Connecting the Brain and Body to Help with Self-Regulation
By Chris Shaw, Physical Education Teacher, HPEC Secretary
A hot topic in the literature currently is the term self-regulation. Self- regulation is defined by Hoffman (2013) as the ability to adapt your psychological, emotional and mental state to the task at hand. More specifically, Baumeister and Vohs’s Handbook of Self-Regulation (2011) describes self-regulation as the ability to:
1) attain, maintain, and change one’s level of energy to match the demands of a task or situation;
2) monitor, evaluate, and modify one’s emotions;
3) sustain and shift one’s attention when necessary and ignore distractions;
4) understand both the meaning of a variety of social interactions and how to engage in them in a sustained way; and
5) connect with and care about what others are thinking and feeling- to emphasize and act accordingly (as cited in Shanker, 2013).
As educators we can probably identify students that are successful in our class who exhibit these traits. We can also identify students who are reluctant learners, who are struggling with these traits. The ability to self-regulate is increasingly being seen as a key component of enabling students to effectively respond to the everyday challenges they face (Shanker, 2013). This in-turn directly impacts their ability to learn.
According to the Mind Up Curriculum (2011) which is a mindfulness curriculum created by The Hawn Foundation, students benefit from learning about how the brain responds to stress. The limbic system is composed of the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which normally work together to make appropriate decisions. The amygdala is a structure in the brain that reacts to fear, danger and threat. When the brain is in a positive emotional state, it effectively incorporates past memories and learning from the hippocampus as well as the ability to reason and think with the prefrontal cortex to make an informed decision. However, if the brain is in a negative emotional state or stressed, the amygdala prevents input from the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex resulting in an autonomic response of fight, flight or freeze (The Hawn Foundation, 2011). Helping your students understand how the brain works, will help them more effectively deal with stress.
As a physical education specialist, I have begun to implement self-regulation strategies into my program. The first step was to explain the 3 areas of the brain to the students. Ironically enough, I used a music metaphor. I equated the amygdala to each individual musician and instrument in an orchestra. If these musicians are not given any leadership and were able to play whatever tune they wished; the music would not sound very good. This is what happens when they try to make a decision when they are stressed. In order for the music to sound good, the musicians need a conductor (prefrontal cortex) and sheet music (hippocampus). When these 3 items are present the music will sound great!
So how can we calm the brain! Two of the most effective ways to help students self-regulate and lower their stress, anxiety and worry, is through breathing and activity. The practice of meditation, mindfulness and breathing have long been practiced for centuries. Recently, it has crept into present society as an effective method of dealing with various physical and mental ailments, including stress and anxiety (VandeGeyn, 2017). It has been demonstrated as an effective technique through focusing on your breathe and what is happening in the moment in a non-judgmental way. Through connecting with your breathe it effectively lowers your heart rate and refocuses your brain. Thus creating a more positive mental and emotional state, and the ability to make an effective decision.
The second most effective way to self-regulate is through adding movement and activity. Creating an environment of mindful movement allows students to connect their body and brain more strongly. In Ratey’s (2008) book SPARK, he presented overwhelming support for the importance of movement on brain development. Ratey (2008) indicated how exercise not only strengthened the brain and improved thinking, but was also a fantastic method to help relieve stress and anxiety. Thus assisting in creating a more positive mental and emotional state and the ability to make decisions.
Currently, in my physical education program I have created a self-regulation station. This provides students with the freedom to recognize when they are feeling dysregulated, allow them to move to a safe place within the gymnasium and incorporate various breathing and movement strategies to help them return to a more positive mental and emotional state. By having students develop the ability to recognize and deal with their negative emotional state, I hope it will provide a more positive environment for learning within my gymnasium as well as provide them with skills to deal with stress and anxiety throughout their life.
The Hawn Foundation. (2011). The Mind Up Curiculum: Grades 3-5. New York: Scholastic Inc.
Hoffman, J. (February 22, 2013). Self-Regulation techniques for kids. Today’s Parent. Retrieved from https://www.todaysparent.com/family/self-regulation-techniques-for-children/
Ratey, J. J. (2008). SPARK: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Shanker, S. (2013). Calm, Alert, and Learning: Classroom strategies for self-regulation. Toronto: Pearson Canada Inc.
VandeGeyn, L. (April 6, 2017). Mindfulness for kids: Learning emotional regulation in school. Today’s Parent. Retrieved from https://www.todaysparent.com/family/mindfulness-for-kids-learning-emotional-regulation-in-school/