Monday, 6 July 2015

Managing difficult behaviour with the brain in mind

Last week I attended a course hosted by Compass Seminars entitled Distressed or Deliberately Defiant. Dr Judith Howard presented from a research, neurobiological and personal perspective which was powerful and at times profound. Her book covers the content of the seminar and although I am going to share some of what I learned from Judith here, if you are interested I would recommend reading her book to get the big picture. 
The focus was on children who have suffered significant, chronic trauma that has caused neurological pathway differences due to an interruption in normal attachment development (WOW that was a huge mouthful!) 
Initially we looked at neurobiology and attachment theory so there was a basis for the discussion that followed. This was recommended as the approach we were to take if sharing with colleagues which I agree with completely, if we don't know what we are dealing with then we will struggle with implementation. The basics of this fit well with the magic brain by Glenn Capelli and the glitter jar concept that I have been working on lately with my class (with the exception that breathing is often not a good first strategy for these particular young people because they can't quite control that in the heat of the moment) - see below for some information and teaching ideas I have used with our class this year. 
The big take home neurologically is: when these kids kick off we are not dealing with someone choosing to behave badly, we are dealing with a brain stem and some disfunctional pathways and in that time and space there isn't reasoning, the cerebral cortex is offline because the brain stem is running the show! 
So really behaviour management at this time is about helping these kids find a safe place to calm down and supporting them to regulate first. When we are stressed we have two neurotransmitters going off- explosive adrenalin which spikes and abates and then the slower to rise and slower to drop cortisol... often we go in to 'talk' about the poor behaviour when the adrenalin has dropped off but the cortisol is still rising and so they then kick off again as they have not regulated properly yet. This all takes time and the key to success for these vulnerable young people is RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS. 
Long term we are actually performing external brain surgery... we are aiming to rewire the brain, building strong positive pathways where there are only weak ones, if any at all. The strategy discussed at the seminar is quite similar to the one outlined in this blog post - yes it comes from a parent perspective about ADHD but the strategy is useful to consider and is in alignment with strategies shared by Judith. 
In addition to the strategy above some other aspects are as follows: 
  • Ensure that the child has a mentor (not the classroom teacher) 
  • Have a team that work together around the child... meet and talk to each other
  • It is OK for you to have a bad day as a teacher, it is OK for you to ask for help 
  • School policy needs to reflect that common practice behaviour management strategies may work for the majority but that for some the strategies we employ need to flexible so we can best meet the needs of the children concerned and ensure safety for other children and staff as well 
  • These kids will test your love and care, they don't trust easily... they will push back... they will not make it easy but if they are giving you a hard time it is possible that this is actually a complement in a strange way, they think you are worth it to test the relationship 
  • Reframing your own internal dialogue when working with these 'tough' kids is a really helpful, mentally healthy strategy 
The thing we need to come back to is that the science is there, and as Judith stated emphatically, we cannot afford to ignore it... the science can and should be informing our practice and what works for 80% of our kids is great but we need to ensure that we do what we can to support the 20% in ways that work for them. This relates to the at risk learners as well. 
I am passionate about the human brain and how it works. It is fascinating and as a teacher I see this as vital to know as it can inform my practice and help my students become more self aware learners. 
This year I have had several sessions (not enough by far but it is a start) where we have worked through some 'stuff' about our brains. What I figure is if we have an awareness of how our brain might be working then we are better able to manage ourselves and if nothing else be more aware of our own behaviours so in time be better self managers. 

