Fight the fight or flight

You’re walking along in the woods.  It’s a beautiful day.  You can’t hear civilization at all – even the planes are too high.  The wind whisks through the trees, whispering to look around, to forget about everything.  Smells fill your sinuses and the pines and the oaks make you forget that there is a world that, in another hundred yards, you’ll have to turn back to.  The three o’clock sun filters through the canopy, dappling the area ahead with shapes.  Shadows flit.  Leaves rustle.  Peace fills you as you recognize that one of the shapes looks just like a bear.

Mostly because it’s a bear.

You try to use your rational brain.  You try to think about that PBS special you recently saw about what to do when you see a bear.  You try to remember all of the facts about bears, and this time of year, and babies.  But a much more powerful brain begins working.  A brain that is powered by pure adrenalin and fear.  A brain that has laid latent in our minds for millions of years.  And that brain says, “Stay very still, and maybe it won’t see you.”

We all know the common latent reactions to fear, or anger: Flight, Fight, or Freeze.

Change gears.  A classroom.

I was working with some students who are in danger of not graduating from high school.  There is a multitude of reasons, and for the most part, the reasons don’t really matter.  What did matter was that there was a high stakes assessment that stood in front of them at the moment.  I am there to teach a mini-lesson on a variety of writing skills that they will actually take with them and be able to use when they become employed – these skills happen to be the same ones on which they shortly will be assessed.

I begin reading, and they begin taking notes, when I notice something.  Some of the kids are working away.  Some of the kids listen, pause, write.  Some of the kids just keep looking at their paper, and then they look at me.  Then they look at their paper.  Frozen.  When we finish, some are confident, some are angry and let me know.  Some just sit there.  Frozen.

In the few moments that I was reading, these students were faced with years of failure.  Years where they tried their hardest, and their hardest let them down.

At that moment, I change direction.  I start teaching a different lesson than I thought I was going to teach.  I realize that, for years, I talked about content when preparing kids for tests, but I didn’t give them all the information that they needed.  I realize these kids don’t have the right test taking skills.

So I start talking about the bear up above.  And how that bear starts lumbering towards them ready to fight.  Not a pause in it’s step.  I do my best menacing walk towards one of the kids while I say, “You’re gonna come into my woods.  Really?!?!”

I talk about driving down the road and seeing a deer.  I talk about rabbits that some of them have hunted.  I teach them about our autonomic response to fear and anger.

Flight, fight, or freeze.

We talk about that deer, I ask the rhetorical question, “When you’re driving down the road, what does the deer do?” And then I become the deer.  Frozen in front of them all.  Not moving.  Not moving so long that they begin to laugh.  I can only imagine what I look like.  And then I say, in a hushed voice, “Maybe, if I stay really still, they won’t see me.”  Like I’m sharing a secret with them.  More laughter.

Then, I say, you realize the deer isn’t going to move so you honk you’re horn – insert horn sound – and I bolt for the door, “OH MAN, THEY SEE ME!  I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE!!!” More laughter.

And then I talk to them about their own lives.  When Mom yells at them.  How some of them just want to run – get out of there.  How when their brother starts screaming for Dad, they don’t move, hoping beyond hope, that if they stay very still, they won’t get in trouble.  How sometimes, when the teacher calls them out for texting on their phones, they don’t lose a beat and start arguing with the teacher.

Flight, fight or freeze.

How when they sit down to take that Algebra test, or the Roman Civilization assessment, or the Vocabulary quiz, they sometimes just give up – want to run away, or they crumple up the paper and say it’s stupid, or just sit there, hoping, that maybe, if they don’t move, nothing will ever happen.


But, I let them know, a test is not a bear.  We have a rational brain – a brain that allows us to transcend that caveman brain.  I remind them, and it always get’s a laugh, we’re not caveman.  I teach them that, when our caveman brain starts working, it most certainly will keep us alive, but it doesn’t do much for helping us to think.  And when you’re taking a test, you’ve got to be able to think.

I recently read Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien’s post on this very same subject (To Improve Test Scores: Hit Reset).  I’m all about the brain, and they do an excellent job of explaining the actual actions through which our brains move.

And by remembering that we’re human, and that the test is not going to try to make dinner out of us, we can go through several different actions:

  1. Relax our shoulders
  2. Take a deep breath
  3. Let it out slowly
  4. Sit up straight
  5. Remember to calm down

We practice several times.  I tell them to pay attention to how their brain clears out, almost instantly, and, in that new moment, they are able to think again.

It is with simple strategies like this (in RTI we call them interventions) that we can teach people how to quickly calm themselves – increasing the ability to think, and the scores they earn on tests.


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