Fight or Flight

In my last post I talked about the stress response and what happens in the brain during a stressful situation. Today I am going to talk a little more about fight-or-flight and what happens during a fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-flight is the body’s way of trying to survive through a threat. If the body feels that something is threatening its survival the brain stem sends the message to release several different neurotransmitters, along with adrenaline, that prep the body to either stand and fight the threat or run away from it. The neurotransmitters and adrenaline affect how you perceive what is going on around you:

  • You cannot think clearly or make decisions based on logic.
  • Most of your fine motor muscle control is lost.
  • You develop tunnel vision so that you can easily focus on the threat.
  • Your entire body is focused on simply surviving the threat.

When you find yourself “seeing red,” or when you are so focused on punishing the behavior that you forget about teaching through the behavior, you have entered the brain stem and have very little control over your actions. In children, fight-or-flight presents itself as tantrums, screaming, hitting, biting, or other high-intensity behaviors.

Another way to think about the areas of the brain is to think about a car. When you are using your higher-order thinking skills you are in the drivers seat and you are 100% in control of where you are going and what you are doing. When the stress hits and trigger thoughts begin going through your head you have moved to the back seat of the car. You have a little bit of control of where you are going and what you are doing, because if you reach over the front seat you might be able to steer – a little. Since most of your decisions are based on your emotions when you are in the backseat of the car you have a little control and you are able to make a few decisions based on some sort of logic – the kind of emotional logic that results in impulse buys when shopping at department stores. Once pure anger hits you are in the trunk of the car. You have no more control over where you are going or what you are doing; you are simply along for the ride. You don’t feel safe when you are in the trunk, and you would probably do anything that you could to get out of there.

I think we would all agree that we want to stay in the driver’s seat as much as possible, but how do we accomplish that when a class of children has us feeling threatened throughout the day? Stay tuned for the next post.

The Stress Response

Now that you have a plan of action that you can use whenever a stressful behavior pattern occurs, you need to recognize what causes these trigger thoughts and other stress responses so that you will be better able to utilize productive stress management techniques. While different people react emotionally to stress in different ways, our bodies react to stress very similarly.

When you feel stress or anger your body and your brain perceives that stress as a threat to your safety. Any time you feel threatened, whether it is a physical or emotional threat, your brain shifts from normal, high-level, logical functioning to a response based on pure emotions, and finally to a fight-or-flight response.

Imagine your brain inside your head and place your hand on your forehead. This is where the frontal lobe of your brain is, where all higher-order thinking takes place. Logical thinking and decision making occur here, and this is also where behavioral control (self-regulation) is also located. Now move your hand back to the crown of your head. This is the area of the brain where the limbic system resides. The limbic system is where emotional responses come from; this is where your trigger thoughts originate, as well as those impulse buys at the department store. Now move your hand down to the base of your skull at the back of your head, where the back of your head meets your neck. This is where the brain stem is, which is responsible for all of the functions that the body needs in order to stay alive, including breathing, digestion, sleep patterns, and stress responses. You spend most of your time using your higher-order thinking skills located in the frontal lobe of your brain, but let’s take a moment to explore what happens when you become stressed:

You are happy and the day is going along smoothly. You feel like you are in the zone. Then, your child decides that she wants to do something different from the group. She begins pulling out toys when it is time to line up, running around the room when it is time to lie down, or generally being defiant. At this point you begin to become stressed and trigger thoughts start going through your head. You have moved out of the frontal lobe and into the limbic system. All of your responses at this point become emotional in nature, but we already know that it doesn’t take much to reach the next level:


In my next post I will explore what happens during fight-or-flight.

