An overreaction is an age regression - most teacher-student conflicts are exactly that

An overreaction is an age regression. That’s more often than not true of conflicts between teacher and students, especially with those perceived as chronically troublesome.

Both teachers and students are often guilty of generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion in their dealings with each other. Dysfunctional means more than is helpful or necessary, and a type and amount that works against both, instead of for them as emotion is intended to do.

Many kids come to school with a history of life experiences which for them felt like threats at the time. When you’re a child and confronted by angry, verbally or even physically abusive adults who are much bigger, and who you’re totally dependent on, it’s easy to feel threatened. Some parents even use fear to get obedience. Chronic arguing or divorces can be threats as well. As well as Illness or accidents, especially near death experiences. There are two halves to the human fight or flight response to perceived threats, anxiety and anger. Anxiety is the more common, but some kids learn to plug into their fight response early as well.

Many kids come to school with a good deal of pre-existing shame as well. Shame comes from being told and believing you don’t live up to expectations. Many kids have a 4-5 year history of being told, and believing that before entering school. Shame will make simple, everyday life events seem like  bigger threats than they need to be. Shame plays out as anxiety or anger.  Kids become turtles or rattlesnakes. Either response is frustrating for teachers, especially ones feeling increasing pressure to help students meet standards. But the “rattlers” are the ones it’s easy to get authoritarian with, which more often than not just exacerbates the problem.

When any human being practices and rehearses thoughts, feelings and actions, they create “ruts” in their brains. Ruts make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic, and less responsive to, and more resistant to intervention. They are why it’s easy for kids to overreact emotionally when situations they find themselves in remind them, or at least their brains at some level, of past threatening circumstances.

We all bring cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” to any situation. Teachers are no exception. Some teachers bring “ruts” to conflicts with students that will make them “naturals” at dealing with overreacting students. But many others bring “ruts” from their own upbringing that will cause them to overreact to overreactions and age regressions in their students. In this way, the teacher’s overreaction is also an age regression.

Ruts always cause people to recreate their pasts, and cause their histories to become their destinies. That could be a good or bad thing. It depends on what their pasts and histories have been. It’s probably unrealistic to expect children, or even teens to recognize when this is happening in themselves, at least without some help and guidance. So it’s even more important that teachers consider how any overreactions in themselves might be an age regression. And that they recognize that overreactions in their students probably are as well.

Furthermore, that when their students engage in such overreactions, it’s perfectly understandable, and part of being human. Their own overreactions are understandable as well, but someone needs to take the lead in de-escalating existing, or preventing future conflicts. We always need at least one adult in the room. When a child goes ballistic, the last thing we need is a teacher going with him/her.

Reminding oneself that an overreaction is an age regression can help. Having unconditional other acceptance (UOA) for students can as well. That means accepting that their reaction is understandable, given that they’re human, a child to boot, and what they’ve been through in their lives so far.  

There's two ways to make something you don't like worse. Do nothing or overreact to it. Most  people do the latter. One step in the right direction is recognizing, and reminding ourselves that an overreaction is usually an age regression in some way.