This is a letter written to a fellow teacher by an educator and Self-Reg program alumni.
By: Alexandra Dana Gross
Dear Miss _____,
Thank you for taking the time to so accurately observe and comprehensively note _____’s behaviors in the classroom! It is very helpful to know as specifically as we can what is going on with _____ in school, what may lead to certain behaviors at particular times, and how best to respond to each one of them.
I have been informed by _____’s parents that there have been recent situations in which he has had a harder time than usual paying attention and following instructions and there have also been some conflicts involving his classmates. To top it all off, _____ is getting increasingly upset about school situations and has been crying and venting about them at home. Therefore I am very grateful to find in you a knowledgeable partner in elaborating the most constructive plan to resolve these situations and create an environment of growth and thriving not just for _____, but for all his classmates.
I would like to give you a bit of background about my work, to explain the suggestions I make, and as I know how much you have going on, I promise to be as brief as possible and share just enough information so my recommendations make sense.
My work is centered around a paradigm rooted in the discoveries of modern neuroscience, that come to fill many gaps we previously had in our knowledge and understanding of children’s and adults’ behavior, cognition, emotion, and physiology, and help us link all of the above.
The main idea is that our brain has three regions – a rational neocortex (blue brain), the limbic system (red brain), and a physiological one (the reptilian brain). All are interlinked and functioning together, but also take over and bypass or limit each other in certain situations.
Especially at times when our brain perceives (even if it is not real) threat, or when energy resources are depleted, the limbic system (the red brain) takes over and we have a series of innate, automatic mechanisms that take control and limit or completely override rationality:
1. we engage socially finding help in close and nurturing relationships (parents, teacher, friends)
2. we become reactive (‘fight or flight’) instead of being rational.
3. when the energy-consuming state persists, children (and adults) might even go into a “deeper” state governed by the reptilian brain, a state that some call ‘freeze’ – this is often confused with cooperation, when in fact it is blind compliance and obedience based on fear, not on learning and internalizing values. The problem with this is that no learning actually occurs, and children are still left to navigate school and social contexts with self-discovered mechanisms, some constructive, some destructive for self and/or others.
Another way this mechanism may become apparent is when we stop pursuing something when our brain predicts inherent failure.
The pivotal point states that children (and adults) do well if they can, and when they don’t, there are either:
- unmet needs,
- stress factors (there are some details in the attached material, shortly put we view all internal and external processes that expend energy from the body’s finite resources as stress factors – empathy or even happiness may be stress factors!),
- abilities that the child hasn’t yet developed, or can’t access because he is in a limbic, not in a rational state.
The primary concern (for all children) is that when we treat all behavior like rational, chosen, and deliberate behavior, instead of responding to the limbic reactions, meeting needs, or eliminating obstacles in the path of learning, we risk heightening the stress load that lead to the behavior in the first place. Subsequently, the stress behavior becomes more frequent, eventually becoming an embedded maladaptive mechanism for facing certain moments/contexts/situations/relationships and clutches the child into a stress cycle.
We now know that self-regulation is a prerequisite for self-control and in my perspective, the first aim for _____ is to be able to self-regulate, so that he can gain self-control.
This brings me to how I interpret he perceived the timeout moment when his classmates weren’t allowed to talk to him, and how he interpreted his friend being in time-out: instead of being able to reflect and resolve the issues that lead to the time out (which is a blue-brain, rational, function), and follow the rule of not talking to his friend when the latter was in time-out, my guess is that _____ was in a limbic state and his brain didn’t allow him to rationalize and change his behavior. This episode might have heightened the stress load and may have led to even more unadaptive behavior in the classroom. Recent studies show unequivocally that the above is true for a very large percentage of children, neurotypical as well as neurodiverse – depending on how the child perceives the time-out.
I know (from 10 years of experience helping families and teachers) that some people might interpret this as a lenient perspective, but neurophysiology informs us about our capacities in different brain states (this is true for all human beings, not just children or neurodiverse people).
