So, school starts next week for most kids in my region of Canada. And that entails all kinds of feelings: fear, worry, excitement and joy too.
Today I want to share a little bit about something I call “Brain Prepping.”
Something I didn’t get support with as a kid was how to navigate tough situations in school with other kids and even teachers. And I want to offer some tools and strategies today to help you support your kids.
[P.S. I recognize that many people in the United States have already started school in early August. And families in other parts of the world, your kids might be in the middle of their school year right now. But, the information I’m sharing here is relevant in ALL cases.]
As the family leader, you play a crucial role in shaping your child's mindset and setting them up for success both academically and socially. Mindset preparation is key to helping our children navigate the various situations they encounter during their school journey. From starting at a new school, making new friends, supporting classmates, dealing with rejection, to handling bullying, there are numerous scenarios where our children can benefit from having some coaching in advance.
A little bit of brain science for you to lay the context:
We have these things in our brain called neural pathways. We have neural pathways for everything…except the things we don’t have them for. Neural pathways are formed by our experiences. And if we haven’t experienced something before, our brain doesn’t have neural connections for it. So if I’ve never been to middle school/junior high before, I have no neural circuitry for middle school/junior high in my brain. This means, that my brain doesn’t have a full conceptual understanding of what being in junior high might entail. This can cause nervous feelings and even anxiety. How do emotions manifest in children? Through behaviour. So a child might not be able to vocalize what they are thinking and feeling clearly, but their behaviours may indicate they need some kind of support.
There are two ways to develop neural pathways for something we don’t have experience with.
Visualize it (visualize what you want – such as success in middle school and the positive experience of making friends smoothly).
Do it in advance (you can have tangible interactions with the ‘thing’ you haven’t’ done before, before you actually end up doing it…)
It means to spend time imagining how we want to things to go for us. The thoughts we have in our mind – those are ‘experiences’ too! This means, if we think a thought over and over, it becomes a neural pathway that gets strengthened. Now, a lot of people have the tendency to associate “strength” with something positive, and it takes a lot of consideration to recognize that a thought repeated becomes a belief EVEN if the belief is not supporting us and, limits us. A belief is a REALLY strong neural pathway. So, if someone believes “Junior High is going to be scary and hard,” this means they have strong neural pathways for that belief. Thus, it’s possible to have really strong neural pathways for thoughts that don’t support us. When we use visualization as a tool, we want to use it in a way that supports the development of neural connections related to positive beliefs. So, with your child you can spend time relaxing and imagining how fun middle school will be, how we might introduce ourselves to new people, how to handle homework and so on.
Another way to “visualize” which I talked a lot about in my emails to you last week (if you happened to see those) is to, of course, ‘make it visual’. This means, you draw it out. Or you create written plans of how to navigate certain situations. (There are other ways to make it visual too…) I recently coached a child about how to navigate some friendship drama. We created cue-cards together that she could keep in her backpack and refer back to before going to talk to her friend about what was going on. She didn’t need to hold the cue cards or even use them actually, they were simply a tangible support tool.
#2: “Do it in advance.”
Something to recognize about the brain is that when there are no neural pathways for something in our brain, our mind doesn’t know how to handle ‘it’, such as situations that we will likely encounter in school settings.
For example, if a child has no neural pathways on how to handle bullying, they will not know what to do in the moment. When the brain doesn’t have neural pathways for something new, it doesn’t know how to “think” about it. Like I say to my kids sometimes, “This means our brains might ‘freak out a bit.’” Sometimes parents will get upset with their child for not knowing “what they should have done” in a situation like speak up for themselves or tell the teacher. But honestly, if the child got no prior practice, how “should they know?” The brain hasn’t had the experience of how to handle it. This is really hard for kids.
Brain-prepping is a big concept. But, here are just a few key ways to support your child to prepare for school situations (if your child is already in school, you can still use the principles I’m sharing in EVERY DAY life situations…):
a) Role-play before school starts (and throughout the school year). Role play scenarios such as navigating teasing, how to make friends, and how to handle homework. I’ve included a FREE role-play checklist for you down below to get started. When you role-play with your child – you are creating neural connections in their brain! And if you want your child going to school feeling confident and prepared, you’ll need to role-play often to strengthen the neural pathways. If you need Parent-Coaching support on this, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org. [It’s okay to not know how to role-play or support your child with these situations – if we were never taught effective ways ourselves, we don’t have the neural pathways for it! We are not a failure as a parent if we don’t know how to support our child – we just need help!]
b) Get a feel for it in advance. If you have a child who tends to feel anxious or worried in situations that feel new, remember that telling them “Not to worry” or “don’t be scared” isn’t effective. They cannot just put the brakes on their feelings. We all feel what we feel, and we need to cope through, not stop our feelings. So what do we do? We get a “feel” for things in advance. This can look like MANY things. Here are some examples.
With your child, go to the school and check it out several days or weeks BEFORE school starts. See and experience the playground (for younger kids), see the parking lot, walk up to the front door, ask them to tell you what they notice about the area and the school, notice what other kinds shops, buildings or houses are near by. Etc.
For kids who really need a sense of safety, it can help to bring sensory-safety to their experience; try nonchalantly touching the bricks of the school walls and asking them how it feels = rough, pokey, smooth, etc.? Help them notice how many trees are around and what’s nearby, etc.
If it’s a new school, see if you can arrange a school visit in advance or an appointment to meet the teacher.
Talk to other people who went into “grade ____” (whatever it is for your child) and see how they navigated through; what are the positives? What do they wish they had done different to help themselves? What supports did they have and what supports might they suggest we seek now?
Practice the walk to school, drive the bus route to school, or bike the way to school several times before school starts to familiarize.
Essentially, we brain-prep with our child to give them some neural pathways before they go and do the thing they are going to need to do. This can bring a “sense of safety” to some level for children. And this makes ‘new’ experiences less threatening.
Reminder: Click below to access the Role-Play checklist.
[P.S. Even if you don’t end up role-playing, talking about these scenarios can still fire some neural connections in the brain. Keep your chats calm, grounded and focused and be sure to have these conversations only when you have capacity to do so.]
And, as a reminder, I am a Trauma-Educated Master Certified Parenting Coach and a Certified Kids Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence Coach. I can be part of your “village.” Just reply back to this email and we’ll find a way to help you.
Ashley Anjlien Kumar
The Confidence Coach