By Judith Norman, MS, LSC, LPC, RPT-S

Aka – This is confusing, something works one time and not the next – what’s going on?

How many times have you had a student engage in a behavior and be able to tell you after the fact what they did wrong, only to have them do it again? This is frustrating and tells us a lot. They know the rule or the appropriate behavior, but they couldn’t access the information and/or behavior in the moment. 


Depending on your training you may have learned the difference between skill and performance deficits. Skill deficits mean not having the skills to do something. Performance deficits mean not using the skill.  The tendency has been to address performance deficits from a behavior modification lens. It might sound something like this, “give the student a consequence so they won’t do it again.”  However, there are neurobiological factors to consider. 

Let’s talk about brain and body states.

When we are functioning from higher regions of the brain, we are in brain states that can access previously stored information and can think things through and consider potential consequences. However, in lower brain regions we are in brain states that don’t have the same processing capabilities. In fact, when in our brain stem there is no sense of time, and our sphere of concern is our own body integrity. This means we aren’t thinking about others or how our actions will impact someone else. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions and the subsequent impact.

Our body states fluctuate between regulated and dysregulated states throughout the day. When in regulated states our perception is that we can handle things and we have options and choices for our behavior. When in dysregulated states, we’re perceiving a challenge and we have very few options and choices for our behavior. This means that when dysregulated, someone might be asking us to do something we can’t do at that moment. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions and their impact. 

Matches and mismatches

When we use a strategy with a student that matches their current brain and body state, we can often avoid further escalation. However, when our approach is a mismatch, this often results in more escalation. An example of a mismatch would be trying to communicate with the Pre-frontal cortex when the student is stuck in their brain stem. This won’t work and often escalates the behavior. How many times have you been to a training in which you’ve learned a great strategy, only to find it escalated the situation when you tried it out? A strategy can be very effective when used at the right time, and completely ineffective at other times. 

Students do need to understand and take responsibility for the impact of their behavior. How and when we teach this, matters. To be most successful, the bulk of discipline needs to happen before and after dysregulation, not in the moment of it.

Dealing with dysregulation

So, what do we do in the moment? This is a question I get asked all the time. Let’s start by dividing behavior into 3 categories: before dysregulation, in the moment of dysregulation, and after dysregulation. Heather Forbes (Author of Help for Billy, Classroom 180, Founder of Beyond Consequences)  uses this timeline approach to view behavior.

Understanding behavior using a timeline approach helps guide us towards effective interventions that match brain and body states. We can use brain-aligned strategies that follow the neurobiological development of the brain to support moving from the brain stem (lower brain) to the cortex (higher brain). Dr. Bruce Perry calls this the sequence of engagement and he says, “You have to follow the rules of  the biological  organization of the  brain if you’re going to be successful in parenting, teaching, or coaching.” Check out this video here: Stress, Trauma and the Brain: Insights for Educators – The Neurosequential Model.

Based on the rules described by Dr. Perry, the only effective strategy for in a moment of dysregulation is to co-regulate. By becoming an external regulator, we can support students in moving through dysregulation as it occurs.  If it’s necessary to address the impact of the behavior, we do so when the cortex is again accessible. 

When I teach this, I often hear concerns like these:

  • “I’m already losing so much teaching time; I can’t add anything else to my plate.” 
  • “This feels like counseling, I’m a teacher not a counselor.”
  • “This behavior is having such an impact on other students, it’s not fair.” 

All very valid concerns that need to be addressed. I think about them this way…

I’m already losing so much teaching time; I can’t add anything else to my plate.”

  •  How much time do you think dysregulation is currently taking away from teaching each day? Are our current approaches decreasing the amount of time it’s taking to address these behaviors? Do we feel the current universal approaches being used are actually meeting the needs of 80% of our students? If not, then something is missing. For example, Without the ability to self-regulate we won’t see growth in social-emotional learning, nor shifts in behavior. Do we incorporate all the elements of developing these skills in our universal teaching?

This feels like counseling, I’m a teacher not a counselor.”

  • Self-regulation promotes wellness for all adults. The ability to self-regulate dramatically decreases the chances of burn out, as we are dealing with stress as it occurs and not holding it in. Holding it in often results in an explosion or collapse. The ability to self-regulate requires developing a set of skills that we can then teach to students.

This behavior is having such an impact on other students, it’s not fair.” 

  • Understanding how to work with and through stress and dysregulation is a life skill for all students. Everyone deals with stress and situations that are distracting, uncomfortable, scary, and frustrating. When we support a class in regulating through dysregulation, we are teaching them skills they will use everyday for the rest of their lives.

So how do we do this?

We start by learning to become external regulators. Lisa Dion (Creator of Synergetic Play Therapy) coined the phrase “one foot in and one foot out” to describe having a moment of regulation in the midst of dysregulation.  We can practice this in a moment of chaos in a classroom. As we feel the chaos in our own nervous system, at the same time we can move our body back and forth in a swaying motion and feel our feet on the ground. We have one foot in the dysregulation – we feel the chaos — and one foot in a regulated state – we are regulating our own systems. We have just modeled and taught a new possible response to the chaos. This sends a new message to the brain in the moment of dysregulation. This new message is,  “although there is a perceived challenge, we are ok.” We are rewiring brains and re-patterning nervous systems. 

Imagine this, you’re standing in front of a class of students. The energy in the classroom begins to rise as test time draws near. You allow yourself to feel the anxiety in your nervous system. You notice your heartbeat quickening as your breath becomes shallow. You have one foot in the dysregulation. Then, you put your hand on your chest and name out loud, “I feel anxious, and I can feel my shoulders tensing up,” as you take a breath with an elongated exhale. Now, your other foot is in a regulated state. You have just taught your students a way to move through the dysregulation. This is a lesson you will need to teach over and over again. 

I know it sounds simple, however, when we look at what is actually occurring in the brain, we can understand the potential impact. In these moments of being an external regulator, new neural templates are being created, as students begin to believe these perceived challenges are experiences that they can manage. You have just taught your students that challenging experiences are not bigger than they are. You have begun to shift their perceptions about their experiences. This is powerful, and not always easy, as it starts with us becoming aware of our activation and regulating ourselves first.


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