Paul Klee, Persian Nightingales (1917) — Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Thanking the disruptive children!

Ask any elementary teacher around you how their class is going and you will likely hear in return: “My students are generally great except for a couple of them who have very disruptive behaviors ; they drain all my energy, on top of disturbing the learning for everyone else.”

Sometimes they might even come to surprising conclusions, like this kindergarten teacher who recently posted about one of her students: “He does everything to drive me up the walls. Sometimes I wonder if he is doing it on purpose. Maybe he just doesn’t like me.”

No, children aren’t having tantrums just to drive adults up the walls

Findings in neuroscience have shown that when babies are born, their limbic system, which is the part of our brain that allows us to feel emotions, is fully mature from day one. However their neocortex, which is the part of our brain that is involved in regulating our emotions, is totally immature at birth and it takes over a decade to fully mature.

This discrepancy inside children’s brains makes it really hard for them to regulate their emotions until their neocortex fully develops. Hence the tantrums, the outbreaks, the yelling and destroying.

Moreover, another revolution happens in their brains at adolescence: hormones surge, entailing changes in their moods, their regulation skills, their ability to gauge danger, and their need to seek group acceptance.

Given those physiological and biological limitations, what is the point of teaching them self-regulation skills?

One could argue that any efforts to support children in self-regulating are vain because the emotional tsunami they undergo at adolescence will inevitably tear all the skills previously learned into pieces.

But, let’s consider for a moment what happens when we don’t proactively address this discrepancy inside their brains :

Today, children are often sent for time out when they are having an emotional outbreak, be it at school or at home : “Go to your room and think about what you just did. And don’t come back until you have calmed down.” True, this is a safe way of removing the problem from before our eyes and to ensure, as parents or as teachers, we don’t fly off the handle ourselves. However, how many of us really believe children are able to think, let alone process their emotions on this occasion?

Sending children for a time out without having initially given them the tools to read and process their inner world is tantamount to throwing a book at them and expecting them to learn how to read on their own. Emotions are just like an alphabet. We owe our children to teach them the letters, graphemes and phonemes, words and sentences associated with each emotion. Otherwise, their initial emotion is rapidly replaced by overwhelming guilt and fear of sanction, leaving them with nothing but a soaring sense of loneliness and helplessness. More importantly, they won’t have any more tools to process their emotion healthily on the next occasion.

Indeed, if we don’t explicitly teach healthy regulation strategies to children from very early on (at home and at school), they resort to their own strategies, which are generally harmful to themselves or to people around them (“When I feel upset, I just sit in a corner and I don’t talk to anyone,” “When my sister takes my toy away from me, I just hit her and she gives it back to me”).

The biggest problem is that throughout the years children encode unhealthy regulation patterns which can later translate into bullying, addiction, self-harm, and in some cases suicide. These patterns are also very fertile grounds for the emergence of mental health issues in adulthood.

Building explicit connections between children’s limbic system and their neocortex

Actively fostering connections inside children’s brains between their limbic system and their neocortex is essential to helping them build a strong emotional foundation to thrive upon throughout their lives, both academically and socially.

How can we teach this emotional alphabet?

Given that we don’t regulate sadness as we do for fear or anger, it is of utmost importance that children are first able to identify how they feel, so they can then use the adequate regulation tool. As an example, here is the scaffolding we use in the Wisdom program:

1. The first step is to help children identify how they feel, this can be done through games around :

- Voice intonations

- Body language

- Facial expressions

- Physiological reactions

- Trigger events

2. The second step is to enrich their vocabulary so they can accurately describe the intensity of their emotions :

- “Sometimes I feel irritable when I wake up in the morning. If my sister then makes fun of me, I become infuriated” is very different than “I feel happy / not happy.” As adults, we should pay more attention to the variety of our emotional vocabulary and use as many words as possible : each primary emotion (anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust) has about thirty synonyms! Don’t hesitate to challenge yourself and share those words with your children and students, they are hungry for it! I recently heard from teachers : “The Wisdom session on synonyms was so popular with our 1st graders, they just wouldn’t stop repeating the words, asking how to spell them and practicing how to write them.”

3. Now that children can identify their emotions and describe them with the proper vocabulary, the third step is to help them communicate their emotions efficiently and solve conflicts in a non-violent way, namely by assuming positive intent. For example, instead of saying “I feel enraged because you broke my toy on purpose,” it might be more constructive to say “I can see that my toy is broken. I feel enraged. I need my toys to be in good condition so that I can play with them. How about you pay more attention next time?”

4. The last step is teaching regulation strategies to children. Those are tools that empower them to do something about how they feel and that they can use on a daily basis to deal with their emotions healthily. Because the causes are different for each emotion, the corresponding regulation strategy will also be different. “When I feel anxious, focusing on the challenges I overcame in the past helps me feel more confident. When I feel angry, drawing my anger on a sheet of paper helps me feel better.”

Why on earth should we thank disruptive children ?

As a teacher or parent, the child with a disruptive behavior often takes up all your attention, time and energy. We eventually blame them and stigmatise them as “the child with discipline issues,” when we should actually thank them.

Disruptive behaviors are just a sign that they are having trouble dealing with their emotions. And as we saw earlier, given their age, it’s certainly no easy task!

While focusing on the behavior (what is acceptable or not) is part of the solution, the most efficient strategy is to support them in identifying what is the underlying emotion they are having difficulty processing that prompted this behavior. Instead of asking “Why are you behaving like this?” we could rather ask “What is the emotion you are having difficulty dealing with?” Teaching them words to accurately describe how they feel and tools to help them calm down takes patience and time, but it’s so much more beneficial in the long run for everyone!

What about children who have no behavioral issues, do they need support ?

Children with no behavioral issues aren’t necessarily a sign that they have healthy regulation strategies in place. They might be internalizing all their conflicts while putting even more effort into displaying a happy face, thereby building a wall between them and others or rather a facade that deters adults from focusing their attention on them (“everything is under control”). Indeed, high academic achievement sometimes comes at a huge cost while remaining under the radar because just as these children wants us to believe “there is nothing to worry about: good grades, friends, no disciplinary issues.” But deep inside, there is despair and anxiety that is left unprocessed and that can be harmful as it accumulates over the years: “My mom is already struggling enough raising us alone and making ends meet, I must get good grades not to add one more worry to her list. And I won’t show her or anyone else that I’m feeling scared and miserable because they have more important things to worry about.” These mechanisms, if repeated time and over again, become reflexes that constitute all but a healthy way of processing emotions. Hence the depression, self-harm and other mental health issues among Ivy league students and alumni.

Here’s another reason to thank disruptive children: they are showing us the tip of the iceberg and giving us an opportunity to step back and take a closer look at the rest of the iceberg.

In a nutshell, when it comes to learning how to identify and regulate emotions, all students need to learn and, more importantly, to practice! Until those healthy regulation strategies become reflexes and they are able to express how they feel without fear of being judged or left unheard.

Last year, a parent whose daughter used the Wisdom program at school reached out to me and said : “Our 6-year old daughter used to slam her door and lock herself up in her room whenever she felt angry. It was exhausting to deal with, especially on the weekend when all we wanted was to enjoy family time all together. The other day she came back from school and said : “I feel frustrated, I need a big glass of water.” She was then able to communicate and share what had happened. Thank you for making our lives easier!”