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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me

Or will they? Despite the generally agreed belief it’s unfair to pigeon-hole people, most of us still classify others through words and labels. For better or worse, we define people by their behaviour:  

  • She’s the responsible one – we always rely on her to sort out our events.

  • She’s impossible during playtime – always the aggressor, and so destructive.

  • He’s a total perfectionist.

  • You’re so selfish and stubborn! You’re not the only one in this family!?

  • Such a reckless student – always hurting themselves or someone else. They just don’t care. 

  • He’s the whiz kid of the family. Remembers everything

Behavioural tendencies – whether challenging or appealing – are typically seen as personality traits. We even label ourselves “I’m a neat freak”, “I’m a homebody”. 

It’s only human to try and name what we see. But there’s a risk here, and it can be harmful. Research suggests labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies; people often grow up being perceived and treated differently – positively or negatively – simply according to the labels they were given as children. 

Another danger is the assumption that behaviours – especially “misbehaviours”, are willful or intentional. The child is choosing to act out, your neighbour is intentionally rude. Your student who always remembers their homework simply cares more, compared to their classmate who persistently forgets. 

In this blog, we’re going to explore why it’s important to look at behaviour through a cognitive lens

Defining by Function, Not Label 

At Arrowsmith, we understand what lies beneath the label. In doing so, a deeper understanding – and different way forward – is possible. We call it, looking at behaviour through a ‘cognitive lens’. 

As we’ve covered in previous blogs, at the heart of every human thought, emotion, and action is our brain. Our actions and reactions are a consequence of our brain’s cognitive functions working together. 

Find out more about cognitive functions in our webinar series - The Brain: Our Most Important Asset

Just as we can understand one’s academic abilities as a series of strong and weak intellectual processes, we can use a cognitive lens to interpret behaviour. How we interact with each other in the world, how we cope – is determined by our unique cognitive profile. Our behaviour is shaped by functions responsible for: 

  • Impulse control

  • Memory

  • Emotional regulation

  • Processing of and comprehending information

  • Time management

  • Organization and problem solving

  • Social etiquette

  • Common sense

  • Judgement and decision making

This blog is an invitation to use a cognitive lens to more authentically understand the behaviours, personalities, and reactions we observe every single day. Indeed, even to better understand ourselves, through our unique cognitive profile. 

Curious about the connection between cognitive functions and your, your child, or student’s behavioural tendencies? Complete this complementary questionnaire for a customized report.

Discover Your Cognitive Profile

Here are some common behaviours often considered personality traits, and the cognitive processes underlying them: 

Behavioural Lens

Cognitive Lens


Secure capacities in generating ideas, problem-solving, staying focussed, and completing tasks (Symbolic Thinking)

Strong memory for detail (Memory for Information and Instructions)

Social butterfly/Leader

Accurate perception and interpretation of others’ thoughts and feelings through body language, voice, facial expression, able to modulate behaviour based on these cues (Non-Verbal Thinking)

Strong verbal skills due to strength in sequential processing of language (Predicative Speech)

Math wizard

Strong theoretical understanding of mathematical concepts (Symbol Relations)

Strong mental calculation and sense of number (Quantification Sense)

Now let’s look at some more unflattering assumptions, those “misbehaviours” observed in classrooms, homelife and even in our adult world: 

Behavioural Lens

Cognitive Lens


Weakness  in prefrontal cortex responsible for mental initiative and task completion  (Symbolic Thinking)

Poor time management (Quantification Sense)

Short tempered 

Poor impulse control as determined by prefrontal lobes (Symbolic Thinking and Non-Verbal Thinking)

Difficulty with cognitive flexibility necessary for understanding other points of view (Symbol Relations)


Misinterpreting and missing others’ reactions, lacking “common sense” (Non-Verbal Thinking)

Limited inner voice that anticipates consequences (Predicative Speech)

Poor visual memory for faces, places and things (Object Recognition)


You can read more about these cognitive functions – including features of having strengths or weaknesses in each function - on our website.

Parenting and Teaching with a Cognitive Lens 

Neuroscience  has taught us that there is more to learning and behaviours than what meets the eye.  

When we use a cognitive lens to understand why someone might be interacting or behaving a certain way – our mindset shifts. Instead of feeling frustrated or hurt, instead of punishing behaviours, we can make connections and have compassion. Instead of identifying someone’s talents and assuming they are “born with it”, we recognize they simply have a particular combination of cognitive strengths. 

With this, we find greater understanding and empathy, including for ourselves.  

What’s more, we can use this lens as a starting point. With a neuroplastic lens – any cognitive function can be enhanced. Meaning, any behaviour can be shifted – new learning of nuanced and complex skills can be gained. New sense of self, control, clarity, and calm can be achieved. 

Applying a cognitive lens can be the first step in fundamentally transforming struggles and in seeking new ambitions.

Changing Behaviours Through Changing Brains 

For over four decades the Arrowsmith Program has been offered in organizations around the world, enabling professionals to understand their students and clients differently. 

In an Arrowsmith setting, there are no “good” or “bad” students. There are no “lazy” or “rude” students or clients. Nor people who “just aren’t good” at math, or sports, remembering, or keeping a tidy house or budget. There are only individuals with a particular cognitive profile, and with a neuroplastic approach, these capacities can be enhanced

With a neuroplastic methodology,  innovative technology, and the support of dedicated facilitators, changes in “behaviour” are profound: 

  • Greater cognitive flexibility allowing more adaptive thinking and collaboration.

  • Organization capacity increases eliminating passivity, helplessness or avoidance.

  • Gains in emotional intelligence and executive function.

  • Enhanced risk calculation and clarity of thought, communication and consequential thinking.

  • Increased mental initiative and willingness to solve challenging problems.

The next time your child or student acts out, or your co-worker ignores you at the grocery store - ask yourself – what are the cognitive functions at play here? What underperforming functions could be contributing to this behaviour? 

Let’s evolve our understanding of behaviour and provide cognitive programming to transform it.  Arrowsmith’s revolutionary programs can be adapted to an organization’s goals of supporting student or client improvements and can be directly accessed by children and adults all over the world.

See others through a cognitive lens: Recognizing brain-based differences can shift how we parent, teach, and see the world. Interested in learning more? Get in touch with the Arrowsmith team today. 


Debbie Gilmore
Post by Debbie Gilmore
May 23, 2023
Debbie Gilmore is a passionate change-maker and Executive Director of Arrowsmith, dedicated to transforming education and learning worldwide. With over 40 years of experience spanning classrooms to administrative roles, she's driving educational reform. Debbie collaborates globally with educators and professionals in a wide field to help them bring about cognitive enhancement to unlock every human’s potential.