Teaching children about their brains

If children can be introduced to just some of the ways our brains work from an early age, they can make a start on their journey of understanding themselves, why they might feel and/or do the things they do and learn how to self-regulate their emotions.


Although our brains are very complex, young children can be successfully introduced to the simple concept that we actually have 2 key different types of brain that we need to learn to work with:


1. Our ‘old brain’ the ‘Limbic’ area (which is sometimes referred to as the ‘downstairs brain’) that evolved millions of years ago and does similar things to animal’s brains.  This part of the brain is responsible for basic physical desires and motives and emotions; the ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’ responses.  It is an extremely powerful emotional machine and its responses can be helpful or sometimes very unhelpful!


2. Our ‘new brain’ the frontal area (which is sometimes referred to as the ‘upstairs brain’ or rational brain) that evolved 2 million years ago and sets us apart from animals.  This part of the brain enables us to think, imagine and reason and gives us our sense of self.



Our ‘new brain’ capabilities can easily be hijacked by our ‘old brain’ feelings, emotions and desires.  Much like a dog, the old brain is most constructive to us if we can teach and train it using our ‘rational new brain’.  If we can learn to step back and just ‘observe’ how we are feeling, then we can quiet our ‘old brain’ and choose how we respond to those feelings and emotions with our ‘new brain’.  It’s a major milestone in emotional development (and is easier said than done), but the earlier these concepts can be explored, the better. 



A fun way to introduce children to our ‘old brain’ and our ‘new brain’ is to refer to them as our ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and our ‘Wise old owl’.  Here is a suggested way to do this:   

Did you know that our brains are very clever?  They are like our engines.  There are lots of different parts of our brain that do different things like help us breathe or eat without even thinking about it!  

One part of our brain is a bit like a cheeky monkey.  It’s where all of our feelings come from like love, joy, happiness or fear and anger. 



Sometimes the cheeky monkey part of our brain can get a bit too excited or if it feels scared or angry, it might want to scream and run away or it can do things that might hurt other people like hit or say unkind words without thinking. 


The Cheeky Monkey part of our brain is a bit like a dog, we need to TRAIN it just like we need to train a puppy.   We can train our ‘Cheeky Monkey’ to make sure that when it has feelings, it doesn’t do anything to hurt others or ourselves.  Or that if it gets too excited, we know how to let it rest and calm down. 


Another part of our brain is like a wise old owl.  It’s clever and calm and cares and is full of good ideas on what to do with our feelings.  Your wise old owl can train your cheeky monkey so that when a feeling comes up, you can do something really good with that feeling.  Even if it’s a bad feeling.    


Give children some examples of when you were little (children love it when adults tell a story about when they were little) and your cheeky monkey did something naughty.  Then ask what the wise owl would say to do:  e.g.  Would you like to hear a story about my cheeky monkey part of my brain?  

When I was a little girl, my brother had a bike and I wanted to ride it but he wouldn’t give me a turn so I felt very angry and pushed him off it.  Everyone was very upset with me for hurting my brother and I felt bad afterwards.  My cheeky monkey just did that without listening to my wise old owl. 

Ask children to come up with ideas of how the wise old owl could help with this situation.



Ask children to talk about a time when their cheeky monkeys did something that was not very nice with a feeling it had.  Then give an example of when you listened to your wise old owl e.g:

When I was a little girl, my brother wouldn’t share his chocolate with me so I wanted to hit him and scream at him but then I listened to my wise owl say that last time I pushed my brother off his bike and hurt him, it hurt me to see him so sad so my wise owl told me not to hit him this time.  Mum was so pleased that I didn’t hurt him, she gave me a chocolate too for being so kind even though I felt mad and that made me feel really good. 

Ask children to talk about a time when something happened and they listened to their wise old owl instead of their cheeky monkeys.


In future situations, you can ask a child … ‘Was that your cheeky monkey that just did that?’ or ‘What would your wise old owl do instead?’ 


Or positively reinforce behaviour e.g. ‘I like what you did just then, it looks like you listened to your wise old owl and made a really good decision about those feelings’


Or to ‘celebrate’ our good feelings (and the fun side of our cheeky monkey parts of our brains), you can put on some fun dance music and say ‘Let your cheeky monkeys go wild and dance and jump around!  


Or introduce how our wise old owls can help us ‘change our channel’ when we have a feeling like anger so that we let the anger out but don’t hurt anyone (e.g. the ‘Feel Brave Stretches’ video or ‘Stars in the Night’ poem).



Another great way to talk to chidlren about their brains is using Dr Hazel Harrison's (Think Avellana) great technique of the 'Upstairs/Downstairs' brains.