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Part 2: Adult Brain Vs. Child Brain-- Understanding How They Work

Heidi Whittaker is a Parent Consultant for Utah Parent Center. This is an excerpt from her blogpost, published 3/19/13, shared with her permission.

(Comments in bold print and italicized are enhanced/updated contributions by Jo Mascorro, M.Ed. 2023)

A Note From Heidi Whittaker, Utah Parent Center Consultant:


When I first started typing the notes from this two day conference, I had 14 pages worth and still hadn’t typed up half of the notes Jafra and I both had taken. I decided that it didn’t make sense to type up every single word we had written, but only the most important and poignant information so people would get something out of it without having to read a thesis. So, I started over and hopefully edited only the most important and useful information.


I put topics in categories so you could browse through and look at the titles you’re most interested in OR if you’re reading it straight through, you’ll find the information builds on each other.


Just as a clarification, this workshop WAS geared to parents who have children with disabilities, but wait! You will find that this information absolutely and completely applies to all children, “typical” or no. I found the information to be some of the best I have learned from parenting classes I’ve attended through the years.


I really hope that you get some good strategies to help you in your parenting route! Here goes!


4 Part Blog Series

Part 2: Adult Brain Vs. Child Brain: Understanding how they work


Myelination: White matter adheres to the axon and assists in the transformation of information from one neuron to the next. All over the head MAINLY goes from the back to the front of the brain. As information travels from the back to the front of the brain, it passes the amygdala. (Amygdala means almonds in Greek). **(Myelination is the process by which white matter adheres to the axon and assist in the transmission of information from one neuron to the next. This occurs throughout the entire brain as it matures, with simultaneous patterns occurring from the back of the brain (occipital lobe) to the front of the brain (frontal lobe).)**


Amygdala: is the warning part of the brain that controls the fight or flight. It stores memory of joy and trauma. It’s the emotion center of the brain. Children function/respond and reason/operate through the amygdala. Adults focus in the frontal lobe parts of the brain. This can really help us understand that our children DON’T and CAN’T and SHOULDN’T be expected to function in the “reasoning” part of the brain! So don’t be too hard on your child if they are not “thinking” about the future when they are behaving badly.


**(The Amygdala, our emotion center, is an almond shaped mass located in each of the cerebral hemispheres. When the chemistry is activated during an emotional experience (happy, sad, anger, frustration, etc.) a typical adult brain can better regulate its response because it also happens to have a completed frontal lobe which is the keeper of executive function capabilities. If the adult brain is engaging with a child brain, especially one that is ten years old or younger, beware! When having an emotional moment, the child brain is typically thinking and reasoning almost solely through the amygdala (referenced from here on as “Screaming Almonds”) and as a result, can be quite intense! This is because their frontal lobes are still on a journey of maturation and not quite complete (which is important since it houses a memory component that has the capability to process and understand long-term consequences!).


THINK about it … if a child brain has a meltdown, the “screaming almonds” emit chemistry which basically can slow/shut down any developing executive functioning skills resulting in an intense behavior demonstration. The challenge is the adult brain ALSO has “screaming almonds” which is why adult brains tend to REACT. So, who is ultimately responsible for knowing what to do to de-escalate this unfortunate experience? Here is why ADULT BRAINS need to step up to the plate. The child brain has a meltdown (angry, mad, frustrated), resulting in a chemical release from the “screaming almonds” with no significant contribution from the frontal lobe (executive functioning) because it’s not fully developed.


Unfortunately, the adult brain also now has “screaming almonds” which are also releasing chemistry because their brain is also now angry, mad, frustrated, etc. HOWEVER, the typical adult brain DOES have a completed frontal lobe with fully functioning executive skills capabilities. During the meltdown, the child brain is clearly WITHOUT executive functioning capabilities and the adult brain is clearly WITH executive functioning capabilities … guess which brain is charged with the skills of knowing what to do to help make the meltdown end?


Yep! ADULT BRAIN WINS! … Ouch!)**


Frontal Lobe: is the “filter” lobe. It also holds memory, but it is the long-term consequential response. It begins to mature around the age of 10 and continues until around the age of 18-20 (even 25-30). Adults function from the Frontal Lobe part of the brain. **(The executive functioning of the human brain (i.e. plan for the future, self-regulation, follow multiple directions, etc.) takes place primarily in the frontal lobe. Important to know since we’re not born with this specific skills-set. As a matter of fact, it’s not till around the age of 10 - 11 that this developmental milestone really starts to kick in and mature.


