Conscience & Character

HOW DO WE NURTURE CHILDREN'S CONSCIENCE & CHARACTER?

Teachers and parents assist in the cultivation of children's conscience and character by aligning their responses with how children's brains work.  ("Faulty" character, more often than not, results from brains that have been overwhelmed with stress, fear, trauma and punishment ... which results in disabling the functions of what  Dan Siegel, MD and Tina Bryson, PhD call the "upstairs brain.")


The "upstairs brain," or the prefrontal cortex, is analogous to the cockpit of an airplane, in which controls are associated with "executive functioning."  When the "upstairs brain" is working well, the following traits are displayed, according to Siegel and Bryson:

  • Sound decision-making
  • Control over body and emotions
  • Empathy
  • Morality

There are at least two catches to developing the "upstairs brain":  

  1. The "upstairs brain" is not fully developed, physically, until just past adolescence (!)
  2.  The "downstairs brain," or amygdala can issue a "hijack" to the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, sending a person into a state of emotionally overwhelm. 

Siegel and Bryson offer tips for adults in navigating the oftentimes challenging course between children's "upstairs" and "downstairs" brains in their book, The Whole Brain Child: 

  1. Connect and redirect.  Rather than moving into full-on parent/teacher power-mode, when a child is emotionally unable to respond in a productive way, first calm yourself. Next, acknowledge the child's upset with respect, and then calmly let the child know what you need him or her to do. In this manner, you do not magnify the impact of the emotional charge:
    "I understand that you don't feel ready for bed.  I'm so sorry I can't let you stay up.  How can I help you feel more ready?"  This is a time for caring compassion, not demands. It may feel that you are caving in to stalling bedtime, but you are actually helping your child learn how to shift to the upstairs brain and become more cooperative.
  2. Name it to tame it.  Help the child talk about the disappointment or reason for an upset.  Help the child create a narrative to work his/her way back to the "upstairs brain."  " Wow. Tommy pushed all of your blocks down. You're feeling so angry that you want to hit him. I'm so sorry that happened. Do you remember when you were playing with him yesterday and you pushed his blocks down? It was part of the building you were doing. You both were building and then pushing things down. Do you think that maybe he thought you were still playing that way?" Narrative and discussion engage a child's cognitive thinking skills creating a path out of the emotional quagmire, and simultaneously modeling how effective people make wise decisions. 

Calm caring and compassionate discussions support moral and ethical development. We can front-load this process in the classroom by providing dedicated time for discussion around shared experiences of classroom and life challenges.  KIDS OWN WISDOM® peer group discussion circles allow students opportunities to preemptively view the upsets of daily life from the "cockpit" of their prefrontal cortex.  Active engagement of children in these peer group discussions provides students with a wide range of narratives that are consistently shown to be relevant and applied to real life situations in participants' future experiences. 


If this approach seems like giving permission to misbehaving children, we encourage you to put that response aside and reconsider.  


Also worth considering, in a very personal way, is how our own childhood experiences with punishment and shame may be ongoing burdens we unconsciously carry as adults. Those ongoing burdens might be neutralizing our attempts to support children in the development of their conscience and character.

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