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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 9: Surviving the survival state

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

(To read Day 8, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







At this point in a behavioral crisis, you've hopefully attuned to the child emotionally to gauge his brain state (Day 6 and Day 7). If he is in the survival state, there are certain actions you want to take and others you want to avoid. One mistake teachers often make in this situation is completely ignoring where the student is mentally and emotionally and using the occasion to teach a life lesson. Trying to scaffold executive skills with a child whose goal is self-defense will fail.

When children are in the fight, flight, or freeze mode, they cannot and will not engage in hypothetical exercises. Unable to access their higher-order thinking because their amygdala has hijacked their brain, they need outside assistance from an adult to make wise decisions. Instead of avoiding good advice because children cannot make quality decisions in this brain state, the adult will need to act as a support system.

Teachers need to help develop their children's upstairs (executive) brain, along with all of the skills it makes possible. While doing so, they may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they're not quite capable of making for themselves. Hitting another classmate is not a wise decision but the child in survival state cannot make that distinction alone.

Another bad tactic often used during a meltdown is evasion. Ignoring a child in the midst of a true emotional outburst is one of the worst things teachers can do, because when a child is upset, he is actually suffering. Cortisol is pumping through his body and washing over his brain, and he feels completely out of control of his emotions and impulses, unable to calm himself or express what he needs. Instead of distancing themselves, teachers need to lean into the situation and engage. Remember, the question that children need answered in this state is, "Am I safe?"

The goal is to connect with the child and reestablish the trust that should already be a foundation of the relationship (Day 2). Trust deactivates the amygdala and blocks the release of cortisol. It frees up the brain for other activities such as creativity, learning, and higher-order thinking. Children who are stressed regress developmentally. To move up the ladder out of the survival state, they need firm commands rather than choices.

Body language

How the firm commands are given is extremely important. Building on what was discussed in Day 8 about a "no doubt" tone of voice, non-verbals matter. When teachers discipline with threats, whether explicitly through their words or implicitly through scary non-verbals like their tone, posture, and facial expressions, they activate the defensive circuits of the child's reactive reptilian (downstairs) brain. Instead of calming the situation, threatening a child who is emotionally going wild makes the situation worse.

When the brain detects threat, the downstairs area immediately goes on alert and becomes highly activated. One of the quickest ways to communicate, "I'm not a threat" is to get below the child's eye level and put your body in a relaxed state that communicates calm. When teachers bend down to get on or below a child's eye level, they show with their body that they want to help and reconnect rather than dominate and subjugate.

Also, it's at this point that teachers tend to run their mouths. Too much talking can turn the teacher's well-meaning attempts at soothing into a mindless babble similar to the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon strips. Resist the temptation to over talk. Reduce your words and simply be there with the child.


One of the first things teachers can do when getting on or below a child's eye level is to help him breathe. This should be taught and practiced, however, before a crisis occurs. Trying to show a child how to do something new in the middle of a meltdown is an exercise in futility.

Research shows that three deep belly breaths can shut off the stress response in the body and are integral to maintaining or regaining composure. Deep belly breathing helps shut off the fight, flight, or freeze survival response so students can respond consciously and move up the ladder of brain states.

Teachers, thus, should attune to the child and get down on his level. When eye contact is gained, the teacher can initiate the breathing. "(Name), breathe with me," followed by three long breaths. If the teacher is calm and taking deep breaths, the child will mimic the behavior.

If for some reason the child cannot or will not give eye contact, the teacher can use noticing to describe the child's behavior. "Your ____ is going like this (demonstrates)." For example, "Sam, your hands are going like this," and the teacher moves her arms up and down to mimic Sam's. When he looks to see what the teacher is doing, she can typically make eye contact then and begin the deep breathing.

Firm directive

Once teachers have connected with the student, gotten down on his eye level and started to breathe to reduce stress, it's time for a firm command. As mentioned previously, choices are not appropriate for students in the survival state. Instead, they'll be discussed on Day 10 for students in the emotional brain state.

Firm directives have three components and are given in a tone of "no doubt." They come from a place of wanting to help the child rather than punish or ostracize him. Simply put, the three steps are 1) Name the child; 2) Verb (start w/ action); 3) Paint a picture of expected behavior.

Naming the child takes away any confusion as to who the teacher is addressing. Also, it builds on the trust and relationship that the teacher has already formed with the student and is working to reestablish through connection and breathing. Start the firm directive simply with the child's name. "Sammy ..."

Second, know what you want the child to do and start the directive with the appropriate verb. Don't fluff up the command with phrases such as, "You need to," or, "I would like you to." In the survival state, not much information is getting through. Cut through the noise and go straight to the action. "Sammy, put ..."

Finally, paint a vivid picture of what the child is to do. The more completely teachers paint a picture with their words and actions, the clearer a mental model they will create in their students' brains. "Sammy, put your hands at your sides." Thus, Name, Verb, Paint significantly increases compliance.

One common mistake that teachers make during this phase is they describe the desired action in the form of a negative. "Stop waving your hands," or, "Don't swing your arms around." Dr. Becky Bailey in Conscious Discipline has a good rule of thumb for these mistakes called the dead person rule. If a dead person could do it (e.g., stop swinging their hands) it's not an effective directive. Instead, use a verb with a clear and concise picture for the child to follow.


But what if that doesn't work? What if the child continues to ignore the teacher or does something else to make the situation worse?

Great questions! First, let's look at what NOT to do.

Don't escalate the situation by raising your voice.

Don't threaten the child for continued non-compliance.

Don't lose your cool and start questioning the child.

Instead, keep calm and carry on. Nothing is fool-proof. If you keep your cool throughout the outburst, no matter how long it takes to resolve, your actions will have a long-lasting effect. You'll teach your students that their emotional fits won't affect your calm demeanor. Their trust in you will grow as they see that you can remain stable even when they can't.

Remember, every emotional outburst has an audience. There are over twenty pairs of eyes in the classroom watching to see how you'll react. Keep calm and repeat the firm directive. "Sammy, put your hands at your sides." Using the same calm tone, you are communicating that their upset does not affect you. Give directions clearly and directly. Use statements rather than questions.

Instead of repeating yourself endlessly, noncompliance with your firm directive should make you reconsider. First, is your instruction clear and concise? Does it start with a verb and paint a vivid picture of what a child should do rather than what they should stop doing? If so, one option would be to help them get started. If the directive involves an external action, you can say, "Here, I'll help you get started putting your crayons back in your crayon box." If the directive, like the one to Sammy, involves a physical action, do not put your hands on the child.

If there is no immediate threat to the classroom, walk away. Say, "I'll come back in a minute and we can try again." It costs you nothing to give the child a minute to collect himself. When you start again, go through the process from the beginning. Get at or below his eye level and breathe with him to help him start to regulate. If you keep your cool, the child will eventually join you.

Next steps

Action: Practice making firm directives following the Name, Verb, Paint formula. Practice them with common actions your students should take (e.g., Sara, push your chair in) so they roll of your tongue easily and effortlessly.

Reflection questions: Think about a time when a student lost control. What was your reaction? Did his upset cause your anger to flare up? Did you give firm directives, questions, or aggressive threats?


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

Denton, P. (2018). The power of our words: teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.

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.

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.

To read Day 10, click here.

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