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?