My guest this week is Josh MacNeill. In this episode, Josh and I discuss teaching children how to manage stress and the ways in which stress affects brain development in children. There is a stronger need now, more than ever, for adults to understand how stress impacts a child’s brain. Stress affects a child’s ability to function in all areas of their life—developmentally, academically, socially, and behaviorally. So we are going to first discuss stress tolerance, how stress can vary, the capacity for stress, what stress looks like through the lens of a child, and then wrap up by exploring ways in which we can help children become more resilient when encountering stress both in school and at home.
Josh MacNeill began his career as a high school English teacher in an alternative school just outside of Philadelphia. While he was teaching, his organization began to take steps towards becoming a more trauma-informed school and Josh was an early adopter. He saw a lot of success utilizing brain-based and trauma-informed strategies in his own classroom, and quickly found himself with opportunities to train other teachers on the approaches he was using. In 2015, Josh shifted out of the classroom and became the director of Neurologic by Lakeside, a program focused on transforming schools to become more trauma-informed and neurodevelopmentally supportive environments for all learners. (Love that.) Since then, Josh and his team have had the privilege of working with tens of thousands of individuals across the world. Additionally, Josh is an adjunct professor in Eastern University’s MD program and published the book 101 Brain Breaks and Brain-Based Educational Activities. Josh, thanks so much for being here. It’s great to have you with us today.
What is Stress & How it Impacts the Brain … 00:07:10
“Stress” is in the Eye of the Beholder … 00:12:25
What is the Root of the Stressors? … 00:17:38
Building Stress Tolerance & Tips … 00:18:30
Finding Individual Stress Sweet-Spots … 27:22
Empathy for Variance in Stress Capacity … 00:31:00
Adults Being Transparent & Vulnerable … 00:36:40
Neuroplasticity: Ability for the Brain to Change … 00:40:18
Recognizing Individual Approaches to Stress … 00:44:58
Professional and Parental Stress Resources … 51:05
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and in today’s episode, we are talking about stress and the impact it has on kids’ brains. There are obvious sources of stress, but there are some not-so-obvious stressors as well that we need to be aware of, and they really do take a toll on kids ability to function academically, socially, behaviorally, really in all areas of their life. So we are going to explore some ways that we can help kids become more tolerant of stress, both in school and at home, and this is key, especially for kids who really struggle to manage any degree of stress or even the idea that there might be stress — those of you who have kids or are working with kids maybe with neurodevelopmental challenges, mental health issues, a history of trauma — these are really important strategies. And this is all part of what it means to be trauma-informed in our approaches to parenting and to working with kids. So I’m so pleased to have Josh MacNeill on the show today to share his expertise on this topic. Let me tell you a little bit about him.
Josh began his career as a high school English teacher in an alternative school just outside of Philadelphia. While he was teaching, his organization began to take steps towards becoming a more trauma-informed school and Josh was an early adopter. He saw a lot of success utilizing brain-based and trauma-informed strategies in his own classroom, and quickly found himself with opportunities to train other teachers on the approaches he was using. In 2015, Josh shifted out of the classroom and became the director of Neurologic by Lakeside, a program focused on transforming schools to become more trauma-informed and neurodevelopmentally supportive environments for all learners. (Love that.) Since then, Josh and his team have had the privilege of working with tens of thousands of individuals across the world. Additionally, Josh is an adjunct professor in Eastern University’s MD program, and published the book 101 Brain Breaks and Brain-Based Educational Activities. Josh, thanks so much for being here. It’s great to have you with us today.
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to our time together.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
And I love the story in your bio about your start in education. I also started my career in education with kids that most people didn’t want to work with. And so we definitely share that in common, and I would love to actually start by having you tell us a little bit more about how you became passionate about brain and trauma-informed learning. Was there a particular student? Was there a situation? Is there sort of a story that really got you thinking down this path?
Yeah, well. So first off, I just always say I had a heart for teens ever since I was a teen. I just remember always recognizing the difficulties that some kids can have going through school, and knowing that it always felt like there wasn’t enough support there. So I always knew that I wanted to work with young people, and slowly, my journey led me into becoming a teacher. And I remember probably having watched the movie Freedom Writers one too many times, going into being a high school English teacher at an alternative school, imagining how immediately just by loving on these kids that it was going to just change everything.
And I remember literally my first day of teaching, I had a student crawl out of the window of my classroom and runaway. And I’m thinking, “Don’t you know how much I love you and care for you? What’s happening here? What’s this disconnect?”, and it began to lead me down this path of recognizing that there was just so much more that was going on beneath the scenes, if you will. And so, I was being told by my supervisors, by anybody who’d come in and sit in my classroom by all marks, that I was doing a good job teaching, because my students were doing well academically, and I was kind of doing all the things that I was supposed to do, yet, I also knew that in each of my classes, there were kids that I wasn’t reaching and that I wasn’t helping. And what I had seen so many other teachers begin to say is, “Well, it must be the student’s fault. They don’t want to be here, they don’t want to learn, they don’t really care about this.”
