The Learning Brain V. The Survival Brain: How social emotional wellbeing impacts Executive Functioning Skills
Rachael Berringer, L.A.C., M.A.
As we all navigate through this new school year filled with changes and unknowns, we may experience a plethora of emotions. If we reflect on how these changes have impacted us as parents, imagine what our kids may be experiencing? Understanding what is going on in the brain can help us to better understand our child’s behavior, experiences, support them emotionally, and help us to set up an optimal learning environment conducive to safety, growth, and learning. In the following video, Dr. Ham outlines the differences between learning and survival brain:
For a child who has experienced trauma or who may be under a significant amount of stress, they are most likely operating in the bottom area of their brain, which is responsible for survival. Survival brain is hyper focused on threat and it does not like ambiguity. Emotionally, a child in the survival brain does not like making mistakes and is filled with doubt about their ability to learn. Your brain sees higher functioning tasks such as logic and planning as nonessential in a crisis. So, it effectively shuts down that part of your brain once the fight, flight, freeze response is triggered. This is good if you are in danger and need all your energy to run away, but not so good if your amygdala is triggered often, during non-threatening moments. Our executive functions (the higher functions described earlier) are located primarily in the prefrontal regions of the frontal lobe of the brain, or the learning brain. This area of the brain is responsible for planning, organizing, and our ability to be future-oriented. Children operating in their learning brain feel calm, connected, curious, confident, and ready to learn. When we are primarily in our survival brain due to an extreme amount of stress or trauma, our ability to access our executive functioning capacities is diminished. Oftentimes, we may find ourselves trying to work on cognitive strategies with a student who is operating in their survival brain, when in reality we need to be focusing on the engine as opposed to the exhaust.
Students who are primarily in their survival brain may show demonstrate aggression, impulsivity, tantrums, and irritability. From an executive functioning lens, these children may demonstrate inattention, low self-awareness, or ability to self-evaluate, low self-esteem, inability to establish goals and maintain them, forgetfulness and poor organizational skills. It is imperative that we ensure that our children are regulated, calm, connected, and feel safe. Strategies such as deep breathing and mindfulness can help soothe the nervous system and help our children get back into their learning brains. Students best learn when they feel supported by the adults around them. As we navigate through this unique year, I want to encourage you to look deeper than the surface behaviors that our children are exhibiting and ask ourselves what our children may be experiencing? Let’s work together to create a safe environment that allows our children to feel regulated, calm, and able to use their learning brains!
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