A Florida elementary school made national headlines after video emerged of a police officer hauling off a seven-year-old boy in handcuffs. According to reports, a teacher had scolded the child for playing with his food in the cafeteria and the boy reacted by lashing out at the teacher, repeatedly striking and kicking her. By the time the student was able to calm down, school administrators had alerted the police, who arrived to arrest him. The teacher planned to press charges.
As troubling as it is to hear of a first-grader led off in handcuffs, the incident is only an extreme version of a scenario I have seen again and again. All too often, when children display challenging behavior, the adults around them react in ways that make matters worse rather than better. This is especially the case for children in which rewards and punishment are ineffective.
Over time, I have found that many of the tools and techniques used for challenging behaviors are not consistent with what we now know about brain development and behavioral control. The main problem is that these approaches are based on the assumption that the child’s behavior is intentional and willful.
That’s not always the case. As I often say, a child’s behavior is like the tip of the iceberg, the part that’s visible above the water’s surface. When we see an out-of-control child, instead of focusing on what we see, we need to look beneath the surface, to consider what’s triggering the behavior.
What helped me most to understand that is the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, a preeminent neuroscientist known for his polyvagal theory, a way of explaining stress responses. Dr. Porges uses the term “neuroception,” to describe the brain’s ability to detect danger. It’s how we distinguish whether situations or people are safe or threatening. Before we discipline children, we need to understand whether their neuroception is set at such a low threshold that it triggers defensive behaviors when there is no intention to injure– and whether their actions reflect a subconscious stress response or intentional misbehavior. He believes, as do I, that many children with so-called “conduct disorders” detect threat in the physical or relational environment when they are indeed safe.
For instance, we can’t know exactly what happened in that Florida cafeteria. But when a young child attacks another person, the most likely explanation is that the child has a vulnerable nervous system. Children who suddenly lash out at others are usually displaying a “fight-or-flight” reaction, driven by the parts of the brain that compel them to act on instinct and impulse.
The ability to control our emotions and behavior marks a distinct developmental milestone. Just because a child can speak doesn’t mean we should assume he has reached that benchmark. Some children have difficulty with emotional and behavioral regulation. Acting on impulse—not with intention—they either lash out to protect themselves, or they may try to run away.
Children do this regardless of background. To be sure, children who experience abuse, neglect or trauma are more likely to have vulnerable nervous systems. But I have seen plenty of children from loving homes who nevertheless have threat-detection systems that are easily triggered. The key is to identify these children as early as possible, for they need patient, loving adults to help them learn to read their own innate reactions and signal when they need help. This takes time, training and patience on the part of both adults and children. The best way to help such children isn’t through punishments or scare tactics, but through engaged, safe relationships.
That’s what our schools ought to promote. Educators should shift from viewing behaviors as compliance issues to seeing them as reflections of the child’s developing brain. Rather than jumping to discipline or punishment, we should focus on engaging with the child and calming the child’s panic by providing cues of human safety: a calm voice and a supportive presence, and the assurance that — however frightened you feel — you’ll be okay.
It’s easy to dismiss incidents like the one in Florida as disturbing aberrations. Instead, let’s use it as an opportunity for learning, reflection, and inspiration to care for our most vulnerable children with compassion and understanding.
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I describe how the Polyvagal Theory and an understanding of neuroception can inform early childhood professionals in this book.