Think of times when you feel overwhelmed and under appreciated. At those times, our behavior is more hurtful than helpful. We lose the capacity to see the world from any perspective other than our own. However, when we feel valued, loved and appreciated, we can access executive skills like goal achievement, focused attention, empathy and problem solving. Internal state dictates behavior, yet we tend to focus solely on behavior when it comes to discipline in our schools.
Every conflict starts with emotional upset. To solve any problem, we must manage the emotional upset before we attempt to resolve the conflict. Schools spend disproportionate resources solving behavior issues like bullying because we are approaching conflict backward: we traditionally address the behavior or event rather than the internal emotional state that precipitated it. Approaching conflict in this way can provide a temporary band aid, at best. Some students become repeat offenders, others become repeat victims and the behaviors become chronic. If we want to promote permanent behavior change, teach life skills and have the productive, peaceful schools we desire, we must teach all children to manage their emotional states through self-regulation first. Then, and only then, can we effectively address the behavior.
Self-regulation is regulating our thoughts, feelings and actions in service of a goal. It is the single best predictor of academic and life success, and therefore must be a top priority in schools. Regulating our emotional states is different than attempting to control them. We cannot control our emotions any more than we can control the weather. However, we can manage our emotions just as we have learned to manage the weather by bringing an umbrella along when it’s raining. When we learn to regulate our emotions, we can benefit from the wisdom and moral compass they provide. Without this healthy emotional development, children grow up listening to the guidance of the loudest voice of those around instead of the quiet voice within. For young children, the loudest voice is their parents’. As children grow, the loudest voice changes to peers, commercialism and ultimately their life partners. Teaching children to rely instead on healthy inner guidance is a core benefit of self-regulation.
Emotions perform many survival functions within the body. The most powerful one is that of integration. Integration is the process of linking differentiated parts together to function as a whole. Our lungs and heart have specialized and differentiated functions, yet we would die if they were not integrated. Workers in an office have specialized jobs, yet the company fails if they do not communicate well with each other. People who are uniquely differentiated by culture and tradition enrich communities. Yet, if a community of mixed ethnicity cannot integrate, racism and intolerance weaken it. The children within a school are unique, but unless they are linked together by a sense of belonging, the health of the school suffers and children are less likely to reach their potential. Integration is essential to the health of our bodies, schools and communities.
Using the metaphor of a business, integration is a management responsibility. The director, principal, coordinator or CEO has the responsibility to insure each department upholds its unique responsibilities and works well with the others. Our emotions serve management responsibilities in our brains. They integrate our nervous system in such a way that we become a fine-tuned, motivated organism that can be mindful of our thoughts, feelings and actions, see from others’ perspectives, solve problems, set and achieve goals, and connect with others. Emotions are the bridge we must cross to get from problem to solution.
My emotions allow me to become the best Becky I can be and simultaneously contribute to the world in a healthy way. Without access to my emotions, I could easily distort my image of myself to such a degree that I could not contribute to society. In the most extreme situations, I would feel entitled to feed off of or damage the society that sustains me. The headlines over the past year have featured enough of this type of behavior to make even the deepest skeptic scratch his head and wonder how we can do it differently.
I created my core program for classroom use, Conscious Discipline, over 15 years ago to fill the need for a brain-based program that integrates social-emotional learning and discipline. As I traveled around the world teaching others this life-changing program, I kept seeing our need for a deeper understanding of how our emotions relate to conflict and self-regulation. I penned Managing Emotional Mayhem to serve this purpose. In the year since its publication, the need for it has become even more apparent as we have experienced tragic events like Newtown and Boston, clear indications of our nation’s need to understand how to regulate strong emotions. If we are going to create safe schools and a safe nation, self-regulation is the first step.
