The Hopeful Brain
THE HOPEFUL BRAIN
NeuroRelational Repair For Disconnected Children and Youth
By Dr. Paul W. Baker and Dr. Meredith White-McMahon
Copyright 2014 by Paul Baker and Meredith White-McMahon
All Rights Reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
NeuroRelational Associates International
P.O. Box 4733 Chattanooga, TN 37405
What People Are Saying about…
THE HOPEFUL BRAIN
“This book provides the ‘next step’ for ANYONE working with troubled children and youth. It simplifies what we know about brain science and youth work in a simple and easy to understand way to repair experiences”.
-Beate Kreisle, Psychologist
Jugend-Kolleg am See, Moos
“For those serving as therapeutic helpers to troubled youth, this is a MUST read! The authors provide evidence to the reader in understanding the importance of mastering how the brain works and how it is shaped throughout life by our experiences. Understanding the brain will help us to “help” more effectively and create positive life experiences for children and youth who have broken lives.”
-Ida Iron, Superintendent of Education
Northwest Nations Education Council, Saskatchewan
“The Hopeful Brain offers hope for us all – not only the young people with whom we work, but ourselves as well. The authors have succeeded in making clear concepts that intimidate many of us. Now that we understand better we, too, can be hopeful. And a hopeful helper is one step closer to being an effective helper.”
-Thom Garfat, Ph.D.
“Within this book we discover the fascinating world of behavior…and even more fascinating…the world of the brain!”
Pedigogical Director, Orthopedagogical Observation and Treatment Centre, Nieve Vaart
Academic Consultant, Department of Orthopedagogics, Ghent University
“The Hopeful Brain is an engaging book that combines cutting edge neurological research with practical implications and strategies. This book is recommended to a wide range of researchers and practitioners in the social services and health care sectors alike. The concepts have been enormously helpful for us in terms of understanding the complex needs of young people!”
Director, Allambi Youth Services
Disconnected young people desperately need hope to be courageous in life. Despite living in a society that seems to cherish individuality, our young people are social and so they learn and grow best in the company of others. From the moment that people are born, everyone and everything in their ecology has a significant influence upon them. Our brains create ourselves in the context of these relationships and encounters. Without hope, our brains and bodies would constantly react, rather than respond, to the ecologies around us in ways that are far from beneficial. We are our experiences. They shape who we are and who we will become.
How our brains develop in the context of our relationships impacts: how well we form attachments with others, how well we learn, and how we are affected by, and cope with, factors like success, challenge, isolation, mental illness, stress, and trauma. However, becoming the result of our relationships and experiences can be a double-edged sword. They can create healthy, functional individuals and healthy brain growth, or dysregulated, dysfunctional, and unhealthy individuals with far from optimal brain growth and development. The quality of a person’s relational and ecological support is a significant contributor to healthy outcomes.
For decades, neuroscientists have known that through experience, the brain is changeable or neuroplastic in the early years of development. Over 50 years ago, neuroscientists realized that brain cells, or neurons, were able to change and modify their activity in response to environmental experiences. Neurons that fired together, wired together creating brain connections (Hebb, 1949). The problem was that neuroscientists also believed that after the critical period of those early years, the brain was no longer capable of change, leaving people with little hope. Based on these beliefs, most research and therapeutic efforts focused on early childhood. Because learning and behavior were believed to be entrenched by the teenage years there was little hope of change. This instilled a sense of “false permanence”. Fortunately, new science is emerging across disciplines and shaping a more positive outlook of the individual’s ability to change throughout the lifespan.
The advent of advanced neuroimaging technologies in the last 30 years has further shown that while natural developmental milestones and sensitive periods of enhanced neuroplasticity exist, new neurons continue to appear in parts of the brain related to new learning, and new neural networks appear and grow throughout life. Instead of our brains being the individual, isolated, self-organizing systems that neuroscientists assumed them to be, we now know that our brains are dependent on interactions with others and supportive ecologies for survival, growth, and well-being throughout our entire lifespan.
