I’m a Peace Teacher. Here’s How Brain Science Helps My Kids Handle...

Social-Emotional Learning

I’m a Peace Teacher. Here’s How Brain Science Helps My Kids Handle Conflict.

By Linda Ryden     Nov 14, 2019

I’m a Peace Teacher. Here’s How Brain Science Helps My Kids Handle Conflict.

This article is part of the report: Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges.

I had been teaching conflict resolution to elementary school children in Washington, D.C., for five years when I suddenly realized I was doing it all wrong. My peace classes were engaging and fun and many of the kids were using the conflict resolution skills in real conflicts. On the surface, it all looked good.

But day after day I would see children, often some of our most vulnerable and troubled students, being sent to the office for fighting at recess. Some of these kids would go straight from my classroom where we had been role-playing how to work out a conflict to the playground where they would get into a fight over who goes first on the swings. When I asked the kids why they didn’t use the conflict resolution skills, they usually looked at me and said “I was just too mad! I couldn’t think straight!”

I was shocked. I wanted to understand what was happening with my students. I wanted to give them the skills to calm down. Why weren’t they able to think when they were angry? Why do we all make such poor choices when we are mad? I was at a loss.

Neuroscience to the Rescue

I don’t remember exactly when I heard about Dr. Daniel Siegel but it was a moment that changed my life. I watched a video in which he shows how the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for watching out for danger and reacting, takes over when we get angry and how it in effect turns off the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and executive function. It blew my mind. I remembered those angry, red-faced students telling me that they didn’t use their conflict resolution skills when they were heated because they just couldn’t think. And now I knew why! Their amygdalas had hijacked their brains in order to protect them and had turned off all memory of my lessons. It all made sense now. But I was still left with the bigger question. How do you teach kids the skills to calm down?

I was not a meditator back then. I knew a little about meditation and mindfulness but I didn’t think it was for me. But as I was searching for ways to help my students I kept reading about mindfulness—in particular, breathing strategies that can calm us down in the moment. There isn’t much research about its impact on students, yet, but what is out there appears promising. The more I read the more I started to think that this was exactly the step that was missing from my conflict resolution lessons. So I spent a summer learning about mindfulness and starting my own practice.

I went back to my school the following year equipped with what I now believe are the two most powerful conflict resolution tools: mindfulness and neuroscience.

Once I was able to teach my students what was happening in their brains when they were angry and how they could take care of their brains with mindful breathing then working out the conflict was a breeze. Giving my students these tools quickly began to change their lives, my life, and the climate of our school.

Conflict Resolution Gets Easier

I begin each of our weekly peace classes with mindfulness practice, and then we continue with our usual social emotional learning lessons about friendships, feelings, inclusiveness, listening, empathy, kindness and conflict resolution. After a few months the difference was noticeable. The kids (from first to fifth grade) not only loved the mindfulness practices, but the lessons we learned from mindfulness and neuroscience were deepening all of our other work. The result was most dramatic when we began our unit on conflict resolution.

Now, instead of just focusing on how to resolve the conflict, we started focusing on how we got into the conflict in the first place. The kids began to feel the anger in their bodies when the anger was small, and they learned how to use breathing to calm the anger. Now when we talked about conflicts we could really see why our conflicts were escalating and we could use our breathing skills to help to de-escalate our conflicts. It was magical!

I looked everywhere for a fun storybook to help me teach my younger students about what happened in their brains when they were angry, but surprisingly I couldn’t find one. So I wrote “Rosie’s Brain,” a story about a little girl that helps to explain what is happening in her brain when she is angry, based on some of Dr. Siegel’s work, but also how she can use her mindfulness skills to help her calm down. Understanding your own brain and how to take care of it with mindfulness is transformational. I see it every day.

One day a new boy came into my classroom—a fifth grader who had just moved to D.C. He was angry and not really happy with his new situation. Every time I saw him he looked miserable. Usually he would come into my classroom and sit in the back with his hood up over his face. At one point he came in and lay face down on the rug, his head covered by his hood. I was at a loss so I slipped a copy of “Rosie’s Brain” under his hood.

It sat there for a bit but to my surprise, after a while I realized that he was reading it. After class he came up to me and said, “Ms. Ryden, I don’t think I have a prefrontal cortex. I’m all amygdala.” He looked so sad. We had a great talk about his brain and his feelings and I think he left feeling much better about himself. The next time he came to class he sat in the front and even smiled.

I think my students love “Rosie’s Brain” because it demystifies anger and helps them to see that it is a normal biological process that we can have some control over. I’ve heard from many parents who also love the story because this information is just as liberating for adults.

As the peace teacher at D.C.’s largest public elementary school, I have been teaching “peace class” to over 600 children a week as one of their weekly specials for over 15 years. A few years ago, a study by Minds, Inc. found that an overwhelming 90 percent of children reported that peace class helped them to understand their emotions, to be kinder, to be a better friend, to manage academic anxiety and to solve conflicts more peacefully. And three-quarters of teachers reported that skills learned in peace class helped our students be more ready to learn. Inspired by these results and moved by demand from other educators, we formed a nonprofit so that we could write, publish and share the Peace of Mind Curriculum.

I can say without a doubt that the lessons that my students are learning in peace class are changing their lives. I see it in action every day. Kids tell me all the time about how they got angry or stressed during a test or a baseball game or a conflict on the playground and how they were able to use their mindful breathing skills to help them to calm down. Imagine what our world would be like if all children were taught to understand their own brains, regulate their own emotions and work out conflicts peacefully. It has never been more important to prepare our children to create a more peaceful world.

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