When kids don’t listen, emotionally freak out, withdraw and get aggressive, they may be demonstrating signs of underdeveloped sensory-motor processing abilities.
You might never guess this, but a child’s ability to regulate their emotions has everything to do with good sensory development and humans are literally losing their senses.
When a child’s sensory-motor system is under-developed, learning becomes like making a castle in the sand; An attempt to put higher cognitive skills on top of a lower developmental foundation that is not strong enough to take on more. Children are increasingly challenged in this critical developmental area, and this has many long-term implications for a child’s ability to function successfully in life. Resistance, aggression, defiance, anger, ignoring, are all signs of lagging development. The story that follows is an example of how this can look.
When Max’s mom first calls me I hear a care-filled, hollow voice. She states “it’s like he’s not here anymore. We don’t know what happened to him; he’s not our Max.” Max’s family considered therapy, medication, and even their own possible shortcomings. They are an “outdoorsy” family with resources. They hike, camp and participate outdoor sports. Ten-year-old Max also loves the natural history channel and “all those animal shows.” He seems like a perfect fit for our program.
On our first meeting, I witness a ten-year-old boy, on the higher side of average height, with a blond tuft of hair over his eyes, slumped shoulders and a chin pointing towards the ground. Eye contact is minimal. Max shrugs his shoulders when I ask him if he is looking forward to the day. It doesn’t take long into our first adventure for me to share his mothers concern.
We wander down the bank of the Salinas River, to where I see it. Max stands before me, light flickering from behind his eyes for the first time in months. His voice quivers as he contemplates the question I pose; showing a mere hint of joy and excitement as his body interacts with the dimensions of time and space.
I struggle to avoid the same quicksand of emotion his mother must feel.
At this moment, he is not the boy who brings home red cards and loses his recess. He is not the boy who gets into scuffles on the playground. He is not the boy who tears up his homework in front of his teacher. He is not the boy who’s worried parents take him out of school and find us. He is now just a boy; excited, inspired, alive…whole. His face turns toward mine looking for validation for the quiet whisper of his answer. I choke back shock and can’t bring myself to tell him how complex and unbelievably wrong his response is. I can’t bring myself to shut off the faint light of renewed engagement. His curiosity of what lay in front of us on the ground is palatable. He is eager as a puppy as the words fly from his mouth, his body vibrating the way a leaf anticipates the wind. I keep it all in and drop into the Nature-Led mentoring potential of the moment…
Tracking is an ancient art, and it draws most children’s interest, but here today I see how lagging this child’s sensory processing abilities are. When looking at marks in the dirt, a tracker knows animal tracks can be read as a story, the same way letters on a page turn words into story. Looking at them in this way can tell the story of who, what, where, when and why. They say if the animal is walking easily, trotting joyfully or running for its life (or it’s dinner). Tracks were once so crucial to our survival as a species, that looking at them, and the ‘tracks’ of the landscape such as the red glow of horizon or the brittle cracks of dryness in the earth formed our modern neurology. Nature is our evolutionary bio-physiology. Tracks are a significant reason for brain connections that allow us to interpret: the dimension, distance, differentiation, depth perception- essentially our vision- and the brain’s ability to use information the eyes see in a meaningful way.
The other children are bent down and kneeling 75 feet ahead of us, looking at the same set of tracks we are, creating a four-dimensional mind map of the animal which made them. Max and I lag behind, making small talk while he consistently trips over small tree roots and stones. Clueing into the body language of the group ahead of us, I look down to see what they are exploring. Look! I say to Max, check it out! He looks: first down to where I point, then in a 4-foot circumference from where I point, and then his gaze settles about 2 feet away from the evident marks in the dirt. He states rather unenthusiastically: “uhh, cool.” It occurs to me that he does not see what I do. I bend down and cup my hands in an open circle around one track: about 2”X2” in diameter. A long uncomfortable pause ensues. I hear his breathing deepen, his weight shifts from one foot to another, little beads of sweat on his upper lip break out. I breathe in and out deeply as though breathing for him. My finger points again to the four toes in the track, and I count out loud: “1, 2, 3, 4…wow”; another uncomfortable pause. His deeply furrowed brow frames his face as he bends rigidly at the hips with his hands in pockets as he studies the ground hard. I breathe deeply again and with the next exhale it happens, he blurts: “OH, OH, I see it! Yeah, Yeah, I see it!” We do the exercise again, this time with me pointing and him counting. I ask him “do you see the claws here?” he does, I release my breath.
Now comes the big (connective) question.
Me: “Hmmm, so, it’s got four toes, we can see the claw marks…what could it be?” His answer explodes, and with all the sincerity he can muster he spits:
Max: “An elephant???” My heart is now a sinking rock in a glassy lake as I attempt to maintain my composure and excitement for him. I can’t tell him. A lumpy breath sticks in my throat and I manage:
Me: “Ok, what makes you think elephant?”
Max: “I don’t know, the toes?” (a solid clue to his thought process and likely a result of one of his favored nature shows)
Me: “OK”, I say, cupping my hands around the track once again: “I wonder how big this animal might be?” and I step next to the coyotes’ track with my foot, now asking:
“Do you think this animal would be bigger or smaller than me?”
Max: “Oh, Oh, wait! Uhh, it looks smaller than your footprint!”.
Me: “Yes” I agree, as I use my hands to create a three-dimensional air image of the animal and say; “You know, I’ve never seen an elephant in real life, have you? (Helping him maintain his dignity).
Max: “Uhm I’ve seen them on T.V.”
