These five little words can change everything for a dysregulated child:
I will always help you.
The trick is that we have to mean the words and the child has to believe them, and that does not happen overnight. And, it can be harder than it sounds.
Dysregulation presents itself in a myriad of ways. It can look like complete silence in a child who has shut down. It can sound animalistic, when grunting is all the verbal communication a student can do at the time. It can look like a whirlwind as a child is destroying a classroom. The behaviors can be prickly and scary even to seasoned educators. As different as the behaviors of a dysregulated child can look, there is one thing dysregulated children have in common: they are all doing the best they can in the moment.
Looking past the prickly behavior and knowing in our minds and in our hearts that the child is doing the best he/she can in the moment lays the foundation for trust in the relationship. Saying these five words, “I will always help you,” doesn’t mean that the behavior the child is exhibiting is acceptable. It doesn’t mean that there will not be consequences for the behavior. It means this, “I will always help you make those big feelings more manageable, I will always help you learn strategies so you can work through your emotions in a different way, I will help you learn and grow as a student and as a person. I am here to help, always.”
There is another thing that has to happen to make the five words meaningful, and this is something we don’t often directly talk about in education. We have meetings to dissect student behavior, we create calm corners to help students learn to regulate their emotions, we have strategies like mindfulness, breathing activities, and movement breaks that support students with emotional self-regulation. But, where and when do we talk about educator emotional regulation? Because if a dysregulated teacher approaches a dysregulated student, chances are it won’t go well. In order to help a child get regulated, the staff member must be regulated. It makes sense, right? And we are adults so being in emotional control should be in our wheelhouse, right? Well, when we are responsible for a room full of children whose learning is disrupted by one (or more) students repeatedly each day, frustration will certainly bubble to the surface, and that is understandable. I have 18 years of being a principal under my belt, and I still use several strategies before I say the five words to a dysregulated child:
- Self-talk: As I approach a child who is emotional crisis, I use lots of self-talk. I remind myself that the child is doing the best he/she can in the moment. I remind myself that patience and grace are two tools I will need to use.
- Slow everything down: There are times I need to rush to a child to keep him/her safe, but other than that rush to protect the child or other students, I slow everything down. I slow my breathing, I slow my thinking, and I become hyper-aware of my surroundings. I observe the child carefully and I observe everyone else around carefully. These pieces of information can help me understand the problem that is occurring, how everyone is feeling about it, and helps me get in emotional control.
- Get down to the child’s level and acknowledge big feelings: Slowly getting down to the child’s level and acknowledging the big feelings he/she is experiencing helps the child feel understood and affirms trust in our relationship. At this time I typically put out my hands as an offering to hold his/her hands. Sometimes the child isn’t ready for touch yet, and that is okay.
- Say, “I will always help you.” That help looks different for each child. For some, it is a walk. For others, it is a distraction. For yet others, they want to verbalize what is happening. Some need a sensory break before they can work through the problem. Some just need to sit with you and join your calm for a bit.
After the child is back in emotional regulation, then we can decide next steps on how to fix the problem that occurred and if consequences would be appropriate. Our focus is on supporting the child in fixing what caused the problem and any damage they did (to relationships, to materials, etc.) while they were in crisis. We work hard to help the child avoid feelings of shame.
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.Helen Keller
Teamwork does make the dream work and any teacher who is struggling with children who are frequently in crisis in their classrooms, please hear this loud and clear: what you are dealing with is hard and you need a team of support around you. It is important to be able to tap out when you know you cannot say the five words and mean them. You are human, you have important and valid feelings too. If you don’t have a team of support already, make that your first goal. Seek out colleague support, even if that means you swap classrooms with a neighboring teacher for a few minutes.
Just one more thing to add, please keep in mind that these five important words and the steps above are not only helpful to students, they are also helpful for colleagues in crisis and families in crisis. They are even helpful in our personal lives because they are not exclusive to the world of education.
My friends, thank you for the work you are doing and for learning and growing with me. We are better together. Sending so much love to all of you!