Having a son who recently started daycare, I have been asking myself the same questions that probably most parents do: Is my child going to be ok? Is he gonna get along with other kids? Is he gonna be able to learn as fast as anybody else? Those questions are legitimate. We always want our kids to be as happy and thrive in a new social environment. Some of the biggest fear that a parent might encounter when it’s time for their kid to go to school is to learn that she has a learning disability, or an attention disorder, or she can’t keep up with the others when they play.


The truth is that even if a child at a young age might present with some delays in comparison with other children, for the majority of time there is no reason to worry. Even though if a teacher, a psychologist, or any child behavior/education specialist might use a label (aka a disease) to qualify your child’s behavior, it’s not so much a matter of brain disorder than it rather is a difference in the rate at which his brain is developing in comparison to other kids. Unfortunately, when testing a child’s skill and comparing with the “average milestone” that she is supposed to have reached, that difference in growth rate can be interpreted as a neurological disorders and hence treated as such. Sometimes though, those delays can persist and start affecting the wellbeing of the child, potentially leading to the need of consulting a therapist or provide special education. In order to know what should be done, it is important to understand how the brain works at that young age, how it develops, and why sometimes thing don’t go as smooth as it should be.        


When it comes to a child’s behavior, what does ADHD, poor balance/coordination or motor skills, difficulty with academic skills (reading, memory, learning processes) and emotional immaturity have all in common? The answer is: they all correlate with a lack of control of some of the most primitive or ancient (in an evolutionary perspective) parts of the brain. 


3 Stages of brain development


The brain is an extremely complex organ, which requires a very high level of synchronization in order to perform all its tasks in a smooth and proper way. One main characteristic important to understand it that the brain is not homogenous, but it is made of many different structures that are responsible for different functions. Obviously the human’s brain is much more complex and developed in comparison with the brains from other animals and, by evolutionary process, from our own ancestors. However, we do share some similarities in regards to the anatomy and the functions of the brain. 


In the 1960’s, a neuroscientist named Paul MacLean came up with the idea of the triune brain. His theory was that the human brain is the product of an evolution that sequentially added in 3 distinct phases. Today, most neuroscientists disagree with that theory because it is contradictory with the fact that primitive animals like reptiles do present with late phases of brain development. However, I do believe that MacLean’s theory shouldn’t be put completely to the trash as it presents some consistent and meaningful concepts. One of those concepts is the fact that, when it comes to function, the brain can be divided into three systems, that and distinct but closely interact and influence each other. The major point is that those systems are not made of specific anatomical parts of the brain, but they rather differ themselves in terms of functionality.     


The reptilian brain


The first and most primitive part of the brain is called the reptilian brain. Located in the deepest layers of the brain, it is considered as the first brain structure to develop in reptiles who later gave rise to mammals, hence the name. The reptilian brain is what maintains us alive and helps us  to adapt to our environment: it controls breathing, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, sweating, hunger, thirst, sleep cycles,…Unsurprisingly, this is the part of the brain that comes to maturation the earliest in the development phase. When a baby is born, that part of the brain has to be mature enough to allow those vital functions to work properly on their own in order for the child to survive. The reptilian brain is also responsible for some simple movement patterns and some of our reflexes. More on this later.   


The mammalian brain


Closest to the surface of our brain, but tightly connected with the reptilian brain is the paleo-mammalian brain, or mammalian brain. Although reptiles and other more primitive species also have structures of the mammalian brain, it is more developed in mammals. This part of the brain contains structures that are responsible for our emotions (anger, fear, calm,…), our behavior, our motivation (what drives us to go hunting to get food, or to study to get a degree,…), as well as our long term memory. It is also where our olfactory system (sense of smell) lays. Have you noticed that when you smell a particular odor it can remind you vivid memories? It is also thought that muscle control of posture develop at that stage.   


