Friday, June 27, 2014

Opening the Internal Door

Q: I find some teachers are worried that by breaking the stress cycle with a student, they will reinforce the negative behavior. For example, if a student bangs his head, a staff person will interrupt the student by taking him on a walk. Yet, there is resistance to taking him for a walk because the staff are concerned they will "reinforce" his head banging.

A: From a behavioral framework, this concern is perfectly valid. The traditional way of thinking puts the focus on the behavior, and thus, it would look as if the staff person was "rewarding" this child by taking him on a walk.

However, the head banging is more than just head banging for the sake of head banging. We must stop and ask the question, "What is driving this child to bang his head?" Asking this question is the most important step in understanding why taking the child for a walk is not a reward.

Instead of seeing a negative behavior simply as something to extinguish, consider that all behavior is a form of communication.

A child's behavior, whether positive or negative, is like opening a door to the inner world of the child. Shutting down the child's behavior is like shutting the door to his inner world. Our responsibility as adults in this child’s life is to open this secret door, to find out and understand what is going on internally.

A child communicating with negative behavior, such as banging his/her head, is a child who is dysregulated. Dysregulation is the state of being out of balance, outside one's window of stress tolerance, or as one child put it to me so eloquently, "oozing." Dysregulation happens at all levels of our existence: physically, emotionally, cognitively, mentally, and spiritually.

We all know the experience of being dysregulated at the physical level (although we may not have referred to it as this) when we did not sleep well the night before. How did you feel? What about the time you missed a meal or the opposite, when you finished Thanksgiving Dinner and overstuffed yourself? This feeling of being physically dysregulated affected your concentration, mood, speech, memory, and simply the ability to be nice and patient with others.

Children, whether exhibiting negative behaviors in the classroom or at home, need adults in their lives to understand that the root cause of these behaviors is the lack of ability to regulate. They have a compromised regulatory system, meaning their ability to shift back into a state of balance and to appropriately handle life stressors is underdeveloped.

This is a regulatory issue, not a behavioral issue.

A two-year old having a tantrum when getting frustrated is commonly accepted because it is understood that the child has not developed the coping skills to deal with being frustrated. However, a ten-year-old having a tantrum for the same reason is commonly viewed as unacceptable. It is expected that this ten-year-old be able to handle himself appropriately.

The ten-year-old, however, may not be equipped to handle, modulate, and manage his emotions due to an interruption in his developmental path that prevented him from developing this skill. Therefore, his tantrums should no longer be considered "bad behavior." Rather, the tantrums should be viewed as dysregulated behavior. The answer to helping this child change his pattern lies in helping the child learn how to regulate, not in punishing him for the tantrums (which of course, will only cause him more frustration, heightening his dysregulation and potentially increasing the tantrums).

As with the student in the above question, his head banging is being driven from a place of dysregulation. The "disciplinary action" thus needs to focus on understanding what is driving the dysregulation and then helping this child re-regulate. Ultimately, this type of intervention will teach this student how to regulate his internal world on is own--to self-regulate.

Taking the student for a walk is a perfect example of how to interrupt the build-up of his internal stress. Taking him on a walk and helping him to regulate through the power of connection and relationship is exactly what he needs in order to ultimately be able to connect with himself and learn the invaluable tool of self-regulation.

When you see the head-banging as a regulatory issue, rather than a behavior issue, the fear of reinforcing the negative behavior is no longer in the realm of possibilities.


Q: What are some suggestions or tools/techniques to help our children and their teachers when they are getting stressed in the classroom?

A: When the stress level begins to rise in the classroom, the best strategy is to stop, interrupt the stress cycle, and get back to a place of regulation. Due to the academic demands placed on teachers, this becomes a challenging task. However, taking two or three minutes out of a rigorous academic lesson can actually create more learning in the long run.

When we are at work and get overloaded and overwhelmed, what do we do? We head for the coffee, log into Facebook, eat a candy bar, or call our significant other. It is a natural way for us to get back into balance.

Students in the classroom need the same type of break but done in a group setting with the goal of getting everyone back to a state of regulation. Here are a few suggestions that only take a few minutes out of an academic schedule:



Stop. Have the students close their eyes. Breathe. Listen to one soft soothing song as an entire class (classical, jazz, soft rock, etc).

Prior to leaving for the next class or transitioning to specials or to lunch, turn down the lights (do not flicker the lights as this creates too much stimulation for many children). The teacher can talk about where they are going, how they are going to get there, and help the students visualize in their minds the transition. This gives children the ability to process the transition in order to reduce any fears. Many children have difficulties transitioning because it was in the times of transition that trauma happened. Thus, any transition now in their lives can be challenging.

As a class, put the pencils down and stand-up. The teacher leads the class in breathing exercises while leading the students through some light stretching exercises right at their desks. Getting the body moving in a gentle fashion can help to shift students getting dysregulated "back into their bodies." Many students, especially the quiet ones, will tend to dissociate when overloaded. Physical movement is a very effective way to help these students shift back and regain their focus.

School is stressful for everyone but it can also be where some of a child's best memories are created. Keep the focus on regulation instead of behavior and this can be one of your child’s best years!

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2, and Dare to Love

P.S. Check out my Ask the Expert Interview with Sherrie Eldridge, as she speaks out adoption, adopted children and how their parents are drawn closer.

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