brain, Classroom, Emotional regulation, Executive Function, Language Therapy, Pragmatic Language, Random SLP, self-regulation, Social Cognition, Social Regulation, Uncategorized

Social Communication On Your Feet Part Two

By Hanna Bogen, M.S., CCC-SLP

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In the part one post I introduced readers to the fundamental principles of improvisation (“improv”) and the connections between improv and social-regulation. Again, they include:

  •  Principle One:        Be prepared
  •  Principle Two:       Willingness (to fail spectacularly)
  • Principle Three:    Stay in the moment
  • Principle Four:      Quiet down and listen
  • Principle Five:       Action beats inaction
  • Principle Six:         Be honest
  • Principle Seven:    Let go of your need to control
  • Principle Eight:     There are no mistakes
  • Principle Nine:      Trust
  • Principle Ten:        Teamwork

These principles of improv (Peter Bromberg, 2007) demonstrate the value of flexibility, perspective taking, and reciprocity in successful social interactions. This blog post will take a deeper look at three of the principles and their necessity in the world of social-regulation, specifically: willingness, stay in the moment, and “Yes, and…”

Willingness:  One constant we can count on time and again is that social behaviors have consequences — others either have comfortable, positive thoughts about us or uncomfortable, negative thoughts about us based on the things we do. While the brain is inclined to stick with reliable behaviors with predictable outcomes, social situations often require us to push the comfort zone and try something new. Individuals with social-regulation challenges may struggle to shift away from predictable behaviors, even when they have socially-unexpected outcomes. Willingness to ask new questions, attempt new connections, and risk the possibility of failure is key to learning and adapting to increasingly more mature forms of communication. In improv, the structure and rules of the games offer a safe place to try new things because it is ok to make mistakes; mistakes are often celebrated with shared laughter, which builds confidence in in students. Along with this willingness to evolve is the need to reflect on one’s social experiences: “Did the interaction go as planned?” “How did the conversation partner react to the comment?” “What might I do differently next time to have a more socially-expected outcome?” Acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable in social development, and engaging in thoughtful reflection on social behaviors and their consequences, provide a context for successful social growth.

Stay in the Moment:  Successful executive functioning hinges on one’s ability to engage in “mental time travel” (i.e., the ability to use foresight and hindsight to make decisions in the present moment).  That being said, mindful, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment allows individuals to make intentional decisions about how to behave at any given moment, rather than simply being carried away by impulses and emotion.  The mindful practice of staying in the moment, even when that requires regularly redirecting thought and attention from the past or future to the present, strengthens our brain’s ability to “insert the pause” between stimulus and response, thus improving self-regulation skills.  This “pause” represents an individual’s opportunity to decide whether (s)he wants to continue with a social behavior, or redirect to a new, more socially-expected one.

“Yes, and…”:  Acknowledging and validating one’s emotionally dysregulated experience does not imply inherent agreement with that dysregulated state. As stated by the Emotional ABC’s curriculum (Venice West Productions, Inc., 2012), “emotions are like the weather.” Like the weather, we don’t strive to control our emotions; instead we strive to equip ourselves with tools and strategies to cope with the emotions that appear in various social situations. Acknowledging and validating one’s emotional experience is critical to bringing awareness to the emotional state, and providing an opportunity to engage in regulating strategies. Identifying one’s emotion(s) and moving forward to initiate a regulation strategy (i.e., “Yes, and…”) embodies the process of emotional regulation, a critical component of social-regulation (e.g., Example of self-talk: “Yes, I am feeling anxious and I can use my focus tool to calm myself.”). The social landscape is complex and dynamic, often requiring individuals to demonstrate flexibility, reciprocity, and adaptation to changing social rules. The principles of improv highlight many of the skills required for successful social experiences, and practice with improv games and activities can help to build the skills needed for social success.

