Tragic Effects of Exploiting The Fight or Flight Response in our Students…

Karen Kilbane
Aug 20, 2017 · 9 min read

How do you suppose this young man became so paranoid about races different than his own?

How do you think school went for this young man? Do you think he had a smooth time and rarely got in trouble?

How does the extreme paranoia of a racist develop and why does it surface in some people but not others? Racists don’t necessarily grow up in racist families. They can pop up anywhere. But how?

Educators often pass the buck to parents for the mental health of their students. But what if we educators can and should take more responsibility for mental health outcomes?

After 3 decades of teaching and parenting, I could walk into any school and observe any classroom for one full week. I could identify by the end which 1 or 2 students are likely to become adults with potentially dangerously unmanageable paranoia.

How could I do this?

Well first think about the adults you know. Do you know someone like Rick who believes liberals are being led by George Clooney to assist China in the hostile take-over the U.S.? Rick will go to his grave with this belief no matter how much evidence you give him to the contrary.

Do you know someone like Steve who believes Muslims have a 20 year plan to take over the United States? Steve morphs everything he reads and hears into corroborating evidence for his narrative. The more evidence you give Steve to the contrary, the tighter he holds onto his beliefs. NOTHING you can say will change his thinking.

These people are tremendously paranoid.

As a rule, white supremacists and neo-nazis are super paranoid people. They believe terrible things will happen to their families and to them if foreign racial, religious, ethnic, or political groups acquire too much power.

If you’ve met these kinds of paranoid thinkers, you know their thinking is set in stone so thick you can’t even blow it up with a nuclear bomb.

As an example, the chance of someone convincing you to become a neo-nazi is greater than you convincing a neo-nazi to stop being one, just not gonna happen.

So what is there to do??? We are unlikely to change racist beliefs once an adult has gravitated towards and accepted them as facts.

Well, let’s go back to the classroom. What if we educators take a good, hard look at our interaction patterns with our developing children and how these patterns impact their developing brains and nervous systems. To do this, however, we would have to see the brain as an organ, just like we see the pancreas, spleen, uterus, liver, esophagus, etc.

Oddly, we painstakingly observe and study all our organs to understand them and keep them healthy. But we don’t do this for the brain. We expect the brain to do whatever we want it to do for no logical reason. We do not have this expectation of other organs, just the brain.

We don’t expect children to behave in alignment with the dictates of their brain, an organ, we expect children to behave in alignment with our ideological, philosophical, spiritual, psychological, religious, moral, and/or behavioral expectations. Instead of seeing the behavior of children as the function of integrated organs and organ systems, we see their behavior as a function of what we want from them. Our psychological theories do not reflect a deep understanding of children and how their brains impact them, they reflect the sequence of events recommended for manipulating a child’s brain and body in order to get the thoughts, responses, and behaviors we want out of it.

We have also been led to believe the brain is a manifestation of a person’s psychology, a word never clearly defined for exactly what it does and does not mean. Because the term psychology can be batted around with such ease, and because it is such a vague and all encompassing term, we never have to get specific about what exactly is going on in the organ, the brain, as a child grows and develops.

We fixate on sculpting our children ‘psychologically,’ despite the impossibility of truly knowing what that means exactly.

We fixate on teaching children so they will behave in ways we want them to behave, the ways we have decided are ‘psychologically normal,’ by the time they are adults. This cause us to think of our children in a top down kind of way. We want behavior X so we will use behavior modification strategy Y to get it.

However, in order to shape behavior to get the behavioral results we have predetermined we desire from our children, it requires us to exploit their fight or flight response. We justify this by saying, if forcing behavioral compliance causes lots of tears and stress in a child, this is OK, because nothing is worse than a spoiled child. A little stress now will be worth it in the long run.

Well, I can think of many things worse than an allegedly spoiled child, namely, that the child will turn into a racist, violent, hyper paranoid adult who loves guns. Or, a child who grows up to suffer debilitating mental health problems.

Sadly, our psychological theories of child development have always placed a higher priority for how we want a child to turn out than for the state of his mental health throughout childhood. This is because methods for garnering behavioral compliance do not allow us to think about the child’s brain as an organ that exists separately from what the organ is able to learn and store in its memory. We see only what we want the brain to become, not what it actually has to actively do day in and day out.

What if we started placing a higher priority on facilitating the child’s brain in what it has to do, not what we pre-decide we want it to become.

What if we were to throw away the notion of spoiling a child just as we have thrown away the notion of spoiling the infant. We now know now you can’t spoil an infant and the key to a well adjusted infant is meeting her basic needs and keeping him calm, safe, and content. This recipe speaks more about how we are helping the developing brain and nervous system of the infant than anything else.

