THE TRIUNE BRAIN
In order to function, the brain requires the different parts of itself to cooperate seamlessly. To simplify, we can say we have a survival brain, an emotional brain and a logical brain (MacLean, 1985).
The survival brain is in control of functions like reflexes, breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature. The emotional brain is central to emotional states like anger and fear, and controls memory functions and stress hormones. The logical brain provides us with language, awareness, the ability to reason and consciously controlled motor functions, among other things (Stien & Kendall, 2004).
TWO MOTIVATIONAL SYSTEMS ARE IN CONTROL OF OUR ACTIONS
The survival system (often called the alarm system) makes sure one is safe and out of harm’s way.
The exploration system is characterized by curiosity and stimulates exploration, discovery and learning. The systems can’t be “on” at the same time, and the survival system always overrides the exploration system. Prior life experiences strongly affect how the systems cooperate with each other. When children have experienced something hurtful their survival system will, most of the time, be active, and the exploration system inactive. The children are occupied with scanning their surroundings for danger, which hinders their ability to learn. Even though we adults know the classroom is safe, the brains of these children are preparing for danger. To change this, the children need constant safe experiences in the classroom, until their brain has enough of them to realize it is, in fact, safe.
The teacher’s understanding, predictability and perseverance can help the children’s brain to increasingly activate the exploration system. Doing this will improve the children’s learning ability, and the children get to experience the good of the world (Ringereide og Thorkildsen, 2019).
Kjersti Draugedalen has worked as a primary school teacher for over 10 years in Uganda, Groruddalen and Re municipality. She has further education in pedagogical guidance and sexual assault in the perspective of a lifespan. She is currently working on a public Ph.D. titled: “The opportunity teachers have to discover and implement measures for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour in primary school”. Draugedalen is a proponent of inclusivity in schools, and especially the important role a teacher plays when meeting vulnerable children.
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As teachers we often meet pupils who challenge us in different ways, and this changes us as teachers. What maybe changes us most is meeting pupils who display problematic or harmful sexual behaviour. We adults usually panic and lose the calm needed to best approach the situation.
However, new brain research may allow us to approach pupils struggling, especially with a sexualized behaviour, but also other kinds of disruptive behaviours. You see, the brain is divided into three parts: we have a survival brain, an emotional brain and a logical brain. The logical brain is activated when we are safe and calm, but the connection between the logical brain and the survival brain is shut down when we are worried and in a state of emergency preparedness, as we call it. This means that if us teachers are to educate pupils open to learning new things, we need the logical brain to be firmly activated.
A very useful tool for explaining when children and adults have their logical brain “on”, is “the Window of Tolerance”. All humans have a window of tolerance, and while we are safe and open to learning within it, outside of it we enter “emergency preparedness”. Being in a state of emergency preparedness means the body is completely focused on how to avoid danger. For teachers, this means that we have to regulate children into their window of tolerance in order to educate, which, in turn, requires us adults to be calm and regulated ourselves.
It is typical of us adults to go outside of our tolerance window when we are met with harmful sexual behaviour. It is therefore very important for us to be aware of our own triggers and reactions in order to approach children in the best possible way.
We teachers use ourselves to teach, meaning our own self is the main tool we use in our profession. This fosters not only professional development, but a personal development, and means that when I, as a teacher, become triggered, I have to be very aware of what is happening to me personally, since I am the tool in the situation. Yes, relations and safety in school have been discussed for many years, but I think what is missing from the conversation is how we as teachers integrate ourselves when working on relations. Since, when we are safe and calm ourselves, we can make our pupils feel safe.
We teachers need to stay calm upon meeting challenging behaviour. Being able to deal with pupils who behave in a way that triggers us, may be one of the most important things we do. You see, to be able to make change happen, we need to have a close relation with the pupil in question. In other words, us teachers are responsible for the relation and must invest in it from the first day of school, so that when hurtful and difficult situations occur, we can help regulate the pupil into their tolerance window. We can then encourage change via close dialogue and genuine guidance that does not feel constructed or fake.
I believe attempting to correct pupils displaying any kind of challenging behaviour – but maybe especially sexualized behaviour – without having laid the ground work of building a relation, can result in the intervention going so badly you close the door on providing aid. This is why we emphasize building relations and safety first as part of the work of universal prevention in schools.
Kjersti Draugedalen, Pedagog, Tønsberg kommune.