Teach your students how the brain works when it has to make a decision about how to behave. When we understand ourselves better, why we act the way we do, we can actually create plans to behave better. With help from a teacher, understanding of the brain, strategies ready to go, students can make much better choices – even impulsively.
The Biology of Behavior:
Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system, scan every experience for trouble, pain, fear or even excitement (feelings of all kinds). If there is some sort of trouble, the amygdala reacts instantaneously, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain and even body!
The whole body changes immediately, causing the heart to beat much faster, eyes to dilate, stress hormones to be released quickly and in great amounts, and muscles preparing to move. Simultaneously, the cortical memory systems are quickly retrieving what the brain knows about this “trouble”. Nothing else can be focused on!
The rational part of the brain, pre-frontal cortex (PFC), has been hijacked or captured so that it cannot do its work at this time. Eventually, a second signal might make its way to the thinking part of the brain, PFC, which mulls over information through several levels of brain circuits before it fully perceives and responds appropriately.
LeDoux’s research explains the power of emotions, the faster and shorter route to the amygdala, over rationality, the longer and slower route to the PFC.
With time, maturity, patience and strategies, we can help students (and ourselves) use the PFC during times of impulsivity or amygdala-driven reactions. This is a very short explanation of the process, leaving out many details, but enough to help educators understand what is happening in the brain when extreme emotions are experienced.
- Use “Chart Your Changes” graphic organizer to help students process through their amygdala-driven thoughts or their PFC-driven thoughts. Our thoughts are the powerful weapons against conflict, and WE control our thoughts.Create a chart with students that shows the process of their old thoughts turning into amygdala-driven actions (not good). Thoughts turn into feelings that turn into actions. Show students how to chart the positive flow of thoughts right alongside the old way of thinking. You can help them fill in the chart based on something that just happened. (Special thanks to Michael Adams from J. Albert Adams Academy for sharing this idea).
- “Map My Brain” – ask students to draw the route within their brain that thinking took place (on a graphic of the brain of course). Was the route from the brain stem to the amygdala (emotional, impulsive and resulting in bad choices usually) OR was the route from the brain stem to the prefrontal cortex (analyzes information before acting, plans, makes best choice since it’s center for impulse control)?Reinforce to students that every time they make a good choice, think before they act or think about how their behavior will affect others, they are strengthening the neural pathway of the PFC. This helps them make better choices in the future and improves their emotional intelligence. (Special thanks to Michael Adams from J. Albert Adams Academy).
The results of my changes are…