• Aaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 9: Surviving the survival state

Updated: Jan 21, 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.