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Five Things Kids Should Know About Their Brains

As we learn more and more about the human brain, mental health support has found new footing in the public school system. School psychologists, social workers, and counselors have been a welcome addition to many districts, helping us to more holistically educate and support our learners.

At the same time, it’s somewhat curious that psychology isn’t a part of the “core curriculum” of all school systems, too. It’s nearly absurd to think that we don’t directly teach kids how their brains work, as they move through their life’s major learning experience.  You wouldn’t ask someone to build a house without showing them how a hammer works. You wouldn’t ask someone to drive a car without understanding the basics of the gas and brakes. So why do we ask students to learn without teaching them how they learn?& Today, we share five key things all students should know about their brain in order to succeed in the classroom.

Maslow’s Hierarchy

Although there are a number different models that outline and prioritize human need, it’s extremely useful for students to be aware how much of their behaviors are based in need. Maslow’s hierarchy is a fairly simple way for students to talk about what their needs are from day to day, what their brain is prioritizing, and ultimately what happens for them when those needs are either met or not met. When they reflect upon their actions and reactions within the framework of “need”, they begin to understand a whole new way of communicating with their teacher, families, and their peers. It gives new language for expressing the things that are going on internally, and allows them practice in self-reflection.

Think about how you might be able to integrate Maslow into your class respect agreement. Even with younger grades, teaching students the following phrase can work wonders in the classroom: “I am feeling ______________ because I need ______________.” Using this language can help students to practice not only sorting through their own feelings, but also identifying that those feelings are always attached to a particular need, and communicating that need is the first step to feeling heard, understood, and supported. Try adding a “feelings wall’ to your classroom from students to choose from. Then, adding some exemplar nouns next to a picture of the hierarchy on the walls of the classroom can sometimes help students to identify exactly what it is they need. Practicing this sort of language early and often will mean clearer communication throughout the learning year.

A Dichotomy of the Brain

In the 1960s, neurologist Paul D. MacLean a model for the evolution of the brain that he referred to as Triune Brain Theory. In his model, he suggested that as the brain developed over time, it became layered into three particular components—the reptilian, the paleomammalian, and the neomammalian—each with their individual behavioral drives. Now, this model has been greatly contested over the years, as we learn more and more about the complexities of the brain. More than anything, its critics have suggested it to be an oversimplification of what truly goes on inside our heads. Any yet, the drives MacLean pointed out do actually exist, and students should be aware of them.

Students should know that one part of their brains will always be concerned about their survival. This part of the brain—whether you refer to it as the lizard brain, the “new brain”, or paleomammalian—will almost always act selfishly: it wants comfort, familiarity, safety, and abundancy…and it wants it now. Instant gratification.

When we are young, it is harder for us to consider the needs of other. It is harder for us to delay gratification. This is because the more thoughtful and reasonable part of our brains—whether you refer to it as the frontal cortex, the “new brain”, or the neomammalian—is still developing. This part of your brain often observes the instinctual, self-preservation needs of the other part, adds it to other data, and makes the most rational decision it can, given the context of the moment.

Helping students to understand these pulls allows them to better understand that: a. what they are feeling is normal, and b. with practice, they can strengthen their brain’s “decision-maker”.


Along the ideas of both “needs” and “brain dichotomies” students can really benefit from knowing the following word in your classroom: downshifting. See, when students’ needs are not being met, their “thinking brain” goes offline. This happens to everyone. When you’re hungry, it’s hard to focus. When you’re angry, it’s harder to make more rational decisions. This is called “downshifting” and it happens to everybody on the planet.

Downshifting” is a pretty straightforward part of the human response systems. When a need is not met, your “lizard brain” from above goes into a panic. It needs food. It needs safety. It needs stability. In order to prioritize these unmet needs, your brain’s resources quiet down your pesky “thinking brain” and focuses on meeting that need. When this happens, we tend to make more rash, illogical, aggressive, and selfish decisions.

For a student, “downshifting” might come in the form of mouthing off, not paying attention, yelling, or any number of seemingly “not class appropriate” behaviors. Triggers for the downshifting can be anything from social interaction, anxiety about coursework, home life, or in some cases very deep trauma. However, when students are able to identify when they are downshifting in class, it becomes a much more honest and accurate conversation. “I’m downshifting right now” can tell a teacher that something is going on that is not allowing the student to access today’s lesson, and that they might need some extra support or some space to readjust and upshift again.

What Motivates Us

Keeping in mind both the dichotomous “push and pull” of the human brain and an awareness of our many needs, students should also be aware of what motivates them. Our brains have a reward system, and it plays every instrument in the symphony of our personal motivation. Now, many of us are keenly aware of the “extrinsic reward” game, and this will be something students are also all-too-familiar with. And yet, in the video below, author Dan Pink suggests that there might be much more to that game:

In short, your students are likely going to be more motivated by a sense of purpose, and finding that purpose together as a class will lead to more meaningful learning. When students begin to recognize in your class what they truly care about and what matters most, they will slowly develop that intrinsic motivation we are always looking for as educators.

We’re Wired for Empathy

As we think about the many stresses associated with being a young student and pair it with the functions of the brain we have identified above, it might seem like public schooling is a recipe for disaster. And if you’re an educator, you’re likely in a position to confirm that assumption. Whenever we talk about the human brain and how our personal needs can sometimes come up against the needs for a greater society, students might begin to wonder, “well, why shouldn’t I be selfish?” In other words, why should we concern ourselves with the needs of others, delayed gratification, and working to benefit both ourselves and our community? This is when we discuss the fact that our brains—as selfish as they can sometimes be—are ultimately wired for empathy. To “care” is to be human. Social theorist Jeremy Rifkin suggests that despite our challenges, we are destined to work together:

Reminding students about their natural capacity for empathy and compassion on a daily basis can sometimes bring out the best in them and help them to re-center in even the most difficult of classroom scenarios.

Our knowledge of the human brain expands daily. We certainly haven’t uncovered all of its secrets, but shouldn’t we be sharing what we’ve discovered so far? For students to understand the world around them, they must, too, better understand themselves. No matter how you choose to approach these ideas, the benefits of empowering your students with this sort of self-knowledge can be a game-changer. Of course, some of the content above might be more difficult for younger learners. Until a better-scaffolded brain and mental health curriculum is integrated into your school’s core program, use your discretion about what is developmentally appropriate for your classroom community.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.