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Parent Education Event Recap: New School Year Reset with Dr. Kieran O'Mahony 

Photo of Seattle Academy Parent Education Event Sept 2020

Article Written By: Laura Avalone, (Maximo '24, Luca '27)

A huge thank you to Dr. Kieran O’Mahony for an engaging Seattle Academy Parent Education virtual event on September 10. Dr. O’Mahony spent the evening helping parents better understand cognitive neuroscience in relation to the ability of students to learn, and how we as parents can create an environment to support our children as they learn and develop.

Dr. O’Mahony discussed the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) and reminded us that this working memory part of the brain is the keyspace where learning and reasoning happens. With remote learning and long hours of screen time, we need to remember that our kids need to get up and move throughout the day. They should stand up, do short aerobic movements, etc. in order to get the blood moving into the PFC where all the energy for doing, thinking, and speaking happens. NUTRITION & EXERCISE are critical to our brains! Barriers to learning and PFC processing can include lack of sleep, low blood sugar, distress, or distraction at home with parents or siblings, etc. If a child is acting anxious, obstinate, or struggling, they are showing us that their PFC is full! When the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain) is triggered, the gate shuts down, and the info is sent to the reactive part of the brain where it is hard-wired to react (only involuntary things happen). In turn, the child is not able to access higher-order executive thinking that is needed for school. The only act a child can do is FIGHT (aggression) FLIGHT (run away), or FREEZE (do nothing). 

How can I help my child with an amygdala hijack? Address amygdala hijacks by causing ‘disequilibrium.’ This is teaching children to learn how to solve problems for conceptual change.

  • Breathing/ Meditation. Telling a child to “calm down” won’t work. The child is hijacked and has no access to PFC. Model breathing. Stand near the child, say no words except, “deep breathing.”  Mirror neurons will cause children to follow your lead in the movement.
  • Exercise/Movement. Get the child moving.
  • Metacognition. Teach children to think about their thinking. When kids are in being metacognitive, they are in their PFC and building their brains. 
  • Disruptive Thought Problem Solving. A new idea/concept to switch to the PFC. 
  • Model/Teach Dysregulation. Children are not born with dysregulation. We have to teach them. Everything we say, think and do shapes the brain. Be intentional.
  • Positive Parent Interactions/Positive Feedback. Help generate natural oxytocin & serotonin! Oxytocin minimizes aggression, and serotonin helps regulate mood!

Analogy: Some children orchids and some are dandelions! Dr. O’Mahony also talked a lot about the book The Orchid and the Dandelion by Thomas Boyce, MD.  Types of children are based on neurobiological factors. These are hardwired. Children receive a Serotonin Transporter Gene from their parents. One from each.

SHORT- SHORT Serotonin Transporter Gene = ORCHID child. Orchid plants are hard to grow. Orchid plants need the right temperature, activity, sunlight, etc. The Orchid Child is typically more challenging, sensitive (internalizes criticism), takes up more time and energy. These children are highly affected/influenced by distress/conflict/stress. However, if "greenhouse" properly, you can have an amazing child/orchid

SHORT-LONG Serotonin Transporter Gene. These kids tend to be both happy and sad. They can self regulate.

LONG-LONG Serotonin Transporter Gene = DANDELION child. A dandelion is a weed and easy to grow. So resilient, it can grow out of the cracks in the concrete. These children are less affected/influenced by distress/conflict/stress.

  • An orchid is NOT a broken dandelion! 
  • Steve Jobs, Bill Gates = Orchids. Orchids may be hard to grow, but they are beautiful.
  • Build a greenhouse, and orchid will thrive, and the dandelion will just as well!

Remember that children learn best and succeed when their appetites (interests) are aligned with their aptitude (abilities). Intrinsic motivation is the goal. The brain is malleable up until the day you die! 

Our next virtual Parent Education Event is scheduled for Tuesday, October 27. Find out more information here.