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 Key to Respect

respectIn one of the classes that I am taking this semester, the question was asked: “What do you think are necessary attitudes for being an effective teacher?” I wrote that the biggest, most important attitude a teacher should have in the classroom is one of respect, followed by patience and flexibility. I received this response:

“I also think that respect is important but I also think that you need to be in control and not be ran over. I have seen an incident where an aide asked a child to sit down and stop playing and the child said, ‘What about my rights as a kid? Adults think they are so much better.’ There are children the respect can be given because it is earned. I wish they were all that way.”

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that response is going to rub me the wrong way. But it brings up an important distinction that I believe needs to be made, especially in the world of discipline.

Respect, as defined by dictionary.com, is “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability.” This is not to be confused with assertiveness, which dictionary.com defines as “being confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive.”

Respect is showing someone that you value them as a person. It means valuing them enough to try to make an emotional connection with them. It means valuing their emotions enough to try to find the root cause of any altercation so that the issue can be completely resolved in the minds of both children, whether they were the initial aggressor or not. It means valuing their intelligence enough to know that any request that has as its reason: “because I said so” or “because I am the teacher” is going to rub children the wrong way because it means that their actions are determined solely by your whims. It puts children in the position of being beneath the teacher, rather than working with the teacher. Children are below teachers in stature and development, but that doesn’t  mean that they should be put in the position where they feel they are being subjected to our arbitrary whims. When we respect and value children, we give them real meaning for what we are asking them to do:

“It’s time to clean up because it is time to go outside (or lunch time, or time for mommy to come).”

“Use your walking feet in the classroom because running inside is not safe. You will trip and fall and bump your head.”

It is not hard to find real meaning for the things we ask children not to do (or to do). When we find the reason, we need to use it – especially in those cases where reason becomes reality: someone ran in the classroom, tripped, and bumped their head. Then we can refer back to our reason: “This is why we don’t run in the classroom – because we will trip and fall and bump our heads. It hurts, doesn’t it?” Pointing out that it hurts when we don’t follow directions will highlight that aspect of it, but even highlighting it needs to be done in a respectful manner. Anyone would be turned off by an “I told you so” tone. When we point out the infraction in a matter-of-fact way, we are showing the child respect and bringing their attention to the fact that they would have been safer had they followed directions. But most people are stubborn in that they tend to learn more from experience than from advice.

Our classrooms should be based on reason, if for no other reason than we are teaching children to think. Using sound reasons for why children should behave a certain way shows them that we uphold them as thinking human beings. It does not insult their intelligence, but gives them a foundation on which to make connections and see a bigger picture for themselves.

For more information about classroom management tips and a new way of looking at discipline, click here and here.