Sunday, August 18, 2013

Refining the Fine Art of Noticing

It isn’t often that I hang on to an in-flight magazine, but an article by Nathaniel Reade in the March, 2011 edition of Spirit, from Southwest Airlines, totally captivated me. I read it thoroughly, twice, and brought the magazine home, where it lived rather buried in my office for quite a while (well, since about April of 2011). Recently it surfaced, and I was drawn to read the article again – and I remembered why I loved it so much: it’s all about noticing – in a very particular and important way.

Noticing is one of the foundations of the Edu-K work. In a Brain Gym® balance, we set an intention to open to new possibilities in how we operate in our world (often to eliminate a block or frustration, or develop a skill); we notice how we’re doing right now (how we experience that stuck-ness), and then notice which Brain Gym movements or activities we’re drawn to do, to come back into balance. After doing the movements or activities (our “learning menu”), we notice shifts or changes in how we feel, or how we’re now able to accomplish that target skill.

Part of my role as a Brain Gym consultant is to support others in observing these subtle cues within themselves. Throughout my years facilitating Brain Gym sessions my own sense of noticing has become more and more refined. But this article referred to noticing some of the most subtle behaviors of infants, as a key to understanding them, and – in particular  what may be causing their “fussy” behaviors.

The article describes the work of Kevin Nugent, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Massachusetts and the Harvard Medical School, and who directs the Brazelton Institute at the Boston Children's Hospital. You may know the name of T. Berry Brazelton, the renowned pediatrician and author about all things infant-behavior.

What truly captivated me about this article was the description of Nugent working with mothers of newborns that seem not to like to be loved and cuddled, but instead fuss and even push the mother away. As you can imagine, this is distressing to the parents, who’ve been looking forward to “magic moments” with their new offspring, only to feel rejected and hurt.

Nugent coaches the parents to observe the tiniest cues from their child, so they can clearly see her attempts at communication, and interpret them correctly.

For example, one desperately “fussy” baby named Jennifer finally was calm and making eye contact with Nugent – until he simply spoke gently to her. At that point, Jennifer turned her head. A very small movement, but very significant! Quoting from the article:

     It’s called “gaze aversion.” Most of us would miss it entirely, or assume that the baby had spotted something fascinating in the distance. Nugent knows better.
   “See that?” he whispers to Grace [the mother]. “She just disengaged. She’d had enough, so she decided to shut me out.” This baby’s tolerance for stimuli is so low that looking at a face is all she can handle; adding a voice pushes her over the edge. Nugent explains that this is Jennifer’s way of saying, “You’re beginning to overwhelm me.” It isn’t quite a cry, but it is an early warning that she is headed in that direction.1

What subtle noticing! And what a difference this made to the parents, as well! Rather than feeling rejected by their infant who was resisting the kind of attention they wanted to shower on her, they were given tools for noticing the kind of attention the child was ready and willing to receive. When the infant’s needs are seen and met in this way, she feels safe, and there’s a better chance for harmony all around.

Nugent says that when we notice the initial signs of overwhelm – averted gaze, wrinkled brow, color change in the face or around the mouth, stiff body, flailing limbs – and we back off, giving the child time to recover, the child says within himself “somebody here understands me.”2

What does this mean to me, in my Educational Kinesiology / Brain Gym world? I don’t often work with infants (I mostly work with their parents), but this article certainly boosted my intention to bring my own levels of noticing to an even more subtle level in working with my clients of all ages. 

Since the time of re-reading this article, I’ve recognized gaze aversion in three clients: a 12-year-old girl, a 28-year-old woman, and a 42-year-old man; in all three cases I saw it as a sign of overwhelm, due to the sensitive or challenging nature of the topic each learner was dealing with. I knew to slow down, and simply sit in quiet for a few moments, watching for other cues from the learner that said he was preparing to continue: a deep exhalation, taking a sip of water, returning to our conversation, or even making eye contact. Sometimes I even observed color returning to the person's face as he came "back" to himself after something that stressed him emotionally. 

All of this takes a great deal of slowing down and being "present" on my own part, and willingness to allow the learning process to unfold on its own, in its right timing. And I’m adding to my repertoire more subtle cues to look for, using Nugent’s writing as inspiration. (See the two books I mention, below.)

I have shared this article with parents of some of my young clients who seem so highly active, volatile, or contrary at home. And I've supported those parents with balances to "clearly see and interpret the behaviors my child is showing me," or to "accept that my child is sensitive to subtle stressors." They've shared that by noticing and correctly interpreting stress patterns in their child's behavior (and not taking it personally!), they've been able to intervene before tempers flared by redirecting activity in a positive way, keeping everyone on a much more even keel. 

Where can we all use such subtle noticing in our world, in general? Everywhere! In all our interactions with others, whether professionally or socially, noticing subtle stress-based behaviors, recognizing them as signs of overwhelm, and responding (or giving space) appropriately, can help us relate more smoothly and effectively – to everyone’s benefit. 

