The Subtle Shaping of Our Brains

In my daughter’s second grade classroom, the teacher has arranged it into tables of 4 students. At this point about 2/3 of the way through the year, I think she has a good idea of strengths and weaknesses and a lot of experience finding good combos.

The latest grouping that my daughter, Miss O, is in has three students that are pretty good at transition and organization and one who seems to struggle with moving from one activity to the next. Miss O came home from school last week with the story that their whole table wasn’t excused for lunch until after the whole class had gone because the one student wasn’t packed up. Two out of the three others were reduced to tears.

I offer this story not to comment on any of the delightful characters involved but because it makes me think about peer pressure, internal and external motivation, and what we do for each other as friends and companions.

Stanford neuroscientist and researcher, David Eagleman, talks about how our brains are constantly changing and making new connections. We are shaped by the five people that we spend the most time with. And this dovetails with what Kristin Neff, professor and researcher at the University of Texas says – we are co-creators of our lives. The people around us influence who we are.

But it’s way more subtle when we aren’t in second grade and someone isn’t telling us where to sit and with whom. I’ve usually been fine with my organization skills but I definitely need influence on my playfulness, creativity, vulnerability, mindfulness, and inspiration.

Thank goodness for my kids for helping me with my playfulness. Creativity and vulnerability – this WordPress community has been amazing.

I get a dose of mindfulness every time I hang out with my meditation teacher, Deirdre, like on our recent podcast. She has a presence that she brings to whatever she’s doing that is palpable. As I listened back to the recording of our conversation, I noticed Deirdre took a slight pause before answering my questions, a mindful gathering of her wits before she proceeds. Now there’s something I could stand to learn.

Inspiration, well that is also delightfully abundant here on WordPress. Specifically, I definitely get a huge dose of it from Vicki, the other writers on this blog, from reading the comments, and everyone’s personal blogs. I’m continually touched and delighted by all the incredible people here who are shaping my brain.

The story from Miss O’s classroom also makes me really aware of what I bring when I’m out in the world. If someone is having trouble getting packed up for lunch, literally or metaphorically, am I helping with the stress that pressure brings? Or am I crying, literally or metaphorically, as I wait?

The principle of neuroception as described by therapist and author Deb Dana in this Psychology Today article, that our nervous systems picks up cues beneath our awareness from our environment, including from others, reminds me that whatever reaction we have to someone facing a challenge, the way we show up affects those around us.

Our reactions were a lot more obvious when we were seven-years-old and our emotions showed pretty readily. Now that most of us have mastered our external masks, it might not show on our faces but still is present to help or hinder those around. As I told Miss O, may we all remember that when we do our work, it’s a service to everyone at our table.

Please visit my personal blog at I also post on Wednesdays at the Wise & Shine blog. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

38 thoughts on “The Subtle Shaping of Our Brains

  1. Oh…those darn ‘cues’….there are days when I wish I didn’t pick up on those nuggets “just beneath our awareness”. Love all of this, Wynne — especially the reminders that we need to do our own work, find our own way. Hugs to Miss O, too — just because. 🥰

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  2. I love this, Wynne. I had countless similar situations in school, where we were held back because one child in the quad-pod wasn’t ready. What’s interesting to me is that, as children, we may lack the emotional regulation to assess the situation and help out classmate rather than cry; yet, as adult, how often do we suppress emotions and ignore the needs of those around us because it’d be too much of a hassle. Perhaps, we need need to find some middle ground, where we can practice both recognition and action. 😊

    Also, I just have to throw out a funny synchronicity. Kristen Neff has come up in four different blogs in the last 24 hours! In 2010, I applied to join her PhD program. It makes me so happy that her work is still relevant today.

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    1. What an interesting balance you describe between recognition and action. Right!

      How interesting about Kristin Neff! It seems like there’s no end to the relevance of her work. Happy Monday, Erin!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t like the whole idea of 7 year olds working in groups like that, but that seems to be the style of teaching now. I just finished reading a book called For The Love of Learning – by Kristen Phillips – a memoir a year in the life of a school principle – and it just made me cringe. No wonder so many kids can’t read.

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    1. I think you’re right about the style of teaching, Joni. I thought it might change because of the pandemic but it didn’t. That book sounds heartbreaking and interesting. Spending time at my daughter’s elementary school is so fascinating for all the great work AND tough choices they have to make. I have great admiration for all they are trying to do!

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      1. It was very interesting…..and I admire their hard work…..and they are bound by a lot of curriculum directives from above…..but expecting a bunch of 7 year olds to figure things out on their own in a group is unrealistic, as some kids will always be smarter and some slower, but they can all learn, just at different rates.

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    2. Joni – I just started following and would like to add to this comment and the book you’ve cited.