Changing Mindsets Part 4: Take a Step Back and Connect

In my last post  I talked about using observation to discover the reasons why children exhibit problem behaviors. In this post we will discuss making a connection with the child. I understand that it may be hard to connect with a child whose behaviors have been so frustrating and have caused so much tension in the classroom, but this step is vital to changing our mindset about classroom behaviors. The observation process is very helpful in this regard, as it shows the teacher exactly what is happening to trigger the problem behavior. With this information in hand, it is easier to try to make a positive connection with the child because you are able to see that the behavior has a reason behind it. So for Step Seven:

  • Think about your situation with the child. What do you want the child to learn or to do? For example, if the child is hitting other children, you could say, “I want this child to use his words to solve problems instead of hitting,” or “I want this child to put his toys away at clean up time instead of throwing them across the room.”

Now you have reframed the situation. Before you were only focused on the problem behavior, which usually leads to punishment and frustration. Now you are focused on what the child needs to learn, which leads to teaching. That brings us to Step Eight:

  • Based on how you reframed the situation, what can you teach this child that will help them be successful? This can be as simple as, “I can teach this child which words to use in order to solve his social problems,” or “I can teach this child where each toy belongs so that he does not feel so stressed during the clean up transition.”

Up to this point, this problem behavior has caused a lot of anxiety and frustration in the classroom. It is important that you create a plan for staying calm during these situations. This child is watching you during these moments and the calmer you are, the calmer the child will be. The situation may not end as smoothly as you would like, but you will both be calmer. So for Step Nine:

  • Think about your reactions up to this point and write down what you will do differently during the next situation with this child. What can you do to stay calm in the heat of the moment? How can you use this situation to teach rather than punish?

More information will be given about stress-management and calming techniques in a later post.

These action steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey. To return to Step Six, click here.  For Steps Four and Five click here. For Steps One, Two and Three click here.

In my next post we will begin discussing the stress response.

Observations for Behavior: Step by Step

In my last post I talked about observing children to discover patterns in behavior. While I outlined why we should observe children and touched on the how. I really didn’t take a lot of time to discuss how important observation is. And for a teacher in early childhood education, observation is extremely important because it allows us to learn more about the children we are trying to teach. We can’t know what interests to base class projects on if we don’t observe children to discover what they are interested in. We don’t have an understanding of what a child can really do until we observe them using a skill in the process of play. And we will have a very limited idea of why a child behaves a certain way until we observe to discover the “why”. Observation is one of the most important tools that educators have in their tool box, but it is one that some educators seem unsure about using. There are several different methods that can be used to observe, and one of the keys is to find a method that works best for you. While my method of observing problem behaviors works well for me, you may have to change or tweak the method a little in order for it to work better for you.

The first thing I do when I am preparing to observe a child for behavioral reasons is to make sure that my classroom is adequately staffed. When observing a child in this context your attention will be completely on him or her, so it is important that there is another teacher available to watch the other children who are present. Sometimes this may not be possible depending on the circumstances; if you work in a daycare home and are the only teacher, just know that while you are observing the child in question, you also have to be very aware of what is going on in the rest of the room.

Next, I ready the materials that I need: a notebook, pen, and watch. Whenever I do an observation for behavior I like to write down the times that everything happens. This way I can see if there are any patterns in time-of-day for the behavior if I have to do multiple observations in order to determine a cause.

After that I take my materials to a spot close too where the child is playing – but not too close! I want to be within earshot, but not close enough that I become a distraction to the play that is going on. While I am watching the child play, I write down anything notable that happens along with the time. I am usually constantly writing, because when I am doing this type of observation I never know what might be important. Something may happen early on in the observation that might set off a chain reaction – it may not be noticeable that the child is upset until much later, but when I backtrack through the observation I can find the original cause of the upset. So my observations look a lot like this:

10:00 – L picks up a block and places it on top of the tower. J asks L if he can play and L tells him “no”. L knocks over the tower.

10:01 – L walks to the science area and picks up a magnifying glass. He takes it to the block center and begins looking at a tree block with the magnifying class.

10:02 – S attempts to take the magnifying glass from L. L says “no” and pushes S away. L then looks at (teacher) and waits.