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Classroom, Emotional regulation, Executive Function, Just for Students, self-regulation, Social Cognition, Uncategorized

7 Self-Regulation Tips to Reduce Homework Battles With Your Child

I originally wrote this post for Beyond BookSmart, and it appeared on their blog on October 17, 2016: http://www.beyondbooksmart.com/executive-functioning-strategies-blog/7-self-regulation-tips-to-reduce-homework-battles-with-your-child. For other GREAT resources on executive functioning, planning and prioritizing, improving confidence, emotional regulation strategies, and focusing and attention strategies, check out the rest of the wonderful blog posts: http://www.beyondbooksmart.com/executive-functioning-strategies-blog

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Few tasks test self-regulation skills like homework time. Self-regulation is critical to one’s ability to manage challenging or complex situations, and homework time is no exception. Strong self-regulation is multifaceted; it involves regulation of one’s thoughts, emotions, actions, and motivation. Although these skills continue to develop into adulthood, building and strengthening them from an early age can reduce stress and provide the drive to attempt new experiences. Students can integrate practices into home and school activities that strengthen and support a foundation of self-regulation. Below are seven tips students can use in their daily routines to promote happier homework time.

1: Make a homework plan

It doesn’t always make sense for your child to start with the homework assignment from his first class of the day. Some students feel more motivated when they get the biggest assignment out of the way first, while others need to get started with a small task in order to avoid a state of emotional overload. Encourage your child to first make a list of all tasks on deck for the day, and then arrange them into an order that will promote success. Setting aside a few minutes to make a homework plan before getting started can save time, frustration, and stress in the long run.

2: Stock your homework space ahead of time

A quick trip to find a sharp pencil can easily turn into an hour-long distraction. Before getting started, consider what supplies are needed to complete the homework and stock the workspace. Some students benefit from a tri-fold poster board used as a makeshift study station to reduce visual distractions. Wherever your child plans to complete homework, make sure the area is distraction-free and that the necessary supplies are readily available so precious work time isn’t wasted looking for more graph paper.

3: Support basic (subcortical) needs

The brain’s sub-cortex involves the “downstairs,” lower-level brain structures that manage emotions and generate seek and avoid impulses. When the sub-cortex is dysregulated, the brain devotes most or all of its cognitive resources to those structures in order to ensure that we feel safe and comfortable. This leads to decreased cognitive energy reaching the prefrontal, “thinking” parts of the brain that students need to successfully complete homework. Your child can support subcortical regulation by ensuring that he/she has had enough sleep, hydration, food, and movement.

4: Know your triggers and plan ahead

If a certain type of task is a consistent emotional trigger for homework battles with your child, encourage him/her to pre-regulate. This might involve intentionally setting up the environment to be as calming as possible, using a favorite pen or pencil to add a little fun to the task, taking some deep breaths prior to starting, identifying a small reward for completing the task, or setting aside time for a break mid-way through the homework. Anticipating the likelihood of dysregulation and planning ahead helps to avoid the emotional hijacking that otherwise feels like it sneaks up out of nowhere when students are working through an assignment they don’t enjoy.

5: Use future emotion to motivate present action

Often, students get stuck in a “now bubble” about how annoyed, frustrated, bored, or overwhelmed they feel at the thought of starting homework right now. It’s no surprise that these uncomfortable emotional states don’t provide much motivation to get started. Encourage students to shift their focus from how they feelright now to how they will feel when the homework is complete. Proud? Relieved? Accomplished? Use this future emotion to motivate the present action of getting started.

6: Snack smarter

Not all foods impact the brain’s endurance equally, and choosing the wrong snack can lead to a major blood sugar crash mid-homework time. Fueling up for homework is a great way to support the brain’s sub-cortex, and students should consider snacks that provide consistent energy to the brain and/or feed their sensory processing needs. Snacks with complex carbohydrates and protein-rich foods provide slow-release energy for the brain without the intense low soon after consumption. Chewy foods (e.g., dried fruit) and crunchy foods (e.g., nuts, whole-grain crackers, raw veggies) can provide sensory input for students who might otherwise feel distracted by sensory-seeking impulses.

7: Plan breaks wisely

The brain is most attentive for fifteen to twenty-minute increments. While some students can make it through marathon homework sessions, many need to break up the time to give their brains a rest. Breaks can be wonderful, but only if the student can successfully shift back to the homework task. Avoid break activities that involve nebulous timing (e.g., playing outside for a while) or ones that can’t be easily paused (e.g., video games that require the player to reach the next level before stopping). To avoid the drama of transitioning from a break back to homework, consider break activities that have explicit start and end boundaries(e.g., a five-minute YouTube video, twenty jumping jacks, listening to three songs, etc.). If vague end times can’t be avoided, set a timer to create a strict cut-off time.

brain, Executive Function, self-regulation, Social Cognition, Uncategorized

The Present NOW versus the NOW Bubble

 How is mindful awareness of now different from being stuck in a NOW Bubble?

