Knowing how our brains work helps us understand children's behaviour

In children aged 0-5 years, adults must turn off the alarm for them. With too much stress and nobody turning off their alarm, the alarm continues to go off all the time.

Early Childhood Australia Conference 2018 keynote speaker Stuart Shanker said early childhood education is the secret to ensuring the prosperity of society, writes Lisa James, IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Organiser.

Dr Shanker, founder of the MEHRIT Centre and the Self-Regulation Institute, said children’s learning follows patterns entrenched in the brain by age eight, with the first year of life important in determining the behaviour pattern the child automatically follows. The scientific evidence demonstrating this comes from the disciplines of neuroscience, biology, psychophysiology and psychology.

We now have the technology to see deep inside the brain into the limbic system and according to Dr Shanker, this is the part of the brain that matters for the first five years and determines how the child responds to learning, social and emotional challenges. Once these responses have been set they can be changed later in life, but it is more difficult. The ideal time to change this trajectory is during the first six years of life, because by age six and a half the child’s brain reaches 95% of adult brain size, and then growth slows down.

The study of self regulation is transforming traditional views of temperament, intelligence, attachment and personality. If a child’s limbic brakes have been set through stress and/or trauma early in life, we cannot know the child’s intellectual potential without releasing those brakes.

Our aim is for all children to develop healthy modes of self regulation because this leads to growth. According to Dr Shanker, behaviour problems are a signal that a child needs help because there is too much stress in that child’s life. Critically, this help is needed before age five.

Self regulation is how effectively a child deals with stressors and recovers. Prolonged or chronic stress prevents the child’s brain from recovering from this energy expenditure.

Some modes of self regulation lead to growth and others do not. Teenagers may self medicate through the use of drugs and alcohol, but this simply masks the problem and does not resolve the underlying issues.

A stressor is anything that requires us to burn energy. A little stressis positive as it arouses the brain (education is the best stress as it drives growth). Children are learning to deal with stress before they are born (environmental toxins/pollution).

Sugar consumption is a stressor. Healthy glucose is used to think, run, etc, but this must be in a narrow range or it leads to toxicity/cellular damage. The hypothalamus monitors blood sugar levels, and if it is too high, the pancreas releases hormones to stabilise the level of glucose in the blood. A child consuming too much sugar (which is all children in Australia and the US according to Dr Shanker) leads to the pancreas working even when the child is asleep, preventing glucose from being available the next day for learning. The child then feels lethargic and/ or has difficulty concentrating and self regulates by drinking sugary soft drinks or energy drinks, starting the process over again.

Self regulation and autism

Autism heightens sensitivity to stressors. Genetically, eye contact was designed to wake up the brain, so the infant would learn, but hypersensitivity in children with autism means this form of stimulation (eye contact) is experienced as painful.

Such children have an aversion to shared gazing in an attempt to remove the painful experience. However, some behaviour strategies restrict opportunities for learning. Gaze aversion is maladaptive as it prevents the learning that normally occurs in infants /young children through shared gazing.Adults should not force a child to look at them, but should instead seek to reduce the child’s stress, so that the child naturally engages with them (this may include decreasing stimulation such as noise and light in the environment).

One in 59 babies are extremely sensitive to stressors. Infants (including in utero) are particularly sensitive to maternal stress from sickness, depression and being overwhelmed. Having a baby can cause stressed mothers to shut down. Premature babies have much higher sensitivity, eg, to noise. This means premature babies burn more energy than full term babies when placed in the same environment. Scientists can measure stress reactivity. Lower stress levels means the amount of energy directed into the infant’s metabolism, growth, etc, is increased.

Babies develop a temperament (easy, difficult or slow to warm up). Temperament was previously believed to be genetic or predetermined butit is now known to be epigenetic (interaction between genetic and environmental influences).

Infants with an avoidant temperament do not want to interact because social interaction is perceived as a stress. By contrast, for infants who develop an easy temperament, social interaction wakes them up and focuses their attention.There is a need to distinguish between misbehaviour and stress behaviour (most behaviours labelled as ‘bad’ are actually stress behaviours in under fives).

According to Dr Shanker, teachers and educators need to do the self regulation five steps (see diagram) themselves. You need to be kind to yourselves because if you are in a state of low energy and high stress how can you help young children?

Limbic and neocortex brain balance

We function best when both brains are working together. Stress causes the two brains to be out of synchronisation. If we use force (threats or punishment) to discipline a child, scientific testing shows that even if the child is outwardly compliant their blood pressure, heart rate and breathing are too high/fast. This leads to problems with learning, inability to get along with peers, etc.

The reptilian brain has only three responses to stressors/threats: fight or flight or freeze. The limbic system has its own mode of perception and if it decides something is a threat it sets in motion the reptilian brain reactions. Breathing and heart rate rise, burning available energy. In mammalian bodies excess energy is stored in fats. If a hormone is released to dig into these reserves,this leaves the person feeling empty or shattered. If this occurs only rarely, we recover.

If a child is in stress, digestion shuts down, thinking stops and the child is in a presocial state. If a child is in fight or flight state the only thing that will be accomplished by threats or demands is to send them into the ‘freeze’ state. Adults sometimes confuse the ‘freeze’ state with compliance because the child stops outwardly resisting. To resolve this situation, the adult needs to look for something that makes a connection with the child because social engagement removes the perceived threat. When the child responds to the connection, this is their way of apologising.

In children aged 0-5 years, adults must turn off the alarm for them. With too much stress and nobody turning off their alarm, the alarm continues to go off all the time.The adult needs to work out what the stressors are that are shutting down the child’s neocortex. The child needs to learn to identify when he/ she is about to go into stress. The adult soothes them and reduces the stress. Children learn what calmness is by experiencing it – and it may be rare in their home.

There is no such thing as a trajectory that cannot be changed but the time taken will be different for each child.

Adults’ stress comes down when they understand that the child is overwhelmed, not deliberately defiant, etc. Parents need child development experts to teach them in order to get their own stress levels down.