Our Brain

Developing children’s emotional intelligence and teaching them to recognise their emotions can help children to overcome stress, manage aggression and express their feelings. It has an impact on their overall well-being, behaviour and relationships with others. One way to do this is to help children understand and recognise the different parts of the brain and their functions.

Daniel Siegal is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

Siegal uses a simple visual tool when talking about the brain with children which is called ‘The Hand Model of the Brain’.  The video below explains this in detail, but to briefly sum it up, the closed fist in the hand model represents the regulated brain – when we are calm and make our most effective decisions – with the amygdala (thumb), prefrontal cortex (fingers) and brain stem (wrist) connected. When we are e.g. angry, fearful, anxious or upset– we ‘Flip Our Lids’, the fingers in the hand model raise and our prefrontal cortex and amygdala disconnect which makes it hard to make thoughtful, rational decisions. When our brains are overwhelmed like this, they need to use strategies to become calm, reflect and reconnect. The hand model is a useful tool when parents and educators want to help children identify different parts of the brain and explain how they impact our emotions and behaviour – as Siegal says, ‘name it to tame it’

A hand model of the brain – Dr Daniel Siegel

Further Reading

Dan Siegal Official Website

Siegal, D. & Bryson, T. (2012), The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind Robinson

Siegal, D. & Bryson, T. (2018), The Yes Brain Child Simon & Schuster


This is an excerpt from a blog post ‘Living in Flow: what is it and how to enter the flow state?’ written by Pr. Ilona Boniwell which originally appeared on her Positran consultancy website. Pr. Boniwell is an expert and leading figure in Positive Psychology.

Have you ever spent half an hour searching the internet which, as you find out afterwards, lasted three hours? Or opened a book shortly after breakfast and a little while later noticed that the room was getting darker?

Think of a moment in your life when you were so involved in what you were doing that the rest of the world seemed to have disappeared. Your mind wasn’t wandering; you were totally focused and concentrated on that activity, to such an extent that you were not even aware of yourself.

Time disappeared too.

Only when you came out of the experience, did you realise how much time had actually passed (usually much more than you anticipated, although sometimes it could be less).

Most people can remember experiencing such a state. In fact, about 90% can easily recognise and associate it with one or more activities. Athletes call it:

‘being in the zone’, others a ‘heightened state of consciousness’.


Psychologists call these fully absorbing experiences flow states, which were discovered and named by a world-famous psychologist with the most unpronounceable surname I have ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say cheeks-sent-me-high).


His celebrated book Flow: The psychology of happiness (1992) is one of the best examples of a marriage between non-reductionist scientific and deep thinking, within the accessible self-help genre. It became an instant best-seller, making its way to the top self-help classics.

It is possible that if it wasn’t for the enormous popularity of flow and for Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi meeting accidentally in Hawaii and becoming friends, the positive psychology movement might have never happened.


The state of flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.

If challenges exceed skills, one can become anxious. If skills exceed challenges, we usually become bored (like bright kids at school). Neither of these two cases result in flow.

Csikszentmihalyi investigated the phenomenon of flow by interviewing thousands of people from many different walks of life – chess players, mountain climbers, tennis players, ballet dancers, surgeons, etc. He came to the conclusion that flow is a universal experience, which has several important characteristics:

  • Clarity of goals and immediate feedback on the progress. For example, in a competition you know what you’ve got to achieve and you know exactly how well you are doing, i.e. whether you are winning or losing.
  • Complete concentration on what one is doing at the present moment, with no room in one’s mind for any other information.
  • Actions and awareness are merged. A guitar player merges with the instrument and becomes the music that he plays. The activity becomes almost automatic, and the involvement seems almost effortless (though far from being so in reality).
  • Losing awareness of oneself or self-consciousness is also a common experience but, interestingly, after each flow experience the sense of self is strengthened and a person becomes more than he or she was before.
  • Sense of control over what one is doing, with no worries about failure.
  • Transformation of time. Usually, time passes much faster than expected. However, the reverse can also be true.
  • Activities are intrinsically rewarding. This means they have an end in themselves (you do something because you want to), with any other end goal often being just an excuse.

What is also interesting in flow is the almost total absence of emotions during the actual process. One seems to be almost beyond experiencing emotions, most likely because the awareness of self is not present.

