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Updated: Jul 14, 2018

An 11-year-old student, gives me a slow doleful glance, and in a barely audible voice says, “I need help.” Then she lowers her head and eyes and sits silently, her entire body immobile, limp. She is stuck on a word she cannot read.

She will not use the strategies she knows.  She says she already has, but she hasn’t taken the necessary “think time” to do so. Several seconds pass before she reluctantly, if not resistantly, accepts my encouragement.  On her third try, she succeeds.

Incidents like these happen to this student on a daily basis.  Her system shuts down.  Her brain chemistry changes. She goes into survival mode–fight, flight or freeze–her preferred system response being flight or freeze.

She is not alone.  Once I understood this behavior as a survival response, I would see student after student, during times of stress and anxiety, drop into a fight, flight or freeze state.  If it is fight, a child may yell, scream, or act generally nasty and angry.  If it is flight or freeze, a child may become passive, spacey, or unresponsive.

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed., in Mind, Brain, and Education states that if our children feel physically or emotionally unsafe, they cannot focus on curriculum. In those moments, a child is unreachable.  All our attempts to get him or her to complete a task or to learn will most likely fail. Their brain chemistry has changed, and it must calm before they are reachable.

Dan Siegel, M.D., author of Parenting from the Inside Out, also states that children function primarily on a subconscious level until elementary school, and it is our subconscious that prepares us for fight, flight, or freeze.  He also attests that this survival response can paralyze and terrorize children at any age as well as adults, interfering with memory, retaining information, strategic thinking, and more.

As our children learn new information, there will always be times when the information is too much for them to integrate or handle–an incomprehensible word, a sheet of math problems that seems too difficult, an essay that requires organization beyond their ability, an error pointed out. 

Something as little as being unable to name a picture can throw a student into a survival reaction, perceived or real.

Our survival instinct is important. Even if we could get rid of it, we wouldn’t want to. Time again and again it saves our lives. But often it gets engaged when we don’t need it. In order to limit this over-zealousness, we need to notice. Notice when it is activated and what activates it. Notice when it’s unnecesary or unhelpful. Notice when it stimulates our own and our children’s behavior.

If we do this, we can more easily help them recognize when their systems are too overwhelmed to resolve something on their own.  We may also be more able to help them inhibit the reaction as well as give guidance instead of direction, judgment, or just doing the task for them.

In situations like this, I often tell my students that our brains don’t always tell us the truth, and when this happens we don’t want to believe them.  This way of thinking helps me to more likely give them the support, understanding, or simply the time they need for their systems to calm and successfully tackle the problem.  I tends to help me more accurately determine whether they actually need help or can proceed on their own with a little persistence.

The survival response is periodically triggered in all of us.  The more we recognize it and shortcircuit it when it is not necessary, the better it is for ourselves and our children.

Remembering Dr. Siegel’s words about our young children learn largely subconsciously, we must be mindful of what we model.

We are primary models for our children, who are likely to subconsciously take on our subconscious over-zealous reactions.  Learning to monitor these over-zealous reactions and teaching healthy ways of assuaging them is paramount for our well-being and that of our children.

If you would like to learn more about how the brain works and how to manage the over-zealous brain, you may want to take a look at Dan Siegel’s website, click here.

To learn more about stress, you may want to take a look at this TED Talk.

To learn more about perfectionism, check out my article here.

“How we communicate affects our joy of being alive.” – Linda

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