Brain in Mind


Much of my work – particularly regarding inclusion – focuses on the body: using physical regulation as a way of decoding and organizing the learning experience. However, at every turn, early childhood professionals also have the brain on their minds: theory of mind; metacognition; emotional intelligence; critical thinking; executive functions; mindfulness.

How do these concepts and overlap and differ? What do they tell us about child development and learning? And, most importantly, what does our most current understanding of the brain imply for classroom practice?

The brain, as we all know, is a complex organ. It takes a great deal of study to wrap our minds around the brain. There are, however a few good places to start. The key to understanding the brain can be found in the Triune Brain Model, first articulated by Paul McLean. Understanding how the brain develops from the brain stem, which governs reflexes, survival functions and the flight, fight, freeze response, through the limbic system, which largely makes sense of emotions, to the neo-cortex, where we do our advanced thinking, opens up a world of perspectives on how children learn and what they need from us.

There are many other key concepts: the brain is a selective organ that will strengthen some synapses and prune away others based on use; children wire their brains by observing and imitating the adults around them; trauma, stress, loss and neglect can threaten the brain’s ability to wire itself for higher thinking. All of these can be explored at length in fascinating work by, among others, McLean, Bruce Perry, Howard Bath, and Daniel Siegel.

It is Siegel, in his book Mindsight, who provides the idea that I want to explore further: The mind is distinct from the brain. The brain is a physical organ, inseparable from the rest of the nervous system and the body that informs it. But the mind, as Siegel puts it, is “a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information (p 52).”

This striking yet simple idea helps us immediately integrate the emphasis on both body and brain that we encounter in our work as educators. But it also alerts us to a subtle but crucial adjustment of focus: the body may play a larger role in learning than we once thought, but the whole reason for and end to learning is the development of the mind.

With that in “mind,” I want to offer a brief set of thoughts on promoting the development of the mind from infancy through the school years, with some reflections on the brain science behind them:

Thinking begins with regulation – Our focus on using body-based approaches to help children physically regulate (as in being able to transition to group time or putting on coats) and emotionally regulate (as in becoming accustomed to separation sadness or frustration over sharing) doesn’t just help them feel comfortable. Regulation is also how the brain begins to function intellectually. In the triune model, children need to learn to soothe themselves – that is, to manage the fight, flight, and freeze responses - in order to access the next level in the brain, the emotional processing center. Likewise, they need to be able to take a problem-solving approach to emotional resolution in order to access their higher thinking.

Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder, in their groundbreaking book,sThe Child With Special Needs, laid out a series of Functional Emotional Milestones of child development. Milestone one? “Self regulation and interest in the world.” A newborn must feel comfortable and self-soothe in order to become curious. Milestone two, “shared attention and pleasure in relationships,” speaks to where the mind goes from self-regulation and curiosity: into an interactive mode of exploring the world, affect, and relationships. (And you can see how it also depends on some resolution of milestone one).

What does this imply for teaching? First, it emphasizes for us how much our caring, trustworthy relationship with and support of children has to do with their learning. And that doesn’t just mean we need to teach regulation. It means that mindful use of our own regulation – that all-important “mirror” - is a core teaching skill. Our own dispositions – how we use tools to self-soothe, how we respond to surprises and stress, how we show curiosity and creativity around challenge, and how we use a soothing disposition to soothe - are far more intellectually important to very young children than the concepts and skills we convey.

Young children need a theory of mind. As children mature into toddlerhood, the limbic system – the middle brain that turns emotions and sensations into ideas – takes center stage. Greenspan and Wieder’s third milestone, “two-way communication,” speaks to what happens next – children learn from shared attention how to articulate their needs, feelings and ideas. From here they progress to milestone four, “complex communication” – where they not only return eye contact, smiles, gestures but initiate and modify communication – and milestone five, “emotional ideas.” These are the first abstract concepts that children explore (think of the three year-old’s preoccupation with dramatic play around strong emotional themes).

But what really distinguishes the young thinker is the emerging understanding that everyone has thoughts and feelings, and that the thoughts and feelings of others can be different from your own. This is the theory of mind. As with regulation, we tend to think of it as necessary for emotional and social success, which it is. But it is also fundamental to learning in general. Through understanding the distinction between one’s own thoughts and those of others, we learn comparison. Through turn taking, we learn cause and effect, and how to reconcile different perspectives. By understanding that there are minds all around us, we learn how to create an interdependent data set.

