Knowing how to effectively manage students' fight, flight, or freeze responses in the classroom can be tricky.
In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets we explore the biological changes that drive these reactions and reveal strategies that you can use to approach de-escalation calmly and in control.
Click here to hear all of episode 21.
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Show notes / transcription
Simon Currigan 0:00
So let's imagine our hill and our journey so far. So we started at ground level, we walked up the hill, and that kind of represented the increase in stress chemicals in our body. At the top of the hill, we have our fight or flight reaction where we either tried to fight the thing that was causing us a perceived threat or run away from it, we've had the walk down the hill on the opposite side where our body chemistry is coming back under control, but we're still scanning for threats.
Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to another bite sized Essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets, where I share with you key strategies or insights from an earlier episode that can have an impact for the students that you work with in your school or classroom. And in this Essentials episode, my co host Emma and I explain the anger cycle the biological changes that occur in the body that lead to the fight flight or freeze responses that are actually so difficult to manage in school. So understanding this and understanding how to adjust your response for each stage can be the key to effective de escalation.
Emma Shackleton 1:46
So let's look at the ascent then. So we start off with the trigger, we see the tiger for example, and our amygdala fires up and we start producing adrenaline and noradrenaline. If you're listening in a different part of the world or in medical circles, you may hear these chemicals called by different names - epinephrine and norepinephrine. But because everyone kind of knows what adrenaline is, we'll stick with that terminology for now.
Simon Currigan 2:13
So imagine our hill. In stage one, we're walking up the ascent to that hill, we're walking up the left hand side of the hill, and we're moving upwards. And that kind of represents the fact that we're producing more and more of these stress chemicals, adrenaline and noradrenaline. And they work together to prepare us for this potentially dangerous confrontation.
Emma Shackleton 2:34
So the job of the stress release hormones is to kick starters into action, and prepare us for survival mode, we need to be able to look out for threats and deal with them when they come along. This will lead to an increase in heart rate increased breathing rates. Also, as a result of this reaction, the liver dumps sugar into our bloodstream. Sugar is needed for energy to power our muscles and blood is redirected around our bodies to the areas where it's needed most usually arms and legs, hands and feet,
Simon Currigan 3:10
Our brain also changes as a result of these hormone changes. So our brain will become very focused on what's happening now. We will stop thinking about what's going to happen later in the day or tomorrow or the day after. In a life or death situation, you need 100% of your attention focused on the threat in front of you. Some people describe this as the red mist we're watching very, very carefully prepared for any kind of attack, you'll see this on the playground, sometimes two kids have a fight and you have to split them up. You'll see them watching each other intently to see what's going to happen next, and they can't focus on anything else. And the third impact which is important is that it affects our ability to lay down long term memories because in a fight or flight situation in a survival situation. Laying down long term memories isn't a priority. We're focused on survival in the moment.
Emma Shackleton 4:04
So at this stage, our aim is to remove pressure and further stress from the student if we've been vigilant and noticed physical changes as a result of these neurobiological changes. For example, we might notice a pupils' faces become flushed, or we can see tension in their muscles, or we might notice that they make changes in their eye contact. We might just be able to get in there quickly with a de-escalation strategies such as distraction, for example, or moving the threat away and out of sight.
Simon Currigan 4:40
Assuming that those strategies don't work and we continue to feel more pressured, eventually we'll walk to the very top of the hill. And this is where we can't cope with any more pressure and our bodies launch us into one of four survival behaviours.
Emma Shackleton 4:54
So the first of those four states is fight. This is our anger. responds, our body is fired up and we become ready to fight for fight to the death.
Simon Currigan 5:06
The second is flight. That's where we run away as quickly as possible from the thing that we're perceiving as a threat.
Emma Shackleton 5:14
The third state is freeze. This is where we become very still very quiet. This is an evolutionary response that animals have developed, it's a way of not getting noticed and hoping that the threat will pass us by hoping that if we stay still enough, the tiger will walk on pastures. You see, sometimes in children when they shut down, so they're standing in front of you, they might be wide eyed. They're not responding, they're not talking, they're not moving, they're not engaging, and they've gone into freeze mode.
Simon Currigan 5:49
And the fourth, which is related to freeze is playing dead. And you'll see animals do this, they'll lie down, or you might see someone who's being attacked, they might lie on the floor and actually pretend to be unconscious or dead in the hope that the attacker will then move away.
