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Understanding your child's behaviour by reading the state of the brain-body connection

This month, Wonderfully Wired dives deeply (and satisfyingly!) into the work of Dr Mona Delahooke. You can find a brief introduction to her work in this blog. If you haven’t done so yet, listen to my interview with Dr Mona on Episode 8 of the Wonderfully Wired Podcast: consider it a free training on what Dr Mona teaches.

You are welcome.

I’m convinced this work will help you, as it is helping me, shift from managing behaviour of a wonderfully wired child to using behaviour as an indicator of the state of the child: whether she is in place to make good decisions, learn and think clearly.

What parents, and savvy teachers do, is create a unique instructional guides in understanding each particular child’s behaviour from their body-up. We look at behaviours not only as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but as an indicator of the internal world of the child, both in body and brain.

Only then can we switch from putting out fires and eliminating bad behaviours to nurturing self-regulation, executive function and maturity.

Today’s blog is a summary of how we ‘read’ that state of a child’s brain- body connection. It’s our first step to understanding our kids for more effective parenting and teaching.

I can hear the busy, pressured teacher moan and wonder how on earth he can read each student this way. Delahooke explains that an effective response depends on an ability to read the state of a child’s brain- body connection. Think of it not as more work but more fruitful work and a way to get rid of lots of ineffective behaviour management.

The state of that brain-body connection - THE PLATFORM

Quick brain science bit to remember:

How a child feels can range in valence (that’s from unpleasant to pleasant) as well as in arousal (from calm to agitated). The words don’t matter - what matters is that we remember that it’s possible to be pleasantly agitated or unpleasantly calm. Your child’s platform is not only ‘happy’and ‘good’ or ‘unhappy’ and ‘bad’.

The colour code to the Platform

The Green Pathway - Engage and Connect

In the green pathway the child feels calm and safe. She is open to connection and communication and ready to cooperate. It’s in the green pathway that children learn best, are able to take on a challenge and control emotions. Green is co-operative, engaged and focused.

Signs in a child’s body of being in the green:

  • she’s alert and paying attention

  • she seems relaxed in her posture, shoulders and hands

  • there is variety in her tone of voice

  • her movement is neither too fast nor sluggish

  • there might be giggles or smiles

Teachers need to be able to read and take advantage of this balanced, stable platform where the child perceives safety and is able to learn.

But no one can stay in the green all the time.

The Red pathway - Fight and Fly

When a child perceives that the challenge or threat is too great, (remember this is not an objective detection of danger - each child is different), the child moves into the Red pathway).

Reactions can be:

  • angry

  • aggressive or hostile

  • reactive

  • hyperactive

  • argumentative and defiant

  • out of control

  • throwing a tantrum

When a child is in the red platform they

  • need to run or escape

  • move quickly and erratically

  • hit, throw, kick, spit or throw things

  • have high heart rates

  • have eyes wide open and darting, or alternatively, tightly shut

  • have high pitched or gruff tones

  • laugh uncontrollably or in a high pitch

  • tense their muscles and jaw

  • force a smile

  • have intense narrow focus or a roving, scattered focus

Research shows that when a child is in the red, it’s difficult for her to distinguish the sound of human voices and correctly read facial cues. If you feel a child isn’t listening or reading you accurately it’s because she is not and cannot.

The red pathway is instinctive and vulnerable, not wilfully bad or manipulative.

The blue-pathway is similarly vulnerable but can be misinterpreted as self- sufficient and calm.

The Blue Pathway - Disconnect and Withdraw

You might describe a child in the blue pathway as:

  • slow

  • sad

  • blank

  • distant

  • disengaged

  • flat

  • frozen

  • absent

  • disinterested

  • hopeless

  • depressed

The body in the blue can be seen

  • slouching

  • being slow or drowsy

  • wandering aimlessly

  • checking out

  • not playing

  • showing no curiosity or willingness to explore

  • speaking in a flat tone

  • having glazed-over eyes

  • with expressionless faces

In a busy classroom the child in the blue may not receive the care and connection she needs as she isn’t ‘causing trouble’ but she is just as vulnerable. A savvy teacher and a compassionate parent reads this vulnerable state and knows it signifies a child in stress.

Finally a child can have a platform with a mixture of colours red and blue

Such a child might appear:

  • hyper vigilant or compliant

  • anxious

  • or overly calm

Under the surface he is struggling and needs co-regulation and compassion.

Create a Table

Become a student of your particular wonderfully wired child to record when his platform is blue or red.

Your tailored response to your child, and your ability to help your self- aware teenager depends on an accurate understanding of frequency and intensity of time in vulnerable platforms.

Your chart can record intensity by noting the level of stimulation (1-5 indicating a child in the Green and 4-5 in the Red).

Use the same scale to record your own platform at the time - Don’t judge yourself, just grow your awareness..

Then record the length of time spent in different colours including the duration and date for a week or two.

Next week we will talk about your response when your child’s platform is vulnerable and how Delahooke believes co-regulation is the key ingredient to helping a vulnerable platform become safe and stable.

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