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 1.16.11 PMTANG YAU HOONG

“There are only two ways to time travel (that we know of): to look at the stars and to think with the front of your brain.”

 

I heard this from a friend years ago while on a camping trip that offered some of the best stargazing I’d ever done. Although she was actually referencing a conversation about delayed light coming from the stars, this statement was the start of a deep fascination with the human brain’s ability to shift between awareness of the past, present and future. This phenomenon, known as mental time travel, encompasses our unique ability to use past experience, and future interest, to impact our decisions about present action. Mental time travel heavily involves the frontal lobe of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, and is at the crux of successful self-regulation. One’s ability to self-regulate is ultimately judged by how they act in the present moment. The integration of mental time travel into responding is dependent upon how well someone can expand his/her NOW Bubble long enough to self-assess his/her current state, past experiences, and future interests before acting.

Understanding the NOW Bubble

In Brain Talk, the curriculum I co-created with Carrie Lindemuth, the NOW Bubble is the immediate moment following a trigger or stimulus. In this moment, impulses are activated in order to drive action that seems most in line with the brain’s seek and/or avoid urges. For example, if someone cuts you off on the freeway, you may feel the impulse to yell out your car window in the NOW Bubble. For some, that impulse takes over and drives a reaction; they find themselves moving faster than the speed of thought. In this case, action is driven only by what would feel good right now; past experience and future interest are not considered.

Understanding mindful awareness of now

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is openhearted, moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of now (i.e., the present moment). Mindful awareness of now involves observational, curious examination of present emotions, sensations, and thoughts. For example, mindful awareness of now following news about a promotion at work might involve nonjudgmental identification of your emotional state (e.g., elated, proud, excited), sensations (e.g., warm, energetic, heart racing), thoughts (e.g., “This is going to be such a great opportunity!”), and impulses (e.g., desire to celebrate, wanting to share news with friends).

How do the now’s compare?

Being stuck in your rigid NOW Bubble makes you a hostage to your present impulses rather than an empowered participant in the present experience. One of the goals of mindfulness is to “insert the pause” between stimulus and response to allow for choice in how to respond rather than feeling “along for the ride” with your reaction. When practicing mindful awareness, you remain in control of your engagement with the now as opposed to the now is controlling you. The more effectively you can mindfully observe the now, the more you can expand your NOW Bubble to incorporate past experience and future goals. In other words, you are less likely to react faster than the speed of thought.

Often, one’s awareness of their present experience is rooted in his/her emotion(s) in the moment. Emotions are like the weather: you can’t control whether you have calm, gentle emotions or strong, stormy emotions. You can, however, control how you respond to your emotions. This is the core of emotional-regulation. Although you can’t control the forecast (emotional or weather forecast), you can engage mental time travel to sometimes predict your emotional experiences based on your past memories of a triggering situation. Acknowledging that similar triggers create similar emotional climates allows individuals, especially those with strong capacities for mental time travel, to anticipate how they might feel going into a situation. This creates a platform to proactively plan, practice, and master emotional coping strategies to help make uncomfortable situations a bit more comfortable.

Without awareness of your emotional state, your reactions are driven by the intensity of the feelings. In a highly triggering situation, the limbic (i.e., emotional, survival) brain shuts down communication with cortical thinking areas of the brain. This occurs as part of the brain’s survival mechanism: staying alive in a threatening situation is more important than engaging in critical thinking. The problem with this survival safeguard is that not all triggering situations are life threatening. Tests, public speaking, arguments with friends, schedule changes…while emotionally triggering, none of these lead to eminent demise. In triggering situations like these, cortical shut down prevents the brain from engaging in mental time travel to consider the past and future in order to manage the present. Mindful awareness of now allows you to be in a dynamic, aware, open, flexible cognitive “head space.” The cortical thinking brain remains online, meaning you are able to access present awareness (i.e., “What do I notice right now?”), past experience (i.e., “What do I know from the past?”), and future thinking (i.e., goal identification, anticipating consequences, awareness of emotional and/or physical motivation), in order to choose: do I follow my impulse and react, or do I consider my options and respond?

