How does harsh discipline affect a teen’s brain?

Dr Margot Sunderland explains why it’s important for teachers to relate to students in ways that heal, rather than harm, their brains

When attempting to discipline a student, simple vocal cues – such as a teacher’s tone of voice or facial expression – can make all the difference between triggering either an aggressive or a reflective response. Additionally, a relational approach to behaviour management, rather than a punitive approach, can be the distinction between healing or harming students, particularly those who have experienced past trauma. Dr Margot Sunderland explores.

Neuroscience research over the last 20 years has shown that how adults interact with children and teenagers can trigger bad or good behaviour – particularly if the student has a history of trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are stressful life events such as domestic violence, emotional neglect, parents separating, or living with a parent with mental health issues and/or an alcohol or drug problem. If a young person has experienced four or more ACES, they are 32 times more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour than a child who has not experienced stressful life events (Burke Harris, 2017). Furthermore, harsh discipline – such as isolation, shaming, shouting, suspensions and exclusions – can re-traumatise students who are already traumatised, and lead to mental health issues later in life.

The good news is that, through protective factors, such as ‘social buffering’ – which occurs when a child forms a secure attachment with an emotionally available adult – the trajectory from ACEs to mental health problems and failure to thrive in adult years can be interrupted. And what better place to interrupt this transition than in school, where teachers have 190 days of contact a year with students? This is why it’s so important for teachers to relate to students in ways that heal rather than harm their brains, and alleviate rather than exacerbate challenging behaviour.

What happens in teenagers’ brains when they are being disciplined?

Shaming a student, such as putting their name up on the board for misbehaviour, can trigger the pain centre in a teen’s brain, and is akin to the pain felt when touching a hot oven. The student will then begin to associate school with pain and fear and somewhere they want to avoid. Shame causes inflammation in the body and can have a significant and detrimental impact on a young person’s mental and physical health outcomes.

As humans, our physiological social engagement system (Porges 2017) impacts on how we respond to situations, especially when we are under stress or pressure. Facial and vocal cues can trigger certain responses for teenagers, particularly those with a history of trauma. For example, a teacher smiling and using a warm, soothing tone of voice when speaking to a student, will trigger natural opioids and oxytocin in the student’s brain which help to make them feel safe and calm. Conversely, if a teacher has a stern, or even neutral expression, and shouts or speaks in a harsh tone, high levels of stress hormones trigger in their brain, instinctively taking them into a defensive mode of fear or anger – either flight, fight or freeze. This results in either challenging or withdrawn behaviour and shuts down the frontal lobes, key for learning and the ability to focus on what the teacher is saying. The student’s thinking becomes very poor, and their IQ drops significantly.

It’s so important for teachers to relate to students in ways that heal rather than harm their brains, and alleviate rather than exacerbate challenging behaviour

To avoid such occurrences, senior leads should look at providing training in social engagement (including voice training) for teachers. This will help ensure the link between tone of voice and facial expressions, and the production of calming or stress-inducing chemical in students’ brains, is better understood and informs teacher-student interactions.

Another common form of punishment in schools that has a negative psychological impact on a student’s brain is the use of suspensions. Being suspended just once dramatically increases the likelihood that the student will drop out of school entirely. The suspension sends a message to the student that school is a place that doesn’t want them, which can lead to feelings of abandonment and neglect, particularly among students with a history of trauma or mental ill health. School should be a place that makes students feel nurtured, safe, and part of a community, as we know this calms physiology and dramatically reduces the chances of challenging behaviour.

An alternative and less harmful way to discipline students

The ‘learning’ from punishment is usually “I am a bad kid’ – instead, schools should be focusing on teaching students social and emotional intelligence, as well as cognitive intelligence. One great way to develop such skills is through the use of restorative conversations as a behaviour management tool. This involves misbehaving students being removed from the classroom and, rather than being placed in isolation (no learning), a teacher trained in restorative practice will ask the student a series of questions, such as: How are you feeling? What happened? What were you thinking at the time you misbehaved? The teacher will also help the student work towards a resolution. Often, through such curiosity, teachers will discover an underlying reason for their student’s behaviour – they may have been bullied on the way to school, or they may have heard their parents arguing the night before. There is usually an untold narrative just waiting to be heard. Skills such as empathy and the ability to reflect well are essential in leading an effective restorative conversation with students.

A wealth of research (Kehoe et al 2018, McCluskey et al 2008) has indicated that restorative conversations lead to a reduction in bad behaviour, detentions and exclusions, as well as help students develop social and emotional intelligence. Harsh discipline will result in anger or fear, whereas restorative conversation results in thoughtfulness and reflection.

The need for behaviour and relationship policies in schools

It is hugely beneficial for schools to adopt a whole-school approach to behaviour management, incorporating relationship policies for staff and behaviour policies for pupils. Such policies take into account the adult-child interactions that are likely to trigger challenging behaviour, and those that heal students and result in good behaviour and improved social skills. Relationship policies also consider the underlying causes of challenging behaviour, such as ACEs and mental ill health. In addition, before writing a behaviour policy, it is essential for schools to understand the neuroscience behind behaviour.

Through the provision of secure attachments with emotionally available adults – which come about through empathy, attunement, and treating students with dignity – students can thrive in the school environment. Secure attachments to teachers have been associated with higher grades, greater emotional regulation, social competence, willingness to take on challenges, and overall improved behaviour (Bergin and Bergin 2009).

Dr Margot Sunderland is Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health and Co-Director of Trauma Informed Schools UK.

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