Another trainee from the Greyhawk school sessions, Lesley, had an even more remarkable experience.
Lesley had been a keen participant in the Good Relationships training sessions. The group had been discussing the need to safely share their feelings with pupils.
The rationale for this is explained very well by Marshall Rosenberg in his book Nonviolent communications: a language of life. He encourages us to request for our needs to be met, and to share the feelings we have about that.
She left session one determined to apply the approach strategically with her very difficult year nine group (14-year-olds).
She reflected for several days on her role as a teacher, her needs in the class, and the things which were preventing her from achieving the outcomes she wanted. At the next lesson she quietened the students down and began her explanation to the class, using relational communication skills.
To her shock and horror as she reached the point where she was describing her feelings of frustration and anxiety, she began to cry.
“I couldn’t stop weeping, but I knew I had to carry on and tell them what my needs were and how I was asking them to meet them Luckily this happened at the end of the lesson and I quickly dismissed them and regained my composure”.
Lesley explained how before the next lesson she was on a knife-edge of anxiety about how the class would react. She thought they might see her as an easy target and raise their disruptive efforts to new heights.
Instead, as Lesley said, “It was quite eerie - the class were all perfectly behaved!"
Hopefully, you will not be thinking 'Ah – if I have a difficult class all I need to do is start crying and all will be well’!!!
Lesley’s strategy worked because her actions were authentically ‘from the heart’. Her tears merely underlined the depth of her feelings for the children and their learning and she connected these feelings not to self-pity but to her needs.
She requested exactly what she needed them to do - she didn’t demand it. When we become fully alive as human beings in our professional roles there is much more scope for the unexpected – in a positive way.
Freedom through control leads to a narrowing of the options because the primary value judgment is ‘can I control it’, and the more options there are the more there is to control. On the other hand, control through freedom invites the unexpected, the initiative from the other, and encourages the kind of creative thinking ‘on the fly’ which can have such a positive impact.
When a practitioner is presented with a child communicating whilst in a distressed state, the important aspect is the distress, rather than the way it is being expressed.
We can ‘listen to’ the feelings the child is expressing, and empathise with the needs which these feelings reflect, and sometimes overlook the content. The content of the child’s communications may often be misleading because children who cannot express their emotions directly (“I am angry”), may often do so indirectly (“Fxxxxx cow! I hate you!”).
We need to respect our school's conduct code, but if we only treat the content of this ‘indirect’ response as a breach of social boundaries, then we are missing the point. We can instead recognise the statement as a poorly formed communication of feelings and try to understand the root causes.
Four communications modes
Children communicate verbally and nonverbally, and they can use those methods to express their feelings directly or indirectly (also known as ‘refractively’).
From this we get four distinct modes of expression:
Children with social emotional and mental health often find it hard to communicate feelings verbally and directly. Nonverbal refractive displays are particularly difficult to manage – when a child kicks over the waste bin or throws books the teacher must respond but has limited personal investment in the books or the bin. But what if the child scratches the teacher’s new car with a coin?
Ideally, we learn to communicate our concerns including any negative feelings back to the child in a safe way. Even the kicking over of the bin will have had some personal impact on the teacher – some additional stress - irritation that the lesson is disrupted and raised anxiety about delays in whole class progress, perhaps…
How should we respond to these indirect and nonverbal communications of emotional state? When we understand why children resort to these modes of expression the case becomes even stronger for doing something more long-lasting than applying the correct sanction for that particular breach of code.
 Because the response comes back at an odd angle (as through a prism) rather than reflecting what went before.
How childrens' emotions undermine their communications skills
Threat and Need
As Maslow pointed out, when we feel threatened it is our ability to meet our needs that is at risk. When we talk about ‘level’ of threat we are really referring to: -
different types of threat
different levels of immediacy.
A summary of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is below if you need it.
Threats to our 'self-actualization' needs are important, but these are something we aspire to and are not essential to our survival. Self-actualization goals are often long-term (academic study, get a better job, buy a house) so the threat is not immediate.
Threats to our need for ‘love and belonging’ are much more painfully emotional. If our social support network is damaged there is an immediate threat to our emotional well-being and a medium-term threat to our safety.
Threats to our ‘safety and security’ frequently need immediate resolution. If the threat is to our ’physiological’ needs the anxiety level is extreme.
Anxious arousal in children in need
Children often perceive a higher level of threat than the situation warrants. Actually, a teacher may not be aware how threatening they appear when they intervene forcefully to deal with a conduct issue.
