The Upstairs and Downstairs Brains: What They Are and How to Control Them

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Many teachers welcome students through the door and get straight to the work at hand. While positioned as an immediate, “do now” action, this type of quiet, seated work allows both the students and teacher to await the arrival of the rest of the class. This is often thought to “get the thinking juices flowing,” before the new content is introduced. 

Current research on how the brain and body are wired for learning suggests a different approach to getting students into the “thinking and learning” mode. At Zensational Kids, we refer to this process as, “Getting the mind and body (nervous system) regulated and aligned so one can be ready to learn.” 

As it turns out, educators are often teaching to students whose brains and bodies are not ready to learn at all. In fact, science has identified specific regions of the brain which are essential for learning and must be engaged if students are to receive, integrate, and hold onto any new lessons.

One way we teach this to even the youngest students is by using a model presented by Dr. Daniel Siegle. He describes having an upstairs brain and a downstairs brain. The downstairs brain is the alarm system. Its job is to keep you safe. When danger is present, it helps you to fight, run away, or freeze in your tracks. The funny (or not so funny) attribute of this part of the brain is that it does not know the difference between a strong emotion such as anger, sadness, or fear or a vicious dog chasing you.

Either situation can cause the downstairs brain to activate the same survival response. When you are on the playground and a dog starts chasing you, being able to run to safety can be life-saving. When you are in class, trying to sit still and learn and you are experiencing sadness, anger or emotional fear, this same response of fleeing is not so helpful. Along with taking flight, this part of the brain can cause you to “fight” (or argue), or “freeze” and have a blank stare. Thoughts and emotions can amplify the stress response and cause it to become overactive. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline will also “flood” the body/brain making it very difficult to pay attention and calm down.

The upstairs brain houses the prefrontal cortex. Here lives our executive functions. When this part of the brain is activated, we are able to self calm and soothe, we can control our impulses, make decisions, solve problems, think critically, and pay attention. Here is where learning happens within the brain.

The question is, which brain are you teaching to?

If you are teaching to students who are stuck in their downstairs brain, they are not capable of engaging in learning. They can not even process what you are saying, let alone remember any of the content. Now, when you take a few minutes to get their upstairs brain tuned in, and turned on, you are giving them the best possible opportunity to learn. You are helping them achieve a “learning ready” state.

Here are some activities to share with students of any age to manage their  “alarm center” within the downstairs brain, and tap into those executive functions:

1 – Focus on the breath – Bringing your attention to one thing at a time, such as the process of breathing in and out, (opposed to the myriad of things we typically require them to attend to at one time) can calm the fear/stress centers of the brain.

  • Breathe into the belly. Imagine there is a colorful balloon in the middle of your belly. As you slowly inhale through your nose, fill the balloon. As you slowly exhale through your nose, let the balloon deflate. Repeat this 5-6 times. Remind students to pay attention to their breath in to fill the balloon and their breath out to deflate it.
  • Draw basic shapes. You can use paper and crayons or use your whole body by clasping your hands together and drawing in the air. Allow each stroke to be either a breath in or out. Outline the shape 3-4 times.
  • Trace your hand. Use your pointer finger from one hand to trace the fingers of your opposite hand. Begin at the base of the thumb. Inhale as you trace up to the top of your thumb. Exhale as you trace down to the space between your thumb and pointer finger. Continue until all fingers are traced. Then, repeat backwards, moving from the pinkie finger to the thumb.

2 – Name it to tame it – Ask students to get into small groups of 2-3 and share how they are feeling. Ask them to identify, describe, or name the emotion as best they can. 

  • Cultivate an emotional vocabulary. You can use our emotion charts to help guide students in identifying and naming an emotion they are feeling
  • Utilize creative arts to explore emotions. Let students draw their emotion with crayons, markers, pencils, etc. Title the paper, “My emotion feels/looks like this:”
  • Have students choose an emotion they hope/wish to feel and describe to their partner(s) the things in their life that help them achieve that emotion.

3 – Move to move on – The brain and body are inextricably linked. When the body feels bound, restricted, or tense, so does the mind. Simply put, students need to move their body more than the small walks within the classroom or down the hallways from class to class.

  • Invisible Chair – Begin in a standing position. Inhale and raise your hands towards the ceiling. Exhale, sit as if there was a chair behind you and cross your arms, placing each hand onto the opposite shoulder. Repeat this patterned breath and movement in a rhythmic fashion 10 times.
  • Waterfall – Begin in a standing position. Inhale and raise your hands towards the ceiling. Exhale, and fold forward reaching your hands towards the floor. Repeat this patterned breath and movement in a rhythmic fashion 10 times.
  • Raindrops and Thunderstorms – This activity involves using your fingers and open palms to tap your body from the top of your head to the tops of your feet. Instruct students to adjust their tapping pressure from light (raindrops) to heavy (thunderstorms). Tap as it is comfortable. This should feel good. Tap along your arms. heart, stomach, legs, etc. Remind them to also notice their breath. Let it move in and out at a steady pace, as deep as they feel comfortable. 

Any of these can be shared with students of all ages. Try for one to two minutes, and take a moment for everyone to notice how they feel afterwards. It does not take long to shift the mind/body into states that support the upstairs brain for engaged learning. Another benefit is that the exercises simply feel good, and when we feel good, we do good.