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The most important thing you can do with your kids? Play with them! says Dr. Bruce Perry


“The most important thing you can do with your children is play with them!” said Dr. Bruce Perry, noted child psychiatrist and author. He was answering the question, “How do we prepare our children to go back to school next fall?”

Perry, a brain expert specializing in how children are impacted by trauma, gave a presentation on his neuro-sequential model of brain development to more than 800 people at an Austin Ed Fund event Monday evening. The co-author, with Oprah Winfrey, of the new book What Happened to You, also discussed the importance of educators focusing on “regulation and relationships.”

“If educators keep the focus on regulation and relationships, you’ll have many many more children with an open (able to learn) cortex. Keep the focus on regulation and relationship building you cannot go wrong,” Perry said.

Other topics Perry addressed during the more than two-hour event included workplace stress, how school boards can best support teachers, why going slowly is important post-pandemic, the importance of the arts and sports to brain development, and what corporations could learn about the importance of valuing their employees’ brains. The event was sponsored by the Buena Vista Foundation, Tapestry Foundation, The Klein Foundation, and St. David’s Foundation.

In the wide-ranging conversation, Perry also addressed these topics:

On preparing children to be ready for school this fall

“Play with them and let them play, and let them play with each other. Let them sort of reconnect with their friends, you know, do things that are fun. What that means is, if your kids over the summer have a regulating and rewarding set of experiences, they're going to come to school ready to go to work.”

On the importance of fun

“I think fun is the best way to learn things. I think kids keep telling us that when they find something that they enjoy. It's amazing what they can learn. So I am always happy to let them play, let them take the lead when it comes to acquisition of cognitive content.”

On school boards supporting teachers

We spend a lot of our work trying to help the teacher, through improving awareness about self care. But we're really working to try to help schools to create policies and practices that are respectful, that are regulating, that are relational, so that there can be parallel process from, you know, the board all the way down to the administrators down into their classroom, down to the teachers and then out into the community.

When children learn self-regulation and take it home
When a child taught them (parents) a little bit about the brain, that's really what we want to see. We think that that's the greatest way to have this creating the children kind of become the teacher, when it comes to (teaching) that great framework of regulate, relate and reason.

On the pressures of being a young parent in today’s world

We put way too much pressure on our young parents. Human beings are intended to parent with more adults around us, with the extended family model, where there's an auntie and an older cousin and the grandmother can jump in every once in a while to help. We're not biologically designed to meet the fundamental needs of multiple kids by ourselves. So, first it (for) parents listening,  just be forgiving of yourself. Give yourself a little bit of a break. And remember what I said about the parallel process (of self-regulation) with teachers. You need to get regulated too. I mean it's good for you to go to your exercise or take your walks or have your coffee with friends. That's not being selfish. That's actually allowing you to be your best for your child when they're in the home.

What we can do to help each other during the pandemic.

I think one of the things that we really need to keep doing with each other is just be very nice to each other. We need to be kinder to each other. We need to go, “Wow, you're in a tough situation. So how can I help? How can we figure out how to get us some help?”  And I think when we do that, the community will be better.

The question NOT to you can ask your children

Everybody knows that when kids come home from school, like the worst thing you could ever ask them is, do they have any homework. Don't ask them. Feed them, give them a chance to get regulated, and then engage them. But again these are the things that we (all) need.

About bringing the concept of regulation into the corporate world

I have to say though there's a lot of promise about bringing these concepts (regulate, relate, reason) into corporate environments and into the workplace. Because for the corporation, the most valuable resource of any organization is the people. And the most valuable part of those people is their cortex. That's the part of them that can be creative, productive, and most social. All the things that you want in the workplace are going to be cortically mediated. And so, it's in the best interest of the corporation to have a lot of open cortexes. And so once you teach people about this, then corporate environments change, and they create a more regulating, respectful environment. When we go to workplaces or organizational environments that begin to appreciate this, they make changes that lead to monetary bottom line improvements, and that, you know in a corporate environment, that helps something stick.

About protecting yourself in a toxic workplace

If you're in an organization that doesn't get this, you've got to figure out ways to protect yourself. And one of the most important ways to do it is with your tiny little group.You create a little group of people you feel safe with. You take care of each other. That's how we optimally survive in relationship. So if you can find a group that you can connect with and belong with to help you sort of  buffer all of the things that go on at work, then that's a really valuable thing, to have that small group. To just being kind to yourself and being kind to others. It's such a simple and great message.

What should teachers know on as they go back to school

I would recommend that they (teachers) focus on regulation and relationship. And if those elements are incorporated into the process of coming back into the learning environment, you're going to have many many more open cortexes. So whatever way you decide to do, whether it's through team building or games, focus on regulation. And then, relationship building.

