Stepping to the Upstairs Brain with Habits of Mind

So often we find students in an over-stimulated state of mind. Some of the most telltale signs and symptoms show up via inappropriate behaviors, outbursts, negative comments, and anxiety-ridden stares and actions – such as fidgety body movements, leg shaking, and clenching of fists. These visuals should raise concern and worry, putting educators in a position to act. The goal of taking a student in this state of mind to a more regulated mindset is crucial. Moreover, it should be handled with care and focus. Getting the student from the downstairs brain to the upstairs brain is the direction we need to go.

Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

Siegel and Bryson (2012) use the metaphor of upstairs and downstairs brain to connect the actions and behaviors of children. Visualize the brain as a house. There is the downstairs where all the major components are located in order to live – kitchen, living room, and bathroom. When a day begins the chaos tends to always take place downstairs in a household – things are moving at a rapid pace. In children, this is where the basic functions occur (breathing and blinking) and impulses and emotions (anger and fear). Often children in the downstairs brain present anger and lose control of impulses which leads to bad decision making and an inability to think with clarity. As for the upstairs, a shower, bedroom, and closet are located here in order to get one in the most positive and optimal state of mind for the day. Often the events that take place upstairs move at a slower pace. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for intricate mental processes, like planning, decision-making, self-awareness, empathy, problem-solving, and decision making. Here, we find children better able to monitor their thinking, feelings, actions, and ability to make rational decisions.

There are a number of reasons why we all might suffer from being in the downstairs brain. A few could be that we are distracted, overstimulated, fixated on an issue from earlier in the day, or impacted by peer behaviors that impede our space of comfort. For instance, take a day in the life of a student. This student comes into the classroom after just receiving a poor grade on a test. While entering the room he throws his bag on the ground, rips up the test, and punches the desk. Oh no…he is in immediate need of a strategy to get him in the upstairs brain. But, how?

A strategic approach for guiding students from downstairs to upstairs is through the Habits of Mind. The Habits of Mind, developed by Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, are a set of 16 dispositions that serve as a pathway to finding a solution when one is not apparent. These habits can be utilized within the classroom as a way to build culture, curriculum, behaviors, and as a structure within completing assignments and projects. Moreover, these dispositions are centered on providing mindful approaches for students to develop productive behaviors within their thinking and processing.

Why Habits of Mind and the Brain?

As teachers, one of the most neglected topics within the classroom is “how” the brain functions and “why” it affects our behaviors. In other words, the more we get to know our thinking patterns, triggers, and behaviors, the more inclined we will be able to understand the actions we unconsciously sometimes display. In a learning environment, there are always situations where students become distracted and impulsive, hence they lose their ability to maintain focus and intent to learn effectively. When this happens it is important to get students back to an optimal state for learning through becoming attuned and resetting themselves in order to get back to the upstairs brain.

One of the hallmarks of the Habits of Mind is that students can learn through modeling, discussion, and practice with what they are, feel like, and look like when trying to calm themselves. Below is a technique using five Habits of Mind to decrease negative impulses and emotions. The goal is to lead students to a more positive state of mind where they are more regulated and in an optimal state for thinking and learning.

Process for Deescalation with Five Habits of Mind

In this five step process, I will provide the definition for each Habit of Mind, explain the procedure at each step, and give a scenario/prompt to follow. Depending on the situation, this process should take anywhere between 3-5 minutes.

  1. Managing Impulsivity

    Take your time! Think before acting and remain calm.At the sign of arousal within a student, stop them in their present state and tell them to remain calm and breathe. The goal is to simply get the student to manage their impulses.

    “I want to work with you on breathing slowly for a minute in order to manage your impulses.”

  1. Thinking about your thinking (Metacognition)

    Once the student is getting calm, lead them into the practice of recognizing how they feel, what they are thinking about, and how they can get to a point of understanding their thoughts.

    “What is going on in your brain right now? Are you in the downstairs? Tell me how you feel, what you’re thinking, and if you are ready to move on to getting upstairs?” 

  1. Applying past knowledge to new situations

    Direct them to ways of figuring out how to fix or better this situation. What have they done in the past to be successful in becoming regulated?

    “Have you ever been mad at a friend? If so, what did you do to help you be calmer?”

  1. Gathering data through all senses

    Direct them to a positive vision of something they love – the beach, a sport, flowers, puppies – anything that will calm and brighten up their thoughts. Have the students close their eyes and visualize the smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight of the item – build the senses!

    “Take a minute, close your eyes, breathe slowly, and think about something that makes you happy. I know you told us how much you love your grandma’s fresh-baked cookies. Think about walking to the upstairs brain where you feel calm. As you are walking upstairs think about the smell of the cookies, what they taste like, and how warm they feel right out of the oven.”

  1. Responding with wonderment and awe

    Next, tell the student to open their eyes, and say congratulations. Praise their ability in working through their feelings and putting themselves in a better state of mind. Then ask the questions, Are you in the upstairs now? How does it feel? 

    “Now, open your eyes, how are you feeling? Are you in the upstairs? If not, are you almost there? You should feel so happy and excited about your work in calming down and doing all you can to get upstairs.”

  1. Reflect for future

    Think ahead and set a goal for the future in case this were to happen again.

    “The next time you are feeling this way and I am not with you, what can you tell yourself in order to take charge of your own thinking, behavior, and get you to a regulated place.”

Sometimes we find students in positions where they need support and guidance to overcome situations that emotionally drain and negatively impact their thinking. Through Habits of Mind, we can offer a meditative approach that will take them from downstairs to upstairs, and focus on getting them in a more productive, mindful, and effective self.

Check out this video for a better understanding of this process.

Read more from Dan Vollrath.

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Become an Individual Practitioner!

If you are already using Habits of Mind as part of your daily practice and are committed to nurturing the growth of the dispositions in others, you can pursue becoming an individual practitioner certified by the Institute for Habits of Mind (IHOM).

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