Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Simple Supports to Decrease Fight-or-Flight Behavior

When young students are feeling overwhelmed, these strategies can help them find their calm again.

February 2, 2024
Paige Stampatori / The iSpot

Young students are brimming with emotions, and at times they may go into fight-or-flight states of regulation from a physical and an emotional perspective due to trauma, sensory overload, and emotional dysregulation. Some students can also come to school already dysregulated from difficult home situations, long bus rides, lack of sleep, etc., and can more easily get into this state than peers. During these episodes their senses are heightened, so these young students can benefit from modifications to reduce stimuli within the environment and from simple strategies that help them calm down. Here are some ideas. (Please note: Check with your school administrator beforehand to see what, if any, permissions are needed before trying these strategies.)

When introducing and trying to present these strategies to a child who is in active fight-or-flight, it’s important to remember the following points:

  • Do not engage the student in conversation during active fight-or-flight; instead, consider an agreed-upon signal (preferably chosen by the student to improve compliance) to cue them to utilize chosen supports.
  • Ensure that the environment is conducive to subduing a heightened fight-or-flight state—dimmed lighting, reduced/no auditory input.
  • Consider the following modifying strategies, especially at first.

Suggested strategies

Try the “squeeze your whole body” strategy, by way of “joint compressions” (a way of providing proprioceptive input—deep pressure—to the body). This input gives the body specific information of where it is in space as each joint receives specific deep pressure information, thus decreasing fight-or-flight from a physical and emotional perspective and providing a sense of grounding. With firm, cupped palms, you gently but firmly squeeze the student’s shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles. 

Alternatively, the student can lie on a soft surface, such as a bean bag or pillows. They can be positioned on either their belly or their back. You would apply careful pressure to the back, legs, and shoulder joints (not covering the head) with a second beanbag. The head should rest comfortably on the beanbag and remain uncovered.

As you move across the different joints, you can name them together with the student, to improve body awareness. You can also add imaginative components, such as “What are we putting in the Evan sandwich?” Let the student add their own “ingredients” as you move across the joints of the body. 

  • It may be helpful to pair these strategies with sensory tools connected to the  proprioceptive and vestibular (head below knees) systems, which aim to further decrease fight-or-flight, especially in the beginning stages as understanding of how to utilize these supports develops.
  • Consider having the student wear a weighted fanny pack or complete a “pillow squish” after the exercise sequence is finished (and they are more receptive to sensory feedback). A pillow squish involves either large pillows or bean bags both underneath and over the child. Slowly and firmly, making sure not to cover the student’s head, press down evenly with open palms at each joint. Continually look at the student to see how they are responding. 

After the completion of these physical strategies, have a quiet cool-down time, with the incorporation of dim/dark lighting (possibly paired with a visual stimulatory tool, such as an aquarium light), low-frequency instrumental music, weighted items, and tactile manipulatives.

Once you see that the student is returning to a functional state of regulation, allow them to set a visual timer for approximately five minutes, and explain that once the timer starts, they will have five minutes until they need to transition to the classroom.

Provide nonverbal, visual reminders of the time remaining by showing them the timer.

a Small-Movement Exercise

Squeeze the whole body: This exercise allows for co-contraction of the muscles of the body (simultaneous activation of muscles on opposite sides of the joint) quickly providing strong proprioceptive input and adding a mindfulness component of picturing the strong feelings leading to fight-or-flight squeezing out of the body through the proprioceptive input. 

Instruct the students to do the following: “Close your eyes. Think about how you are feeling. Are you wiggly, angry, frustrated? Where do you feel those strong feelings the most? In your belly? Your feet? Your arms, legs, fingers, head? A mixture? Now, squeeze your entire body—tight, tight, tight, as if you’re making a huge muscle out of your whole body—and feel those strong feelings squeeze out of your body!”

a Big Break

Puppy: This exercise quickly provides a strong proprioceptive (deep pressure) and vestibular (head below knees) component of picturing the strong feelings leading to fight-or-flight leaving the body through vestibular and proprioceptive input. Placing the head below the knees is a quick way to get out of fight-or-flight from an emotional and physical perspective.

Directions: Have the student lie on their belly, knees bent underneath, arms underneath the head and hugging the torso (cue them to curl up into a tight, tight ball). Depending on the severity of the fight-or-flight state, you may want to add some weight around the student’s torso during this exercise, such as a bean bag. Ensure that the student is lying on a soft surface—such as the classroom rug—that they are not protesting and that their head is free—that is, there is nothing covering the student’s head when completing this strategy. In this exercise, the bean bag should be on top of the shoulders and not covering the head.

It’s important to note that students who tend to go into fight-or-flight states of regulation benefit from environmental modifications to reduce stimuli within the environment. It’s also vital to recognize that physical reactions may be exacerbated by sensory overstimulation.

On a similar note, the opportunity for heavy doses of powerful and predictable sensory movement can be extremely effective in the self-regulation process. You may need to incorporate additional deep pressure input both during and after the utilization of these strategies, to increase the sensory input provided, depending on the child’s state of emotional dysregulation.

The teacher instructs the students to do the following: “Close your eyes. Think about how you are feeling. Are you wiggly, angry, frustrated? Where do you feel those strong feelings the most? In your belly? Your feet? Your arms, legs, fingers, head? A mixture? From all fours, move your hands out in front of you, and lower your chest to the floor. Keeping your hands straight with your elbows raised off of the ground, rest your forehead between extended arms. Picture your strong feelings leaving your body through your hands.

A Useful Tool

Play-Doh: Play-Doh provides tactile (touch) and proprioceptive input through the hands, decreasing fight-or-flight input. Using imaginative-play and exploratory tools such as cookie cutters/carvers, etc., with Play-Doh or just using the hands provides calming sensory input to the body. Taking a small piece of Play-Doh as a transition object (i.e., when going from a preferred to a nonpreferred task, from fight-or-flight to work time, from low sensory thresholds to high sensory thresholds, etc.) can improve overall regulation and participation for the rest of the day.

It’s a good idea to keep materials and the corresponding above instructions near your sensory area or cool-down space and other sensory-smart areas within the school setting—especially sensory-rich locations that may trigger related behaviors and experiences (the lunchroom, courtyard, gym, etc.). This will help ensure that you’re prepared to mitigate the fight-or-flight states and restore the students to a calmer state from an emotional and physical standpoint.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Mental Health
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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