Now if you haven't seen this clip I recommend it, it doesn't take long and is useful for ourselves if nothing else. I have shown this to my class and played it again for individuals and they really get it (please note: our students are 7 years old). After watching this we spoke about how it felt when our glitter jar of emotions were all shaken up and how we can help to calm them down. I then used this analogy of the glitter jar and teamed it with Glenn Capelli's Magic Brain concept

Initially I drew this on the board as we talked about it and then later made the visual as a reminder for us going forward. There are three rooms in our Magic Brain: 
  1. The blue thinking room- where we have heaps of choices and this is where heaps of our learning happens 
  2. The glitter room of emotions (Glenn talks about this being the multicoloured room)- this is where our feelings are and when we are feeling big emotions or lots of emotions it can get pretty messy in here which makes it hard to the get to the door for the thinking room so we need to calm the glitter down 
  3. The red room of limited choices- often when we are afraid or angry we end up in the red room where we really only have 2-3 choices... fight, flight or freeze, when we are in the red room we can't get to the thinking room very well at all (and this relates back to Judith's work around when the brain stem is engaged then the cerebral cortex is offline)... we need strategies to help us get from the red room, through the glitter room and up to the thinking room so we have got more choices 

It impressed me how the children seemed to understand this concept. So we moved from here and using the just breathe video as inspiration created this simple strategy for the class (and please note: this is for all students in the class but as stated earlier it doesn't necessarily work for all) 
This is here as a reminder for all of us to help when we get stuck in the glitter room of emotions and the red room of limited choices. It gives us a visual cue. The stop button is really helpful, when things are getting out of control the first thing we do is stop and if we can do that earlier rather than later then everyone benefits. For our disregulated children there needs to be an extra step and that is finding a safe 'place' to calm the adrenalin and cortisol down, then breathing and thinking before deciding on a course of action to remedy the situation... and as I said earlier, that takes time! 
So far these simple tools have had some positive effect for a few of the children in the class and as a teacher I need to model this more obviously as well. It isn't only the children that feel like their glitter jar is a bit shaken up from time to time :) 
Below are some poems I have also shared with our class when talking about the brain: 
My growing magic brain
Megan Gallagher

Guess what I have between my ears
That changes and grows all the time
It’s my magical wonderful brain
And it’s all mine, all mine, all mine

Trying things that are hard or tough
Helps connections grow
The more I try, the better I learn
And the more I get to know

So I will help my magic brain
Make links and learn and grow
By being kind and trying hard
And giving new things a go!

Growing and Changing
Megan Gallagher

Egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly
Changing and growing fast
My brain changes when I try
I practice to make it last

A seed becomes a plant or tree
Branches grow like brain connections in me

When I try and have a go
My brain connections will grow and grow

I keep trying and what do you know
I change and grow and change and grow

Growing and Changing 2
Megan Gallagher
A baby changes and learns a lot because they try and try again,
An egg becomes a butterfly by changing and then flying.
A seed becomes a giant tree by growing a little every day,
And I grow and change as well by trying when I learn and play.


  1. Love all this information- especially since I have a new student starting in Term 3 that fits this research. This will be very helpful.

    1. That's great to hear Sandi... Judith stressed the need to take things slowly, expect ups and downs and not beat yourself up too much... these relationships take time to build. Good luck.

  2. You are so talented Meg - great article plus awesome poems - I too need to remember to breathe at times...

    1. Thanks so much Karen :) You are good for my ego!!!

  3. I enjoyed reading your articles. This was a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.
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    1. Thank you. It has been a while since I last wrote so need to get back to it! Thank you for the feedback and additional information.

  4. Thank you CT. Have a great day.

  5. Love everything I have read and it so applies to what is currently happening in my classroom with a new, distressed and angry student and the ripple effect on everyone else in the room. I have been struggling myself and it's a nice reminder that these changes aren't going to happen overnight, and it's ok to have a bad day and it doesn't mean i am a failure....tomorrow is another day. I am struggling with our whole school system as i feel it just doesn't accommodate or help these students at all.

    1. Thanks for your comment Margie. I hope that it helps knowing that lots of us have been there/are there, I know it did for me. You are not a failure, human beings are complicated at the best of times aren't they? Kia kaha xx

  6. Grateful to have found your blog so I can re-read the fantastic thoughts you share with us at uLearn. Excited to try some of it with my learners.

  7. Thanks so much for checking this out and the feedback re. uLearn (it was such a fab energy in the room... it was heaps of fun!) Please let me know how you get on with your learners and if you want to chat at all please drop me a line. Love your enthusiasm.