While we would love for her to be able to learn and collaborate with peers, if we enrolled her in a school to “socialize” her and begin her academic endeavors, as many recommend, we would risk creating unnecessary academic and emotional stress as well as giving the view that learning is a sit down, memorize, and regurgitate endeavor. After reflection, I realized that the best way to come close to my vision of education for my children (the vision of education that I think ALL children deserve) was to home school! This vision, while I know that it can and IS met in many early childhood education facilities across the globe, it is not the majority and it is not present where we reside. There are 6 aspects of approaching a relationship with a child and their learning that I would demand from an education center. Taken together, these aspects are my vision for Early Childhood Education.Read More
The evidence is clear, children benefit from time and play in nature. How, you ask? Let me count the ways… Read on to learn 5 ways nature play helps children stay physically healthy and 5 ways it helps children stay mentally healthy, including their social-emotional and cognitive development. Plus, get my 5 Recommendations that you must remember when spending time outside with your children!Read More
“Armed with this knowledge, we can act more empathically, compassionately, and confidently in our everyday interactions with our children, all while promoting healthy brain development and emotional intelligence.”
Have you heard of the left brain and right brain? Do you remember which is which?
Is it still scientifically supported? YES!
Is it relevant to you and your child’s everyday interactions? YES, again!
Do you want to know how a little left and right brain knowledge can give you a strategy to work through a tantrum? Yes? Okay! Keep reading!
There is this amazing body of knowledge in neuroscience that gives parents a better perspective into a child’s behavior. Armed with this knowledge, we can act more empathically, compassionately, and confidently in our everyday interactions with our children, all while promoting healthy brain development and emotional intelligence. Sound good? Yeah, I thought so too. Some of this practical knowledge is presented in the book The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. These days, I’ve been re-reading it to help me stay more aware and mindful of my child’s current stage of development and how my actions can help us grow and live together more respectfully. For me, respectful, gentle parenting is so important and so valuable for the overall well-being of our children and future generations. So, in light of that, I want to share with you some wonderful and practical insights that I love and use.
The topic of focus here is the Left and Right Hemispheres of the brain and how knowing a little about them can help guide our ability to connect and solve problems with our children. I’ll jump right into a simple lesson in neuroscience (not a neuroscientist here, so you’ll get my simplified interpretation), then I’ll give you a practical strategy to use in times when your child is flooded with emotion (a.k.a. a tantrum).
The Left Brain and Right Brain
Let’s review: our brain has two hemispheres, or halves (we’ll call them the left and right brain for simplicity), that are separate entities which are connected down the middle. Each hemisphere has its own job, or “power”, if you will. Our left brain processes information logically and literally and its powers are logic and language (among other things). The right brain processes information in images emotions and its powers are emotions and connecting with our body, as well as personal memory (the memories of our own stories).
In order for our left and right brains to bring their separate powers together and be our “super power”, our left and right brains need to be integrated; meaning they need strong neural connections that develop from repeated use of both right and left working together. This prevents us from being too literal, logical and unemotional (over-powered by the left brain) or from being carried away at the strength of our emotions, such as fear or anger, and instinctual reactions (over-powered by the right brain). I think we can all agree that acting and interacting with only logic or only emotion would be disastrous. Hence, the importance of integration between the left brain and right brain.
The Left Brain and Right Brain in Children
Okay, now, you ask…what about our children? Children, up until about 3 years old, are dominated by their right brain’s powers of emotion and connection to the body and its instinctual reactions (think crying for survival needs of hunger, potty needs, warmth, etc). Aha! That kind of explains the big emotional outbursts! Their brains are essentially hard-wired to rely on right brain powers and struggle to bring in the less developed left brain powers, i.e., the right and left are dis-integrated, especially during times of strong emotion.
An example: Margot, 4, and Chandler, 2, are happily engaging in a game of Mama, Papa, and Baby with Margot’s favorite baby doll. Margot (playing Mama) gently lays the baby doll into the pretend crib then turns away to complete another pretend task. Chandler (playing Papa) approaches the “sleeping” baby and innocently picks it up to play with it when Margot turns around and screams with anger that Chandler woke the Baby and is holding her baby doll! Margot, in a fit of anger, snatches the baby doll from Chandler, which then incites a torrent of fearful cries from Chandler. Both children are now overcome by a flood of emotions, they are overpowered by the right brain.