The neocortical brain


The neocortical brain, or neo-mammalian, is the most recent and the most sophisticated part of the brain to develop. Although other animals do also have one, a well developed neocortex is what makes humans unique and more evolved than any other species. It is where lay skills like social judgement, critical thinking, planning, reasoning, language, calculation, and fine, precise movement.  


A well developed brain is a regulated brain


How are those different parts of the brain interacting with each other? For an adult, those parts are tightly connected and regulate each other. For example, if you walk on a hike and suddenly a large snake appears and comes towards, you might feel surprised or scared. That your mammalian brain kicking in. Physiologically, this feeling will be expressed by an increase in your heart or breathing rate. That’s your reptilian brain right there. Now let’s say that you remember that earlier the park ranger told you that if you see a snake, simply remains calm and don’t move and the snake will go away. Although initially you feel like you want to run and scream, you decide to follow that advice because you know that it’s the best thing to do. And as you do so your heart rate regulates: that’s your neocortical brain who helped you to take a decision based on a concept that you learned. 


For a child, it’s a little bit different. Each part of the brain develop at different speeds and hence their importance will fluctuate as the child is growing. At birth and for the first few weeks of life, the child’s brain is largely reptilian: the vital structures are working on their own, she can latch on the mother’s breast, and perform very slow, reptilian-like type of movement like lifting the head. Later on at around 12 months old, the mammalian brain takes more importance as the baby is capable to develop better postural muscles and start to stand upright, walk,…It is also at a time where the child starts to develop emotions. A lot of tantrums happens during that time. It is because it is still hard for the child to control their emotions. Slowly, the child should get control of those emotions to a more normal behavior by the time he reaches…25 years old. That is approximately the time it takes for the neocortical brain to fully mature. Although the neocortex starts to develop at a very young age, it takes decades to fully mature. The reason behind is that during those first 25 years of life one should accumulate experiences that will help to build their thoughts so that by the time they reach 25 years old, their brain will be wired to make decisions based on the experience they acquired during all that time. 


What are the primitive reflexes?


Going back to the early days right after birth, a neonate doesn’t have the brain mature enough to initiate voluntary movement. But in order to survive, he has to be able to engage some type of reflexive muscle activation that are completely automatic until he can develop more complex motor skills. Those instinctive actions are called primitive reflexes and there are about a dozen of those that are identified in the first weeks of life.


An example is the sucking reflex: if you something touches the roof of a baby’s mouth, she will instinctively start to suck and at the same time engage the throat muscles for swallowing. Another one, the galant reflex, is present even before birth and helps the baby to move her way out of the birth canal by twisting her back side to side during delivery. 


Since those primitive reflexes originate are as vital as breathing for a neonate, it is not a surprise that they find their neurological point of origin in the reptilian brain, the most mature part of the brain at birth. 


When should the primitive reflexes be suppressed?


Primitive reflexes are vital for the survival of a neonate, but they shouldn’t be present forever. As the rest of our brain starts to mature, the primitive reflexes are supposed to progressively disappear. This happens as the neocortical brain starts to develop. One of the main function of the neocortex attenuation, whether it is a primitive reflex (reptilian brain), an emotion (mammalian brain), or a movement. This is the reason why toddler can’t hold their pee at first: the neocortex isn’t ready yet to inhibit the micturition center. Later on as our children get older they become loud, get angry easily or cry for nothing: normal teenager’s brain that can’t fully inhibit their emotions yet. On the other side of the spectrum we all have in our family that old uncle who tend to say inappropriate things out loud without any filter at all, putting us sometimes in embarrassing situations. That’s when the neocortex starts to degenerate and can’t inhibit thoughts as well as before. 


A primitive reflex that is still present after 1 year old approximately (they don’t all disappear at the same time, some takes longer) is a sign of abnormal development of the neocortex. So if a child is presenting with retained primitive reflexes, chances are high that she will present with other developmental deficits. The state of primitive reflexes can hence be used as a window to the brain, giving objective landmarks of the stage of neurological development. 