This scenario may actually happen during the observation. If a child looks to you for guidance, it is important to not get involved in altercations unless the children’s safety is at risk. The reason for this is because you will want to see how the situation plays out until the behavior that you are looking for happens. If L is a biter, it is quite possible that L may try to bite S, but you won’t know that unless you see L moving to bite. In order to figure out what the cause is for any behavior the observer must be that – simply an observer. This can be hard to do when we are so used to reacting to what is going on around us, and if the safety of the children is at risk it is very important to react. In order to find out why L is biting, it may be important for us to see how S reacts to being pushed because that may be what causes the escalation to biting. If L does go for the bite we should stop L before the bite happens, but not until we know it is coming.

These types of observations can be very eye-opening as you discover just what is going on with children. I have found myself surprised by the reasons why some children do things, but at the same time it has caused me to slow down and do a lot more observing overall rather than jumping into a situation without knowing what is going on.


Changing Mindsets Part 3: Observing Classroom Behaviors

In my last two posts I have covered the first five steps that teachers can take to help change their mindset about classroom behaviors. In this post I will focus on the sixth step. These steps are adapted from Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey.

Step #6: Observe and Understand

The key to changing our mindset about problem behaviors is reframing the intent of the child. For example, if there is a child in your class who constantly hits other children, it is easy to say, “This child is bad,” or “This child just wants to hit for no reason.” Reframing involves observing the child to understand exactly why this child hits. Maybe another child is taking toys from them. Maybe the child feels threatened whenever another child comes near them. It is important to observe so that we can understand as much about what is going on with the child as possible.

When you have a behavioral situation that causes a lot of stress in the classroom, it can be hard to take a step back and simply watch what is going on. Teachers have been conditioned to believe that if there is no punishment happening for bad behavior, then nothing has been done to correct the problem. However, punishing a child for hitting does not teach them why they should not hit, and it does not get to the root of the problem, which is why they are hitting in the first place. Asking yourself these “why” questions can help you begin to reframe the situation and the behavior.

After you have asked yourself why, it is time to find out. The best way to find out why a child behaves a certain way is to watch them and their interactions with others. When observing, it is important to write down what you see so that you can refer back to what you have seen and discover patterns in behavior. Writing down the time that the behavior occurred can also reveal patterns, especially if separate observations are done on separate days. Does the child become more aggressive around lunch time because of the many transitions involved in sitting down to lunch? Or maybe it is because he is tired? Writing down the time while observing behavior can lead to many insights that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Write down as much as possible about the behavior of the child and the children that he/she interacts with. It is okay not to write down every single thing, because at some point you will have to look up to see what is going on in between writing. Through practice you will likely develop your own short-hand, which will make it easier to record more information. When the child exhibits the problem behavior during your observation, you may already have seen why the behavior happened. Be sure to write down that the behavior happened so that you can refer back to it later. It may also be a good idea to allow a co-teacher handle the misbehavior so that you can continue observing the situation. That will make it easier for you to see the progression of behavior after the problem behavior is handled, as well.

Why is this important? We have talked about fight-or flight and what that means. Sometimes teachers can trigger a fight-or-flight response by how they react to a behavior. For example, if our child that has been hitting is hitting because another child has taken a toy from them, and we punish the hitting but do nothing about the toy that was taken away (because our focus is solely on the hitting and not on why the hitting took place) then the child that was hitting will likely continue to stay in fight-or-flight because his stress has actually increased. This may lead to even more aggressive behavior that may seem to be “for no reason,” when the actual reason is because they are still upset about their toy. Situations like this are common in classrooms with two-year-olds or other children who have not developed the verbal skills to articulate what has happened in their social interactions. After observing the child in action, you should be able to determine why their behavior is taking place.

Your action steps for Step Six:

  • Ask yourself why the child is exhibiting the problem behavior.
  • Observe the child to see if you can discover the answer.

In my next post I will discuss using this observation to make a positive connection with the child. To return to Steps Four and Five, click here. To return to the first three steps, click here.

Changing Mindsets Part 2

In the last post, we discussed how important it is to change your mindset when it comes to children’s behaviors. We also worked on three action steps that can help you change your mindset when you become stressed or angry. In this post we will look at two more action steps that will build on the answers that you gave in the previous action steps. These action steps are adapted from the Conscious Discipline program by Dr. Becky Bailey.