      My college roommate has been a teacher, off and on, since she got her teaching credential way back in the 1970s. She and I have had a lot of conversations about the education system over the years, especially in the last decade or two. From that I gleaned that, yes, many of the requirements and methodologies used in any particular classroom are more often than not imposed by someone other than the teacher. My roommate and I both agreed, though, that there’s no substitute for what we as parents, or even as other relatives, can teach a child, one on one, outside of the classroom.

      There are also funding limitations to consider. My kids learned the best and the most during the few years when CA ran a budget surplus which was used to reduce class sizes.

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      1. Welcome….and thanks for commenting. Many of my friends were teachers too, but all are retired now. I had no idea that teaching had changed that much until I read the book. Mind you I live in Ontario Canada and our education system is funded differently here. The class sizes are small, around 20 (compared to what I remember!), there are teaching assistants for autistic kids and slow learners, psychological counsellers, and the teachers have paid prep time for lessons and marking. The provincial teachers union is very powerful here so the pay is good too. When they post the standardized tests (done in grades 3, 6 and 9) and only 50% of the kids can pass math and reading, well it makes you wonder what is going on? The book somewhat addressed some of that, as she says the teachers don’t like to give bad grades as it discourages the kids, but sometimes wonder if there is any common sense left in the world anymore. I’m a boomer, and we were not babied as much. How do you expect kids to develop resilience, which they need for life? I could go on and on….at some point, probably next Sept. I will blog more about the book, and my favorite teachers, because I had some excellent ones which really influenced my life!

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  4. Didn’t group projects in school always work out without someone pulling their weight, or someone doing most of the work? I didn’t like group projects. You reminded me of my son in Pre-K. He couldn’t handle transitions and would run to the bathroom to throw up when they switched teachers from math to reading. The teacher sat him with a sweet little girl who would hold his hand while they transitioned and it turned out fine.

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  5. Love your post Wynne. I would’ve hated that having to work in groups. I had to do it in college and grad school, but not as much in elementary school. I find it fascinating though as you mention in thinking about our connections and what we bring back. Interesting to analyze. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Sorry, I’m going to get all ‘teachery’ on you Wynne. I think group work will become more and more present in education as we are gearing towards giving children and young people the skills they will need in the 21st century. One of those key skills is to be able to work collaboratively. Although I teach post-compulsory education, my understanding is this is being embedded in schools from a very early age.
    That said, if we want our children and young people to develop collaborative and other skills, we need to teach/explain what is expected and why

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    1. I have to laugh Brenda- after working with the grands now for some time with home school science they are all too familiar with the word collaboration. Their experiment work is all about the concept and they also have the opportunities to teach each other if applicable. It’s all about real-world skills but helps them with their own critical thinking process.

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      1. I’m currently (and probably too slowly) taking a course on these 21st century skills … how to teach and develop them in the classroom. Regrettably, today’s class didn’t appreciate their collaborative exercise/task 😬

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  7. I will never argue about the fact that our environment and the people in it shape who we are in every way. So often both sides are unaware of the impact or how the slightest alteration can change an outcome. We always hope for positives, which I’m sure was the goal from Miss O’s classroom experience with those nudges from the “ready for lunch” crowd. I don’t think that kids are necessarily unique in that some of us simply take longer to get the message than others 🙂

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  8. Group projects, group think, oh my . . . As we all know, in our current society, we are constantly taught to conform and be like everybody else. Personally I don’t think it’s a good thing because it limits our potential and limits our ability to make the world a better place! Give Ms. O and extra hug today!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Miss O’s story reminds me of a comment the preschool teacher told me when I dropped off 2 on his first day. One of my goals was for him to practice holding and drinking from a cup without spilling it and she said not to worry, T will watch and learn from others. And he did. If only my goals were this simple today! 😆

    I now understand as an adult why my teachers rearranged the class layout and it’s fascinating to think about. And I do remember the pairings always had one of the more challenging kids. It’s a great lesson for the kids and a great way to bring out their best – and hopefully not pick up on the bad stuff.

    It’s nice to think that kids learn about teamwork and all for one and one for all through this process too – albeit a few tears shed!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love that story about 2-year-old T. Your comment makes me think that back in the day when our littles were really little, they had so much visible progress. I wonder if it’s just harder for us to gauge progress because it’s not the big milestones?

      You’re right – it is fascinating to think about the classroom dynamics. A much bigger perspective than kids can grasp but I bet those teachers have seen how much we influence each other!

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  10. “As I told Miss O, may we all remember that when we do our work, it’s a service to everyone at our table.” Boy oh boy Wynne that’s a mouthful—the nugget of truth beneath it all! The work I do on my inner self benefits everyone else on the planet and vice versa. Thank you so much for this incredible reminder of the power within to be of service. May we all be mindful of that fact that we matter. 🙏💕

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