The human brain is a complex thing, especially children’s brains (which are constantly changing and developing). As such, one of the best resources we can share is one that talks about how to give the brain what it needs to properly develop and flourish.
In this post, we have compiled and walked through the basics of the four “feel-good” chemicals the brain produces to help us live successful lives and become fulfilled adults. These four chemicals shape our brain as we grow and tell us what we should and shouldn’t be doing. Therefore, it is a great resource for anyone who has a child or works with children regularly to review and pull nuggets of wisdom from.
Often referred to as the “motivator molecule,” dopamine is a chemical designed to make us focus and feel motivated. When dopamine levels are low, it can result in difficulty focusing, decreased motivation, trouble problem-solving, and social anxiety. This is why many ADHD medications target dopamine levels.
Dopamine is part of the reward pathway of the brain. When something is interesting or exciting, a surge of dopamine rushes to the brain. Much like the excitement we feel when we are preparing for a trip or waiting for dessert, the anticipation of receiving a reward tells the brain to release dopamine. This release tells our brain that this event is worth getting more of. And so, the cycle begins.
So how can we, as parents, teachers, and coaches, use this neuroscience? We must create an environment that is exciting and produces the “anticipation of accomplishment.” We use this in class by utilizing game-based teaching methods:
- Trickery: The use of “trickery” in class helps the students focus, which ultimately leads to better listening skills. When playing a game and waiting for the instructor to say “go,” the instructor can trick the students by saying “goose” or “go cart” instead. This excites the students but also motivates them to listen better and, therefore, be more focused.
- Intrinsic Motivation: As students get more mature, the use of “intrinsic motivation” in class helps the students become more motivated and confident internally. This helps them learn to be motivated from within, and not because of an external factor. “You only have to do 5 pushups but if you want to show me how much you’ve grown, then go for 10 or even 15 pushups.”
By utilizing these techniques, students get a rush of dopamine because they anticipate the events in class, stay focused, listen better, and are motivated to do their best.
Oxytocin has been dubbed the “love chemical.” It is the hormone that is released when we feel love and trust in relationships. It is a significant part of the parent-child relationship, but is also considered the “social glue” in all of our human relationships.
The release of oxytocin is not automatic but rather, a learned response. It is very important for children to develop an effective oxytocin response. Children that have been abused or neglected are locked in the fight or flight response and cannot develop the oxytocin response required to calm down. Therefore, bonding is very important to children, especially in the early years of life.
This bonding, that primarily comes through the parent-child relationship, can also be nurtured through positive interactions with adults such as teachers, coaches, and anyone who works with them on a regular basis. Since oxytocin is an anti-stress chemical, children who feel love and trust with important adults in their lives are better able to cope with stress and be more open. These positive feelings also contribute to a more positive self-image and increased empathy. This creates an upward spiral of positive social relationships.
In class, building a trusting and respectful relationship with each student is important (a process that takes time, which is why we keep our class sizes so small). Along with this, there are some effective ways of increasing their oxytocin response system both in and out of class:
- Healthy Competition: The use of “healthy competition” helps the students’ make connections with others and gives them a “village” type bond. For example, when running a game, the instructor may run it as girls vs. boys or break them into teams alphabetically by name. This helps the students develop social connections, so they work together and trust each other to do the best for the team.
- Extrinsic Vulnerability: The use of “extrinsic vulnerability” in class helps the students become less afraid of being open. For example, to get students more motivated, the instructor can say “If you do your form five times without any mistakes, I’ll do 10 pushups.” This helps students because they can see the instructor as more vulnerable by having to do pushups. If the instructor can be vulnerable and not have to worry about judgment or mean comments in this environment, then why should I?
The important thing to keep in mind is that our brains can develop a healthier oxytocin response at any age. It won’t happen overnight and will take time and effort on the part of the adult but the benefits for the child will be incredible. Creating environments that foster trust will make this process easier. Remember, even the smallest friendly interactions, such as fist bumps and high fives, can release oxytocin.
Serotonin, another of the “feel good” chemicals, plays a part in our wellbeing and is important in balancing mood. Ninety percent of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in the gut. This is because the gut and the brain were developed from the same embryo cell line and continue to communicate through the vagus nerve. This explains why the gut is often referred to as the “second brain” and where the phrase “gut feeling” comes from.
Serotonin levels have been found to also affect memory and learning, supporting the ability to learn new information more quickly. When there are higher levels of serotonin, moods are better and, therefore, cognitive functioning is improved. The problem is found when serotonin levels are too low. In children, this can manifest in behaviors such as poor impulse control and inattention.
So how can we use this information? We must create an environment that is inviting and form bonds with the children by setting an enthusiastic and positive mood. In class, we work on building this environment by:.
- Choices: The use of “choices” in class helps the students build satisfaction because they have a say in what they are doing and, therefore, their excitement to do things increases. For example, when working on forms in class, if the instructor tells the student they can choose which form they want to work on, they will be more excited about getting to make their decision regarding this. And, they will then be more satisfied with the overall experience.
- Redirection: The use of “redirection” in class helps the students respond better to criticism or feedback. For example, if a student in class that doesn’t always sit still during mat chats, the instructor can say “When I count to three, let’s see who can sit more still than Johnny.” This student will be prompted to sit correctly and then he will feel more accomplished by showing how quickly he can sit correctly.
By utilizing these techniques, teachers and parents are increasing the students’ serotonin, which helps them become more satisfied in their accomplishments and it reinforces their good behaviors.
Endorphins are natural chemicals produced in the body to reduce pain and boost happiness. They are most often associated with exercise since the release of endorphins can cause a state of euphoria known as a “runner’s high.” However, most any exercise will cause this state of happiness and it is also boosted through laughter and excitement.
Physical activity is essential to brain development. When we feel good, we learn better. Intellectually stimulating the brain when endorphins have been released helps with this process. For the last five years, neuroscientists have been encouraging parents and teachers to work on stimulating the good-feeling chemicals in the brain. The mind-body connection is a powerful thing.
We utilize this concept in class by making the exercises and games as interesting and fun as possible:
- Up The Intensity: The use of “up the intensity” as a teaching skill in class helps the students have more energy throughout an exercise, which ultimately leads to them exhibiting more effort. For example, if students are practicing side kicks on a bag and they are told to do 50, the goal is for the 50th kick to be the best one. However, students often start out full speed and their energy depletes as they get closer to the 50th The best thing to do is have them start out their reps easier and increase their power as they get to 50. That way they end with their best one yet! This gives the students a rush of endorphins and they finish the exercise feeling stronger.
- Neurobics: The use of “neurobics” in class helps the students by increasing their neural stimulation and, therefore, they become more focused. For example, if the students are doing pushups, instead of counting to 10, they count in colors or characters, or even count backwards. This will increase the neural firing in their brains and keeps their minds from wandering.
By utilizing these techniques, the endorphins in the students’ brains help them feel better and learn better. The combination of having more energy and being cognitively stimulated leads to more effort and focus.
We hope that something in this information was able to spark a creative idea in your mind about how to better help the children in your lives, whether they be your own or someone else’s. While there is no “right” way and “wrong” way to help a child grow, knowledge is power. The more we understand about how children think and operate, the more we can act as a guide and positive influence for them going into the future. Learning about these subjects can often be cumbersome, but it is worthwhile to help the next generation live a happy and fulfilling life.