Consciously Dial Down Reaction
"Children should be taught to use their emotions and to be aware of them rather than control them." —Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
Succeeding "despite the odds" or overcoming adversity has a lot more to do with resource capacity than luck. We may have little control over what happens in our students' lives outside of school or the traumas that inevitably fall into each and every life. We can, however, influence outcomes when we construct the school environment in a way that reduces threat and increases the protective factors that we know build resilience and the skills needed to thrive despite adversity (Masten, 2001; Center for Disease Control, n.d.).
In an earlier post, I mentioned the role threat appraisal plays in reactive behavior. We decide if something is a threat or challenge based on whether or not we believe we have the necessary resources to meet the circumstances (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000). Highly stressed learners tend to interpret challenges as threats rather than opportunities. That was definitely my experience with Section 8C. My learners were threatened and so was I.
I'd love to tell you that wisdom and grace led to my turnaround experience with that class and their turnaround experiences as learners. My fear of their emotional reactivity and a riotous mutiny forced me to stop poking the sore spot and figure out how to help them channel their emotional reactivity into action that counted for something positive. I had to convince them that they could make a difference.
Part of the curriculum required teaching about the Holocaust. I understood that if I came into class with The Diary of Anne Frank, even though the literature text had adapted the story into a play, the students would be set off by their prejudices and by the story's intensity. The class still grappled with their own sense of social injustice and were way too reactive to take a broader view of man's inhumanity to man.
What could they handle? I wondered. I understood that these students needed to be engaged in a story larger than their own—a cause. They cared about their pets, so we began the unit with a simple, fictional story about animal rights. Then we bridged into nonfiction text about the controversial issue of animal testing for scientific research. In this safe space, they could express their voices.
Next, using a very low reading level Scholastic magazine article about China, we transitioned into reading about the human rights story. Speakers came to the classroom from Amnesty International and provided the students with facts and evidence that they could use as supporting details for the letters they planned to write, and they also empowered the students to express their opinions. Driven by a sense of meaning, purpose, and an authentic task, the students worked with each other to labor through letter-writing skills in order to write well-crafted business letters that they could send (with parental permission).
We were almost ready for the Holocaust. First, they needed background information. Student pairs were each given a short research topic: Kristallnacht, Selection, Yellow Star, and Warsaw Ghetto. We put these terms together to form a mental picture of the historical narrative. Everyone volunteered to read a part. Students came to class eager to know what happened next. Even the strapping 15 year-old boy who was still in 8th grade and an angry and resentful young man cried at Anne's death.
In the trauma-healing world, resilience researchers talk about the power of turnaround experiences. The final week of the unit, a female student came to me with pictures her uncle showed her from the liberation of the concentration camps. With the vice principal's permission, I put the postcards on a table and invited each student to come in single file, view the pictures, and jot down images. From these they wrote poems. Each student listened to one another's poems with reverence, dignity, and respect.
From that moment, even through the end of June and the anticipation over graduation and summer break, Section 8C never had another behavior problem that wasn't handled in class with a simple redirection or humorous poke.
What can you do today to dial down your reactive behavior?
What adjustments can you make to the learning environment to build safety, stability, and nurturance?
What can you share with students that will help them become less stress reactive and increase their resource capacity?
How can you be the calm you want in riled waters?
Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2001). Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In J. Forgas (Ed.), Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition (pp. 59–82). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56, 227–238.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Preventing child maltreatment through promoting safe, stable and nurturing relationships between children and caregivers. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/CM_Strategic_Direction--Long-a.pdf
Mary Fowler provides professional development to help teachers improve classroom cultures and create productive learning environments. She specializes in training teachers to work with students who have social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Fowler is an author and recognized authority on ADHD and related difficulties.