Bad Behavior or Nervous System Response

A New Lens for Discipline

Today’s guest author is Lori Desautels PhD. Lori is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Butler University College of Education, a former special education teacher and school counselor and currently teaching applied educational neuroscience / brain and trauma to undergraduates and graduate candidates in the certification program. For the past six years, Lori has returned to the classroom co-teaching in multiple grade levels bringing these strategies and practices into the classroom preparing the brain to learn while dampening down our stress responses systems and attuning to the developing brain states of our children and youth. Author of several publications and writer for Edutopia. Recently Lori published her fourth book, Connections Over Compliance, Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline.

Lori Desautels PhD

Our nervous systems and physiological states create and produce the behaviors we observe, question, discuss, punish, suspend, seclude, and attend to in all moments throughout the day!  As educators who sit with 30 to 180 plus nervous systems every day, we have traditionally paid attention to observable behaviors, assessing them as appropriate, disrespectful, inappropriate, oppositional, aggressive, manipulative, and a variety of other labels and classifications. 

The Polyvagal Theory and neuroscience research now shares; that education requires “state regulation” so we are able to access and integrate the cognitive and mental tasks we need to succeed in school and navigate life experiences. 

Most of us in the western part of the world have been conditioned, parented, and schooled through the lens of Behaviorism. Conventionally, our school systems and structures have embedded behaviorism along with contingency programs that address and focus upon compliance and control. Many of these contingency behavioral regulations and handbooks mirror zero tolerance policies from the 1990’s and early 2000’s often designed by racially privileged school leaders and groups that have unintentionally increased discipline racial inequities and disparities for our children and youth of color, culture and special education populations.  Many educators have grown up with the “law and order” mentality that focuses on accountability solely through the lens of observable behaviors.  In the United states today, we implement corporal punishment in 19 states.  But we have a significant disconnect. Our most troubled youth and children are carrying in nervous systems that have been reprogrammed to defend and protect and are wired in a survival brain and body state. 

The pandemic has added layers of adversity and trauma inside the lives our children, families, and communities.  Children remain the poorest age group in America, with children of color and young children suffering the highest poverty levels.

  • Nearly 1 in 6-more than 11.9 million-were poor in 2018. 
  • Nearly 73 percent of poor children were children of color.

Research on the pandemic’s effect on mental health is still in the early stages, but current evidence shows a surge in anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. From March, 2020 through October, 2020, the share of mental health-related hospital emergency department visits rose 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% among adolescents ages 12-17, when compared to the same period in 2019.  For years, untreated mental and behavioral health disorders have been a festering challenge in our nation’s schools. Each year, an estimated 1 in 5 U.S. children experience a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, including anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and disruptive behavioral disorders. Yet only about 20% of them receive care from a specialized mental health provider, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And that was before COVID-19.

“If you look at the prevalence of kids who have school adjustment difficulties and mental health problems, it was too high before the pandemic—and it’s going to be higher now,” says Roger Weissberg, PhD, a distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chief knowledge officer of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

As we move through this collective crisis, we must begin to understand behaviors through the lens of our physiological states. Neuroscience through the Polyvagal Theory has significantly impacted and shifted the ways we now are beginning to understand and address observable behaviors from our children and youth carrying in chronic dysregulation. Our schools will feel the repercussions from this pandemic in years to come with approximately 20 million children and youth currently out of school due to school closures this past year and many students have disappeared from their classrooms altogether. The pandemic is a threat to our nervous systems which shuts down accessibility for felt safety and connection with another.   

Our physiological states are inherently social, affecting everything we feel, sense, do, and experience within our internal and external environments. This is true for all adults, but the brain and body development of children and youth are constantly being shaped by experiences with others and the perceptions of environments. The chronic behavioral challenges we face in our schools from our children and youth are often communicating states of threat and survival.

When our brains and bodies perceive threat, we protect and defend through our behaviors. When we are fear-filled, angry, anxious, or worried, our nervous systems are not available for learning, reasoning, logic or rewards, stickers, and consequences.  

Behaviors are only the indicators for how our brains and bodies are experiencing the internal and external environments. In moments of heightened conflict, educators are often unprepared to read the nervous systems of our students, as we focus solely upon the behavior. From the research and words of Dr. Stephen Porges, “Low and loud frequencies represent predator like sounds.” Children who come from dangerous and toxic environments, often have delayed language and this can be the result of how our hearing changes when our nervous systems are in a threat and protect response. In a survival response, we do not hear the endings of words because the ear muscles are expanding and protecting us, so our ability to hear clear conversation, redirection, consequences, and the endings of words are limited as we are only able to respond to the beginning of words and tones of voice!”  Our prosody (tone of voice) can unintentionally reactivate and exacerbate threat detection in our nervous systems, producing an escalation of behaviors that begins to protect and defend in a cycle that leads to repetitive discipline referrals, suspensions, restraints and sometimes seclusion. We disconnect from our children and youth when they need us the most. These behaviors are signaling an urgent call for protection and defense for our very survival.   