One philosopher describes his own experience of flow:

‘A good discussion often brings a sense of flow. I am not aware of myself, the world around, or the passage of time. I get totally involved in the conversation. Everything goes smoothly. It is a challenging but not a rough ride. Yet, like with all truly fulfilling experiences, you know that you were in flow, not while you were there, but because of missing it after.’

Activities that lead to a flow experience are called autotelic (from Greek: auto=self, telos=goal), because they are intrinsically motivated and enjoyable and have an end in themselves, rather than in some other end product.

Many activities are conducive to flow: sports, dancing, involvement in creative arts and other hobbies, sex, socialising, studying, reading and, very often, working. In fact, most daily activities can lead to optimal experience (another name for flow), as long as the situation is sufficiently complex to activate the high challenge – high skill condition.

Activities in which flow is a rare occurrence include: housework, idling and resting. Also, in the vast majority of cultures, people don’t associate watching TV with optimal experience.

Although optimal experience is described in the same way across countries, some of the flow-conducive activities vary, because of the cultural and circumstantial differences. Thus Roma (Gypsy) people very often find flow in raising children or grandchildren, which is not a common pattern elsewhere. Leisure activities, which are frequently associated with optimal experience, are not associated with it in Iran.

People in traditional societies find flow in housework, even though it rarely happens in Europe. Whilst TV is generally counterproductive for flow, blind people quote media (including television ‘watching’) as their most flow-related activity. This is not surprising. TV is not designed for blind people, so ‘watching’ TV is for them associated with a challenge – having to build mental images of the characters in the absence of being able to see them.

Nepalese people, too, associate the media with optimal experience. Not having a TV at home makes watching it a rather rare (and possibly challenging) opportunity. These research findings mean it is not possible to say for certain which activities are definitely flow-related and which are not. What for one person is a piece of cake can be a challenge for another. The opportunities for optimal experience rely, therefore, on our subjective perception.

Saying that, frequent choice of activities that are non-conducive to flow remains a problem for the vast majority of the Western population. Remember, it is not just the balance between challenge and skills that is required for flow, both have to be stretched. In television watching, for example, the low skill matches the low challenge, which usually results in apathy.

At work, on the other hand, we have the high-skill, high-challenge situations more often than during leisure. Yet so often we would rather do something else than work. Given a choice between TV and work, why would we rather choose the former over the latter? Csikszentmihalyi explains this by distinguishing between enjoyment and pleasures.

Flow may be a state of ultimate enjoyment, but it requires effort and work, at least to begin with. The pleasures do not, they are passive. It’s far too easy to switch the TV on, and it is the effortlessness that ‘sells’ this mildly pleasurable activity to us.

In addition to autotelic activities, Csikszentmihalyi talks of autotelic personality – a person who ‘generally does things for their own sake rather than in order to achieve some later external goal’. These people develop skills that help them get into the flow state frequently, skills like curiosity, interest in life, persistence and low self-centredness.

To read about the potential dangers of flow and learn about other optimal experiences, visit the full post.


If you’re curious how you score on e.g. emotional intelligence, empathy, mindfulness, gratitude or levels of stress and anxiety, the Greater Good Science Center has free online quizzes on these topics and more. You can take them as a one off or set up an account, save your quiz scores and track your progress over time.


Courage has been a desirable and valued characteristic throughout time. Courageous, brave, heroic, strong individuals are celebrated, while those who are perceived to lack this quality are viewed as weak, cowardly, timid, fearful…

But is identifying acts of courage that simple? Should we be questioning judgments more – for example, is there more than one form of bravery? What does courage look like in different circumstances? Is all courage good or does it depend on the intention/outcome and moral judgment of individuals?

Examples of courage happen all around us, every day. We rarely stop and think about them unless they happen on a big scale – physical, noble, heroic acts (think of the man dubbed ‘Spiderman’ who scaled a building to save a child hanging from a balcony) in the face of danger are easier to spot.

But how about acts of moral courage? Are these any less valid? Standing up for personal values and rights – in the face of challenge and backlash, speaking the truth – even in difficult circumstances, engaging in prosocial action – despite social risk. Activists, whistle-blowers, children standing up to bullies…

How about acts of psychological courage? Facing inner fears, challenging oneself, stepping out of your comfort zone, opening up emotionally? While these may not involve the risk of physical danger or create social change, they do instigate personal change at many levels.

There are many types of courage.

Courage can enable us to do great things. It can also be used by individuals to do terrible things. A key aspect that unites ‘good’ examples of courage – whether they are physical, moral or psychological – is that they should not seek to cause deliberate harm to others or put ourselves at extreme, unnecessary risk. Before acting we should be assessing our motives and values for doing so.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Steve Jobs


The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.

