The Behaviour Files: The Neuropsychology of Emotional Disorders

This is the second in a series I’m calling The Behaviour Files, in which I explore ideas, strategies, and experiences educating students identified with behaviour exceptionalities.

I was very fortunate this week to attend a day long talk by Steven G. Feifer entitled The Neuropsychology of Emotional Disorders. Feifer is a well known school psychologist, author, and speaker on neuropsychology. He was a very engaging speaker, full of expertise and experience in all areas of educational psychology. There were many moments throughout the day where I felt curious and intrigued, and I wanted to share some of this with you today. Although he covered a myriad of topics (my goodness, who gives a day long talk?) including the bullying crisis, misdiagnosis of children with ‘modern disorders’, the devastating effect that social/family problems has on exacerbating emotional disturbances, and the emergence of neurofeedback as a method for stabilizing the brain, the most compelling part of the day for me was his explanation of the various parts of the subcortical regions of the brain and the role they play in behaviour and mental health.

Feifer called this region “The Cerebral Orchestra of Emotions”. They include:

The Amygdala
Commonly (and mistakenly)  known as the ‘fear centre’ of one’s brain, the amygdala is responsible for being attentive, and responding, to unexpected and unfamiliar events and stimuli. Having a hyperactive amygdala is what we know of as anxiety, yet, interestingly, we also don’t want this region to be dormant because that is a common characteristic of the sociopathic.

The Hippocampus
Responsible for facilitating memory functioning and emotional learning, the hippocampus is vulnerable to stress in the form of abuse, neglect, or traumatic events in one’s life. Hypervigilance in this region can lead to memory loss, disorientation, a lack of lucidity, and, as is well known in the case of those involved in war, post traumatic stress disorders.

The Nucleus Accumbens
The nucleus accumbens is the reward centre of our brain which gets especially excited by the anticipation of a reward. Your child writing his letter to Santa in late November, the college students looking forward to Friday night, and my little girl anticipating her first day of school are having this region of their brains light up. The cocaine addict’s nucleus accumbens is on fire. Underactivity in this area is indicative of those who suffer from depression.

The Orbitofrontal, Ventrolateral Prefrontal, and Anterior Cingulate Cortexes
These are three reciprocal areas of the front of our brains often known as the parts which are responsible for executive function. They control our ability to regulate our emotions, inhibit negative behaviours, and control our impulses. Perhaps most importantly, this is where we develop our ‘theory of mind’ or empathy for others. We do not want this region of our brains to be dormant in life, to say nothing of its implications for school.

I came away from the day with an odd mix of thoughts and emotions. It was incredibly revelatory to get a scientific, clinical explanation of what is happening in our brains when we are having difficulty navigating and coping with the demands of societal living and education. Learning about this stuff helps disavow ourselves of primitive theories about ‘laziness’, ‘badness’, or other such nonsense. The brain is our control centre, and the regions within it can be in states of homeostasis (balance), over-, or under-activity. No one really knows how much of this we can control, but it is a fact that these states, although founded on genetics, are immensely malleable, utterly captive to its environment and experiences.

Still, it’s one thing to have knowledge about these matters, and another thing to know what to do with them, particularly in our school settings. I mean, just how much access do we have to our students’ brains? Are all our efforts to work with the behaviourally challenged simply temporary measures just to get them through the school day? Steven Feifer was adamant that any work with the emotionally disturbed needs to be done in a holistic ‘algorithm’ of behaviour management, pharmaceuticals, and counselling/therapy. Can we do this in our schools?

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  1. says

    Interesting summary and thanks for your thoughts on it! I wish I could have gone to the session but I have to spread my PD out a bit.

    I love your question – “just how much access do we have to our student’s brains?” Short of an MRI and neurofeedback machines in the classroom, we may never know what is going on. This is why focusing on what we can see or hear (the observable behaviours) and finding patterns and associations between them and the environment is important to supporting a student with EBD. To see through all of that clearly though we must have at the core of our beliefs what you pointed out – that it’s not laziness, “bad”, “on purpose” or “she know’s better” etc.

    Our efforts don’t have to be seen as temporary if targeting a student’s deficits and their strengths in a consistent on-going manner. I stand by the idea that brain changes behaviour and with intervention (and over time) behaviour changes brain. It is because of that that interplay, as Feifer commented on that the holistic approach is crucial. Not to be done solely in the school, but as partners with community and home. I have seen some excellent collaboration between school, the board, community services, medical professionals, and a family to wrap around a student in need.

  2. says

    Nice summary, Royan. I certainly do not have any answers. I just wanted to say thank you for such a timely post.

    I have a team meeting with mental health practitioner this coming week regarding a student. As a teacher with ADHD, I’ve read a fair bit on brain functioning in hopes that helping myself will also give me insight into my mystery students. You’ve given me a necessary overview of some additional background info for other behaviours/disorders.


  3. says

    Very thoughtful piece, Royan. You ask if this can be done in our schools. I suggest that it cannot until we curb our propensity to create classifications of behavioural or emotional ‘disturbances’ which suggest that there is an undisturbed (aka normal/appropriate) ideal that some individuals fall short of. Brain research has done a great deal to illuminate the flexible and adaptable nature of the brain, yet we rarely reflect on how the environments we expect youthful brains to function within are often inflexible and unadaptive. How does this impact how we perceive our children, our students? When faced with a challenging student, I think we really need to ask ourselves the extremely hard question of whether we are trying to shape behaviour to help us or to help our student. If our goals are tied too much to behavioural outputs then we are not really taking the holistic approach.

    How can we help our schools be happy, healthy places for all children? It is vital that we create rich, inclusive environments which acknowledge a broad continuum of normal functioning. We cannot work from the assumption that children who present with particular challenges require supports that will approximate their behaviour closer to our perception of normal. Are we trying to shape behaviour to fit the constraints of our expectations and/or that of the school environment? Really understanding our students requires a firm foundation built upon acceptance. It is amazing what happens when we just meet kids where they are and offer them the tools they need to succeed on their own terms.

    I look forward to your piece in this series!

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