“I’m the bad guy!”
This is what 3-year old Jake would say to his preschool teachers and classmates after he would physically hurt them. Out of nowhere, he would shift into a frightening state, knocking down or tearing up other children’s projects, hitting anyone in his path using his feet, hands or anything he was holding, like blocks. His fuse was short and his emotions were intense. He was ready for a fight at all times. If someone looked at him with a hint of disapproval or said anything to correct his actions, he would run out of the door into the parking lot or destroy the classroom in some way. Other children refused to play with him. These things would happen a few times every day when Jake first arrived at the newly opened Community Preschool. But little by little, with a new way of trauma-informed, transformational learning, Jake became a different child and his sweet, loving, brilliant side of him prevailed.
The Director of the school had been previously coached and trained by one of our Teacher Empowerment Coaches in the Empowerment Education System, and her staff was in the process of being trained when Jake arrived. So although Jake’s parents had some major trepidation in sending Jake back to preschool after being removed from a prior school, the Director was very confident that she and her staff would be able to support him in shifting into his true self.
Jake’s parents are not alone. In the US, behavioral issues in school are common.
- 7.4% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem.
- 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety.
- 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression.
Why is this happening?
Are kids being born with behavioral issues, anxiety and depression? They might pick up some anxious energy from their parents and siblings, but in general, children, especially between birth and ten, learn to believe in who they are and how to behave based on what they are mirrored from their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and caregivers. How kids get treated, (i.e. what others say and do to them and around them), is downloaded and stored into their brains and bodies and becomes their identities and how they perceive the world.
We actually believe that every young person (ages 3-21) comes to school with some form of developmental trauma or what we call disempowering life experiences. The effects of these experiences unconsciously live in their bodies and minds and are connected to their abilities to love and believe in themselves. Disempowering life experiences are also connected to forming negative identities and false realities that result in anxiety, depression and misbehaviors. Most kids learn unconsciously to cover these feelings and beliefs up for survival reasons, so an educator might never know they are hurting underneath. Kids learn to adapt, giving up their core selves to stay connected to the people around them. This will temporarily work. Eventually, however, carrying around negative identities of self begins to negatively affect their everyday life unless they get the support they need to prevent further disempowering experiences and to reverse the internal challenges they are already struggling with. We don’t have to go into all the negative statistics of what our young people are already experiencing because if you are someone who works with or parents young people, you already probably know them.
Disempowering life experiences that young people come to school with affect their ability to learn. They will move into the survival brain (fight, flight or freeze states) more often where they feel stressed about their ability to cope and connect. Only until they have shifted into their higher brains where they are able to process information, will they be able to focus and enjoy learning.
In addition, the current education system is not set up to deal with this new generation of students and the challenges educators are dealing with. Not only do all educators need to be trained in supporting young people in shifting their disempowering identities, we need to provide a new system of learning because the current education system, which has not been updated in 200 years, is archaic and behind the times for how the current Gen Z’s and the younger Alphas need to learn. It just isn’t working anymore. As we shift their learning environments into the new paradigm, we support this new generation of students in giving them what they need, they will thrive.
The Director and teachers at the Community Preschool working with Jake knew that he needed a new empowering belief system about himself ingrained in his nervous system. His parents loved Jake dearly and took good care of him, but they had formed a belief that Jake was not a “good” kid. He had hurt his younger brother a few times. They saw Jake through the lens of fear and destruction. This is not to blame his parents for feeling this way, because any parent would if their child was acting out this way. However, we must learn that the beliefs and energy an adult has toward a child, good and not so good, are what builds the child’s identity, -who he believes he is on the inside. If Jake is unintentionally mirrored he is not a good kid, then he can show up in ways that hurt others or himself.
So the first thing his teachers did was to gain Jake’s trust that he was a wonderful, capable, creative and whole human being. They helped him feel that they were not trying to get him to do anything or change anything about himself, and there was no place he had to be then right where he was. They showed him that they liked who he was at his core.