My recommendations don’t mean to be indulgent but are intended to bring back a sense of safety for _____ when the alarm of his limbic system is triggered, to bring the rational part of the brain back online, and facilitate real learning about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
Sometimes consequences are adequate, we only have to find what consequences produce a positive stress load (that _____ can truly learn from) and true remorse (which he often genuinely feels). Even so, consequences would be the last go and I recommend focusing on preventive strategies as well as in-the-moment management strategies that co-regulate, instead of escalating.
This includes the practice of Self-Reg developed by Dr. Stuart Shanker, the founder of The Mehrit Centre, which I will return to.
I am also assuming that the above reason (a limbic state) is the cause of _____ not being able to change his behavior after having been talked to by teachers and at home. Discussing something targets the blue brain, and his behaviors are not generated here – they are not chosen and intended, or at least not deliberately so.
From your observation derives another essential fact: _____’s strong need to connect and be seen, valued, and appreciated by his classmates and teachers.
Ideally, teachers would be informed and we could support them in beginning to build relationships based on trust, understanding, warmth, and nurture (even when setting boundaries and consequences) instead of authority. Co-regulation (calming another’s nervous system) is indispensable for _____’s self-regulation abilities and can only occur in this relational context. Otherwise, the adults are perceived as threats instead of a resource when his stress load is already high, and his behaviour might be launched on a downward spiral. Since self-control is rooted in self-regulation, and self-regulation is based on the regulating or dysregulating influence of significant adults on a child’s nervous system, this is a vital point.
I remember the notable turn for the good _____’s behavior took last year after my visit and after Miss _____ shifted her approach from authority to guidance and a nurturing relationship, and how he was on his best behavior when Miss _____ visited this year. Relational safety is the foundation for all (cognitive) learning that occurs in children – maybe even more so for _____.
Regarding his peers, _____ has to learn to connect and interact with his peers by engaging in appropriate behaviors and we need to find and give him the tools to do so. It might have happened involuntarily that the many reprimands _____ has received lately single him out in addition to his neurodiversity. Regarding this aspect, our goal is to help the other children (and ideally teachers) to separate _____’s person from his behavior, learn to set boundaries, but also engage in prosocial interactions with him. I know that _____’s has made true friends in ______ and _____ this year and this is an extraordinarily beneficial step in his overall development.
I think we should be looking into the conflict incidents closely and support _____ in expressing upset assertively. To do this, I would like to differentiate between rude, mean, and bullying behavior, so we make sure to use proper tools and strategies to address each situation.
Another fact that comes to mind is that in addition to all the above, _____’s behavior might have been exacerbated of late by the pressure of this year’s testing, which mustn’t be explicit, but rather perceived differently by each child.
The Shanker method relies on 5 steps/practices which are:
- Reframing the behavior
- Recognizing the stressors
- Reducing the stressors (especially the hidden ones)
- Reflecting on how we get into a low energy/high tension state (like recognizing a sneeze)
- Responding – which involves incorporating restorative practices into our lifestyle, which can be different for everyone and different at different times
The objectives I suggest for our work as a team:
- Recognize what brain state generates _____’s behavior and respond accordingly, restoring safety-coregulation and facilitating genuine learning
- Recognize the stress factors and reduce what is possible, to reduce the overall stress load and allow more energy for cognitive and self-control functions
- Cultivate a co-regulating relationship based on trust, understanding, warmth, and nurture (even when setting boundaries and consequences) – which I am sure you already do – ideally for most teachers, so _____ doesn’t go into fight, flight, or freeze when stressed, but engages socially with teachers when.
- Build relationships between _____ and his peers, focusing especially on prosocial interactions (e.g., friendly play or peaceful conflict resolutions, altruism (e.g., sharing, offering help), and behaviors that reduce stereotypes, also giving them instruments to assert boundaries assertively and effectively.
The first two steps, reframe and recognize would be our first step, and I would like us to look into reframing and recognizing together:
Reframing> Why? ___________exhibits a certain behavior and in the light of stress factors tries to understand Why Now?
