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November 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 3

De-escalating the Hulk Brain

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Here’s how teachers can calm down an agitated student when extreme behavior occurs.

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Credit: Emad Nour / SHUTTERSTOCK
As soon as the recess bell rang, students rushed to the playground. Mark ran around, darting among groups of students, knocking into them. Rather than sliding down the slide, he decided to climb it, blocking the way of those trying to slide down. Several students ran to tell the teacher on duty. In a firm voice, the teacher said, "Mark, use the slide correctly, or you won't be allowed to use it at all!"
Unfazed by the warning, he ignored her instructions. "Mark, you need to listen!" repeated the teacher. "Otherwise, I'll have to get the principal!" He suddenly screamed, "Get away from me!" and ran away. Other adults were called in to help, but every time someone approached Mark, he continued his flight. Although at first he seemed to think that all this was funny, as the minutes passed, he became increasingly agitated. Soon he was no longer capable of responding to the adults around him. The situation had escalated into a crisis.
Some students are more prone than others to displaying extreme behavior, which may include physical attacks, severe tantrums, destruction of property, or running for the nearest exit. For most educators, dealing with such behavior robs us of our sense of calm, making it hard to find joy in the job. When we don't know how to manage this behavior, we may become dysregulated, hold grudges against students, or take our emotions out on our family and friends. Having strategies on hand for managing extreme behavior makes us better communicators, provides more consistency—and elicits more calm in all of us.

Triggers of Crisis Behavior

Let's begin by looking at some triggers of crisis behavior. The first is lack of attachment. Babies need emotional communication with a caregiver to develop healthy attachments (Haft & Slade, 1989). Our brains are hardwired to evaluate tone of voice, facial expressions, gaze, and body posture. If a toddler falls and stubs their toe, they need their caregiver to pick them up, soothe them, and let them know they're OK. This bonding or attachment experience helps the toddler develop self-regulation skills. However, when early interactions with a caregiver are harsh, hurtful, dismissive, or humiliating, the child's nervous system senses harm. If the child lacks these healthy regulation skills, by the time they enter school they may struggle with managing their emotions and become quickly dysregulated.

For most educators, dealing with such behavior robs us of our sense of calm, making it hard to find joy in the job.

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Some children struggle with mental health distress, like anxiety or depression, often rooted in traumatic experiences, which can cause them to act out. Students who are used to always getting their way at home may have a hard time following expectations at school. Finally, some children are overstimulated by technology or have difficulty concentrating, which will cause tension when they're trying to complete their work.

First, Hold on to Your Calm

A teacher's behaviors and attitudes can profoundly influence the affect, motivation, attitudes, and behaviors of students (Mendoza & King, 2020), and calmer behaviors lead to fewer problems (Narea et al., 2022). Energy really is contagious. Consider how our facial expressions alone affect our ability to connect with others. A simple smile can elicit a positive connection between a teacher and student (Acharya & Shukla, 2012).
An empathetic attitude is especially important in that it plays a role in helping students feel understood and accepted, especially students who have a history of feeling misunderstood. Teachers who demonstrate empathy have a greater chance of reducing emotional and behavioral problems in the classroom (Narea et al., 2022) and ensuring a trigger won't turn into a crisis.
You can train yourself to project both calm and empathy. When a trigger occurs, be aware of your body language, tone, and cadence. Notice how you hold your hands, relax your face, and take a deep breath. Too often, we rush to correct or punish students before they're calm—or before we are. This may escalate a situation into crisis-level behavior. It's certainly important for students to accept responsibility for their actions, but timing is everything.

Addressing Hulk Brain Reactions

Even with the best plan for prevention in place, crisis behavior can occur. Across the various age groups, that behavior is surprisingly similar: in their frustration, a 1st grader might resort to throwing a chair, whereas a high schooler might send a desk crashing to the ground. When students move past the point of agitation into a full-blown crisis, I refer to this as a Hulk brain reaction. The Incredible Hulk, a Marvel comic book character from the 1960s, represents the alter ego of a calm, withdrawn physicist who becomes uncontrollably angry when triggered.
When a student displays a Hulk brain reaction, start by ensuring a safe and calm setting, both for the escalated student and any other students who are present. Find a quiet space to support the student; it could be the side of the classroom or a corner. If that's not ideal and you think it's safe to move the student outside the classroom to a quiet location, do so. If not, you may need another adult to remove the rest of the students to a safe location instead. Avoid being alone with an escalated student; be sure to call for help. However, don't introduce too many adults into the situation because that could overwhelm the student.

