Many people who work with children are noticing a pattern of increased emotional dysregulation in children. I certainly did! The number of students that needed help with regulation when I started at a school counselor in 2012 has increased exponentially – it is now a huge focus for myself and other school counselors each year. Parents also seem a bit more stressed, which is causing their children to be more stressed as well. Children learn how to manage strong emotions and navigate problems and frustrations by watching how the adults around them handle tough situations. If these adults struggle to manage their own emotions, their children can also find it difficult.
I think I had heard the expression “flipping a lid” years before I actually understood what it meant and how it connected to the physiology of our brains. It might have been flipping through the MindUp curriculum that connected the dots for me. What I remember for sure though, is that as soon as I fully understood what flipping a lid meant, I know it was going to be super important for my students to understand it, too!
We need to help teach and model for students/children WHAT it means to “flip their lid” and experience intense anger or anxiety, WHY it happens, and HOW to handle it. While dealing with emotions is a part of everyday life, sometimes we naturally get taken over by these feelings. However, there are strategies and tools we can teach kids so that it won’t feel so out of control. Giving students and children the vocabulary to understand and express their emotions is very empowering.
What is Flipping a Lid?
Our brains are incredible and help us to experience the world through our senses, feelings, and actions. This is all wonderful, but sometimes our brains can cause some trouble when we get super angry or anxious. When we experience these emotions with intensity and temporarily lose control of our actions, this is called “flipping a lid.”
These reactions are perfectly normal and were designed to keep us safe from danger. However, when we experience such strong emotions, we are not always in danger. Many times, this results in acting without thinking which can get you in trouble or result in being more upset.
There are three main parts of the brain that are involved and impacted when we experience intense emotions. Teaching children about these parts provides them with the language to express what is happening and the recognition that there is nothing bad or wrong with them. A few different programs (MindUp, Cosmic Yoga, etc.) use three animals to illustrate these parts of the brain. This helps children remember each part of the brain and their respective jobs. We also use the hand model when we’re talking about our brains and emotions. Dr. Dan Siegel is the clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. He is responsible for creating a hand model of the three main parts of the brain. If you want to see his explanations, you can check that out here.
- The Prefrontal Cortex or Wise Owl– This part of the brain helps us to make smart decisions. It is this part of the brain that helps you think before you act. When this part of the brain is in control, you feel calm, safe, and relaxed. The Wise Owl part of your brain helps you make smart choices.
- The Hippocampus or Memory Elephant- This part of the brain helps us to remember things. It saves both new and old memories and helps us learn. It can help us to decide what to do next based on past experiences.
- The Amygdala or Guard Dog- This part of the brain helps us to feel emotions. It helps to keep you safe and guards against things that could hurt you. It tells you to fight, flight, or freeze when it senses danger.
Our brains are perfectly designed to keep us safe and away from danger. This is biologically necessary because we need to be able to sense when danger is near and get to safety as soon as possible. When in danger the amygdala sends messages to our nervous system and releases adrenaline that kicks in causing our fight, flight, or freeze responses to take over.
However, sometimes there is no real danger at all, but our brain doesn’t know that! It just senses stress/distress and acts right away. Our guard dog, the amygdala barks and sends signals even when we aren’t in danger. The barks send our wise owl PFC flying away. When we do this with our hands, we see that it looks like “flipping a lid”! This puts us into FLIGHT, FIGHT, or FREEZE. You can imagine that this doesn’t always lead to rational or helpful choices.
Is the brain more complicated than that? Absolutely. It’s more nuanced and complex for sure. That said, this level of detail is an appropriate developmental sweet spot of understanding.
Here are some examples of what “flipping a lid” could look like for children:
- Not being able to find their backpack when they are leaving for school and yelling at a family member.
- Taking a test and the first question is super hard. Knowing that their parent is expecting them to get a good grade and forgetting the material altogether.
- Getting called to the principal’s office, panicking and hiding because they were worried instead.
Activities for Teaching “Flipping Your Lid” with Students
Knowledge is power right?! After students learn about the parts of the brain, their jobs, and how to calm their flipped lids, it helps them with their own regulation while also widening their perspectives to be more empathetic when others become dysregulated. Being more aware of WHY your brain reacts this way can also reduce the stigma associated with anger and anxiety.
Below are some activities for teaching the parts of the brain as a counselor or classroom teacher. You can find all of these activities and more in this Flipping a Lid: Lesson Plan, and Brain Activity Set.
- Sort and match each of the three parts of the brain, what it does, and an example of something that part of the brain controls.
- Have students role-play or do skits about each part of the brain. This would be perfect for small groups to brainstorm, practice, and perform for the class. You could scaffold this and provide situations they would need to act out.
- Practicing calming down their guard dog amygdala so their lid closes, and they can think clearly.
I originally created the lesson and activities with school counselors in mind, but many therapists, parents, and teachers have found great value in teaching this lesson and reinforcing throughout the year to help the children they serve identify the parts of the brain, their feelings, and ways to calm down their brains.
Here’s what some others are saying about this done-for-you lesson!
“I LOVED this resource. I was so impressed with all the new information and understanding my students came away with, they really understood the material by the end of the lesson. I wish I would have learned about my amygdala in elementary school!”
“One of my favorite lessons to teach all year! It makes so much sense to the kids. Everything about it is wonderful! I’ve never seen my second graders so engaged.”
“This resource was excellent. Very good graphics, well organized, easy to explain and easy for the kids to understand. I loved it!”
Why is Teaching About Flipping a Lid Important?
Learning, getting along with peers and adults, and honoring boundaries are all situations that can be challenging for many children. These situations and many, many more come up during school days regularly, and students need to be able to handle their big feelings in healthy ways. If we can approach teaching emotional regulation by teaching children the WHY behind their big emotions, they will have a better understanding of why they react the way they do. Then we teach them HOW to calm down their brains when they need to.
Teaching about flipping a lid and managing emotions in healthy ways creates calmer, more understanding, and empathetic learning environments where students feel a sense of safety. Students will have a plan for facing tough situations, which instills a sense of calm and confidence in their ability to handle them well. This is the first step in helping students to learn the standards and concepts throughout the year. Having a calm, safe classroom environment creates more time in the day for what’s on the lesson plan and less time spent managing strong emotions during the school day.
Students will walk away from school and into their personal lives with the tools they need to be high-functioning members of society! Isn’t that the goal for all students? It’s a win-win!
Looking for more?
Read more about teaching emotional regulation and what that looks like in 5 steps to teach emotional regulation. This walks you through how I teach emotional regulation with the children I work with!
Peace corners are one of the easiest and best ways to help students and children effectively practice calming down during the school day. Learn more about implementing peace corners in your school or classroom in this post: Setting Up a Peace Corner and Teaching Students How to Use It.
What other questions do you have about teaching kids about flipping their lids? Comment below and I can continue to update this post to best help you!
Empower students by teaching them about their brain and their feelings using the hand model of the brain! This resource is a kid-friendly way of explaining what “flipping a lid” means by illustrating the roles of the wise owl pre-frontal cortex, guard dog amygdala, and memory saver hippocampus. It also allows you to begin a discussion about how to self-regulate when you flip a lid.