What if the key to a well adjusted adult is the exact same thing? What if the key to mental health is keeping a child’s brain and nervous system as calm, safe, and content as possible as he grows and develops from birth to age 18?

Could we reduce the number of adults who become racist, violent, self injurious, suicidal, depressed, addicted, hyper paranoid, or delusional., etc. simply by working harder to keep the brains and nervous systems of our children calm during the school day?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes. And here’s why. We have research telling us of many negative consequences met by children who suffer trauma. Educators are given many suggestions for how to interact with trauma sufferers to help them cope.

But what is trauma in the first place? Is trauma a result of only extreme abuse?

To answer this question, let’s look again at the human brain as an organ. Neurologists have found the brain is an organ of memory and prediction. These are the only two functions it performs; it stores memories and recalls them appropriately to make predictions for what to do next.

The brain only performs two functions, but it carries them out with billions of neurons and neuronal connections, thus the complexity. Sadly, the story we’ve told ourselves about how complex the brain is has prevented us from seeing the beautiful simplicity amidst its complexity. The brain simply stores memories and makes predictions. That’s it

So trauma, and all human responses for that matter, by definition, can only occur and can only be addressed in the realm of how the brain is storing memory, recalling memory, and/or forming predictions for what to do next.

In light of this, the only way the brain can assess or experience trauma of any kind, whether slight or great, is via prediction violation. There’s no other entry point for the brain to perceive trauma. This means we educators should be paying special attention to how smoothly a child is managing both predictions and prediction violations because prediction violations cause the brain to cue for anxiety and fight or flight. Fight or flight, if not addressed effectively and successfully, leads to all manner of anxiety related disorders, like extreme paranoia, violence, depression, addiction, etc.

What we aren’t getting is that all prediction violation, small or large, cues the brain to go into fight of flight. The idea our fight or flight response is a hold over from primitive times when we had to fight huge mammals is a simplistic generalization, a generalization I believe responsible for setting us back light years in the realm of fostering mental health.

Without a strong fight or flight response, we would not become focused sufficiently on the many prediction violations we encounter each day. To not address the violations would put us in harm’s way all day every day. But we are not getting this about our brain. We aren’t getting how hair trigger our fight or flight response is and how destabilizing it is if we cannot effectively address it. Not getting this is causing us to keep our most cognitively vulnerable students in fight or flight all day every day in school.

This is why it would take me a week in any school to identify children most likely to suffer mental health problems like extreme paranoia by the time they reach adulthood. I can easily spot the children who are constantly given negative consequences when their brains are doing what their brains must do as organs bound by highly specific biological structures and functions.

Cognitively vulnerable children can have a wide range of IQ’s, but they are simply not as cognitively flexible as their peers. Their thinking is more rigid, meaning they can recall only one solution from their memory for how to solve most problems. If the single solution they can come up with is denied them, their brain signals prediction violation, and they go into fight or flight. The less cognitively flexible a child is, the more fight or flight he or she will endure each day. The brain can never not cue for fight or flight when there is prediction violation any more than the skin can ever not bleed when cut. We cannot decide how we want to mold the properties of a human brain any more than we can decide how to mold the properties of skin, bladders, or livers.

Disastrously, we simply do not treat the brain as an organ . We tend to persecute the cognitively inflexible children who get upset quite often because we have weird psychological theories framing this as a child acting spoiled whenever he doesn’t get his own way. We’ve developed a way of thinking about these children that causes us to do the exact opposite of helping them maintain a calm nervous system. We are always goading them to respond and behave differently than they do. This hypes up their nervous systems and causes them to become increasingly defensive and paranoid over time.

A simple shift in priorities as educators could help us possibly solve some of our worst societal problems. If we raise children whose nervous systems have not been hyped up all the time due to punitive responses for how they interact with information, then we have a better chance of raising children who do not succumb to extreme paranoia or other kinds of mental anguish and suffering.

If we decide priority one as educators is mental health and helping children remain calm throughout the school day, we could easily adapt our teaching strategies to accomplish this goal. We would redirect our efforts just slightly. We would think about our children in terms of how they are able to cognitively achieve a task, not about how they are behaviorally not able to achieve a task. We would apply cognitive support strategies rather than behavior modification strategies. This small, simple, shift in priorities might help us reduce many tragic mental health related individual and societal problems.

The Synapse

Authentic voices in education.

Karen Kilbane

Written by

My students with special needs have led me to develop a hypothesis for a brain-compatible theory of personality. Reach me at

The Synapse

Authentic voices in education. To join us, tweet @synapsepub.

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