Viewing Children's Behaviour through the Lens of Neuroscience
Children’s brains are still developing, which is why they often find it difficult to manage their ‘big feelings’. It’s, therefore, normal for them to behave in ways that challenge us.
Often, Educators see challenging behaviour as a ‘choice’. But, when we view children’s behaviours through the lens of neuroscience, we can respond appropriately.
Whilst neuroscience can seem complex and overwhelming, having a basic understanding of the various structures and functions within the brain can equip Educators with the knowledge and skills to better understand children’s behaviours and support them during the most challenging times.
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and its functions. It’s a multidisciplinary science that combines anatomy, biology, chemistry and physics to help us better understand the biological basis of learning, memory and behaviour. We certainly don’t all need to become neuroscientists to work with children, but having a basic understanding can be helpful!
The Three Part Brain
Neuroscientist, Paul McLean, developed the concept of the ‘triune brain’ to conceptualise brain development and function. The triune brain is an evolutionary theory of brain development that emphasises three key brain regions, including the brain stem, limbic system and the cortex.
The first part of the brain to develop is the brain stem which is responsible for basic life functions, such as breathing, sucking, swallowing and regulating our body temperature. The limbic system is known as the ‘emotional centre’ as it’s involved in emotional responses, memory and attachment. The cortex is known as the ‘thinking brain’ and is involved in cognition and executive functions (such as planning, reasoning and judgement).
Whilst triune brain theory emphasises that these regions function relatively independently in coping with stress, more recent neuroscience research demonstrates interdependent brain networks whereby emotion and cognition work together.
The Stress Response
The ‘stress response’ is the emergency reaction system of the body and exists to keep us safe. It’s a physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived danger that prepares the body to handle the challenges presented by an internal or external environmental stressor.
When all of these parts of our brain are connected and working together, we can remain calm and connected with others but, when the lower parts of the brain feel overwhelmed, they take over and we can ‘flip our lid’ (Siegel, 2012).
The ‘hand model of the brain’ shows that, when this happens, the cortex is no longer touching the limbic system, so it can’t help us remain regulated. Essentially, we lose the ability to think clearly and control our emotions (which means we cannot reason or learn). In situations such as this, children can display behaviour that we view as ‘challenging’.
‘Felt safety’ is a subjective experience of safety, which means that it’s different for everyone.
It’s important to remember that safety isn’t the absence of danger. It’s also important to remember that being safe does not equal feeling safe. As Educators, we might think we’ve created a ‘safe’ space but children still don’t experience felt safety. Why?
We use something called ‘neuroception’ to determine safety; it’s determined by the subcortical regions of the brain (the lower parts of our brain which sit below conscious awareness). This essentially means the cortex (or ‘thinking brain’) doesn’t have much of a say in telling us whether we’re experiencing felt safety or not (so reasoning doesn’t work).
We know that children who have experienced trauma are wired for survival, so this is particularly important in our work.
Words: Kerra-Lee Wescombe
Kerra-Lee is the Director at Connect.Ed
Perry, B. D., & Dobson, C. L. (2013). The neurosequential model of therapeutics. In J. D. Ford & C. A. Courtois (Eds.), Treating complex traumatic stress disorders in children and adolescents: Scientific foundations and therapeutic models (pp. 249–260). The Guilford Press.
Steffen PR, Hedges D and Matheson R (2022) The Brain Is Adaptive Not Triune: How the Brain Responds to Threat, Challenge, and Change. Front. Psychiatry 13:802606. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2022.802606
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Summer 2023