The Growing Challenge
Unfortunately, schools across the country are witnessing dramatic increases in students suffering from the effects of trauma, adversity, and anxiety from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Some more progressive schools have begun to implement social and emotional learning programs to engage these students with positive results.
It is time to complement these programs by rethinking policies and procedures regarding discipline as well. It must be understood that traditional discipline works best with those children who need it the least, and not as well with those children who need it the most. This is as true in the classroom as it is in the teletherapy session.
ACEs Better Understood
To fully appreciate the problem, we need to take a step back and more fully understand the results of a major study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. A direct correlation was found between the child’s ACEs score and an increased risk of chronic disease in adulthood, mental health challenges, and even premature death.
The research has shown that children with a score of four out of ten, which is high, are seven times more likely to become alcoholics and 1200 percent more likely to commit suicide. These children live in a constant state of high alert, feeling on edge.
What this means for a teacher in the classroom or a clinician performing teletherapy is that even a gentle reprimand or a perceived insult can trigger a meltdown that may include an explosion of expletives, rage, and otherwise problematic behavior.
To the unaware teacher or teletherapy clinician, a seemingly innocuous punishment can unintentionally retraumatize the child and promote an ugly reactivation of the child’s stress response system.
Recent findings in neuroscience have shown that the brains of these children with a high ACE scores who are dealing with regular toxic stress and high levels of trauma become wired for survival and protective at any perceived threat. This constant state of hypervigilance makes these children vulnerable to erupt at even the smallest provocation.
The Necessity of Healthy Relationships
Before delving into these new ideas of school and teletherapy discipline, we need to understand the neuroscience of attachment. Many of the children afflicted by ACEs, often at the hands of family members, have suffered deep attachment wounds and injuries from their parents or other primary caregivers.
Consequently, the importance of relationships cannot be overemphasized. The starting point of these positive relationships is interacting with an adult who is in an emotionally- regulated state. The brain of the teacher or teletherapy clinician must be calm if there is any hope of calming the brain of the child.
Emotional regulation from one person to another, or co-regulation as it is known, is a critical component that many of the children with ACEs don’t have. These children need to go to school and have teletherapy in environments in which they feel safe and connected, even when their choices bring negative consequences.
In some of the schools where there is a sensitivity and commitment to help the children with ACEs, teachers and other staff members follow a few surprisingly simple rules:
Don’t mirror the child’s negative behavior with your own outburst.
Don’t take what the child says personally.
Give the child time to calm down after an eruption.
If necessary, allow the child to go to a “quiet room” or the principal’s office.
When the child has calmed down, ask the child if he/she wants to talk.
Hard science is at the core of these deceptively simple techniques. A gentle hug or a few kind words from the teacher or clinician activates oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” instead of the fight-or-flight response usually activated by a perceived threat.
Helping the child to restore emotional equilibrium after misbehavior doesn’t replace consequences. There must be consequences for poor choices if the child is to learn and grow. But emotional regulation needs to precede whatever else will follow if the intent is to build the child instead of destroying him/her further.
Co-Regulating Behavior with Students
Since emotional reactions are contagious, it can work both ways. When a teacher or a clinician can be a paragon of calm by her facial expression, posture, and tone, children are far less likely to be put on the defensive.
When the teacher or the clinician will get a drink of water, take a deep breath, or create a space for reflection for a minute or so, they are modeling to the children the regulation skills that they wish to impart to the children.
It has been said that a teacher’s brain shouldn’t be like a thermometer but rather like a thermostat when disciplining the child. The same way that a thermostat regulates the temperature when the environmental conditions change, the teacher or clinician needs to maintain a steady temperature in the moment of conflict.
Also, when the teacher or clinician focuses on the child’s feelings and sensations that lie beneath the eruption or behavior, it becomes easier to understand the root causes of irritation and anger. This understanding can prove invaluable in both helping to preempt an outburst as well as helping the child develop more self-awareness.
And there is yet another crucial benefit of the teacher or clinician developing insight into what is driving the child’s behavior. When the child sees that his/her feelings are important, this serves to validate the child.
Validation alone can be a potent tool in bringing calm to an angry or agitated child. It is very soothing to be validated by someone else. Some of the things that can be said to validate another are:
“You must feel just awful.”
“I can see that you are really angry.”
“You seem to be very frustrated.”
“This situation seems quite difficult.”
Besides being plain common sense, there is ample research to support the assertion that mastering conflict resolution and emotional regulation has many benefits. And those benefits can be felt long past childhood, extending into adulthood as well. What this means is that It behooves us to take a closer look at how we can implement these insights and strategies into our education system as soon as possible.