Brianna and her classmates are working on a math quiz. The room is mostly quiet, with some rustling and quiet muttering as they work. Suddenly, there is a loud bang in the hall. Several children look up and then resume working. “Must be a door,” thinks the teacher, “with all the wind today I’m not surprised.”
Brianna, however, is down on the floor, under her desk. Other kids notice and start to talk about her. Brianna covers her face and stays there, hunched over. The teacher tells the class that she will talk to Brianna, and to get back to their test.
She moves closer and speaks gently to Brianna. After a brief conversation, Brianna nods, then comes out and hugs her teacher tightly. They go to the door together and peer out into the hall. Seeing there is nothing there, Brianna goes back to her desk.
One of the analogies we at HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) use is the “rider off the horse” (van der Kolk, 2014). Your brain is made up of different parts, and each part does a different job. In this analogy the horse is the limbic system, the part of the brain that reacts fast using emotions to ensure safety. It’s good at getting away from threatening situations. That’s the part that sent Brianna under her desk.
The rider is the thinking/learning part of the brain, the neocortex. It is located on the top of the brain, and regulates all the other parts. It makes its decisions based on context and information, and is good at making logical decisions. That’s the part that led the teacher to think about the wind, and guess that the loud bang was a door slamming.
We need all these parts, and when they’re integrated, we can be responsive and get good work (and learning) done. The other students were also startled by the sound, but they were able to get back to work with a quick glance up to be sure nothing major was happening.
When a person gets activated (perhaps by a loud bang), their rider goes off the horse, like Brianna’s did. It might look like running and hiding, or maybe like throwing a chair. The brain science tells us, however, that the same thing is happening in the brain – the person does not have access to the part of the brain that’s good at making logical choices. This isn’t a choice the rider is making – it’s about the fear and protective instincts taking over.
Knowing about the way the brain works helps adults (and children) make sense of what’s happening and allows them to respond in ways that can help, like Brianna’s teacher did. She started by reassuring the class that she would manage the situation, and prevented them from increasing Brianna’s discomfort.
Approaching slowly and speaking softly to Brianna, she was able to name Brianna’s fear, that the loud bang was something scary. She connected with Brianna and because of the trusting relationship she has built with her students, she was able to if Brianna wanted to check the hallway with her.
With the teacher at her side, Brianna was able to do this and to bring her rider back on her horse. While it’s true that Brianna’s concentration regarding her test was compromised (her teacher let her finish the test during lunch), Brianna was able to come back to her desk and slowly get re-engaged with her class.
All of us have rider off the horse moments. Many times we need a trusted other to help us get our riders back on (like when you have a tough day and call your mother/brother/partner/sister/roommate/friend to tell them about it). Who are your trusted others in your school or workplace? Let them know you appreciate them!