The Body Tells the Story: The Promise of Sense Technology in Supporting Vulnerable Children

Improving the well-being of children and families is a priority for Dr. Rosalind Picard, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies “affective computing,” which uses sense technology to increase individuals’well-being using new ways to understand and respond to emotion. Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors that reveal an individual’s level of cognitive, emotional, or physical stress loads.

One area of her research involves “sense data.” An individual wears a bracelet or wristband that transmits data to a caregiver’s smartphone in real time.  This enables the caregiver to see an emotional reaction, such as a tantrum or “fight or flight” behavior, in its beginning stages,  sometimes before the challenging behaviors even begin.  How? The sensors detect the child’s rising levels of autonomic nervous system activity, reflected through electrodermal activity, among other things. In other words, arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (think fight or flight, or red zone) activates the skin, increasing its conductance. The conductance is called electrodermal activity, or EDA.  The rise in the individual’s EDA serves as a warning, providing the caregiver precious moments to intervene prior to a full ramp-up of behaviors.  It’s a way of peering inside a child, teenager or adult’s body to detect stress at its earliest beginnings.

Although this type of technology is not yet widely available or affordable for the public’s use, its potential for the ability to see “inside” a child’s body and sensitively soothe their stress reactions before they become full-blown is groundbreaking.  This early detection holds great promise for all members of a child’s team to help children find their way back to calm when they experience stress.

Over the years, I have spent countless hours trying to convince (well-intentioned) educational teams that certain children’s challenging behaviors are a result of bodily anxiety, a felt-sense of being unsafe. This is not a popular concept in education or in the larger culture. The roadmap, in my opinion, to helping these children is through the power of relational safety.

Technology will never replace human engagement. But if it can help us see “inside” a child and improve our current practices then let’s use it for that reason. Let’s use the advances in innovative technologies to understand children from the inside out, but remember that the solutions will always come back to the healing power of human relationships. When we focus on creating behavioral change outside of an engaged relationship, it will be less robust and meaningful. Supporting emotional regulation benefits us all—professionals, children, and parents alike.  When we place relationships with children and parents front and center, we all take a big step forward in unleashing human potential.

Excerpted from: Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention, 2017.

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