum consists of eight short, white-board animated videos and corresponding lessons plans, discussion points, worksheets, and activities. Different lesson plans and activities exist for early elementary, upper elementary, middle/high school, and a therapy model. Through these videos and the corresponding learning activities, students are introduced to their amygdala (Myg), basal pleasure-and-reward system (Buster), hippocampus (Ms. Hipp) and prefrontal cortex (The Professor), and what happens in the brain during a "Myg Moment" (i.e., fight/flight/freeze avoiding reaction) or "Buster Bam" (i.e., dopamine-driven grab-and-gulp reaction). Additionally, they learn how the integrated conversation (i.e., Brain Talk) between their "emotional" limbic brain and their "thinking" cortex leads to strategic thinking and self-regulated decisions.
Many of us don't have the opportunity to learn about our brains until we are in the midst of a crisis, whether it be anxiety, depression, hyper-impulsivity, or significant dysregulation. What a gift we could give to our students to teach them these critical metacognitive skills from the get-go! The Brain Talk curriculum is available through an annual subscription ($50.00/year) at the Brain Talk website (www.braintalktherapy.com). An annual subscription to the curriculum provides access to the full curriculum suite, as well as new materials as they are added throughout the year.