Albert Einstein

What Is It?

Interested, inquisitive, eager to know, intrigued – these are all things you may feel when experiencing curiosity.

When you’re curious, you want to learn more about something and may e.g. spend time researching, talking about or actively engaging with the thing that’s captured your interest. Because this learning is driven by you, you’re more likely to remember things in more detail and even understand it at a deeper level.

Curiosity has been identified as a VIA character strength and is important for both children and adults. Too often however, curiosity seems to be more strongly associated with children, as if the responsibilities and routines of adult life knocks it out of us.


Research suggests that curiosity is linked to psychological, emotional social and physical benefits (Kashdan & Fincham, 2004). Curious people are often happier, achieve more, have higher life satisfaction and lower anxiety levels. They may even form better relationships if they are more open minded, interested in and empathetic towards other people.  

Curiosity has long been a desirable trait to develop in education as research suggests that it can increase student motivation and engagement, increase learning and overall academic development (Peterson & Hidi, 2019).

How Curious Are You?

Curiosity is a gateway to knowledge, skills and even a new way of looking at the world around you. So, how curious are you? Think about these questions – how often do you learn more about the areas you’re interested in, explore new ideas or perhaps seek out people who can challenge or broaden your mindset? When you don’t know the answer to something, what do you do about it? Do you find learning and doing fun? Can you remember the last time you questioned the world around you?

For some, the answers will be yes, all the time! Others may be thinking, not often – I just don’t have the e.g. time, energy, inclination after work and family responsibilities. Whichever response you lean towards, there are small ways we can all begin to develop and build our curiosity and open ourselves to the possible benefits mentioned above.

Encouraging Curiosity  

Explore your interests in a way that you enjoy – reading, listening, watching, discussing, doing – share what you find out with someone and engage them with the topic. You can learn from, challenge and offer new insights/angles to each other. This needn’t be too time consuming – if you find yourself pressed for time, start small e.g. set yourself a daily challenge to spend 15 minutes exploring your chosen area of interest. Build on this when you can and enjoy having this time set aside for yourself.

Many children are already naturally curious – however, parents and educators can support and build curiosity in children by e.g. noticing and encouraging questions, using open ended questions in learning/discussion opportunities (what do you think might happen when…; how could we…; why do you think…etc.), asking – not telling, modelling that we don’t know the answer to everything and how to go about finding out more and sharing times when we’ve learnt something new ourselves.

What are you waiting for? Start now. Find out what sparks your interest- be inquisitive, eager to know, intrigued… enjoy exploring, learning and doing – find ways to connect with and learn from the people and world around you.

Further Reading

Kashdan, T. B., Rose, P., & Fincham, F. D. (2004). Curiosity and exploration: Facilitating positive subjective experiences and personal growth opportunities. Journal of personality assessment82(3), 291-305.

Peterson, E. G., & Hidi, S. (2019). Curiosity and interest: current perspectives. Educational Psychology Review, 31, 781-788.

Education: Well-Being and Resilience Books

If you’re interested in learning more about Positive Education, or generally exploring well-being and resilience in education, the following publications are a good place to start. Within the texts you’ll find references and suggestions for further reading on topics of particular interest.

Many should be available at your local bookshop or library, alternatively they can be found online with most major booksellers.

Bethune, A. (2018). Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom: A practical guide to teaching happiness. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Morris, I. (2015). Teaching happiness and well-being in schools: Learning to ride elephants. Bloomsbury Publishing.

O’Brien, C. (2016). Education for sustainable happiness and well-being. Routledge.

Roberts, F. (2020). For Flourishing’s Sake: Using Positive Education to Support Character Development and Well-being. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why. Random House.

Stokoe, R. (Ed). (2018). Global Perspectives in Positive Education. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Street, H. (2018). Contextual Wellbeing: Creating Positive Schools from the Inside Out. Wise Solutions.

Suldo, S. M. (2016). Promoting student happiness: Positive psychology interventions in schools. Guilford Publications.

Swinson, J., & Harrop, A. (2012). Positive psychology for teachers. Routledge.

White, M. A., & Murray, A. S. (Eds.). (2015). Evidence-based approaches in positive education: Implementing a strategic framework for well-being in schools. Springer.

White, M. A., Slemp, G. R., & Murray, A. S. (Eds.). (2017). Future directions in well-being: Education, organizations and policy. Springer.

