Brain research around maladaptive behavior and de escalation strategies
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Brain Research Around Maladaptive Behavior and De-Escalation Strategies. Jill Knudsen Katie Pfalz Damion Smith. Norms. Four Agreements: Stay Engaged Experience Discomfort Speak your Truth Expect/Accept Non-Closure. Learning Outcomes Because all learning is brain-based.

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Brain Research Around Maladaptive Behavior and De-Escalation Strategies

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Brain Research Around Maladaptive Behavior and De-Escalation Strategies

Jill Knudsen

Katie Pfalz

Damion Smith


Four Agreements:

  • Stay Engaged

  • Experience Discomfort

  • Speak your Truth

  • Expect/Accept Non-Closure

Learning OutcomesBecause all learning is brain-based

  • Discover how changes in brain development may impact student behavior and learning

  • Learn how extended experiences of negative emotion impact brain development

  • Be able to identify behavior escalation and utilize appropriate de-escalation strategies

Talk at your table

  • How did it feel to watch the video?

  • Where there any moments in the video where the adults could have responded differently?

  • Did you see de-escalation strategies?

  • What escalated the student?

Maladaptive Behavior

  • What is it?

  • Why is it called maladaptive behavior?

  • Do we all have maladaptive behavior?

Basic Brain Facts

  • Grapefruit to cantaloupe sized

  • Weighs ~3 pounds

  • Texture of soft butter

  • Full of wrinkles or folds to maximize surface area

  • Unfolded it’s the size of a newspaper

Basic Brain Facts (cont’d)

  • Contents:

    • 78% water

    • 10% fat

    • 8% protein

  • Made of:

    • 100 billion Neurons – process and transmit information

    • 1-5 trillion Glial Cells – provides support

CerebrumBrain Gem for Thinking

  • Receives, categorizes, and interprets information. Involved in rational decisions and activation of behavioral responses.

  • Right – processes information as a whole, in random order, and spatially (creative), controls movement on the left side.

  • Left – processes information in parts, sequences, and language (logical), controls movement on the right side

Solving Problems

  • Solving Problems is the number one, all time best activity for brain growth

    • Increases neural connectivity

    • Increases the number of glial cells

    • Increases overall brain mass

      Eric Jensen (2008). Brain-Based Learning

Solving Problems (cont’d)

  • Best problems to solve meet the following conditions

    • They are novel (change content and process of solving problems often)

    • They are challenging (make sure the difficulty level is appropriate for your audience)

      Eric Jensen, Frank J. Kros and Judy Willis

Triangle, Circle, Square

This brain balance exercise helps you to use both sides of your brain by doing two tasks simultaneously. Use your left hand to draw a circle in the air use your right hand to draw a triangle. Continuously draw the shapes with both hands simultaneously.

Switch hands and draw a triangle in the air with your left hand and a reverse circle with your right. Keep alternating hands and repeat until you are proficient with both hands.

Solving Problems (cont’d)

  • Best problems to solve meet the following conditions:

    • They are non-threatening (everyone should want to contribute

    • They stimulate emotions (learners should feel anxiety, joy, anticipation, surprise, or celebration

      Eric Jensen, Frank J. Kros and Judy Willis

Greater Depth of Meaning

  • As the brain learns, it stimulates cells to growth branch-like extensions called dendrites

  • Each dendrite is another neural pathway by which cells can connect to each other

  • Maximize the number of connections by providing multiple contexts for learning the same thing

Brain Research

The Limbic System regulates behavior and determines initial and instinctive reaction to emotional challenges that influence response.

Stress (real or perceived danger) triggers a “fight or flight” response in the brain

With high levels of Cortisol in the brain during developmental years, the brain becomes wired for high alert.

Research shows that a child can lose up to 30 IQ points when brain is flooded.


  • Emotions are intertwined with motor abilities (root of emotion means “to move”)

  • Adjacent systems

    • Limbic system is right along side of basal ganglia and cerebellum

    • Hence the close relationship between emotion and movement and feelings of emotional consequences of our actions

Kids “download”

the negatives ofchaos, disharmony,poor relationships,foul language,poor manners, and

weak vocabulary

just as quicklyand just asautomaticallyas they would any positive orenrichment input.

Of all the things researchers have discovered about the value of quality relationships, one of the most surprising is that they are strong mediators of stress. Good relationships diffuse stress and make your life easier.

