Mary Fowler

Core Stability: What I Didn’t Know About Section 8C

Read the first post in this series.

I should tell you now that what happened in the end with Section 8C could be called a success story. That class turned out to be my most defining experience in education. Educators knew so little back then about the brain or stress reactions. I flew by the seat of my pants, followed my gut, and remained determined to reach and teach this group of learners. To do that, I had to feel them, to sense them, and what might set them off.

In this class of 28 learners, most of these students had rich histories of adverse childhood experiences. The child study team (CST) might easily have classified 10 as emotionally disturbed. Mental health professionals might diagnose them with post traumatic stress reaction or some other mental disorder. Believe me, there were so many times I wanted the CST to take these kids, fix them, and send them back in a "teachable" condition. How I laugh at this reaction now!

For children with these biographies, it is essential to understand the stress reaction and how to dial it down—for their well-being and for the health of the entire school community. Stress reactive behavior—theirs or ours—especially in high-risk environments significantly affects culture, climate, learning, and performance. Highly stressed learners operate with a volatile dynamic. They generally overestimate the severity of threat and underestimate their resources. Instead of developing as resilient learners, Section 8C students and the like become ardent survivors who defend, guard, and crackle quickly. They frequently avoid tasks and often escalate behavior to escape or deflect triggers and the ensuing unpleasant sensations that follow being offset.

If I only knew then that threat and trauma are initially experienced as a felt sense in the body, our turnaround moment might have occurred before April. Think about the last time something scared you and how you physically felt afterward. Sick to your stomach? Cramp in your neck? Headache? Shaky? As adults, we make up stories to explain our stress reactions. Children do not. They remain true to the felt sensation of what's happening. They generally discharge behaviorally to stop the discomfort or distress.

Whenever we sense threat, real or perceived, an unimaginable amount of neurons fire to flood our entire body with stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. This neurochemical cascade shuts down all nonessential body-brain activities to increase the functions we need to survive the unfolding drama. Heart rates increase. Oxygen to the brain decreases, because we don't need to think deeply, speak soliloquies, or set future goals and make plans for how to achieve them. Muscles tighten and backs hunch to protect vital organs (Sapolsky, 2004). Fight, flee, and freeze are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reactions that are commonly associated with the threat reaction.

There is a fourth reaction that frequently gets overlooked when helping students dial down reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) also rises to the threatening occasion with a hormonal release. It arouses our executive brain network to appraise the threat for survival data: How dangerous is it? Where's the safest escape route? Do I have what I need to beat this threat? Is this a monster in my bedroom or is it the shadow of my teddy bear looking larger than a grizzly?

"Appraisal, the fourth reaction, is essential, especially for youth. It is the stillness in the eye of the storm, that state of calm awareness that gives us the ability to discern what is safe and what is dangerous even during a threat exposure" (Macy, 2009).

Basically, the SNS gives us the strength we need to survive the threat. The PNS helps us keep our appraisal wits about us to determine the degree of danger and the amount of resources we have to deal with the threat and begin seeking safety.

This delicate balance of arousal, appraisal, and reaction-action works like a finely tuned violin unless the severity or load of psychosocial stressors is overwhelming. Without the benefit of protective factors and resources, the appraisal process defaults to knee-jerk reactive behavior. The actions that follow usually lack the finer qualities of effective problem solving: thoughtfulness, responsiveness, creativity, and discernment.

Elevated stress reactivity can also alter our chemistry. Long periods of high stress, or an acute or sudden traumatic event, can raise the body's stress chemical baseline. We can become accustomed to the feel of excess stress chemicals in our body and do things that keep the stress buzz going because it doesn't feel comfortable when we begin to lessen the gap between optimal stress level and elevated stress levels (McEwen, 2000). We may react to low-risk situations with high intensity and a lot of drama. If the "noise" gets too low, such as during quiet seat work, expect a highly stressed student to create drama.

Without realizing, I expected an awful lot of emotional control from Section 8C. For many of them, language arts literacy had been a land of no return on investment. They sensed trouble everywhere. Life-overloaded, skill-deficient, and needing to protect the "warrior" image to save emotional face, these learners did not want to take risks, especially in public. In addition, a lot of the emotional and thematic content in the literature we read mirrored the conflict in their lives. It triggered their mainstay survival strategy: disrupt to escape.

As author Dan Goleman noted in this simple, brilliant statement: "You can't learn with a hi-jacked brain." We can't teach with one either!

Reactive behavior has to calm before it becomes response-enabled. We may treat fire with fire in the wilderness, but in our school communities, we have to help students improve their appraisal systems and install more resources to extinguish any flames.

Core stability begins with this simple understanding: We have to help students hone their appraisal ability, identify safety zones, protective factors, and their natural resources. These are the fibers that build resilience. With awareness and compassion, designing such environments is simpler to create than it may seem.

In the next post in this series, I'll introduce a trauma-informed approach to dial down reaction.



Macy. R. (2009). The dynamics of threat detection and the human stress response. Agency-school-community-based psychological first aid post traumatic stress management. Cambridge, MA: CTP-ICDR.

McEwen, B. (2000). Allostatis and allostatic load: Implications for neuropsycho-pharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology, 22, 108–124.

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don't get ulcers. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Mary Fowler provides professional development to help teachers improve classroom cultures and create productive learning environments. She specializes in training teachers to work with students who have social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Fowler is an author and recognized authority on ADHD and related difficulties.

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