Self-regulation and impulse control do not emerge spontaneously. Self-regulation is a learned skill. We learn it through our families, our cultures and our schools. Educators have a profound effect on students’ social-emotional development, yet training in this area can easily become an afterthought instead of a focal point. Practicing self-regulation and teaching it to students is the antidote to bullying, school violence, chronic victim hood and other difficult behaviors. Self-regulation requires the self-acting on the self through mature inner speech. Young children do not develop this ability until approximately age seven. So, how do young children self-regulate? They don’t.
The way we respond to their upset — nonverbal, verbal or behavioral — will inhibit or foster their development of self-regulation. Our focus tends to be on behavior, often with children losing a privilege, turning a card over or having popcorn on Friday. When we do these things, we miss a vital opportunity to teach new skills.
One skill I offer to help cross the bridge between problem and solution is called “D.N.A.” The D.N.A. process is helpful for all students, and is absolutely essential for those age seven and younger.
D = Describe the student’s emotional cues so the child and his classmates can begin to attend to and read nonverbal signals
“Your face is going like this. Your fists are tight like this.”
Once you achieve eye contact, download a calmer state by taking a deep belly breath for the student. The mirror neuron system in the brain will allow the student to download this state from you, cutting the intensity of the upset. Then proceed with the following:
N = Notice and tentatively name the emotional state being portrayed.
“You seem angry.”
A = Acknowledge, with positive intent, the ultimate goal the student was trying to achieve.
“You wanted _______” or “You were hoping _____.”
“You wanted a higher grade on the test so you could stay on the basketball team.”
Once we allow the emotion to perform its integration duties, we can successfully seek real and lasting solutions.
The five steps to self-regulation that I teach in “Managing Emotional Mayhem” are I Am, I Calm, I Feel, I Choose and I Solve. These steps allow our emotions to perform their integrative duties and to become the bridge between problem and solution. We must learn to navigate this bridge if we are going to have healthy relationships with our children, in our marriages and with each other.
These five conscious steps replace the unconscious five steps most of us absorbed from our families and cultures: I blame, I demand/act out, I medicate, I bury, I am stuck.
The five steps to self-regulation are:
- I am: Something triggers a state of upset and emotions biochemically overtake the child. In this step, the child learns to recognize he/she has been triggered and goes to the Safe Place Self-Regulation Center in the classroom. “I am angry.”
- I calm: In this step, children begin calming themselves, turning off the stress response in their bodies and quieting their physiology. This provides the opportunity to self-regulate. Children progress from “I am angry” to “I feel angry.”
- I feel: Children need assistance in naming and taming the feelings that have overwhelmed them. Once they can name a feeling and become conscious of it, they are automatically better able to manage it. In this step, children name their feeling states and learn to recognize the feeling states of others. This is the foundation for empathy and compassion.
- •I choose: Children choose strategies that help them move from the lower centers of their brain to the higher centers of their brain in order to get back to classroom activities/work. I Choose.
- I solve: Something triggered the child into a state of upset. Whatever happened needs some type of solution. In this step, children learn how to address the upsetting event with greater life skills and solve their problem. I Solve.
Once adults learn the five steps, then and only then, can we coach our students in the steps. We do this by adding a Safe Place Self-Regulation learning center in our classrooms, and providing the opportunity for upset students to practice self-regulation just as they practice multiplication. Together, the five steps help children develop social awareness, responsible decision-making and communication skills aimed at fostering healthy relationships and goal achievement.
Progressing through these steps requires the adult to coach the child through his emotions. Of course, this requires we manage our own emotions in healthy ways as well! This task may seem daunting; however, it is achievable for anyone.
Permanent behavior change is possible when we first handle the emotional upset behind the children’s behavior. The D.N.A. process helps us focus on the emotion behind the action, allowing it to bubble up and perform its integrative functions. When we shift from a focus on behavior to a focus on teaching self-regulation, we coach children in how to constructively manage their thoughts, feelings and actions. This conscious shift empowers children with self-regulation, a skill that puts academic and life success within every child’s reach.