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John Hoffman reflects on Stuart Shanker’s opening talk at SRSS 2023

There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Kid

For years, Stuart Shanker has maintained that “there’s no such thing as a bad kid.” It’s become one of the big mantras of the Self-Reg framework. But for Stuart it is more than just a feel-good slogan. It’s a fact. It’s a science-based truth that steers us right to the foundation of how best to nurture the kinds of kids we all want to have in our schools and lives.

Although I’m pretty sure that today people are less likely to label kids “bad” than was the case when I was a child, there’s still an aspect of “no such thing as a bad kid” that is a hard sell. And that’s because it challenges the widely held idea that discipline-based guidance is what kids need when they fall short of our expectations for behaviour, cooperation, listening and emotional control. 

Stuart wants parents and educators to shed that mindset, I mean, really shed it. That’s a challenge since the idea of “bad” children—that have to be “fixed” via firm discipline is deeply embedded in our social fabric. It’s been around, for, like, centuries. And, while most people these days are less in favour of authoritarian approaches, it’s hard to let go of the idea that a certain amount of adult authority is necessary to teach kids, especially the less naturally, “good” ones, to learn the rules and norms they need to develop the self-control that supports social, emotional and academic success.

And that self-control mindset constantly pushes us, even those of us who like to think of ourselves as enlightened, towards thinking and talking in terms of “bad” (and “good”) kids. That’s not to say discipline strategies have no value or place in education and child-rearing. But, anyone who has ever raised or taught a challenging child knows that discipline strategies are not foolproof. And at times they can be useless, counterproductive, even harmful.

That’s why Stuart has devoted considerable time and energy to pulling together and explaining reams of knowledge from various sciences that show us how excess stress negatively affects children’s (and adult’s) thinking of behaviour and emotions, even their bodies; and this causes a lot (Stuart would say most) of what we think of as deliberate misbehaviour—(“bad choices,” as Dr. Phil and others would say).

Taking it a Step Further: The Science

In his opening luminary talk at the 9th annual Self-Reg Summer Symposium in July 2023, Stuart took his argument a step further. In the past he’s talked a lot about blue brain (prefrontal cortex) and red brain (limbic system) and how kids’ thinking, emotions and behaviour (self-control) are negatively affected when the red brain is dominant because of excess stress. This time out he focused on the impacts of systems deep within the brain (gray brain). 

These are brain areas that most people go through life never knowing about. For example, one is called the periaqueductal gray area. You won’t see that term on many parent or teacher forums. Stuart himself acknowledged that it’s not essential to know all the brain science terms he talked about. But if you parent or work with kids, especially challenging kids, it can be very useful to know a bit about how these deep brain systems work in a “bottom up” way to affect the “higher” brain area functions that govern executive functions and other cognitive abilities that we (rightly) value and focus on so much when rearing, educating, and yes, disciplining children. 

In essence, under the influence of excess stress, the actions of these “lower” brain systems initiate automatic responses that set wheels into motion in ways that, along with making kids feel out of sorts, cause many of the behaviours that concern us. These are behaviours that we tend to think need to be corrected through explanations, reminders and other discipline strategies.

Take Aways from Stuart’s Luminary Talk

I’m not going to get into the technical details of exactly how this works. But here’s what I took away from Stuart’s talk. These systems, which Stuart and others have referred to as survival systems, work in the background in various ways to keep our brains and bodies in a balanced state. Example: when our blood oxygen levels drop below a certain level, one system sends signals that increase our breathing rate to help our oxygen levels get back to baseline. Something similar happens with hydration/thirst and a whole bunch of other brain body systems.

In other words these are self-regulating systems. When they detect imbalance, largely caused by stressors—big and small, “common” and “uncommon”—they set wheels in motion that prompt various brain/body mechanisms to bring us back to balance. We don’t decide to feel thirsty or breathe harder, our brain and body just makes it happen. And once our hydration or oxygen levels return to normal (ie. balance) these systems go back to monitoring instead of mobilizing.

Something similar happens with our seven basic emotions networks, which neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp also referred to as survival systems. One system, which Panskepp named the Rage system, prompts humans and other animals to, among other things, fight for their lives when necessary. Now, we might use our more advanced brain areas to think about how best to fight, and figure out that perhaps the fight is not going so well so maybe it’s time to flee. But the whole process is initiated by primitive gray brain areas that we don’t actively control. That’s the bottom-up dynamic I referred to earlier.

Awesome…as long as things are on an even keel for us. But, these systems, including ones that drive biological activity related to the seven basic emotion networks—with potentially big impacts on our behaviour and moods—can get out of whack because of excess stress. That’s when these more primitive brain areas can become overactive, interfering with our emotional reactions, behaving and executive functions, including self-control.

So What?

So if excess stress is the problem, as opposed to a child wilfully deciding to disobey, defy or cause harm, then discipline strategies designed to teach the child a lesson are essentially a waste of time and effort because the cognitive faculties needed for learning are not firing on all cylinders. What’s more, if the child is highly stressed, such strategies and, more to the point, punitive or coercive ones, could cause harm:

  • Even more stress (accompanied by worse behaviour) for the child,
  • Damaged adult self-confidence (“I am useless at discipline.”)
  • Damaged relationships fuelled by conflict. And let’s face it, if we want to influence our “kiddos” that influence starts with a good relationship.

This is why the difference between misbehaviour and “stress behaviour” is so important. Let’s not pretend that this distinction is always crystal clear, especially when we are just starting out with Self-Reg. It takes time to learn to recognize the signs of excess stress, and kids being out of balance.

But, as Susan Hopkins pointed out in the Q & A that followed Stuart’s talk at SRSS 2023, even if you’re wrong: even if you treated the situation as stress behaviour and it later became clear that it was misbehaviour, what grievous harm have you done? You can still go back and have the talk, give the reminder, impose the consequence or whatever you think is needed to teach the child that their behaviour was unacceptable and/or what the acceptable behaviour would have been. 

But what if you make the other mistake? If you respond to  stress behaviour with discipline, a raised voice or whatever, you’ll do harm, as noted above. And, as noted, the kid won’t be in a state to learn and retain anything you want them to learn.

That’s why, for Stuart Shanker, and thousands of Self-Reggers around the world, there really is “no such thing as a bad kid”. 

What we do have is lots of overstressed children who need our help and support much, much more than the disapproval, coercion and strained adult/child relationships that are such a big part of their experience.

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