When disciplining a student, simple things can make all the difference between triggering an aggressive or reflective response, writes Margot Sunderland

Neuroscience research over the last 20 years has shown that how adults interact with children and teenagers can trigger bad behaviour or good behaviour – particularly if the student has a history of trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). 

ACEs are stressful life events occurring in childhood, such as domestic violence, emotional neglect, parents separating or living with a parent with mental health issues and/or an alcohol or drug problem. If a young person has experienced four or more ACES, they are 32 times more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour than a child who has not experienced stressful life events (Burke Harris, 2017). Furthermore, harsh discipline, such as isolation, shaming, shouting, suspensions and exclusions can re-traumatise students who are already traumatised, and lead to mental health issues later in life.

However, the good news is that through protective factors, such as “social buffering”, which occurs when a child forms a secure attachment with an emotionally available adult, the trajectory from ACEs to mental health problems and failure to thrive in adult years can be interrupted. And what better place to interrupt this transition than in school, where teachers have 190 days of contact a year with students? This is why it’s so important for teachers to relate to students in ways that heal rather than harm their brains, and alleviate rather than exacerbate challenging behaviour.

What happens in teenagers’ brains when they are disciplined?
Shaming a student, such as putting their name up on the board for misbehaviour, can trigger the pain centre in a teen’s brain – the pain the teenager will feel is akin to the pain felt when touching a hot oven. The student will then begin to associate school with pain and fear and somewhere they want to avoid. Shame causes inflammation in the body and can have a significant and detrimental impact on a young person’s mental and physical health outcomes. 

As humans, our physiological social engagement system (Porges, 2017) impacts on how we respond to situations, especially when we are under stress or pressure and facial and vocal cues can trigger certain responses for teenagers, particularly those with a history of trauma. For example, a teacher smiling and using a warm, soothing tone of voice when speaking to a student will trigger natural opioids and oxytocin in the student’s brain which help to make the student feel safe and calm. Conversely, if a teacher has a stern, or even neutral expression, and shouts or speaks in a harsh tone, high levels of stress hormones trigger in their brain, instinctively taking them into a defensive mode of fear or anger – either flight, fight or freeze. This results in either challenging or withdrawn behaviour and shuts down the frontal lobes, which are key for learning and the ability to attend to what the teacher is saying. The student’s thinking becomes very poor, and their IQ drops significantly.

To avoid such occurrences, senior leads should look at providing training in social engagement (including voice training) for teachers to ensure the link between tone of voice and facial expressions and the production of calming or stress-inducing chemical in students’ brains is better understood and informs teacher-student interactions. 

Another common form of punishment in schools that has a negative psychological impact on a student’s brain is the use of suspensions. In fact, being suspended once dramatically increases the likelihood that the student will drop out of school entirely. Being suspended sends a message to the student that school is a place that doesn’t want them, which can lead to feelings of abandonment and neglect, particularly among students with a history of trauma or mental ill health. School should be a place that makes students feel nurtured, safe and part of a community, as we know this calms physiology and reduces the chances of challenging behaviour dramatically.  

A less harmful way to discipline students 
The “learning” from punishment is usually that “I am a bad kid”; instead, schools should be focusing on teaching students social and emotional intelligence, as well as cognitive intelligence. One great way to develop such skills is through the use of restorative conversations as a behaviour management tool. This involves misbehaving students being removed from the classroom, but rather than being placed in isolation (where there is no learning) a teacher trained in restorative practice will ask the student a series of questions, such as: How are you feeling? What happened? What were you thinking at the time you misbehaved? The teacher will also help the student to work towards a resolution. Often, through such curiosity, teachers will discover an underlying reason for their student’s behaviour; the student may have been bullied on the way to school or they may have heard their parents arguing the night before. There is usually an untold narrative just waiting to be heard. Skills such as empathy and the ability to reflect well are essential in leading an effective restorative conversation with students. 

A wealth of research (Kehoe et al., 2018, McCluskey et al., 2008) has indicated that restorative conversations lead to a reduction in bad behaviour, detentions and exclusions, as well as help students develop social and emotional intelligence. Harsh discipline will result in anger or fear, whereas restorative conversation results in thoughtfulness and reflection on the part of the student.  

The need for behaviour and relationship policies
It is hugely beneficial for schools to adopt a whole-school approach to behaviour management that incorporates relationship policies (for staff) as well as behaviour policies for pupils. Such policies take into account the adult-child interactions that are likely to trigger challenging behaviour and those that heal students and result in good behaviour and improved social skills. Relationship policies also consider the underlying causes of challenging behaviour, such as ACEs and mental ill health. In addition, before writing a behaviour policy, it is essential for schools to understand the neuroscience behind behaviour. 

Through the provision of secure attachments with emotionally available adults – which come about through empathy, attunement and treating students with dignity – students can thrive in the school environment. Secure attachments to teachers have been associated with higher grades, greater emotional regulation, social competence, willingness to take on challenges and overall improved behaviour (Bergin and Bergin, 2009).  

Margot Sunderland

Dr Margot Sunderland is a child psychologist, psychotherapist, neuroscience expert and the Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health, as well as the Co-Director of Trauma Informed Schools UK:




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