JULIA JOHNSTON & VICKY LAMBERT
TEACHING LOCAL KIDS HOW THEIR BRAINS WORK
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
When did you move here?
Where did you grow up?
JULIA West Sussex.
We all have 3 brains
Do you come from a family of teachers?
JULIA No, my parents were in property and auctioneering.
VICKY Yes, my father was a teacher and became a vicar. And one of my sisters is a qualified teacher.
What did you do before starting your kids' clubs, BEST4Learning?
JULIA I was a muralist for many years, and later worked at St Peter's (school), Hammersmith, where I set up a group for children with dyslexia to learn to read and spell visually.
VICKY I was a personal trainer and volunteered at the Lighthouse school for young adults who've been excluded from mainstream school.
How did you meet?
When two of our children were in reception class together.
Where are your clubs?
VICKY In local schools and we also have two external venues where all children in the community can come along. The nearest is the Methodist church on Askew Road.
When are they?
VICKY During term time, once a week for 11 weeks, usually for up to an hour and a half after school.
BEST stands for Bespoke Emotional Social Teaching and, among other life lessons, you teach children confidence. What if a child is too shy to join in?
JULIA. We teach children about how their brains work, for example, when you stand up in public, for public speaking say, seeing a lot of people staring back at you, the brain switches to its primal, survival state. It tells you they could be about to attack you, which brings on the nervous body signals. This can be the same when answering a question in class.
VICKY So, we start every session with a warm-up game.
JULIA We never push anyone to join in. They do it at their own speed. VICKY We encourage parents to tell us about their child so we're aware of those who may struggle in certain situations.
JULIA We help children to recognize what they're actually afraid of or worried about.
VICKY We often use puppets and Marvin the Monkey is anxiety, who will often try and talk us out of something, just in case.
What sort of games?
VICKY We cover 5 to 16 years so the games are age appropriate. For example, for resilience, we get them to race on space hoppers. If they hit an obstacle, they can experience having to bounce back, learning from our mistakes.
JULIA Each term has a different programme, but we always begin with the brain. We teach the children that we all have 3 brains. First, we're born with our reptile brain, the survival brain.
VICKY The young ones dress as cave people, our primitive brain. There's very little communication. We survive through fight and flight.
What's the second brain?
JULIA The emotional brain. And the third is the thinking brain.
VICKY We represent the reptile brain as a crocodile, the emotional brain as a rabbit, and the thinking brain as an owl. Then we explain that the emotional brain has two areas: the hippocampus, responsible for memory – we use a hippopotamus; and the amygdala, responsible for emotion – we use an armadillo.
JULIA They learn that we are born with six emotions: anger, sadness, joy, disgust, fear, surprise. Skills such as decision-making, empathy, morality, and emotional control must be learnt.
Can you really teach empathy?
JULIA Absolutely. We teach the children to think about other people's brains, to stand in someone else’s shoes. They learn the difference between being aggressive, passive and assertive.
VICKY Aggressive is: I'm okay but you're not. Passive is: you're okay but I'm not. And assertive is: you're okay and so am I. It’s often about confidence. It’s important to tell someone you're not happy and to discuss how to make things work for both of you.
You teach via sports, games, and art and drama. Why are group lessons better than one-on-one?
JULIA One-to-ones are important for understanding how one feels or working out what one needs. In a group, we put the learning into practice through facing situations, recognizing body signals and emotions.
VICKY Our groups focus a lot on resilience, teamwork, confidence and emotional control.
What were you like as a child?
VICKY Very competitive. I was always doing sport, netball, gymnastics, running.
JULIA I didn't work hard enough as a child. I expected things would just happen and when they didn’t, I took a while to find myself and my motivation.
Has what you've learned changed the way you parent?
VICKY We both have kids. I have 3, Julia 2 – all teens. Our approach helps us understand what they're going through.
JULIA It isn't easy. All teenagers are programmed to be risk takers. It's evolutionary. It's when we learn to step outside and separate from our parents. The teenage amygdala, the emotion control of the brain, is part of our primal brain. The thinking brain continues to develop until we're about 24.
VICKY It doesn't work all the time. We all fall, adults included, and have to bounce back.
JULIA If they're having a problem with someone, I ask them, what's their story? Why do you think they're behaving like this? What could have triggered the behaviour?
If you weren't doing this, what would be your dream job?
VICKY I'd be a park ranger in north Wales.
JULIA I'd finish writing my books about the brain for children.
How and with whom do you relax?
VICKY Running. And spending time with my family and friends.
JULIA Not running! But with friends and family, round the table with food and wine and lots of laughter.
Thank you, Julia and Vicky. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed Feb 2019