Science shows us that this process can potentially continue well into the middle 20’s and up to the age of 30! It’s NOT an excuse for poor self-regulation, but has EVERYTHING to do with how adults respond when presented with challenging behavior demonstrations, ESPECIALLY by young children and maturing adolescents.)**


So, here’s a recap:


Myelination – info works from the back to the front of the brain **(all over and simultaneous to …)**

Amygdala – screaming almonds – if they’re screaming it’s using the amygdala **(events trigger the chemical release from the “screaming almonds” resulting in an emotional conversation/demonstration by ALL brains involved in the event.)**


Frontal Lobe – parents have the advantage here. Kids ten and younger are learning from ritual and routine and repetition – it becomes crucial because of the way the kids brain learn **(young brains learn best and recall information primarily through ritual, routine, movement, music and MODELING acceptable behavior responses.)**


“Behavior” is bigger than “noncompliance.” **(ALL behavior IS communication and therefore can mean much more than non-compliance. See behavior as a void in a skills set of not knowing what TO DO, therefore, needing to be TAUGHT the replacement behavior of what TO DO rather than only being punished for being non-compliant.)**


So remember: Adults ponder from their frontal lobe. Children often respond from the amygdala until age 25-30. **(Adult brains ALSO have “screaming almonds” but are at a clear advantage with a completed frontal lobe, and therefore, having the executive functioning skills set to know better! Most young children function emotionally through the “screaming almonds” and the ability to master the use of the executive functioning part of the brain (frontal lobe) goes through many developmental stages of maturation (possibly into mid to late 20’s, and potentially till around 30.)**


Stress kills the neurons in all brains, adults and kids. **(Stress has a significant biological effect on the human body as well as damaging, rerouting and potentially killing neuron pathways.)**


Distract and disengage turns the amygdala (screaming almonds) off. **(“Screaming almonds” can be assisted to de-escalate in the EARLY stages of emotional, behavioral demonstrations by distracting the challenging behavior through calculated maneuvers (i.e. changing the subject, validating the emotions, engaging in an activity to release frustrations/anger, etc.) … HOWEVER, it’s ALL in the timing of delivery)**


Kids with disabilities have a weak filter so they do things to your face that normal people won’t. Children with ADHD have immature white matter of the frontal lobe!!!!! **(Brains that are atypical vs. typical may struggle to filter their emotional/behavioral challenges because of things like (but not limited to) the specifics of the disability, developmental delays, neuron damage, lack of opportunity to acquire replacement behaviors, environmental influences, etc. (i.e. children with ADHD may have delays in the myelination process and children with autism may have fractured and/or nonexistent mirror neurons.*)*


So knowing how YOUR adult brain is different than your child’s brain can help you with many many things in parenting. For instance, now that you understand your child’s brain capabilities, you will want to use techniques that will work with that amygdala, like “validating” in the heat of the moment, and “distract and disengage” This can help turn the amygdala (screaming almonds) off. **(Actually may slow down the chemical release from the “screaming almonds” and/or prevent it from getting worse.*)*


BRAINS WANT TO HEAR, SEE AND DO (AT THE SAME TIME!)


The brain wants to do three things: HEAR, SEE, AND DO. (At the same time!)

HEAR – if you tell them only, it’s gone

SEE – if you tell and show them it might stick (understanding and comprehension)

DO- if you tell them, show them and have them do it, you get the recall


So, when you tell a child something you have better results by putting an action with your words with an action from them. For instance, if you put your hands up in the air while you said, “HANDS UP!” and taught your child this means to be quiet and put his hand up in the air, you would be accomplishing all three things at once: HEAR, SEE, and DO!

ARE YOU A “FIX AND CORRECT” PARENT OR A “TEACHING” ONE?


Are you wanting to FIX and CORRECT or TEACH? There IS a difference. Fixing and correcting shows our children that they don’t need to “do” things for themselves. Teaching gives them a skill they can learn to do on their own.


(Comments in bold print and italicized are enhanced/updated contributions by Jo Mascorro, M.Ed. 2023)

Did you like this post? Continue on to the next one in this series, Part 3: A, E, I, O, U—The “Vowel Mnemonic” For Parents Who Want To “Teach."

 

This is the second part of a 4 part blogpost series dedicated to giving parents resources for teaching their neurodiverse children at home. Notes were provided by Utah Parent Center employee, Heidi Whittaker, from a conference where Jo Mascorro, an Education Consultant, presented her ideas. Ms. Mascorro was kind enough to review these notes to make sure all content is up to date.

Jo Mascorro, M.Ed, an Independent Consultant for Education for over 32 years, is best known for her practical approach when teaching alternative methods for responding to individuals who demonstrate extreme behaviors. During her 45 years of experience in the field of Education, Jo has provided training throughout the nation in areas specific to proactive, behavior intervention practices, communication strategies, parenting skills, and programming for individuals who experience from mild/moderate to severe/profound disabilities (birth-adult). To reach Ms. Mascorro, visit her website at jomascorro.com, email her at stresskillsneurons@gmail.com or call/text at 210-912-8584.

Heidi Whittaker serves as a parent consultant with Utah Parent Center in the Nebo School District. While not a homeschooler, she is a parent, and she is uniquely qualified to help parents as she has raised her own neurodiverse children and works daily with parents of children with extra needs. She lives in the South Utah County Area. If you live in that area and are educating a child with special needs, she is happy to help you in that journey. Email her at heidi@utahparentcenter.org or call/text at 801-228-8144. If you do not live in that area, the Utah Parent Center has consultants statewide, organized by local school district boundaries, who are available to assist you.


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