In an effort to teach my 7 year old son emotional regulation I have introduced him to the idea of the “upstairs brain” and the “downstairs brain”. This is a concept that I “borrowed” from ‘The Whole Brain Child‘ by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
The downstairs brain is the primitive, instinctual, emotional, intuitive part of the brain and includes the amygdala, the area behind the “fight or flight” mechanism, the automatic response to sensory stimuli, the unconscious component of emotion. The downstairs brain is fully developed at birth and is concerned with basic survival.
The upstairs brain on the other hand is the seat of executive function, the base for self regulation, planning, organisation, problem solving, impulse control, theory of mind and the conscious component of emotion. This is the area at the front of the brain, part of the frontal lobe, and includes the cerebral cortex. This area of the brain is not fully developed until the age of around 23.
The downstairs brain is very reactive. For someone who has strong emotional reactions it is important to engage the upstairs brain to slow this reaction and think things through. Just naming the responses which are generated by his upstairs and downstairs brain, I am showing my son that he can be in control of his reactions and his body states. It slows him down enough to help him clear his mind and help him self regulate. If he has a strong emotional reaction, I tell him “that is your downstairs brain talking. What does your upstairs brain say?” A few seconds later he has calmed himself in order to think clearly and gives me a considered answer.
This is the most effective emotional regulation technique I have discovered, more effective than simply telling him to take deep breaths or another meditative technique. His body is calming itself automatically as his brain is distracted. Last week he was having panic attacks. This week he is much more in control.
Scientists who study child development have recently found that kids who are ‘smart but scattered’ lack or lag behind in crucial executive skills – the core, brain-based habits of mind required to ‘execute’ tasks like getting organized, staying focused, and controlling emotions. Drawing on this revolutionary discovery, school psychologist Peg Dawson and neuropsychologist Richard Guare have developed an innovative program that parents and teachers can use to strengthen kids’ abilities to plan ahead, be efficient, follow through, and get things done. “Smart but Scattered” provides ways to assess children’s strengths and weaknesses and offers guidance on day-to-day issues like following instructions in the classroom, doing homework, completing chores, reducing performance anxiety, and staying cool under pressure. Small steps add up to big improvements, enabling these kids to build the skills they need to live up to their full potential. More than 40 reproducibles are included.
via Smart But Scattered.
In Sue Larkey‘s latest newsletter for parents and teachers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, she shares tips for helping children with Executive Function.
Impaired Executive Function can impact significantly on children with an autism spectrum disorder’s ability to learn and engage in busy learning environments. Continue reading
According to James Swanson et al, ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, whether Inattentive type, Hyperactive type or Combined type, is characterised by difficulties with attention in at least one of three areas, of which executive function is just one. The other two components are ‘alerting’ and ‘orienting’.
What is executive function? Think of it as the brain’s higher command centre. It is the area of the brain that filters incoming stimuli, assesses the situation at hand, coordinates and regulates the brain and body’s responses, and is involved in planning the appropriate course of action. Continue reading