Use your words. It seems like such a friendly, gentle reminder. And it would make grown up lives so much easier if kids would just say what they want! Except what if they a) don’t know the right words or b) don’t know what they want?
I walked up on an educator (let’s call them G) and a small child in the hallway. I could see the child had been crying, and was now stomping their feet and making sounds with their mouth, something like, “Uh uh uh uh uhhhh!” G, who was kneeling down on the child’s level was speaking in a low, soothing voice.
“Use your words,” G said, calmly, looking right into the child’s face.
“Ahhhhhhh!” yelled the child, pushing G away.
Plop, G fell over, as they had been kneeling and a little off balance.
“Woah,” G said, “That got my attention!”
The child stopped vocalizing, and looked down.
“I hear you loud and clear,” said G. “You need a little space, I think. Maybe I was too close?”
The child nodded, and the G got to their feet. “Let’s walk together, then.” G began walking and the child walked calmly alongside.
When a person is triggered, their frontal lobe goes off-line. This frequently means that they are unable to think clearly and may not have access to all their best language skills. We call this state “the rider off the horse” (which I wrote about here). If my rider is off my horse, I may not have the right words to express what I need. It’s possible that what I need isn’t even about this particular moment, but is a basic human need (safety, connection, competency, food). Another child swiping my pencil, for instance, might make me feel unsafe – which might look like me taking a swipe at that other child. If you ask me what I need at that moment, however, I might not be able to say or aware of what’s driving my behavior. Asking me to use my words when I cannot might even be another trigger.
What if G had said, “I’m not sure what you need right now. I want to help. Do you want me to come closer? (pause if no answer) or move away?” I’m not certain that would have worked, but it would have communicated caring and given the student a choice, a little bit of empowerment.
It’s tricky. And in this charged situation, G made a master teacher move. They were paying attention, and when the child let G know what they needed, G listened and responded with caring and offering the child a choice. That helped the child feel safe and empowered, and allowed them to move towards a solution together.
These are the core guiding principles of Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS). In this scenario, G showed understanding and skills related to Safety, Compassion, and Empowerment.