Karen Kilbane
Nov 16 · 7 min read

I am a parent of four and a teacher and some of your thoughts about the different ‘behavior’ camps I have had almost verbatim!

In trying desperately to figure our how to handle student behaviors, I inadvertently found facts I had no expectation or intention of finding.

What I found is we are using archaic psychological theories to understand ourselves and our students. These archaic theories have been misdirecting many of our efforts to raise and educate children in ways that will allow them to enjoy robust mental health from birth to death. These psychological theories provide solely disorder based concepts and words for us to work with. We have had no choice but to build definitions of ourselves and our students with words and concepts that stress how dysfunctional we all are compared with idealized visions of how psychologists arbitrarily decided humans SHOULD be.

I am working on a book about a theory of personality that a neuroscientist and I have developed. Our theory is based, in part, on the memory/prediction framework theory of the brain proposed by Jeff Hawkins of Numenta. We have also been heavily influenced by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s constructed theory of emotion. Barrett’s theory came out in 2017 and her research findings glaringly illuminate how inaccurate psychologists have been in their understanding of the mechanics of emotion.

Barrett just won the Guggenheim Award. Both she and Hawkins will likely be considered two of the most important scientists of our generation. Their research will need to be incorporated into our educational practices, because what I have learned after researching the brain and nervous system is we are destroying the factory settings of our children’s brains by applying outdated misinformation about how brains integrate with bodies. Most of the misinformation comes directly from psychology and psychologists need to re-work and re-tool their theories and practices. But in what has to be one of the most unbelievable ironies of all time, psychology is a field allergic to meaningful introspection. I call this an irony inside of an irony inside of an irony.

I have come to the conclusion our first priority as educators should not be related to the outcomes we have pre-decided we want for our children like psychologists have led us to do. Our first priority should be to teach relevant skills and knowledge in ways that will not impair the healthy functioning of a child’s brain. This means we must preserve the predictive mechanisms in each child’s brain.

The brain is generating a constant series of predictions for what to do next. The predictions our conscious brain allows us to become aware of are the only bits of information we can actively interact with. Almost everything about the mechanics of being human take place automatically or autonomically. Generating predictions is literally our only active function. Therefore, we must be scrupulously careful about how we treat the one active role our children play in their humanity, which means we must protect and preserve how they are able to interact with, understand, and interpret information in order to generate continuous strings of predictive decisions for what to do next.

The predictions and predictive decisions our brain decides to make us aware of are not just the only place we have the chance to take an active role in our daily lives, these predictions are also intricately tied into our fight or flight response network. When a prediction is violated, regardless of how important or trivial the prediction is, the brain will cue the fight or flight response to make sure we pay attention to the potentially threatening event.

The brain itself cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. In general, the brain orchestrates nerves, muscles, organs, tissues, and cells so we will become aware of information we need to be aware of. But the brain is an organ that is blind and deaf. It can’t even feel things as it has no pain receptors like other organs do. The brain receives information as packets of patterns via its neurons. If an incoming pattern matches the pattern the brain was expecting, all is chill. If an incoming pattern is different than the brain was expecting, the brain sets off its alarm system. The alarm system, the fight or flight response, did not evolve to be wishy washy. Fight or flight evolved to be super uncomfortable, just like pain, so we will absolutely focus our attention on the perceived threat. Psychologists wrote their theories well before any of this was worked out with specificity, so none of their theories account for the tremendous discomfort all humans experience when they are in a state of ‘wrongness.’ Even a tiny little bit of wrongness is a big, huge, hairy deal to the brain.

A whole lot of things threaten the brain ferociously that psychologists have never stopped to consider. Language designating a child as having a disorder, a deficit, an abnormality, an inferiority, an inadequacy, are words that will keep a child’s brain in a permanent state of threat. A brain that has been told it is inferior to the rest of the brains in class will be a brain on high alert at all times. One of the main jobs of the brain is to establish when a threat is present.We can’t stop our organs from performing their functions, and we do not work against any of our other organs except for the brain, mostly because nobody has questioned the foundational assumptions made by psychological theorists. We have over a million words in the English language. We can surely come up with neutral terms to describe different types of thinking styles and eliminate the prescriptive, belittling, reductive language of psychology.

