Why can’t kids just listen? Seriously. We give them warnings, lectures, and talks, and even try our best to “relate” but still, nothing.

As a professional who studies behavior, this is the most common question I am asked and for a good reason. It’s tough to reach students that are struggling, but does it have to be? The answer is no, and I am going to give you the key.

I’ve been working with at-risk populations of children for over ten years now and studied Behavioral Neuroscience at the prestigious Purdue University (Boiler Up!). My last five years in particular have been spent working closely with students and their families, as well as re-framing educational behavior policies with trauma-informed and restorative justice practices. In addition to consulting, I currently serve as the Dean of Culture at an inner-city high school. I have integrated trauma-informed practices and creative restorative discipline to create lasting change in behavior. The biggest initial fear about these practices I hear is “how much time is it going to take?” The answer I always give is the quote below.

Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love, or we spend time dealing with the behaviors caused from their unmet needs. Either way we spend the time.

— Pam Leo, Author

The “love” that this votive of advice gives is referring to patience and student voice. The key to patience with our students is knowing how an undeveloped brain works. Students do not process situations as adults do, especially in a crisis situation. See graphic below.

The all-knowing Triune Brain

What is a crisis? A crisis is a high-stress event as determined by the person experiencing it, in Layman’s Terms. This may sound vague but it is key to understanding when a student is upset. A crisis can really be anything.

Examples of crisis situations: His girlfriend just texted him that they are breaking up. A student’s mom texted her that she can’t go to the dance. The teacher hands out a pop quiz.

How do you know if a student is in crisis? This is the better question. The tone of voice, fidgeting, elevation of emotions, talking in absolutes (you never let me sit next to Asher), and/or showing emotions quickly. When a student is identified in crisis- they are processing what you are saying in their Limbic System or Reptilian Brain. The Reptilian Brain is the instincts of a student. This is the “Flight or Fight” behaviors and when they are processing with this- you need to provide a safe environment and try and help them regulate their emotions. You can help a student regulate through a handful of kinesthetic activities, such as a corner of your classroom with a lego box. The Limbic System processes situations using emotions. Student’s emotions can be irrational, but they don’t realize this. In their mind, they are thinking clearly. You also won’t be able to convince them otherwise. So DO NOT process with students when they are mainly processing with their emotions. A good practice is giving two choices (“you need to sit down here for a minute, or I need you to leave the classroom and head to the guidance counselor”).

If you fall into the trap of processing with a student that is stuck in the Limbic System or Reptilian Brain- you could just make the situation worse. The student can be either more triggered into crisis or just continue to become more upset. The only way you can create change in behavior is when the student is in the neocortex reasoning processing. This happens outside of a crisis situations and when a student feels safe.

Pro-Tip: You must identify what causes the crisis, what to do when a student is in crisis, and how they can deal with this in the future.

Once a student is processing with reason, you allow them to use their voice and communicate what is going on. You can spark intrinsic change talk through Motivational Interviewing, Restorative Justice, and other evidence-based practices. But none will work, until a student’s brain is firing in the right cylinder- the Neocortex of success.

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