From The Field: The Empowerment That Comes from Understanding the Brain

In the Little Flower Yoga community The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson is revered as a treasure trove of insight for educators and parents, and rightfully so.  Tricia Stevens explains some of the most poignant lessons she received from the book here.  I would like to add that it’s also a handbook of strategies for helping our kids effectively understand, communicate, and regulate their emotions.

The Whole Brain Child is not only a companion to educators and parents, but serves as a toolkit for children. It’s a prime example of the old adage that knowledge is power. When kids understand the workings of their automatic reactions, through Siegel’s strategies, they can choose to respond in ways that are adaptive, serving their emotional lives and relationships.

I’ve read this book twice and now am reading it again for the third time, as I bring it’s strategies directly to my students at Girls Prep Bronx. It has served as a foundation for a unit with 5th graders on the brain. The first two times I read The Whole Brain Child I absorbed several of the strategies, using them with my students, especially strategy #1 “connect and redirect”. Dan and Tina’s emphasis on “connect” has impacted my interactions with students the most.  Siegel’s “connect” asks us to honor the full emotional experience of children before trying to bring them out of it through logic and reasoning. First, we acknowledge where they are. Through empathy, we go into the emotion more. Then, we give them tools for navigating an overwhelming emotional encounter.

During my second read I noticed the cartoons written for children at the end of each chapter. I realized that through these cartoons, there was a way the authors intended the strategies to be brought to children explicitly. The cartoons inspired me to write a unit of study on the brain for 5th graders, where we would directly identify the different purposes of the brain and dig into each strategy together. I found that my students appreciated knowing that I use the text as a tool for my interactions with them. They were extremely engaged in the conversation. Hint: if you come across resistance with students when doing this work, the brain is a useful way in. 


We launched the unit with the accessible picture book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by Joann Deak which outlines the idea of neuroplasticity in a student friendly way. Students become “neuro-sculptors” by trying new things, taking risks, and staying with a task.  The seed was planted – the choices we make shape our brain.  To date, in three subsequent lessons, I’ve utilized Dan and Tina’s simple terminology that makes brain science relatable. Students were asking questions left and right. I immediately discovered the brain is an excellent hook into the window of yoga and mindfulness strategies for kids. Here’s how I broke down the next four lessons:

Lesson 1: Our Left and Right Brain – Using the Name it to Tame It Strategy

Lesson 2: The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain – Using The Hand Model of the Brain Strategy

Lesson 3: Putting The Pieces of the Puzzle Together – Using Retelling the Story as a Strategy

Lesson 4: Mindsight: Choosing What You Think About

I can’t wait to follow up and teach the last lesson on Mindsight where Dan uses what he calls our Wheel of Awareness. Students learn to be an observer of the various parts of themselves- the athlete, the one who worries about a certain friendship, the poor test taker, the one is a talented musician. Rather than getting stuck in all of the details, and being more interested in what is referred to as the spokes of our wheel, students learn to rest awareness in the hub. They find their center.

Ultimately, from this place students practice the ability to choose where they direct their attention, which can be monumental. For instance, when overly concerned with a problem, can they choose to focus on something they enjoy for a moment, like a positive relationship or skill, rather than obsessing about the worry, for example an upcoming test?

As a culminating aspect of the unit, I envision students participating in a long-term project on this idea of Mindsight. The more intimate we become with where we are placing our awareness, the more we are in charge of it.

One of our main objectives with yoga and mindfulness curriculum is to give students ways they can regulate their emotions. It hadn’t occurred to me to invite my students to explore The Whole Brain Child with me, but when I did, the book became an entry way into a whole new conversation about empowerment. I’ve included some of their reflections throughout the blog as you will see. The advantage that Dan and Tina offer is the option of several strategies. This allows students to experiment and then choose which one works best for them as a mechanism for calming down when feeling overwhelmed. 

When we provide multiple avenues for integration of the whole self, students can participate in ongoing communication with their inner life and develop awareness for what works best.  They collect their own personal tool kit of skillful means toward becoming regulated human beings. 






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