As we know, children can lose control of their emotions for various reasons, and the behaviors we witness are generally unplanned. And since anxiety can often look like defiance, adults often respond in counterproductive ways. When children are stressed, the amygdala, located in the downstairs brain, is triggered, and the “fight or flight” response takes over. This hijacking of the brain makes it hard for children to be reached through conversation resulting in an emotional outburst. Implementing the strategy of rapid resets can help calm children and get their brains back “online.”
When children are out of the zone, and their “lid is flipped,” the sympathetic nervous system has been fully activated, and they don’t recognize what is happening. The reactions we see are based on each child’s current stage of development, communication skills, and emotional competency. It’s also important to be aware that some children have an anxious temperament and are more likely to react in a stronger way.
Luckily, the body has a natural reset button in the parasympathetic nervous system called the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the brain stem, through the face, to the thorax and abdomen. When it’s stimulated, it sends a message to the brain to relax and as a result, sends a message for the body to calm down. When children experience a flood of emotions triggered by stress, the vagus nerve has to be activated to get children back to a teachable state. Then, and only then, can we begin to engage them in a logical, age-appropriate discussion of the situation and make a plan for how they can cope with a similar feeling the next time they feel that way.
So how do we get children back to a place of reasoning? By hacking into the parasympathetic nervous system with effective methods.
- Deep Breathing: We all know taking deep breaths is a go-to solution for calming the body. However, Dr. Lucy Norcliffe-Kaufmann, an associate professor of neurology at NYU, suggests taking long, deep breaths and then making the exhale longer than the inhale. The reason for this is that when we exhale, the vagal activity is highest, and the heart rate is lowest. This creates a quicker calming effect. For younger children, this can be more easily done by blowing bubbles or a pinwheel or whistling.
- Humming or Singing: Since the vagus nerve runs along both sides of the voice box, engaging children to hum or sing when they are in an emotional state will calm them down. This is used much like the way yoga incorporates “oms” during a session, which brings about calmness by activating the vocal cords, the vibration of which stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Physical Movement: In general, any movement will essentially take the mind away from intense feelings and increase endorphins. However, specific movements can expedite calmness. The Cat-cow yoga pose works through the digestive system and spine where the vagus nerve resides. Also, activities that involve crossing the mid-line activate both sides of the brain to work together, so thinking becomes more balanced.
In the classroom, it’s often hard for a teacher to stop everything for children experiencing different anxiety levels, so utilizing rapid resets is critical. This can bring the entire class back to a more relaxed state while also nurturing emotional self-regulation. The Early SKILLZ program incorporates this by using Teaching SKILLZ, such as redirecting, prompting, and intrinsic motivation. The Parent SKILLZ blog posts and the curriculum and training we will start offering is also infused with vital information to keep parents attuned and patient during their child’s emotional floods.
When we teach children quick and easy resets for stressful times, we encourage more emotional self-regulation and promote greater emotional resilience. By doing this, we counteract the dangerous effects of stress and arming children with the tools for happiness and improved overall health.