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Shifting to a Neurodevelopmental Approach to Behaviors

Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, child development pioneer and the author of my two favorite books related to my profession (pictured below), spoke in Seattle last month to present his research.

He showed that children who were taken out of traumatic homes and placed into nurturing ones showed negligible behavior improvement when the nurturing homes used a behaviorist system of discipline. Regardless of how loving the family was, the use of both punishments and rewards added to the child's toxic stress. Conversely, when the foster and adoptive families regarded behaviors as communication of needs and responded by meeting those needs, the children flourished.

We are finding it more and more challenging to discipline children using this tried and no-longer-so-true method of behaviorism, even for children born into nurturing homes. Our culture has changed to one that demonstrates less respect for adult authority, fostering a sense of resentment in children against top-down approaches to discipline. The culture also demands more of our energy and time with its hectic pace, and that renders behaviorism's requirement to be consistent difficult, if not impossible at times. The neurodevelopmental approach to behavior resolves both of these issues, and while it is not trusted by parents and teachers yet, the research gives it a solid thumbs up.

This new paradigm says that behaviors are a reflection of the way children's brains are functioning. A brain always responds to the environment exactly as it should, according to where it is in its regulation, development, and understanding. Dysregulated brains make for erratic, socially inappropriate behaviors. When children are regulated--that is, when their emotions are calm enough for them to think clearly--they can listen, learn, and be in harmony with those around them.

This understanding leaves no one to blame for challenging behavior. If a child misbehaves, it is not because they are choosing from a range of available options of how to react to a problem. Instead, they are reacting to a problem according to their brain state and its level of maturity in responding to stress. In fact, with what we now know about the human brain, we can say that blaming a child for their behavior (or anyone for that matter) is, in the words of Dr. Perry, “biologically disrespectful.”

Yet the shift away from behaviorism is not easy. A carrot to motivate good behavior and a stick to deter bad behavior is literally common sense. It is supported by mountains of research because it “works” quite well for most children much of the time. I used quotation marks there because we need a better way to define this word, “works.” If it means getting children to stop what bothers us, then it "works" often enough. But if “works” means that it solves children’s problems that lead to misbehavior in the first place and prevents new difficult behaviors from arising because the unmet need has been met, then it really misses the mark.

Behaviors are evidence of underlying issues, so tackling them yields superficial results. If you solve the behavior without responding to the underlying problem, new behaviors in other areas crop up. When overt behaviors don’t help a child meet their needs, inexplicable covert behaviors like lying, stealing, or damaging things in secret crop up. If you do an especially good job of extinguishing externalizing behavior, those other areas remain outwardly subtle but inwardly damaging. You may see nail biting, sleep problems, eating disorders and in severe situations, cutting. The end is then self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors later in life.

A second reason that it is hard to shift away from these old ways is that, well, they are old. We have been punishing and rewarding forever—probably since parenting and teaching began. It is instinctual. An eye for an eye is our body’s natural response when it has been wronged. Even when an object hurts us because we have bumped into it, our nervous system sometimes goes into its fight response and wants to kick it back. We are also wired to repay kindness with kindness. We are not motivated to do nice things for mean people.

Yet mean people are mean because of underlying distress. Kindness (not naivete) are exactly what they need to be able to heal and become kind themselves. The better we are at helping people respond to their stress with skill and resiliency, the kinder, more cooperative people become. Children do not need us to be mean when we want them to change their behaviors, they need us to give them both kindness and high standards for behavior. (More about that in next month's post.) Because this idea runs counter to our genetic disposition, it requires a shift in the way we think about behaviors.

One way I’ve been thinking of it lately is this: instead of seeing behaviors as something that the child is doing to me, I shift to thinking of it as something that is happening—like an earthquake. It’s like the difference between having a building crumble because a criminal detonated a bomb (a very serious stress response) versus a natural disaster where no one is to blame. If there is an earthquake, would you turn to your three, seven, or 11 year-old and say, “Okay kid, you are responsible for keeping this family/classroom safe. Start figuring out how we will survive this, now!” Instead, you would take full responsibility for guiding the precious child to safety.

With behavior, guiding a child to safety means co-regulating with them rather than expecting them to stop the behavior or even regulate on their own. Self-regulation happens as a result of repeated and consistent co-regulation. It is our job as adults to figure out how to help a child’s nervous system feel safe and calm until the child can learn to do this on their own.

Does this mean that we do not hold them accountable for misbehavior? Not necessarily. Perhaps the child can come up with some ideas of how to regulate so they can be physically and emotionally safe with others. Showing them how to make amends helps them respect themselves, and that helps them respect others. Giving them the chance to problem-solve helps them feel more competent and confident to handle stress in more effective ways and to connect with others during adversity.

Does it mean that it’s the parent or teacher's fault if the child can’t regulate and misbehaves? Not at all. Like all people, children get over-stressed. It is not the adult’s fault when misbehaviors happen, it is just the adult’s responsibility to see what they can do to help.

In a preschool last month, a 4-year old head-butted me in the back. It really hurt, so I said, “Ow!” She ran away, most likely out of shame. A bit later, I approached her with, “That was a really hard head butt, M! Is your head okay?” She looked at me with surprise and said it was. After that, she came to me to make little connections for the rest of my time there: asking me to tie her shoes, coming up to me with a smile, etc. There was no punishment and no reward, just a co-regulating question to help her feel cared for. From her end, the lesson was learned; she demonstrated this by making amends to me with her connections.

Here is a poster to help us make the shift to this neuro-developmental approach to child-rearing and teaching. May it help you meet the children in your lives where they are and teach from there. For more support in making the shift, sign up for a Free Consultation or attend an Alta class.

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