Beyond Behaviour -

Activating the Thinking Brain

Module one : Lesson two

The emotional brain often leads to resistance. When children feel defensive their first instinct is to take back control. This leads to defiance, disobedience and other defensive behavior decisions. It's easy to become overwhelmed by these behaviors which is why being able to see beyond the decision and towards the child's needs is crucial in supporting them. In this module we will be navigating an effective evidence based strategy for reasoning and redirecting children's defensive state.


Understanding your child's emotional decisions begins with understanding their brain development. In our previous video, we explored the midbrain versus the prefrontal cortex.

The midbrain, which is here. This is made up of the amygdala and the hippocampus. This is where we have all of those feelings of discouragement in past memories and emotions. The prefrontal cortex is here. This is where we have all of our executive functioning skills, our reasoning, our problem solving, our regulating, all of the things that help us make more mindful decisions. Even when our emotions are heightened, we can activate the prefrontal cortex and still managed to be reasonable.

So here's the thing. Helping children go from their emotional midbrain, which is very primal, very reactive, back to their prefrontal cortex is a process. Children actually need help with this because they have that underdeveloped cortex. This is called co-regulation. Co-regulating your child from the midbrain back to their prefrontal cortex allows them to self-sooth and to make better decisions.

Here's the question though is how do we do it? How do we activate the prefrontal cortex, especially when the midbrain has already taken over? And the answer to that is one word: questions. Asking questions. It is amazing what happens when you ask the brain questions, especially simple questions. It activates the area of the brain, which is the prefrontal cortex of course, where it does all of the problem solving and seeking solutions.

Now, what's so cool about this is that it's a physiological response in the brain. You don't have to do any work besides asking creative questions to your child. That's all you need to do. Their brain will do the work for you. They will start to relax and search for an answer immediately.

Now, how do we get those questions to be an effective? Sometimes we dive in, we get excited. We're like that sounds easy enough, but we don't ask the most effective questions. So there's a few things to bear in mind in order for this to be the most effective avenue towards redirection and reasoning.

The first thing to be mindful of is to start replacing those demands with questions as often as you can. This is a practice in empowerment with your child. So what I mean by replacing demands is think of a simple instruction that you tell your child almost every day. This might be go wash your hands before dinner. Rather than placing those demands, I want you to try replacing it with a question. What do you need to do before dinner time? You can even gesture and make it silly by wiggling your hands as a hint just to remind them. Again, it's about empowerment and your child relaxes and searches for an answer. Oh, that's right. I need to go wash my hands. And just like that, you've given them a sense of purpose and a sense of significance and you're going to find their self esteem starts to kick in right away. That also means that cooperation is going to kick in right away because you're activating the front areas of the brain where compliance takes place.

Another way that you can use questions in redirection and in reasoning is monitoring open-ended versus closed ended questions. Now, our closed ended question is a do you question. Basically it's a 50 50 chance that your child is going to answer yes or no. It can be very effective when you are trying to validate their emotions. For example, do you feel upset right now because your brother pushed you over? And the answer would be yes, I do. That's a great way to recognize their feelings. However, what you might find is if you're trying to boost obedience and cooperation, as soon as you enter that conversation with a do you question, there is a 50 50 chance that they are going to say something that you don't want to hear.

So if I say, do you want to start your homework right now? Guess what? There's a chance they're going to say no, and now you're stuck because you just asked them an empowerment question. But we've told them, oh no, nevermind. You have to do it. And we break our trust as soon as we follow through. We need to be mindful with open ended versus closed ended questions and make sure that we're using them appropriately to create an opportunity for success, right.

Another thing to think about is asking questions that engage your child's interests. So rather than complicating things and saying can you tell me more about how you feel right now, chances are good that exploring their feelings while their emotions are heightened is actually quite difficult. So instead we might ask something that is redirected that is engaging in interesting, something you know is motivating to them. It might be one of their favorite games or one of their favorite books, or maybe the T shirt that they're wearing right now. Keep it simple, keep it fun. And if there's a visual around you, even better. Asking questions can be very powerful. We simply need to be mindful with the way that we are using them.

The final tip in order to effectively redirect, and you can also use this in your reasoning strategies, is adding choices. We can use questions to steer cooperation like we've already talked about. But if you find that the motivation is dropping, just reintroduce those choices is a really powerful way to boost it back up again. We might say, rather than, “Do you want to get in the car to go to school?” Of course, they need to get in the car. That really shouldn't be the question that we are offering. Instead, we can say something like, “Once you're in the car, would you like to read a book or would you like to listen to the Wiggles?” We can provide a choice that feels empowering. This is also reframing because now rather than focusing on the demand, “I really don't want to get in the car right now.” Rather than focusing on that, their brain is relaxing and searching for an answer that motivates them. They are now looking forward to the Wiggles or reading Spot, whatever their choice may be.

You can see how asking questions is one of the most powerful ways that we can help children go from this mid emotional brain back to the prefrontal cortex and regulation and cooperation becomes so much easier.


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