In a mindfulness course at mindfulschools.org, someone asked, "Emotions are such a huge factor in self-regulation with young students. How do we get them to think about their own emotions without perseverating on those negative emotions? It's very difficult, even for me."
The way I understand it is that as we become more mindful of emotions, we are moving from being "in" it, where it's almost like the emotion is having us, to being a witness to it, where we are in a place that allows more acceptance of it. We can almost referee the emotion. "I'm feeling anger. I'm feeling it around my stomach and in my chest. That [thing that happened] is happening over there, and my emotion is happening in here". We move from victim to observer. When we are no longer victimized by our emotion, we can respond to it mindfully. So many times, the pain of emotion is in trying to fix it or run from it. Mindfulness allows the process of being with emotion to land gently on our psyches so that we can better make sense of it, rather feeling like an erratic, disorganized assault on the system.
Dan Siegel writes about "top-down" versus "bottom-up" experiencing. Often, when we experience events, we have some sort of past idea about how it will go based on our experiences of similar events in the past. Our mind (rather than our more primal amygdala/survival part of the brain) dictates the experience of the event in a split second. This is top(prefrontal cortex)-down. My mind registers the thing happening, interprets, and my body has a sensation. For instance if I see a wasp, it's not a new experience for me, especially if I'm not being mindful about it. Instead, I see the wasp, my mind reminds me of the times I've been stung, I feel fear, and this dictates my behavior (I run away or go inside). Usually, I'm running away and covering my behind, because that's where I've been stung twice!
If I'm being mindful, I can use a "bottom-up" approach to this experience of seeing the wasp. I can notice that when that fear comes up, I am able to self-regulate to calm the nervous system, the feelings, and then the mind. How do I self-regulate to support a new response to the wasp? I notice my impulse to run. I take deep and mindful breaths. I become mindful of the fear as I notice where it resides in my body. I am then able to choose a different action. I might choose to simply stand there and wait and see what happens. I can remind myself that I probably won't get stung by simply standing there (creating a new top-down experience for next time!). I can stay in the experience, experience it for the first time. Maybe the fear is there, but maybe it is just a little bit less. Taking this more mindful approach, I become a witness to the experience, rather being victimized by it. My perception of this experience now has an opportunity to change because I am responding to the present, not the past.
This is my understanding of mindfulness so far. I'm very new at this. But it applies to so many aspects of teaching and being. We can also help children in their bottom-up, self-regulatory process.
Working with children can be overwhelming when their big emotions come up. Lots of things can be triggered for us adults. Helping children create that observer mindset can be hugely powerful. "You're feeling sadness. What's the like for you?" Suddenly they aren't the victim of the thing "making" them sad. They are a human having an experience. Helping them be present to their emotion, staying present and attuned to them, helps them stay with themselves. Even making eye contact and breathing with them creates a co-regulatory experience that supports a bottom-up deescalating process for them.
I'm not saying that we have to help children down regulate every time they experience an emotion. I believe children are empowered, resilient beings, and I trust their ability to handle the human experience. There is a balance. We have to learn to organize our feelings slowly. As they become more able to handle their feelings on their own, then my role can be to witness and narrate their process. "You were feeling sad and you began to play again." [Translation: Sadness didn't take over your entire day. You have power and agency even in the midst of emotion]. "She took your toy and you began to yell, but then you looked at the teacher for help" [Translation: your anger did not dictate your behavior]. "You seem really frustrated that your bike is stuck. I wonder what you'll do now?" [Translation: Your frustration is an experience alongside your physical experience of the bike being stuck, and you have choices.].
These may seem like simple ideas, but by narrating these experiences to children, who really are coming from a brain-stem oriented experience, it can help them to contextualize these experiences that might seem overwhelming. It can be hard to control our impulse to solve their problem and thereby solve their emotional "crisis". What do we do with our own dysregulation around standing by while the child stretches their zone of ability? As an educator, it's easy for me to envision the other side of these moments, where the child is walking through the growth opportunities. I've seen what lies on the other side - it is powerfully impactful for the child to see their situation from the outside, and from the success side of the challenge, and to witness t their power as agents of change in their own lives.
Originally published on Beansprouts Preschool Blog