Alfred Adler purported that all behaviors have a purpose. Behaviors are often the way the body responds to life’s stressors, especially for children. Yet, many therapeutic treatments for children focus on the modification, remediation and even elimination of a behavior without addressing the underlying cause. This approach suggests that once a behavior is corrected, the child will experience general wellness.
Brain science, however, indicates that the physiological state of children must be attended to before one addresses behavioral change. In Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Comparison to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, Mona Delahooke, a licensed clinical psychologist, argues, “When we see a behavior that is problematic or confusing, the first question we should ask isn’t ‘How do we get rid of it?’ but rather ‘What is this telling us about the child?’”
Therefore, behavior is adaptive and a response to the internal and external experience of the child.
Autonomic response refresher
The human body responds to perception of threats to safety by creating a biochemical and physiological state prepared to move the body to fight, flight or freeze. In this state, the body increases the production of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. The amygdala and the limbic system become activated and temporarily lead brain functioning over the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher order thinking and executive functions. The child is now functioning in survival mode, and the child’s behaviors may manifest in a variety of ways, including distraction, withdrawal, irritability or fidgeting, fearfulness, regression, and aggression.
Rather than blindly rewarding or punishing the child’s behaviors, neuroscience suggests that we seek out the cause of the behaviors before addressing them. It begs us to answer the questions, “Why is the child acting this way? Is the child perceiving a threat to safety?”
As I have addressed in my book Mindfulness and Nature-Based Therapeutic Techniques for Children, counselors must consider if the child is functioning from an underdeveloped kinesthetic system (our sense of our body in space) or vestibular system (associated with the inner ear and balance) resulting from lack of free-form movement. So much of children’s time is spent sitting at their desks or in front of devices, or in structured activities. They lack nondirected, unstructured play and movement. What is the underlying cause? How is the behavior serving to protect the child? Most important, how can we, as counselors, help the child resume a sense of safety and balance and experience a calm and alert state?
Several models have emerged over the past few years that emphasize the role of the physiological state of children when treating their behaviors. All these models assume that the behaviors are an attempt to cope with internal or external stressors.
Stephen Porges, the founder of polyvagal theory, proposes that mammals have two neural pathways. The first, the social engagement state, is accessible when the child feels safe and can trust the environment, promoting a calm state accompanied by prosocial behavior. The second pathway is engaged when the child feels unsafe.
Porges introduced the term neuroception to describe the body’s way of scanning the environment for threats to safety. At times, the body miscalculates the risk of safety. According to Porges, the symptoms of faulty neuroception are translated to psychiatric labels and disorders. In other words, a child who has experienced trauma may have a vulnerable nervous system that detects threats that do not exist. Resulting behaviors may include hypervigilance, insomnia, paranoia, bedwetting or a host of other regressive or safety-seeking responses. On the other end of the spectrum, the child may ignore actual risks in the environment, resulting in greater threat to self and psyche.
Therefore, based on neuroscience, Porges recommends providing children with individualized cues of safety that allow social engagement behaviors to emerge spontaneously. According to Porges, three situations must be present to feel safe. First, the autonomic system must not be in a defensive state (fight, flight or freeze). Second, the social engagement system must be activated, which results in the downregulation of the sympathetic nervous system and promotes prosocial behavior. Finally, there must be cues for safety (vocalizations, gestures and positive facial expressions) detected via neuroception. The assumption is that cues for safety can only be exhibited and detected in human-human interaction. However, research continues to support that human and more-than-human interactions also afford meaningful connection.
Brain science and nature
Engaging in the natural world has long been known to have a calming effect on the body. A biochemical exchange occurs in the natural world that results in by-products that, when inhaled or absorbed by the human body, produce a calm and alert state. The earth’s core is like a battery that emits negative ions. Blue spaces (oceans and waterways) offer ionic by-products. Additionally, green spaces (forests and parks) produce phytoncides and terpenes.
Fifteen to twenty minutes of being in a natural setting affects the body by decreasing cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline (hormones released when the body perceives threat); increasing serotonin; and reducing blood pressure and respiratory rate. The body responds to the natural space by engaging the relaxation response. Additionally, the immune system is enhanced by both an increase in number and activity of natural killer cells. These effects are sustained for up to a week following single exposure to forests and as long as a month following two days of engagement in green space.
