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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, February 20 2023

Myaline - Why Behaviour Modification is so Hard


Every thought, belief, movement or feeling is the result of a precisely tuned electric signal travelling through a chain of neurons, a circuit of nerve fibres.  In fact our sense of self and all the actions we make based on that belief system is really just the result of electric impulses sent along a particular neural circuit!  This has often been explained by means of an analogy with an electric circuit used in our daily life.  The thing is, in the electric circuit of a motor, if the wires are allowed to touch each other the motor would fail, it would burn out.  Hence the use of insulation that covers each circuit and isolates it from adjoining ones.  The same sort of thing happens in our neural circuitry.  In the brain we have a cellular insulator that wraps itself around the circuits, myaline!

Myaline is a lipid-rich or fatty content material that forms an insulating cover or sheath around nerve axons, the nervous system’s ‘wires’.  Unlike the plastic coverings of an electrical circuit that encases the entire wire, myaline sheaths the nerves in segments with short gaps in between.  This insulation increases the speed and accuracy of the electric impulses that activate the desired behaviour.

The construction of a neural circuit is the result of the desire to change our position in the environment, to maintain homeostasis!  For example, when an infant wants to walk there is an accumulation of skills starting from the parent supporting them to standing, overcoming the challenges of unsupported balance, the coordinated movement of the legs until walking becomes an unconscious skill.  Through every stage of this process the brain has, through trial and error found the best connection to achieve the desired result.  By repeatedly using this preferred circuitry the network is formed – hence the famous neuroscience maxim ‘neurons that fired together are wired together.

The formation of the neural circuit triggers the myaline response.  The more we use it the more myaline protects it and the more efficient it becomes!

This process remains throughout life but decreases as we age.  At about 50-year-old the proficiency is reduced but there is evidence that if you keep learning, keep active in a way the requires the use of myaline the decrease can be slowed remarkably!  But, it is undeniable this process of construction of neural pathways is at its peak in early childhood! 

In childhood the myaline arrives in a series of waves, some determined by genes and others by activity.  I speculate that the so-called ‘windows of opportunity’ are governed by our genes.  Significantly, when these periods of myaline excess that facilitates the acquisition of new behaviours are over, not only is the myaline reduced but regrettably the neurons that would have been used are washed out of the system for the sake of ‘efficiency’.

The most dramatic illustration of this process is the period of development of sight.  The brain prepares for the construction of the visual circuitry early in childhood.  The child learns to understand sight by linking the visual stimulus with a representation of objects.  What is revealing is that in rare cases where the child is born with cataracts they do not have access to this visual stimulus and unless the cataracts are not removed by about eight months, that child will never be able to effectively interpret their visual world.

These periods are critical and for the social development of the child the drive to belong is such a window.  This is a period in early childhood when infants develop an attachment to others, in the first instance with their primary caregiver.  The quality of the relationship between the parent or caregiver and the child will determine the sense of self the child will have and the behaviours that sense drives.  When this period is over children who do not receive healthy interactions, those subjected to early childhood abuse and neglect will have the same impediment for future change as those children who were born with cataracts.

It is important to understand that myaline wraps it doesn’t unwrap and so these early childhood circuits remain throughout life, once you insulate a habit it can’t be uninsulated.  This is why changing the behaviour of children who have developed highly dysfunctional behaviours is extremely difficult.  You can’t remove the behaviour which in many cases is automatic so the best chance is to build an alternate circuit!

Building a circuit to trigger an alternative response to a situation that creates a condition of homeostatic disequilibrium is extremely difficult.  Considering that the experience of disequilibrium initiates a stress response which then drives the learned behaviour that allows the individual to return to a state of equilibrium must have been successful in the conditions in which it was formed, change is difficult. 

The initial task is to overcome that stress.  This will be the focus of our upcoming Newsletters – it is critical.  In the mean time we remain focused on the characteristics of myaline in this process.

To build an alternate behaviour that responds to a stressful situation requires the same conditions that were lived through at the time the original circuit was established.  A behaviour was trialled (in this case not the existing one) and was successful.  This success needs to be repeated continuously until the brain identifies it as one that requires myelination.  This repetition needs to continue until the new circuit is fully shielded.  At this time you have a choice in how to respond to a difficult situation! 

To promote myaline growth requires the firing of the circuit, the student must take the action that will lead to the desired outcome.  It does not respond to lectures, best wishes or some expert explanation, it is only in the doing that this works!

As the teacher, it is you who must provide these conditions and they are what we continue to advocate.  Provide consistent and persistent consequences for behaviour in a calm environment.  It is the consistency and persistency that allows the myelination and the calmness that diminishes the power of the previous response!

Working with these children is very difficult and you must understand the building of a new behaviour will not take place in the same conditions as the existing one.  There will not be the same abundance of myaline and a significant number of neurons that could have been used have been pruned for the sake if efficiency.

Next time you are in a staff meeting discussing the behaviour of the children remember the ability to change behaviour reduces as we age and this might help you deal with the frustration created by those who resist change – we are all our brains.  Fortunately our brains are magnificent!

Posted by: AT 07:18 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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