Me: “Me too, I sure would love to go to Africa where I think they still live…” (here I am leaving a level of uncertainty, hoping to instill a small curiosity for him to find this fact later).
“What animals live around here that could be about this size? I say holding my hand about two feet above the ground.”
Max: “ Mmmm, a dog?” He spats, “yeah, maybe it’s a dog!”
Me: “I think you could be right on! Great tracking!” I say as he bolts away to catch up with the group ahead.
Later that day a seemingly magical and fortuitous (and integrative) event happens: the group catches a glimpse of coyote peering from further down the trail. Silence ensues as the coyote nods his head in our direction, in what feels like an apparent connection with the group. From that day on, for weeks, each child from the group brings back collected stories of communications with the coyote from other environments of their lives; the local park, the field they drive by on the way home, the backyard. At first, considering the number of ‘sightings’ they report, it seems they are imagining, then it seems they are fabricating, but as the stories continued to unfold, the details add up to real happenings. Features like the description of a black-tipped tail, or the account of the way a coyote leaped from all fours at once, pouncing on prey in a field. Yes, the group has developed a relationship with coyote and thus an ability to see what was there all along!
The day Max learned to see tracks, he experienced an awakening through full engagement with multi sensory-motor experience in four dimensions (time and space) and a ‘synchronistic’ interaction with coyote which integrated (solidified) the experience.
You may be wondering what in the world your child’s emotional challenges have to do with a coyote track. Remember that emotional regulation hinges on good sensory development? That day, through the tracking exercise, the children formed a mind map, using the senses of sight, sound, movement, touch, and even scent; a complete multi-sensory experience that resulted in a meaningful ‘connection’ of what each sense interpreted, the coyote track. Once this happened they had enough contextual connections of coyote that they then began to have what some would call synchronicities. It started to feel so magic for the group. The secret to synchronicity though is integration or attunement with one’s environment. Synchronicity is the result of integrative or connective moments- allowing the outdoor world or landscape, to wire the inner world or neurology which creates a dynamic and expansive engagement with life. This apparent synchronicity is our original design. The Coyotes are always present; the children were just not seeing them– their eyes had not practiced scanning the environment and interpreting dimension, color, shape, etc to ‘see’ the coyote that is almost always there.
This simple, fun, multidimensional tracking experience supports the development of vision, audition, balance, perception, focus, attention and wires or DEVELOPS the senses; which builds a foundation for later emotional regulation.
While this kind of tracking activity may seem irrelevant in today’s time, it is not. “When childhood experience does not support evolved needs, it creates species-atypical outcomes.” (Narvaez. Pg xxvii) These outcomes are manifested as ‘behavior’ such as tantrums, meltdowns, throwing, biting, kicking, ignoring, avoidance of tasks, and so much more.
The story of Max and the coyote-elephant track is more than just a sad story; it is a direct demonstration of childhood experience ‘not supporting evolved needs.’ For occupational therapists and other developmental specialists, this is a truly frightening story. Development is stacked. Nature made it so. Maturation still exists in our cells and is required for optimal growth. Maturation is the genetic, biological and physical development from conception on and environment directly influences it. Maturation means that to get to the more complex executive functioning skills necessary for academic and intellectual success today, one must first develop the lower order, foundational skills of our ancestors (our evolved needs). If this doesn’t happen, it is like building a castle in sand or a jumbo Jenga building with a few missing vital blocks.
While most of us come equipped with the ability to see, vision is not guaranteed. The same is true for all our senses and physical abilities. Intuition, or the ability to predict, is just a byproduct of a well developed and fine-tuned sensory motor map in the brain and body. Intuition and communication between person, animal, plant -environment is a tangible way of knowing when our neurology is optimized, and, although it seems magic, it is an inherited possibility for all humans. The only real way to achieve it is to put the sensory-motor puzzle pieces we were given at birth together, to create a whole picture in the core framework of one’s development. Modern children are currently operating as fragments of a whole being.
The architecture of the human brain and body are built through the development of perception- as taught to us through our senses. Humans are embodied inter-dependent beings; for this reason, we must always develop our sensory systems actively through nature’s gifts. It is unfortunate and yet no coincidence that as the number of species in the natural world rapidly declines, so too does our ability to perceive the world around us. According to Joseph Chilton Pearce in the Biology of Transcendence, “In 20 years the decline in the shades people could detect fell from 350 to 130.” While “In 15 years the number of sounds people could detect fell from 300,000 to 180,000-100,000.”
(Pearce, 2004. Pg. 111)
The exciting news is that it is not too late and the solutions are relatively simple and highly achievable. The boy in the story above, Max, returned to 5th grade the next year and continued at or above his peers in academics, including reading. His negative behaviors disappeared. We never directly addressed behavior or reading in the modern sense. We merely awakened and engaged his nature sense through nature-led activities, and then offered integrative opportunities. We used the art of connective exploration, connective questioning, relationship building, weaved together with story catching and listening. We used bird language and mapping. We never looked at letters on a page.
You might see now as we put two and two together, how it is that humans are losing their senses. If one considers that executive functioning skills such as emotional regulation, cognitive organization, attention, problem-solving and even reading and writing emerge from developmental foundations of good sensory integration, then they can see how the lack of it has far-reaching deleterious consequences.
If you would like to learn more about how you can use the Nature-Led Approach to support your child or the children you work with by developing this critical neurological need sign up HERE for a free 15-minute consultation.
Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: evolution, culture, and wisdom. New York, NY: Norton.
Pearce, J. C. (2004). The biology of transcendence: a blueprint of the human spirit. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.