How many times have students been pigeon-holed into the category of displaying bad or negative behavior when opposing class work or during transitions from a state of play or break back to the classroom and vice versa?
When the body appears like this during an overt meltdown:
The Brain Actually looks like this:
The Emotional Brain that is highlighted are two specific parts of the limbic system, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala controls the brain’s ability to coordinate many responses to emotional stimuli, including endocrine, autonomic, and behavioral responses. Stress, anxiety, and fear are primary stimuli that produce responses. Mediation by the amygdala allows control among the stimuli.
The hypothalamus plays a significant role in the endocrine system and are effected by the amygdala. It is responsible for maintaining your body’s internal balance, which is known as homeostasis. This includes the heart rate, blood pressure, fluid and electrolyte balance, appetite, sleep cycles and is the key connector between the endocrine system (glands and hormones) and the nervous system.
Now we are painting this picture of the brain developing at a functionally optimal manner; without aberrations from either genetic means or environmental factors. However, when faced with students who have underlying imaging differences in brain imaging due to the said factors and manifest a type of negative behavior that can easily be mistaken and categorized as a regular tantrum, the subtle elevations in amygdala and hypothalamic responses are now pushed to abnormally erratic levels in these brains.
For example, take the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Brain in comparison to the Normal Brain:
We see clearly that the shape alone of the cerebrum of the ADHD brain is not elongated or similar to a normal brain’s saddle
type shape. It is oblong and with heavy concentration on temporal and occipital real estate versus the butterfly formation of the normal brain. What is also fascinating is the corpus callosum (where part of the amygdala and hypothalamus are housed) is lighter in the ADHD brain. What that means is that there is no clear path of communication between both hemispheres as compared to that of a normal brain. The blues indicate calm sections of the brains and the greens are considered to be the brain in an even keeled state, balanced and not in fight-flight mode.
Here’s also an image of a person with and without ADHD medication:
With Adderall, the brain is utilized in full functional capacity, the chemical connections between neurotransmitters is efficient and there are little if any underutilized processing areas. When Adderall is wearing off, the results are unimaginable: the only sections of the brain that have any residual function left are the orbitofrontal area of the Pre Frontal Cortex (responsible for sensory integration and some decision making), and spotty areas across the 4 lobes. What is fascinating to mention here is the loss of Adderall effects are from back to front of the cerebrum.
These images provide a very clear picture of the typical versus atypical brain, especially the differences between one with ADHD and one without. If ony it were that easy as a classroom teacher to distinguish a student with ADHD from a student with sensory overload. The list below is not as ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ as the brains above, but hopefully it will provide clarity and a concrete direction for you to take in order to best meet the needs of your students.
First, it crucial to note that boys and girls with ADHD display different symptoms; therefore, they are distinguished below. Second, students with meltdowns as a result of negative behavior, will most likely present with similar symptoms; therefore, it is an undertaking for teachers to take quantitative data on the targeted behaviors. Forms like the one below:
- Fidgety while sitting
- Talk nonstop
- Constant motion, may include touching items in their path
- Difficulty sitting still
- extreme impatience
- Always “bored”
- Lack verbal filter
- Interrupt others’
- Trouble with organization
- Forget directions
- Forget or incomplete homework
- Lose or misplace papers, books, personal belongings
- Much Less Likely
For students with ADHD, these symptoms as well as sensory overload meltdowns will be manifested consistently throughout the day across environments, unless the student is highly engaged in a preferred activity. Students presenting with negative behaviors will have meltdowns at specific yet intermittent periods of the day or throughout the day as will be shown in the ABC Chart above. For example, when the medication is wearing off, one may see a spike in ADHD symptoms in any combination. Once you can answer when, where, how long and make valid hypotheses as to why students are displaying the behaviors below, you should be able to have a pretty strong understanding as to whether your student is having a meltdown because of learned negative behaviors or as a result of having an ADHD brain on sensory overload.
The typical picture of grade to developmental level progression when it comes to fine motor skills suggest that one starts with a four finger grasp before differentiating into pincer, tripod, and lateral pinch finger grasps. Just as gross hand motor skills are expected to be mastered prior to any initiation of fine motor finesse, fine motor skill hierarchy also has a period of latency and skill building.
