October 2, 2014
by: Gari Lister
The interviews on Day 3 of ATN’s Educating Traumatized Children Summit are all about helping kids learn to regulate themselves — and be regulated enough to not only learn in school, but succeed in life. Jody McVittie, who works with a nonprofit Sound Discipline, offers us a number of principles that turn traditional discipline on its head — and have the possibility to transform not only classrooms but family life as well. I can’t summarize all her thoughts here — there are just too many that are valuable. I promise we will bring you many more of her ideas over the next few months on the blog. But today I’d like to offer just one simple principle for your consideration.
Jody McVittie, MD: How to Teach Self-Regulation and Why You Should
Early on McVittie asks a basic question that so many of us with traumatized children face: what do we do when a ten year old acts like a preschooler whether at home or at school? How do we handle it when he or she has a temper tantrum and winds up on the floor? We’re not used to ten year olds having tantrums, and we tend to do really unhelpful things like yell at them or try to reason with them. But what we need to understand is that even though chronologically they might be ten, in terms of an ability to regulate themselves, traumatized children aren’t ten — they are really two. So we need to do for them what we do for two-year olds; we need to get down on the ground, we need to comfort them. In short, we need to connect with them.
McVittie’s first core message is that our approach — and this holds true for parents, teachers, social workers, all of us. Our approach needs always to be “connect, then correct.” And included in that concept is the notion that sometimes connect means connect with ourselves – we cannot help our children regulate when we are flying off the handle.
McVittie explains that we humans learn by mirroring behavior: when a baby giggles, we giggle; when someone yawns, we yawn. So if we are calm in the face of dysregulation, we can actually help a child become regulated. At one level, we all know this, right? Intellectually, I know that when my daughter is throwing a fit it does not help when I yell back. But McVittie tells us that when we are dysregulated — when we are yelling back — we are actually training our children to be less regulated. Now as a mom with a child who winds up on the floor several times a week, this is earth-shattering to me. I knew I needed to stay calm — but the concept that I am training her and making her worse???
Connect, and then correct. Unless a child is burning down a house, connect with yourself before you react. Take a breath, let your heart rate slow. And then connect with the child. Get down on the ground with them, just be there with their feelings. If they’ve done something wrong, don’t try to correct or indeed teach them anything until you have connected with them emotionally.
This is equally true in the classroom. McVittie tells a story of a teacher sitting down beside a child and repeating quietly “I am not mad at you, breathe. I am not mad at you, breathe.” And after the child calmed, they were able to have a conversation about what happened. Sometimes a child needs more than breathing to self regulate – sometimes they need to move, and physical activities can go a long way to helping children regulate. Go for a walk with them, let them bang on a drum — but don’t attempt to talk to them until their systems are regulated.
So the next time a child in your care acts out, whether by hitting or having a tantrum or breaking something, resist the urge to yell in frustration. Resist the urge to lecture them. Even resist that teeth-clenched calm (they always always see through that). Instead, connect with your calm center, and then help them calm and regulate before you talk about what happened.
Connect, then correct.