Archive for March, 2014

Wiring Kids’ Brains For Kindness

I was intrigued by an article in the most recent issue of Psychotherapy Networker that discussed implications for the latest discoveries regarding brain plasticity. MRI’s and other brain imaging technologies have become responsible for new discoveries about how we can change the way our brains are “wired.” Apparently,  parts of our brain can be developed like real estate. Ownership is determined through repeated behaviors and thought processes.

The author, Mary Sykes Wylie references psychologist Edward Taub. Taub found that stroke patients who lost the use of their left arm learned to compensate by overusing the right one. The right arm, in effect, bought up the unused real estate, leaving the right less opportunity to recover. When the right arm was immobilized, however, the left was more likely to keep trying and eventually to  recover lost ground, using it or losing it. Parts of the brain, it seems, are open for offers.

It is encouraging to know that our  brains maintain the ability to change throughout our lives. We used to think that they were “locked in” at age 18 or 25. Now we know that they continue to change structurally, and we can sculpt them like musculature, for good or for bad.

Of  course it helps if you are young, encouraged, and motivated.

Which reminds me of a story. When I was little, my older brother and I loved baseball. Because he was 5 years older, he played a large role in shaping many of my skills and interests. In the realm of baseball, he wanted me to be a switch hitter.  Because it is harder to hit a right hand pitcher’s curve ball while batting right handed and the same for batting left against a lefty, being able to switch is an asset. Especially in the big leagues. So, my brother had me bat left half of the time.

And I did it. It took extra work, but, despite my strong right-handedness, I learned to bat just as well either way. My brother was proud and so was I. I’m sure that a brain scan would have confirmed the progress as the real estate was transformed.

The problem was that when I started to play less with my brother and more with peers, I realized that no one my age threw curve balls. And my little league coach just thought I was eccentric. Being a switch hitter offered no advantage aside from status in my brother’s eyes, which was becoming less important.  And it was still hard work.

So I stopped. No more practicing left. Brain snapped back. I could only hit right handed again. Use it or lose it.

I think that the same principle applies with students learning bullying prevention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a school counselor tell me, “The kids are terrible in the spring. In the fall, we cover bystander skills and the Olweus rules for including others and they do really well. But in the spring, they forget everything.”

I truly believe that when we teach children to be empathetic, to speak up for the powerless, and to stop laughing at mean behavior, we are rewiring their brains. In my blog From The Mouths of Babes, I reference a study entitled “Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.” In it, the authors determine that children have a natural proclivity to shun those who are different. The implementation of bystander skills, however, relies on teaching the majority of students to do exactly the opposite.

We are teaching them to bat left-handed.

Changing a school’s climate by empowering the majority to become empathetic and inclusive is radical. It develops new neural pathways and, like a muscle, the new wiring will wither with lack of use. If kids feel unsupported or their work offers no practical advantage, they will return to the path that is easy.

It’s a real challenge to inspire a majority of students to be kind. The message must be consistent, and kids need the opportunity to “do it” rather than just talk or be lectured about it. Actually performing a bystander skill and feeling the power of affecting another human being will change a young brain (and an old one as well). But the effort needs to be repeated. And repeated. And…. you know. Or it will return to the more established path of old habits.

Luckily the work can be very fun and rewarding. We need to be good models, keep it creative and exciting, and reward children for their progress.

Let me know if I can help.

My Best,



Wylie, Mary Sykes. “Beyond Phrenology: Let’s look at how the brain really works.”  Psychotherapy Networker. Jan/Feb 2014.

Thornberg, Robert. “Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.”  Psychology in the Schools, Apr 2010, Vol. 47 Issue 4, p311-327, 17p, 1 Chart





The Dance

In my previous post, “Emotional Marshmallows Part III,” I talked about the need to be relaxed in order to effectively deflect mean behavior. The best defense against aggression is flexibility. The metaphor I used was a dance: a lively sequence of steps; a give and take.

Far too often, adults and children view confrontations as an event to win or lose, beat or be beaten. Like most relationships, however, dealing with an aggressor at school need not be an all or nothing proposition. The goal is to move beyond the fight/flight dichotomy and into a set of choices that are more nuanced and creative: shuffle, dip, glide and spin. It is what the best communicators do naturally.

When working with both children and adults, I find that one of the simplest and most effective communications skills to teach is the disarming technique: find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if it is unreasonable or unfair. When you agree with someone, it takes away the aggressive energy and puts you on the same side. Key to using this technique is understanding that being right or wrong is often secondary to getting what you want in the long run.

And what a kid wants is to be safe.

My favorite resource for dancing around mean behavior is a children’s book: Karen Gedig Burnett’s Simon’s Hook. Burnett likens a bully’s taunts to a fish hook that her protagonist must learn not to bite. In the story within a story, learning not to bite is key to survival for a desperate school of fish.  Soon they are deflecting put-downs and barbs, using the following techniques:

  • Doing Nothing: not reacting
  • Agreeing: disarming technique
  • Distracting: changing the subject
  • Laughing or making a joke: humor
  • Staying Away: avoiding the perpetrator

Sometimes  a combination of skills is best. My favorite is combining the disarming technique with humor– also known as the art of self-depreciation. Joining in by making fun of yourself is a creative way to dance with rather than do battle with someone who is being mean:

“Dude, that shirt is ugly!”
“No kidding! I think my mom bought it to punish me! Aaaaack!”

