Video: Opening the Brain Boxes

This video discusses regional brain function, the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure, brain-behaviour interpretation and support strategies.

About this video

Production Date: September 29, 2010
Length: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Presenter: Karmen Krahn Schulties
Download slide notes for this video (PDF, 10 pages)

Karmen Krahn Schulties, MA, has served as Behaviour Consultant for the Cognitive Disability Strategy of Saskatchewan since 2007. She worked for 10 years in areas of economic justice, adult education and spiritual care for people with disabilities. With a background in visual and performing art, Karmen approaches FASD prevention, intervention, public education and resource development with plenty of creativity. Her FASD resources are strength-based, just as her strategies are positive and non-aversive.

About the ‘Brain Boxes’ program

‘Brain Boxes’ is an empowering program that teaches young people how their brain works. When regional differences are broken into ‘boxes,’ youth gain an intimate understanding of both the strong and vulnerable parts of the brain they were born with. By understanding their own actions as a product of brain function, youth are equipped to advocate for their own unique needs while harnessing existing strengths and external supports.


This video will help you to understand:

  • regional brain function and the impact of prenatal exposure to alcohol
  • how to interpret all behaviour as a function of the brain and its various regions
  • how to identify external support strategies including long-term supportive people


  1. Who is ‘Brain Boxes’ for? (6:55)
  2. Why teach brain function? (14:30)
  3. Brain stem behaviours (38:46)

Who is ‘Brain Boxes’ for?

‘Brain Boxes’ is both for the person with an FASD as well as their support people. The program helps those with FASD to understand what their limits are. At the same time, it emphasizes the roles of support people for when those limits are reached. It is delivered in a metaphorical way of teaching about brain functioning that’s easily understood.

Why teach brain function?

Understanding the brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) will teach us how to mitigate the damage. This understanding will also show us how to strengthen what’s working well.

For the individual, understanding brain function is important because:

  1. It’s yours; the more you know, the more you can effect what can be changed and accept what cannot be changed.
    • promotes self-regulation, an ability often seen as lacking in persons with FASD
    • inspires living to fullest potential
  2. Your brain drives your behavior.
    • self-regulation is about understanding and managing brain function
    • greater understanding may cause longer lasting change
  3. Thinking is how the brain heals itself.
    • the brain is shaped by behaviour and is use- dependent
    • research suggests that if adaptive functions are active, they’ll lead to lasting positive changes in the brain
    • teaching persons affected by FASD about their brain helps them regulate it
  4. Self-regulation builds independence and quality of life.
    • learning about how the brain works will enhance self-regulation ability
    • a study of the impact of learning about the brain of youth with FASD marked desirable change in targeted behaviours

It’s critical to teach to the part of the brain that is working well. PAE can have very different effects in each person. It’s vital to identify brain strengths and functions that work well, and encourage that behaviour or function.

Brain stem behaviours

The brain stem is the source of primal behaviours related to pleasure, pain and threat.

In persons with FASD, brain stem behaviours often override executive functioning. This is because the area of the brain in charge of effective function has been damaged and is less effective.

Behaviours are often interpreted and understood in a social context rather than as a function of the brain. For example:

  • aggression is assumed as being motivated by meanness rather than fear
  • hoarding is assumed as selfishness rather than insecurity
  • excessive eating is understood as uncontrolled greed rather than self-regulation through sensory-seeking

Understanding brain stem behaviours involves understanding what is threatening and pleasurable to the person.

Threat response

Our job is to reduce the perception of threat ahead of time so the person is better able to override brain stem behaviours with conscious thought.

When a threat occurs and produces primal behaviour, don’t appeal to self-regulation. Use safe, rapid and socially valid controls.

Brain stem support plan

Once threat and pleasure are understood, develop a brain stem support plan based on 4 strategies:

  1. Adaptation: ways to adapt the physical and social environment to reduce threat and increase rewards.
  2. Teaching: what and how to teach.
  3. Reward: focus on rewards for good behaviour.
  4. Response: how to intervene when the person has been threatened.
Modified: 2015-09-09
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