The Pause to Check System

The idea for this blog article came to me at a recent holiday party when I over-heard a conversation between two moms discussing how they were going to handle going to Christmas at their in-law’s houses. One mom lamented that the house is traditionally filled with bowls of sweets and decorated with breakables and treasured holiday-themed trinkets that her young son can’t help but touch. “He loves his grandparents,” she sighed, “but he doesn’t want to go to their house because he is scolded so frequently.”

This interchange brought up a memory of when my nephew was about a year old and he came to my house for the first time. Since I work with young children I knew that it was up to me to create an environment where he would feel happy, safe to explore and want to come back.

First I removed all the dangerous and breakable objects I could think of. Scissors, ceramics and crystals were all placed out of reach (and sight). Then I got a basket and filled it with age appropriate toys and books. When my nephew came to my house for the first time he was allowed to touch whatever he wanted, because the environment was curated especially for him.

If I had not taken the time to create an atmosphere where he was free to investigate he would have had a very different experience. “No, don’t touch that,” “Leave that alone,” “Stop picking those up!” Phrases like that can leave a child feeling agitated and unsafe. They are not sure what is allowed.

Throughout life we each have many new experiences. Every time we have a ‘first experience’ a system in our brain very closely monitors the way the experience felt. The Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) is also referred to as the “Pause to Check System.” When a new experience feels safe our Pause to Check System files away that experience in the “safe” folder. If we felt unsafe, the Pause to Check System files it in the “unsafe” folder. The next time we encounter the same experience our brain will literally pause and check to see if that experience was previously safe.

When an infant goes to the doctor for the first time and, without warning, they feel the cold stethoscope on their bare chest or a needle in their arm, the chances are high that the next time they go to that doctor’s office they will experience a heightened anxiety as the brain “remembers” the feeling of the previous experience.

When a toddler goes to visit a home for the first time and is scolded to sit still and not touch, that child will probably protest the next time they arrive at that home. Their brain will remember how the previous experience felt and that child will not want to relive the discomfort.

When a child goes to school for the first time and their teacher is conscious to lovingly welcome them into the class, soothe their emotions and validate any concerns they have, that child’s brain will remember the good feelings and will be more likely to embrace returning to that classroom. It is imperative that a child’s first experience in a new classroom feels safe and fun so they’ll want to return again and again.

These first experiences are extremely important because they “set up” the brain for future experiences. If a child has, what they perceive to be, a traumatic experience on the first day of school they will not want to go back the next day!!! This legitimate struggle happens because the brain assigns so much value to the initial experience.

The more sensitive the child, the more heightened their Pause to Check System. Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) have very active Pause to Check Systems! This is also because Highly Sensitive People (HSP) perceive trauma deeper than others. Incidents that feel minor to most people can feel much more intense to HSPs. Being called on in class (and… answering incorrectly) can feel absolutely mortifying to a HSC!

I worked with a family whose Highly Sensitive four-year-old daughter was left alone in the cafeteria at school because “she ate too slowly.” The experience left her terrified and she didn’t want to go back. Even though mom tried to intellectually soothe her by saying, “They won’t leave you in the lunchroom ever again. I’ve spoken with the teacher.” the little girl still refused. She cried and protested. What I helped mom understand is that her daughter’s reluctance to go back was rooted in her neurology. In order to help her we had to validate, honor and process the feeling that she experienced.

It is incumbent upon adults, whether family members or professionals, to realize that while rules and boundaries are an important part of teaching children how to 
behave appropriately, it is also imperative to be conscious of the child’s emotions and brain development. Understanding how the Pause to Check System works will help you utilize it to your benefit in the classroom. By deliberately creating initial experiences that feel safe, free and fun, children will be more inclined to detach from their caregivers, settle into classroom routines and develop healthy confidence.