From the research of Dr. Nicholas Long, “Those who work with troubled youth do not begin the day by saying, “I’d better schedule some time this afternoon to be sarcastic to J, to yell at Sam, to threaten Sylvia, and to suspend Seymour.” Yet, school staff frequently find themselves in counteraggressive struggles with their students. How do we explain adult counteraggression when our intentions are to help students, not fight them? Is counteraggression a function of personal inadequacies, a lack of self-control, a derivative of early child-rearing experiences? Or is counteraggression a biological “instinct” that all humans possess?  When our survival feels to be at risk, our own nervous systems detect threat and danger and we too, like our students, can move into the nervous system pathways of dissociation, fight or flight.  

As Dr. Stephen Porges states, “When we begin to understand who we are as a mammalian species, we will begin to respect the dyadic reciprocal interactions with our students as a neural exercise to restore co-regulation and strengthen a child’s or adolescent’s ability to access their calm state in moments of conflict and dysregulation.”  

Traditional discipline works the best for the children who need it the least and works the least for the children who need it the most. Why? Because our children and youth who carry in layers of pain from adversities have nervous systems that swim in seas of survival, attending to threat in all moments, and when we yell, threaten, suspend, restrain, or seclude, we are fueling the fires of a nervous system that is already in flames! The chronic behavioral challenges we face in our classrooms and schools require safety, connection, and the emotionally available, predictable and safe adult and who can share his calm regulated nervous system. Discipline is not about the student. It is about the adult’s nervous system and connection with the child or adolescent. When we begin to deeply understand that co-regulating with a child is not rewarding bad behavior but changes the relationship of power between the child and adult so that we begin to rebuild and repair through our authenticity and presence, we begin to create new circuits in the brain and body, down regulating fear while upregulating the emotions of stability, safety, and calm. This can be an endurance event. The brain and body learn from patterned repetitive experiences. The only way I can begin to repair with a child or youth, is to check in with my own nervous system knowing how contagious emotions are and to have awareness of my changing nervous system states.  Our goal is not always about being regulated and calm, but to recognize when we are not! Therapist Deb Dana shares that our emotional, mental, and physiological health benefits when we befriend our nervous systems. The goal is to recognize when we are stuck in dysregulation and our bodies feel the sensations of growing irritation, unrest, and negative emotion. Often, we can become stuck in our own emotional cycles and stress responses so that we are unable to access and share that state of calm reflection with our students. 

Adult Awareness 

  • To begin to understand that my body moves through a variety of nervous system states every day and when I am aware of how I feel and sense experiences in my body when I am triggered by certain behaviors, I can be prepared and address those sensations and feelings.  My body is working for me, not against me! 
  • Can we cue for safety ahead of time? What feels calming and soothing to us that we can access in times of need?  Are there three practices that feel safe and calming in the moment? These could include, deep breaths, a five minute walk,  running our hands under warm water, splashing cold water on our faces, massaging the right side of the throat where the carotid artery is located, sighing, a huge yawn, texting a colleague, writing or doodling your feelings or sensations, chewing a piece of gum, grabbing a hard candy or a mint and noticing the taste and sensation for a couple of minutes or changing locations in the room focusing on a visualization of a positive implicit memory that brings initiates feelings of calm and some pleasure. (Sounds, visualizations, breath, movement, tastes, connection, music, nature, pressure, warmth, rhythmic, or any sensory tool that feels regulating.)  It is important to think of these regulatory practices ahead of time and have a plan for an in the moment mediation. I also encourage educators to rediscover practices or projects at home that are enjoyable where we can spend a few minutes integrating the day with a short walk, drinking tea out of a favorite, mug, a 10-20 minute refresher nap, listening to music or any project that feels enjoyable.  
  • Once we feel a shift in our nervous systems, we can access our cortex and the parasympathetic pathway that produces a lower heart rate, respiration, and lowered blood pressure and clarity of thought and memory.  The following are questions that are critical to reflect upon when we encounter challenging behaviors with our students.

A.  What do I say to myself when things do not go well? In other words, what is my self-talk?  What could I begin to say replacing the negative words that have become my reactionary responses? 

B. In difficult situations today, what are two positive outcomes I did not recognize in the moment?

C. Am I releasing control of what cannot be controlled, or am I holding on to the words and emotions of others that I have little to no control over? 

