Connections Over Compliance: Book Review

Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline, by Dr. Lori Desautels is a gift for teachers, principals, university professors, state and federal departments of education and for parents.  Even more importantly, it is a blessing for all the students whose teachers, support staff and administrators and parents read, understand, and apply the wealth of information, insight and practical suggestions contained within the book.  

The book begins by contrasting traditional discipline with discipline built on an educational neuroscience framework. Dr. Desautels explains the pitfalls in the traditional system which result in failure for the most vulnerable students. For example, most discipline systems presume that all behaviors are volitional, that they represent choices students make.  In contrast, the research of the past decades is clear that most of the disruptive and deviant behaviors arise out of a stress response brain state.  They are stress responses, not voluntary choices!

Dr. Desautels gently guides readers to shift their perceptions of children’s behaviors and discipline from an outdated view that sees all behaviors as choices to a perspective based on modern neuroscience, attachment, trauma, and developmental research. Brain-aligned relational discipline embraces the knowledge and understanding that discipline is an expression of a compassionate presence, warm demanding, and guidance without coercion. 

“Our shift comes from viewing discipline not as something that we do to another, but rather as something we want to create within another.” 

Desautels supports her belief that consistency, compassion, and comprehensive learning about how our brains operate have a direct impact on student well-being, through real-life examples. She explains the concepts, then provides tools, strategies and stories of how the application of an educational neuroscience framework benefits students and teachers alike.

Desautels lays it on the line in terms of responsibility for impacting students’ behaviors. “Behavior management is not about the students; it is about the adults.  We need to shift our perceptions of discipline and move away from the words ‘behavior management’, because we are never called to manage another person.”

The initial shift in re-envisioning discipline begins with adults learning about their own brain state, which consists of personal beliefs, perceptions, and an accumulation of experiences that have generated how he/she views and implements discipline in this moment.

“A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a child. An educator who listens deeply, stays connected through the chaos, and perceives a crisis as an opportunity is the person at the heart of brain-aligned relational discipline.”  

She goes on to say that we can no longer discuss and explore discipline and behavior management without considering the brain state of the adult and the relational temperature between student and educator.  She quotes Dr. Bruce Perry, “The key to the success of any educational experience is the capacity to ‘get to the cortex.’  In other words, while traditional disciplinary practices all focus on teaching and impacting students through strategies that require transfer of information from the cognitive part of the adult’s brain to the cognitive part of the student’s brain. The educational neuroscience framework recognizes the neurosequential nature of brain processing where information is received through the lowest brain level, the primitive or survival brain, makes it way up through the midbrain, before it can reach the cognitive part of the brain.  A brain in a state of distress does not have access to the cognitive, problem solving cortex.

The book defines regulation as one’s ability to tolerate stress, and to experience stress within an individual’s window of tolerance.

“When a child can begin to tolerate bits and pieces of stressful situations, we are gradually increasing his or her capacity to create a pause instead of going directly to an explosive reaction.” 

One of the major features of this book that sets it in a class by itself, is the information, practical strategies, and extensive resources about preventative measures.  Typically, preventative measures have focused on teaching expected behaviors and on de-escalation.  These approaches are not effective for preventing autonomic, non-volitional stress responses.  Teaching students about their brain, including the parts of the brain, how the brain regulates their level of feeling calm or fearful, how their actions are impacted by their brain state, and things they can do to move their brain state from fear to calm are all effective preventative strategies.  

Dr. Desautels provides information and examples of how to introduce these concepts even to very young children, in ways that the children learn and use effective calming strategies as a matter of fact way of life. Examples are provided for using regulatory strategies throughout the day to prevent a buildup of stress.  Desautels’ examples of the use of co-regulation to assist students move from high stress states back into a state of calm are enlightening and inspirational! 

Dr. Desautels does an excellent job of translating complicated neuroscience concepts into language that is immediately accessible.  She makes the information real and immediately applicable through provision of examples and a wealth of resources.

This groundbreaking book is a must for teachers, parents, administrators, policy makers and legislators.

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