As the Honeymoon Comes to an End: When “Back to School” Leans into Back to Old Habits …

Honeymoon: A period of unusual harmony especially following the establishment of a new relationship …

With each new school year, there is an established “honeymoon” period; where the students [as well as teachers] appear to demonstrate their very best due to the notion of a fresh start.  In many cases, this period lasts four to six weeks.  However, this doesn’t always work out this way, especially, for students who experience anxiety, worry, stress, or other symptoms associated with being OVERWHELMED.

For many students with ADD/ADHD, Autism, or other sensory-related issues, the honeymoon comes to an abrupt end when the amygdala-guided thought / emotion patterns take over; such as flight, fight, or freeze.  In these circumstances, coping strategies, often dis-regulated and as well as dysfunctional, take precedent, and over-ride what we often think of as “appropriate”, or common sense.  When a student feels overwhelmed and anxious, cognitive-thought such as learning based upon the “Zones of Regulation”, “Second Step” or any other social-emotional framework, often gets lost in the reaction pattern.  Simply, flight, fight, or freeze behaviors take over like old habits.

So what can we do to make extend the honeymoon into the rest of the school year or when the honeymoon has quickly evolved into a troubled marriage situation?  Reconciliation: to restore to friendship or harmony. 

In the work I do, I am provided the opportunity to work directly in the schools and observe first-hand student behavior, especially during extreme escalations.  Most often, it’s an extraordinary mystery trying to figure out what is the trigger for such unusual behavior especially when aggravated assault and search & destroy tantrums are presented.  Nevertheless, what we discover in these situations are the following:

  1. The student experienced a deep sense of anxiety or stress.
  2. Following, the student reacted with a primal set of coping strategies.
  3. Often, the student expressed remorse after the de-escalation period and calm surfaces.

Here’s how I see it: The New Three R’s: RELATIONSHIP, RELEVANCE, RESILIENCE:

Relationship: Guided by the most basic foundations and principles, the notion of feeling “secure” and “belonging” are core essentials within the human condition and experience.  As a result, to off-set the powerful emotions of insecurity and mistrust, we best serve our students and our children through a never-ending set of relationship -building activities. There are a treasure-trove of  ideas available online through mindful classrooms, collaboration schools, and compassionate teaching. Whatever selected, it’s most important that our efforts are grounded in authenticity, loving kindness, and compassion. Most importantly, one of the coping strategies presented by our students, especially those who have experienced trauma at an early age, is the ability to read others’ emotions as a survival technique.  With this in mind, we need to assure that we self-check our own emotions before we go into our own response-pattern after observing our students shift into a full-blown spin.  So I recommend the following as the precursor to any reaction:  I call it GPS for inner guidance:

GRACE through gratitude: Take a moment to find something to appreciate and engage in a positive-mindset before moving forward.

PAUSE through breath-work: Continue to breath deeply, give yourself the nourishment to be our best moving forward, and do so through intentional inhalation and exhalation.

SILENCE through self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-checking for our best self is the one which is required when we are helping another through the stress reduction process.  If we discover that we are not at our own level of peace, it may required to go through the GPS process again till we have ourselves in the best position for intervention.

Relevance: Secondly, another deep connection for our students (and children) is founded upon the notion of presenting meaningful and interest-based activities to off-set a closed-mind and avoidance-behaviors.  Back in the day, when compliance and fear were part of the learning environment, almost all students would go along for the ride just because “I told you so” was good enough.  Today, that is not an option.  So we need to design our classrooms based upon a set of “preferred activities” when we are trying to create a stepping-stone for our most non-compliant students.  Often, identifying interests or “likes” as a bridge toward learning works. For example, within the most challenging settings, self-contained behavior classes or Autism-themed, the use of a set of “preferred activities” for each student, presented in a specially-designed, labeled box for each child, guides the child from an outburst or non-compliant behavior back into the learning environment.   Favorite toys, cars, art supplies, or music may be a part of this preferential toolkit.  Then, when the child is ready for more traditional activities at school or home, then the use of a “First, Then” strategy may be useful.  This is when the adult states, “First you [clean room, do three math problems] …. then you will be able to [play with playdough, go online] ….”.  In many situations, at school, and at home, this works.

Resilience: Finally, we do need to teach our kids a set of new coping strategies for the typical flight or fight reactions are not usually appropriate and often appear dysfunctional.  For example, when a ten-year old goes into a tantrum, a crying-fit like a two-year old over the loss of a soccer game or when she is being asked to clean up her room, there are other tools within the emotional skill set to develop.  However, behavior is a form of communication and what many of our children are telling us is that they are:

  1. Overwhelmed
  2. Unable to cope and employ whatever they have within their toolkit

As a result, effective emotional self-regulation strategies requires instruction and guidance.  It takes time.  And patience. So we do our kids service by providing them time to learn these new resilience skill sets.  I often refer to the research associated with Executive Functioning as the basis of this work:

Plan how to address a task

Organize the steps needed to carry out the task

Develop timelines for completing the task

Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task

Complete the task in a timely way

Self-regulate one’s emotions through mind and body self-care

Minimize impulse controls to a functional level of adaptability

Here again, there are a wide-range of resources for skill development in these areas.  I don’t advocate for a specific program addressing the whole range of behaviors, but I do support the following resources as follows:

Emotional Self-Regulation =

Resources for Parents =

Strategies for Parents and Teachers =

So for now, as we head into November and Winter and the novelty of school tends to wear thin for our most challenging students, the New Three Rs, most notably, through relationship-building and relevance connecting, is within our control.  We can do something about this NOW.  In many situations, when supporting students through resilience-building strategies, it often takes a team approach for most teachers and parents are not experts in the complex process of emotional self-regulation training.  For our intent is to move behavior from an unconscious “fight or fight” response to a cognitive approach of self-reflection.   As such, I believe we are best guided in this area by those who bring a level of expertise to the conversation.

In the meantime, take care of yourselves.  Use the GPS Inner Guidance approach on a daily (and hourly) basis.  And know, the honeymoon may be over, but the marriage is not.  For the love of learning is a life-long process.


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