D. Could I journal the perspective of another, deeply resonating from their mind, heart, eyes, and words? What do I sense, experience, and feel from the child or adolescent’s perspective that I did not recognize in the moment of conflict?  

Questions to ask ourselves with our most troubling students:

  • What else is going on here?
  • What does this child need?
  • What keeps me only looking at the behavior?
  • What is this behavior communicating about the student’s nervous system right now?
  • What in the environment could be triggering this behavior? 

Students carrying in chronic levels of stress require our calm nervous systems and our presence that says, I see you. I value your lived experiences. I want to learn from you. I hear you and we can begin again!  Traditionally, our discipline handbooks and protocols often imply, “When you’re most unhappy, I am not available to you, and I will threaten, isolate, or send you away to learn your lesson!” School discipline practices can become experiences and environments filled with conditions that amplify threat and danger, intensifying racialized trauma with our students of color and our special education students. We must begin to look deeply into the neurosciences of how adversity and trauma impact the developing nervous systems of our most vulnerable, yet brilliant and promising children and youth.  What we misunderstand when we implement these punitive measures, is that a child’s survival has so often been flooded with rejection, isolation, terror, and so many moments of unpredictability, that the behaviors are reflecting an autonomic nervous system that is scanning the environment for threat and danger in all moments.  

Many of our children and adolescents are living on the edge of survival, because past traumas and adversities alter what the brain pays attention to so instead of asking our students to make a better choice, we must ask ourselves to create an environment where co- regulation and connection are foundational within our discipline practices. Students can attend and attune to repairing conflicts and relationships, accepting consequences when they are feeling safe, heard, felt, and calm. 

Co-regulation occurs with developing trust and a sense of safety. We often need space and time to settle our nervous systems. Co-regulation does not require words or conversation and sometimes just our nonverbal communication and presence has positive contagion as we return and find our sense of relaxed calm.  Once we have had some space, shared presence, and time, we may be able to offer validation, gentle questions, and a narrative or a reframing of an experience but words are not heard until there is a collective calm and trust. As we prepare for co-regulation with our children and youth, we need to address these questions. 

Where do children and youth feel safe? Are there places in our schools that cultivate a sense of safety for our students? Have the students had input about the adults they trust?

 Our brains and bodies learn through patterned repetitive experiences and this is a process that takes time, patience, and mutual do-overs! Below are some questions that can create a shared and growing understanding of one another in times of conflict through validation and reframing.  

Student Awareness 

  • I cannot imagine how frustrated you must feel.
  • I cannot possibly know how this feels to you, and I am so sorry.
  • What do you need me to understand?
  • What am I not hearing or understanding? 
  • How can I help you to feel safer? 
  • If you could think of three experiences, people, or places that help you find your calm and return to the cortex, what would these be? 
  • Do you want to journal or draw brain maps of safety and of danger, would that be helpful?   
  • What does anger look like to you? Can you draw it? What does fear feel and look like to you? Can you draw or write about this? What does calm and peaceful feel and look like to you? 
  • What feels unfair or unjust about this situation? 
  • What can I do or change that would feel better for you? 
  • How can we work this out together? I want to learn from you. 
  • What happened is over, so I am wondering how we could handle this again if we were given the opportunity? 
  • Something I noticed was how you agreed to try this again! Look how your body and brain responded when this happened? 
  • Wow, look at what you just shared with me. Thank you for that.  

Author, neuroscientist and speaker, Dr. Joe Dispenza shares, “When you have mastered how to do something and it has become hardwired in your mind, and emotionally conditioned in your body, then your body knows how to do it as well as your unconscious mind. You have memorized an internal neuro-chemical order that has become innate.”  Only then do we begin to see sustainable behavioral changes, and not just compliance and obedience. 

When we begin to teach our students about their neuroanatomy, they feel a sense of relief and empowerment. Together we build a collaborative language that begins to reduce the labels, stereotypes, the focus on behaviors and the shame so many of our students carry into our schools. As Dr. Steve Porges states, “What we call depression is the cluster of emotional and cognitive symptoms that sits on top of a physiological platform in the immobilization response. It’s a strategy meant to help us survive; the body is trying to save us. Depression happens for a fundamentally good reason, and that changes everything. When people who are depressed learn that they are not damaged but have a good biological system that is trying to help them survive, they begin to see themselves differently. After all, depression is notorious for the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. But if depression is an active defense strategy, people may recognize they are not quite so helpless as they thought.”  When we befriend and  share the strengths of our nervous systems with our children and youth, we empower each other to see attributes, purpose, and possibility! This is the new lens for discipline!  


  • Guest Blogger

    This post was written by a guest blogger for the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. Views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers do not represent the views and opinions of AASR.

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