Fight or flight or Learned Behaviour?

We often think that a kid’s reaction in class is a choice. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. As teachers we really need to try to figure out which behaviours are ‘learned’ and which are triggered.

I was running a workshop recently where the topic of fight of flight came up. There was great dialogue around what kick starts the response as we were talking about the brain. The conversation was around the thinking part (neo-cortex) versus the emotional part (limbic) and how when we are operating in the limbic part of our brain, not much thought is happening. The limbic part is our emotional centre. When we perceive that we are in danger, real or imagined, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we respond. Fight or Flight.

The conversation moved on to kids, specifically how some appear to ‘choose’ a reaction. We chatted about the differences between learned behaviours and actual behaviours in an effort to break this down. Essentially, our kids have indeed learned behaviours. They have learned that some behaviours trigger a response in the teacher or their classmates that result in a ‘win’.

As an example, I taught a little guy who was diagnosed as ASD. By the time I first encountered him, he had a range of ‘learned behaviours’ that were a choice for him. He would lose his cool and begin to throw missiles at me until someone, usually his aide, would step in and give him some technology to play with at which point he would calm down almost instantly…hmmm…suspicious. Choice. In times where he felt actually threatened, he would lose his cool and the fight or flight response would kick in and no amount of technology would calm him. Not a choice.

Not long after this conversation the fire alarm went off in the building. In a room full of educators, we got to see the sympathetic nervous system kicking in in all its glory. Fight or flight. The majority went into flight. And it wasn’t a choice.

As teachers, you know your kids, you know your class and you know your educational stuff. Be on the lookout for behaviours that have been learned and are a choice versus those that are not. This is not of course a one size fits all scenario, but a suggestion of things to look out for. If someone loses their cool, in a big way, is given something and instantly calms down I might think that that was a learned behaviour. If, on the other hand, it takes time, a walk, some space to cool down then I would suggest this is not a choice rather fight or flight. Go gently. Help to unlearn behaviours and be compassionate with those that aren’t a choice.


Check out other articles Cassie has written here.