And that just didn’t sit well with me. I just couldn’t accept that as the belief that there was just nothing that could be done. I always felt like when I had those moments that something clicked that I knew that man, every student wants to do well, as Ross Greene would say, but something’s getting in the way. And so I just was really digging into what is that thing? What is it that’s getting in the way? How do I help these kids? And that’s when I was first introduced to what we now call the trauma-informed approach to education, where we began to recognize what a significant role stress is playing and how that really impacts our students’ brains. And I’m so passionate about understanding the brains of my students because what I think is fascinating is you never go to a mechanic that doesn’t understand how an engine works, but we send so many students to teachers that have no idea how the brain works, or we understand how a very small part of it works. And so the more that I’ve understood that, the more it’s really set us up to be able to support first the students in my classroom, and then how that’s really just grown organically to us being able to work with folks all over, in their classrooms and in other capacities as well.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Oh, I love that. And it has never been more needed because stress is probably the biggest issue that kids of all ages, I mean, people of all ages, but particularly thinking about school-aged kids, whether it’s the little ones or the older ones, I mean, stress is a huge issue right now. And we are seeing that show up in more and more ways. And I think for the kids who already struggled with an added burden of lots of stressors, whether that’s because of brain-based differences, or a history of trauma, or socioeconomic differences, racial disparities, whatever — that’s just been magnified for them over the course of this whole pandemic situation, too. So I think there has never been a better time for us to be talking about how these stressors impact the brains of kids, and probably, just as importantly, what can we do to help? So I think this is just excellent timing. To dive into this. I think let’s sort of lay a foundation here by talking about how we define stress. What are we really talking about? Because I think we have an adult lens that we look through in how we think about stress or the way we use the word “stress”. But let’s talk about what stress really is and how it impacts the brain.
So anytime I’m trying to find a definition, I like to find the most open definition possible because I hate to ever put something into a box. And so my favorite definition of stress is that it is simply anything that can put a physical, emotional, or psychological strain on somebody. And so that is obviously a very wide-open thing, but what I think is important is that what I might find to be stressful obviously could be very different from what you find to be stressful. And so there is no such thing as universal stressors that are out there. There are things that might stress a lot of people out, but it’s always going to be different in the experience of that individual person.
But what I think is fascinating that’s important to understand, is that when somebody is beginning to experience that strain, when they are going through something that is causing that strain, our brains begin to get stressed from the top down. And so you can go back to — a lot of people understand the whole fight flight or freeze response, where literally, our brains begin to shut down the higher regions of the brain to move us down into that survival part of the brain where we are ready to fight or we are ready to run away, where literally our heart rate is elevated, so that we have more blood going to our extremities, so that we have more energy in our hands and feet, or our pulse is going down, and we are going to be more prepared to survive something. But what I think is important that a lot of people miss out on is that’s a continuum. And so somebody doesn’t just automatically go from “I’m perfectly good right now” to “I am ready to tear somebody’s head off or run away from this situation”, there’s this middle ground that unless somebody was triggered, they are going to be moving through that continuum. And so we have done a lot of training through Bruce Perry in the Child Trauma Academy, and they really talk about and break the brain into four basic regions: The brainstem, the midbrain — or the diencephalon, the limbic system, and the cortex.
And what I think is so imperative that we understand is that when somebody is in their cortex, that’s when they are just able to do exactly what we would expect them to do, and they can handle really moderate amounts of stress. I mean, something as simple as a child sitting at the table, they get up and runaway, and you are like, “Hey, no. I need you to clear your plate before you come back.” That is small, but that little authoritative redirection is technically a small dose of stress. And if somebody in their cortex, they can handle that little stress. They say “My bad”, they grab that, they move it back, because they have a lot of ability to put time and thought between a feeling and a reaction. But what will happen is, let’s say they had kind of a tough conversation at the dinner table talking about the grades, they are a little lower than the parents expect., so that student is not ready to run away, not ready to blow up. But they are now moving in their limbic part of the brain. That part of the brain is going to be far more ready to kind of ask the question, “Am I safe right now or not? Am I physically safe? Am I emotionally safe? And so what we are finding is that a child may kind of seem completely normal.
The parents are not thinking, “Oh, this child is under stress right now.” But instead, that limbic part of the brain is in charge instead of that cortical part of the brain. And so you have the exact same moment, you say the exact same thing, “Can you please clear your plate?” and suddenly the child’s looking and saying “Why do you hate me right now?” or “Why are you yelling at me? Why are you coming down on me?” And so there’s this disconnect, where it looked like the child was in the same spot that you expect them to be in, and they are not blowing up, but they are kind of responding a little bit differently, it’s because a different part of the brain is now in charge. And we see that so much occurring in schools as well.
What I think is important to understand, especially since this pandemic, we are finding so many kids are starting the day in that limbic part of the brain, they are not coming in at the cortex where they are able to tolerate all the stress that comes their way. They are coming in already at a different baseline of stress, and they are responding differently than we expect. And unfortunately, when somebody has a kind of emotional or relational response to something, it’s hard for us not to mirror that back. And so as a parent, or as a teacher, we are really likely — if they say, “Why do you hate me?”, we are now taking it much more personal and having a much more aggressive response back, which is then a bigger dose of stress back to them, and then they are moving into that midbrain, which is that much more physiological part of the brain where it’s in charge of your fine and large motor skills, and they are going to be more aggressively grabbing that plate and stomping across the room because they are kind of just operating out of that physical part of the brain.
