Your Student Did What?
Helping Students Get Out of The Basement Of Their Brain
Shift Your Lens
Kids with trauma don’t have a playbook and we often don’t know every trigger. It can be messy as shit and they will challenge your relationship everytime. In every step of this work it is vital we support each other in remembering it is not personal. But holy heck it will feel personal as hell. The older they get the quicker those tears turn to words directed right at you! Breathe and remember the first step is always to get the lid back on. A trauma informed approach emphasizes that a student is hurt not bad and that their behaviour although disruptive and problematic is an adaptive response to their environment. They are not broken, so we don’t have to fix them. Traumatized students are missing the skills needed to regulate appropriately and they utilize the skills available to them in the moment of crisis.
A kindergarten student may experience a full on tantrum versus a junior high student who will simply put their head down and hood up! Or you may experience cussing, hiding under furniture, bolting from the classroom, and even threatening behavior. The key is to recognize that the student is in the basement of their brain and their “caveman” brain has taken over. Trying to negotiate, present consequences, or ask them to choose a calm down strategy just wont work!
Consider the Following
Staying Calm: May sound easy right? Think again this may actually be the hardest part! Self talk is necessary to monitor our own presence in the situation. Your body posture, tone of voice, and the number of words coming out of it are all vital. We can help start the coregulation process right here, show the student we are in control, and help guide others in the process.
Safety First: It is imperative that we ensure the safety of the student having difficulties, those adults supporting them, and then their peers. Both emotional and physical safety come into play. This may mean trying to ask the student to come to a different location, or removing the class, and in extreme cases needing to utilize a safe hold. It is crucial to remember that hands on is a last resort at all times and only used in a situation of immediate threat to student safety. If there isn’t a behavior plan then now is the time to think about putting one in place. When everyone is on the same page executing this first step becomes easier. We also need recognize emotional safety and try our best to preserve the dignity of the student struggling. Remember that this is areaction and is not personal, not targeted at anyone. Adults need to move forward with compassion and calmness no matter how ugly it gets!
Where in the basement: Before working through some key strategies it is important to also try and recognize where exactly in the basement the student is located. Are they right down in the basement hiding in a corner of their brain in complete fight, flight, freeze or have they merely dipped into the basement and still have a foot on the staircase. Sounds complicated but can be easier than you think to spot and an opportunity to scaffold some of the strategies. Alot will also depend on the relationship and trust that is formed with the person supporting them. The more times you guide them through the mess the better the relationship gets!
Strategy Time: At first you will be grasping at the best strategy to help the student out of the basement. But eventually, once relationships are established, you will be able to identify students “go to” strategies quicker. Food or drink is a great one because it actually helps activate the sucking reflex (think baby brain) which can be calming. You can also even try different textures of food to hit the sensory needs. Apples, carrots, or if needed just throw them a granola bar or juice box. Even a lollipop! Whatever it takes to get that lid back on! Tinkering is another great one to try! Lego, sand table, sensory items. All of these help focus the mind on something different and allow the student time to regulate. You may also need to consider a safe place for the kid to honestly just be destructive or get there heart rate up: knocking down blocks, punching a mat, running laps, time on the playground. The key is build a relationship with the student and find their preferences. Just always remember this is not about consequences, discipline, rewards, or bribes. This is about getting that lid back on so we can get out of the basement of the brain and eventually evolve this process to include restorative practices.
Time: This has two parts. The time to get out of the basement and the time to regulate once they are out. This is a hard one that requires self-talk on the part of the adults and lots of patience. Giving the student time to get through this mess is vital. For some it can be mere minutes, for others its hours! For educators who work within the confines of bells this can be tricky. But what we have to lean on here is that the end goal will be to shorten the duration. Tracking data is essential to help the team see the success even if it is gained in only seconds. Don’t worry the end goal is sustained regulated time in the classroom learning!
Don't Get Stuck!
Why is there no discipline or consequences? This is about understanding the why behind the behavior. They are hurt not bad and we need to build trust and connection. Each time they are in fight, flight, freeze is an opportunity to help them heal.
I don’t have that much time to give one student individual attention like that. They will steal your time whether you are using these strategies or not. This behavior is big and often an attempt to get your attention. This lens shift presents the opportunity to work within a plan to reduce the amount of time needed.
Giving them food or lego is a reward. These strategies are not a reward but rather tools to regulate. The adult implements them to support the student out of the basement.
Other students will copy the behavior. Trust me when a student is telling you to “F*ck off” the rest of the class isn’t saying “oooh I am going to do that next.” Your other students are anxious and looking to you for your response. Hence why staying calm is a necessity. Don’t worry they wont form a gang!