Brain Science, Inside Out

A Hollywood primer on emotions, feelings, and behavior — with teachable moments for educators and parents

September 21, 2015
Animated characters from the Pixar film Inside Out

It’s not often that Hollywood gets credited with introducing kids to brain science, but that’s exactly what this past summer’s Pixar hit, Inside Out, is doing. The film, about an 11-year-old girl named Riley and the array of emotions inside her head as her family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco, presents a rare pop-culture opportunity for parents and teachers to talk with kids about everyday emotions and the central role they play in behavior. The start of a new school year — when exuberance mixes with trepidation and all sorts of other feelings — is an ideal time to have these conversations.

Using “Inside Out” to Talk About Emotions

Tell your child or your students that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise and good health.The movie personifies Riley’s emotions as a set of five characters who reside in her brain — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. These five emotions are the real stars; through them, we see the inner workings of the mind, with Joy and the other emotions taking turns at the “control panel” that guides Riley’s feelings and responses to the events in her life. 

Using a series of strategies developed by HGSE Associate Professor Stephanie Jones and her research team, caregivers can nudge children to explore key takeaways from Inside Out and draw connections between their own feelings and their behavior. (The strategies are taken from a school-based intervention called SECURe, developed by Jones and colleagues, which focuses on social-emotional skill building.)

Takeaway: The Importance of an Emotion Vocabulary
Building a sophisticated emotions vocabulary helps children identify and communicate different types of feelings, which in turn helps them manage emotions in productive ways, instead of hitting, acting out, or withdrawing.

  • Strategy: Create a "Feelings Tree" on the wall of your classroom or living room where you can post feelings-related words (“feelings leaves”) as they arise in conversations, in books or movies, or through other classroom activities. Start with basic emotions like happy, sad, mad, and scared, and see how many new words you can add throughout the month, like jealous, embarrassed, anxious, and proud. Encourage students to practice using their new emotion vocabulary when you read or talk about your day.
  • Kid Talk: When you notice your child or a student acting a certain way, ask how they are feeling. Add that feeling to the Feelings Tree and tell them about a time you felt that way. This helps children understand that all feelings are normal and okay. It also helps to validate positive feelings, like pride or affection.

Takeaway: Emotion Underlies Behavior
Sometimes it can feel as if someone else is in control, especially when you experience big, intense feelings — as if the emotion, not you, is in charge of what you say or do. Acknowledging the connection between feelings and behavior can help parents and teachers get to the root of difficult behavior, and can help students to build self-awareness about the link between how they feel and how they act.

  • Strategy: "Stop and Stay Cool" is a strategy kids can use to calm themselves down when they feel strong emotions like anger or anxiety. Stop and Stay Cool has five steps:
    • Notice when you are about to lose control
    • Tell yourself to stop and think
    • Wrap your arms around yourself and give a big hug
    • Practice breathing slowly while counting to five
    • Regain control and return to the learning or social activity
  • Kid Talk: Ask your child: When you have a strong emotion like anger, does it feel like someone else is in control? Talk to your child about who is “in control” and what might be triggering the feelings. Walk your child through the Stop and Stay Cool steps, modeling how to take deep breaths, slow it down, and take time to “cool off” before moving ahead.

Takeaway: It’s Important to Talk About Positive and Negative Emotions
Experiencing negative emotions is a normal part of life, but they can be difficult for children and caregivers to navigate, especially when feelings seem to get in the way of things we need to do. Children need help to learn how to identify and manage difficult emotions in productive ways.

  • Strategy: “I” messages help children (and adults) identify feelings and communicate them appropriately. Encouraging students to use their own words to express what they are feeling can help support the development of an emotions vocabulary while improving communication and your understanding of the situation.
  • Kid Talk: If you notice your child or student feeling angry, disappointed, or embarrassed, help them use an “I” message to describe what they are feeling. For example, “I feel frustrated because everybody else has a partner and I don’t.”

Takeaway: Kids Can Understand How Their Brain Works
Inside Out offers a visual tour of what is happening inside the brain, providing kids with concrete illustrations of how memories are formed, how emotions influence behavior, and other aspects of brain functioning such as train of thought and forgetting. Talking about these inner workings can help kids think about their own brain and empower them to understand how they think, feel, and act.

  • Strategy: The "Stop and Think" strategy encourages students to use self-control to stop and think before they act. Students can identify when a situation requires waiting, reflecting, or choosing an appropriate response instead of an automatic impulse. For example, a teacher might remind students to use their Stop and Think power to raise their hands before shouting out an answer, or to wait patiently instead of cutting in line. At home, a parent might use Stop and Think to remind a child to think about what they are supposed to do before turning on the TV (first do homework, set the table, etc.).
  • Kid Talk: Tell your child or your students that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise and good health. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, and you can build your “brain powers” by practicing specific skills — like stopping to think before you act. In difficult situations, remind children to use these “brain powers” to help them focus, remember, and exercise self-control.

Real-Kid Quotes, and Our Conversations

Kids are capable of processing all of this in rich and meaningful ways, and parents and teachers can help. One of us (Rebecca) took her five-year-old daughter to see Inside Out and then documented her reactions — in quotes below — and the ensuing conversations.

  • “One thing I didn’t really like about that movie: it seemed like Joy was trying to change Sadness into a different person.”  We talked about how it doesn’t feel good to be told that you are supposed to change how you are feeling. That can feel like someone is asking you to be different than who you are. This is especially true when something new or different is happening, like starting school or moving to a new town. Sometimes all you want is someone to listen and accept how you are feeling, even if it is difficult — like Bing-Bong does in the movie.
  • “I have more than five emotions in my brain. I also have a feeling of … art. Like when you really, really, just need to do art right then, and you can’t do anything else like brushing your teeth.”We talked about the feeling of desire — it’s a strong feeling, and even though it is positive like Joy, it can make other things difficult, like switching gears away from a favorite activity when it is time to leave the house for school or go to bed.
  • “Something is missing. It feels like Joy left my brain and something else is in control.” We talked about how it’s OK to feel sad. No one feels happy all the time. It is normal to feel sad, angry, and scared sometimes. We also talked about how sometimes it feels like something else is in control; like even though you want to feel better, someone else is in charge of what’s happening in your brain.

Add Your Experiences!

By locating emotions in the brain, Inside Out encourages children to see emotions — their own, and the emotions of others — as real and legitimate parts of their everyday experience. If you’ve seen the movie, use the characters as tools to help your child or your classroom talk about feelings and the brain.

Please post a comment about your experiences! We’d love to hear your stories and collect them here.

About the authors: Sophie Barnes, Ed.M.’15, and Rebecca Bailey, Ed.M.’11, are members of the research team in the EASEL Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Additional Resources

  • Learn more about Stephanie Jones and the work of the Ecological Approaches to Social-Emotional Learning (EASEL) Laboratory.

Images courtsey Disney Pixar

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