And then we eventually might get to that complete fight, flight or freeze where maybe they throw the plate or completely storm out. But what I think we are often missing is that whole middle ground there, where we are not really being nearly as receptive to the reality that that response that I just saw is not somebody who is high up in their cortex, able to handle all this stress. That is an indicator to me that that is a child who is experiencing some level of stress right now, and how I respond to them is going to impact whether they can kind of stay in the exact same spot, or they can actually move back up to that cortex, or whether there is now a predictable process or path down to those lower parts of the brain again.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
You so beautifully laid that out, and that is such a foundational thing for all of us to understand when we are interacting with kids. And a few things come to mind around that: The first is the importance of us understanding the contextual nature of stress, and being able to look through the lens of the child or the other person, and not through our own experience in that moment, because so often I’ll have teachers or parents say, “I just don’t get it. That’s not a big deal.” And it’s like stress is in the eye of the beholder. It’s in our experience of it, and the requests that you made, or the task demand or whatever, did not feel stressful to you. You didn’t perceive it as a stressor, but it very much was to the child at that moment. And so I think that the context of that, and being able to perspective take is really important.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And that’s, I think, at times the hardest piece of it, because we look at something — and sometimes stress can be positive things, right? It can be like, “Hey, if we have a great day today, we are going to go out to your favorite restaurant for dinner”, or “Aren’t you excited?” I mean, even during the holidays, they are excited for getting presents, but there is that patience that they have to hold until they get that present, until they go to that place, for them to uphold a behavior before they get that reward.
There’s stress in that. And so we look at it from the adult saying, “I’m trying to give you this amazing thing, and so I’m getting frustrated”, but it’s hard for us to, exactly like you said, kind of flip the lid a little bit and say, oh my goodness. For the child, they are hearing, “I need you to do this, this and this, I need you to wait till then, and that’s what it’s going to take for me.” And so 100% looking at it from their vantage point. And also recognizing that their vantage point is their reality, they are not making something up in their head, they are not choosing to find this thing to be stressed out about. Whether it’s a narrative that they’ve created in their head about how you feel about them, or it is the time that they have to wait to earn something, in their mind, that is a really big deal. And we need to be able to look at it as such, regardless of how we might interpret that exact same situation.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
So true. And I think the other thing this makes me think about is this idea that we each have a threshold for how much we can manage in terms of stressors that we experience, before we start to move down a level and then down another level and another level in our brain, and realizing that some kids, as you said, they are already starting the day, not even at that top level. Their threshold is already diminished because of pervasive chronic stressors that they deal with, whether that’s the child who lives with chronic food insecurity and concerns about homelessness, and maybe in an unsafe neighborhood, those kinds of things, and or, the kid whose threshold is chronically lower because they have serious processing issues in their brain, or anxiety or those kinds of things, and recognizing that that threshold is so individualized too, and therefore at any given moment in time something might set one kid off or send them into that lower brainstem region, and it wouldn’t do it to others, and that is because of where their threshold is based on a whole lot of things that have nothing to do with what’s actually going on in that moment, right?
Absolutely. Well and I’ve heard one of your past guests speak about this as well, but I think of the stress tolerance often like it’s a glass of water, and the stress going into that glass — And what I think, exactly to your point, is that for instance, a really common thing that’s super stressful for a lot of people is public speaking. I do a lot of that, I don’t find it very stressful. So for me, that might be a couple of drops in the glass. For a lot of other people, it is half the glass now all the way filled up. And so that is going to look so different for folks. What we experienced so much in school is that you have a student come in, and it’s the beginning of the day. You assume you are starting with an empty glass, right? You assume you are starting with a child who is ready to just take it all on. And instead, it’s like, “Hey, I need you to put your bag over there.” And suddenly, that was the last drop of stress, because they were right at the top and it’s overflowing.
And we are thinking “Man, it must be about me”, or “It must be something about going to that corner of the room.” And sometimes that’s the case. Sometimes there are triggers like that. But the majority of the time, no. What we are missing out on was the 99 other little things that were adding stress into that before they got to us. And we are so quick to respond to that final stressor, that final thing that pushed somebody over the top, right before that big behavior, that we are losing sight on the fact that the majority of their tolerance was filled up by some other things that we may or may not be able to support them with, but that we want to be mindful of. And instead of penalizing them for that very last piece of it, it’s supporting them so that A: they are less likely to do that again in the future because they are having more support surrounding what’s occurring with them. And then B: We might be able to provide some supports in place that would eliminate some of those potential stressors from occurring in the first place.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Yeah, and this really gets to that issue that I talked about so often, which is digging deeper to get to the root of what’s going on, as opposed to just constantly responding to the surface-level behaviors. Because when we do that, we don’t get very far, and often, things get worse. At best, we get kids to be compliant in the moment, but that’s not really helpful in the big picture. And so I think this is such an important piece of what it means to really get to the root of what’s going on with a kid. So you mentioned the words stress tolerance. Let’s talk a little bit about what we mean by stress tolerance, and then I want to get into how we can start helping kids, or even ourselves, because part of this conversation is around us being aware of and managing our own stress levels and stress tolerance, right? So how can we support increasing that?
