What I learned from Naella Grew’s workshop on ‘Teenagers Translated’

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I recently attended a workshop by Ms. Naella Grew titled “Teenagers Translated”. But what I learned there is useful not only with teenagers, but with people of all age groups including toddlers and elderlies.

This article is my attempt to verbalise my learning from that workshop.

The human brain has three main parts – the primitive brain (or the brain stem), the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex. Based on the sensory inputs to the body through our senses of vision, smell, touch, taste, hearing, and even our own imagination, certain biochemicals are produced in our body which result in either pleasant or unpleasant sensations. These chemicals flood the limbic system of the brain and if they are producing the unpleasant sensations, the prefrontal cortex sets up a wall and cuts off its contact or communication channel with the limbic system. As a result, when we are extremely emotional, our logical thinking gets hampered since the prefrontal cortex is not fully accessible. It takes at least 6 seconds for the chemical levels to come down enough for the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system to resume. You may recall numerous instances when people (including yourself) have done completely illogical things when they were very angry or highly emotional only to regret it deeply later. Another example of this is when some students complain of ‘mind went blank’ during the exam. The students who complain of this were so stressed by the exam, that they went into panic mode and did not know how to calm down enough for the stress chemical level to come down in the limbic system of the brain. As a result their prefrontal cortex remained shut and inaccessible during most part of the exam, resulting in unexpectedly low scores. This usually happens with students who do last minute study. Though they might’ve learned everything and understood everything, once they panic during the exam, they can’t access what they learned in the last minute. So it’s vital that we teach our students how to realize this danger and calm down quickly by first understanding and acknowledging the situation, and then by breathing deeply, and waiting for 6 seconds.

It is very crucial that we recognize the warning signs of the flooding of our limbic system as early as possible and take the crucial 6 seconds of time-out to cool down first before interacting with anybody. If we respond or react in the emotional state, our response may not entirely be a rational one and may be harmful to the receiver, which in turn may result in negative consequences for us. The warning signs are typically, breath-rate becoming erratic – either too fast or too slow, strong sensations flooding the body, feeling strong emotions like anger, irritation, sadness, etc.

Our brain also has ‘mirror neurons’ which make us subconsciously copy or imitate the moods and actions of the person we observe. That’s why a fight is usually like a chain-reaction. Person A first gets angry and interacts in the same state with person B. Person B’s mirror neurons pick up the angry mood of person A and imitates it, thereby causing person B also to become angry. When person B reacts in an angry way, person A’s mirror neurons in turn pick up this emotion and amplify it further. He then reacts with other people with an even stronger version of ‘angry’. Thus, it soon escalates into a very bad conflict.

Thus, mirror neurons, if given free reign by the person, cause the person’s behaviour and thinking to get into one of two possible cycles – the positive cycle, and the negative cycle. In positive cycle, the initial pleasant reaction of person A is mirrored by person B, which in turn is mirrored by person A and then again by person B. This sets up a positive cycle in both persons. In negative cycle, the negative reactions are reflected back and forth between the two people. Hence, the solution is to make positive cycles happen in our interactions with other beings. For that we should always be in a positive frame of mind – calm, collected, controlled, not needy, self-satisfied, contented, happy, and secure. If we have all these states in our mind, any person who interacts with us will mirror the same mental states, leading to a pleasant interaction which will be productive and useful to both.

This is especially important for teachers and parents. Children are very good reflectors and they pick up and reflect our emotions very well. That’s why you’re likely to have less difficulty in classroom management if you’re in a positive frame of mind, and sure to have a tough time managing the class if you’re mentally disturbed, or otherwise unhealthy.

So, a teacher and a parent should always be calm, and happy if he/she wants the students/children to be calm and happy too. Only when the child is happy and feels secure, is learning possible for him/her. Thus, it is vital that we never threaten or scold the child in the name of discipline. We must interact with love and attention and respect when we interact with anybody, and especially with small children and teenagers.

Here’s a real-life example to illustrate my point, taken from my interaction with my daughter Sana.

Sana is 3 years old right now, and is a difficult eater. It takes us at least an hour to make her finish her meal which could be just a roti or small bowl of rice. She will just store the food in one of her two cheeks like a squirrel and not make any attempt to chew the food and show no intention of ever swallowing the food. Me and my wife used to get tired requesting her to chew the food and swallow the food. Sana would just ignore our requests, which soon start getting shriller and louder in tone and volume, until she perceives it as a threat, and her panic button gets triggered, and she gets emotional and starts crying. When she starts crying, it’s usually the end of our hopes of making her eat the rest of her meal.

So this time, when she started crying, I quickly took her in my arms and hugged her to make her feel secure and loved. I waited a few seconds doing nothing and let her mirror neurons pick up my feelings of calmness and happiness. Then I distracted her from her crying by asking her about glow worms. She is fascinated by glow worms because they emit light. So I asked her “When did you see  glow worm last?” She said “yesterday in your phone.” Then I changed my voice and spoke in a squeaky voice “ Sana, thank you, thank you, thank you! You swallowed some food and it reached us and we are happy now. We got lot of energy from your food.” I then exclaimed immediately in my normal voice with a lot of shock and surprise, saying “what???? The glow-worm in your stomach is talking to you through my throat???” She was very surprised and excited to hear this. She forgot all about crying and was eagerly listening and waiting to hear more of the squeaky voice. So I continued, “Sana, Sana, how are you? Is your daddy troubling you a lot?” She immediately answered, “No, he is not troubling me.” I exclaimed, “Oh! The glow-worm in your stomach is enquiring about you? It’s so caring and loves you so much! You must eat fast and swallow your food so that it reaches the poor hungry glow worm which is helping you to digest your food so that you get lots of energy and strength.” Now, I know I’m teaching her wrong concepts here, but she’ll figure it out soon as she grows up. Right now, let’s utilise her imagination to make her see things which don’t exist as long as they help motivate her to do the right thing. The glow worm continued in its squeaky voice, “Oh, thank you so much Sana! You’re eating so fast and chewing your food properly and swallowing the food too! I’ll give you a special white star. Please go out and check it out in the sky after you finish eating.” She got very excited to hear this. She loves getting stars as appreciation tokens for whatever task she might’ve done. So after she finished her meal, I took her out and luckily for me, only one star was visible in the sky at that time. I made it a point to tell her that actually there would have been no star in the sky that time. It was only because she was so good to eat her meal, and the glow worm was so happy with her and gave her the white star, that the star appeared in the sky. So it was Sana’s special white star in the sky.

She was so happy, and I was so happy and her mother was so happy that the task got done.

To conclude, please do not resort to threats, scolding or any other negative emotional tactic while trying to make the child do the right thing. Be creative and think of new ways which may be very roundabout and time-consuming ways to get the task done, but still are worth the effort because of the good they do to the child and the harm you do not do to the child.

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