My guest this week is Sonia Story, developer, and teacher of the Brain and Sensory Foundations curriculum that shares powerful movements for transforming brain, body and sensory challenges. Sonia Story has studied with many of the world’s finest experts in Neurodevelopmental Movement programs and has completed training in Rhythmic Movement Training, Brain Gym, Neuro-Sensory-Motor & Reflex Integration, and more. She teaches live and online courses for parents, OTs, PTs, SLPs, VTs, educators, counselors, health practitioners, and caregivers, and continues to learn from her clients of all ages.
In this episode, Sonia and I discuss what neurodevelopmental movements are and how they impact children and adults to significantly improve and mature brain and sensory systems. Children on the spectrum, with ADD, ADHD, anxiety, or sensory, behavioral, or developmental disorders can greatly benefit from incorporating movement practices and techniques into their daily routine. To learn more about Sonia and her life-changing Brain and Sensory Foundations curriculum, visit moveplaythrive.com.
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What is Neurodevelopmental Movement?
- The innate movements that infants do in the womb and in early infancy
- These movements are foundational for proper brain, body and sensory maturity
- They are like a ‘template’ in the brain that we naturally do as healthy human beings if there is room within the womb and the environment is not stressed
- Natural infant reflex movements like sucking the thumb, or grasping when a finger is pressed into babies palm
- These movements help develop our brain networks and mature the brainstem, which allows us to learn, feed ourselves and develop survival and protective mechanisms
- When there are gaps in these movements from infancy, the child can be left in a state of anxiety known as fight or flight
Learning about Neurodevelopmental Movement is Essential
- Your child could have hit all their motor skill milestones but something simple in their infancy or birthing story could have subtle effects on their behavior
Where to learn more about Sonia Story…
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
What is Neurodevelopmental Movement? … 00:02:55
What are Innate Movements? … 00:05:10
How Neurodevelopmental & Sensory Issues Occur … 00:11:00
Empowerment to Recognize Neurodevelopmental Issues … 00:13:50
Episode Wrap Up … 00:28:05
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show — I am Dr. Nicole, and today we’re going to talk about a really fascinating topic related to child behavior and learning. Some of you may have heard the term ‘neurodevelopmental movement’ or reflexes related to your child’s issues and I know for some of you it’s going to be a completely new concept, but the connection between movement and brain development is so, so important and there are specific types of movements that can significantly improve brain growth and functioning for kids.
And so we’re going to be talking today about how neurodevelopmental movements — things like innate rhythmic and reflex integration kinds of movements help mature the brain and the sensory systems and then can allow for huge behavioral changes, and this is going to really be helpful for many of you as parents to start to put more of the pieces together of some of the things that are going on at the root of your kids issues. So my guest today is Sonia Story and she specializes in using these types of movements to address challenges in kids. She’s studied with many of the world’s finest experts in neurodevelopmental movement programs, completing training in rhythmic movement training, brain gym, neuro-sensory motor and reflex integration and more.
She developed The Brain and Sensory Foundation curriculum to share power movements for transforming brain, body and sensory challenges, she teaches live and online courses for parents, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, educators, counselors, health practitioners and more and continues to learn from her clients of all ages. Welcome to the show, Sonia.
Thank you Nicole, I’m thrilled to be here.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I am so excited to have you and to talk about this topic. I had the benefit of having you as instructor when I was going through learning specifically about rhythmic movement training, but really starting to delve into with my colleagues at my clinic, how important these types of movements are and really the foundations of these brain-body connections that just allow for development in all areas, and you were such a fabulous teacher, so when I decided that, oh — I have to cover this topic on the podcast, and so I am so grateful that you were willing to come on and talk about this, so thank you for being here. And let’s start off, because I know for many people who are listening, this may be a new idea. They may not be familiar with the concept of neurodevelopmental movement, so let’s just start by having you talk about what is neurodevelopmental movement?
Sure. Well neurodevelopmental movement refers to innate movements that babies do in the womb and early infancy, at least how I define it. So these are movements that are already like a template in the brain, they’re already programmed into the brain and body and all human beings will naturally do them in the womb and very early infancy as long as the infant is healthy, has room to move and is not stressed.
And so it’s a whole series of movements and activities that every infant will engage in that really grow the brain and the sensory system, so they’re foundational movements for setting us up for proper brain maturity, for proper body maturity, for proper sensory maturity. So they’re quite fascinating and the one thing that I find that’s such a gift about the movements is that they can be used at any age.
