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December 2, 2019

Breaking Down Brain Science as an Early-Childhood Discipline Strategy

Teaching kids about their brains helps them understand their behavior.

Meet Amy G. Dala. She can be emotional and knows a lot about fear.

She’s otherwise known as the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear, but one teacher personified it to make it easier, and fun, for her young students to reference.

Teaching children about their brain helps them understand their behavior and creates the opportunity to converse about the boss living in their heads, and how to intercept its responses.

It’s one of the strategies Dr. Lori Desautels shares when she consults with school leaders and parents about child motivation, emotional response, and discipline.

Like the teacher who put a spin on the word amygdala, Desautels breaks down the word “discipline” first.

“We have to rethink our definition of discipline. It comes from the word ‘disciples,’ and it means to follow willingly,” she said.

Desautels, who was a counselor at the Indianapolis Counseling Center, has written several books about early learning and challenging behaviors.

Today, she’s an assistant professor at Butler University’s College of Education and has consulted with parents and educators in more than 200 school districts in 12 states.

“We talk about the cortex, the boss of the brain telling everyone what to do. But when you’re angry, that boss goes away. Then we make two ovals with our fingers over our ears to represent the amygdala. When it’s activated, you can’t think clearly, and the cortex takes a trip.

“Then, we make a hook with our index finger, and that’s the hippocampus. It needs to feel calm and awake so it can remember,” she said.

When children have that understanding of their own brain, it creates a point of reference to explain their reaction to a provoking situation, and they feel empowered to connect to what’s happening with Amy G. Dala or the “cortex boss.”

To coax the “follow willingly” piece of discipline, adults have to rethink old methods.

Lollipops and threats of removing a loved item are strategies adults have wielded on children for hundreds of years. And, mostly, they’re effective. But they’re a shortcut that doesn’t lead to long-term benefits in understanding and modifying behavior.

When those shortcut strategies are used, the amygdala, the fear response, is engaged.

“It’s the low road. We don’t use the cortex in these responses. Something happens, we perceive it, and we have an immediate emotional response,” she said.

The antithesis of the low road is the high road, and it can be engaged only when the brain state is calm and the cortex can do the thinking.

“We need to be intentional about creating a calm brain state before we address the behavioral aspect,” she said.

Creating that calm brain state can include many activities that can take just minutes.

Physical movement such as jumping jacks or a deep stretch and focused attention practices such as deep breathing help regulate the brain’s chemistry.

Her methods aren’t a program, and her aim isn’t to add something extra to already hectic classrooms and family lives. She hopes to help adults find opportunities to have conversations with children about the brain’s responses.

Desautels is co-author of the upcoming book “Connections Over Compliance,” slated for publication in January 2021.

To learn more about how to approach child discipline through brain science, check out her articles.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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