But it is not easy. A kid needs to be relaxed, confident, and practiced in order to pull it off.  When they do, the sense of accomplishment is great. Not everyone has a sense of humor, however, so for some children staying away or causing a distraction may be a better choice.

The key is to have options. And understanding a child’s capabilities of in the face of a powerful aggressor takes some time and individual attention. How reactive is the child? How frightened? Are they verbally adept? What is their level of confidence? Even children of the same age range widely in skills and maturity, so understanding individual capabilities is crucial.

Which brings me back to the event that started my discussion of resilience in Emotional Marshmallows, Part I.  I took issue with an assembly role play in which a student volunteer is prompted to verbally abuse the presenter. The performer then turns the situation in his favor, a la “You are going to call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh.” He subsequently receives the insults with self-effacing calm and humor until his attacker loses all steam.

Having a child insult you while you make them laugh is a deceptive way to demonstrate resiliency.  The power distribution is backwards (try the demonstration with an adult attacking a student and I guarantee a disaster). The very definition of bullying requires a power advantage for the aggressor– and the power deficit is exactly what makes it so hard for a target to respond.

The routine is entertaining, but it is not very helpful. The majority of the audience will not be able to perform the skill in real life– so what tools do they get?

It is important to not over-simplify bullying. It is important not to blame the victim. And it is important to help children become resilient by  gently encouraging them to problem-solve, make good choices, and reframe thoughts that are self-destructive. Teach them to be flexible. Teach them to breathe. Teach them to “dance.”

Cha cha cha.

My Best,


Simon’s hook : a story about teases and put-downs. Karen Gedig Burnett ; illustrated by Laurie Barrows: Roseville, CA : GR Pub., c1999.


Emotional Marshmallows Part III

“If you are more relaxed, I think your brain functions more effectively.”  –Dali Lama

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.”   – Victor Frankl

Welcome back to our discussion about resilience. When this post started,  I asserted the following skills as being key to keeping kids resilient: 1) Problem-solving skills, 2) emphasis on choices over traits, 3) cognitive flexibility, and 4) stress reduction activities. Having fleshed out 1-3, we are left with perhaps the most desired life change goal among 21st century Americans, STRESS REDUCTION.

Part of the definition of resilience is elasticity. It is the reason that  skyscrapers are engineered to sway in the wind.  The motion relieves stress and keeps the building standing. Bending, relaxing, swaying, giving and taking– are all the opposite of stress. Too much stress and things break.

Being relaxed and in control is key to resilience, especially in the face of bullying. Studies have shown that bullying has become less physical and more verbal. Name-calling and exclusion are more prevalent  than physical aggression.  As a result, being poised and ready to fight is not the deterrent that it used to be. Being relaxed and exercising self-control in the face of fire is the best defense.

So instead of teaching kids to fight, we need to teach them to dance. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Dance is a lively sequence of steps — and flexibility is key.

How do we get a “wound up” kid to relax?

There are many approaches to managing stress in children: Exercise, mindfulness techniques, cognitive reframing, humor, art and non-directive play are all commonly used in a therapy setting. And don’t forget diet. Caffeine can make a kid’s springs become more tightly coiled.

But the simplest yet most effective technique that I’ve seen is learning to breathe. I say “learning” because it seems that many of us have forgotten how, or simply don’t feel we have the time.  A deep breath from the diaphragm, pushing the belly out, rising into the chest and lifting the collar bones– not a shallow puff from the chest but a full breath like a sleeping baby–  does wonders to calm the central nervous system and allows time to think.

Here’s the exercise:
One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

Make a game of it with your child or student when they are upset or “frazzled.” Count it out loud for them AND have them do it for you! Keeping in mind the quotes at the top of the page, this simple exercise makes kids more relaxed, allows their brains to function better, and creates a space between stimulus and response– all assets in managing the dance that is required when being picked on at school.

And remember, the best way to get a child to engage in any behavior (good or bad) is to model it. So, when you are driving and the rage begins to build, or if you are in front of the class and it’s one of those day when you are at your wit’s end, say to the little ones, “Give me a count…”

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

And you do the same for them. Make it a game. Make it fun. Breathing and laughter mixed make the most therapeutic cocktail.

So, now that your are more relaxed and have provided a buffer between stimulus and response, what sort of dance might you do to deflect mean behavior?

I’m afraid we’ll have to save it for next time. We’ll call it the Emotional Marshmallow Trilogy Post Script. AND I promise to finally address the anti-bullying tactic that inspired it all,  “pressuring the victim” and the  “call me an idiot and I am going to make you laugh” routine.

In the meantime,

One breathe in; one breathe out
Two breathe in; two breathe out
Three breathe in and hold (two three); three breath out (very slowly).

My Best,



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