Backwards Thinking and Behavior

This morning I watched a TEDxYouth talk with Jill Bolte Taylor about what is happening in a teenage brain neurologically. She mentions how during adolescence about half of the neuronal synapses are pruned away . I’m pretty sure any parent of a teenager has experienced their kids behaving as if they’ve lost their minds. Which they have, literally!

While that was really fun and interesting to listen to, what I also enjoyed was her explanation of how our bodies and senses affect our responses to the world. As she puts it, “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures who feel, biologically we really are feeling creatures who think. We are FEELING creatures who THINK”. As she goes on to explain, our responses to the world around us are organized first around feeling, and foremost is the feeling of safety. As we move through the day and our bodies organize everything into a sense of familiarity, of knowing what’s going on, we feel safe. This sense of safety provides a foundation from which positive interactions can occur.

This is hugely important to remember when observing children with developmental and learning delays. Simply put, most children (and adults) I work with are stressed. They’re in a physiological state of high alert. It’s observable through their breathing, their lack of attention or memory, their distress over transitions and many other things. They also, 99% of the time, are dealing with a problem with their sensory processing. As Dr Bolte Taylor points out, the two are indelibly linked.  Now just imagine for a moment, how you would feel if you experienced touch or sounds as painful. Imagine if you couldn’t read facial cues or understand the emotional intent behind someone’s tone of voice. What if your balance system was faulty and you never felt stable? Would you still feel safe? Now go further and ask yourself, how would that affect your behavior? Would you behave appropriately, all the time?

I know I wouldn’t. I get cranky just because of how much sleep I’ve gotten the night before and how much coffee’s available in the morning (with three sons, a very loud cat and a new puppy, sleeping through the night is a luxury). That’s with a properly functioning sensory system. Luckily, I can access higher cortical control of my emotional responses. That means I can rationalize the reason my husband never gets up to let the cat out at night is not because he’s evil. It’s because he sleeps really heavily. This helps me calm myself down. I can plan ahead for a time when I might take a nap, which helps me cope with my frustration.  I can also switch focus to a new thought rather than replaying same negative one over and over, which would increase my frustration. So when my husband comes into the kitchen I can greet him kindly instead of biting his head off.

Throughout this scenario, what came first were feelings. These feelings arose from my bodies state. Then came thought. My first thoughts interpreted how and why I felt the way I did. Second came rationalization and coping.

Believing that thinking comes before feeling is backwards. That’s a problem when adults are dealing with negative behaviors in children because they often become (understandably) distracted dealing with a behavior and miss important clues regarding the underlying issues causing the behavior in the first place. This is why working with the body to improve sensory processing makes such a big difference in behavior. Can cognitive interventions (like a behavior chart or a rewards system) help? Yes, for some people the structure (safety) they provide is beneficial in remediating some behaviors. But only using cognitive interventions and not working to improve the way the body, brain and senses function is not addressing the fundamental problem underlying behavior.

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