By Meredith Sewell
“There is only ONE WAY to LOOK at things, until SOMEONE shows us HOW to LOOK at them DIFFERENTLY” - PABLO PICASSO
I was in my office at work one day and I heard one of our students yelling in the hallway. We often heard him crying, screaming, swearing, especially after recess. He would transition in three stages. Stage one was something that set him off outside at recess. Stage two was him being mad the staff member who was engaging with him. Stage three was him being upset that he was going to be in trouble at home. It was a circular cycle. I seemed to be the only one to get his Prefrontal Cortex back online, I became his calm. I wasn’t concerned about him, it really didn’t take that long to bring his limbic arousal down when I sat with him, I was more worried about all of the adults who ideally played a large part in the length of his reaction. My goal was to work with the staff, and then we could move onto the stressors surrounding recess.
How was I going to help them reframe their own behaviour to help him?
The Staff: Understanding Stress Behaviour in the Child
What worried me about the staff's responses were not only them verbally engaging with a little guy who clearly was unable to take in anything that they were saying, but they were responding in punitive ways: he was losing this, he couldn’t do recess, voices were raised and the list went on. Punitive measures in this case especially, puts more stress on him as well as all staff involved. I asked the staff what they were concerned about. They were worried about his swearing, his yelling, and most all him accusing them of something. Their limbic arousal was just as high as his. They were heightened just talking about it. One staff member even told me that I was too calm with him and that he was taking advantage of me. So, I asked a deeper question. Why does he do these things, and why at that time? Well there are many reasons: his peers, which game was played at recess, time of day, transition and much more. Is this misbehaviour? Is he aware of what he is doing and capable of stopping it? Well if he was then we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it and it probably wouldn’t happen everyday. If it is not misbehaviour what is stress behaviour? Stress behaviour is when a child does something they are not fully aware of. They have limited to no capacity to act differently. The swearing and yelling are a hyperarousal state of fight or flight. He was verbally hitting out because his limbic system is in fight mode. He didn’t mean what was said, he was telling us “I am hurting, and I need help”. We know he was struggling to cope with the end of the day, from last recess on, many of the staff could not understand why he had such a hard time. They were not looking at how their own behaviours could make a difference. How do we reframe our own behaviours to better support the needs of this child?
Reframing our Own Stress Behaviour
How we react to children is so important, in what we say, how we say it and our body language. It is human nature to respond in the immediacy of what we think is misbehaviour, we too can go into limbic arousal. Who wants anyone to treat or talk to them the way this little boy does almost everyday? Definitely not the staff who support him. It is historically ingrained in us that adults are authoritarian, 'children should and will listen to us'. It is a negative bias we often fall into, when what we really need to understand is how our actions affect the stressors the child is dealing with. I asked the staff what their reactions were. I knew what some were but I wanted them to reflect. The answers were honest, some said they raise their voice, others said they take things away, some even agreed they argued. I then asked why they did these things, and if it worked? Well they all agreed that the punitive approach was not working, 4 out of 5 days we were seeing the same behaviours. As for why, none of them could really answer me. This made me dig deeper, if I want them to answer 'why?' and 'why now?' for the little boy, they should be able to answer 'why?' and 'why now?' for their own stress behaviour. We did an exercise, the morning, midday and the afternoon. We had to talk about each part of the day. We discovered that the staff worked themselves up to that recess beginning each morning, in hopes to prepare for what was most likely going to happen (the little boy's behaviour after recess). They were in such a fight mode by the recess itself that their own prefrontal cortex was just as offline as his. A lot of “wow we never thought of that before” was heard when we actually talked about their stress response. So now let’s talk about how reframing our own outlook and responses can help a child.
How Reframing our own Behaviour can Make a Difference
Our first couple of steps in reframing are seeing the difference between misbehaviour and stress behaviour and asking 'why?' and 'why now?'. Instead of reacting to a problem, let’s flip it on its head, make it a positive. If we ask the right questions around a situation and start seeing the stressors in the five domains as they appear in ourselves and a child, we can start to understand what we need to do. We need to hear these behaviours as a cry for help and not assume a child is “BAD”. In the case of this little boy, he doesn’t need us to keep telling him what he needs to do or what he is doing wrong, he needs us to be calm and not overuse verbal language. He needs us to help him shift back into the thinking brain. If the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is offline, anything we say is not being heard. We often turn to problem solving, more of a fix the problem instead of working with the stress behaviour. Recognize that these children are not problems, they are showing us coping mechanisms and we need to help them reframe. Don’t beat yourself up over things that have happened, learn from situations and be willing to learn from a child. When something does not work, we need to go back and reflect on it, be willing to understand that it didn’t work and why. We need reflective growth to reframe our own initial stress response.
“If we see a child differently, we will see a different child” - Dr. Stuart Shanker
Let’s Give it a Try
If adults in our classrooms are not willing to reframe their own behaviour we will not be able to help children with high stress behaviours. We need to lend our calm to children with a heightened limbic system, not join them in the arousal. If something is not working, chances are it never will. So, being open-minded and looking at behaviour as stress behaviour, it may paint a clearer picture of 'why?' and 'why now?'. We have lost sight of the fact that we are working with children, something that may not be a big deal to us may be a huge deal to them. If we cannot gain their trust, if they don’t feel safe, how can we help them respond differently? We as adults should be able and willing to see past the behaviour and see what is beneath it. Kids are not born bad but they are born with stress and it won’t hurt anyone to give reframing a try.