Yeah, absolutely. So most simply put, stress tolerance, whether it’s one big one or a lot of little ones, it’s the quantity of stress that somebody is able to kind of manage, and still be able to operate in the manner which you would expect them to operate in whatever situation they are in. So once again, I work a lot with schools, and so we recognize: Stress is inevitable at school. There’s social stress of being around others, the authoritative stress of having a hierarchy of who’s in charge and having a teacher, and then there’s obviously the academic stress. Our brains need stress, we thrive off of stress, we need some amount of that. So there’s an inevitability there. But it’s when there’s a manageable amount of stress that is there, that we are able to do what we are being asked to do, where we are basically — to use your word, where we are able to have some level of compliance, still, that’s usually indicative of somebody who’s operating within their tolerance of stress. They are able to do the things that are expected of them. And then once somebody has kind of surpassed their stress tolerance, that’s when somebody loses that capacity to do that.
And sometimes that is going to be through complete withdrawal, whether they put their head down, whether they run to their bedroom if it’s a child at home, whether it’s now just really big explosive behaviors, because quite frankly, when somebody has kind of lost their tolerance for stress, they’ve lost the sense of control, and they are going to want to take that control back. And once again, sometimes that can be done in a very individualistic way, and sometimes that’s going to look like the child tearing apart a room or a classroom or wherever that might be, because they are really seeking safety in that moment. That’s the core bottom line of it. Unfortunately, it often feels rude and disrespectful and disruptive to whatever it is that we are trying to do, but despite how that looks, they are trying to take back some level of safety. That’s what it looks like when somebody surpasses that stress tolerance.
Once again, that could be something that they find triggering because of past life experiences. It could just be the one really big thing that occurred. I’ve had a lot of students who, because of life experiences that they’ve had, hear a siren just sends them over the top really quickly. And so it could just be boom, like that. That’s like pouring a gallon of water into a 16-ounce class. It’s just overflowing. That’s the one thing that occurred. But often it was the argument that I got into with my parents this morning, there was the friend that gave me the cold shoulder in the hallway, and now the teacher asked for homework that I realized I didn’t do. And suddenly those things are adding up. And it’s that last thing, the homework, that sent me over the top with that. And so what I think is important, as we are thinking about how to improve someone’s tolerance for stress, we really want to think of one’s tolerance for stress, and then building that in their brain, as if it’s like a muscle. The way that you grow a muscle is by exercising it and working it out, but it’s not by having you blow up and surpass. If every time you went to the gym, you just did weights that were far too much for what you could do, and you tore your muscles, you had muscle strains, you are never going to increase those muscles.
In fact, you are going to damage them so that the next time you go out there, you are going to be able to do less than you could do previously. And I think that’s what happens so often, first and foremost with children, is that they kind of just keep getting asked to do more, and more, and more, and more without a whole lot of support in place. And then they just go until they can’t do any more than they blow up, and then we expect them to be able to do more the next day. And that’s an unrealistic expectation because of what they are capable of doing. I think a huge example that I’ve seen a lot with students that I used to work with was even just the quantity of time that they could give to staying on task to something. So I’d say on average, a lot of my students, my expectation would be, “Let’s be able to focus on something for about 12 minutes, whether it’s a writing assignment or you are going to do silent reading, before I switch it up or offer something else in the midst of all that.” And on average, most of my students could do that.
But I would always have the occasional student that 12 minutes was absolutely impossible for. I mean, I’ve had some students that one or two minutes was really the threshold for what they could handle. And what’s always the temptation is I’m looking at that, once again, from my vantage point saying, “You are at two minutes, I want you at 12 minutes, you are miles away from that.” It’s hard for me to look at it and not say that first off, “This looks like you are being lazy, it looks like you are not trying, it looks like you are not doing the things that I would expect you to be doing.” So that’s kind of first and foremost, a difficulty on my end. But then on the day that they get to two minutes, I’m sitting there, and I’m cheering for him, “Keep going, keep going, keep going.” But the truth is that cheering in that one moment is not going to fix anything. They are just going to go until they blow up, and that’s not fixing it. And so what we want to do is figure out when somebody is getting up to that threshold, we want to pay attention to those patterns. So for those students that could only do two minutes of work, at 1:30, I’m going to stop them and say, “You did such an amazing job. Now can you go do this thing for me?”, or “Let’s take a break.”
I’m going to give them something that’s going to be a relief from that stress, I’m going to remove them from that thing that I know to be stressful for them, and then have them come back to it after a couple minutes and build that up. And after a couple of weeks of that, I’ll start stopping them at two and a half minutes, then I’ll start stopping them at three and a half minutes. And you slowly find that increase. And so once again, we have our expectations, but we need to remove them at times to figure out just what is this child capable of doing? One of the things that we talk about so often is that we get so fixated on a child’s chronological age. “You are 15 years old, you should be able to do this”, that we don’t really pay attention to their developmental stage. And I think that that’s where we need to be mindful of, just developmentally, how long can you work?