 

 

brain, Classroom, Executive Function, Random SLP, self-regulation, Social Cognition, Social Regulation

Building Metacognitive Skills with Brain Talk

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As adults, we spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking we’ve got our students’ and children’s problems figured out:

“I know why he’s mad…it’s because he can’t get the Legos to fit together!”

“She must be sulking because her friends left her out during recess today”

Grown ups certainly have more life experience than kids, and sometimes we are great at reading between the lines to sense what might be going on under the surface of a seemingly shallow problem. That being said, I’m always amazed at how often I (and others) forget to do the most logical first step in problem-solving with children: asking them what’s wrong. I’m not talking about a “grazing” question; the kind you ask when you already have an answer in mind and are merely extending a formality. I’m talking about a thoughtful, considerate, invitation into problem-solving and self-regulating dialogue; the type of invitation that comes along with Ross Greene’s initial steps of Collaborative Problem Solving (for more information about Collaborative Problem Solving, visit: http://www.livesinthebalance.org).

Here’s the tricky thing about asking a child to describe an underlying trigger for dysregulation: more often than not they don’t yet have the awareness and skills to effectively communicate it. The way I see it (stemming from my research brain rather than my opinion brain), you need the following, in this order, to effectively express a trigger for dysregulation:

1. Metacognition: the ability to think about your own thinking and emotional state well enough to figure out what’s going on internally. This is where brain learning and mindfulness-based strategies come in!

2. Self-regulation: regulation of your thoughts/attention, emotional responses, actions, and motivation in order to behave in an expected way for a given situation. Self-regulation and executive functioning are inherently tied, since self-regulation sandwiches executive function thinking skills (i.e., using mental schemas to manage complex tasks) by allowing for inhibition of impulses and the ability to follow through with the plan.

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3. Strong (or at least functional) verbal and nonverbal communication skills: collective expressive communication skills to allow you to get your ideas from your “thought bubble” into someone else’s “mind movie.”

I know I’m a speech-language pathologist, and therefore would typically hone in on the third step of this structure. But I’m a unique breed of SLP when it comes to my areas specialization, and I actually live far more in the domains of steps one and two. In my adventures (and misadventures) of working in the world of self-regulation and executive functioning (ok, ok, they’re essentially one in the same), I’ve become very clear that kids need to understand their brains. More generally, everyone should have a basic understanding of their brains that goes beyond “It has a left side and a right side.” As therapists (and teachers, and administrators, and psychologists-hi everyone!), we are, at the core, brain specialists. If we want kids to get to step three (effective communication of their triggers), we need to start by TEACHING them metacognition and self-regulation.

This matters so much to me and my fabulously brilliant colleague, Carrie Lindemuth, M.Ed/ET, that we created a curriculum designed to teach students about key concepts and functions of the brain: Brain Talk. This narrative-based curriculum consists of eight short, white-board animated videos and corresponding lessons plans, discussion points, worksheets, and activities. Different lesson plans and activities exist for early elementary, upper elementary, middle/high school, and a therapy model. Through these videos and the corresponding learning activities, students are introduced to their amygdala (Myg), basal pleasure-and-reward system (Buster), hippocampus (Ms. Hipp) and prefrontal cortex (The Professor), and what happens in the brain during a “Myg Moment” (i.e., fight/flight/freeze avoiding reaction) or “Buster Bam” (i.e., dopamine-driven grab-and-gulp reaction). Additionally, they learn how the integrated conversation (i.e., Brain Talk) between their “emotional” limbic brain and their “thinking” cortex leads to strategic thinking and self-regulated decisions.

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Many of us don’t have the opportunity to learn about our brains until we are in the midst of a crisis, whether it be anxiety, depression, hyper-impulsivity, or significant dysregulation. What a gift we could give to our students to teach them these critical metacognitive skills from the get-go! The Brain Talk curriculum is available through an annual subscription ($50.00/year) at the Brain Talk website (www.braintalktherapy.com). An annual subscription to the curriculum provides access to the full curriculum suite, as well as new materials as they are added throughout the year.