Our Brains on Stress

In my last post I wrote about classroom stress and the choice that you can make between being calm and being angry in classroom situations. I also wrote about how you should not give away your power to a child. After all,

No one can make you angry without your permission.

Now it is time to examine what goes on in our heads when we are faced with a stressful situation.

In 1996 a research study was conducted about the effects of parental anger. The study revealed that anger causes people to form mistaken beliefs about the actions of the person they are angry at. These mistaken beliefs are called “trigger thoughts,” and for teachers, they prevent us from seeing the underlying causes of children’s behaviors.

The researchers grouped trigger thoughts into three distinct categories:

  • Assumed Intent – when we assign intent to the student’s actions, usually negative. Assumed intent usually means that we feel the child is misbehaving on purpose in order to upset us or another child.
  • Magnification – when our thoughts make the situation seem worse than it actually is.
  • Labeling – when we use negative words to describe the child or their behavior.

Below is a list of trigger thoughts that have been adapted from the 1996 study, as well as from Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline system. See how many of these trigger thoughts you can identify as being part of your thought process when you become angry in classroom situations:

Assumed Intent:

  • You are just doing this to annoy me.
  • You are deliberately defying me.
  • You know this is wrong and you’re doing it anyway.
  • You’re trying to drive me crazy.
  • You’re trying to see how far you can push me.
  • You are tuning me out intentionally
  • You are doing this deliberately to get back at me, hurt me, embarrass me, spite me, etc.


  • I can’t stand this one minute longer.
  • Your behavior is intolerable.
  • You have gone too far this time.
  • You never listen, pay attention, etc.
  • How dare you speak to me like that, look at me like that, etc.
  • You turn everything into a power struggle, lousy time, nightmare, chaos, etc.


  • You are getting out of control.
  • You are manipulating me.
  • You are lazy, malicious, stubborn, disrespectful, ungrateful, willful, selfish, cruel, etc.
  • You don’t care about anyone but yourself.
  • You’re deliberately being mean, cruel, hurtful, a jerk, a smart mouth, etc.

Trigger thoughts are very powerful. They usually enter our heads when we are stressed, and they have the power to transform that stress into powerful negative emotions. Imagine this scene, for example:

You cook a very special dinner for your spouse or significant other. You have spent a lot of time and effort to put this meal together. You proudly set the food in front of him, but he barely acknowledges the work you did or even the taste of the food. You become over-anxious and concerned that your loved one isn’t enjoying the meal, and as the silence continues even after the meal has ended, the trigger thoughts roll through your head:

“He doesn’t care about anything I do.”

“He is so ungrateful and selfish!”

“He purposefully didn’t say anything about all the work I did! Well, I’ll show him!”

And then you begin the silent treatment, when all along your significant other was simply distracted by his own stressful day at work! Rather than stopping and allowing yourself to discover why your significant other was behaving this way, you allowed your trigger thoughts to light a fire under the stress and anxiety you were feeling, and that created a huge explosion of anger. But you forgot one important thing:

No one can make you angry without your permission!

In the next post, we will discuss how to begin changing our mindset.

Calming Down

The other day I had a child who was acting completely crazy. I have a cozy corner in my classroom that children can go to if they are upset and need a minute to calm down, so I told this child, “You are acting too wild. I need you to go over there and calm down.”

He went, and I glanced over a minute later and happened to see him – breathing! I couldn’t believe my eyes, in fact. I teach breathing exercises in our group setting all the time. It is a way to clear the stress, engage the brain, and bring focus to the group. I honestly don’t remember if I ever used the words, “Let’s calm down,” or any other phrasing like that in relation to the exercise. I think a few times I may have said, “I need to calm down. Who wants to breathe with me?”

To see this child voluntarily using breathing as a calming technique made my heart soar. I still can’t explain how he made the connection, but his use of breathing has caused it to be more widely used by myself and the other children. It is amazing to see the change that comes over the classroom when we engage in breathing together; everyone becomes calmer, more relaxed, and conversation takes a more engaging tone. Using breathing techniques to calm down and settle into an activity is a priceless stress-relieving tool, and I am glad that the children remind me of that every so often.

What A Year

About a year ago, my house got broken into. Computers were stolen – computers that I needed for my business. Games and gaming systems were stolen, and a gun that my fiance kept was stolen. While sorting through the reality of the situation, we decided that the best thing for us to do would be to move. We moved in with my fiance’s mom. We stayed there until the end of February, when we moved into an apartment.

I have read many of the posts that I wrote during the past year, and I am astounded by my lack of mental clarity during this time. I guess that is to be expected, considering the transitions that we went through during that time. The feeling that you have to leave a place that was your home because it is no longer safe is a very emotional experience. I’m not sure that I had ever really gotten in touch with my emotions about it during that time.

