Behavior is Communication
“What happened, Mom? What is going on?” My daughter asked the other night, while she climbed on a chair to look at my computer. I was staring at my laptop, looking at pictures of the destruction caused by hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas. I felt speechless. Miles and miles of destroyed homes, entire towns swapped away by the hurricane. According to CNN, 70,000 people lost almost everything, and thousands of survivors are still trying to escape the destroyed areas.
I closed my computer and tried to explain what had happened. She got concerned and asked how the children could to school if the buildings were destroyed. “I don’t know” I said, unable to elaborate a better response. That night, she woke up several times asking about earthquakes. She knows that we live close to the San Andreas fault, and she practices earthquake drills at school. At a certain point, children realize that bad things do actually happen.
When children live through stressful events—such as a natural disaster, losing their homes or the death of a loved one—they may become hypervigilant about these events happening again in the future. Even students who have only seen pictures or heard stories about these disasters may become worried about their safety or what they would do if something happened. If students bring up these topics in your classroom, support them by discussing their feelings and answering questions. These conversations may reduce some of their fear and anxiety, and open the door to build trust with your students.
In some cases, students may be experiencing stressful events and educators don’t know about it. As we have discussed in the past, we see the behaviors, but we don’t always know the reasons underneath them. Students might act out, show strong emotions or have big reactions to small incidents. If that’s the case in your classroom, approach them with curiosity. Behavior is communication, so investigate: What are they trying to communicate with this behavior? What do they need that they are not getting?
As an educator, you cannot control what students experience outside of the classroom. However, you can help them develop the tools they need to navigate their emotions and cope with the setbacks they will surely encounter throughout their lives. One important competency to help them with this is self-management, which I discuss in detail in my forthcoming book, Teaching with the Heart in Mind. Here’s a snippet. Let me know what you think.
Sometimes teachers have misconceptions about how social and emotional skills are developed. Educators may think that students, especially in middle or high school, should be able to “get over” their emotions. While this may be true for certain students, it is not accurate for all. Some of the students in our classrooms need additional support to (re)gain their emotional balance. The same way that students may need additional academic support at some point in their schooling, students may also need additional social and emotional supports. Many elementary schools do not incorporate an intentional focus on SEL yet, which leaves students with fewer tools to regulate their emotions in the middle and high school years. No matter which grade span you teach, do not underestimate how much you can do to support students’ social and emotional growth.
When we ignore students’ emotions or expect them to go away, we are denying students’ experiences and ignoring their value. Remember, you can help students experiencing strong emotions by connecting with their feelings: acknowledge and validate-”Your face is tense, you seem upset. What happened? I may also feel upset if that happened to me.”
Another misconception teachers may have is related to students’ ability to learn self-management skills-it is never too late to learn tools to process our emotions, especially for students whose feelings are getting on the way of learning. When students feel out of control due to their emotions, they cannot and will not learn. No matter how well designed your lesson is. Our job as educators is, as Dan Siegel says, to “co-regulate”, that is to help students regain emotional balance and to increase their capacity to navigate their feelings, so they can see things more clearly and respond to daily situations instead of reacting.
The next competency in the HEART model, Electing your Responses, teaches students and adults the tools to create the necessary space that allow us to make constructive, informed and safe decisions. The action verb in this competency, Elect, means to choose, to take the reins of our behavior and select how we are going to move forward. The word Responses means that we move away from reactions and functioning on autopilot, to step into a place of balance.
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