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Yoga for Kids - Introduction

Yoga for kids
Yoga for Kids


Choosing one thing to focus on, and maintaining that focus, sounds like a straightforward task, but it is enormously challenging when you consider all that has to happen in the brain and the body for it to take place. The human brain is amazing, with tremendous capacity and potential. Our brains work collaboratively with our entire bodies—our nervous system, our muscles, our organs—and coordinate a finely tuned balancing act among our thoughts, emotions, actions, reflexes, and habits in an effort to keep us alive and well. Understanding a bit about what is happening in your child’s body and brain will help you understand more about what he needs in order to focus and pay attention more effectively.

What Has to Happen in Your Brain in Order For You to Pay Attention?

Your brain has many different parts, all of which have their own responsibilities. This differentiation means that in addition to communicating with the rest of your body, your brain has a tremendous amount of internal communication to do. How your brain handles this internal communication, and how the different parts of your brain learn to collaborate and coordinate with one another, is something that develops differently in every individual based on his or her life experiences. Your child’s brain is absolutely unique (and so is yours).

pay attention
Pay Attention

The Protective Brain

The first part of the brain that we need to understand is also the part that develops first in our children. Sometimes called the limbic area, this is the lower part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions, reflexes, instincts, and basic bodily functions. This lower (sometimes called primitive) part of the brain is almost completely developed even before we are born. It is where our strongest emotions—such as fear, anger, love, and jealousy—live, and it is the most dominant part of the brain in children.

Protective Brain
Protective Brain

Anytime we act based on an emotion or impulse, without giving much thought to either the logic of our action or its consequences, we are acting on the directions of this part of our brains. I find it helpful to think of the limbic area as the “Protective Brain,” because it is always looking out for our safety and our immediate happiness. Sometimes it even tries to protect us from our own feelings and experiences if they get to be overwhelming.

One part of the limbic area that is particularly interesting to our conversation is the amygdala. The amygdala is a small part of the brain with a very big job. It is most responsible for protecting us in an emergency. It is what takes over when we feel like we are in danger and allows us to act immediately to protect ourselves, sometimes before the rest of our brain even knows what is happening. When we touch something hot and recoil from it instantly, it is the amygdala that is protecting us. When something makes us afraid, the amygdala tells our body to be on high alert, and it activates our sympathetic nervous system (the fight-flight-or-freeze response). Most of the time the amygdala is very useful, but sometimes in both children and adults it takes over even when there isn’t a real emergency. This can happen for a lot of different reasons, which we’ll discuss soon, but the effect can be that our actions don’t reflect either the situation at hand or the best version of ourselves. When your child’s amygdala takes control, some of your most frustrating parenting moments are likely to follow as tantrums, tears, and irrational behavior surge, while reason, negotiation, and compromise seem completely ineffective.

Although the Protective Brain is always on our side, standing up for our feelings and protecting us from danger, it doesn’t always see the big picture. Then it becomes the “Overprotective Brain,” keeping us from acting as our more thoughtful, compassionate, creative, and capable selves.

The Thoughtful Brain

In stark contrast to our Protective Brain is the prefrontal cortex, or what I call the “Thoughtful Brain.” While the Protective Brain is emotion driven, the prefrontal cortex is busy thinking, planning, and imagining. In their 2011 book, The Whole-Brain Child, Dr. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson refer to the prefrontal cortex as the “upstairs” brain, and note that when it is working well, a child can “regulate her emotions, consider consequences, think before acting, and consider how others feel”.

The Thoughtful Brain
The Thoughtful Brain

The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that can see the big picture. When our emotions and experiences are viewed through the lens of the prefrontal cortex, we can react to them with more thoughtful and rational behavior. The prefrontal cortex helps us take a long-term view of the world and consider more than just our immediate physical and emotional needs and desires. It works to help us control our impulses and consider the needs of others, helps motivate us when we are tired or frustrated or bored, and creatively works to solve problems.

There is a small part of the prefrontal cortex, called the right orbitofrontal cortex, that plays a big role in our discussion of increasing focus and attention. “From all the information about the external environment and internal body states entering our brain, the [orbitofrontal cortex] helps to pick out what to focus on” (Maté 2000, 78). It’s interesting that this is also the part of our brain that hits the pause button on our emotional reactions to life experiences, delaying them long enough to “allow mature, more sophisticated responses to emerge”.

When it’s functioning well, you can think of the orbitofrontal cortex as a sort of monitor over the amygdala, gathering information from the environment, from our bodies, and even from other parts of the brain, and deciding whether to let the Protective Brain or the Thoughtful Brain take control of the situation. When the prefrontal cortex, or Thoughtful Brain, is put in charge, we can focus, make good decisions, and learn.

While the Thoughtful Brain is what allows your child to choose what to focus on, the Protective Brain is busy trying to distract it, constantly demanding focus anytime something seems important or interesting. What makes this scenario particularly difficult for children is that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until our midtwenties.

 The Protective Brain has a very strong advantage in our kids. If we want to help them live a more balanced life, with the capacity for good decision making and focused attention, then we need to understand how challenging it is for their Thoughtful Brain to exert itself and learn how to encourage and support its development. For a more complete discussion of the neurobiology of childhood, as well as parenting strategies to support healthy development, I strongly recommend Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s The Whole-Brain Child.