  • Step Four: Identify the action that the child does that causes you to feel stress. Does the child:
    • Throw toys?
    • Run around the classroom?
    • Hit other classmates?
    • Bite other students?
    • Some other action?
  • Step Five: Recognize what your actions are when you become upset. What do you feel inclined to do when you are upset? A good place to start is to fill in the blanks in this statement:
    • While upset, my inclination is to punish by ________________ or get the child to feel bad by _______________ or to blame ________________.

In the next post, we will focus on Step Six. To return to the first three steps, click here.

Changing Mindsets

Children are much  more than their behaviors, and it is important for you to develop a process by which you can separate your feelings for the child from your feelings about the child’s behavior. In order to change anything about the environment or how you implement your curriculum, you must first change your mindset about the behaviors that you see in the classroom. It is so easy to begin characterizing children by their behavior: “That one is bad,” “That one never listens.” But the important thing to remember is that children are people, just like you, and you wouldn’t want anyone characterizing you by traits that aren’t you: “She doesn’t listen to anything,” or “She is a bad teacher because she never does ________.” We all do the things that we do for a reason, and just as you wouldn’t want to be characterized by what others perceive as faults, neither does a child.

In the next few posts I will be outlining a series of action steps that you can take in order to begin changing your mindset about a child and his/her behavior. These steps are adapted from the Conscious Discipline program by Dr. Becky Bailey. Today we will work with the first three action steps:

  • Step One: Identify the child in your class that creates the most stress for you.
  • Step Two: Return to the post about trigger thoughts and identify the trigger thoughts that you regularly experience in connection with this child’s behavior.
  • Step Three: Identify the feelings or emotions that you go through during the child’s behavior. A good place to start is the list of emotions in this post.

In the next post, we will work with the next two action steps.



One Word About Change

In my last post I discussed the Hierarchy of Change and how teachers can use it to see what elements of the classroom they can change. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header

Items that are most important for teachers to change are toward the top, and items that are least important are at the bottom. As you can see, the student is listed at the very bottom of the square. This is because not only are they the least important for teachers to change, but it is very hard for anyone to change a human being. As a matter of fact, any time that you try to change anyone, you are essentially applying force to them and exerting your own power over them. This is not the type of situation we want in a classroom, which is why students are listed at the bottom of the square.

I am a firm believer that people can change, and that goes for students as well. However, teachers can’t force or make a student change. Change usually begins when we change or clarify our own perception of a situation. In the example where you spent so much time cooking a special meal only to get angry at your significant other in the end, taking a few moments to find out what was going on with your significant other would have taken away the desire to think any trigger thoughts. You wouldn’t have gotten angry, and you actually would have strengthened your relationship with your significant other through communication rather than tearing it apart through anger. And communicating about their own stress would have changed the demeanor of your significant other, as well. Empathy and communication are powerful relationship tools, and we will be discussing these tools a lot more through future posts.

The Hierarchy of Change

One key to unlocking the secrets of effective classroom management is realizing that there are many pieces of the classroom puzzle that a teacher can change. However, the child is not one of them. The Hierarchy of Change shows different elements of the classroom that teachers can change in order to realize a less stressful classroom environment. The Hierarchy of Change looks like this:

Hierarchy of Change with Header



The Hierarchy of Change lists items according to their importance. Thus, while it may be easier to change the classroom environment, it is more important to change the teacher’s mindset first. Because teachers can’t change the student, the student is listed at the bottom of the diagram.

So what does it mean to change teacher mindset? In previous posts I have discussed how our brain reacts to stress, and that is something that will be covered more in future posts. One way you can change your mindset is by realizing that there may be more going on with a situation than you can tell at first glance. For instance, if a child is hitting another child, our automatic reaction is to punish the child that is doing the hitting. However, what if the child that he was hitting had taken a toy from him or hurt him first in some way? Changing our mindset means understanding that social situations are complicated in any situation, and in order to teach children how to navigate their own social setting, we have to be willing to get to the bottom of negative social interactions in order to help children repair relationships. In fact, changing your mindset means that you need to shift from a punishment mentality to a teaching mentality when it comes to any situation in the classroom. There are several other ways that you can change your mindset, and these will be covered in future posts.

