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By Sonia Gregory, Teaching Principal, Chief Paul Niditchie School

Dr. Stuart Shanker says, “See a child differently, see a different child.” This is such a beautiful concept in Self-Reg. It seems so simple, but what does it really mean to reframe a child’s behaviour? I like to think that I am caring and compassionate. As an educator, I strive to look beyond the child’s behaviour and see the child. I pride myself on my ability to connect with children and build relationships with them. Yet, like most educators, I struggle at times with student behaviour. 

Not long ago a colleague came to see me after school. It started with a knock at my door.“ Did you see who was in the office?” The question was stated with an air of care and concern.

“No, who?” I responded.

“Francis’ mom. They moved back to town. You know he is going to be in your class, right? I had him last year. You are going to need help. You know what he is like.” The teacher looked at me expectantly, waiting for a response that would convey the expected dread and disappointment at Francis’ arrival.

Francis (not his real name), is a smaller than average little guy with curly hair and a confident swagger. Francis: who has already moved between our school and others in the district three times. Francis: who, in a second, can erupt in violent screaming episodes that end with a classroom in shambles.Watching him come down the hall in the morning, it is easy to forget that he is only eight years old.

How I see my role as an educator will largely determine my ability to provide Francis with a positive learning experience. With a District focused on student achievement and meeting grade level provincial outcomes, I (like all educators) feel immense pressure to cover curriculum at all costs. Between assemblies, special events, birthday parties, and field trips I often feel like I barely have enough time left to cover the required curriculum. I know that Francis will require time and patience from me. I know that his frequent moves have left gaps in his concept knowledge. I also know that he is old enough to realize that his classmates are ahead of him. So, what do I do? How do I prepare my classroom to help Francis have a positive experience? 

When we think about reframing, we have to think about our own biases first. Whether or not he is conscious of it, Francis is counting on me, as the adult in the room, to help him remain calm and in control. If my limbic system is already in a state of arousal, Francis’ limbic system will sense the perceived threat and respond appropriately. Anyone who has worked with Francis would readily agree that this little guy has had to deal with a lot in his life. His frequent moves are the result of family dysfunction. Francis didn’t choose to live in a home where stress is a daily reality. His outbursts and maladaptive behaviours are simply the result of an overstressed system that hasn’t had an opportunity to develop the coping skills needed to process what is going on around him. A traditional response would be to punish the ‘misbehaviour,’ but that isn’t what this is. Francis is responding in the only way he has learned, the outbursts are a maladaptive stress behaviour.

To help Francis have a positive educational experience I need to:

  • Attend to my non-verbal communication. A child in stress reads our body before they can attune to our words, Francis is hyper-vigilant and always on guard.
  • Reframe misbehaviour as stress behaviour. By pausing to examine why a child is experiencing stress, we will begin to be able to start the process of teaching the child to recognize when they are feeling stress. Francis needs to learn strategies he can use to feel calm when his environment feels unstable. 
  • Approach the child positively. Positive emotions have an energizing effect. When the child feels secure there is a dramatic shift in attention, the child’s field broadens and they are much more attentive, aware, and curious. Francis has learned that unstructured environments are unsafe, so he needs a structured classroom where the routines and expectations are clear.

The thing is, Francis is doing his very best. No child likes to be out of control. Having an emotional reaction that results in a destroyed classroom is scary. By providing a calm environment where the adults help Francis recognize when he is starting to feel stress, and then helping him alleviate that stress, we can help him learn what calm feels like. It will take time, trust, and relationship to help Francis develop better coping strategies. To do that I will need to be my most calm and regulated self. Before I can help Francis, I need to be my best self.

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