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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 27: Trigger thoughts

Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

(To read Day 26, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







When a child misbehaves, it can be a frightening thing. Not because of the student's actions, unless the child is extremely violent and/or physically strong. No, the fear comes from the loss of control. We had everything going well, the lesson was on schedule and paced perfectly, and then Richard kicked over an ant pile by flicking a booger at Melissa. One child, Melissa, is definitely upset. Richard is most likely amused, waiting to watch The Melissa Show. The question in this situation is, How does this affect you?

When children are misbehaving, they often trigger our upset, throwing us into the lower centers of the brain (Day 7). Not just the child being targeted, Melissa, but our brains can also drop several levels because of the actions of the students. If it is an extreme situation, we might drop down to the most rudimentary parts of our brain. From a survival state, we perceive conflict as a threat to our authority, our ability to each, or even our safety. If we're stressed out, fearful, or filled with anger, our amygdalas react, bypassing our conscious awareness, resulting in "fight, flight, or freeze."

We ourselves can easily be thrown into this mental state if we feel a part of our identity as a teacher or as an adult threatened. From this perception, we see conflict as bad and those who create it as deserving of punishment. Rather than rationally responding to defuse the situation, we can become triggered and react in a way disproportionate to the initial action. In an attempt to punish those that threaten our safety (e.g., identify, authority), we can easily fly off the handle.

Sometimes we don't drop all the way down to a survival state. Instead, the misbehavior shifts us down into an emotional state. From an emotional state we perceive conflict as irritating. As an irritant, the offending person is then viewed as trying to make our lives hard. The goal from this state is to get the conflict (and the irritating person) to stop. Unfortunately, it's extremely difficult to separate the person from the behavior in this state. Instead of seeing the action or behavior as annoying, we paint the child with that label. This, then, makes it extremely difficult to see the child as one who is simply missing social or executive skills.

Whomever you have placed in charge of your feelings, you have placed in charge of you. While most of us would shy away from the idea that we allow our students to be in charge of us, that is exactly what happens when we lose our cool with them. No one can make you angry without your permission. If you blame your temper on your students and their actions, you are saying, in effect, that they are in charge of you.

Trigger thoughts

One key, then, to stopping the cycle of out-of-control behavior is to identify our trigger thoughts. What is it that students say or do that trigger something inside of you, making you fly into a rage without even knowing why? Every person has a personalized set of trigger thoughts that has been forged in the crucible of their own childhood and experiences.

For some, children's actions are blown out of proportion because of assumed intent. This trigger thought takes any action, no matter how minor or unrelated, and turns it into a personal attack on the teacher. Students are presumed to misbehave deliberately just to upset the teacher. Naming the hidden intentions gives reasons to seemingly unfathomable actions, but oftentimes misbehaviors aren't personal attacks. By believing so, teachers can get easily triggered because every single misdeed is a full frontal assault on their authority.

Other teachers tend to have a problem with magnification. They tend to make situations worse than they are, taking a simple situation and turning it into a full-scale federal investigation. When Richard flicks a booger at Melissa, the teacher might stop the entire lesson and drag Richard out into the hallway. While interrogating him (without his lawyer, mind you), she instructs the entire class to write a full narrative of what they saw. After sifting through the witness statements 30 minutes later, she renders her verdict and hands down a punishment. All the while, Richard just happened to pick his nose and flicked away a gross booger, not knowing that it flew in anyone's direction.

Still other teachers lose their cool because of labeling. When they use negative or derogatory words to describe the student or the student's behavior, they set themselves up for future conflict. Remember that our perceptions of misbehavior (Day 18) affect whether we enter situations with the intention to help or punish students. It's hard to want to help students that we have labeled as bad or no-good because they instead deserve to be punished. By giving up our need to label behavior or students as good or bad, we can instead use the label of safe or unsafe. If the behavior is unsafe, our purpose is to help the child learn to be safe. This allows us to address the behavior without labeling the student.

In short, we can replace trigger thoughts with short sayings or mantras that fight against the instincts that we have honed over the years. If we have a problem with assumed intent, we can tell ourselves, "It's not about me. This isn't personal." If we tend to magnify problems out of proportion, we can say to ourselves, "This isn't that big of a deal. I've seen worse." When labeling becomes an issue, we can fight our trigger thoughts by repeating, "It's not about good or bad but safe or unsafe. How can I help (student) better (positive skill)?"

Turn down the shark music

In No-Drama Discipline, authors Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson discuss the soundtrack we play in our minds when facing disciplinary situations. Turning down the shark music refers to the infamous soundtrack of Jaws that can make any idyllic scene into one of impending horror. Similarly, any situation can be viewed through the soundtrack we play in our minds to give the scene context. Take a moment to watch the short clips of walking through the forest below. The first clip has a happy, jaunty soundtrack that hints of summer days and carefree nights.

The second clip, below, has a slightly different soundtrack. Take a moment to experience it.

Even though it seems impossible, the exact same 17 seconds of video footage was used in both clips. The moods are polar opposite, however, because of the soundtracks accompanying each one. Another way that teachers can remain calm and composed in disciplinary situations would be to turn down the shark music (or the creepy clown music).

When the soundtrack in our minds is creepy or dangerous, it takes us out of the present moment. Rather than helping students with their unsafe behavior, it causes us to practice fear-based discipline. We are scared that something bad is going to happen, usually because of a trigger thought, and we react instinctively rather than thoughtfully. Students need teachers who are fully present, disciplining only the child on the actual facts of this particular situation. By turning down the shark music, we can avoid labeling, assumed intent, or magnification and deal with what is actually happening, not what might happen or what has happened in the past.

Next steps

Action: Take a moment to think about your trigger thoughts. Think about the events in the past that have set you off disproportionately. Try to find a common theme and identify what it is about those situations that make you react so instinctively.

Reflection questions: What kind of music plays in your mind as you enter situations? How would a more calm and serene soundtrack impact how you discipline students? What mantra can you create to quiet your trigger thoughts?


Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.

Srinivasan, M. (2014). Teach, breathe, learn: mindfulness in and out of the classroom. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

To read Day 28, click here.

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