It's certainly important for students to accept responsibility for their actions, but timing is everything.

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This is not a time to threaten consequences. Avoid getting in the student's face or shouting back. Although we may feel hurt by the student's actions, remember that as adults, our actions have great power. The goal is to help the student reestablish inner calm by enabling them to restore their adrenaline and cortisol levels to a regulated state. Threatening consequences during crisis behavior will only make the situation worse.

How to Defuse the "Downstairs" Brain

When a Hulk brain reaction occurs, the "downstairs" brain—the part that can't make rational decisions and may fire off reactions that are unreasonable and lack empathy—has taken control. If we remain regulated, we can help the student more quickly regulate and neutralize the downstairs brain. Try the following strategies.

Help the Student Slow Down

The student will better manage their emotions if we can slow down the reaction. Be patient. It may take some time for the student to return to a regularized state. Try these techniques:
  • Model breathing deeply.
  • Use as few words as possible at the beginning of the interaction.
  • Tilt your body to the side so you don't face them directly. Keep your hands by your sides. Don't cross your arms or ball your fists.
  • Keep your voice calm and your volume low.
Use an even tone, and keep your face neutral. Speaking quietly conveys patience, authority, and calm, and sends a message that things will be OK. If the student isn't ready to communicate, you don't need to say anything. Just use your calm body and composure as a reassuring presence.

Use Simple Language

This is not the time to give long lectures. When we humans are upset, our brains can't easily process complex language. Use short sentences, give the student a chance to process and respond, and don't worry if they don't immediately reply. Don't think they're ignoring you.
Provide reasonable and simple options to restore calm. With older students, instead of saying, "You need to start following the rules or else you won't be able to participate in the field trip," try, "It's important to follow the rules. What can I help you with?" For younger students who refuse to come to the carpet, you might say, "Go relax in the corner. You can draw there as you listen to the story. When you're ready, join us." If you draw attention to the behavior, it's more likely to escalate. The purpose of providing the student with an alternative is not to give in to them, but to avoid escalation. You can discuss the issue with the student afterward, when they're more ready to listen.

Acknowledge Their Feelings

The student may be overreacting, but for the time being, just accept that their perception is their reality. Don't minimize the student's struggle or jump in with solutions, consequences, or advice. Instead, use active listening to show that you understand and respect their point of view. Express empathy and offer words of comfort, such as "I understand how difficult this must be for you."
Try paraphrasing what a student says by using a language frame, such as, "I heard you say. . . ." If the student says, "I'm so angry!" you might echo with, "I heard you say you're so angry." You could follow up with comments such as these:
  • "Let's see if we can figure out how to take care of this situation."
  • "Tell me more so I can better understand why you're upset."
  • "It might help to sit down and take a few breaths. Do you want to try that?"
  • "Is there someone else you'd feel comfortable talking to about what's going on?"
  • "It's OK if you're not ready to talk. Let's just sit here for a moment."

Breathe!

Rhythmic activities, such as engaging in various forms of breathing, can help restore calm. Encourage students to sit comfortably and take slow, deep breaths. Have them inhale deeply through their nose, hold their breath for a few seconds, and exhale slowly through their mouth. Repeat this cycle with them several times, focusing on the rhythm of the breath.

Avoid Unrealistic Promises

Don't make promises you may not be able to keep, such as, "You won't get in trouble for this." You may not understand the whole situation, so avoid making any decisive statements. And you don't have to agree with everything the student says to be supportive. If a student says, "The art teacher was being totally unfair when she told me I couldn't use the clay that everyone else was allowed to use!" you can say something like, "It seems like that made you really frustrated." You're acknowledging the student's perception, but you're not agreeing with it.

How to Activate the "Upstairs" Brain

Once the student is calm again, we need to help them access the "upstairs brain"—the rational, empathetic part—to repair the harm.

Ask Reflective Questions

Engaging in reflection one-on-one with their teacher, a counselor, or another trusted adult helps students understand their role in harming others. The goal is for students to accept responsibility and learn from their mistakes. Because the student needs time to process their feelings and clarify what they can do to repair the harm they caused, this process might take place a day or two after the incident.
The International Institute of Restorative Practices proposes questions such as these:
  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right? (White, 2012)
Reflection questions often lead to apologies, which can restore well-being to those who have been hurt, resulting in a renewed sense of safety for all.