How do we get a child to stop the emotional flood of crying or anger? Stop the tantrum? We need to be able to get in touch with a child’s logic, language and reasoning to solve these daily conundrums. To understand and solve the problem that led up to their growing flood of emotion, the child needs to combine their left brain’s logical thinking and language powers with the right brain’s empathetic emotion and memory powers: Dum Dum Dummm, A SUPER POWER is born! So the question is, how can we help our children access the left brain powers when they are overpowered by their right brain emotion? In other words, how can we help Margot integrate her left and right brain so that the left brain is accessible in times of intense emotion? (Which would help her respond more calmly and with a willingness to share with Chandler.) Well, luckily, there are several practical solutions offered in The Whole Brain Child, one of which I will share here and is used almost daily in our home! It’s actually a combination of the first two strategies given in the book.
A Strategy for Calming an Emotional Flood (a.k.a Tantrum)
Step One: Connect with the child on an emotional, right brain level with a story of the event that initiated the emotional flood and empathy.
Step Two: Gently bring in the left brain by assigning a name to the emotion(s) the child is experiencing.
Step Three: Once calm and connected, solve the problem at hand
Let’s return to Margot and Chandler’s problem. What can you do?
You have two options:
Option 1: Using logic and law, you begin to explain to Margot that Chandler didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to move the doll and follow that up with a lesson on sharing.
Option 2: Acknowledge the real emotional turmoil initiated by this difficult situation in sharing and cooperation and wait for calm.
Which do you think will better teach a child the appropriate behavior?
Side note: I am a big proponent of empathizing with and listening to a child’s (or anyone’s, for that matter) emotional release and not telling them to stop crying or distracting them. The strategy laid out here respectfully acknowledges the emotions, while still providing a way to calm the emotions and come to a solution. When I notice a higher intensity of emotions, I generally take a moment to comfort (big hugs) and empathize with my child before beginning this process.
Well, option 1 would probably be carried out while Margot and Chandler continue to scream and cry and, most likely, you are yelling so they can hear you. While option 2 allows for some connection and cool down time. Here’s what I suggest:
First, connect with the children emotionally by telling the story of what happened, connect physically with a hug or hand on their back, and name the emotion they may be feeling as you tell the story. A tender physical connection (empathy) and story speak to the right brain’s emotion, body language, and memory. You become connected with your child, right brain to right brain, which is appropriate in this moment when the right brain is in charge and the left brain is dis-connected. The naming of emotions begins to call on the left brain to use words to help organize the right brain’s emotional flood and help describe the problem. Essentially, you are helping engage the left brain to control the right brain emotional flood. With enough practice and repetition, a solid neural integration will begin to form that will make it easier for the left and right brain to remain integrated in future moments of intense emotion.
For example, you can say:
“Margot, you and Chandler were playing Mama and Papa with the baby doll. Margot laid the baby down to sleep in the crib and then Chandler came and picked up the sleeping baby. I see that you (Margot) are angry that Chandler took the baby doll. You worked very hard trying to get the baby to sleep [empathy]. When Chandler took the baby, Margot got angry and snatched the baby from Chandler’s hands. Chandler felt upset and scared when that happened. Snatching can hurt.”
In most cases, my children will begin to settle down and listen as I tell the story and talk about how they may be feeling. Oftentimes, my preschooler will begin adding to the story of what happened (and even my toddler has helped with this). It is natural for people, large or small, to want to understand what happened during a stressful event and understand why we become overcome with emotion. This process of retelling the story helps the left brain organize and release intense emotions that are connected with the memory of that event.
As you continue to give words to their experience, your child can begin to engage with the original problem using the left brain. Once the tears or strong emotions have subdued and you can see that your child is listening to you, you can then start to address the problem at hand, which would be the event that provoked the emotional flood. In our example, it would be the disruption of Margot’s play and the snatching of the toy from Chandler.
As in the example, I’ve found that this method even works when I’m trying to solve a problem between two upset siblings. In this case, I generally hold my youngest (1+ years), as she is still at an age and stage of needing more of a physical and immediate response, and I tell the story using non-judgmental language by simply stating what happened in a factual manner. This story catches the attention of both children and, thankfully, most of the time, my elder child realizes the problem and will initiate reconciliation with her sister.
This method has been working pretty well for us in many situations. However, there are times when it simply is beyond a child’s capability to connect and problem solve.
Situations when it doesn’t work completely (but you can still try):
When the child is hungry
When the child is very tired
When the caregiver is overwhelmed, not calm, or unable to empathize (yeah, we all have our moments of difficulty, child and parent alike!)
Situations when it has worked well:
When someone gets hurt (I often repeat the story several times)
When someone gets scared (again, the more repetition, the better understanding the child can have and *include how the child came to safety in the end*)
When there is a conflict between siblings. In this case, first physically separate the children to prevent injuries, if necessary, and then begin the story so both can hear.