This is great news for anyone working with challenging young people. By being a part of their experiences, therapeutic helpers are able to activate and guide change within the brain, encouraging growth and development to facilitate new learning and better adaptation to the ecological systems in which the child lives. Our NeuroRelational model, a strengths-based approach, recognizes the brain’s unique willingness to make changes for the better. By blending essential elements of neuroscience within a relational framework, this model will show that, together with our challenging young people, you can create optimal experiences that can shape, reshape, and transform. By “being with, feeling with, and going with” these young people, you become the catalyst for positive change and a significant factor in shaping their social-emotional development. You will assist in the identification, facilitation, and the eventual reimbursement of necessary skills and experiences that will change the youth’s brain for the better
Chapter 1: Hope and Opportunity
People don’t come pre-assembled, but are glued together by life. - Joseph LeDoux
A Model of Hope and Opportunity
In this book we will take a NeuroRelational approach to the natural, biological development and interpersonal repair of the broken lives of disconnected young people. In this approach, we strive to demonstrate that brains and bodies, when given positive relationships and experiences, have the ability to change negative life events into positive outcomes. We will endeavor to instill encouragement. There is tremendous hope for all young people, no matter where they have come from, the experiences that they have endured, or the approaches they have taken towards life. People can overcome adversity. Disconnected youth can become better connected to life when caring, NeuroRelationally trained people are involved in their day-to-day events. This model will counter historical approaches that have addressed and labeled the tough to reach with negative words and phrases such as disordered, dysfunctional, “just like his father,” oppositional, “bad,” hopeless, sociopathic, and a host of other identifiers that might doom a child to a reputation to either “live up to” or to “turn around.” For years many scientists and mental health practitioners have bought into the misconception that both “personality” and the human brain were fully formed and unchangeable by the time a person reached adolescence. However, we have seen the evidence, both in research and in the field that indicates that there is tremendous hope for even the most challenging of youth. Evidence in neuroscience (the study of the brain) and various disciplines within the field of psychology (the study of the mind) now clearly shows that people possess far more potential than ever expected; we are no longer on a predetermined “timeline” for the development of our true human potential. To those of us on the front lines, who work with those young people who approach life differently, this is both exceptional news and a tremendous responsibility. We, as therapeutic helpers, can no longer “write off’ a child because of their past experiences. We must now write a child “into” a transformed life, one filled with better people, experiences, ecologies, health, meaningful academics, and closer connections to his or her individual culture.
The NeuroRelational Model
The NeuroRelational Model is a powerful, positive, strength-based model. The primary purpose of this model is to provide a way for those of us working with children and youth to address and fulfill their needs by tapping into the power of relationships. Relationships involve transactions that continually impact experience and development across the lifespan of everyone involved, and they can become a powerful opportunity for transformation. Everyone, even our most troubled children and youth, should be hopeful that they would thrive, not only as individuals, but also as a part of a larger community. We see transformation as an integrative process. Focusing on the various biological, regulatory, relational, ecological, cultural, and academic needs that may be lacking or missing, therapeutic helpers and youth work together to understand how people and ecologies in their life can better meet those needs.
The NeuroRelational Model provides comprehensive support by blending the best of relational practice with neuroscience. Understanding how the various systems within the brain function provides the foundational knowledge to increase the effectiveness and strength of the relationships. With that knowledge, we can better understand how to interact with others more efficiently and effectively. We believe that over time these interactions will encourage natural strengths to surface to help overcome adversity. This, in turn, will lead to personal motivation, more resilient skills, and, finally, transformation to successful coping.
The NeuroRelational Model can be divided into two basic approaches: short-term or momentary management, and long-term therapeutic planning. You will learn more about the model’s momentary management techniques in Chapter 2, ACT QUICK. Long-term therapeutic planning strategies are discussed in detail in Chapter 5.
One doesn’t have to be professionally trained to be therapeutic to youth in need. The simple desire to help youth overcome their experiential challenges and actively participate in positive therapeutic planning and support is all that is needed! We believe that effective and optimistic agents of change hope for the best, try their best, and expect the best from all youth (and the therapeutic helper him/herself).
No matter what the history of the young person might encompass, there is a fund of what we term NeuroRelational strategies that people can use with challenging young people. This model is underpinned by the following beliefs:
Belief #1 We are a result of our experiences, both good and bad. The brain is responsive to every experience.
Belief #2 People, not theories, are primary in relational change.
Belief #3 The brain can, and will, change for the better when trained individuals understand its basic functions and needs.
Belief #4 Relationships and ecological factors create states and traits in young people.
Belief #5 NeuroRelational knowledge is key to transformation and resilience
Belief #6 NeuroDynamic Interventions are powerful approaches that provide positive, relational and brain-based supports to troubled young people.
This NeuroRelational model initially seeks transformation for our troubled young people. Young people formulate beliefs and behaviors based on their prior experiences. From their perspective, they might believe, from their previous interactions, that people called “teacher”, or “youth worker”, or “foster parent” have always meant a “ negative experience”. Therefore, if your role is one of these, the assumption is that any interaction that they have with you must automatically be negative. While their view of you may seem odd, particularly if you see yourself as a caring individual, “the way that we make meaning very much influences, and perhaps even determines, how we respond” (Garfat, 2002) to different people and situations. Everybody “makes meaning” based on their previous experiences because all learning is based on prior bits of learning. This model’s goal is to stretch or push challenging youth beyond the boundaries within which they normally think and feel. This change, or transformation, provides a new mindset allowing our young people to take different actions than they may have taken in the past, leading to empowerment, growth, and strength.
Introducing NeuroDynamic Interventions
This model supports the use of what we will call NeuroDynamic Interventions (NDIs). NDIs are a set of brain-based support strategies used by the therapeutic helper that meets the unmet developmental brain and body needs of a young person. We propose that NeuroDynamic Interventions hold the key to unlocking the requisite knowledge and skills that therapeutic helpers need to assess and work with the youth’s behavioral state. They are individually based, relational opportunities that set the stage for transformation.