Since we have moved, I can tell that my mental clarity is much better. And looking back on all of the mental craziness that I have been through, I have to give myself the respect that I deserve for sticking by what I believe in when it comes to educating the children in my care. I didn’t give in to compromise. I questioned that choice over and over again, but today – as I look back on everything that has happened and think about where things are now – I am so glad that I did choose not to compromise. That choice has carried me to where I am now.

I can feel that my mind is clearer. Lately, I have begun to apply aspects of Conscious Discipline in my classroom again – without even trying! It is like it is coming back to me, second nature, because I feel safe again and in the right frame of mind to begin building relationships with the children in my care with the respect that I demand that everyone around me use when working with me. And I haven’t really begun to demand that others use that respect as much as they should in my classroom, but I think that I am going to start. My classroom has truly been a different place in the past couple of weeks, as I find my footing and deal with the children differently. And there is even more to it! I have found myself beginning to plan differently than I have in an entire year, and that planning has led to a classroom that is more involved, busier, and learning more than it has in an entire year. And all because I didn’t compromise. I am still not compromising, because even the classroom that I am in now is not the ideal situation. But I have turned it into an almost perfect situation simply by my mindset, and I am taking it day by day.

I have also gone back to school. I have found that my degree is almost a necessity at this time, and I am working hard to get it. At this time it should take me about a year to get it, and between that and the planning and research that I am doing for my classroom, I will be quite busy for the foreseeable future. I am hoping that, with my new clarity of mind, I will be able to post more often as I learn even more about myself and the career that I love.

My Journey with Conscious Discipline Part ?

Boys, boys, boys. My new class is almost completely made up of boys, and those boys are ALL BOY. I am actually in my element with a class of mostly boys, probably because I was a tomboy growing up and I had three younger brothers. Still, the first thing I thought when I walked into this classroom was, “Wow, this classroom needs Conscious Discipline!” There were no higher thinking skills happening; everything was fight or flight and survival of the fittest.

The first thing I implemented was breathing techniques. I didn’t want the regular teacher to feel that I was overtaking her classroom or overstepping my bounds, but I knew that through proper implementation I could get the children breathing with no problem whatsoever. And did I ever! Within 24 hours I had those kids being S.T.A.R.s voluntarily! Every time there was an incident we were breathing. Any time it got loud we were breathing. I had one kid who took it upon himself to become a S.T.A.R. helper – without my even asking him to be one!

We haven’t worked on proper words very much yet, but I am working on making the children aware of how their actions affect the people around them. That is something that I know is lacking. Letting them know that the other teacher and I are here to keep them safe has helped. An amazing thing is that the other teacher started using the verbiage and methods that I have been using. I know that she usually uses these methods because she taught my older daughter years ago. I don’t know where those methods went with this group, but apparently they haven’t had a lot of consistency with anything. Hopefully that will change.

As it stands now, though, I’ve done too little too late. We will be implementing a reward system sometime in the next week because the problems are so bad in the classroom and the methods that I have implemented are not working fast enough for the parents who are getting tired of hearing that their children are getting beat up on by other kids (which is just about all of them). Since we will only have these children for a few more months, it may be okay. And it doesn’t mean that Conscious Discipline can’t work or be implemented also. But there is a lot that has to happen to make this classroom run more smoothly, something that I have been brainstorming and thinking about for a few days now.

Young Children Don’t Understand Generalities

“No way!” you say, quite sarcastically. “Tell me something I don’t know!”

But wait a moment…

How many times have you told your child, “Clean your room!” and then expect them to do it? And then they don’t? And then you get frustrated and angry and start issuing threats or bribes in hopes that your child will clean their room? I’ve done it every time I’ve told my daughter to clean her room, and I’ve done it all the time in my classroom. What ends up happening is your child gets upset and you are worn out mentally, trying to figure out what it will take to get them to clean their room.

What if all you need is a change in your choice of vocabulary? The word “clean” is a generality, especially when it comes to cleaning something as vast as a room. There are many, many steps involved in cleaning a room, especially if your child’s room ends up looking like my daughter’s when she is done playing in it. This massive amount of steps makes the term “clean” much too general for many young children.

What about the phrase “put your toys away”? Well, where is “away”? It really could be anywhere, including in the middle of the floor. This is another generality that young children will not understand.

What I have found, and the method that I have started using at home as well as in my classroom, is that children need everything spelled out for them. As Denzel Washington’s character says in the movie Philadelphia, “Now, explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old.” What is implied here is that everything needs to be spelled out at this age, and the implication is true.