The fact fight or flight is ferociously potent and uncomfortable is something psychologists have never stopped to consider, almost all our ‘behavior’ management techniques requires us to exploit the fight or flight response in our students, which to the brain, plays the exact same role as pain. To the brain, using behaviorism as a tool to coerce compliance is no different than using corporal punishment. In the long run, corporal punishment might do less mental health damage than the continuous exploitation of a child’s fight or flight response. We do not need to rely on either strategy. And we do not need to perpetuate an epidemic of anxiety related mental health problems.

I now rely exclusively on cognitive support plans, no more behavior management plans. Behavior is nothing more than an involuntary response to what and how a child is thinking about in a moment in time. Behaviors cannot think, choose, or spontaneously change into something else. Behaviors are not the thing we educators should be placing our focus. Cognition is. (And Lisa Feldman Barrett has shown us emotion is integrated with cognition. We cannot separate the two. There is no such thing as emotional thinking that can be contrasted to rational thinking. This is a false dichotomy perpetuated by psychologists. Emotions assist the brain in interpreting and managing information. The reason for and end goal or emotions the brain cues for is always to end up with a prediction for what to do next. )

Each child cognitively makes sense of and interprets information in customized ways depending on their processing speed, previous learning committed to memory, speed of memory recall, efficiency of memory recall, overall IQ, gender, height, weight, handedness, depth perception, visual acuity, auditory acuity, spatial and temporal awareness, eye hand coordination, balance, strength, agility, sensory style, to name just a few of the variables involved in cognition. Children’s behaviors will all be generated slightly differently according to how their brain’s and bodies are equipped to interact with both internal and external information. So pre-determining which behaviors are acceptable and which are not just doesn’t make logical sense any more.

When I pieced all this together, I realized we do not have to make children feel bad to get them to learn. I also realized we only intentionally make them feel bad when they are not complying with us, our rules, or our pre-determined notions for how they should be engaging in a lesson. We never make a child feel bad for making mistakes in math, reading, or science, quite the opposite. We give more attention and care to kids struggling with content. But kids do not learn rules about compliance any differently than they learn rules about compliance any differently than they learn about content. We can teach compliance with the same sort of sequential, thoughtful, patient, neutral attitude as we teach the stages of photosynthesis.

These ideas have made me so calm. I don’t make predictions for how my students should behave any more, so my predictions don’t get violated in this department and therefore I don’t go into fight or flight every second of every day any more!

I no longer see behavior as something that can be disordered or wrong or deserving of a consequence. Off task behavior now signals to me that that a student needs me to offer a qualitatively different, or simplified, or supported method of achieving the task. These ideas have improved every aspect of my personal and professional life!

I also have stopped using adjectives to give a judgement about a child’s behavior, or thoughts, or appearance. The whole ‘be positive’ movement has confused me always because the term positive in all its iterations is one of the most relative terms in existence. We cannot build strategies out of terms that mea something different to every person and terms that mean something completely different in different contexts. Using comparative and prescriptive and judgmental adjectives about behavior is a practice I no longer engage in and am making a case for why psychologists should never have ushered in the practice in the first place. Psychologists should have provided us with descriptive terms to understand our children, not prescriptive guidelines for how to judge them as normal or abnormal. Nobody is abnormal from the point of view of their own brain. Everyone has to work with the brain and body they have, not the brain and body psychologists pre-decided was normal so everyone’s brains can produce outcomes psychologists pre-decided were acceptable. Differentiated instruction can be way, way, way more differentiated than we have been led to believe!

Karen Kilbane

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My students with special needs have led me to develop a hypothesis for a brain-compatible theory of personality. Reach me at karenkilbane1234@gmail.com