Our schools are being challenged to return to some type of normalcy, with policy leaders focusing on learning loss as we move through a third academic year in a global pandemic. But the developing nervous system of our children and youth requires felt safety before it can learn.
Adults are also feeling the emotional and social fatigue from the mounting behavioral challenges in schools along with the push to close learning gaps while sitting beside students and helping them adjust to the social loss that they are still experiencing.
This social loss is observed through verbal and physical aggression that significantly increased in schools across the world over the past couple of years. Our students are struggling to tolerate differences in one another with increased agitation and anger.
Failing grades, incomplete assignments, and the chronic challenge to stay attentive and focused on tasks, assignments, and lectures through a seven-hour school day are also problematic, contributing to the overwhelming feelings of disconnect and anxiety impacting students’ developing nervous systems and, therefore, their behaviors.
Nervous System Challenges
These behavioral challenges are nervous system challenges, and this is true for both adults and children. When our nervous system feels overwhelmed, human beings revert to survival states of functioning. In this condition, we can become reactive in our discipline responses rather than preventive, relational, and aligned with the sensations and feelings that are driving the behaviors that we feel and see in our classrooms and schools.
When our children and youth learn why they feel the way they do, they are often relieved and empowered to understand and know, I am not a bad kid, and there’s nothing wrong with me! Traditionally in our schools, we attend to the behavior, followed by consequences, as we suspend, isolate, or refer to administration, but we are back at this again the next hour, day, or week.
Our discipline data often informs us that the same students are accumulating discipline referrals each week, and many of these students are carrying significant emotional pain into our classrooms and schools.
A Necessary Shift
Behavior management is about the adults. This is a significant shift in how we traditionally view discipline protocols in our schools and homes.
When we understand how contagious our nervous systems are, we are learning that we can unintentionally dysregulate students through our dysregulated nervous system. When I am frustrated, irritated, or feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, my window of tolerance lessens, and I can activate a defensive, aggressive, or shutdown reaction in my students from the look on my face, my tone of voice, my posture, or how I gesture.
If we do not experience a sense of felt safety within our relationships and environments, our nervous systems initiate a survival response that’s intended to protect us. But at that moment, it also shuts down access to the cortical functions of the brain. These are the functions that enable us to think clearly, emotionally regulate, pay attention, and hold a steady working memory, while simultaneously activating curiosity and creativity.
We need to get out in front of the behavior. When we are intentional about our procedures, routines, and transitions, and how the students enter and exit a class and the school, we can meet students and ourselves in our nervous system states.
How? We integrate bell work, focused attention practices, nervous system check-ins, guiding questions, and group discussions as Tier 1 practices and strategies that build engagement, strengthen relationships, and activate the prefrontal cortex of our brain so that we can pay attention, integrate working memory, problem-solve, and emotionally regulate our sensations and feelings. Below are a few practices that we can integrate all day long, as we model how discipline occurs before a crisis.
4 Preventive Discipline Practices
1. Dedicate this one. In this focused attention practice, we create an image or write down a few words that we want to share with someone we appreciate. As we think of this person, we breathe deeply for one minute sharing our love, hope, and any words of comfort that we want to send them. We then share our dedication with a partner. We can draw, write out, or visualize our appreciation.
2. Regulate with a partner. Choose a partner. Without talking, find a rhythm in your own breathing, and see if your partner can match the breathing rhythm. What about a drumming or movement rhythm? Change it up as each person takes the lead. Did you find a pattern, a rhythm, or even a beat to your dual breathing or movement? Maybe one student could begin a rhythm, and the other could add to it and repeat a few times until they have created a patterned, collaborative rhythm.
3. Mirror me. In this co-regulatory practice, one partner creates a variety of body movements that the other person must mirror. They then switch leads, so the other person is choosing the movements.
4. Focus on faces, eyes, gestures, and postures. It’s important to notice another person’s eyes, listen to their voice, and watch their gestures and posture. Facial expressions and body language tell us how someone is feeling, and they are signals for us as we interact with them. To be aware of another person’s body language is to understand how we need to respond. People “listen” more to body language than the words that people say. It’s also very important for us to understand our own body language! Teachers can use these guided questions to help students better understand the messages conveyed through body language.
By shifting discipline protocols, we’re able to get out in front of dysregulated behaviors while providing felt safety inside our relationships with students and our classrooms. We make this change by altering our procedures, routines, and transitions.
This is a process, and just as our brains and bodies require patterned repetition to create and strengthen neural pathways, our students need the time and practice to learn new ways of responding while being aware of the beautiful adaptability and creativity of their nervous systems.