Developmentally, how long can you handle this exact task? And then being able to just pay attention and be attuned to that and just watch their behavior and assume every child is doing their best. And I think that if we assume that, give them the benefit of the doubt — sometimes we are going to be wrong, the majority of the time, I would imagine we are going to be right. And so if we assume that, and pay attention to their behavior, that’s when we can begin to kind of chunk things in a manageable dose and stop it before the meltdown and begin to really build that muscle of stress tolerance.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
This is such a powerful concept, and I really want to make sure all of you listening are really honing in on this and thinking about how you can apply this idea that Josh is talking about, whether you are parents at home, teaching kids working with kids in therapy because I think Josh, you are so right that often what happens is we just have this expectation, we just push towards it. And kids never get the experience of success, it’s always an experience of failure. And they never build that tolerance. And all of these things that are stressors just become chronically negative things that then they want to avoid. So this idea of finding the sweet spot, where there’s enough stress there for them to manage, that they get practice with it, but not so much that it sends them over the edge, and now, they can’t learn from it. I think that’s so key.
And so I’m thinking about how you gave a great example with focused work time in the classroom. For parents, or grandparents, or people who are caring for kids at home, I think about that, even with things that you might request from your child at home, like “Empty the dishwasher.” Well, that whole thing might be way too much for a particular kid. So you look at where that sweet spot is. Maybe it’s, “I’m going to hand you two dishes, and you are going to put them in”, and then “Great, that was awesome. That was enough for today.” And then we move from there and work towards the point where they can tolerate the stress of loading the entire dishwasher, as an example. So I just want people to really be thinking about how they can apply this, because this, to me, is one of the fundamental strategies that we can use to really support these kids.
Yeah, and one of the pieces that I would add to that, that I think is so important — So take that dishwasher example. I think that’s perfect. You have your child, you are trying to get them to clean anything, I think that’s a great one. The way it would typically go is, “Hey, I need you to empty the dishwasher.’ They begin to do it, they stop after a couple of plates, and now what we are saying is “No, I need you to keep going.” The way they are internalizing that is “Okay, now I’m getting yelled at.” And now it turns into an argument, now it turns into, “I’m letting them down”. And so this one task suddenly has turned into 5, 6, 7 doses of stress into that stress tolerance. Where all of a sudden, we take the same task, “Hey, I need you to do the dishwasher.” They do two plates, and we say “Hey, great job. I’m so proud of you.” And that’s it. That’s the end of that conversation. So now, not only have they done something and not melted down, not blown up, but they’ve now also had a positive relational experience with us, and we have avoided several other negative relational experiences. So that’s going to help them to improve much more quickly. One of the things that I think is amazing is that our brains are relational.
We are relational creatures. We want that, we crave that so much, even when it doesn’t look that way. We rely on that for our survival. And so one of the big things I always say in all of that is really showering that positivity out there because when a child feels like they can be successful with two plates, in a couple of weeks, they are going to be successful with five plates, and then in a couple of weeks, they are going to move on to the silverware. And you are going to slowly begin to build that up and improve it. I also think it’s important for us all to understand, though, that progress is never a straight line. One day, they are going to blow you away and empty the whole bottom of the dishwasher, and then the next day, they might just do one plate and suddenly it’s a meltdown again. That doesn’t mean that everything has been lost. Maybe there was a lot more stress that day. Who knows what was occurring? But that doesn’t mean that all that other progress was lost. It just means that that day didn’t go the way that we would expect it to. I mean all of us as adults, we do the same thing every day, and some days it’s easier and harder than it is. And that’s the same thing for kids.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
I’m so glad you mentioned that. It was one of the things I wanted to raise around this issue that parents and teachers often complain about, bring to light, which is the inconsistency. And this idea — I think this happens particularly in the classroom setting, this idea that, “Well, she could do it yesterday, therefore, this is a reasonable expectation forevermore. I should be able to keep pushing”, and if they did it once, or if this is sort of their typical, and now they are not, it’s intentional, it’s a behavior, it’s laziness, it’s whatever. And so I think this is so key, that we are going to see these inconsistencies, number one, because children are human beings, and that’s just how it is, but also, some kids have a lot of things that really play into, on a moment to moment and day to day basis, where that tolerance window is for them. And I’m thinking, for a lot of the kids that I see in my clinic setting, things like poor sleep, things like eating something that is not appropriate for them, kids with major allergies or sensitivities who get a hold of something in the cafeteria, and now by the afternoon or the next day, their stress tolerance, their ability to manage stuff is way down. So just recognizing — getting sick. How do we feel when we are coming down with something, even when maybe we don’t realize it yet? But we are just not totally on our game. That window of tolerance is smaller. And so I think recognizing that, and getting curious about those inconsistencies, as opposed to saying, “Well, he did it yesterday, and therefore this is a reasonable expectation, and now he is not doing it. And so now, this is a behavior problem.” This very different way of thinking about and getting curious about, “Well, that’s interesting. What could be going on there?” And sort of the most generous interpretation of that, as you said, these foundational concepts that we need to hold on to of “Kids are doing the best they can.” And so if something is not going well, there’s a reason for that, and holding on to that most generous interpretation, as opposed to immediately going where so many of us go, which is, “Well look, he’s not doing it. Now he’s just wanting to create a problem.”
