We all want our kids to get the most from their education at school, to achieve success and be stressed less. Sometimes as parents we feel a little lost as to the best way to support this. In Part 1 of our Parent’s Guide we introduced the findings of current research into the teen brain under three headings – the Biological Brain, the Emotional Brain and the Learning Patterns of the Brain.
In Part 2 we discussed the importance of basic Biological support to help our children as they go through school and the actionable steps we oursleves can take towards engaging the Newer View of the Biological Brain. Now, in Part 3, we will go deeper into emotions.
The Older View of the Learning Brain focused on the incorrect idea of fixed IQ and ignored the importance of Emotional Intelligence. Well, the newer view of the learning brain also recognises the impact the chemistry of emotions has on learning too and we can really make a difference to this at home. We don’t need to be trained in psychology to be able to effectively support our children. All we need are the right tools, and the confidence that we can do it.
For us as parents and for our kids as well, it’s very helpful to know that during adolescence the ability to regulate mood is chemically at an all-time low. It’s natural, and it’s important our children know that. Like we discussed in Part 2, the teen brain is not must a mini adult brain. Teens may appear to not be listening, or ignoring some of our more subtle body language we make as adults. The reality is, the adolescent brain undergoes major “reformatting” in key areas, which makes teens unable to accurately read facial expressions for emotion, or body language cues. This same reformatting can interfere with recall and decision making. Essentially, the changes are normal, and if we are all aware of the differences between the emotional brains of kids versus the emotional brains of parents, then we can better support our kids, and they’ll be better able to lean into our support.
There has been plenty of research over the last 30 years to uncover how the brain naturally learns best. Along with understanding mood, the chemistry of attention, motivation and memory are now quite well understood. Emotion itself has been shown to drive learning or in the same way block it. The learning brain needs regular rewards or wins to get a hit of dopamine, a good narrative to relate to, a challenge and a clear target to aim for. Feelings of unease, fear or long-lasting stress create a chemistry that hinders learning. In fact, the same research that informs what makes a successful online game is the research into what the learning brain needs in order to work at its peak. The gaming and gambling industries have jumped on this research but it is still not being fully implemented in our education systems.
Evolution and science show us the brain is built for survival. To survive we need to learn and our brains are built for learning. As described above, this learning is actually driven by human emotions. This is especially true in adolescents. Remember how in Part 2 we discussed how the adolescent brain is constantly being remodelled as the brain tries to figure out which connections to keep and which to ditch (AKA synaptic pruning)? The connections it keeps are the ones that it can see are important for the future in some wayand the ones that are emotionally charged. Research shows in order for our kids to get the most from school, they basically need to know “what’s in it for them”, why the things they are being taught are important for their personal future, and for this to be provided in an emotionally safe environment. The chemicals of stress – particularly cortisol – can have a negative effect on memory, learning and one’s overall health. When continuously elevated, cortisol can actually damage receptors in the Prefrontal Cortex in the brain which are important for learning and higher-order thinking. Higher-order thinking is when we are required to question, probe, think critically, consider different perspectives and organise ideas. A pretty important time in life to avoid damaging this In order to create a less stressful environment, we need to help our kids find reasons to learn – reasons beyond the exam mark at the end. This comes back to the idea of “what’s in it for them” other than a good mark. Encouraging our kids to regularly ask the question “Why?” is also a great tool for helping them see what’s in it for them, while at the same time reducing their stress levels. The first and one of the most important steps in creating a less stressful environment is encouraging kids to pick subjects they actually enjoy, rather than the ones that “scale the best”. Research shows the brain naturally learns best when it is interested and engaged, so if a child truly enjoys the subject, it’s more likely they’ll do well in it anyway.
You may have heard of the term “a growth mindset”. This new way of learning and thinking basically considers ‘mistakes’ as great opportunities to learn. Mistakes are not the measure of personal worth, and looking at them as something you learn and grow from is a great way to support mental wellbeing. Growth mindsets aren’t just for the classroom. We can foster this mindset at home too by giving our kids a dopamine hit by finding reasons every day to recognise and celebrate even the smallest of wins. Better yet, start celebrating the “losses” and how these losses will bring them closer to bigger and better “learning wins” in life. Resilience is something to practice in all areas. We can embrace a role to normalise the learning process and the challenges that all of us face throughout life. Its all natural. We can model resilience by sharing some of the challenges we are facing, and how we are working through them. As adults we know most things in life take effort and problem-solving skills. Teens don’t necessarily know this truth yet. Most will think that if you have to work too hard at something, you must be doing it wrong. They’re not being lazy, it’s just the way their brains think especially with all the examples of instant gratification they are exposed to in the media and modern life.
The most basic emotional support starts around the language we use at home, and it can make a huge difference. We can practice using positive and solution-focused language. Teens often take the way other people see them to heart, which greatly affects what they believe in themselves and their abilities. For example, have you ever said: “I didn’t do well in maths either”, or, “I am not good at the creative stuff”, or, “I didn’t like science” to make them feel OK about their own studies? My guess is most of us have. However, this can inadvertently instil the belief in our teens that some of the academic challenges they face are genetic and not within their control and can result in them thinking that they just arent good at that either, and not try.
So, how can we really support an emotional learning brain? The reality is our teens don’t want advice, and definitely not advice from their “old” parents. What do they want? They just want to be listened to, even when they aren’t actually communicating with us. How do we listen? Start by developing a Question Bank.
It’s important to avoid common and closed-ended questions like “How was your day?” Even questions like “What did you do today” aren’t going to be very fruitful. Instead, shift the questions to something like these:
· What was the best class you had today?
· Whose teaching did you enjoy the most today?
· What was the most interesting bit of information you heard today?
· Who had the best lunch today?
These types of questions help to frame a positive mindset for the information they will subsequently share. We need to think about how to ask the deeper questions without being seen as a “pest”.
Listen to what they have to say, sit with it, and then ask some targeted questions later on to get a deeper insight into what’s going on in their world. If your child knows you’re there to support them no matter what, they’re much more likely to feel less stressed and at ease when they’re at home, which will greatly benefit their leaning brain. We come back to the start – that learning is natural and is driven by emotion.
One final and important note.
As parents we can feel that we need to do it all. Lets all support each other knowing that its OK for us to reach oput for help as well. If our teens are expereincing what we think is too much stress, or if we are concerned about their mental health and wellbeing then there are plenty of people and resources to support us and our teens through this major period of growth, learning and transformation.