So if for some reason the infant did not get these movements in the womb and early infancy, we can give them at any age, and they have a profound effect on our functioning. And that is really something so important for parents and educators and professionals to know that we can impact our functioning hugely with these innate movements that our brain and body already recognize.
And they are in fact the most critical thing for brain growth, they fuel brain growth in early infancy. These movements are why infant’s brains grow as fast as they do, and they really impact the functioning of the sensory system. And the problem in today’s world is that so many children are not getting these movements or they’re not getting the full measure of these movements the way they should be, and that’s leaving gaps in their functioning.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. Can you give an example of an innate movement? So you said some of these happen in the womb, can you give an example of what one of those might be?
Well one of them, like babies will suck their thumbs in the womb and that gets them ready to suck. So sucking is an infant reflex, it’s also a rhythmic movement and there’s combinations of rhythmic movements, reflex movements which are movements that are stimulated by a certain sensory stimulus and then it creates a motor pattern, so an example that your listeners I’m sure will be familiar with is when you have a newborn infant, if you press your finger into the palm of that infant, their hands will close. Placing your finger in the palm of an infant’s hand will automatically cause that infant to grasp really strongly.
So there are many, many of these movement patterns, they all have sensory stimuli and they all have jobs. So they do so much, they set up our brain networks, they mature the brainstem, they help us feed and they help us learn and they help us with all our sensory systems and they’re also our survival and protection mechanism and that’s critically important because when there are gaps in these movements from the womb or infancy, then that child can be left in a state of anxiety, fight or flight, as if their brain was still back in some essence of infancy where they are just irritable — not that infants are always irritable, but they are vulnerable.
And they can be irritable and they can go into high anxiety if their needs aren’t met. So that state can stay in the body if these movements are left incomplete and it’s a state where the brain isn’t as mature and the brain has a harder time to function if that fight or flight anxious state is left from infancy. It’s a less mature brain state, that’s what it is.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, I think that’s a great way of describing it that really when people don’t move through these patterns of movement or don’t accomplish these things, their brains kind of get stuck in this less mature pattern. And they may go on to develop more mature skills in all kinds of areas but there are these gaps. And that’s what made so much sense to me when I first started learning about these movements, because I was doing a lot of sensory-based therapies and cognitive therapies and lots of therapies, and feeling like for some kids it just either wasn’t sticking or they were regressing.
And I would keep going back to the developmental pyramid to say if we are working on some of these things at higher levels of the developmental pyramid and they’re not sticking or we’re not making progress, there must be something further down in the foundation of the kids’ development that is missing. And that just inherently made sense to me as I started learning from you and others about these early innate movements and the reflexes, and integrating those — I thought, “Aha!” Here is where some of these gaps are and I thought this is why kids are getting stuck in various phases, even though they may have higher level skills in other areas.
And I think one of the misconceptions even when I talk with parents or practitioners about just movement and the importance of that in general, people will say, “Oh, well my kids’ fine and motor skills are fine.” Like, he writes fun or he runs fine — it’s like no, no it’s about so much more than that and what you’re saying is that movement is really at the foundation and so essential for all parts of brain development, even emotional and behavioral regulation.
Exactly right, it is such a puzzle because can and do develop higher level functioning. But they can, for example — I’ve seen so many children who are incredibly smart. They read early and they’ve got their intellect developed really well, but emotionally, it’s really easy for them to fall apart. I’ve also seen the other thing where kids can be quite co-ordinated and athletic and yet they have ADHD or they have dyslexia or both. And so, the gaps in the system are the key to helping that child function better because we can give movement that addresses the rhythmic movements and the reflexes and the developmental movements that are all under the category of neurodevelopmental movement.
We can do it in the context of play and connection and I always encourage parents to do the movements with their children and not just give them to the child, but if the whole family is doing them, the results are phenomenal because the movements not only are great for out brain maturity and sensory maturity — they’re super-calming, they help us sleep better and they take us out of fight or flight and they help us relieve stress. So it’s so funny, I’ve had so many adults take my courses for the purpose of giving these to the children that are either their children or ones they work with — and they come back and say, “I can’t believe how much these movements have helped me!” So they’re a tremendous gift.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Absolutely. I would second that too, just about the impact even on parents and the adults doing them, and having experienced that even firsthand, of just the benefits I have gotten from them too. I want to delve into that just a little bit because I think some parents might be listening and going okay, “I get that, but how did my kid get stuck?” So these things are supposed to develop, okay — we thought these were developing, my child seemed to meet their motor milestones and these types of thing, and some people might be wondering, well how do these patterns get stuck, or how is it that some of these things don’t develop for certain people?