Yeah, I think one of the really big quotes, and it’s probably a common one amongst a lot of people in the whole trauma-informed realm is, yhe first question you always ask is, “What is wrong with this person?” And sometimes that’s diagnostic, but oftentimes too, it’s just out of frustration, like, “What is wrong with you? Why did you just do that? You just hit your sister. What did you do?” and it’s changing that to “What happened?” Right? “What happened to you?”, and some of that is really digging into the trauma piece, but some of it too, is to your point, like, what’s really happening right now? Is it that you are sick? Is it that you are tired? Is it what you ate? And then we have really added to that another question, which is really the question we want to be asking when we see difficult behaviors, which is, “How can I help you right now?” So when we see those difficult things, there are things that don’t align with what we want.
Training ourselves to be able to say, “How can I support you right now?” And I think that that’s so key. And also, one of the things that you touched on that I think is so important with this is that we all have stress tolerances as well, as adults, and being able to pay attention to that. If we are not in a spot where we can ask the question, “How can I help you?”, we are probably not in a very good spot to be supporting our child at that moment in time. We have moments where we are tired, where we are sick, where we are not at our best. And to your point, exactly, I think the greatest downfall of every parent is that we are human beings. We have the exact same kind of realities of feeling stressed, feeling upset about different things that are going on around us and having to deal with that, and then on top of that, to be able to be supportive to our children, to be able to think through, “Why are they doing these things? And how can I help them at that moment in time?” And so the same way — I love how you said, “We want to be curious.” I always say I want to be students of my students.
I want to learn what they are doing and try to pay attention to it and follow patterns. We want to learn that about ourselves, as well, and be really attuned to that and really transparent with our children about that, where we are able to really communicate, “Hey, I know that I’m just tired. I’m not in my best space right now.” Or, “I want to talk about this thing. I’m really frustrated by this behavior, but now is not the best time” I always say we should never be handing out punishments when we are dysregulated and upset. If I as a parent can tell, can say “Okay, I know I’m not at my best”, I might say “There’s going to be a punishment, there’s going to be some type of response to this, but I’m not getting handed out right now.”
Because it’s really hard to circle back and be like those two things didn’t match up. It’s because of where I was at, and not where you were at. And so just being attuned to that, and trying to put some kind of things in place for ourselves, and also to make sure that we are putting things in place for ourselves to stay calm and regulated. Once again, talk about that with our kids. I mean, one of the best things we can do for our children is to be able to model for them. “The reason I’m exercising, the reason I meditate, the reason I’m breathing, the reason I want these 10 minutes to myself is because it’s going to make me so much better for you when I come back to this space.” And so being able to articulate that to our children and talk to them about it is so important.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Everything you just said is equally as applicable in the classroom or the school setting for our adults who are working with kids, and I think it’s important to be transparent around that. I used to be, as a teacher, like “Oh, I am not having a great day”, or “I didn’t sleep well last night”, or “Oh, my baby was up all night, cranky”, or whatever. And just that humaneness of “Hey, if I’m a little edgy today, here is why. Don’t take it personally”, and just sort of building that rapport, or to your point that the repair afterward.
Sometimes a teacher or principal or whoever will react to something and dole out a punishment that when they are in a calmer headspace later on, back in their cortex, go, “Oh, man, I wish I wouldn’t handle it that way.” And the power of circling back and repairing that, having a conversation and saying, “Man, you were really having a hard time and I was having a hard time and I didn’t manage myself well there. I’ve been thinking about that, and I wanted to come back and talk to you about it. Let’s do something different.” I think we are afraid, especially in classroom settings and professional settings, we are afraid that it says something bad about us to be just transparent and vulnerable like that. But it’s one of the most important things we can do for the kids that we are working with, to model that.
Right, I still encounter teachers who are told “Do not even let your kids see you smile until Christmas”, it’s like you don’t want to let down any guard, any vulnerability. But to your point, some of the single most powerful conversations and turning points in relationships I’ve had with students is when I had to pull them aside and say, “I screwed up, and I’m sorry. I thought you said this,” or “I, for some reason, had a really big response to that thing that you did, and there was a mismatch there from what you did and how I responded to it.” And that’s a turning point, because I’ll tell you, a lot of the kids that I’ve worked with, they are not adding people in their lives that show them respect of apologizing to them, that are showing them, “You are somebody who is worthy of better, and I didn’t treat you the way that you deserve right now.”
It’s so important for them to get that message. I think that we want to think about that with our own children as well. We are always the barometer of “This is what you need to do, and this is what I expect from you.” And we know how much we love them, but we need to once again look at it from their vantage point and think: Do they look at us more as this loving and affectionate person, or as this authoritarian…”and here’s everything that you are doing wrong.” And to make sure that they are getting that message from us like, “By the way, I’m not perfect either, and we can get through that.” And what a model for, once again, how we can grow our brains, how we can change and really move beyond some of these difficulties that we are going through, because perfection is not a realistic goal. But being able to course-correct is a really realistic goal that we would want to really show our kids.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Yeah, and I think the idea that I just want every adult to understand, is that it’s in grappling with this stuff and working with it and building relationships and being vulnerable, and screwing up and repairing and getting curious, and all of this, that we help kids grow in the areas of struggle. And I think there’s this prevailing idea that the only way we do that is by having these rigid high expectations, and then doling out punishments when they don’t meet them. And actually, we know from the entire field of neuroscience that that is not how to promote brain growth in these areas. And so I’d love to have you touch on the idea of neuroplasticity, brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change and how that fits with this, because I think this is really powerful. And it’s important for people to know that we are talking about real science here. This isn’t just this idea that Josh and I have that, “Oh, isn’t it nice to be with kids in this way?” The reason we have come to understand this and be this way with kids is because it’s what science tells us works, right?