The earth communicates through the production of these chemicals, and the human body responds to many of the messages (safety cues) by reducing the body’s defensive state, activating the social engagement system and promoting homeostasis (i.e., a calm and alert state).
Research is conclusive that children who engage in natural settings experience greater well-being, are calmer and demonstrate more prosocial behavior. For example:
- In their article “The role of urban neighbourhood green space in children’s emotional and behavioural resilience,” Eirini Flour and colleagues found that children impacted by poverty and living in urban settings experience improved emotional well-being when exposed to neighborhood green space.
- Diana Younan and colleagues noted in their article “Environmental determinants of aggression in adolescents: Role of urban neighborhood greenspace” that exposure to greenspace within 1,000 meters surrounding residences is associated with reduced aggressive behaviors in youth.
- Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances Kuo discovered that, in general, children who play regularly in green play settings are calmer and more alert than children who play in concrete outdoor and indoor settings. Their study, “Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park,” also found that children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder who play in green open areas versus areas with trees and green grass show milder symptoms.
Although it is becoming increasingly important to integrate outdoor activities into clinical practice, routine access to green and blue spaces may be hindered by many factors. In this case, we turn to indoor alternatives.
Nature therapy indoors
Ecotherapists are capitalizing on the research by integrating nature-informed practices and activities into their work. My own research examines the use of nature-informed sensory “time-out/time-away” stations in the emotional and behavioral regulation of school-age children. Historically, time-out has been used to remediate unwanted behaviors in children. This often involves using a corner of a room without windows or distractions. Once the child has calmed down, they may return to the group setting.
However, if (as Adler suggests) all behaviors have a purpose, then the child has learned only that the presenting behavior is unacceptable and to suppress their natural response to whatever triggered it. They have not learned to self-regulate and address the underlying emotional or physical state.
A nature-based sensory time-away station, however, is imbued with items such as plants and herbs that emit terpenes. The station may have a tabletop sand garden that provides tactile exposure and promotes mindfulness. Additionally, nature soundtracks may play in a headset to allow the brain to register these soothing frequencies.
The preliminary data continue to demonstrate that children are able to use this time-away station as a self-regulating tool to allow for the relaxation response, calming of the amygdala and engagement of the prefrontal cortex. Children engage with the natural material, feel more grounded and (depending on developmental stage) are better able to articulate their underlying state verbally or through expressive arts. They return to their previous activity feeling calm and alert.
Here’s some advice on how to create and introduce a nature-based sensory time-away station:
- Create the station. A nature-based sensory station may be created indoors or outdoors. It includes physical elements that engage the senses. Items may include edible plants and herbs to promote exposure to terpenes. Cotton balls soaked in essential oils also can provide exposure to terpenes through smell. Small containers of rocks, sea glass, pinecones, feathers and shells can provide the child with different tactile experiences. A small tabletop sand garden with miniature rakes can be purchased or created for a tactile and mindful activity. A betta fish or small fish tank may also add biodiversity to the space. Nature sounds can be streamed through headphones. Additionally, paper and tools to write, color or paint may aid in the communication of triggers once the child begins to enter a calmer state. And items can be rotated to capture seasonal changes to your nature-based sensory station.
- Introduce the station. Because this is a novelty, everyone in a group setting such as a classroom will want to play at the station. It is important to allow each child a chance to explore the space. Using a timer, have children take turns engaging in the station. When the time is up, they may return to the classroom activity. If introduced as a tool, children will soon learn that this space can be accessed to help regulate emotions and behavior in a productive manner. In essence, the children will learn that they feel better after spending time interacting with the space.
In the home setting, the child can help create the space and be taught that it is a place to go to reboot. Show the child how to engage with the multisensory space and then leave them to their own processes.
In addition to the many ecotherapeutic homework assignments and interventions available, counselors utilizing this space as a co-therapist in the field can introduce the benefits of nature-based multisensory engagement and help their clients learn to self-regulate outside of the therapy session.
In conclusion, behavior is a response to interpretation of internal and external stimuli. A child who feels unsafe may experience physiological arousal and respond in a defensive manner. As counselors, we can help educators and parents learn to address a child’s physiological state by creating safety cues for the child. By introducing a nature-based multisensory space, children can learn ways to reduce defensive states, increase homeostasis and activate their social engagement system.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online master’s in clinical counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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