I will list a few examples of stress factors that he could perceive across 5 domains, and we can discover more on my visit since this separation is mostly theoretical and one stress factor can belong to more domains and stress factors exacerbate and multiply each other:
- visual stimuli – classroom decorations
- bold colors in the books
- Fluorescent lighting
- wearing glasses (even more when the lenses are smudged)
- visual distractions – other classmates moving around the classroom
- the noise the windows make when they are opened and closed using the remote
- noise from the street when the windows are open
- differently pitched sounds, especially in music class
- food smells during lunch break (which children eat in their classroom)
- Having lunch and classes in the same space
- other people speaking
- lack of hydration
- sitting for a long time
- having to stop his repetitive behaviors which may have the role to regulate or to help him focus
- changes in routine (stretches over to the emotion and cognitive domain)
- difficulties in perceiving where different body parts are in relation to his own body, objects, or other people
- feeling sad
- feeling rejected
- feeling left out
- feeling judged by his classmates
- test anxiety
- anticipation (both positive and negative)
- joy and enthusiasm
- processing quick or multiple instructions
- he may be very articulate but not have an equivalent functional understanding,
- paying attention to what the teacher and his classmates are saying
- following a long instruction
- solving problems which become more and more difficult as he grows
- not applying instructions given to the whole class to himself
- expecting to disappoint or fail – so he doesn’t even get started on work he perceives as difficult (also a social stressor – that triggers a limbic reaction that inhibits cognition and can lead to avoidance)
- difficulties in generalizing knowledge and skills
- being able to list the school rules but being unable to interpret them in the situation (also a social stressor)
- break time
- difficulties understanding idioms, jokes, or understanding sarcasm, or perceiving it as an attack on him without being able to respond appropriately
- a hard time interpreting body language and emotions in himself and/or others,
- poor interpretation of social signals on both sides (him and his classmates)
- using gestures, words, or intonation which are used by other pupils in the yard and to each other, but which are not fitting in an adult/student interaction and his teacher’s reaction to them
- using words and topics heard outside school inappropriately in class and his classmates/teacher’s reaction
- the reaction of others to these may be sufficiently motivating to mean that he repeats and emphasizes these actions
- not picking up on the non-verbal cues showing others have lost interest, such as turning away, yawning, avoiding eye contact, or looking at their watch
- missing the verbal cues, for instance, when the other person tries to interrupt or raise points
- not recognizing when someone is trying to change the subject, nor seeing this as legitimate if he hasn’t finished
- Being put on the spot in front of his classmates
- Not understanding the “hidden curriculum” – the set of rules that everyone knows but has not been explicitly taught, for instance, Mr. Jones allows pupils to whisper in class when working, whereas Ms. Jones expects total silence
- feeling that his friend is being treated unfairly
- feeling sad for his friend in time-out
- Taking turns in talking
- Feeling unprepared for his exams
- Classmates stress around exams
- Being late on some mornings
- Waiting his turn to answer teachers’ questions when he knows the answer
I am attaching 3 materials that concisely comprise what I wrote above, feel free to share them with other teachers – I would appreciate your view on them.
As a teacher, I am completely convinced that it is impossible to be among the children all the time, especially during recess, and that is why I gladly offer to come to school again for 2-3 hours, on one or more visits, to be able to observe and make more accurate suggestions.
Thank you for taking the time to read up to this point!
My goal is always to transform challenging situations into learning opportunities and I am hoping that together we will find solutions that enable _____ to move past some behaviors and replace them with more constructive ones.
My year-long practice has convinced me that there are always solutions to be found, children can truly thrive and the classroom can become a respectful and pleasant environment for all, including teachers, and I think this is especially true for _____ as he has had such a promising evolution in the past.
Finally, I must admit that I am very hopeful and glad to have found such a well-informed and well-intended partner in you – I must say it is unfortunately rather rare in schools and I appreciate you even more for it!
If you agree, I would like to set some dates for visiting in April. My preferred day is Friday since all the other days are already full on my agenda, but I can also exceptionally make Monday work.
Thank you again for your time, patience, and dedication!