Right. Exactly. And so our brains are very use-dependent, and how we utilize them is the manner in which they are going to kind of begin to be able to mold and handle certain specific things that they are being exposed to. And so when our brain responds to something the same way, we kind of just go down this path where we do that thing again, and again, and again. And so if we are used to experiencing certain elements of stress, and our response to that is “I’m going to yell, I’m going to scream, I’m going to kick, I’m going to run away”, your brain is literally creating a connection that says “This is how I handle that. We have 86 billion neurons in our brain, and those neurons fire and wire together as you are experiencing different things to essentially create these paths in your brain for “Here is how I’m going to change.
Here is how I’m going to do things a little bit differently,” or “How I’m going to handle things when certain stressors are coming in.” And so when we come in and say to a child, “Listen, when this stress comes, when you go to school tomorrow, I need you to not behave in that exact same way.” You are literally going against how that brain is wired to respond. And so that’s why we know it’s going to take baby steps. I did this experiment a little while ago. I came across this guy whose name is Destin Sandlin.
He has a YouTube channel called Smarter Every Day. He built this bicycle that when you turn it to the right, it turns to the left, and when you turn it to the left, it turns to the right. And other than that, it’s the same bike. So I actually had a friend take one of my old bikes and change that, and I said, “Okay, I want to learn how to ride this thing. And literally what you are doing is you are rewiring what’s going on in your brain so your brain knows, “Okay, I’m getting on a bike.
I got neurons firing for that. I know how to balance, I know how to steer.” And so you have all these neurons that have combined together that say “When I have this thing…”, we will call it the stressor of getting on a bike and riding it, “…I know exactly what I need to do to survive.” And then I’ll get on this bike that steers backwards. And it was, at first, completely impossible to be able to ride this thing, because my brain is saying, I know how to handle this situation. And so I had to train myself 15 minutes a day, every single day, getting out on that to say, “Okay, nope, I need to steer a little bit differently, I need to steer a little bit differently.” And it took three months of doing that every day to be able to ride that bike with any type of consistency. I think that’s important for us to gather because it takes those kinds of baby steps and baby movements of changing the brain.
I think that at times, we get really frustrated because we say, “Okay, we started on Monday, I expect this behavior to be fixed by Friday.” And what we need to realize is we are literally saying no, we need to rewire how it is that you are responding to this thing that you are going through. And it’s the same type of memory, procedural memory, we use for bike riding and we use for relationships and our emotional responses to things. And so we need to be able to kind of rewire that, and it’s going to take a little bit of time, and it’s going to be difficult, but the way that we can do that is from A: Consistency. So we are there supporting them. “Here’s what I need from you, here’s the expectation”. Our brain grows best in a positive environment. And so we are supporting them, we are letting them know we are here for you, we want to help you, we want to kind of get you through this thing that you are going through right now.
And that’s where they can begin to create a new neural pathway for how it is that they are going to be able to navigate some of the different stressors that they are going through. And, and it’s through doing things like that, that consistency, that support, that dosing out the quantity of stress, we are able to build kind of this — that really big word right now, which is “resilience”. And it’s that whole idea of “How can I then be better prepared to handle stressors again in the future?”, and that’s through this whole idea of resilience, where you have really helped to rewire the brain to say, “Okay, here are stressors that I’m able to manage, that I’m able to overcome. And I’m going to be far more capable now of handling those different stressors that might exist in the future because of how I’ve been able to see that I can handle these small stressors now, and how the brain is rewired to handle some of these things that are coming.”
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
So beautifully said. And I think again, it goes back to that emphasis on consistently, moment by moment, day by day observing and finding that sweet spot where we have got just enough, but not too much, and we stop and have that be a successfully managed stress experience. And that, then, builds. It’s sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, right? You might feel like initially, “Okay, we are not getting anywhere.” But over time, you start to see the benefit of that. And I think that’s for any sort of stress management tools we might teach kids too.
Often, I see people in schools or parents who will go to a seminar or something, and will be like, “Oh, breathing, and use a stress ball”, and whatever. And they’ll make these tools available, and they’ll go, “Well, they are not using them. It’s not working.” First of all, they need a lot of practice, a lot of guidance and a lot of exposure to those tools when they are not stressed. And then we need to guide their use in the moment. These are things that take time. We have to help the brain wire itself differently to use those tools. And so I think that’s just such an important concept.
Yeah, and what I love about that last piece of being able to help, to support that positive change, is: What are the things that we are putting in place to remove stress, such as those tools? So in addition to giving smaller doses, in addition to that patience, and that support — because it is going to be a lengthy process, is how are we also removing stress? And things like you said there from breathing exercises, are phenomenal, and stress balls — things like that are so great, but I think one of the best things we can do is look at a child too, and see, what are you already doing? We might have a child and say “Here, take the stress ball, and by the way, stop chewing on your finger right now.” And it’s like, no, that’s literally a tool that they are utilizing to keep themselves calm. Or “I need you to stop walking in circles while I talk to you.