How does it correlate to physical and emotional, and cognitive skills?


It is important to understand that every child doesn’t grow at the same speed. The same occurs for the brain. Some children’s brains mature very quickly and others take more time, without being considered as a dysfunction or abnormal development. However, one thing that goes at the same speed for every child is school. They will be expected to achieve the same goals, perform the same tasks, or behave the same way regardless of how fast or how slow their brain is developing. This can become extremely unfair for a child’s fulfillment, who might be categorized as “immature” or “difficult” simply because his brain is taking a bit longer to inhibit some personality traits and to develop others. And that’s not all. A retained primitive reflex can also have a direct impact on the child’s behavior. For instance, if the spinal galant reflex is still present, being seated on a chair or wearing clothes that rubs against the back will trigger the reflex, making the child involuntarily and unconsciously moving all the time. In other words: ADHD-like behavior. The line becomes very thin before this child get (wrongly) diagnosed with ADHD and get prescribed with medication that will maybe numb his brain and hence get rid of the spontaneous movement, but won’t in any case help to develop the neocortex.


Another example is the grasp reflex: a light stroke in the palm of a neonate will make her grasp firmly. If that reflex is not well attenuated and the hand muscles naturally wants to contract when the palm is touching something, imagine how difficult it can be for her to hold a pen and write. Not only writing skills would be affected, but also any type of activity that requires fine movement with the fingers. 


When the neocortex isn’t capable to attenuate those spontaneous movements, it is also possible that it can’t attenuate a stimulus coming from the environment and reaching our brain through our senses. Indeed one of the main functions of the neocortex is to attenuate the signal that we receive from our eyes, or ears, and so on. When you look at a window, the reason why you can maintain your eyes on a tree for instance and not being disturbed by a car that is passing by in the background is because our brain can suppress the visual stimulus of that car and help you to stay focus on the tree. But if your neocortex doesn’t work as well, you won’t be able to to filtrate any simple change occuring in the background and will constantly be disrupted by any minimal sensory stimulus. The same thing can happen with sounds, or even with touch (you weren’t paying attention to the sensation of your tongue in our mouth until you are reading this). As a result, a child who can’t filter well those sensory inputs would become easily overwhelmed in a situation where there is a lot happening. To some level we all have a threshold that once reach can cause sensory overload, however if that threshold is too sensitive, simple situations like being in a classroom with other kids or playing sports can become overwhelming. Globally, this phenomenon is called sensory processing disorder and it affects children mostly but if left untreated it can perpetuate until adulthood. 


Those examples illustrate well how unfair it can be for a child to thrive in school, when he will be constantly compared with his classmates. A simple reflex that takes a bit longer to be suppressed can become a significant handicap for school, potentially leading to either misdiagnosis of behavioral or developmental disease and more importantly affecting the self-confidence of a child. 


How to fix retained primitive?


Thankfully it there are shortcuts to get rid of primitive reflexes. Most of those shortcuts are based on specifics movement therapy, such as primitive reflex retraining. Movement has a powerful impact on the brain and if applied correctly, it helps to strengthen the connection between the neurons and helps the neocortex to mature quicker. This is the reason putting your kids to gymnastics or martial arts is such a great way to develop their brain and very often parents start to notice improvement in their kids behavior when they start those sports. Other therapies involving sensory stimulation such as vision, sounds, or balance are commonly used and provide great results as well. Just like we need water and food to survive, the brain is craving for sensory stimulation (but not above threshold of sensory overload). Lack of exercises and increased screen time has made it more complicated to the brain to develop properly, hence perhaps we have more and more kids diagnosed with behavioral issues or learning disabilities. However, if your child presents with any sign of developmental delays or behavioral issues, never assume that she is less capable or need to be medicated. She might simply need a little more time for her brain to develop and a little help from a trained therapist to assist her and help her brain to mature quicker. 

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