Behind the behaviors: Expressions of dysregulation

This is the second post of a three-part series about emotional and behavioral regulation in learning environments. You can find the first post here.

In Behind the behaviors: Trauma-informed education, we talked about what trauma is. While understanding trauma is important, it’s even more important to recognize when someone may be experiencing or have experienced significant trauma. 

NCFL’s mission is to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. In theory, every family served by one of our programs has endured trauma. Poverty is traumatic. Finding one’s self in a foreign country with limited ways to communicate is traumatic. Uncertainty about basic needs is traumatic. 

As discussed in the first installment of this series, empathy and getting to know learners is essential. It’s the first step in helping them develop coping strategies for their behaviors. And, using a lens of empathy—viewing a person who is dysregulated as a victim of trauma—might be the next step that helps us get to the ‘why’. Without trust, that’s unlikely to happen.

According to Psychology Today, “Unaddressed developmental trauma can manifest in many ways. The most common psychological diagnoses that follow are: bipolar disorder, personality disorders (especially borderline), ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, learning disabilities, social disabilities, addictions, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, complex PTSD, PTSD, and so forth.” Anyone in PK-12 education can attest to the growth of these diagnoses in our students. Consequently, we see an uptick in the behaviors associated with these disorders. Child Family Community Australia defined emotional dysregulation as, “…when a child experiences difficulty with registering emotions, responding with emotions appropriate to context and regulating emotional responses in social situations (i.e., suppressing emotions or presenting with overly dramatic and excessive emotional responses).

We constantly see this in the PK-12 classroom. Learners who distract others, outburst, fail to follow directions, and the one who is in constant motion—these are all expressions of dysregulation. When we work with emotionally impaired children in the school setting, we use applied behavioral analysis to find the root cause of a behavior. Keeping data—which is time-consuming and sometimes biased, depending on the observer—might provide insight, but is often a long and drawn-out process. By meeting the needs of the learner in the classroom, we are sending a message to that child—and the others in the class—that it’s okay to have bad days, and it’s okay to not understand how to react sometimes. There it is—that empathy and relationship-building. 

By establishing expectations for classrooms, we’re able to identify those that struggle with abiding by them by simply watching and gathering information about our learners. Their responses need replacement behaviors until the learner is able to recognize and name emotions as well as how they feel in their body. We need to know what baseline—a non-agitated state—looks like for our learners before we can have important conversations about their non-preferred behaviors. We’ll be talking about that in our next Ed Solutions blog post. 

Share an instance where showing empathy or meeting the needs of the learner resulted in a more positive outcome in the comments below.