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The impact of primitive brain reaction in the early years
Isabella Carstens

The first twelve months especially and again close to four years, is the most important time for laying down the foundations of neural development and for starting the process of linking up all areas of the brain. When the infant and toddler does not get enough stimulation from parents, teachers, environment and good nutrition this process can be hindered, leaving the neural connections, brain and senses immature.

Consider the following scenario

(Names do not refer to actual persons)

Bryan, is an inquisitive, boisterous almost three-year-old on the playground. He wanders to the jungle gym, watching with curiosity the antics of the older children.

Linah, the teacher on playground duty, noticed him, the message transmitted by the sense of sight (ophthalmoception) to the Amygdala, which immediately senses danger and alerts her to a possible dangerous situation.*

Bryan gingerly tests the bottom step of the ladder. Alarm bells are set off in Linah’s head.

“Bryan is too small to play there, he will get hurt! He might break an arm... or leg! “

Cortisol is released and the fight /flight/freeze reaction is triggered. Her immediate and reflex reaction is to yell (her voice should reach him before her legs can...)

“Bry..a..a.nnn, stop! Do not go near the jungle gym!”

“Gee, this step is not so high, now that I have both feet on it.“ Bryan gurgles with delight. 

“Be careful, you will get hurt!” The words tumble from her lips. “Bryan! Listen to teacher..!” Shallow breathing, eyes like saucers, arms flailing, legs pumping she advances toward Bryan. Her behaviour, evident of the “fight” reaction is further fuelled by the “I can’t” reaction and “I am not OK” message.

Teacher Linah’s piercing voice reaches Bryan’s eardrums, he turns his head and gets the shock of his (young) life. The towering figure of his beloved teacher racing towards him. The Amygdala -in Bryan’s brain - always alert, senses a threat, cortisol is released and Bryan freezes, helpless to move.

“I am not OK”! “Run Bryan, run! Get away! Danger!” His body do not respond to these warning messages and paralysed he stares in fear at the advancing figure.

“Get down Bryan, you know you should not play here, you will hurt yourself!”

She grabs his hand, wheels him around and while walking towards the sand pit: “Are you a naughty boy Bryan?  (I am not wanted) You must listen to teacher! (I am not OK) What will I tell your mother if you get up there and you fall off…and break your neck?” (I am not loved) “Here, come play with the sand. When you are bigger, I will let you get onto the jungle gym” she soothes.

Now, consider the same scenario

Teacher Linah is now responding to the challenge, rather than reacting.

Bryan, is an inquisitive, boisterous almost three-year-old on the playground. He wanders to the jungle gym, watching with curiosity the antics of the older children.

Linah, the teacher on playground duty, noticed him, the message transmitted by the sense of sight (ophthalmoception) to the Amygdala, which immediately senses danger and alerts her to a possible dangerous situation.

However, she is aware that her primitive brain will, want and should have an immediate reaction to this challenge.  However, she has learned how to inhibit the Amygdala, in order to have access to the neo-cortex or her ‘ New Brain’. This Neo-Mammalian part of the brain is the evolved section of higher order thinking and has infinite abilities.  It is the evolved conscious section of our brain, which is most in line with source, with our higher self, our true unlimited potential. It generates creation, manifestation, imagination, awareness, development, logical thinking, objectivity, empathy and consciousness.

Linah inhales deeply, smile and walk swiftly to where Bryan is balancing cautiously on the ladder.

“Hi there Bryan” she says, not until she is close enough to catch him should he lost his grip and slip in reaction to her voice and presence. (I am OK, I am in charge, and I can handle this situation).

“You want to try and get up there?” (You can, and I will help you and I want you to experience a “Now I can” moment)

“I see you already got onto the first step without help.” (affirmation) “Can I show you how to get to the next step?” (Co-ownership of the process of teaching). “Yeah, I would like that.” (Co-ownership of the process of learning).

“Okay, I will tell you how to do it, and you must just follow my instructions. Then, you will be able to climb the ladder. Place this hand, this is your left hand, here….and your other hand, which is your right hand here. Now you must stretch your leg and put your left leg here and….”) Linah continues to coach Bryan, careful to show him rather than her placing his limbs where they should be.

Under her watchful eye and guiding arms, she leads Bryan in the experience of “Now I can.”  Both the body of the giver and the receiver of these ‘Now I can moments” (Linah and Bryan),   receive a generous secretion of Dopamine and Serotonin – the happy hormones. Both believe “I am OK,” “I am loved,” “I am wanted” I am OK!

Consider how Bryan – in the first scenario - will respond when his mother asks: “How was school today? What did you learn?”

How will Bryan - in the second scenario- entertain his mother in reply to the same question?

Reflect on how Linah – in the first scenario- will discuss “just how you have to have eyes in the back of your head when you are on playground duty, because accidents happen at the blink of an eye”.

Linah – in the second scenario – might ponder why she “so much enjoys it to be a pre-school teacher.”

How parents and teachers retain and stimulate the Moro Reflex

I have experienced  situations where parents ,caregivers, grand parents, siblings, and teachers, unconsciously and obliviously get to stimulate the reptilian brain of youngsters or, steal their “Now I Can” Moments. Following are a few which I have noted or observed:


Most likely reason for the parent’s reaction

Most likely message the child receives

“No Katleho, you cannot carry that suitcase, it is too heavy for you, and don’t drag it on the carpet! Here, let me do it.

That’s my boy! Eager beaver. Nonetheless, I have a responsibility to prevent him from injury..and protect Gran’s Persian carpet.

I am not OK

Don’t make dad mad.