Right. That’s the million dollar question because there are many reasons why and sadly, those reasons are becoming more and more prevalent in our culture and more severe in our culture. So the way to think about this and the way that just plagued my thoughts for probably over a decade, is that — what is going on right now? Why are so many kids having trouble functioning, having trouble learning, have autism, some of the don’t learn to speak, some of them don’t learn to even do their basic toilet training, and they’re all children. Some of them are paralyzed by anxiety, and what’s going on here? So these issues that children, many, many children — the sensory issues, the behavior issues, that are happening today they are all stemming from the fact that there are challenges with this basic foundational system and basic health of our children.
And so if you look back 50 years ago, what was different? So now in our environment, we have a lot of toxic heavy metals and those keep accumulating in our bodies, we have so much more exposure to electromagnetic radiation, we have cultural practices in place that aren’t helping our development, like putting babies to sleep on their backs, they’re not getting enough time in prone. Many children are born by c-section and that doesn’t help our neurodevelopmental movement system. In fact, it’s a huge stress for the whole neurodevelopmental movement system. So that right there, I think rates are as high as 30%. And that right there will cause a child to not get what they need.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Because there is something about actually being born vaginally through the birth canal that starts to integrate and shape some of those reflexes, right? So when the baby needs to be born or is born through c-section, they miss out on that, right?
Exactly right, that’s exactly right. And plus, c-section itself is traumatic. It’s traumatic — it’s a major surgery, so it’s traumatic for the mom and traumatic for the child, and any kind of trauma, even if you were the luckiest child in the world and you got all these movements integrated in infancy, if you have a trauma later on, that can cause this primitive reflex system to spring back into action, it’s like a protective mechanism in the brain, and it’s actually what’s happening. It’s a component of PTSD, because when somebody has a trauma, we go back to our infant movement systems, which protects us and they help us with survival, but they’re not functional as past the stage of infancy.
So like, it leaves us in a state where our brainstem and our survival systems are really active and it makes it harder for us to have emotional regulation, impulse control and then all the executive functions like learning and communication and making good judgments and solving problems and that kind of thing. Those are emotional maturity and all those cognitive pieces come in only when we have the networks established to get to them and then we have access to them, and we need to be relaxed and we need these movements to give us the ability to be relaxed and exploring our environment as opposed to being withdrawn and pulling away from our environment. So I hope that makes sense.
And it’s kind of a sad thing for parents to hear, and I really hope parents don’t feel guilty at all because it’s just the way our culture is set up right now and there are so many loving parents doing so much for their children right now and it’s exhausting. And it’s not the fault of anyone thing or any one decision, it’s a whole combination of things that are in place right now that make our children unhealthy right from the beginning. There are so many things, I could go on and on, like the soils are depleted, nobody is getting enough minerals — it’s just on and on.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Kids aren’t moving as much, that’s a big thing too, and again, it’s sort of how we evolved, at least here in the US — culturally evolved to kids even from infancy on being more passive, right? Sitting in front of devices or being in stationary played-mobile kinds of things, the shifts over the generations of just more sedentary or passive stimulation, as opposed to from infancy on being more actively and physically engaged with the environment makes a big difference for this stuff too.
Yeah, that’s a huge important point, and the other thing is pregnant mothers are more sedentary. So those babies are getting much less stimulation in the womb and a mother’s rhythmic walking is something that will develop her baby’s brain and vestibular system and sensory system. But mothers being sedentary during pregnancy is also causing less mature brain development.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and I think especially where I have seen that is in moms who, for medical reasons, safety for them and the baby had to be on bed rest, which is certainly nobody’s fault but that lack of movement or babies born prematurely, kids who were born as part of a multiple pregnancy, with less room in the womb to move out like all of those things can be issues too. And again, I loved what you said, none of this is anybody’s fault.
Parents are doing absolutely the best that they can, where I think there is empowerment in this is understanding — okay, all of these factors can play a role and there are things that we can do, right? If these were the circumstances for your child and you look back and you realize, okay — there were these things in place and maybe my child didn’t move through the integration of these reflexes well, or these neurodevelopmental movements didn’t happen the way they needed to, channel that into empowerment, of okay — now I understand this, and now there are some things that I can do about this.
