By: Dr. Laura Cesaroni
This happened recently, with a 7 year old girl.
I asked, “How was your day at school?”
Truly I wasn’t attending closely, looking down, and busy taking notes. Silence. I pause, this feels different. I look up.
Her eyes were avoiding mine, looking down…
“I’m not doing anything today, don’t ask me.”
Red face and ears. Refusal. Pressing hard into the wood table with a pencil.
A missed opportunity, a misreading. I felt it, immediately.
Slowly I take a breath, releasing some of the tension I was feeling. Understanding I missed the early signals because of my stress and insistence to write notes.
I needed to re-engage and repair, this was more about me than the child.
“I think I’ll make a cup of tea. Let me know if you would like to join me.” I say softly and move slowly. I know this student loves herbal tea, with honey. I start to get up –
“I ONLY WAS IN THE RED THREE TIMES TODAY!!!” she shouts and moves swiftly.
I turn to her and she is up and beside me. She is so close. I can feel her breath. Her eyes are piercing mine, her face is more flushed, her eyes are liquid, she is ready for a fight.
“The RED”: I hear about this a lot from the parents and children we work with. It is a colour that raises tension. Sometimes it is a chart, a red card or a specific space in the classroom that is identified as a “red area”. There are often consequences for being in the red. Being in the green, yellow, or blue is expected and manageable.
I used to have many coloured behaviour thermometers, I would even travel with these tools to homes and schools – the #10 was red. I used it thinking it would support me in “shaping” behaviours. I came to realize that this was not a strategy that supported the child’s regulation or flexibility. In fact, it interfered with the child’s ability to problem-solve or think. Who, then, were these supports really for?
With this small, sweet girl in mind – I was driven to reframe this system. How could we engage and respond to ALL children without using the colour system during and after upsets?
Thinking about “belonging” in our community was a start – the idea of building a community setting so that all children experience belonging, not embarrassment or shame. How do we support the process of self- regulating, so that some students are not identified as the disruptors, the ones that need management tools? I do believe we have to think differently about these systems and the culture they create in our communities.
I noticed that some children and teens they would hit the red quickly and frequently. They were often seeking heightened emotional interactions and feedback and seemed under-reactive to many positive interactions. Many of these children appeared disorganized and unwilling to engage or learn. These were not “attention seeking” behaviours, they were different. These kids were in a constant state of “red” or physiological arousal. Trying to manage this with a colour system tool created a disconnected dynamic.
For us, it felt like the strategy dismissed the human being, that the child no longer mattered, that we were doing things to them, not with them.
We saw this as an opportunity to engage differently – we used ourselves, our social connections and dynamic as a way to reduce the child’s arousal. Through this process we discovered more about our interpersonal and relational context. We recognized that our social community had to connect differently. Children deserved much more than a system that shaped behaviours. Their reactions were searching for empathy, warmth and support to help them find a balance during interactions.
What helped us shift our mindset? We realized it was about us, as therapists and educators, and not just about the child. We turned to The Shanker Method for support. We are in a unique position. We can either support physiological regulation or not. Dr. Shanker explains:
“Seeing a child as “capable of controlling their behaviour if only they choose to do so” only adds to our agitation, and as a result, the child’s distress. Instead of “calm begetting calm,” we find ourselves caught in the exact opposite condition, where “dysregulation begets dysregulation.”
The Self-Reg Framework offered many processes that supported our work. The model helps us understand stress, how to decode behaviours and understand contexts that can support self-regulation. Also, an understanding of “neuroception” informed our practices further. Dr. Stephen Porges (Polyvagal Theory) uses this term to describe our brains’ ability to detect threat in our environment and why and when the social engagement system may not be accessible.
“Functionally, when the environment is perceived as safe, important features are expressed…bodily state is regulated in an efficient manner to promote growth and restoration (eg, visceral homeostasis). Neuroception represents a neural process that enables humans and other mammals to engage in social behaviours by distinguishing safe from dangerous contexts.”
With practice and patience, understanding the child’s state and experiences and holding space for the interaction became our response. Management tools were no longer used or needed.
The Self-Reg framework and science supported our reflections and journey. I wondered about exposure to this management strategy and the cumulative history of these repeated exchanges for our children. Were we truly supporting cooperation? Could the use of these tools elicit stress behaviours, especially for students who have a history of management with these systems? What do students really associate and remember (physiologically, emotionally, socially) about the colour “red”? By aligning “red” with higher arousal (“anger”, “defiance”) could we be (unintentionally) constructing and eliciting memories and defensive states making their systems more sensitive? In essence, were we building a physiological platform in opposition to positive social responses and experiences, maybe even disrupting the child’s working model of relationships and ability to self-regulate.
Are some strategies that are so commonplace alienating? Our learners often report feeling left out, feeling overwhelmed and incapable. They have lost connections, missed social opportunities and feel their voice no longer matters. What is the child structuring and internalizing about their own ways of being? I was deeply concerned, that for some children, adult responses and strategies were weakening their resources and abilities to return to calm, flexible and regulated states.
Reflective inquiry and action is part of our process. This has allowed us to think deeply about needs and cues we use every day, moment to moment. We had to weave this into our culture, through discussions and using a Self-Reg lens. Here are some reflection points which sparked our journey:
- Consider how labeling behaviours with colour make children feel: Shame? Embarrassment? Threatened? At risk?
- Increase positive face-to-face experiences and notice the cues.
- Think about events in the interpersonal field. Does our context support relational happiness?
- Are there adult-child relationships within our context that are more concerning than others, and why?
- Am I self-aware right now? Does the child see threat in my response, or can they move close to me?
- Foster inclusion strategies, not exclusion. Build trust and motivation to work together, not against.
- Continue to raise the bar. Set high, clear expectations.
- And most importantly, listen, listen, listen, with interest and curiosity.
When reframing “RED”, I wonder about building resilience. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and needs that we all can be hypersensitive to during some periods in our life. How do we balance out as adults? I think part of the answer is about the social-emotional feedback we get during challenging periods – our relational contexts can help foster growth and regulation, or not. If we are not allowing children to experience and consider their experiences with support and connections, I wonder if they will develop the ability to think, reflect, plan and become more emotionally aware.
I encourage you to think about interpersonal fields and the tools used to shape behaviour and regulation, and to do it from a place of curiosity. Yes, it will raise many questions and it requires ongoing commitment and practice, however, it has the power to shift our culture and how we intervene when supporting children in our communities.
This article was reposted with permission from the FERN York Region blog.