Resilience Research

This is the second part of an article on resilience written by Pr. Ilona Boniwell which originally appeared on her Positran consultancy website. Pr. Boniwell is an expert and leading figure in Positive Psychology.

Areas of research and practice that inform our current understanding of resilience include:

1) Coping

Coping literature talks about three broad types of strategies people tend to use: problem-focused, emotion-focused, and avoidance coping (Carr, 2004). Problem-focused coping happens when people identify the problem and take steps to resolve it. These strategies aim to modify the source of stress directly, sorting the problem out. Emotion-focused coping is focused not so much on the problem but on the emotions it arouses in us. So, if we turn to someone else for assistance, it would generally be for emotional support (e.g. talking things through, crying, empathy), rather than instrumental (e.g. specific advice on what to do in the situation). It often pays to deal with the emotions first, before focusing on the actual problem at hand. When the emotions have been diffused, we can think better and evaluate the situation more accurately, seeing the opportunities in it. These strategies are also more appropriate for uncontrollable stresses, when it is impossible to ‘solve’ the problem. Avoidance coping happens when people try to deny that the problem exists and try to block it out of their minds (possibly with the help of alcohol, drugs or even study/work).

The concrete strategies in these three broad groups can be functional and dysfunctional. For example, accepting responsibility for solving a problem or developing a realistic action plan are amongst the functional problem-focused strategies, whilst procrastination is a dysfunctional one. Similarly, catharsis, emotional discharge or asking friends for support are the constructive emotion-focused ways of coping, whilst getting involved in destructive relationships, aggression or wishful thinking are much less so. Avoidance-focused strategies also can be useful in the short-term. However, being permanently distracted and mentally disengaged from the experience is dysfunctional, partly because unattended problems do not get sorted out by themselves but tend to worsen with time.

2) Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)

We encounter stressful situations on a daily basis, some of them more severe than others. However, at times we are faced with traumatic events (for example, the death of a parent or acquiring a disability) that have the potential to change the course of our lives forever. Certain beliefs (for example, that the world is generally a fair place) may no longer seem true and many goals may no longer seem important. Yet, even when this happens, some individuals emerge from the experience having gained something from it. This phenomenon is called post-traumatic growth. It is associated with not only better psychological, but also physical, health (Baumeister & Vohs, 2002).

Experiencing post-traumatic growth, many people feel that they are much stronger following the adversity and have more confidence in themselves and their capacities. Others report improved and stronger relationships or having a greater feeling of compassion for others in similar situations. Sometimes people learn to appreciate anew what they have, even the small things in life that we so often take for granted. Some also discover meaning or spirituality in the aftermath of the event, leading to the development of a more coherent and satisfying worldview and life philosophy (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

A renowned psychologist, Victor Frankl (1963), who himself was a survivor of the Holocaust, found that the attitude one adopts towards adversity is crucial: “Everything can be taken from a man but …the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”. For example, if a traumatic situation is perceived as a challenge, the person is more likely to experience PTG.

Several factors that contribute to PTG are also useful skills that can help develop resilience. These include:

  • Making sense of the situation
  • Finding meaning
  • Attitude towards adversity
  • Interpersonal support.

3) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a term used to describe interventions that aim to reduce psychological stress and maladaptive behaviour by altering cognitive processes or thinking. Indeed, it has been seen that many psychological problems are coupled with distorted or deficient thinking (e.g. those with anxiety disorders have been found to mis-perceive ambiguous events as threatening. A number of reviews have concluded that CBT is an effective way to help us deal with psychological or behavioural problems (e.g., Dray et al, 2017).

The basic principle behind CBT is that, since behaviour and feelings are influenced by cognitive processes, changing the way we think can lead to changes in behaviour and feelings. CBT focuses on the ‘here and now’ rather than the past, and is based on a process of guided self-discovery, experimentation and skills development.