What does this imply for teaching? As children grow, curriculum must emerge from their emotional thinking and symbolic play. We must be on the lookout for curriculum that promotes reciprocity – turn taking and give and take – structured partnership, and exploration of feelings and ideas that makes the distinction and the connections between them explicit.

Preacadmic curriculum should focus on thinking; Jean Piaget argued that the ultimate goal of intellectual development is the ability to hypothesize: to articulate questions (that is, to explore ideas instead of objects), and create schemes and sequences of ideas and actions to test them out. In other words, children’s theory of mind matures into a theory of theories: an understanding of how the interplay of distinct but connected ideas come together and add up to one’s own learning and how civilization is ordered. Greenspan and Wieder’s final milestone, “emotional thinking,” looks at it from a slightly different perspective: understanding how the interplay of distinct but interconnected feelings and the rules around them govern the world.

What does this imply for teaching? In The Project Approach, Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard argue that what children need, much more than skills or concepts, is a model for observing the world, asking questions, and creating systematic ways of researching, representing and exploring their questions. Intellectual habits are the center of learning. Math, language, writing and other skills are the tools, not the ends. This is also why there is such emphasis on critical reasoning in education – analysis, prediction, brainstorming, and the like. We must teach learning itself, and make thinking the core curriculum topic.

At this stage of development, children are beginning to exercise the neo-cortex; the four hemispheres of the upper brain that govern our unique human thinking skills. We emphasize multi-modal learning – language, numbers, writing, art, music, movement – because we know that the mind develops best if all the centers of the neocortex are well developed and connected to each other.

The mind can build a cognitive model of regulation. Within the frontal lobes in the neo-cortex – the last part of our brains to develop – lie the executive functions. This is the thinking brain’s center of regulation: balancing attention and thinking to stay focused; switching codes – from one language to another, or from the way we behave at home to the way we behave in public for example; belaying short term impulses in favor of our long-term self interests. In the executive functions, we see the shift from using our bodies to regulate our brains, to using our minds to control our bodies.

Fascinatingly, Daniel Siegel points out that the frontal lobes, behind our foreheads, wrap around the middle brain, where their front end touches the emotional processing center of the limbic system. So, when we reach our highest level of thinking, the circuit completes itself. Everything about our brains is integrated at the emotional center. What this suggests is that the highest function of the brain is the potential to conceive of its own working, and how feelings and thoughts are integrated. Our concepts of the mind progress from a theory of mind, to a theory of theories, to a theory of the working of the mind.

What does this imply for learning? When we can understand how we learn best, the unique set of processes, tools and systems we can apply via executive functions to support our own minds, we can assemble the most sophisticated and successful learning possible. When we know our own learning style, strengths, and challenges, we can not only apply ourselves to learning experiences, but we can conceive of how our style fits into collaborative learning environments. We can conceptualize our place in a community in extremely sophisticated functional terms. We can feel good about an honest understanding of ourselves.

We also can build a sophisticated concept of our own regulation, and use our minds to keep our brains and bodies functioning optimally. As Daniel Siegel puts it, we can become “attuned,” where we can view ourselves, as well as others, with a balance of empathy and detachment.

This cognitive model of one’s own holistic self acts as a road map for successful functioning. In many ways, it is a map that instructs us how to reflect deeply about our thoughts and feelings. But in a slightly paradoxical way, it also instructs us sometimes not to reflect too much about our brains and bodies – to not become anxiously preoccupied or worried about why we think or feel the way we do or what it all means. In other words, our cognitive model of our minds includes an awareness of when and how we should avoid overthinking things.

This is one of the main aims of mindfulness education, and why it involves things like meditation, which don’t seem to qualify as thinking. Part of our cognitive model of the brain includes understanding that we must sometimes sit with feelings, or simply survey the physical sensations of feelings, or use body-based techniques to move the brain’s activity out of the flight, fight or freeze center and back up to the neocortex, rather than try to make sense of things. We must use our minds to understand the brain and body as a physiological system that we can, through executive functions, regulate. By understanding how and when to step back from our brain’s activity, we can use our minds to see our brains from a sympathetic but more objective distance.

This brings our brief tour back full circle – from regulation as a path to thinking, to thinking as a path to regulation.

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