Helping kids with executive functioning challenges can take one part instruction, one part practice, one part mindfulness and one part patience. For the instruction part, I have created fun visual aids to support kids with their learning and understanding of how their brains work.
Within the school I work, every grade is using the In-Focus Social Emotional Learning curriculum, (see link below).
With this curriculum, the brain is likened to an Owl (prefrontal cortex), a Dog (limbic system), and a Lizard (Brain Stem). I created these manipulatives for kids in my group to use at their seats. These visuals are available through the curriculum website.
First, we learn about the Brain Stem and how it is in charge of the basic fight flight or flee mechanism in our bodies. We discuss how when we are stressed or afraid, our bodies are designed to automatically keep us safe. If we become stressed and afraid too often then our brains can get stuck in this mode and our bodies and minds can begin to fight/flight/freeze, or REACT a lot of the time.
Next, we talk about the limbic system, the emotional part of our brain that houses the amygdala. This part is responsible for our emotions and can jump around like a dog if our emotions are out of control. I have them share some times when they have felt that their emotions were running around wild like a dog. We talk about how it is so very hard to learn and to think straight when the dog part of our brain is “chasing its tail.”
Finally, we discuss the Owl part of our brain known as the prefrontal cortex. This part is responsible for our wise thoughts, our ability to solve problems, and can help us to pause, to calm down the Dog, and to begin to breathe to calm our bodies and mind. This Owl works the best when the Lizard and the Dog are cool, calm, and collected. Our relaxation tools help us to do this!
I introduce the OWL BREATH here. Breathing in, we make an “o” shape with our mouth, sucking in a very deep breath, feeling our tummies push out as our lungs fill with air. Breathing out we make the WHOOOOO sound as long as possible, completely emptying our lungs of air, feeling our tummies deflate or flatten. In: “o” Out: “WHOOOO”
Our owl breath helps us to calm down the dog and lizard brain so that the Owl can think, focus, and create.
Then, we talk about mindfulness and how it also is a way to help our Owl take charge over the Dog and Lizard. I love Ozzy the Owl as a teaching tool.
The kids love Ozzy. I make sure that when Ozzy is handled, only a soft voice, soft touch, and careful holding is used. For more information on mindfulness for kids or to get your own Ozzy Owl, please visit the Inner Rhythm website: http://innerrhythm.ca/mindful-products/
We complete our lesson with Ozzy and a practice of mindfulness. I shake the Ozzy snowglobe and ask students if they think the Owl can think very well when the Dog is jumping all around (their emotions are running wild). We talk about emotional regulation and that it is about our awareness of our bodies and our abilities to use the calm down tools.
We close our lesson with a tool for the week. I encourage them to take an Owl breath whenever they begin to feel the Dog begin to jump, when they feel scattered, angry, confused, flustered, irritated, sad, or frustrated, begin to do the Owl breath right then, paying attention to how their mind and body begins to calm down, imagining the dog going to rest in a soft dog bed, the lizard at home and content in its cave.