Managing Student Behavior: Huddle and Plan

To prevent crisis behavior from reoccurring, all adults who work with the student need to be on the same page regarding how to manage the student's behavior. Huddle and Plan is a simple yet underused strategy that helps adults quickly debrief what happened. No one has time at this point for a long, drawn-out meeting. You can engage in a huddle, which typically lasts 10 to 15 minutes, right after school or first thing in the morning.

To prevent crisis behavior from reoccurring, all adults who work with the student need to be on the same page.

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This is a time to look at any current plan that might be in place for the student and determine any modifications you might need to make. Having all stakeholders on the same page reduces crisis behavior dramatically. Students will quickly learn that all adults are communicating the same expectations; they will therefore be less likely to "test" certain teachers to see what they can get away with.
It's also a time for educators to check on one another. When harmful behaviors occur, normalize the fact that it hurts. Give the adult who has had to deal with the student space to be with colleagues who can provide support and encouragement.

The Matter of Consequences

It's best to consider how consequences can help shape behavior rather than punish students for mistakes. Think about the lesson you want the student to learn—and then attach this lesson to the consequence. Too often, punitive consequences, such as sending a student to the office, simply retrigger the behavior. The more a school examines its processes for managing classroom behavior—as opposed to managing office behavior—the calmer the school will be.
Most of us need more guidance on how to issue appropriate consequences. Using trauma-sensitive consequences can help. You can find an example of these on my website. "Trauma-Sensitive Levels of Behavior with Consequences" looks at four levels of behavior—and at consequences that are appropriate at each level. For example, levels 1 and 2 involve such behaviors as passing notes, tripping someone, or cheating on a test. Consequences might include changing the student's seat location, taking away a classroom privilege, or developing a student contract.
In level 3, the student is exhibiting behaviors that may include bullying, threatening a student, or stealing, whereas level 4 reflects even more extreme behaviors, such as bringing in a weapon, engaging in a fistfight, pulling a fire alarm as a prank, or being aggressive toward an adult. Behaviors at these two levels must be managed in collaboration with your administrative team. Consequences might include a team conference with the student and their caregiver, referral to a guidance counselor, or possible out-of-school suspension.

Effective consequences should help students make better choices in the future.

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When issuing the consequence, remove extra language, and be mindful of your reactions. Regardless of how upset or dismissive the student seems, keep your vocabulary simple and your sentences brief. You might say, "I'm proud of you for accepting responsibility for what happened. I'm going to call home. Although I need to let your mom know what happened, I'm also going to tell her that you accepted responsibility." When considering next steps the student might take to repair the harm, you might say, "The way to make this right is to apologize to Ms. Thompson. Let's practice what you plan to say to her." If a consequence means that the student is losing a special opportunity, you might say, "Your consequence is to miss the party. We're sad you won't be there, but I know you'll earn the right to go next time."
At first, the student may ignore you. Avoid letting their lack of response escalate you. If the student is beginning to calm down but not yet taking responsibility, gently repeat your statement in a soft, regulated voice. I refer to this as the "broken record" response.
Effective consequences should help students make better choices in the future. But this may take some trial and error. Remember, behavior problems sometimes get worse before they get better.

A Salutogenic Approach

When something is broken, we fix it, and this is traditionally how we think about the wellness of ourselves and others. The idea stems from pathogenesis, or the study of disease, which is about finding a solution that works immediately. This is an outdated way of understanding people, interacting with students, and cultivating calmness in our classrooms.
Salutogenesis is a more appropriate approach because it examines the factors that lead to physical and mental well-being and emphasizes strategies for improving behavior. To manage student behavior—not fix it—we have to try various approaches and remain curious. We must seek to understand, rather than engage in a power struggle or simply issue a negative consequence. Empowered with strategies for managing crisis behavior, we can cultivate calmer schools and classrooms.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ How have you been able to calm down a student in distress?

➛ Does your school have a prevention plan for warding off crisis behavior?

➛ What consequences might help shape a student's behavior rather than punish them for mistakes?

References

Acharya, S., & Shukla, S. (2012). Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine3(2), 118–124.

Haft, W. L., & Slade, A. (1989). Affect attunement and maternal attachment: A pilot study. Tradition10, 157–172.

Mendoza, N. B., & King, R. B. (2020). The social contagion of student engagement in school. School Psychology International41(5), 454–474.

Narea, M., Treviño, E., Caqueo-Urízar, A., Miranda, C., & Gutiérrez-Rioseco, J. (2022). Understanding the relationship between preschool teachers' well-being, interaction quality and students' well-being. Child Indicators Research15(2), 533–551.

White, S. (2012). Time to think: Using restorative questions. International Institute for Restorative Practices.

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