Our Amazing Brains

Fight-Or-Flight

I LOVE this time of year. There is nothing I find more inspiring than an early morning bike ride. The world is still asleep, everything is calm, the air is fresh, and the view amazing as the sun creeps over the horizon in a million shades of colour. I feel strong and healthy with the physical exertion.

And then suddenly – WHAM! My front bike tire kicked up a huge stone, which hit me directly in the eye! I didn’t even see it coming! End to that peaceful, picture-perfect scene.

After the initial shock and realizing I was fine, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the human brain is. Because even though I had no conscious awareness of this thing flying towards my face, somehow my body knew enough to blink. Imagine how ugly this could have been if that stone had hit me in the eyeball!

It’s so cool that our brains have developed this ability to protect ourselves. We don’t have to stop to process and think about what to do. Our reflexes just kick in and defend us from harm.

The thing is, sometimes this wonderfully adaptive feature backfires on us. I think about the many students I’ve worked with over the years who lived in situations of constant fear. Their brains were always on high alert. And their reflexes were firing like crazy to try to shield them from danger.

These kids were in constant “fight or flight” mode. They would either shut down completely or strike out. And often they were labelled with such terms as uncooperative, non-compliant, bully, or violent. The adult response to these labels? Frustration, anger, punishment.

While I am a huge believer that the one thing that we truly control is how we choose to behave in any given situation, I do believe that there are some behaviours that are not chosen. I didn’t choose to blink – my brain kicked into auto-pilot to protect me.

And sometimes I believe that students’ behaviours are no more chosen than my blinking. They are the body’s response to danger.

And instead of creating safety for that child so that they can begin to relax and get in conscious control of themselves again, the labels we attach to them often serve to make them feel even more threatened.

What can you do today to help create the safety that your most at-risk students so desperately need?

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