Have you ever found yourself in a shouting battle with a child? Infuriating, right? How dare this young person scream profanities at you, threaten to take your job away, or any other plethora of insults!
But before you shout back…STOP. There is a scientific reason they might not be hearing you.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain where we make most of our decisions. It is where we can reason out complex problems, weigh social situations, and choose the best course of action. The amygdala, on the other hand, is a small portion of the brain that fires off when a stressful or “emergency” situation occurs. It acts like a mini-siren inside of us. I like to compare it to the sensation of touching a hot pan: we pull our hand away automatically, without thinking. Our brain has subconsciously warned us: “Hey! Something hurts!”
In an ideal situation, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex communicate with each other. However, in certain individuals, this connection is weak. So the amygdala keeps firing and the prefrontal cortex doesn’t come to its rescue–at least not instantly. With this in mind, let’s go back to the scenario of the shouting battle.
When a child feels threatened, their amygdala is triggered. It’s telling them, “Something’s wrong.” For many children, including those with autism, anxiety disorders, behavioral or emotional disorders, trauma backgrounds, stressful family situations, or a plethora of other struggles, this trigger has the power to begin an ugly cycle in their brain. The more you engage with them, the more stressed they become as their amygdala continues to fire and their prefrontal cortex refuses to step in to shed light on the situation.
In other words, they STOP HEARING YOU.
You become the “Charlie Brown teacher”. You cease to make any logical sense to them, because their logic and reasoning is temporarily out of order.
This is not demeaning children who struggle in these areas. It is scientific truth, and it is amazing the change that can come to a situation just by gaining this simple understanding of how a child’s mind might be working in that moment.
Here is what you can do: STOP TALKING.
Stop talking, and if you must talk, be as simple and straightforward as possible. DO NOT talk about what made the child upset. DO NOT talk about consequences. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Here is an example:
“I need you to sit in your chair.” Wait. Pause. Repeat a couple of minutes later. Don’t say anything else.
“You need to sit in your chair right now or you will lose all of your free time! You have been running around the room, distracting other kids, yelling at me, and that is disrespectful! I will need to call your mom and have a chat with her. This is unacceptable in my classroom.”
Do you see how one is direct, simple, and attainable? If your mind was racing and you were freaking out on the inside, which one would you rather hear?
But what about consequences? What if I do have to call the mom? What if there are other kids involved?
Fine. But save that conversation for later. Sometimes, much later. I have had students who are ready to talk within ten minutes. Others take two or three hours. Others take weeks. Sometimes, that conversation never happens directly between you and the student. This is where parents can be pulled in to discuss behaviors with the child at home.
And sometimes, there comes a mutual understanding and words aren’t even needed.
Give the child TIME to process. Don’t expect a response immediately. If you say, “I need you to sit in your chair,” and they don’t instantly sit down, don’t assume they are being defiant. Many children, especially those with behavioral issues or other setbacks, need extra time to process what you are saying to them. It may seem simple to you, but remember that their amygdala is still firing–they are still in EMERGENCY MODE. It may take a minute, or multiple prompts for them to begin to make good choices again and allow their brain to calm down.
Give YOURSELF time and space. If a kid is driving you to the point of yelling, it is time to step away. If you can leave the room, do. If not, take a breath. Take space. Think about something else. A trainer once told me, “They’re not doing it to you–they’re just doing it.” A lot of times kids are simply reacting. They aren’t thinking about what they are saying or doing or the consequences. They are not meaning to hurt you. You just happen to be there. And you can help them through this!
The next time you face a shouting battle, take a breath. Speak clearly and simply. Give space and take space. Allow time to process. Remember the child is in emergency mode. Be willing to ride the roller coaster with them and reach the other side together!