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Mommy Neuroscience 101

When I was a young mother, the buzz word was developmentally appropriate.  I had long debates with my parents why expecting my child to sit relatively still during mass wasn’t “developmentally appropriate” and why allowing him to express his feelings of frustration right there in the middle of Target was!  They would shake their head and say, “Well, back in my day” (insert story containing a hill, snow and a potato in their pocket to keep them warm!)  The story always ended with, “And I turned out just fine.”  Luckily, my field of study was early childhood development so I had a lot of professional support and because I really did have loving parents, I had a strong mother’s intuition that told me I was doing the right thing.

As I look back, I am realizing I had the opportunity to raise my children during the most fascinating time when it comes to understanding early childhood and brain development. The past two decades have produced more research on the developing brain with more ways to measure and track brain development than ever before. New mothers now have the next generation of buzz words to figure out. What is attachment and attunement? Why is it important to be developing executive function skills and will my precious newborn baby be school-ready?

“Mommy Neuroscience 101.”

Let’s start with the brain.  At birth, the human brain is not fully formed. It has few neural pathways because those are formed through the baby’s experiences. During the first few years of life, the baby will be creating these neural pathways at a rate of 1000 per second making 1,000 trillion connections, or synapses, by the time they turn 3 years old (Nelson & Bloom, 1997.) These connections are literally the informational highway the child will use for the rest of their lives. If the child is raised in a feeling of safety, connection and exploration, the pathways will be open, direct and a way for the whole brain to access and share information. Unfortunately, during this critical time of development, if a child has exposure to adverse childhood experiences (see acestoohigh.com) those highways can be filled with detours, obstacles and potholes, preventing the smooth exchange of information.

We all know the brain is a highly complex and integrated organ, but for our purposes we are going to use this adapted Tribune brain model which is often used for instructional and educational purposes. Rather than discussing only the anatomy and physiology of the brain, we are going to focus on the regions of the brain and the states and skills you have when you are operating from those regions.

The Survival State- A Survival State is triggered when we feel threatened. This causes the physical reaction called fight, flight or surrender. When this state is activated, when we feel unsafe, we have a very limited skill set, scream, kick, hit, bite, freeze etc.  Can you remember the last time you were triggered into your survival state, maybe you were in a car wreck or another traumatic event? In that moment, if someone asked you what your zip code was, you probably wouldn’t have been able to give it to them, not because you don’t know it, but because that information isn’t readily available to you in your survival state. We need to remember, the sense of threat can be real or imagined and often we will see a child fall into their survival state when told to go to time out or move their clip/ change their color on a behavior chart. We do these things in hope that it will cause them to behave better but more often it triggers the survival state.  Be ready, this might be when your child tries to hit you or sticks out their tongue. You stay calm and know where they are in their brain, those are the skills they have available right then. The only way to soothe the survival state is through the creation of safety.

The Emotional State- The Emotional State is triggered by the world not going our way. Although we can access higher skills when in this state such as language, memory, recalling facts, these skills come out in the form of whining, name-calling, blaming, judging, backtalk and other not-so-helpful ways. Can you remember the last time you were triggered into your emotional state, maybe someone cut you off in traffic? What came out of your mouth? Was it helpful or hurtful? What behaviors are you modeling for your child when you feel upset and the world isn’t going your way? Chances are you will be seeing those strategies being used by your children when they feel disappointed, maybe you told them they couldn’t have a cookie before dinner…basically, you just cut them off in traffic! Be ready, you just might be called a “stupid, poopie-head!” The only way to soothe an upset emotional state is through connection.

The Executive State- The Executive state is the optimal state for problem solving and learning. In this state you can access (as the parent) or develop (in your children) those “executive functioning skills” we mentioned earlier: attention, time management, organization, prioritization, working memory, impulse control, flexibility, empathy, metacognition, goal achievement, task initiation and emotional control. Can remember the last time when your child was ready to have a meltdown and you said just the right thing at just the right moment that helped them hold it together? You were in your Executive State! Equally important, you laid a neurological pathway in your child’s brain from fear to safety, from disconnect to connection, and from frustration to problem solving.

So you can see if a child feels safe (their survival needs are met), is connected to loving, caring adults (their emotional needs are met), then their brain will be wide open to learning experiences that will help develop these executive function skills.

This is a brain that is “school ready.”


Cristy Roberts is a Conscious Discipline® Certified Instructor. More information on Conscious Discipline® can be found by visiting their website at www.consciousdiscipline.com

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