It has been a long week and you are exhausted. You have a pile of papers to grade, assessments to write, and obligations piling up at home. You are rounding out your day with an activity you spent hours creating. You notice one student is causing those around him to laugh. You walk over and notice he is showing videos on his phone to the students seated beside him. You ask the student to go place his phone in his locker per the school rules. He looks up at you, gaining the attention of his peers, and laughs at you. He states, “Nah. I’m not putting my phone anywhere.”
Your heart races and your brain starts running a marathon in milliseconds. Your inner voice begins to ramble: “I would never speak to an adult like that as a child. I have given so much of my time to this student and this is how he repays me. Kids are laughing, which means their learning has completely been disrupted. Who does he think he is? I do not get paid enough to deal with all of this disrespect. If his parents would support me with consequences he would behave. Administration has no clue on how challenging this kid is.
A line has been crossed. An emotional response has been triggered, but what we do next doesn’t have to be an impulsive, subconscious response. Identifying what makes our skin crawl and our ears burn is key to not only surviving student behavior, but also to maintaining healthy student relationships while saving your sanity.
Where do triggers come from?
Every person has a unique story behind their upbringing that contributes to the way they process the world. The values in our home, the culture we grew up in, and the beliefs we hold establish what gets processed as right or wrong in our brain. That is why one thing might light you on fire with rage, but to someone else it is nothing more than a mere annoyance. Our lens for limits and the lines that get crossed were ingrained into our childhood and lifelong experiences. Pair this with our natural disposition and brain chemistry and voila; you have a potion for what pisses you off.
What happens when we are triggered?
In our brain, our memories hold associations to aid us in quick thinking. The context of a moment links what is happening in the present with what has happened in the past. Your brain files through every similar exposure at the speed of light to quickly determine if this is a pleasant or unpleasant experience. This quick association is subconscious and quickly communicates to the “feeling” part of our brain, the limbic system. This is the most primitive part of our brain and it houses our amygdala. If the event was positive and rewarding we will get a dose of feel good neurotransmitters. However, if the event is cause for alarm, due to anger or fear, it will set off our body’s fight or flight response. Our blood and energy quickly move from our mind to our limbs. This is great for rescuing a child from a burning building; it is not so great when dealing with an adolescent’s sassy mouth. When we are triggered, we lose our ability to think clearly. Our decision making, language, and even our memory becomes compromised. Our perspective distorts and we give up control to the automaticity of our mind.
How do we stay in control?
- Know what you value and where it came from. Understand that sometimes a student’s behavior is simply connecting to an old association you have. For example, if hard work was a cornerstone in your family growing up, you may find a student’s refusal to work infuriating. Instead of instantly jumping to the conclusion that the child is lazy, which is completely unacceptable based on your values, hit the pause button and get curious. Explore why he or she is avoiding it in the first place. They may be confused, dealing with trauma at home, or trying to avoid looking stupid. Whatever the case may be, avoid interpreting the behavior as a personal affront because often there is crucial information missing.
- Know your students. Do your best to know your kids at a personal level to increase your understanding of why they are behaving in such a manner. I recall one student, I taught years ago, who grew up in poverty. He had to care for his little sister and in order to provide food he stole from local convenience stores. By the time he was in fifth grade, he had been stealing to survive for four years. He was a sweet boy, but he consistently stole from the school. Everything from supplies to food from others lunches. Had I not taken the time to know his story, I could have assumed the worst about his actions as it pertains to his character. Getting to know him allowed me to address the behavior with the real origin in mind. Instead of setting my focus on consequences, we could work towards allocating resources for the family and determining appropriate replacement behaviors. Understanding a student’s reality will keep you from making disempowering assumptions that will quickly erode your ability to maintain a healthy relationship.
- Know your body. You are different on a Monday than on a Friday. You are different in the morning than in the afternoon. Your emotional and physical state is always at play when you are met with frustration. Your body does its best to warn you of your mental state changing, but if you are not paying attention, you will fall in to an automatic response. Know your body’s cues. For example, my face gets red, my rate of speech increases, and I have an immediate need to pull my hair up in to a ponytail. When you pick up on your physiological cues, you can catch yourself so you have time to calm down before you do something you may regret.
- Have a plan. You can try to map out a hundred different ways to try and control student behavior, but I’m here to let you know that the only one you can control in a situation is yourself. Since we cannot force or threaten kids into obedience, we must place the focus on what we CAN do such as changing our approach, adjusting our responses, and altering our mindset. Remember, your brain does not do its best problem solving when you are upset so construct your ideal responses when you are calm. Know the strategies that work for you (i.e deep breathes, a picture in your desk drawer that calms you down, a colleague you can email or text for a quick pep talk, or for those “I’m gonna cry moments” the coveted chocolate stash you keep in your bottom drawer). Give yourself permission to dismiss yourself from a heated situation, so you can regain composure. It does not make you weak. On the contrary, it makes you someone who puts kids first and knows that you are not in the best state for that child in the current moment. Lastly, build in time for reflection and grace at the end of a difficult situation. There will inevitably be another chance to do things differently.
Behaviors are a form of communication that are interpreted through our own unique web of experiences. If we are not mindful of our perceptions and reactions, our responses can become the reason a behavior gets repeated. The best way to feel control in your classroom is to become comfortable and confident with the only person you can truly control, which is yourself. That requires knowing yourself mentally, emotionally, and physiologically so that you can create predictable and healthy responses to events that cause you stress. The triggers we possess come in all sizes, but unless identified they can be the thread that causes your sanity to unravel.