A Brief Overview
Behavior is a form of communication. So-called “bad” behavior might mean that a child doesn’t know how to cope with an overwhelming, confusing situation.
Research shows that children who are taught self-regulation learn better at school. This article describes a few practical tools and techniques to help children manage their emotions and provides links and resources where you can find out more.
Children who attend schools that make positive behavior supports a priority get disciplined and suspended less often.
When a child throws a chair, kicks, screams or intentionally hits his head, what does the teacher do? The answer depends on the discipline policies of the school, but many districts are turning away from traditional punishments and toward trauma-informed techniques. These new methods of “restorative discipline” or “positive behavior interventions” are helping children maintain dignity as they recover from poor choices and learn self-regulation.
Heather T. Forbes, author of Help for Billy, is among professionals who are designing new ways to help children cope and learn. Emotional instruction is crucial, argues Forbes, whose website, Beyond Consequences, shares this advice:
“It is in the moments when your child or student is most ‘raw’ and the most dysregulated [out of control] that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.”
Forbes’ work is part of an emerging conversation about how “bad” (or unexpected) behavior can create teachable moments. Research shows that struggling children often don’t improve their behavior because of traditional punishments or even rewards. In an article, Teaching Trauma in the Classroom, Forbes concludes:
“These children’s issues are not behavioral. They are regulatory. Working at the level of regulation, relationship, and emotional safety addresses more deeply critical forces within these children that go far beyond the exchanges of language, choices, stars and sticker charts.”
This area of education is now referred to as Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Washington school staff can access training and information about SEL through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the agency that oversees the state’s school districts. In the fall of 2018 OSPI released the Social-Emotional Learning Module. All staff—from teachers and principals to bus drivers and lunch servers—can use the training to help students learn self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making.
OSPI offers other tools as part of its ongoing Compassionate Schools Initiative. A free e-book, The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success, includes this comment from Ray Wolpow, a project collaborator from Western Washington University:
“You cannot teach the mind until you reach the heart.”
Unexpected Behavior Can be a Cry for Help
Trauma and how it impacts learning and life has been studied since the late 1990s, when the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coined the term Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Childhood trauma was recognized as an important factor in physical and mental health conditions. In 2000, Congress established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to offer free online courses and toolkits with continuing education credits for teachers. Among the offerings: “psychological first aid.”
This approach includes Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—sometimes called PBI or PBS. A 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute describes PBIS as part of an array of programs that serve students from general education through special education. Educators call this type of multi-part programming a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). PBIS can fit into MTSS programming this way:
- Tier 1: All students and classrooms participate. These “universal interventions” integrate academics, discipline and social/emotional skill-building schoolwide.
- Tier 2: Students who are “at risk” get more targeted interventions.
- Tier 3: Students with significant academic, behavioral or emotional problems are supported uniquely through their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
According to the research, about 17,000 schools (17 percent of US schools), have PBIS. Children in PBIS schools were 33 percent less likely to receive office discipline reports and were suspended 10 percent less often than children in non-PBIS schools. The universal, school-wide interventions had significant positive effects on:
- Disruptive behaviors
- Emotional regulation
- Prosocial behavior
Despite these positive outcomes, the report identifies a need for more outreach and development in the third tier, related to IEP supports. According to Child Mind, more than 77,000 children who qualify for special education are suspended or expelled for more than 10 cumulative days in any given school year. Children with emotional disturbance are the most likely to be disciplined, with children who struggle with autism, anxiety and learning disorders also high on the list.
Many schools want to do better, and new supports are informed by brain science. Chapter One in OSPI’s handbook, “The Heart of Learning,” includes a list of the brain regions affected by trauma. Understanding the amygdala as a center for fear, for example, can be critical for designing strategies to manage melt-downs. “Overstimulation of the amygdala…activates fear centers in the brain and results in behaviors consistent with anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance,” the page informs.
The George Lucas Educational Foundation sponsors a website called Edutopia that also offers articles that teach about neuroscience. A contributing editor on the website, Rebecca Alber, recommends that teachers “get curious, not furious” when children act out:
“When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.”
Use Your Words
Some teachers are turning directly to scientists for advice. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author, offers tips through his agency, Mindsight. Mindsight teaches how to “name and tame” emotions to keep from getting overwhelmed. For example, Siegel suggests learning the difference between these two sentences:
- I am sad.
- I feel sad.
The first statement “is a kind of limited self-definition,” Siegel argues, while the second statement “suggests the ability to recognize and acknowledge a feeling, without being consumed by it.”
Word choice can be critical in trauma-informed instruction. Jody McVittie, a pediatrician who started Sound Discipline, based in Seattle, gives workshops for parents and teachers. She talks about the difference between praise and encouragement in a training called Building Resiliency. Instead of saying “Great Job!” a teacher or parent might say:
- “I noticed that you wrote all of the letters of your name on the line and it was really easy to read.”
- “I appreciate that you asked some insightful questions during our discussion about the Constitution today.”
- “I know you can write a creative description of the book you read.”
The more specific the encouragement, McVittie says, the more the student will be encouraged to keep working on that “good,” or expected behavior. Another of McVittie’s key concepts is “connection before correction” to help teachers create helpful relationships with students. An example she uses in her trainings:
A teenaged student tossed a soda can from across the room during class. A trauma-trained teacher pointed to the hallway, and the boy joined her there. Instead of directing him to the office, the teacher explained that she really enjoyed having him in class. She said that he contributed valuable questions. Then she asked why he thought he was in the hallway. He said it was because he threw the soda can. She asked, “What’s your plan?” His answer included apologies and decision-making about how to avoid the mistake again.
This story certainly could have ended differently, and McVittie encourages educators and parents to avoid a “Dignity Double-Bind,” where children experience shame instead of problem-solving:
“Make the child think,” she says, “by showing respect instead of giving orders to obey.”
McVittie and others hope these lessons create a new model of education where Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of every school day. “Let’s create a learning community,” McVittie encourages, “by showing grace.”
A Self-Regulation Strategy for Right Now
Sometimes grace starts with self-care. Following is a breathing practice you can use right now to help your nervous system regulate. You will be breathing deeply as you trace the outline of your hand, giving your eyes and your mind something to focus on while you control your breath.
- Hold up one hand, with your palm facing you.
- Place the first finger of your other hand onto the bottom of your thumb.
- As you breathe in, slide your finger up to the top of your thumb.
- Breathing out, slide your finger into the valley between your thumb and first finger.
- Breathing in, slide up your first finger. Breathing out, slide down the other side.
- Continue following your breath up and down all your fingers.
- When you breathe out down the outside edge of your pinkie, continue to exhale until you reach your elbow.
- Notice how you feel. Allow your breath to find a natural pattern.
Now that you’ve learned this technique, you can share it with your children!
The following are resources for further information and inspiration:
Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Edutopia: Getting Curious Not Furious
Massachusetts Advocates free e-book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn
CDC ACE Report
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
OSPI: The Heart of Learning and Teaching, Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
Center for Parent Information and Resources article bank on SEL, Behavior and School