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This article was inspired by Dr. Shanker’s keynote lecture at the 2017 Self-Reg Summer Symposium.

Explosive behaviour was on the agenda for this year’s summer symposium. If you’ve ever seen Stuart Shanker give a talk, you’ll notice a couple of things before long. First, he never sticks to his script. Second of all, there’s always a PowerPoint, but you don’t see much of it—three or four key slides at most. That’s because Stuart has a unique approach that might best be described as going off topic to stay on topic. He tolerates interruptions from the audience, encourages them, in fact. If an interesting, relevant point comes up, he pursues it. But in the end, Stuart always gets his message across. He does so in a way that totally engages his audience.

Using the Label “Explosive” Behaviour

So it will come as no surprise that in Stuart’s keynote about explosive behaviour at this year’s Self-Reg Summer Symposium, it wasn’t until about the halfway point that he mentioned he doesn’t actually buy the idea of explosive behaviour. Mind you, the extreme outbursts of highly disruptive, even violent and destructive behaviours that concern teachers and parents are very real. But Dr. Shanker rejects the label “explosive” because the connotation is that the behaviour is unpredictable and comes out of nowhere. “The child is exploding because of too much stress,” he says. “People often think these behaviours come out of nowhere, but almost always there are signs of excess stress earlier.” First we learn how to see and read the signs of an overstressed and over aroused child. Then we can better predict and prevent “explosions.”

Reframing Explosive Behaviour

Not only that, reframing the child’s outbursts as the result of too much stress helps us see both the behaviour and the child differently. Instead of seeing a child who lacks the “mental muscle” that confers self-control, we see a helpless child. Instead of seeing a child who is making “bad decisions”, we see a child who is “limbic.” Their higher-level brain functions are more or less offline. Instead of an oppositional child, you see a child in fight or flight. Instead of a child who needs to be controlled, we see a child who needs to be calmed.

You may need to take some initial actions to ensure everyone’s safety during an outburst. But the short-term goal in dealing with “explosive” behaviour is not discipline. With punishment, “there is no teaching and no learning going on,” says Dr. Shanker. Sure, children need to learn to make “better choices” about their behaviour. However, this doesn’t happen during a power dynamic when the child is already really upset. “What the kid needs in those moments is a strong Interbrain performing what they can’t perform for themselves,” Dr. Shanker says. That means calming the child. We turn off the stress alarm that is jangling deep in the subconscious parts of the child’s brain.

Two Big Challenges

There are two big challenges for teachers and parents. One is our age-old, deeply ingrained self-control mindset. It tells us that when kids are out of control, we must exert adult control via discipline. The trouble is, the default strategies like raised voices, commands, warnings and punishment usually make the situation worse by tipping the child even further into fight or flight. 

The other challenge is that such behaviour often elicits a visceral reaction in ourselves. ”Why is it so hard to stay calm in the face of explosive behaviours?” Dr. Shanker asked rhetorically. “It’s because the kid feels a huge threat and so do we.” The brain’s limbic system is highly attuned. The system picks up and responds swiftly to threats. Our brain does this even before we are consciously aware of it. “The limbic system preceded language,” he says. So, at an earlier period in human evolution, if one person in a group became alarmed by a threat, all group members would instantly go into the same state. This occurred via this deep but primitive form of brain-to-brain communication. “That’s good for survival, when you face an imminent life-or-death threat,” Dr, Shanker says. “But not so good for teachers or parents trying to deal with behaviour outbursts.”

In order to deal with “explosive” behaviour effectively, we need our prefrontal cortex to stay in command. That helps us stay calm so we can think more clearly about the situation while juggling other competing priorities, such as the needs of other children and what we’re supposed to be doing ten minutes from now.

How Reframing Can Calm the Alarm

How do we prevail over this ancient evolutionary mechanism that operates beneath the level of conscious thought? First, Dr. Shanker says, “You don’t want to beat yourself up because you’ve had this limbic reaction. It’s a normal human response. You want to find the way to stop yourself from having that instant visceral reaction. And the answer lies in the first step of Self-Reg: reframing. Learning to reframe the child’s behaviour and to see the situation differently stops your alarm from being tipped.

Reframing is also the first step in learning how to see and sense when a child is going “up the curve” towards a state of arousal and tension that makes outbursts inevitable. “Some children get to the edge of the ‘cliff’ much more quickly than others, he says. “When I talk to teachers about explosive behaviour episodes and what led up to them, the teachers can almost always identify signs. In retrospect, these were indications that an explosion might have been coming.”

The ability to see these signs via foresight rather than hindsight is something we can learn to do. The five steps of The Shanker Method® starts with reframing the behaviour in terms of the stress that caused it. Then we need to find ways to reduce the child’s stress. Eventually, we also want to teach these kids to recognize the signs that they are getting agitated. We can work with them to figure out what stops them from going “past their peak.”

Ultimately, says Dr. Shanker, it’s about moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, the child thinks, ‘There’s something wrong with me,” (and the adult agrees). The problem is beyond the child’s, or anyone’s control to change. In contrast, a growth mindset can always see the possibilities for learning and change. A growth mindset, Dr. Shanker says, gives the child a sense of control that comes from understanding. It opens up the possibility of increasing children’s stress tolerance so they are better equipped to navigate the challenges of learning and life.

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