Re-wire the brain: How to help your child thrive

Re-wire the brain: How to help your child thrive

Ever wondered why some children seem to shine in social situations and tackle their homework with joy? According to experts, emotional intelligence is one of the key contributors to a child’s ability to learn and flourish. It’s the underlying difference between a child who can make friends easily and a child who feels anxious in social situations, between effective problem solving and frustration at school, between expressing feelings in a healthy way and letting negative emotions take over. 

You need to know the rules to rule the world: what the science says

But here’s the good news - neuroscientific studies show that emotional intelligence can be taught. You can easily help your child rewire their brain and develop emotional intelligence by creating an environment at home where kids help out around the house and take responsibility for themselves in small but important ways. Making kids aware of everyday house rules, and making it fun to follow them, actually has a much bigger impact on your child’s brain development than you might think. That’s because rational thought and self-regulation are controlled by one part of the brain, whereas impulses are controlled by another. When the impulsive part becomes overactive, the self-regulation part struggles to function - and that’s when rules are broken.[1] Introducing structure into a child’s life helps them manage these impulses, giving them better control over how they behave.

Help kids help themselves

Self-help books make up a huge percentage of what gets published every year. And yet, remarkably, there is nothing out there that’s funny, fun, and suitable for kids who are in the process of figuring out how to understand and manage their own emotions and actions. That’s why we created our 37 Essential House Rules with rules that help kids learn to take responsibility for themselves, laying the foundations for school and beyond. 

Kids who can think for themselves and who respect their homes and the people around them go on to do unexpected and incredible things. Understanding the basic rules of life provides them with the tools they need to become independent thinkers, and maybe even visionaries and renegades.

What does the research say? 

Researchers today talk a lot about two aspects of child development: emotional intelligence and self-regulation. 

Emotional intelligence is defined by researchers as the ability to monitor your own and other people’s feelings, to tell different emotions apart, and to use that information to guide your thinking and actions.[2]

Self-regulation is the ability to moderate your actions and emotions. It’s being able to calm down when you get upset, and adjust the way you behave to each situation. When a child stays quiet in order to listen to others, waits their turn, or shares a toy with a friend, they are using self-regulation. The ability to self-regulate is not as simple as just decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones.[2]

A closer look at the neuroscience behind developing good habits

The power of self-regulation is all in the brain chemistry. If you look at the brain activity scan of a child who is experiencing stress or anger, you will find that the limbic system - the area of the brain associated with strong emotions and impulses - is lit up in red. When the limbic system is overactive, decisions and actions are driven by impulses, while the rational part of the brain is largely inactive. However, if the child manages to calm down and soothe themselves, the pattern is reversed and the most active area of their brain becomes the prefrontal cortex - the area associated with rational thinking and learning - and the activity of the limbic system will decrease.[1]

Self-regulation is crucial for developing good habits, and even resisting bad ones. And fortunately, good habits can be taught. The development of habits is based on a process of building associations between an action and an outcome. If the outcome is rewarding, we are more likely to do it again and again until it becomes automatic and we don’t even have to think about it. All it takes for new habits to develop is enough repetitions that produce a rewarding feeling. 

But there is one problem. Often, the positive outcome (or reward) of a good habit is not immediately obvious. For example, avoiding unhealthy food for one day is not going to lead to weight loss; doing your homework once is not automatically going to make your child a good student, and so on. As a parent, you need to help your child understand the long-term gains of good habits - the fact that they will benefit from following them in the long term - even if it means doing something they don’t want to do right now. In the case of eating healthily, for example, the reward can emerge from awareness of the fact that you are taking care of your health.

Emotional intelligence can help kids free up headspace for learning and making friends. 

  • Research has shown that kids with high emotional intelligence are able to connect with other people more easily and maintain high-quality relationships with family and friends. Kids need to be actively shown to have empathy for others and that it’s okay to cry. 

  • Emotional intelligence helps kids do well at school. Emotional intelligence frees up headspace to learn, leading to higher overall intelligence, advanced problem-solving skills and enhanced deductive reasoning. Research has shown that emotions help kids “focus on important information when trying to solve problems” and “come up with creative ideas and solutions”.[2],[5] An emotionally intelligent child is more likely to feel calm and make space for deep thinking. Noticing patterns like these can help kids gather information about which feelings are helpful for which task and use it to their advantage. [6]

  • Kids who can regulate their emotions are better prepared to cope with challenging situations, whether it’s concentrating on a difficult test, dealing with disappointing news, or managing complex relationships. What’s more, kids with better self-regulation skills have been shown to be more sociable, achieve better grades, and even achieve better SAT scores later in life.[3]

  • It’s important to teach children about shared responsibility from an early age. According to a research study which followed 50,000 families in the US, kids’ routines and habits become stable by around age 9. Older kids are less receptive to change, which is why it’s a good idea to introduce kids to good habits and the idea of shared responsibility from an early age. 

  • Words matter for emotional intelligence!

    Studies have shown that a particularly effective way to calm down intense feelings is to express them through language. Recent neuroimaging studies have shown that expressing emotions through language calms intense brain activity.[4] 

    According to the research, kids who are able to accurately label emotions like “jealousy” or “frustration” have more positive social interactions and perform better in school than those with a more limited emotional vocabulary.[7] 




    [1] Shanker, Stuart (2016). Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (And You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. Canada: Viking

    [2] Daisy Grewal, Marc Brackett, and Peter Salovey, (2006). 'Emotional intelligence and the Self-Regulation of Affect'. In D. K. Snyder, J. Simpson, & J. N. Hughes (eds.), Emotion regulation in couples and families: Pathways to dysfunction and health.

    [3] Brooks, F. (2014) The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment. A briefing for head teachers, governors and staff in education settings. Public Health England. 

    [4] Lieberman, M., Eisenberger, N., Crockett, M., Tom, S., Pfeifer, J., Way, B. (2007). ‘Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli.’ Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428

    [5] Easterbrook, J.A. (1959). The effects of emotion on cue utilization and the organization of behavior. Psychological Review, 66: 183–20.

    [6] Schwarz, N. (1990). Feelings as information: informational and affective functions of affective states. In E.T. Higgins and R. M. Sorentino (eds). Handbook of Motivation and Cognition. Foundations of Social Behavior. New York: Guilford.

    [7] Rivers, Brackett, Reyes, Mayer, et al. (2012). “Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum”. Learning and Individual Differences, 22.