The 3 Rs of Improving Brain States

In my recent posts, I have been reviewing some of the neurological research on the impact of brain states. I have referenced the work of Bruce Perry and the Child Trauma Academy as my resource. Specifically, we have been discussing some of the changes that occur in the brain when children are in a variety of brain states.

Brain states affect a child’s ability to listen, learn, and understand

Children's mental health
A child’s brain state directly impacts her ability to listen, learn and respond.

You may recall, the lower in the brain the child is operating, the less time perceptive, less cognitive, more reflexive and more emotional a child will be. In other words, the brain state of a child has significant impact to his ability to listen, learn, comprehend and cope with his life circumstances.

So, it follows, since we know this information from a neurological perspective, it is important to think about what approach we will take with our children at home, in school and in our communities when they are unable to respond appropriately because of a dysregulated brain state.

No matter the reason why a dysregulated brain state can occur, we should not be disciplining a child’s behavior or labeling it something that it is not. 

To explain, we train teachers to be trauma-informed, which helps the teachers we train to realize students currently labeled with ADHD or ADD were actually in the lower part of the brain due to a traumatic set of events. Because of these “labels” the children had been drugged, which of course, was not the appropriate treatment.

We know the brain developed originally from the bottom to the top. 

In other words, the brainstem developed first and then the rest of the brain developed sequentially, up to the neocortex.  It should then make sense that in order to deal with a child who is dysregulated, we should be working from the bottom to the top of the brain in how we engage the child.

Dr. Perry uses three R’s for this process. It begins with techniques for regulation, then it moves to relationship, and then it goes to reason. Regulate, relate and reason is the best way to help a child to come to a place of calm and clarity.

Even though this makes neurological sense, sadly, it is not the approach we use when we are dealing with a child who is acting out or is emotionally unstable.  

We typically try to gain control by commanding, yelling, punishing or serving up other cognitive means of dealing with difficult behavior. For many caregivers, gaining control of the situation with an out of control child can become almost competition (commonly called “a battle of the wills”).  Although it feels like this approach will help the child surrender, from a brain state point of view, it will fuel more fear and put the child in a lower (or terror) brain state. Hence, the child will typically become more reflexive, which means their emotion and/or behavior will intensify instead of calm.

Rather than escalate a situation, it is important that caregivers use techniques to regulate the child in a way which will open up the opportunity to build relationship. A relational approach helps the child become capable to reason with you, to calm, and be in a clearer place to reason and comprehend. If the child can be clear and calm, then he will be capable to make a better decision and become much more capable of better self-control.

Therefore, it will be important for all caregivers who really want to take a brain-based approach to helping children to know something about the strategies of the 3 Rs, especially when approaching a child with a dysregulated brain. Those strategies are very individual to each child, but usually they can be determined with a little bit of experimentation. I will make some suggestions in my next post for caregivers.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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