Here is how I have changed my vocabulary so that my daughter and the children in my classroom will understand what is being asked of them:

  1. Start with the child’s name. This is an attention-getter. If you say their name, they are more likely to give you their full attention. If you don’t get their attention, keep saying their name until you have their full attention, or cut their access to whatever it is that is taking their attention from you (such as the TV or a specific toy).
  2. After you say their name, give them a specific command. Rather than saying, “Put your toys away” or even “Put that toy in the bin,” say “Put that toy airplane in your toybox” or “Put that block on the shelf”.
  3. Use arm and hand gestures. Point to what you want the child to do. This adds another element to it. The child now has two senses working in order to decipher what you want: hearing (listening to the command) and sight (looking at what you want). The more of their senses that you can put to use, the more of their brain is engaged in figuring out what you want, and the more likely it will be that they will be successful in fulfilling your request.

It really is this easy. Using this method has cut down the amount of time it takes my class to clean up the classroom after play time, and it has cut down the amount of time that it takes my daughter to clean her room. At first it will take a lot from you as a parent or teacher, but what I have found since I started using this method two or three weeks ago is that, after a while, the children start to clean up on their own without you standing there pointing at everything all of the time. But because you have stood there and showed them so many times, you have taught them what you expect when you tell them to clean their room.

Next time you tell your child to do something, try to avoid using generalities that your child will not understand, and opt for using more specific language. I guarantee that your life and your child’s life will be a lot happier for it.



My Journey with Conscious Discipline Part II

Today I began to implement the Conscious Discipline strategies for the first time, and let me tell you – I think I was in an entirely different classroom than the one that I’m usually in. I had less stress today than I have had in any single day working in child care. And I promise you that I’m not exaggerating.

It wasn’t too difficult. I only had one time today where I seemed to lose control of the situation, and that was right before nap time. Other than that, I kept my cool all day, I addressed every conflict as a “safety” or “helpfulness” issue, I used the stress relief strategies throughout the day, and I stayed connected with the kids on their level. Even my most rambunctious kids had a great day. There were no meltdowns. The kids played together and interacted together better than I had ever seen them before. It was amazing.

One of the funniest things about it was watching the kids’ reaction to the difference in how I responded to their “crises”. One of them, who seems to have a knack for getting her way, wasn’t getting away with anything and was trying desperately to figure out a way around it. Another one who usually gets what she wants in sneaky kind of ways was so mad at me by lunch time that she could do nothing but shoot daggers at me, simply because she wasn’t getting away with the things that she usually gets away with. A third one, the one who makes me question my choice of careers on at least a weekly basis, had the greatest day she’s ever had in my classroom.

The whole day was amazing, and I can’t wait to duplicate it again tomorrow. I don’t expect it to be as easy as it was today for the whole month, or for the whole time on the program, but if today is any indication, I would say that this book has already more than paid for itself.

My Journey with Conscious Discipline, Part I

This past week I picked up the book “Conscious Discipline” by Dr. Becky Bailey. First, let me begin by saying that for me to pick up a book having anything to do with research into the childcare field is a BIG thing. I have opened my mind quite a bit recently, but I think I surprised even myself by my willingness and enthusiasm when it came to this book. And the more I read of this book, the more enthusiastic I am becoming.

Conscious Discipline is a seven step system that challenges the way you think about discipline. Dr. Bailey states that the difference between Conscious Discipline and traditional discipline is that traditional discipline is based on fear, coercion, and power struggles, among many other negative factors. Traditional discipline is also based on childcare providers, whether teachers or parents, trying to change or control people and situations outside of ourselves.

Conscious Discipline, on the other hand, requires that we look inside ourselves as the beginning of change in discipline in our classrooms. Dr. Bailey sites research that states that our state of mind and the way that we conduct ourselves directly affects how our children will behave. We have to exhibit and model proper behavior in order to teach it.

Now, a few weeks ago this would have sounded pretty kooky to me, but when you read the book and look at the evidence, you can see how well it can work if you put it in to practice. But, speaking of work, it requires a lot of work and willingness to look inside yourself to make it work. That is one of the biggest challenges that is involved in this system. It takes time, and Dr. Bailey suggests that you tackle each step one month at a time. That will give you the proper amount of time to thoroughly integrate the skill involved into not only your every day routine, but into your mindset as well. But to me, the payoff will be huge – a classroom that interacts like a family, more caring and conscientious behavior out of myself and the children I work with, and an increase in the amount of excitement and enjoyment that I get from my job.

I will be beginning to implement this system tomorrow, when I go back to work. I am very excited about it, and I want to share it with anyone who is interested in reading about it. I will be posting progress reports every now and then, not only to share with others, but so that I can look back and see how far I’ve come.