But the most likely reason that a child perceives a high threat level is that the child's basic needs are not being securely well met. So much is uncertain, damaged or damaging in their lives that they feel unprotected and vulnerable most of the time. Their level of ‘anxious arousal’ is already high. Any additional stress raises anxiety to unsustainable levels.
This insecurity is seldom 'worn on the outside' - only those seeking the inside perspective (see resource article) will realise it.
When the body feels fear it reassigns its resources to protect itself. The neocortex (the thinking social brain) becomes less active and the limbic system (the seat of our emotions) more active. As the threat level rises further the limbic system gives way to the basal ganglia (sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain).
There is a corresponding shift in the way we respond. From being able to use our language and social skills to the full, our communications become more nonverbal, and more emotional. When the basal ganglia is in charge we are not really relating at all. We are strategically assessing whether the threat can best be reduced by fighting it, running away, or freezing – playing dead, in other words.
We've all had THAT dream
To illustrate this we can reflect on THAT dream - the one we have all had. It involves being chased and having to open a door to get away. Something akin to that. In the dream, opening the door seems impossible. Our terror prevents is from doing that simple thing. We may also in our waking lives have been in a situation of very high anxious arousal - perhaps around a personal emergency. Even the simplest of tasks might then have seemed difficult - stopping the hands from shaking long enough to get a key in its lock, for instance.
It is not being suggested that children are terrified in the classroom :-)
But children with additional needs often have high levels of anxious arousal which undermines their ability to communicate effectively and respond prosocially. They are less able to manage high levels of stress and anxiety and operate their (emerging) high-level social and communications skills.
Anxiety and Fear are basic responses to perceived threat. As the energetic level of these feelings increases, higher level competencies become hard to sustain. Our mental energy shifts from intelligent activity to the need for safety and survival. Our most pressing need slips down the ‘Maslow Hierarchy’, away from ‘self-actualization’ towards self–preservation (safety needs) and protecting ourselves from harm (physiological needs). As it does so the source of our motivation shifts from the ‘neocortex’ or higher brain functions to the ‘sub-cortex’ which manages our primitive responses.
We can think of this as a temporary loss of social and relational skills.
As the Basal Ganglia becomes most active, social skills, thinking and dialogue skills are reduced, and basic reactions take over. Psychologically available options reduce to:
Freeze (a response to feelings of terror)
When we are in a ‘half-way’ state there may be a mixed response. There is a more strategic element to the child’s behaviour as they try to accommodate these uncomfortable feelings by ‘displaying’ these types of response without being as yet overwhelmed by them.
‘Mild’ Terror leads to refusal, rejection and disconnection as a precursorto freezing
‘Mild’ Panic leads to avoiding, hiding, movement, and hysteria as a precursor to flight
‘Mild’ Rage leads to shouting, arguing, movement, and verbal attack as a precursor to fighting
Dealing with displays driven by ‘basic fears’:
These overwhelming urges to flight, freeze or fight are often short-lived. We respond to ‘perceived’ threats, and these are often imaginary. For children, safety and security are provided by adults whom they trust. When we see these ‘primitive’ emotions we know the child does not feel safe, and our focus needs to shift to providing, immediately, a sense of safety. Other issues must wait, because a child cannot respond to complex social interventions in this state.
We can recognise that the child’s communications skills at this time are weak and that includes listening and hearing correct meaning.
What we say needs to be adjusted towards short sentences, without complicated ideas.
We can ask ourselves (and the child) these sorts of question:
How can I make this child feel safe, right here, right now?
What is the most reassuring thing I can say?
What is the most reassuring thing I can do?
Perceptions can change quickly once the child is reassured that they are safe and secure. This will be much easier if we have already grown a positive relationship with them. The factors which triggered the panic, terror, or rage attack will need to be addressed through follow-up casework.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. He then decided to create a classification system which reflected the universal needs of society as its base and then proceeding to more acquired emotions.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioral motivation. Maslow used the terms "physiological", "safety", "belonging and love", "social needs" or "esteem", and "self-actualization" to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move. This means that in order for motivation to occur at the next level, each level must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Furthermore, this theory is a key foundation in understanding how drive and motivation are correlated when discussing human behavior. Each of these individual levels contains a certain amount of internal sensation that must be met in order for an individual to complete their hierarchy.The goal in Maslow's theory is to attain the fifth level or stage: self-actualization.
Maslow's theory was fully expressed in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. The hierarchy remains a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction. Maslow's classification hierarchy has been revised over time. The original hierarchy states that a lower level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before moving onto a higher pursuit. However, today scholars prefer to think of these levels as continuously overlapping each other. This means that the lower levels may take precedence back over the other levels at any point in time.