Does your child have a balanced brain?

A friend recently asked me whether I felt it was a good idea for her (this wonderful conscientious mum) to put her seven-year-old son into a maths tutorial twice a week, which also included 30 minutes homework a night. He had incredible enthusiasm for this beloved subject and was doing well in it. His mum was looking to give him every possible opportunity to extend his love of learning.

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I had a few questions for her. How much down time did her son have? Would these tutorials still leave time for pottering and relaxing after school? One thing I’ve learned is that the more relaxed, free and encouraging the atmosphere is, the more likely a child is to be curious, keen to explore, to initiate, to ask questions, solve problems and trust themselves. The relationship we have with our children really does play a crucial role in how they learn.

The yes brain

I’m reading a great book right now called The Yes Brain Child by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson. It unpacks how to help our kids embrace life with all its challenges and explains that our brain is always in one of two states –

  1. Reactive (no) state – which makes us self-conscious, inhibited and rigid
    or
  2. Receptive (yes) state – which enables resourcefulness, creativity and resilience

This means there are things we as parents can do and say that promote learning, optimism and a sense of ‘can do’ in our kids.

The balanced yes brain

Another part of the book looks at the balanced brain. I think many of us live in the fast lane and feel the wobbles that come sometimes. It could simply be us not getting enough sleep – and this affects our interactions with others and our ability to learn. Or we’re feeling the guilt of using a tone of voice shorter and less gracious than we meant because we were anxious about getting somewhere or doing something in exactly the right way.

So what needs to be in the mix for good balance and what does it look like?

The healthy mind platter

Image from St. Clement’s School

This is a concept developed by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and David Rock. The idea is that one way to promote a balanced brain is to serve a healthy mind platter. It’s made up of seven daily essential mental activities and they work to optimise brain matter. Thinking of them like a meal serving is a great way to remind ourselves to include a portion of each of them every day for ourselves and our kids. Here’s what’s on the platter –

  1. Focus time – I can completely focus on a task and get absorbed in it
  2. Play time – I have time to play and be creative
  3. Connecting time – I spend time face to face with others and I connect with nature
  4. Physical time – I move my body every day
  5. Time in – I have some quiet time when I pause to breathe, think and reflect on images and sensations
  6. Down time – I have time where there are no goals or outcomes expected – I let my mind wander or relax
  7. Sleep time – I sleep so my brain can rest and recover and learning can be consolidated.

(Adapted from pages 65-66, The Yes Brain Child by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson)

How much of each?

This platter is not a recipe with exact amounts of how much of each you should be having. Rather, it gives an overview of what we all need to do well mentally and emotionally.

It’s a great way to check in on things like how much time our children are spending on technology (focus time). Is it cutting into their having enough time in another area – like physical time or sleep time? We might find that some portions take up so much time there isn’t enough leftover to play or be active with our bodies.

What I like about this concept is that we can help our children map out their healthy mind platter, see roughly how big each portion is and how to make some healthy adjustments. All of the portions belong – there just might be a need to check the serving size.

Back to my conversation with my friend. Would she and her son have enough connecting time? Or would it get squeezed out? What about his sleep time? Would it get affected by the extra 30 minutes of homework? Would he get to keep his play time?

As parents, we want our children to flourish and grow. We can accidentally trigger the ‘no’ state in children by living under pressure, or we can nurture the mindset that leads to happiness and a resounding ‘yes’ in children. That yes includes yes to cooperation, yes to curiosity, to empathy, creativity and resilience.


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About Author

Jenny Hale

Jenny has a primary teaching background and spent three years as a parent educator. Jenny runs workshops at the Parenting Place centre in Auckland and at Hot Tips events around New Zealand. She is the senior Family Coach, working with existing clients as well as training new coaches. Jenny writes regularly and makes appearances on TV 3's The Café. Jenny has two adult children and is a grandmother of two young children.

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