Eric Jensen, 2008

Why Positive Emotions Matter

We can encourage and support

Stability and familiarity through repeated experiences

  • Songs

  • Routines

  • Jobs

  • Quiet zone

  • Consistent enforcement


…(Suspenseful Pause)

To build curiosity and captivate the Limbic System’s attention…



discrepant events

Prior knowledge activation





  • Start with something that promotes “Buy-In”

  • Current events - student interest

Draw Attention to Important Information

  • When students have to search for what is important they cannot devote full mental resources to processing the information.

  • Scaffold students with cues.

Stress Makes Us Stupid (Daniel Coleman)

  • By age 6, poor children have three times more stress hormones

  • Children in poor day care have significantly higher levels of stress hormones

  • Stress manifests itself as anxiety

What could a kid possibly have to be stressed about?

  • Make a list and be ready to share

What would a kid possibly be stressed about?

  • Poverty

  • School work

  • Parent work schedule

  • Trauma

    • Acute (situational)

    • chronic (over and over again)

  • Homelessness

  • Untreated mental health among caregivers

  • Substance abuse

  • Incarceration

  • Change in family structure

  • Others…

Relationships and Stress

  • Sustained exposure to hostility can erode IQ and ability to handle stress, sometimes dramatically

  • Children will rewire their developing nervous system depending upon the turbulence they perceive

Consequences of Stress

Prolonged stress shrinks the hippocampus and

the prefrontal cortex

Prolonged stress increases the

size and reactivity

of the amygdala

Once the Brain is Overloaded…

  • It doesn’t have the working memory to store new thoughts

  • It doesn’t have the physical resources to make new memories (glucose, acetylcholine, etc.)

  • It doesn’t have the space in the hippocampus to store even a temporary memory.

What are your triggers?

  • A student?

  • A behavior?

  • A time of day?

  • A class?

  • No coffee?

  • Too much coffee?

Brain Science

  • Corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF)

  • The release of CRF in the amygdale causes a high level of brain agitation leading to the sorts of symptoms we see when a child is going through the Anxiety stage.


  • Beginning of loss of rationality

    • Manifests itself in the verbal escalation continuum

Verbal Escalation Continuum







Stage 1-Questioning

Information Seeking Questions

Challenging Questions

Staff Attitudes/Approaches

Answer the questions

Stay on topic, redirect, repeat, set limits

Stage 2-Refusal

Characterized by:

  • Noncompliance, a slight loss of rationalization

    Staff Attitudes/


  • Set limits

Stage 3-Release

Emotional of loss of rationalization

Staff Approaches:

  • Allow venting!

  • Isolate the situation by removing audience or individual

  • Set limits, state directives

  • Be prepared to enforce limits

Stage 4- Intimidation

Verbally/nonverbally threatening

Staff Approaches:

  • Set limits,

  • Take threats seriously, document the situation, seek assistance, wait for team,

  • Try to avoid individual intervention.

Acting Out Person

  • Student is out of control & displays most severe problem behavior

  • Intervention focused on SAFETY

Stand and Talk

  • Reflect back to our video.

  • Where did you the different stages?

Tension Reduction

  • Student displays confusion but with decreases in severe behavior

Tension Reduction

  • Intervention is focused on removing excess attention

    • Don’t nag.

    • Avoid blaming.

    • Don’t force apology.

    • Consider function of problem behavior

    • Emphasize starting anew.

    • Establish therapeutic rapport


Identify how to intervene early in an escalation.

Identify environmental factors that can be manipulated.

Identify replacement behaviors that can be taught & serve similar function.

Basic strategies

Stay calm

Use simple language, less is best, slow…

Give choices

Blow out birthday candles (breathing)

Allow space

Realizing your own trigger points!

Tag Team with someone else


  • Embody Respect

  • Embed Social Skills daily

  • Offer choices

  • Accept what they cannot say- look for the need behind behavior (FBA)

  • Appreciate humor and individuality

  • Empower students- Set up for success


  • Use sarcasm

  • Ask why when a child is escalating

  • Make judgments about the value of something

  • Insist on the full explanation

  • Argue or talk too much

  • Touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881) Russian novelist

    “It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them—the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas.”

    Thanks for your attention.

    Have a great year!

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