Yeah. I love sharing this with parents, because when they read it they go, oh it just makes so much sense. And they can see that their child is, you know, not reacting and not functioning well because there is a foundational piece missing. And their child is — it just makes sense to them and they can have compassion for their child because it is very challenging when you have gaps in this neurodevelopmental movement system to function well. And I know that myself just from going through all the movements myself.
And because I had really low-grade anxiety that I didn’t even really recognize was there until I got rid of it. It was so deeply buried and when my system got these movements, it was like superfood, green drinks and vitamins for the brain and body.
And it just made me feel so much better and helped me be so much more functional and we see it all the time working for parents and families and children with all kinds of challenges.
Emotional and behavioral challenges, learning challenges, things like core strength and physical stamina, their ability to think and focus and attend and their ability to learn — it just opens up and kids start blossoming, they are able to come out of anxiety and it’s because the movements are doing their work to create the brain pathways that are needed to mature the part of the brain that is for our emotional regulation and the part of our brain that is for thinking and communicating.
So it is really important for our parents to know that their children aren’t willfully trying to be manipulative or lazy — they’re not bad kids.
It’s that they are being asked to do so much beyond what they can actually physically or neurologically do in a comfortable way. So there are lots of children who can’t even sit in a chair comfortably. They can’t even sit still comfortably because sitting still is a brain maturity function. You have to have enough brain maturity to be able to even produce stillness. And so a lot of kids are still functioning well because they are very smart and capable and they really want to do well, but they are exhausted. So that happens sometimes also.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I would agree with that and I think some parents who are listening can see their child in this. I call those kids the upside down developmental pyramid, because what they are doing is that they somehow developed these higher-level cognitive functions and they use that — they use their higher level thinking and their language to compensate for all the foundations that aren’t there, so it’s sort of like they’ve built their pyramid of their development upside down, but that is exhausting.
And those kids, while they can function and do things, tend to be the ones that are irritable, frustrated, low frustration tolerance, highly reactive, because it is so exhausting for them to hold it together and to manage the world in that way, because really, their development needs to be flipped around and those higher-level cognitive and language skills should be resting on these foundations of these brain-body connections, and it is a very, very challenging way to have to live, compensating in that way.
Yeah, and I would just tell every parent that there is a beautiful child there that wants to do well and they just need the foundation. I’ve had parents write me letters that bring me to tears because their children were excessively violent and angry and it was horrific for the family to deal with that and parents were afraid for the younger siblings and it’s a nightmare. And these children were able, once they’ve had their foundation, to get out of that reactive fight or flight angry, violent behavior and function. And it’s a beautiful thing to see and it’s such a important thing for parents to know that you can’t just — you want to get the whole movement system in there.
You can’t just maybe do a sensory diet. Because a sensory diet is… it can be life-changing for some kids and there’s nothing wrong with it except that if that’s the only thing you do, then you are missing a foundational piece. And usually what we find is that when we put this foundation in place first, then the sensory diet can have more impact or the vision therapy can have more impact — there’s actually research about that, that when you work with the reflexes first, then often times — what they found is that half the children no longer needed vision therapy and the other half could go through their vision therapy in half the time once their reflexes were integrated.
So it’s really worth learning about this, it’s worth taking the time to do it. Just like I would encourage any parent to give their child good nutrition, this is nutrition for the brain, the body and the sensory system and the whole ability for somebody to function and it will serve a child their entire life to have this foundation in place.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and actually one of the reasons that I started researching and looking into this whole field of reflex integration and neurodevelopmental movement was seeing all these kids at the clinic who had been through years of sensory integration therapies and things and yet it just wasn’t sticking and if the sensory diets weren’t done all the time, there just wasn’t carry over and I was like there’s got to be something missing here, something underlying this, of why we have to keep giving all the inputs all the time in order for these kids to function and that’s really what led me to this. I’d love for you to share an example of two of kids or families you have worked with, how the movements have helped with things like behavior, emotionality — just to give parents some ideas of ways that the movements can support kids.
Sure. There are so many case studies. I would love for parents and professionals to go look on the website at Move Play Thrive, go to the case studies tab because there are so many. But what I would say is… the first one that pops into my mind is a mother who took my online brain and sensory foundations course — her son was very despondent. He was 12 years old, she said he had ADHD, in addition, he was really depressed and he said things like there was no reason for him to live. So it was bad.
He was depressed, he was angry, he had behaviors like stealing and they were attempting to homeschool and that was not going well because he just was not motivated to do anything. And so they started in on these movements. And the family, by the way, had also tried many things. They had tried counseling, they had tried changing the diet, lots of different things. The did not try medication.