Listed below are the core components of cognitive behavioural interventions that can be useful for the development of resilience:

  • Thought monitoring (e.g. identification of negative automatic thoughts)
  • Identification of and challenging cognitive distortions and thinking traps (jumping to conclusions; tunnel vision; magnifying the negative and minimising the positive; personalising or externalising blame; over generalising small setbacks, etc.)
  • Thought evaluation and reframing (development of alternative cognitive processes)
  • Deliberate optimism in crafting new and positive future perspectives
  • Affective labelling (e.g. naming experienced emotions)
  • Affective monitoring (e.g. scales to rate intensity)
  • Affective management (e.g. relaxation techniques)
  • Role play, modelling and rehearsal
  • Home-based practice and assignments

4) Positive Psychology

Positive psychology (PP) is the science of positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, well-being and flourishing. Often contrasted with the medical model, this approach places an explicit emphasis on the potential of individuals and on researching things that make life worth living (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). PP poses slightly different questions, such as ‘What works?’ rather than ‘What doesn’t work?’; ‘What is right with this person?’ rather than ‘What is wrong?’; ‘Why do some individuals succeed when faced with unfavourable circumstances?’ instead of ‘Why do people some fail?’. In a nutshell, PP can be summarised as drawing on what is strong, rather than dealing with what is wrong. The following positive psychology elements and interventions have been identified as helpful for the development of resilience (Tabibnia & Radecki, 2018).

  • Identifying one’s previous experiences of triumph and competence
  • Recognising and using personal and authentic strengths
  • Active engagement with trusted social support networks
  • Harvesting the ‘power’ of positive emotions
  • Developing a flexible mindset
  • Participation in physical activity

5) Mindfulness

The mindfulness research and evidence base has grown exponentially in the last few years with the combined number of publications in the last three years representing more than the total number of publications from 1980 – 2013. This explosion of research reflects the growing scientific and practitioner interest in mindfulness.   Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zin, 2013, p. xxxv) with the ability to remain fully present to whatever is happening in the moment as it occurs.  Extensive neuroscientific studies found that mindfulness changes how the brain function – it improves cognitive flexibility, creativity and innovation, well-being, emotional regulation, and empathy.  Mindfulness is also presented as an effective strategy for emotional regulation, improved stress regulation and psychological and physical well-being and improving cognitive flexibility, managing pain and improving positive affect. Evidence shows that combining CBT approaches with mindfulness contributes to the overall effectiveness of a resilience intervention (Joyce et al, 2018).

Examples of mindfulness exercises include Body Scan (focusing the mind on specific parts of the body in sequence, with complete and undivided awareness, creating more focused attention), or Mindful Listening (bringing full, focused attention to all sounds surrounding a person). Whilst some of these, Body Scan, for example, may be long, other techniques can be done easily, in around 5 minutes. Including these techniques into multi-component resilience interventions facilitates emotional and stress regulation.


The science tells us that resilience can be developed, with evidence pinpointing to multiple resources that can be built through deliberate training and interventions (Dray et al, 2107). Over the past twelve years we created the SPARK Resilience Programme that has been administered in educational and workplace settings though face-to-face and digital means, showing positive impact on resilience, self-esteem and depression outcomes (Boniwell & Ryan, 2009; Pluess & Boniwell, 2015; Pluess, Boniwell, Hefferon, & Tunariu, 2017). The programme has been evolving in line with the latest research evidence and now includes most resilience-enhancing strategies identified in the literature. Lately, the programme has been tested during the Covid-19 pandemic and results have shown improved resilience and meaning, as well as a reduction in negative affect and stress.


Baumeister, R.F. & Vohs, K.D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp.608–618). New York: Oxford University Press.

Boniwell, I. & Ryan, L. (2009). SPARK Resilience: A teacher’s guide. London, UK: University of East London.

Carr, A. (2004). Positive Psychology. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Dray, J., Bowman, J., Campbell, E., Freund, M., Wolfenden, L., Hodder, R. K., … & Small, T. (2017). Systematic review of universal resilience-focused interventions targeting child and adolescent mental health in the school setting. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(10), 813-824.

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, Simon and Schuster, New York

Joyce, S., Shand, F., Tighe, J., Laurent, S. J., Bryant, R. A., & Harvey, S. B. (2018). Road to resilience: a systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions. BMJ Open, 8(6), e017858.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living, revised edition: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Hachette UK.

Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of vantage sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 40-45.

Pluess, M., Boniwell, I., Hefferon, K., & Tunariu, A. (2017). Preliminary evaluation of a school-based resilience-promoting intervention in a high-risk population: Application of an exploratory two-cohort treatment/control design. PloS one, 12(5), e0177191.

Seligman, M.E.P. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Tabibnia, G., & Radecki, D. (2018). Resilience training that can change the brain. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 59-88.

Tedeschi, R.G. & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). A clinical approach to posttraumatic growth. In P. A. Linley and S. Joseph (Eds.) Positive Psychology in Practice (pp.405–419). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.