What administrators should focus on

Yeah, I think this is where you really need to have your administrators step up and protect you (teachers). There really has to be communication all the way up to the board of education in the state, so that we know that these kids are ultimately going to be able to master any of the content that we want them to by the time they graduate from high school or middle school or wherever. But if we're smart about it, we're going to keep more kids in school, which is a big issue for a lot of places in high school...if we don't try to shove cognitive content down their throats, when everything's all dysregulated.

And so, when I say go slow, I'm not saying don't learn anything. I'm just saying, don't let the pressure of not mastering some kinds of concepts unravel you, you'll get through it. You may just want to change the pacing of how you learn certain things. You may want to think about different strategies of how you sort of co-mingle curricular content. I can guarantee you that if you had your teachers sit down and look at what you're supposed to learn in history and what you're supposed to learn in some other topic, they could come up with a creative way to collapse the minutes of instructional minutes and feather in a whole lot of regulatory stuff. You know one of the things that I think they should consider doing for example, is if you take a typical middle-school history teacher who's got four classes, that person will give the same didactic presentation in 20 minutes four times in the day. He should record it, and then those kids can have control over when they watch it. And that's part of their assignment, (to) watch the lecture, before you come to class. But then when you're going in class, do stuff (that) is for regulating, and more conversational, more relational. They'll get more engaged, they'll learn more. So, if you let the teachers be creative about this stuff, they're gonna do fine. But if you say, “Hey here's the worksheet that you have to do on the third day of this week,” that's just gonna make everybody feel crazy. And you’re setting yourself up for failure, and setting us up for failure.

On helping kids feel safe and become lifelong learners

If you really want people to be lifelong learners, and you want people to be creative and productive and contribute to society and ultimately pay taxes, and write books and do sculptures and create musicals, you've got to make them feel safe. You've got to make them love their learning environment. And you do that by respecting them and listening to them and being patient with them.

On resilience and the importance of community

One of the things that we're able to look at is the timing and the nature of bad things. It could be a loss of a parent, it could be abuse, it could be neglect and so forth. But we also looked at the timing and the nature of good things — relational health, connection to family, community and culture. And here's basically what we find: that if you have adversity, but you also have connections to family and community and culture, which are resilience building factors, you're not at any increased risk for bad outcomes. However, if you have adversity and the amount of adversities sort of outweighs the presence of relational connection, you have significant increase in risk.

And so this is where relational poverty is a really important thing. You know families that have no extended family nearby. They're not connected to their community of faith; they don't know their neighbors. That kind of social isolation puts you at tremendous risk for even minor adversity. If you have big adversity and then you have that relational poverty, that's when you're really at risk.

And, the ideal is, and this is why we really have been focusing a lot on building community, culture and connection to each other, is that we have a lot of relational health. Even with adversity, you end up being pretty healthy. And so in the end, the most powerful factors that determine how you function in the present is connections to others, positive connections. That is really is the major (factor). You know people that study resilience. It really is basically all about how you're connected.That's what we found; that's what a lot of other people that do this research have found. You don't have to have thousands of people that you're connected to.

Oprah talks about this a lot. She literally points to one teacher who saw her and understood how special she was, and who really was her lifeline. She provided resilience building experiences that set her on her life trajectory. And I think that's true for a lot of people. And the good news therefore, from my perspective is that every one of us out there can be that kind of person for somebody. You know, it may be your child or your nieces and nephews and maybe a neighbor kid, or it may be the kid you're coaching in little league. If you're a teacher, you're doing this all the time and you probably don't even realize you're literally creating life-saving, and life-transforming experiences for children, even in the little moments, the moments when you really are present with them.

Sensory overload
One of the unfortunate things about our modern world is that we're so sensory overloaded with our phones and our appointments that even when we are around people, we don't slow down enough to give them that moment. People feel it when you see a colleague or a friend answer a text in the middle of a conversation. It's a completely different experience than when they're truly present and listening. I think that this is something that we can all do for the people around us, and if we can be better at doing that, the social fabric in our family and in our community will grow and become stronger. If you can put everything aside, and truly be with that person, and hear them, take a stance of curiosity, as opposed to a stance of judgment, you're, you're gonna make a huge difference in that person's life,

The role of arts in learning
One of the most important resilience-building activities that you can do is music, the arts and sports. And the irony is, in educational environments, all too often we view those as add-ons, sort of as electives. But the truth is, if you really understand how the brain works, you'll recognize that the best way to make somebody available for high-quality academic achievement is to give them episodic regulatory opportunities for resilience-building through sport, through music, through creative arts, through performance arts. Those things should be absolutely core to high-quality academic curriculum. If you look at the origin of Western education, sports, music, theater, they were all part of the traditional Greek and Roman education. People over centuries tend to do things because they work. And I think that we should listen to our ancestors in that regard, and reincorporate some of that back into schools.

For more information on the Dr. Bruce Perry webinar, the Austin Ed Fund and the Austin School District’s Social and Emotional Learning work visit

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