Upon entry into socialized and organized peer grouping (pre-school), handedness is not yet determined however the traditional methods of encouragement are put in place to prepare the population for Kindergarten. Multi-sensory methods of cream and paint brushes fill the day of positive experiences to encourage the use of both hands in a structured form of expression.
Then Kindergarten begins: less play, more tabletop activities, more periods, and certainly lot more structured writing. A student in this day and age in Kindergarten is expected to be able to write their first and last names neatly, able to write 2-3 sentence essay on pictures that they drew, and be able to color within the lines by the end of the school year by about 80% accurately.
According to the CDC, 5 year old children should be able to perform the following Cognitive Skills below as appropriate to their developmental level:
Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
- Counts 10 or more things
- Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
- Can print some letters or numbers
- Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
- Knows about things used every day, like money and food
According however to Common Core Standards, Kindergarteners should be able to do the following writing tasks:
Kindergarten Writing Standards
Text Types and Purposes
- W.K.1. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is…).
- W.K.2. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.
- W.K.3. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.
Production and Distribution of Writing
- W.K.4. (Begins in grade 3)
- W.K.5. With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed.
- W.K.6. With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge
- W.K.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of books by a favorite author and express opinions about them).
- W.K.8. With guidance and support from adults, recall information from experiences or gather information from provided sources to answer a question.
- W.K.9. (Begins in grade 4)
Looking at the comparisons from both sectors, it is clear that the demands expected from a Kindergarten child in the classroom are above the cognitive writing capacity developmentally that a 5 year old can handle.
Or is it? Are these realistic expectation from a 5 year old’s sensorimotor system who’s limbic system is connected mainly to the frontotemporal sections of the prefrontal cortex and the Broca’s speech areas with minimal connection to the interior of the corpus callosum?
Based on the study, “Microstructure, length and connection of Limbic tracts in human normal brain development,” published in Frontiers Journal (http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnagi.2014.00228/full), the study follows the deveopment and attached structures of the limbic system developmentally in the brain from birth to 25 years old. All included children, adolescents and young adults were healthy subjects free of current and past neurological or psychiatric disorders. Right-handed were reported for all children who showed clear handedness. For young children, besides earplugs and earphones, extra foam padding was applied to reduce the sound of the scanner while they were asleep. They found that Memory, emotion, and motivation functions are related to limbic tracts and important for survival. It is vital for limbic tracts to become well myelined earlier than other tracts, especially those projected from frontal and temporal lobes (Baumann and Pham-Dinh, 2001).
They also discovered that although the overall shape of cgc is relatively stable throughout development, extra cgc growth can be observed in its anterior part close to prefrontal cortex (Figure 2). Relative increase of cgc length is probably related to its growth in the prefrontal region. Functions of prefrontal areas are involved in planning, decision making, and moderating social behavior that develop during late childhood and adolescence (e.g., Gogtay et al., 2004). Significant lateralization has been found for all DTI metrics of cgc-L/R and cgh-L/R with age and gender as covariates. his lateralization was associated with higher microstructural integrity on the left side of limbic tracts. Lateralization of DTI metrics of cgc and cgh may be related to unique functions of the left side of human brain such as language (van Veen et al., 2001). Exclusive right-handedness of the recruited subjects may also play a role. These findings are consistent to previous DTI metric measurements of cingulum (Gong et al., 2005;Verhoeven et al., 2010)
In plain English, what the study is saying is that the younger the brain, the lesser the pre-frontal cortex connection there is by the limbic system. It is the limbic system that allows any memory that is attached to a regulatory system (including motor memory) that enhances automaticity of movement such as that of fine motor skills. It also suggests that the system connects more effectively in the parieto-occipital areas, which house the majority of the sensorimotor processing and visual processing.
It then supports the CDC developmental data of what cognitively is expected of a 5 year old: with a still present instinctual need for regulation of pain, temperature, emotions innervated significantly more than that of the prefrontal cortex or the parieto-occipital complex, the coordination potential of a 5 year old’s hands are simply not the best gauge on whether they will be unable to utilize a writing tool or not in the long run. What that also means is that even if the academic demands indicated as a standard for the grade level are used aa a measure for their success, the developmental and imaging data will not agree with the current standards of achievement.
Perhaps then, we need to sit down with neuroscientists when we decide as a nation to adopt and revamp an entire educational curriculum. Educators educate; however, they need to know the brain they are educating. The marriage between education and neuroscience is long overdue.