- •Brains develop and change sequentially. The lower part, which concerns the body, the danger response, and emotional reactions, develops before the higher part which involves words and analytical thinking.
- Brains develop and change in a use-dependent way. If you use a part more, it gets stronger. If you dn’t use it, it withers away.
- What fires together wires together. Things that repeatedly happen together get associated in the brain, and the next time one happens it brings up the other.
- In early years of brain formation, patterns are set in to the brain which determine our assumptions and expectations of life. If a child is hurt by people in the early years, they expect people to hurt them from then on.
- If you want to change a part of the brain, you have to use it. So, if you are talking, you are not changing the lower part of the brain. You are only affecting the thinking part.
- Many repeptitions are needed to change a previously learned association or pattern.
So what is the radical significance of all this for our work?Our children in residential have almost all been wounded early in life, during the formation of the lower, bodily, emotional and danger response parts of their brains. And, the early patterns that they have established are that people hurt you and leave you. This is what we need to change, before we can work with the thinking, verbal part of the brain. We want to change their expectations of other humans. We want to pair human contact with positive emotions and good results, to undo that old pairing of human contact and pain.
In order to reach the lower part of the brain to change it, we have to engage it. And how do we do that? We involved the child in physical activities with movement and rhythm. These could include music, dance, drumming, rocking, swings, planting a garden, massage, shoveling snow. And, we pair these activities with positive interactions with other people. We make sure they are fun and engaging and done in connection with adults.
Do you see the implications of this? We have always maintained in our training that the daily life in the milieu and the relationships with the mental health workers are powerful forces for change. Now we can see even more clearly that having fun with the kids in physically engaged, active ways, is the very thing we have to do in order to change their brains. And now we can do this more planfully and with targeted goals.
Another implication is this. As we know, our kids are acutely perceptive about other people’s moods and emotions. This also reflects their earliest brain development. They had to develop this perceptivity to stay alive and anticipate the next dangerous event. So they will know if the adult is actually engaged with them, actually having fun and feeling positive and affectionate. If the adult is distant, sarcastic, punishing or distracted and texting on their phone this will not change the brain. In fact, this will confirm and further strengthen the patterns already established. So, in order to be successful in our change process, we need to take good care of our staff, so that they feel energetic, hopeful and available.
Isn’t this amazing? It turns out that having a lot of playful, energetic, engaged fun with the kids is the best thing we could possibly do! Get out that Wii and play Dance, Dance Revolution, and make sure the staff dance too, and laugh a lot…. Do it again and again. And you will be changing brains.