If you’d like to know more about Kevin Nugent’s work, here are some resources:

Online link for the article, which I found on Nugent's website:

Two books co-authored by Nugent:
Your Baby Is Speaking to You
Understanding Newborn Behavior and Early Relationships: The Newborn Behavioral Observations (NBO) System Handbook.
These are full of wonderful information! The first one, with the most basic information, is appropriate for the typical newborn. It would make a fabulous gift for any new parent. The second one explains the Newborn Behavioral Observation System, so it’s a bit more technical – it’s written for infant-care practitioners. That said, it would be very helpful for the astute parent of a very fussy child. I got a lot out of them both.

And Kevin Nugent’s entire website is well worth visiting:

Enjoy! And let me know what you think!

With warm regards,


P.S. You may also want to know that my book, Educate Your Brain, holds a section about noticing as a vital element of the learning process. It's titled "Honoring the Learner's Noticing," and you'll find it on pages 79-83, inside Chapter 9, "Brain Gym: Theory in Action."

Click here for a link to my website for
Educate Your Brain
Baby image Copyright © Canstock Photo
1 - Reade, Nathaniel. "Baby Gaga." Spirit (March 2011): 118.  
2 - Ibid. 119. 

Copyright 2013 by Kathy Brown. All rights reserved. 

Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of Brain Gym® International, Ventura, California •

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Teeter-Totter Blues

I love the comics section of the Sunday newspaper, and Baby Blues is one of my favorite strips. This one, from June 9, 2013, really got my attention.

What could be so significant about a fruitless search for teeter-totters? 

This is a topic I care a lot about, and one I discuss in my book, Educate Your Brain.  For this blog entry, I’m going to quote from Chapter 7, “Move Into Learning.” You’ll see what I mean about teeter-totters, and more. It’s all about the vestibular system (part of the inner ear), and its direct link to eye-teaming (without which we will be unable to easily read). New to these concepts? Read on:

Movement and reading

Every moment of the day, as we move, sit, lie down, or stand, the experience of gravity activates a special sensory apparatus in our inner ear: the vestibular system. This body-balance mechanism helps us to always know where up is, so we can maintain equilibrium as we shift from one position to the next.

An important aspect of the vestibular system is that it’s always communicating with our eyes, sending the information they need to maintain a steady view of the world even when we’re moving. When our vestibular system is well developed, our eyes are happy to track across a line of print as we read and work together for other tasks. Without good vestibular development, eye-teaming and tracking, and therefore reading, can be challenging—or exhausting.

Effective vestibular training comes from the kinds of whole- body movement that should be common in childhood: running, hopping, dancing, tumbling. If children aren’t inclined (or allowed) to do those things, next best would be playing on merry- go-rounds and teeter-totters—except for the fact that this equipment has vanished from our playgrounds. Children who are uncoordinated, overweight, or otherwise disinclined to run and play have lost these more passive means of vestibular training.
The only remaining opportunity for passive vestibular stimulation on most playgrounds today is on the swings. Children with the very natural desire to tightly twist up the swing so they can experience the vestibular activation of rapid untwisting are often reprimanded: “That’s not what swings are for! Swing straight!” Maybe we should be lining kids up to twist on the swings.

Vestibular activation is one of the reasons we encourage people to Cross Crawl slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y!), because it leaves them balancing on one foot so much of the time. Doing Hook-ups while standing is another vestibular challenge, with big benefits:

A teacher I know invited her first-grade students to decide when they were ready to “graduate” from doing Hook-ups sitting to doing it standing—and then to standing with their eyes closed. They loved the vestibular challenge, and she was astounded at the difference it made in their learning. She said, “As soon as a child could stand in Hook-ups with eyes closed, he or she made rapid growth in reading and overall ability to focus and attend. I never knew a healthy body-balance system was so necessary for learning.”1

This chapter goes on to describe movements that can improve body-balance, and much, much more about the relationship between movement and learning. 

In the meantime – want to read more easily? Get moving, and see what a difference it makes!

With warm regards,


P.S. Ok -- you may say that the playgrounds in the comic strip do indeed show some more modern balance-oriented equipment. I'm using this comic strip as a conversation starter about the whole topic of playgrounds offering less and less equipment that promotes vestibular activation (teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds were fabulous for this). Plus -- some playgrounds I see have nothing on them at all that moves. I understand the liability issues behind these decisions -- but still -- Oh, for the 1960s! 

1 - Educate Your Brain - p. 50-51. Copyright © Kathy Brown, 2012. All rights reserved. 

• I submitted the appropriate email asking for permission to use this Baby Blues strip in my blog, and never heard back. I’m taking the chance that it’s OK, copyright-wise.
• Photo of girl standing in Hook-ups: Copyright © Laird Brown Photography. All rights reserved. 

Copyright 2013 by Kathy Brown. All rights reserved.