They began to reflect to him who he was under his “bad” behavior. (The teachers learned to not think or display energy around his “badness” when they were around Jake.) They did this by playing with him and building an open, compassionate and connected environment, one he had not experienced before. As the adults built trust with him and treated him differently even when he misbehaved, the other children began to be nice to him and see his goodness.
One teacher who worked with Jake put it this way.
“Although it was really difficult, I shifted my belief about Jake early on from one of being afraid that he was going to hurt me or someone else, to one of trust. I had to increase my awareness without judgment in the moment and move my focus away from the future fear that he was going to hurt others and I would be responsible. This kept me from connecting with him. The more I trusted and “liked” him unconditionally, the more he trusted and loved himself. All the little present moments of seeing him whole and loving and treating him differently eventually added up to whole days, then weeks, then months, then before we knew it, a year had passed and Jake was a different kid.”
The teachers were trained in i.b.mee.’s WAVE Process® communication blueprint, so they began to get curious about Jake and what he was thinking, feeling, needing and wanting during the day, and then support him in becoming aware and understanding these things about himself. They would listen to him without judgment and accept him right where he was and helped him build new skills of self-regulation that came from him. Nothing was forced. For example, they learned that it was very important to Jake to be seen as strong. So he learned that being strong didn’t mean hurting others. A teacher then took advantage of the big firewood stumps on the playground and allowed him to turn them over. “Heavy work” and lifting became his new definition of being strong, instead of hitting others. One day, when he was flipping over the logs “being strong”, he found a worm family nesting under one of them. The teacher took advantage of Jake’s love for nature and animals and on that day, Jake started to become the worm expert of the playground. His identity was changing to something positive instead of the bad guy. The teachers used this to model how to share and invite in others to play and be his friend. (Which he was not good at at first.) The teachers understood that we are all hardwired in our brain for belonging, so it is crucial that kids believe they are liked and have a group of friends to play or hang out with.
They also helped him create a new belief about himself by modeling, mirroring and talking to him about how he is the protector, and people love being around him because he is safe. They would catch him doing this and bring it to his attention instead of the “bad behavior.” They also would allow him to run, run, run and run even more every day. Young people with social/emotional and behavioral challenges need tons of activity and movement. They helped him be aware of his need for movement as a way to help him move through his intense emotions and that he was capable of changing how he feels by giving himself what he needs. Jake began to ask for breaks, or a box or cubby to be in when he noticed his angry or scared emotions were coming up. Sometimes he would be in his safe space of choice for 20 or 30 minutes. And he was allowed to. Eventually he didn’t need to be in that space as long when he was upset. The teachers understood that choice and self-agency is critical in building confident, ready to learn, regulated kids.
When Jake would perceive that he was in trouble the teachers made it safe for him to come close to them because they were not going to judge him or call him out with their words or energy. They would calm him by letting him sit on their laps and talk to them using his favorite stuffed animal, about what he was feeling. They constantly reminded him they really cared, and that he wasn’t in trouble, and that everyone deserves to feel safe and happy and they would work it out. The teachers were learning to tame their own emotional triggers and judgments about Jake, so they could show up regulated, connected, and trusting. This makes for the best coach and model.
Jake also had arrived at school with a huge perfectionistic part. If he didn’t copy something exactly, he would pout and destroy someone else’s work. He would hardly try anything. When he wanted to make a robot out of cut circles, every circle had to be exactly the same color and size. If they weren’t, he would cry and rip it up onto the floor. The teachers helped him learn over time by modeling and coaching, that all kids’ brains are different and it was ok to do things differently, in fact, it was good. They helped him form a new belief that mistakes are good and normal. The teachers understood how to apply the research around Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. Jake now draws his own robots by hand and doesn’t care if his coloring is outside of the lines.
