In The Classroom

Big Brain, Little Brain – Teaching Kids About the Brain and Self-Regulation

As a teacher and mother to young children, and also as daughter to a mother with Parkinson’s Disease (a neurological disease), I am always seeking to better understand the brain and how it works. This year I had the opportunity to work closely with, and collaborate with an incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated school psychologist, whom I’ll refer to in this post as Robbie G. He and I spent countless hours sharing stories and discussing different strategies, resources, and philosophies relating to psychology, teaching, and raising kids. Never did I leave his office without new knowledge or a new idea that I was eager to try out or know more about.

One topic we frequently revisited, related to anxiety, big emotions, self-regulation, and ways of explaining to kids what is happening in their brain when they are anxious or dysregulated. Both having read Daniel Siegel’s book, The Whole Brain Child, we were equally familiar with the hand brain model discussed in the book. This book and Siegel’s brain model have helped me not only to understand certain behaviours in my kids and students, but also how my mother’s brain has been affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Using a slightly modified or simplified version of this model, Robbie G. had already experienced success when referring to it in one-on-one sessions with students. This encouraged me to get started right away on sharing it and using it with my 5 year old daughter Elsie, who is often my guinea pig when trying out new strategies. To my delight, she caught on right away and really seemed to appreciate knowing what was going on in her brain when she fell apart emotionally. Using this kid friendly explanation with many of my frequently dysregulated students was equally successful, and they (and Elsie) immediately started using the related language to express where they—and others—were at, and what they needed to do to self-regulate.

“Daddy’s flipped his lid and needs to get back into his big brain!” – Elsie, 5 years old.

“I’m in my little brain, so it’s not a good time for us to try and solve this problem.” – Grade 3 student.

Considering the success we were having in using Siegel’s hand brain model with some of our students, we decided to make it part of a presentation on anxiety that we were preparing for staff. Siegel’s explanation and hand model were equally well received by staff, who approached us after, wanting support in getting the message out to all of their students. Given the success I had already experienced with my students and my daughter, I was more than eager to help spread the word.

Daniel Siegel’s hand brain model

I started going into classes and co-teaching a lesson on the brain and regulation with the classroom teachers. Because the students were quite young, we stuck to the more simplified version (although depending on the age of the students, more detail could definitely be shared). I also brought along a couple of the students that I had been using it with already, so that they could share how it had helped them. They played an active role in the lesson, and did so with great pride and enthusiasm. All of the students were very engaged and interested in learning about how their brain works and seemed to grasp the concept easily, even those with learning difficulties.

Although the information in the following link is too complex for young students in elementary school, it explains clearly the parts of the brain and their functions, for those who want to know a bit more. It is an excerpt from another book also by Daniel Siegel called Mindsight (Read more about my thoughts on the book here).

The following is the more kid friendly version of the lesson I shared with students from Grades 1 to 3. Working in a French immersion school means that the lesson was most often taught in French. For the purpose of this blog, I have edited what I can in the slides to appear in English.

The beginning of the lesson always started out with finding out what the kids already knew about the brain. Given their age, most of what they shared related to thinking and being smart.

Following this sharing session, I informed them that the brain is made up of several parts, but that we would only be learning about two of them on this particular day. Here is where, depending on the age, more detail could be added.

During the lesson, I presented to the students the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which I said, to simplify things, we would call the little brain and the big brain respectively. This was the modified version Robbie G. had shared with me. If you read Siegel’s book, you will see that he sometimes calls these areas the downstairs brain (little brain) and the upstairs brain (big brain). The little ones seemed to relate more to the little brain, big brain terminology, so I stuck with it.

Next, with the support of my student helpers, I explained in simple terms, the functions of each of these parts (see above slide), mainly that the little brain (amygdala) lets us know when we are in danger and allows us to feel big emotions, and that the big brain (prefrontal cortex) allows us to think things through properly and make good decisions.

Then came the fun part, showing the kids the hand brain model. As shown in Siegel’s explanation (watch here), I had them put their hand up with their thumb tucked in, and had them imagine their thumb as their little brain (amygdala). I reminded them that this part of the brain lets them know when they are in danger and lets them feel big emotions, and that it is an important part of the brain, but that it also needs the big brain (prefrontal cortex) to make smart decisions. Here, I had them curl their fingers down to show them the big brain (as pictured in the slide below). I showed that the big brain was touching the little brain, allowing them to work together to make good decisions, but that if they flipped their lid, they would no longer be touching and they would be unable to make good decisions (prefrontal cortex disengages from the amygdala).

Showing the kids the hand brain model seemed to be their favourite part of the lesson and has come in very handy (pardon the pun) ever since. They loved the visual of their brain and it has really helped them to understand the two parts and that they have to be touching (both engaged) to be working properly (making good decisions). They now understand that when they have flipped their lid and are in their little brain (amygdala), that they are not able to think clearly and make good decisions. This doesn’t mean that lids aren’t being flipped, but in the heat of a peer conflict, for example, they are better able to understand when the teacher says it would be best to take a bit of time to calm down (get in their big brains) before trying to resolve the conflict. The teachers regularly refer to this hand visual to ask students where they’re at (in their big or little brain) and what they need to do to stay or get in their big brain. They practice different calming strategies with students throughout the day to show them different ways of getting from their little brain to their big brain, continually adding to the students’ toolboxes of calming strategies.

This new learning about the brain has been equally valuable in helping me to better understand and stay calm (in my big brain) when faced with dysregulated children. It has also helped me to better understand what my mother (whose pathways from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex have been affected by Parkinson’s disease) is experiencing.

“When our little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” – L.R. Knost

Exploring this model with my students has also allowed me to see the value in not only the adults better understanding and learning about how the brain works, but for kids to do so as well.

***Edited to include the following two videos:

Watch my students and daughter share what they have learned about the brain here.

Watch another great video of kids talking about the brain and there emotions here.


5 thoughts on “Big Brain, Little Brain – Teaching Kids About the Brain and Self-Regulation

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