Thinking Brain: The Wise Owl

How the prefrontal cortex impacts kids behavior

I think the brain qualifies to be among the Seven Wonders of the World. Honestly, isn’t it amazing how our brains can be smart AND emotional? Haven’t you wondered why you continue with an unhealthy habit? Or get irrationally afraid of something? And sometimes, so brilliant that we can perform heart surgery. Okay, I can’t do that, but I can equip you with some knowledge about the brain.

We’ve all noticed how our minds act like they are different “selves”. When you’re driving, brushing your teeth, grocery shopping, or budgeting, your thinking is fairly rational. However, sometimes the “emotional brain” kicks in, and we act out of joy, excitement, fear, or anger.

t’s not only adults who have an emotional brain. Our kiddos can also act out of what they feel. As educators, we’ve all come across kiddos yelling, throwing stuff, running all over, or having blood vessels constricting panic. I know we have talked about teaching kiddos how to control their emotions, but we’ll dive deeper to understand where it all begins.

I’ll walk you through how the brain impacts behavior, emotions, and learning.

Emotional Brain

We have 3 parts to the emotional brain:

1. PREFRONTAL CORTEX (PFC)

It is commonly referred to as the Wise Owl in children or the Upstairs Brain for teens. It is the cerebral cortex covering the front part of the frontal lobe.

2. LIMBIC SYSTEM

This term was introduced by Paul MacLean in 1952. It’s made up of connected brain structures responsible for a huge part of our emotional reactions. The Limbic System is made up of the Hypothalamus, Hippocampus, Amygdala, and the Limbic Cortex.

3. BRAINSTEM

It’s the part that controls the flow of information between the brain and our entire body. I call it the fight or flight brain. It comprises the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. Every message relayed from the brain to your body, and vice versa, has to pass through the brainstem. Also, it’s in charge of basic body functions like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, swallowing, etc.

We won’t go into the details of all the three parts right now. I know it can be overwhelming, so we will review in small doses. Today, we’ll look at the Prefrontal Cortex.

What is the prefrontal cortex?

The PFC is the cerebrum part that’s directly behind the eyes and the forehead. The brain is known to develop in a back to front pattern, so the PFC is the final brain structure to develop. If you have seen a brain scan in movies, the wrinkled outer layer is what we call the cortex. Kosher? In adults, the PFC may take almost a third of the outer layer.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. Saying it’s the last part to develop doesn’t mean that kiddos don’t have it. They do, only that they haven’t developed the complex decision-making or emotional control skills that adults have. As they grow older, the brain neuron interconnection increases. As a result, there is increased communication between the different parts of the brain enabling them to learn complex skills and manage emotional states.

Ever wondered why kiddos might end up throwing a tantrum if they fail to learn something? Or why a 15-year-old may act irrationally, yet they know better? It’s because the PFC hasn’t connected well with the limbic system. So, the part of the brain associated with self-control can’t communicate well with the fight or flight brain. Hence, the two behavior reactions.

PFC is divided into the left and right sides. The left side is focused on positive goals, approaches, and emotions. It carries more dopamine receptors associated with motivation and reward. The right side is geared towards negative emotions and avoidance. It contains more norepinephrine receptors commonly associated with anxiety.

If the left PFC is more activated, then you’re prone to be biased towards positive emotions. And if you find yourself having more negative emotions, then your right PFC is more activated. Several studies carried out on depression have evidenced that depressed people have an underactive left PFC compared to the right PFC activity.

Why is the prefrontal cortex so important?

The PFC brain is the “Think Tank” that is majorly responsible for our learning and concentration.

It is referred to as the Wise Owl and Upstairs Brain with kiddos and teens, respectively, as it helps them respond rather than react to emotions.

When our bodies and brain are calm, we can access the PFC, better enabling us to be in a reasoning and thinking position. As a result, we can control our impulses and focus on regulating our emotions. Whether it’s through breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or sensory-motor strategies, we’re in a better position to get there.

Remember…a calm PFC enables your kiddos to be in a position to mindfully manage their emotions and solve problems. So, strengthen that muscle as much as possible!

Our next post will be all about the Limbic System…….or the Barking Dog.

Want to learn more about reducing stress? Watch this short video!

Professor, brain coach, book devourer. I use a neuroscience-based approach to reduce stress, and diminish behaviors. Find me: https://www.thebehaviorhub.com/