Our “Why” and Explaining the Brain

“All of this yoga stuff- my students will never take it seriously.”

Does this sound like a self-doubt you have faced when considering implementing Mindful Movement?

As we begin the journey of teaching body work infused with social emotional learning, ensuring buy-in can seem like a daunting task. There is a fear that students won’t take the work seriously, and instead act silly, leaving the teacher to feel helplessly embarrassed. This fear is real. For many teachers, knowing how to begin the conversation and create a classroom culture ready for this work, can be the biggest hurdle.

We recommend beginning with the facts. Begin with the brain science. Once students (and teachers) understand the “why” behind these techniques, the buy-in is almost automatic.

Model of the Brain

flipping your lid

From The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Even small children can benefit from this simple, interactive model of the brain from Daniel Siegel. Begin by having everyone show a fist (thumb inside). This model serves as a visual for parts of the brain we want students to understand.

  1. Brain Stem (wrist)

The brainstem is what attaches the head to the spine. It is the first part of our brain to develop.

  1. Hippocampus (inside the palm)

The hippocampus is responsible for memory. What is the latin name for butterfly? Where is the capital of Georgia? How can I remember 4 x 6? Students rely on the hippocampus for academic success throughout the school day.

  1. Amygdala (thumb)

The Amygdala is the part of the brain that interprets the world through the five senses and constantly analyzes situations to ensure our safety. Someone drops a glass in the hallway and it shatters. The sound triggers the flight response as you atomically jump in your chair.

  1. Prefrontal Cortex (fingernails)

This is the part of the brain that does the thinking and reasoning. It processes the memories, the sensory inputs and makes logical decisions based on past experiences.

When students feel calm, the amygdala passes information to the prefrontal cortex, which passes to the hippocampus. All of the parts are working well together. However, we have all heard the phrase, “blow your top”. At this point, students shoot their four fingers up into the air, exposing the thumb (amygdala).

handy model

This metaphor perfectly illustrates what happens when the amygdala senses danger. It stops communicating with the prefrontal cortex and the brain is now in “survival mode”. Survival mode is great when… well, we need to survive. However, we run into problems when our amygdala interprets something like- getting budged in line, as a survival situation.

Visit our Teachers Pay Teachers store for the poster.

This brings us back to our “why”. Through Mindful Movement we are using breath and movement in specific, meaningful patterns to sooth the amygdala, and the stress responses. To know that you have control over your mind and body is the ultimate power. Once students have this realization and experience it for themselves,  they often want to return to this relaxed/alert state. The work sells itself. Here is a script of this explanation to get you started!

child's pose

Have you explained the brain to your students as a justification for Mindful Movement? What has worked for you? Leave a Comment!

Be Well,

Stephanie Kennelly

18 replies
  1. Natalia Gall
    Natalia Gall says:

    Yes! I’ve used this to explain the brain to ever curious middle school students. Having an answer for “why?” beyond “because” intrigued them. After explaining how the brain works, the students had much more buy in. Just explaining the structure of the brain, and giving examples of how big our brain actually is (about 2 fists put together) made the students more engaged. It was something they never really thought about before!

  2. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Wow, I love this visual. I just started working as a counselor in a high school. I would love to utilize my Yoga Calm training, but I definitely have the fear that no one will value it. Starting with the explanation of what is happening in your brain makes so much sense. I can see how this would really open up some doors for people hesitant to participate.

  3. Sheyna
    Sheyna says:

    I love this easy explanation. I had taught a different explanation from a different curriculum, but plan to reteach using this strategy. My 1st graders will more easily understand it and we’ll be able to connect it to our mindful movements!

  4. Laurie Churchill
    Laurie Churchill says:

    Nice explanation for me, but still a little much for my kindergartners. However they listened well and seemed interested!

  5. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    My Kinders loved this explaination. We are also doing work with Jo Boaler and her weeks of inspirational math and part of that is learning about how the brain grows and functions when we make a mistake, so its great to combine the learning side with the emotional side. One of my kids said “I love my brain!”

  6. Shannon Martenson
    Shannon Martenson says:

    I will for sure need to revisit this. The kids seemed interested. However, it will become more applicable as we do more calming activities and as things come up that cause the kids to blow their tops.

  7. suzanne fogarty
    suzanne fogarty says:

    This was fascinating for my kindergartners! The big words were interesting (we are always on the listen for interesting words!) We will review this lesson a few more times to help get this into our brains!

  8. Jenny Wood
    Jenny Wood says:

    I love this explanation! My third graders were intrigued (and maybe slightly intimidated initially) by the vocabulary. Relating this to our current study of idioms (flipping your lid) was a perfect connection and way to make it more accessible to them.

  9. Libby Durand
    Libby Durand says:

    I tried this mini lesson with one of my kindergarten students and first grade students two weeks ago. I have to say, it was a bit of a disaster. Other than having fun repeating some of the big and important words (and “popping their top” over and over), I don’t know that much of the content stuck with them. I tried again with a fifth grade group last Friday and it went much better. I was able to refer back to the brain lesson throughout our math lesson and activity together as I saw various emotions from my students come to surface. I think having the common language with this group of students will be helpful moving forward as we approach more challenging academic moments throughout the school year.

  10. Jeanine
    Jeanine says:

    I have explained their brain and the why to all students PreK-5th grade in my building. It has been integrated into our Zones of Regulation and the work I do with individual students and groups. It’s been exciting to see this work integrated into the fabric of our building and what we do with students.

  11. Liz Frink
    Liz Frink says:

    Yes! I love this explanation so much! I’m going to try and introduce it to my preschoolers and I think I’ll explain the ‘flipped my lid’ portion kind of like the Incredible Hulk when he grows big and strong and wants to SMASH stuff! His lid is flipped! That is needed sometimes in an emergency, but at school, or when dealing with friends, is NOT where we want to turn into the Incredible Hulk and smash things. We want to keep our Wise Leader making choices for our behavior. And one way we can keep our Wise Leader in charge is by taking deep breaths, like the Wood chopper, etc…

  12. Jessica Ortis
    Jessica Ortis says:

    I enjoy very much this visual. After attending a training, I have been using this a lot more with my kids and they really enjoy this visual. Thank you for these very helpful blog posts as they are very beneficial!!


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