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The Combo Zone: Responding to the Stress Instead of the Behavior

I have been subbing here and there to stay current and realistic when training teachers on student behaviors. I teach how to respond to students' nervous system states rather than individual behaviors. I'm no virtuoso on this myself, as you will see.

He had tense shoulders. That could have been the first clue that I was dealing with was stress response. Trying to get this kid to whisper was putting me into a power struggle, and I was having a hard time holding myself in the Neurorelational paradigm. The truth is, I am still a baby in this teaching, too. The trick is to give ourselves the permission to not know what to do, and to learn from our mistakes later.

Eye level with this 5th grader, I tried to connect. "You're not whispering. What's up?"

“I'm not going to whisper," he said in a normal tone.

That triggered me. I did not want to ask him a "why" question while he is stressed, but I couldn't think on the spot. Instead of walking away to regroup (wouldn't it have been nice if my ego would have let me do that?), I asked a question that put him equally on the spot: “I don’t see another way to keep it quiet enough for the rest of the class to concentrate. Do you?”

He looked straight ahead for a moment, and then said, “This is stupid.”

I kept him in the fight. “If you won’t whisper, I don’t know what else to do but have you leave so the classroom can be quiet.”

He looked away and resumed talking with his friend in a normal voice.

“Okay, off you go. I’ll call the office to let them know you’re on your way.”

He continued to sit there and continued to talk in a normal tone. Discouraged and annoyed, I frowned to myself. I hate having to interrupt my flow to call the office. I'd have to walk to the other end of the room to get the number, return to this side to use the phone, and take up more valuable time to make the call. When you’re in charge of a classroom, every minute used on classroom management feels like five.

Luckily, the principal walked in just as I was standing up to get the number. She had an inkling that I would have it tough with this class. “Is anyone giving you trouble?” she asked out of the corner of her mouth, looking around at the usual suspects.

“Yep,” I gestured my chin. She showed no surprise. I told her a brief version of my most recent interaction with him, she crooked her finger at him, and off they went. By comparison, the rest of the morning was a breeze.

The great thing about removing a student from the classroom (besides being able to teach again) is that it gives a teacher time to reflect. After wondering what I could have done differently with the principal in the hall and other teachers over lunch, it finally occurred to me to wonder which stress response he was in that morning.

I had three options: Red, Blue and Combo. Red is the sympathetic nervous system response. In it, a student might flit around the classroom, unable to stay seated. This is the student who seems always on the verge of blowing up. Two students in the class were in that mode. The school had routine strategies for them, so they were both pretty functional throughout the day. Blue is the parasympathetic system response. That child sat under the desk at clean-up time, and other than that and a brief interaction where I asked her how she was (her answer was “Bad,” with no further explanation), I hardly knew she was there. While children in the blue are the most at risk, they get the least attention. The priority, unfortunately, is to keep a classroom moving forward.

But this student had me stumped. The principal later told me that he was just as surely and dismissive toward her. A team teacher said, "I don't understand it. His dad is a principal at another school. It doesn't make sense for him to act this way."

Well, I thought, if he’s not in Red, and he’s not in Blue, he must be in Combo. Combo is the combination of either being in a Red state and imposing Blue to hold it together, or in a Blue state and animating the system with enough Red to appear normal. Surliness is a controlled and understated way of fighting.

Identifying his Combo state put this child into a new light for me. The next day, while he was supposed to be reading a passage, I caught him folding a paper airplane. Kids in Combo are notorious for hiding the assembly of impromptu craft projects under their desks, but this guy was brazen. Sitting in the front row, he was doing it right in front of me. When he finished, he put it in the corner of his desk.

“Is that hard?" I asked.

He looked at me, his shoulders tensing even more, and then gave me an inquisitive look.

"Making a paper airplane and not flying it right away to see how it will go. Is it hard for you not to fly it?”

He quickly grabbed the plane and stood up to fly it. I stopped him. “No, you can’t fly it now. I was just admiring your patience. But after this activity, I’d love to see how it flies.” He put it back, picked up his book, and started to read. No eye contact, no verbal communication, quick movements. Now I was seeing it. People in Combo often look like they're fine, but here were telltale signs of an underlying Red.

As soon as I announced the end of the lesson, he stood up, grabbed his plane, came up to me, and launched it.

"Nose dive! Ahh, don’t you hate it when they do that?” I asked.

He picked it up from the floor, looked eagerly to see that I was still watching, and threw it with more control. “Whoa!” I clapped, “a loop-de-loop!” He didn’t smile, but his body showed a tense excitement as he retrieved the plane and sat down. I felt like tearing up. This kid needed help.

The picture below shows a visual of the four awake states.


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