And so what we are recognizing is there’s so many things that they are already doing, and we want to be attuned to that. We might want to then provide different things that would be more appropriate in that setting. So for instance, we work a lot in schools where there are children who just need to move more. They are in their mid-brain a lot, or their pulse is up and they just have that need. And so they are touching things, tapping things, walking around, and they are getting in so much trouble for it, and we are like, “Let’s get something in their hand.” We have had a lot of schools where we have gotten desk cycles under the desk, so they are able to sit there and just be pedaling while they are listening, because it’s not that they are trying to walk away from the teacher. Their body is just saying “I need to move right now.” And so once again, to your point, being curious of them, being students of our students, watching what our children are doing instead of saying, “No, you can’t be paying attention to me unless you are staring me in the eye.” Recognizing “No, let’s build into that, let’s understand what it is that’s going to support you right now.”
I think some really common basic ones we found a lot with parallel interaction, being shoulder to shoulder with a child. So especially if you have to have a tough conversation with your child, go for a walk, or better yet, hop on a swing set and just sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. They are going to feel a little bit safer, the swinging back and forth is activating to the brainstem. If you are walking, that’s activating to the midbrain. That bilateral movement is great for the connectivity of both hemispheres of the brain. There’s little basic things that you can do that are going to help them to be able to handle the stress of that conversation in a much better way.
And then another tool that we have utilized a lot that I think is always so tricky, because we always feel like there’s never enough time in the world, but it’s just trying to put brakes in place. Having brain breaks, because we understand that our brains can only focus on something for so long. And so we need to kind of be able to pull away from it. If we ask the child to be fully attuned to the conversation you and I have been having right now for 45 minutes, they couldn’t do it. Or even if they are, what our brains do is we are paying attention, and then we kind of pull back to be disengaged to process that piece of information. I hope that some of the folks that are listening have kind of disengaged from our speaking for a little bit. So they think about their own child, their own experiences, and how they might be able to support them. And then they re-engage, but they’ve now missed 20%, 30%, 40% of what we are talking about. And that’s not a bad thing. But when we are supporting someone, and we know, “Okay, I need you to get this one point, here’s this really imperative thing that I want you to hear”, let me stop and do a brain break right before that. Let me take a break from what we are doing right now, let your brain process that previous piece of information, and prepare it to receive whatever it is that we are about to do next, because you are going to be in a much better spot to receive that. It’s going to reduce your stress, you are going to be able to really hone in on that information and be far more likely be able to access that information again in the future.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Yeah, for sure. And this applies to every kid.
Yeah. Oh, absolutely.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Every kid. Sometimes, especially in schools, we go “Well I can’t be doing all this for just one kid.” And it’s like, if you have a classroom of 30 kids, this is for every single one of them.
I always say when I go to schools, and part of this is my love for all of this work, is that everything we talked about is really utilized universally, and it needs to be. How many times I heard in the early years of my doing this work: “If only this child had a diagnosis”, or “if only I knew what they had been through, then I would have treated them differently.” Why are we waiting for that? Because it’s as if we are saying “This child was choosing to be bad, until suddenly this diagnosis — or until suddenly I heard the whole story. And now I understand them more.” No, we are going to do so much better if we give every single child the benefit of the doubt that they want to be doing better. And so when we can assume that of a child, it’s going to be very few and far between that one gets one over on us and they really work — and who really cares, we are going to be in a far better spot to support the vast majority of kids in a much different way.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Oh, so good. I could talk to you for the next five hours. I have so many more questions and so many more things that would be valuable for people, but I know that we do need to wrap up. I want to make sure that people know where they can find out more about you, your organization, the work that you are doing, particularly for our education professionals listening, where they can access some of the amazing things you have put together, but also for all of our parents who are thinking “Wow, are there some resources that maybe we can make available to our school or let our teachers know about?” So tell us where we can find out more.
Yeah, absolutely. So our website is just neurologicinitiative.com, and that’s all one word. You can find us on Instagram at @neurologicbylakeside and Facebook at the same thing. We also have a store, which is shoplakeside.com, where we sell a book called 101 Brain Breaks. We also have curriculum for teaching students about the brain and about all that they’ve been through, and being able to help them really understand a lot of the same information that we try to teach to adults about really being able to recognize the impact that stress and trauma can have on their lives, and the things that they are able to do to really take control of all of that. We have quite a bit on our YouTube channel as well for both parents and for school. So that’s youtube.com/neurologic. And yeah, I’d love if anybody just wants to reach out through our website, or they can even email at email@example.com, that eventually gets to me, about how we might be able to answer questions or comments, support your organizations or schools. We would be happy to. So thank you so much.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Awesome. And I know people will be taking advantage of those resources, and I love that you have got resources available for empowering kids to understand what’s going on with their brain and their previous history and all that, that’s so important too. So Josh, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this with us today, and more importantly, really appreciate the work that you are doing in the world around these things. It’s making a tremendous difference. It’s so needed. And so thank you for everything that you are doing.
Oh, thank you. I really appreciate that.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
And thanks, as always, to all of you, for being here and for listening. We will catch you back here next time.