Candace Boehm has a fabulous blog about helping “Those Kids,” the students that tend to be stereotyped, overlooked, and left behind. I loved working on this article as a guest blog post because it tells the story of my own experience of school. The original post can be found here.
The Other ‘Those Kids’
She was a good student. Smart, respectful, creative. She participated in student council, choir, school play, gifted and talented program. A bit of an outcast, with an edgy sarcastic side, but for the most part the “ideal” student.
And she was suffering. Deeply and horribly. Her mother had been murdered. This precious girl was trying to make it through life the best way she knew how: to be as perfect as she could.
He was every teacher’s favorite student. Quiet, respectful, sweet. Two grade levels ahead in math, a science wiz, winner of the spelling bee. And one day, out of the blue, he punched someone.
His paternal grandfather was emotionally and verbally abusing this sweet boy. Home had become a wasp’s nest of negativity. We had no idea.
The Stress Response
Children respond to adversity in a wide array of behaviors. While one student may throw a chair in reaction to a traumatic home, another student may overachieve to the point of exhaustion. In both cases,
“those behaviors were the best response they could find to deal with a difficult situation.”(Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward Deci & Richard Flaste, 1995)
When confronted with difficulties, our brain activates the stress response. The limbic system, located in the back of the brain, kicks into gear. Neurons fire, hormones release, and the body prepares to either fight or flee the harm: also know as the Fight-Flight, and sometimes Freeze, stress response. But what if a student doesn’t face a threat with fighting it or running from it?
What if kids experiencing a stress response don’t look or act like kids experiencing a stress response?
I was that kid. Working hard to get straight A’s, do the right thing, keep my head down, and please the adults in my life, while struggling with abuse at home. My family went to church, so that meant we were “good people.” I graduated high school and college with honors, got the “right” job, married the “right” man, and bought a house in the “right” neighborhood. Until it all fell apart. At 30 years old, divorced, suicidal, and alcoholic, I finally faced the charade I’d been living my whole life.
Yet, I found it difficult to discuss my traumatic childhood when, on the outside, it looked perfect. I noticed students who seemed to be living my story. I remember one fifth grade girl, intelligent, kind, conscientious, desperately trying to weather the bullying from the other fifth grade girls and do what she was supposed to do. I had a gut feeling this girl was hurting, but couldn’t identify the source until I heard the critical and verbally abusive way her mother spoke to her.
Looking at my own life, and the lives of ‘Those Kids’ who don’t look like ‘Those Kids,’ I started to think we were missing something when we talked about the stress response. These children, who had horrible life circumstances but didn’t let it show, demonstrated a different response to stress than Fight, Flight, or Freeze. There had to be another way to discuss how they managed their adverse circumstances.
Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fix?
That’s when I broadened my understanding of how kids respond to stress to include the “Fix” response. Sometimes, a child does not have the capacity or inclination to Fight or Flee, or even Freeze, in face of trial. So they Fix.
Fix as a reaction to life is the girl who, facing hardships at home, doubles down her efforts at school. Things are going bad, so she’s going to be as good as possible. Fix is the boy at the top of the class trying to do everything he can to make life better, while empty inside. No one realizes Those Kids are in trouble because they’re spending too much time and energy on Those Kids who are throwing chairs, or refusing to do work, or cussing you out and running from the classroom.
What can we do? Those Kids that are in full Fight or Flight mode demand our time, attention, and resources. We can’t worry about the student in Fix mode. We assume he or she will work things out in the end and come out on top because they’re a fighter, or they have grit, or resilience, or whatever word we’re using for it today.
What people don’t realize is that those kids, those adults, who are facing trauma with a Fix response are just as likely as the Fighters and the Flee-ers and the Freezers to develop mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies. They are living a double life, holding in all the negativity while producing positivity. Their perfect approach to the world is fragile and unsustainable and will inevitably crumble.
How do we help our kids who are in the Fix stress response, when we don’t even recognize them as kids in trouble? We help them the same way we help any student with difficulties, with the same strategies we use for all of Those Kids.
Helping the “Fix” Students
1. Begin with awareness.
Invite them to eat lunch with you. Call home to build a relationship with parents. Ask questions. Engage in conversations. Learn what is happening with them below the surface. Become a student of that student.
2. Offer belonging, relatedness, a community.
The kid in Flight mode who just ran out of your classroom needs community as much as the student sitting in the front row. Offer a stable, safe, and supportive environment to the one as well as the other and everyone will reap the benefits.
3. Ensure success for all.
Discover what makes your running student tick and provide modifications for her that keep her in the classroom. But also, discover what things your star student struggles with and give him safe opportunities to let down his perfection guard. Meet Those Kids where they are to bring them to where they can be, no matter how they respond to life.
The human response to stress is too diverse to be classified by only Fight or Flight. We need to expand our thinking about how our students adapt to their circumstances. The next time one of your students is confronted with stress, watch how they respond. Instead of looking for the dichotomous Fight or Flight behaviors, try to view their stress response on a full spectrum. It may provide enlightenment.