As Academic Mentors and Advocates for young people, we need to have a diverse skill base and know a whole lot of stuff about a whole lot of things.
One of the things that we have focussed on recently has been the role of different parts of the brain and how these parts impact on how our young people act and learn, especially in the classroom.
To understand a bit more, let’s take a look at some basic brain structure...
Our brains have three main bits.
The first bit (1) is our brainstem. The brainstem is responsible for our unconscious activity – like our heart beating, breathing, and feeling hungry or tired. Our brainstem is also responsible for our flight or fight response. Some people call this our “reptilian brain” – mostly because it performs the same functions as the brain of a tuatara.
The bit in the middle (2) is our limbic brain. This is our “feelings centre”, which looks after things like our feelings of self-esteem and self-worth, and our learning disposition. We get the best access to this part of the brain when the brainstem feels it has its needs met (i.e. when we aren’t hungry or tired or scared).
The big bit at the top (3) is our cerebral cortex. This bit is in charge of high-level stuff like consequence, empathy, planning, follow-through, social skills, memory, and self-regulation.
When you look at the brain, it appears as though the cerebral cortex should be in charge – mainly because it’s big, and it’s brainy. Not so – in fact it’s our brainstem which is the boss. If we are hungry, or tired, or our fight or flight response has been activated then our brainstem isn’t happy, and will take charge of the rest of the brain to make sure these needs are met first.
For kids who arrive at school hungry or tired or stressed, having the brainstem in charge makes it extremely difficult for them to focus on the high-level types of engagement that learning requires.
Many of the young people we work with have experienced early trauma, particularly in their first three years. Some of them continue to live in situations of toxic stress. This makes our job a particularly tricky one, as what brain scientists are just beginning to understand is that young people who have experienced early trauma, especially in their first three years, or who live in situations of toxic stress are more likely to have an automatic pilot in which the brainstem is dominant.
Young people who have experienced early trauma, especially in their first three years, find it much harder to access their cerebral cortex and are more likely to display behavioural problems as a result
This has a major impact on our work with children and young people who have experienced early trauma. One of the things we do before we even think about trying to engage young people in learning is to make sure that their brainstem is calm. After that, we need to engage with their limbic brain. And only once these have been attended to can we start to think about doing the higher-level cerebral cortex stuff.
So, here are some of the things we do:
Step One: Calm the brainstem
In the short term, we check: Are they hungry? Are they tired? Has something happened today that has scared or upset them?
We also understand that for lots of our kids, the brainstem is likely to be on a ‘hair trigger’, so we to try and minimise anything that can set their brainstem off (like sudden or loud noises – the school bell is a good example).
In the long term we focus on relationship consistency. Getting the brainstem off automatic pilot is possible, but takes a consistent quality relationship and lots of time.
Step Two: Pay attention to the limbic brain
Providing emotional support is key to accessing the limbic system. As Nathan Mikaere-Wallis, from the Brainwave Trust says: “You need to have some form of self-worth and to have experienced some success as a learning before you are likely to engage in learning the school curriculum.”
In the long term, we know that the successful development of the limbic system is the result of at least one consistent, responsive and respectful relationship.
Step Three: Work with the cerebral cortex
We engage the cerebral cortex by assisting the children and young people we work with to participate confidently in learning and to experience success. An important part of this process is establishing routines, role-modelling pro-social behaviour, and creating and maintaining a supportive, reliable relationship.
Our role is also to assist the development of their executive function skills, like planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions, multi-taking and thinking through things like risk and consequences.
The best part of this whole thing is – it’s working. Most of the young people we work with are experiencing improvement in their learning outcomes – especially maths and reading, and we are getting some incredible feedback from teachers, social workers and parents about how their behaviour has changed from mostly negative to mostly positive.
It's a long, uphill road for lots of our kids. But we are committed to walking up the hill with them and celebrating their success when they reach the top.
You can find us at 644 Swanson Road, Auckland, or contact us here.
What Our Clients Are Saying
“If I can just affirm all the great progress that our boys are showing at school in their confidence, physical health, and their learning. Much of which is attributable to the great work that their mentor is doing."