Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Your Brain on Routines

One of my favourite sayings is "slow and steady wins the race," probably because this pretty much defines everything I do.  I don't do anything quickly.  Growing up, I struggled to keep up with my brother and sister in whatever kind of play we were currently engaged in. I always lagged behind my mom and sister in the shopping mall. Meander is my natural speed.  Turns out, I have something in common with social emotional learning.

Social Emotional learning also meanders. It requires repeated consistent patterns of behaviour. The repeated consistent patterns of behaviour that took place early in your life, from the ages of 0-6 years of age, lay the groundwork for this learning but these patterns can change. Of course, they can change for the better or for the worse, but I am going to focus on what we can do to train our brains towards joy.

Although neuroplasticity is a relatively new science, the practices and antidotes which it points to are simple, old fashioned and very low tech. 

Start with routines, especially beginnings and endings.  When we are working with a student to support challenges with anxiety, resilience, self regulation even anger management, we try to work with families and classrooms to install  short consistent routines . The important aspect is to keep it simple. 

Brains love behaviour.  What you do, is what your brain learns. I will work with a student to come up with five tasks that they will complete every morning. The tasks are simple; make the bed, make my breakfast and put the dishes in the dishwasher, review my day planner and check my backpack, walk to school.  The routine is written out and communicated to parents. For adults this may look exactly the same or it may include a 10 minute meditation or 10 minute workout, and if there are young children in the home, it may include child care responsibilities.

Your brain loves repetition. What you repeat is what your brain learns. In order for learning to take place, the behaviour needs to be repeated as consistently as possible.  The repetition is a key component for the practice to take place. The tasks should be short, no longer than 10 minutes.  The routine should be achievable.  The more overwhelmed or stressed the person feels, the smaller the task needs to be.

Reinforce the behaviour by acknowledging the achievement.  Notice the success, say it out loud, tell someone.  Give yourself a pat on the back, listen to your favourite song.  Something small, but consciously be aware of your achievement and focus on that.

That's it! Do not underestimate the value of the small repeated behaviours. This is how our brain evolved and this is how you can make incremental and lasting changes to your social emotion brain.

Components of Good Routines:
1. Keep it simple.  No more than 5 tasks.
2. Encourage independence.  Make the tasks simple enough for you to follow.
3. The routine must be repeatable.
4. Reinforce the learning by celebrating the success.
5. Evaluate, tweak and repeat.

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