The common concern among School Leaders across the world is the disruptive behaviour among students. Personally, I have seen students behaving well in their morning circle time, promising their teachers a good conduct and going through the class room rules. But the minute they return to their seats, all their promises seem to be forgotten with some students even resorting to fist fights. I have seen teachers feeling lost, let down and disrespected. They ask “What have I done wrong? How could they break their promise so quickly?’’

This leads us to turn to neuroscience to understand behaviour of young and adolescent children. There has been a tremendous
research in psychology & neuroscience in the past few decades which can throw light on understanding student behaviour.

The brain has three main parts which develop at different times:

  • The Brain stem, responsible for survival responses is the first one to develop.
  • The Limbic region, develops next and is responsible for emotional response among other things. This includes amygdala which triggers the response of fight/flight/freeze in a threatening situation.
  • The Cortex, especially the pre-frontal cortex, the area
  • involved in thinking and reflection develops last, right through the age of 25.

In children of school-going age, the thinking faculty, i.e. the prefrontal cortex is still developing while their emotions range high. No wonder they are quick in emotional outbursts while they need time to engage in logic and reason. They are not disrespecting the teacher or breaking their promise about behaviour. It’s just that the brain circuits handling emotions work faster than the circuits involved in logic and reason.

Then should teachers helplessly resign themselves to the situation? The solution is to have structures and routines where behaviour can be managed, and disruptions can be avoided in the first place. Secondly, use of dialogues & reflective practices on regular basis will strengthen their reasoning and logical faculty which is still in the process of developing. Eventually their thinking faculty will activate quickly and monitor their emotions.

There is also another situation in the school. While most of the students can manage their behaviour, they are a few who seem to be more reactive or disruptive than the rest. The answer to this could be the stress response system. When experiencing stress, the body and brain go on alert, there is an adrenaline rush, increase in heart beat & stress-hormone level.

Many times, such stress responses are necessary. This kind of stress, called Positive Stress is useful when facing competitions or examinations. There is also Normal Stress experienced by the body during temporarily illness. These kinds of stress are not harmful if they are relieved after a short time when the body quickly returns to normal.

There is another kind of stress called the Toxic stress. Here, the stress response stays activated for longer periods of time. This could be due to neglect, physical harm, emotional abuse, absence of caring adult or friction in the environment of the child. This can lead to stress response system to be set permanently on high alert. A threat of danger sets off the amygdala triggering the fight/flight/freeze response. These children react to minor incidents and perceive such incidents as threat. This is at the cost of development of other regions of the brain responsible for learning and disrupts the normal development. Such children lag in studies and have difficulty in controlling their behaviour.

What can schools do to tackle such situations? The answer lies in providing nurturing environment which is stable and engaging. If there is at least one adult whom the child finds to be caring, there is hope for helping the child to return to normal condition.

This leads us to question the practicality of a single teacher’s ability to connect with all children in the class. In modern schooling with a large number of same-aged children grouped in a class, it is difficult for a teacher to reach out to every child. The student-teacher ratio is large; students are confined in small rooms right under the nose of the teacher. Only by external constraints their behaviour is somehow regulated. This is an unnatural environment for the growth of a child. It is time to rethink schooling. For the time being, at least by understanding the physical and emotional development of the brain, school leaders can find solutions that work best for them to help children get a nurturing and a stable environment.

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