Today, Jake is 5 and he is spending one more year at the Community Preschool. He is not hurting others. He is getting win-wins with his friends. He is able to say what he wants and needs. He is regulated and can self-regulate when needed. Everyone can see and appreciate his unique brilliance and gifts. He is sweet, empathetic, and extremely in touch with his and other people’s emotions. His creativity and innovation are soaring. He is academically well beyond a kindergartner. He is dedicated and determined to figure things out. Give him a problem such as how to get the water running on the playground routed another way, and he will stay with it until he figures it out.
One day he was building a “fire pit station” outside and some other kids wanted to help. Jake asked them if he could work on it by himself for a little bit. Everyone said yes, except one little 4 year old, Debbie, who really wanted to use the fire pit to build her own magic potions. Jake and Debbie made an agreement on their own. Debbie could mix her potions for 20 stirs and then Jake could continue with his plan. It worked seamlessly and the teachers stayed out of it.
One other day, Jake was drawing something on a poster board all by himself and teaching his friends something about it. When he came back from outdoor time, someone had marked all over it and put tape down one side. The teacher watched patiently and curiously to see how Jake was going to react. The teacher didn’t react, nor say anything, and stayed calm. Jake saw it, paused, took a deep breath and turned and asked the class not to draw on other people’s drawings. They agreed.
At first, Jake was not able to get compliments and praise and to take-in that he was a good person. He would use his stuffed animal to take the praise and appreciations from the teachers and other friends. (Which was fine.) But eventually, he would smile and hug the teachers when they mirrored to him their gratitude in how he was contributing his gifts to his friends and school.
One day, a new teacher became triggered by Jake. The teacher didn’t listen to Jake’s request not to have his stuffed animal go outside. The new teacher treated him with disrespect and took the animal out anyway “for Jake’s own good”, the teacher had said. Jake got noticeably angry and cried and screamed, something the teachers hadn’t seen in a year. After being coached by another trained teacher, Jake, at 5, was able to calm down, and go to the new teacher and tell him why he got so upset…because he was ignored. He got an agreement with the teacher about his stuffed animal. Eventually, the teachers began to see Jake being even more resilient when “being ignored” and would speak up even sooner without going into such a breakdown. Jake was becoming more resilient to his triggers.
Another day, a little girl, Linda was having a hard time, crying and not wanting to go inside after playing outside. Out of nowhere, Jake went up to her and started acting like a baby which was not like him at all. He was talking and whining like a baby. He asked Linda to feed him, and change his diaper, and read him a story. Linda pretended to do all these things and immediately started feeling better. Jake asked Linda what she had been feeling and she told him that she missed her mother and inherently Jake knew that if he acted like a baby and she took care of him, that she would shift. This was remarkable, because the teachers didn’t even know this information. Jake then asked Linda if she wanted to draw how she felt. She declined, but they swung in the hammock together and played. Then LInda came into the school happy and ready to play and learn.
For a few weeks, Jake began to ask questions about gender identity. He was very curious about wearing a dress and the teacher allowed him to explore this “need” with a neutral, accepting and loving attitude. The teacher answered his questions and helped him make sense of what he was noticing and feeling. He said he never saw any other boy at the school wear a dress and so he didn’t know if boys could do that. He had only seen boys wear dresses in dramatic play at dress up time, but not “for real.” He was nervous about what the other kids would think, but said that wearing the dress made him feel good, so he spun around and laughed! He became so empowered through loving and trusting conversations that he went to play with his friends on the playground in the dress. Teachers asked him how he felt in his new outfit and had a very supportive attitude. Some kids said, “WHOA, Jake, I love that dress, it is beautiful!” and others just went about their play time without even noticing. A few days passed and another student asked, “Jake, why are you wearing girl clothes?” He responded by saying, “They actually aren’t just for girls and I’m wearing this because I like it and I feel comfortable.” He knew he was safe, supported and valued and he could truly explore all the parts of him.
These are just a few of the changes we have seen in Jake. We are excited to continue building Jake’s emotional intelligence and confidence. We know when young people believe in themselves, they are happier, more productive and healthier humans.