Changing the environment means making it more engaging and more open to the exploration that children enjoy. Children are naturally curious, and children love moving. One of the ways that we can change the environment is to allow children to satisfy their curiosity more often and allow them the opportunities to move that they need. More will be covered on this in future posts.

Changing how we implement curriculum is probably one of the hardest pieces of this hierarchy to change, especially if you work in a school or childcare center that has a very specifically defined curriculum. However, you should familiarize yourself with the ways in which children learn best and use that knowledge to teach lessons in a way that is engaging, fun, and connects learning to the real world. More will be covered about how you can adapt lessons and make them more engaging and fun in future posts.


Our Brains on Stress

In my last post I wrote about classroom stress and the choice that you can make between being calm and being angry in classroom situations. I also wrote about how you should not give away your power to a child. After all,

No one can make you angry without your permission.

Now it is time to examine what goes on in our heads when we are faced with a stressful situation.

In 1996 a research study was conducted about the effects of parental anger. The study revealed that anger causes people to form mistaken beliefs about the actions of the person they are angry at. These mistaken beliefs are called “trigger thoughts,” and for teachers, they prevent us from seeing the underlying causes of children’s behaviors.

The researchers grouped trigger thoughts into three distinct categories:

  • Assumed Intent – when we assign intent to the student’s actions, usually negative. Assumed intent usually means that we feel the child is misbehaving on purpose in order to upset us or another child.
  • Magnification – when our thoughts make the situation seem worse than it actually is.
  • Labeling – when we use negative words to describe the child or their behavior.

Below is a list of trigger thoughts that have been adapted from the 1996 study, as well as from Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline system. See how many of these trigger thoughts you can identify as being part of your thought process when you become angry in classroom situations:

Assumed Intent:

  • You are just doing this to annoy me.
  • You are deliberately defying me.
  • You know this is wrong and you’re doing it anyway.
  • You’re trying to drive me crazy.
  • You’re trying to see how far you can push me.
  • You are tuning me out intentionally
  • You are doing this deliberately to get back at me, hurt me, embarrass me, spite me, etc.


  • I can’t stand this one minute longer.
  • Your behavior is intolerable.
  • You have gone too far this time.
  • You never listen, pay attention, etc.
  • How dare you speak to me like that, look at me like that, etc.
  • You turn everything into a power struggle, lousy time, nightmare, chaos, etc.


  • You are getting out of control.
  • You are manipulating me.
  • You are lazy, malicious, stubborn, disrespectful, ungrateful, willful, selfish, cruel, etc.
  • You don’t care about anyone but yourself.
  • You’re deliberately being mean, cruel, hurtful, a jerk, a smart mouth, etc.

Trigger thoughts are very powerful. They usually enter our heads when we are stressed, and they have the power to transform that stress into powerful negative emotions. Imagine this scene, for example:

You cook a very special dinner for your spouse or significant other. You have spent a lot of time and effort to put this meal together. You proudly set the food in front of him, but he barely acknowledges the work you did or even the taste of the food. You become over-anxious and concerned that your loved one isn’t enjoying the meal, and as the silence continues even after the meal has ended, the trigger thoughts roll through your head:

“He doesn’t care about anything I do.”

“He is so ungrateful and selfish!”

“He purposefully didn’t say anything about all the work I did! Well, I’ll show him!”

And then you begin the silent treatment, when all along your significant other was simply distracted by his own stressful day at work! Rather than stopping and allowing yourself to discover why your significant other was behaving this way, you allowed your trigger thoughts to light a fire under the stress and anxiety you were feeling, and that created a huge explosion of anger. But you forgot one important thing:

No one can make you angry without your permission!

In the next post, we will discuss how to begin changing our mindset.