Emma Shackleton 6:03
So the de-escalation focus at this stage is keeping the child physically safe and well away from the threat. At the peak of this hill at the top of this hill, the crisis point if you like, it's all about simple safety messages. And not further overloading the child with too much torque or too much stimulation. It's all about keeping them safe.
Simon Currigan 6:26
So to bring it back to our caveman, our caveman has imagine ran away from the saber toothed tiger or in school, the child has run away from the thing that's causing them to feel unsafe and threatened. Stage three is the descent. So we've gone across the top of the hill. And now we start to walk down the other side of the hill. This is where our bodies recognize that the immediate threat has gone now on the way down the hill. And I promise this show isn't sponsored by the grand old Duke of York, we stay very alert to threats, even though outwardly we may look more calm. Our bodies still have tons of adrenaline and noradrenaline. What's happening is our bodies are draining those quantities down. So we are starting to feel more calm and relaxed. However, we are poised and scanning for that threat to reappear.
Emma Shackleton 7:18
So any threat that is spotted, or a perceived threat, remember, and we shoot straight back up into fight or flight mode. So this is actually a really dangerous time when we're trying to help children de escalate their behaviours, we might feel like they've come past the crisis point, they might look like they're calming down. I've actually had children who've said to me, I'm okay, now Miss. And I've thought great, they're calm, actually, the moment that you mentioned the thing that went wrong, or the moment that they perceive that to be another threat, maybe they think you're going to tell them off, or there's going to be a consequence issued, then boom, they're straight back up into that peak. So this is a really tricky, dangerous time they remain in that hyper vigilant state. They're continually scanning for threats, it might be the existing threat, like the tiger coming back, or it might be a new threat now.
Simon Currigan 8:17
So classic example, maybe you have two kids who have been fighting out on the playground, the adults come in and move those kids apart, the kid's breathing slows down, they start to look a little more calm. So what do the adults do to resolve the situation, they bring the kids back together. And because those kids are still on the inside, still scanning for threats, you bring them together with the thing that caused the outburst in the first place, you'll bring them back together with that perceived threat. And boom, you get another incident or an emotional outburst from one of the kids.
Emma Shackleton 8:49
So at this stage, the adult response has got to be all about focusing on calming the child and keeping them away from the threat. So it might be moving the threat away, or it might be moving them away from the threat if they're able to. And that will allow the stress hormones to dissipate without any further flare up.
Simon Currigan 9:10
So let's imagine our hill and our journey so far. So we started at ground level, we walked up the hill, and that kind of represented the increase in stress chemicals in our body. At the top of the hill, we have our fight or flight reaction where we either tried to fight the thing that was causing us a perceived threat or ran away from it. We've had the walk down the hill on the opposite side where our body chemistry is coming back under control, but we're still scanning for threats. Now we've reached ground level on the opposite side, what actually happens is we dip down into a small valley and we need to go down a little way before we can come back up to ground level again.
Emma Shackleton 9:47
So this stage is sometimes referred to as like a body chemistry crash because the adrenaline and noradrenaline are draining away the blood sugar levels are stabilizing in our bloodstream This is a difficult time children when they've experienced this big outburst or crisis point. After that, they can be very overly emotional, they might be overly remorseful, they might be tearful, they might be sleepy, this period is sometimes referred to as a period of depression. So working in pupil referral units, I've seen children who completely lost control, maybe they've trashed a classroom, for example. And then afterwards, they've actually laid down on the floor and gone to sleep. It's very, very exhausting to go through this stress response cycle.
Simon Currigan 10:40
And that's all we've got time for on this Essentials episode, where we've covered the stages of the anger cycle and explained how you can approach de-escalation calmly and effectively. If you want to know more about how you can get children emotionally and physiologically back on track following a crash, just head back to Episode 21. And if you've enjoyed listening today, please remember to rate and review us It takes just 30 seconds and when you do, it prompts the algorithm to recommend School Behaviour Secrets to other listeners. And that helps us grow the podcast and reach other teachers, school leaders and parents. And while you've got your podcast app open, please remember to hit subscribe so you never miss another episode. Thanks for listening today and I look forward to seeing you next time on School Behaviour Secrets.
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)