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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 7: Brain states

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

(To read Day 6, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







Brain states dictate behaviors, yet historically the focus when it comes to discipline has been to zero in on just the behaviors. When attuning to students' emotions with empathy, educators have two primary goals in mind. First, as discussed on Day 6, teachers aim to connect with their students, helping them "feel felt." This emotional link begins the process of regulation, calming the clapper that is beating out of control.

Second, attuning with students provides a large clue as to which brain state they are in. Misbehavior often happens because a child isn't able to regulate his big feelings. When his emotions are dysregulated, his upstairs brain (executive state) has gone off-line. It's temporarily out of order, meaning he's not able to accomplish the tasks his upstairs brain is responsible for: making good decisions, thinking about others, considering consequences, balancing emotions and body, and being a receptive learner.

The brain state the child is in will guide the teacher on which path to take toward calming the situation. Taken from Dr. Becky Bailey's Conscious Discipline, the brain state model identifies three different brain states that describe how students process information at any given moment. Different states need different things, and teachers seeking to take charge of the moment will identify the student's brain state before moving onto the second to last step (Give) discussed in Day 8.

Survival state

The survival state is our body's alarm and arousal system. Its job is to focus on self-defense at all costs. When the brain detects threat, the downstairs area immediately goes on alert and becomes highly agitated. Being the oldest part of the brain, called the reptilian brain by some cognitive scientists, the brain stem is very useful when facing threats from predators and enemies, but it's not so helpful in the classroom.

The amygdala is the watchdog of the brain, exerting a tremendous influence on the prefrontal lobes. More inputs travel from the amygdala into the prefrontal lobes than the reverse. Emotion adds weight to all our thoughts, biases, ideas, and arguments. When students' entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what they do, they stay in that reactive "no" state of mind.

It's tough for students to feel for others when they're in "survival mode." This state has three settings: fight, flight, or freeze. It is triggered when the answer to the question, "Am I safe?" cannot be answered affirmatively. When students' brains activate survival state, their reasoning and executive functioning is offline. The only thing that matters at that point is reducing or eliminating the threat.

Though students are not in danger from being eaten by wild animals in the classroom, there are still many things that threaten students in school. Some of these include peer pressure, serious deadlines with significant consequences if they are missed (e.g., major projects, high-stakes assessment), being forced to stay after school or miss recess, or making reparations or public apologies.

So how can teachers tell whether or not their students are in a survival state? The following are a just a few behaviors they'll see when a student is in a reactive mode. Fighting behaviors include hitting, pushing, screaming, and biting. Fleeing (flight) behaviors include withdrawing, running away, and hiding. Freezing behaviors include surrendering by complying, apathy by giving in, or giving up by crying.

Emotional state

When viewing the brain states as a hierarchy, the next level up from a survival state is an emotional state. Students in this frame of mind are accessing their limbic system to process distress when things aren't aligned. The answer to the question, "Am I loved?" determines whether students use their energy for processing information in the higher centers of the brain (executive state) or for self-protection in the lower centers of the brain.

Students become triggered into an upset emotional state when they perceive that the world is not going their way. There are many causes for this state, each as unique as the students themselves. Some students get angered when their pencil lead breaks while others freak out if their favorite spot in the library center is taken. One cause that cuts across humanity, however, is exclusion.

Being excluded or unloved is a universal fear and a huge emotional trigger. When students feel isolated, that others are against them, their level of stress rises. Sometimes this happens at school but often times it happens outside the classroom. Their home environment might not be one of calm and repose but one of anger and domination.

Not feeling love and acceptance adds tension to their already complicated realities. Stress and a trigger always precede an angry reaction. Stress is the gasoline and trigger thoughts or events are the match that light the explosion. When students blow up at a friend, the insignificant trigger might result in a massive detonation because of the available fuel (stress).

Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson (No-Drama Discipline and The Whole-Brain Child) use the image of a rowboat on a stream. If the boat, in this case the child's brain, is in the middle of the stream, she's in a state of integration, able to access all parts of her brain. Each bank has hidden dangers, however. Straying too close to the bank of chaos or the bank of rigidity when becoming aroused will mean she's in an emotional state. If teachers see chaos or rigidity, they'll know she's not in a state of integration. Her emotions, rather than her executive brain, are dictating her actions and closing her off to higher-order thinking.

Executive state

This final brain state, then, is the goal of taking charge of the moment. When students' neuroceptive mechanisms confirm that their surroundings are physically, socially, and intellectually safe, they go into a state of relaxed alertness, primed for learning. This frame of mind, referred to as the executive state by some and integration by others, is where learning occurs.

The question that the executive state asks is, "What can I learn?" It's a state in which students have the capacity to notice their thoughts and emotions, be conscious of their actions, and possess the ability to pause (self-regulate) and plan a wise response. This state is important for students to be in for a variety of reasons.

The executive state is where learning occurs. When students are in a survival state hijacked by their amygdala, survival is paramount and learning is irrelevant. Those in an emotional state are comparatively more rational but still unable or unwilling to focus on learning. Exclusion, not intellectual curiosity, dominates their thoughts. Trying to teach a student not in an executive state is frustrating and ultimately futile.

But this applies to more than just academic learning. Often teachers attempt to teach a disciplinary lesson during an infraction, telling students what they should have done differently or how to rectify the situation. Teachers should keep in mind, however, that their students' brain state will influence their openness to instruction. If they are under the influence of strong emotions, they will not be receptive to disciplinary instruction.

Recognizing emotional states

The goal of attuning, then, is to recognize the students' emotional state so teachers know the correct starting point for giving instructions, options, or open-ended questions (Day 8). One way to gauge emotional states is obvious but often not used by teachers. Simply stop talking and listen.

When children's emotions are exploding all over the place, one of the least effective things teachers can do is talk at them, trying to get them to understand the logic of their position. No matter how strong the desire, teachers should avoid the temptation to argue with children, lecture them, defend themselves, or tell them to stop feeling that way. Children are most likely not in a position to adequately process a teacher's fussing in the spirit it is offered.

Instead, simply be there for the student. Attuning means to open oneself through empathy to feel another's feelings. This information does two things. First, it connects the teacher and the student, helping the latter to "feel felt." Second, it gives the teacher valuable information as to the child's brain state. This will be explored in the next three posts (Days 8 -10) as we look at methods for moving students up the ladder toward the executive state.

Next steps

Action: Create a cheat sheet, either on an index card or piece of paper, with a diagram of the brain state model. Label the bottom of the brain survival state with the question, Am I safe? Label the middle of the brain emotional state with the question, Am I loved? Label the top of the brain executive state with the question, What can I learn?

Reflection questions: Think about the last time you dealt with an upset child, either one of your students or one of your own children. What brain state was the child in? How did you react? Did your interactions make the situation worse or better?


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

Borba, M. (2016). UnSelfie: Why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Simon and Schuster.

Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your childs developing mind. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College.

To read Day 8, click here.

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