“ We’re late for school! Did you find your tracksuit pants? Where is it? Go get it! Hurrrry..! (sigh).

“ Never mind, I will get it…”

She is such a sleepy head, does not concentrate, I have to do everything for her. When will she take responsibility?

I am not OK. Why does mom always yells at me?


It worked ..again! There will always be someone who will look out for me…

“Ha-ha! Look at Kylie, she is wearing banana shoes again! Sweetheart you have your shoes on the wrong feet again.”

“Take them off and put them  back on. …how many times must I show you? No… silly, not like that…No, no… No!

 I said the other way!!”

I do not have the energy for this. What is wrong with this child? How many times must I show her, which is left, and right? She must learn the difference. I am sick of spoon-feeding.

I am not OK. I am not loved. When mom puts on my shoes, she is always in a hurry. I know which is my left foot, but I don’t know which is the left shoe. I am scared. Mom is angry with me. I do not make mommy happy.



Most likely reason for teacher’s reaction

Most likely message the child receives

“Stop hitting him Marius. Stop it, stop it now! If you do not stop, I will send you to the naughty corner…Marius, go sit in the naughty corner!  MARIUS!! Yes…that is what happens to naughty boys who do not listen to the teacher.”

This boy is testing my patience. He is always hitting on someone. I should not lose my temper and yell. However, this will frighten them into behaving and it does make me feel better.

I am not OK. I am not wanted. I do not like it when Carl sits next to me. He smells of onions. He picks on me. He knows I do not like him. I am naughty.

“Now, use the scissors to cut on the line. No, not there, on the line. Cut on the line, come on, I know you can do it! Look at Ruby, look how she cuts. Can you cut like Ruby? Yes,… you can! “

The way to let children learn for themselves is not to intervene. I should keep on encouraging her, to boost her self-confidence. She will feel inspired by how well her friend is cutting.

I am not OK. I cannot cut like Ruby. The scissors do not want to follow the line. I am not deaf, I have heard teacher the first time when she tells me to cut on the line. But I can’t!

“You must jump on two legs in this circle, then on your left leg in the second circle, and then with your right leg. No, Junior, your left leg…no, the other leg…your left leg…, which is your left leg? (never mind). Who is next?”

I should not draw attention to the fact that Junior gets confused. I should not make him feel ashamed. He is a slow learner. Give him time and he will catch on.

I am not OK. I was all mixed up when teacher keeps repeating “your left leg.” This is my left leg! I do not think teacher have the same left leg than what I have. But then teacher stopped telling me I am wrong. I am OK.

The functioning of the brain*

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of the brain and spinal cord. It is the control centre for all thinking, learning, and moving. The development of the CNS commences from conception, develops in a regular sequence and is the same for all humans regardless of cultural influences.

Parts of this regular sequence of developmental stages are identified by the movement or reflex patterns, which occur at each stage. Each reflex plays a part in the necessary growth of the foetus and prepares the way for the next stage of development.

The primitive reflexes (Moro-reflex) forms the cornerstone in the foundation for life and living and its effects are profound if it is not inhibited at the correct time and transformed into an appropriate and correct response.

The Moro-reflexes emerge at nine weeks in utero and are the earliest form of "fight or flight" – the reaction to stress-, which is present at birth and is usually inhibited between two to four months of life.  However when this is retained it has an overall effect on the emotional profile of a child because he or she is caught in a vicious circle in which reflex activity stimulates the production of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.

Thus the child is in continuous "fight or flight" and sometimes “freeze” response to challenges. This presents as a paradox - the child is acutely sensitive, perceptive, imaginative on the one hand, but immature and over reactive on the other.

The result is that the toddler will cope in one of two ways withdrawing from difficult situations (flight or “I can’t”): difficulty in socialising and neither accepting nor demonstrating affection they will become aggressive, highly excitable, over-reactive and dominating (fight or “I can’t”).

When the Moro Reflex is retained into adulthood, adults present free-floating anxiety such as:

The distressing consequences of a toddler in primitive brain reaction to challenges has been noted and already mentioned.

The Reptilian section (Amygdala) in the brain, is the instant (no discernment) “survival mode” response to stimuli or every day challenges, received by the senses. Lying deep in the centre of the limbic emotional brain, this powerful structure, the size and shape of an almond, is constantly alert to the needs of basic survival. It is the oldest in terms of our human evolution. It is also known as “The Old Brain,” “Reptilian” or” Primitive Brain”.

The nervous system has a specific sensory system, dedicated to each of the five traditionally recognizedsenses:

The guardian against danger, the Amygdala is the first to receive the messages transmitted by the senses to the brain.  It discerns between an “I am OK” and “I am not OK” reaction to the stimuli.

The latter reaction will trigger an immediate and sudden “flight/fright/freeze” reaction. In preparation for the “flight/fright/freeze” reaction cortisol, the stress hormone is released in the body which responses with an increased heart rate and contraction and narrowing of arteries. The emotional reaction is feelings of “I am in danger,” “I am not loved,” “I am not wanted,” “I am worthless.”

In the course of my (the writer’s) interactions with teachers and pre-schoolers, besides my observations in the classroom and playground, I have witnessed how oblivious the participants (both tutor and toddler) are towards their primitive brain reactions.

The primitive reflexes that every one of us is born with and the reaction from the Amygdala is not understood enough or being addressed sufficiently in education or by professionals. Yet, this is vital to human development and every child’s growth to be physically ready for learning and have the coping skills for all tasks and experiences in life.


Isabella Carstens:  isabella.intrinsic@gmail.com        




A Teacher's Window into the Child's Mind: Sally Goddard.                             

The Whole Child: Joane Hendrick.




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