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 •


  1. Thank you Kathy ! This really helped me to make another step in understanding of my husband. He sometimes says:"Stop talking ...TOO MANY WORDS".~ And does that averted look. The description of that really helped me to start looking for another sign when he is about to reach his limit for the moment.

    Jolana Vanek

  2. Thanks Kathy! I have just finished reading your book and I'm very grateful that I can get further insight by reading your blog. I will be taking the Brain Gym courses in the near future and really appreciate knowing that I will get much needed " confidence boosters" from your site.