Emotion is a powerful driver of behavior, sometimes too powerful. Virtually everyone has had the experience of reacting in the heat of the moment only to later regret his or her words or deed. An almond-shaped structure in the center of the brain called the amygdala is a hub for emotional responses. When it’s in high gear, feelings tend to rule the neural roost, blocking the ability to rationally consider the best course of action. Ideally, we would all pause long enough for rational thought to take over—say, after someone cuts us off on the road or criticizes our efforts at work or at home. Some educators believe that such a skill should be taught to everyone at a very young age.

A curriculum called MindUP conceived by actor Goldie Hawn includes an activity called the amygdala shake-up designed to help children understand the need for this sort of patience. For this activity, a teacher creates a crude model of the amygdala from a soda bottle filled with water, sand and glitter. Then, in front of the class (or a single student), she turns over the bottle and shakes up its contents to show what happens when a person gets stressed or upset. Once the glitter and sand are mixed, she rights the bottle and waits for the sand and glitter to settle, explaining that the wait represents the time it takes the amygdala to calm down enough so that a person can make a good choice.

This simple sketch shows kids why it is usually a good idea to stop and take a breath after an event that makes them mad, sad or annoyed. (The rapid response system is better suited to situations involving real danger in which speed is essential. In modern times, however, fast reactions usually create more problems than they solve.) The amygdala shake-up is a lesson in self-regulation, a skill useful in many facets of life. And the use of brain science as a tool for social and emotional learning is a signature aspect of MindUp.

In the video below, Marianne Prins, a third-grade teacher at Sir William Van Horne Elementary in Vancouver, demonstrates the amygdala shake-up and explains how it’s useful.

For more on social and emotional learning, see my feature article “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control” in the September/October Scientific American Mind. Also: Listen to me discuss the topic on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook: "Reading, Writing and Character."

Next week The Education of Character—Jumping Jacks for The Mind. Prins’ third graders exercise their bodies to grow their brains.

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