Child in Mind

Promoting children's healthy development.

Emotional Regulation in Children: Using the Body to Help the Brain

How physical activity can help a child's brain work better

I recently heard a great story from a parent in my behavioral pediatrics practice. Their son was very active and had a hard time settling down to learn, and so, before an early morning tutoring session, a very resourceful teacher suggested he ride a scooter down the empty halls to the room where a group of kids with reading difficulties met. To make it fair, the teacher allowed all of the students in the group to ride scooters to class. The kids lay on their stomachs and used their arms to propel them down the long hall. Interestingly, not only this boy, but all of the kids in the class began to do better!

One of the best weekends of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program which I have been attending and writing about over the past year, was with child psychiatrist Bruce Perry. He spoke of the importance of what he referred to as "rapid alternating movements' in achieving emotional regulation. Dr. Perry's ideas grew out of his frustration with the traditional model of psychiatric care, where children who have experienced significant trauma are expected to sit and talk with a therapist about their experience( and of course are also medicated.) HIs model of intervention is based on knowledge of brain development and is termed the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.

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While it is not my intention to describe the model in detail, one of the main messages, which has relevance not only to traumatized children, is that in order to think, learn and process experience, one must first feel calm. A range of activities can achieve this calm. Dr. Perry does therapy sessions with very troubled children while going on walks. Horseback riding, martial arts, drumming and dance are other activities that can serve to achieve this kind of calm. A group of fellows from the program got to try out the theory. After a long, very stimulating (and also somewhat dysregulating) day of learning with Dr. Perry, we went ice skating. Not only was it a lot of fun, but it worked wonders in helping us to process the experience.

Often when kids are struggling in school, teachers express concern that they are "over-scheduled." But if extracurricular activities are carefully planned and well thought out, they can be considered an essential part of treatment. It is best to have some kind of a calming activity interspersed with homework, tutoring or therapy. These can be tailored to a child's particular talents and interests. Many know the story that Michael Phelps struggled terribly with ADHD. Swimming can be a very regulating activity, but some kids with learning and behavior problems also have sensory processing difficulties and can't stand to have their face under water. Clearly swimming isn't the right choice for them.

The more children I see with a range of "behavior problems," the more I recognize the importance of using the body to help the brain. Occupational therapy for young children can accomplish this goal. But as children get older, and can learn to express their feelings, parents can help them identify what works for them. This same boy on the scooter, several years later, learned to recognize that when he was feeling overwhelmed, going down to the basement to play his drums helped him to regroup. This kind of awareness, both of mind and body, can serve kids well not only in childhood, but over the course of a lifetime as they learn to adapt to their particular vulnerabilities.

 

Claudia M. Gold, M.D., is a pediatrician and fellow in the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate Program.

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