So they started the movements and he started blossoming. He started to feel happy and he started to share his happiness. His angry outbursts got less and less and less. His homeschool sessions were easier, they could do the work and get it done and he was more positive and he could go through his work and actually complete it free of any complaining.
His mom said he started to get involved in building some kind of motors or something. He took a lawnmower motor apart and was all excited because he put it back together and fixed it, he started baking bread and things like that — so he just came completely out of his challenges and that’s the kind of story that I just really love.
Another mom — she was told when her boy was really, really young that she should start saving her money and really put this boy in an institution. And they had some challenges, they got an autism diagnosis but she said she just knew there was something else going on, she just knew there were ways to help him and they eventually got a central auditory processing diagnosis, but when they started these movements, he kept saying things like ‘what?’
And he started asking questions and he started talking a lot more and he was able to regulate himself, to participate. He was able to do handwriting. One of the first things they noticed is he was able to sit still and focus in school. And he just kept improving and getting better and better.
Of course, they were doing other things. They were working on nutrition, they were working with supplements, they got a genetic test. But they saw huge changes. One of the very first changes they saw was that their child could sleep better. Both he and his brother. And his mom was so happy about that because they struggled to have the children sleep. But he is now an honor student. His mom told me recently. I am writing a letter to that woman who told me that. She said it was the worst day of her life.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Don’t sell my kid short, right?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love these stories and we’ve got so many from our clinic as well, and I love that you’ve got case studies on the website. So share the website again so that people know where to find you and where to find those case studies.
Sure. The website is moveplaythrive.com and there’s a case studies tab right on there. And you know what you were saying earlier Nicole, about how you were seeing these kids had been through years of a sensory diet and it wasn’t sticking? Well the training program that I have, the Brain and Sensory Foundations course, it’s often taken by OTs and PTs. And the OTs have reported back that they see results in two months that they used to be happy to get in a year.
And that’s why I just have fallen in love with these movements and I just wish that everybody knew about them. That’s my bigger goal is that we get this big giant megaphone and everybody hears about it and starts doing them. That would be my dream come true. So I appreciate the podcast and any way to reach parents and children.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And I love that you are making them accessible because, really, the programs that you’ve put together — you’re taking parents and professionals through how to do these movements. And as you and I have been talking about at the start of the episode — these really are things that are pretty simple. Once you understand what you are trying to do connection-wise with the brain and body, the movements themselves — if you are out there listening and thinking this is going to be really complicated: The movements are actually pretty simple, they’re enjoyable. We have even really challenged kids who are non-compliant with lots of things.
There is always a way to start to work in these movements. And they really are simple and powerful. And I love that you are making them accessible to people through your website, through your training programs, because they really are things that parents can learn how to do and then implement.
Yeah, it’s great if you have someone like you or our clinic nearby where you can work with us and we can guide you and take you through and incorporate that through the treatment plan, but the reality is parents can learn to do these things and start to implement them even if you don’t have a professional nearby that can do this with you, you can learn these and at least start implementing the basics and seeing the results of them which I think is just wonderful.
Yeah, absolutely. That was the whole point. I developed this curriculum after many years of training and refining and experience with children and teens and adults. And I just kept seeing, what if we did this and what if we did that? And I just got the best of the best tools from really some of the finest mentors doing this kind of work and I put it together in a way that is accessible and is learnable and doable. And it’s also just so rewarding when you start seeing the results. So I have been teaching this in live courses for years, and then I had a group of parents ask me, I am on the West Coast, they are on the East Coast and they ask me for an online course and I panicked for about a year, but I finally figured out how to create the technology to do it and now I am so happy with the results because I know that it’s working.
I have reports back from parents and professionals consistently because it’s a requirement when you take the course to do assignments if you are going to get CEUs and so I do have a lot of feedback that it’s working and I am so happy. And it’s a testament to how well the human body is really put together. These movements are just so awe-inspiring for me and the fact that our brains can recognize them even past the years of development when we are infants is like I said, it’s an amazing gift. So I’m thrilled to share it.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Well thank you for making it accessible to people and thank you for having all the great resources on your website, I really do encourage people to go there and check all of those out and really appreciate you spending time with us on the show today, this has been wonderful. Thank you for being here.
Thank you so much, Nicole.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Okay everybody, that’s it for this episode — we will see you next time for our next episode of the Better Behavior Show.