The Neuro-Developmental Approach to Behaviors

by Betty Peralta, 3-5’s Parent Educator

As our society takes in its newest research on the human brain, we are noticing the limitations and frustrations of using behaviorism (punishment and reward) to discipline our children.

This new paradigm says that behaviors are a reflection of the way our children’s brains are functioning. A brain always responds to the environment exactly as it should according to where it is in its regulation and development. Dysregulated brains make for erratic, socially inappropriate behaviors. When children are regulated (feel good), the can listen, learn and be in harmony with those around them. This understanding leaves no one to blame for challenging behavior. In fact, with what we now know about the brain, we can say that blaming a child for their behavior (or anyone for that matter) is biologically disrespectful.

Making this shift is hard. One way I’ve been thinking of it lately is this: instead of seeing behaviors as something that the child is doing to me, I shift to thinking of it as something that is happening—like an earthquake. It’s like the difference between having a building crumble because a criminal detonated a bomb there versus a natural disaster where no one is to blame. If there is an earthquake, would you turn to your 3 year-old and say, “Okay kid, you are responsible for keeping this family safe. Start figuring out how we will survive this, now!” No. You would take full responsibility for guiding your precious child to safety.

With behavior, guiding your child to safety means co-regulating with them rather than expecting them to stop the behavior or even regulate on their own. It is our job as adults to figure out how to help a child’s nervous system feel safe and calm until the child can learn to do this on their own.

Does this mean that we do not hold them accountable? Not necessarily. Perhaps the child can come up with some ideas of how to regulate enough to not be motivated to misbehave. Showing them how make amends helps them respect themselves, and that helps them respect others. Giving them the chance to problem solve helps them feel more competent and confident to handle stress in more effective ways and to connect with others during adversity.

Does it mean that it’s the parent’s fault if the child can’t regulate and misbehaves? Not at all. Like all people, children get over-stressed. It is not the adult’s fault when misbehaviors happen, it is just the adult’s responsibility to see what they can do to help.

In a co-op this week, a 4-year old head-butted me in the back. It really hurt, so I said, “Ow!” She ran away, most likely out of shame. A bit later, I approached her with, “That was a really hard head butt, M! Is your head okay?” She looked at me with surprise and said it was. After that, she came to me to make little connections for the rest of my time there. There was no punishment and no reward, just a co-regulating question to help her feel cared for. From her end, the lesson was most certainly learned; she demonstrated this by making amends to me with her connections.

Here is a poster to help us make the shift to this neuro-developmental approach to child-rearing. May it help you meet your children where they are and teach from there.