The February 2021 TIC Tip of the month

“Mind the Gap” – Strategies for Responding to Students – Educator Self-Care

Calm Classroom: Face to Face or Virtual

An adult brain, just like a student’s brain, responds to sensory information quickly to assess whether we are safe.  If a student is escalated or acting out, the adult needs to calmly remember that this may trigger their own brain to respond in flight/fight/freeze too.  Remember how we were taught to take deep breaths and count to 10 before speaking? This is an example of “minding the gap”.  How we respond matters!  Our word choice, volume, tone, and rate of voice, amount of space between us and the student, our mannerisms, and gestures…  it all matters. In addition to a calm, slow-paced voice, and nonthreatening body language, it is also better to stand at an angle to the student, not blocking an exit or standing face to face, which may be perceived as threatening. 

The brain works from the bottom up.  Students must feel safe (brainstem) and cared for (limbic system) before learning can occur (cortex).  If the adult remains calm, then the student (in parallel to the adult) will start to de-escalate.  School staff may discount the potential for a student’s brain to be triggered into fight, flight or freeze mode, to feel unsafe, because we perceive schools to be a safe place.  Remember, the brain’s automatic response to external or internal stimuli is designed to keep us alive.  

State Dependent Brain Functioning

Students must be regulated (safe and calm), and relate to the teacher (positive relationships), before reasoning (learning) can occur.

Reason - Relate - Regulate

When students are triggered by something in the environment, or something internal such as thought, they are operating in their brainstem at the peak of the escalation, not by choice, but biology.

The Escalation Cycle (Time vs Intensity)  

Calm - Trigger - Agitation - Acceleration - Recovery - De-escalation

Adults must respond calmly, to help the student re-regulate and feel safe.  Remember, students may not be able to verbally respond to your questions when escalated, because the language center of the brain shuts down.  Refer to Column 2 – the educator response, and column 3 – educator self-care.  We need to take care of ourselves after managing a stressful interaction with a student.  

What an adult can do when a student is calm…

Level 1 Calm: Be present with students, observe, provide routine, prepare for transitions, acknowledge positive actions, connect

What an adult can do when a student is triggered….

Triggers - 4 count breathing, quiet place, calming activities, address the trigger, respond with empathy

What an adult can do when a student is agitated…

Level 3 - communicate calmly, reassure, listen, avoid arguing, reflect, prioritize, collaborate on student

The information above was modified from a July 29, 2020 webinar by Pamela Black and University of Michigan National Council for School Safety.