Now you know a little more about the Left brain and Right brain and how their development and integration affects your child’s actions…but there’s more! There is also a vertical integration between the upper and lower areas of the brain (as opposed to horizontal integration of left and right) that is necessary. Understanding a bit more about these areas of the brain will give even more insight into what a tantrum is. And when we know what we are dealing with in a tantrum, we can better relate to our child and help them integrate their brains for long-term health and problem-solving abilities. We’ll talk about that soon!
The Tiny Explorer’s Story
I stopped my search for a moment to look up at a single white cloud drifting silently through the bright sky and then turned downward, crouching and stepping carefully through the sticky terrain.
“Where was it? Over here?” I asked Mama without even turning my head. “This is it! This is it!” I shouted. Mama quickly joined me as we stared down between our muddy shoes to an inconspicuous patch of raised dirt surrounding an oval shaped hole.
“What are they doing today?” Mama inquired.
“They look busy. I think they are just going in and out and in and out.” I stated confidently as we simultaneously leaned in to get a closer look at the ants emerging and retreating from the hole.
“I think you’re right. But, why are they going in and out? Let’s watch.” Mama replied. We watched the ants climb out with determination, each moving in a different direction from the hole. Mama pointed to a particularly large ant and asked “Do you see that? Is it carrying something?”
I followed a shiny black ant from the shadow of the hole to the brightness of the sun and realized that it had a small, round clump of something light brown in front of it’s head. The ant turned immediately back to the hole after dropping off this mysterious brown ball on the raised mound of dirt.
“What is that?” I implored emphatically.
“Hmm, look at the color of the ball, is it the same as the hill around the hole?” Mama encouraged me to look more closely.
“I think so,” I paused and thought. “It’s the soil!” I exclaimed sharply.
“What do you think the ant is doing with that soil?”
“It seems to be carrying it out of the hole.” I said. I noticed two more ants carrying the same kind of brown ball out of the hole and placing it a short distance away, then immediately turning back to go inside the hole. “Look, they’re all carrying the soil!” I exclaimed with a small hop.
“Yeeeessss, wow! They are working very hard carrying all that soil. But why do you think they are carrying it out? Are they making something?”
“They are making the ant hill! They’re bringing the soil out and building an ant hill!” I stood up straight and turned to scan the small dirt field. “Can we look for more ant hills?” I asked with excitement.
“Let’s go!” Mama followed with a thoughtful look. As we arrived at the next ant hill, Mama asked me a very interesting question. “Where are they getting all the soil from? Could they be making something under the ground?”
I was very curious. They had made the hole, but I didn’t know what more could be beyond the hole. Was it a deep hole? What was inside the hole? I wanted to know.
“Mama, can we get a book about ant hills?”
Mama here, there are so many fascinating behaviors to observe in these most abundant of creatures: ANTS! We are so lucky to be able to find them anywhere! Search for ant hills with your child. There are so many different things to observe and discuss!
FIVE Questions About Ant Hills for Tiny Explorers
Here’s what we love to talk about:
What is the size of the ant hill? They can be big or small.
What is the shape of the ant hill?
What is the color of the soil in the hill? Is it the same or different from the surrounding soil?
What are the ants doing with the soil?
The ants are working hard bringing all the soil out, will it change (grow/shrink) over time? Go back and visit ant hills to see if they change.
While our tiny explorers don’t always have the answers (and neither do we!), we can engage their curiosity by asking questions and encouraging observations to find the answers.
Our observations led to a discussion of what the ant hill is really all about: It’s part of the ant nest, the ants’ home! But is their home above or below the ground? (Well, it can be both, depending on the species of ant!) And what does it look like under all that soil?
FIVE Facts About Ant Hills
Ant hills are made around the opening of an ant nest. The hill is like the gateway to the nest, which is a network of tunnels and chambers under ground or even within the hill. (Tunnels can be as deep as 15 ft (4.5 m)!)
Ant hills are made from soil and other unwanted objects (leaves, sticks, and other plant material) taken from the tunnels in the nest.
Some ants build the ant hills into beautiful shapes or structures using soil and/or clay.
Ant hills are made by worker ants, who are female.
Ant hills can be part of a huge colony that includes many hills and many nests (like 1000s!).
Here are a few photos of ant colonies large and small!
Check out this video of a tiny camera looking into the nest of the Allegeheny Mound Ants (Formica exsectoides) found in North America.
I’d love to hear about your adventures exploring ant hills! Leave a comment to let me know if you’ve done this, or if you’re planning to!
Happy exploring, my friend!