The Importance of Reducing Stressors
(to stop unwanted behaviors and incite curiosity)
By Barbara Avila, M.S.
Barb’s 20 minute video share on the topic: https://youtu.be/DjDwT1OBX4E
We all lose it. We all lose our cool. We all have moments we regret and we wish never happened. We said something we shouldn’t or snapped at someone we wish we hadn’t. These moments are what I consider the peak of escalation or the middle of the storm. No good processing or thinking can happen during these times. Telling someone to stop during these storms of emotion just does not work. Imagine someone telling you to “just calm down” or “use your words,” when you are in the middle of your worst moments. You are biologically not equipped in that moment to use your words in that moment. Your body has gone into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.
Children have much less practice and neurological integration to be able to regulate and think during these moments than you do, as an adult. So instead, they use behavior to communicate their dysregulation. They swear, they bite, they create chaos to match their inner experiences, they behave in ways that gain attention even if negative, just to gain predictability. By reducing stressors, we can incite curiosity and learning so the unwanted behaviors fade away and are no longer necessary for that child.
How do you know a child is experiencing stressors? Children frequently respond to stressors by reacting in rather chaotic ways. The chaos you see reflects the chaos they feel . As a result, they may behave in ways that are predictable to feel better, even if they are not great for others around him/her.
Each person is unique and finds different things stressful. We must consider that something that is stressful or not stressful to us may be the opposite for a child or any other individual. To get you started in your investigation into what might be stressing a child you know, there are some common stressors to consider:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Overwhelmed with lights, distractions
- Lack of exercise
- Lack of access to outdoors
- Sounds – too quiet or too loud or too many
- Performance anxiety (being nervous that someone may ask you something you won’t know)
- Busy environments
- Open ended activities/ when things are unknown or lack structure
- No one stressor but the build up of several over a relatively short period of time
There are many ways to experiment with reducing stressors for a child and/or classroom. You can turn the lights down, allow more processing time, be more clear with visual support, not talk so much, play soothing music, or give a child a concrete task when you know they may experience uncertainty. We all know that most children (and adults) love to learn, explore, and connect. Our job is to help all children be excited, curious, balanced, and ready to learn. If a child has a stressed system, basic compliance without connection will be much less important than the child’s physiological needs. The child will need their system soothed SO that they can comply and engage successfully. No child wants to be manipulative. Children want to learn, be connected, and be a part of the larger group and classroom. We are social beings from a very young age. Being socially connected is as important as breathing, eating, and drinking water.
Connecting and Joining (and Integrating!)
Move your thinking or mindset from behavior management to connecting and joining (this actually integrates different areas of a child’s brain). Connecting with a child may seem impossible in a classroom of 10, 20, or 30 children. However, I am referring to children with seriously difficult and challenging behaviors. You are already having to give one on one to manage behavior and keep the peace. So use that same one-on-one to connect and join BEFORE the child requires one-on-one for safety reasons. Connect (and teach) before the peak of an emotional and physiological storm. You will have a much faster path towards having a curious and connected child in your classroom.
How to keep expectations while reducing stressors
Ensuring clarity, boundaries, clear expectations, and compliance (often taught using Applied Behavior Analysis) are essential and necessary for balanced learning but they are not the whole picture. They do not fully support a child to grow up into being an adult who can think for themselves. However, you can add opportunities for a child to regulate and integrate the different parts of their brains by slowing down, allow processing time, bringing those immediate stressors down to a minimum. You can join them by offering choices, offering a hand, and guiding participation. You can help them learn to regulate through your guidance, you can help them practice getting and remaining regulated so that they can learn. Here are some ideas to start you out on creative ways to connect and join a child or children:
- Get down to a child’s eye level
- Provide processing time
- Offer choices
- Offer a hand
- Guide their participation
Consider a child who wants to go outside in -6 degree weather and melts down when they are told they cannot go out. That the child may be stressed for reasons that we cannot see. He may feeling chaotic. His intense drive to go outside, may be fueled by the need for processing time if he feels overwhelmed by the speed of instruction. He may need to cool off because it is warm in the room and he doesn’t function as well when his internal temperature is off. He may be seeking a quieter place or fewer distractions. Going outside for many people is a re-regulator. So his solution to go outside when feeling dysregulated may be something that is celebrated in other settings or at different times (like when it is warmer). But now, it is -6 degrees and his go-to solution for re-regulating is gone. (That would be like me being told I couldn’t have coffee to get through the afternoon!) To support this child, you need to first be in a place with your own system to be curious, engaged, and creative. Do what you need to do for yourself to ensure your own functioning prefrontal cortex (the area of your brain that governs thought and true problem solving which goes off-line when you are in fight, flight, or freeze mode). Then you can experiment with activities that might support that child in staying in the classroom. Dim the lights, turn on soothing music, stop all adults from doing any verbal talking except what is completely necessary. Offer that child the sensory table full of ice water. Give him a job to help you fill the sensory table with water then ice from the machine down the hall. Giving him alternatives is essential, giving him a job or a task gives him confidence and guides him to re-regulate with your support.
Not wanting to go home
Next, consider a child who melts down at the end of the day when they are supposed to go home. Again, instead of attempting to stop, change, or replace the hiding under the table or aggressive pushing you away, move first into curious mode. Turn your frustration into fascination. Don’t assume that home is so horrible that it must be why the child does not want to go there. Most parents are well meaning and doing their best. Sometimes a child does not know who may be home when they get home so they stay with what they know… you. The reduction of stressors for this child may be as simple as finding out who is there after school (text a parent to find out if you don’t know). You might find out what snack might be available when they will arrive home. Bring predictability into going home. You can also consider giving the child a task or a job to do – deliver something to someone they will see once they get home. Having a home-school connection can be so essential for a child’s well-being.
We have all been there. Stressors build up and create moments where we are overwhelmed and we all do things we wish we hadn’t. This is your call to help a child to be open, ready, flexible, adaptable, to learn, and be curious by reducing and attending to as many stressors as you can. This does not mean dropping requests or instructions. This is about dropping the stressors that are reducing the child’s ability to respond to said requests and instructions. If a child is not curious, he is likely experiencing stressors and is in defense mode. We must find ways to bring down stressors so they are more regulated, balanced, and open to new learning. Our goal has to be to help children how to be curious again.
My most recent favorite references on this subject:
Tina Bryson: www.tinabryson.com
Stuart Shanker: www.self-reg.ca
David Pitonyak: www.dimagine.com
Barbara Avila and Kristie Pretti-Frontczak: www.curiositytoyou.com
Synergy Autism Center: www.synergyautismcenter.com