The High-Rise of Reason: Part 3 of the 3 Rs
Updated: Apr 10
In the final part of this series on Dr Bruce Perry’s 3 Rs (Regulate-Relate-Reason), I’m now looking at Reason. Too often we leap over the other two elements of the sequence and expect children and young people to be able to reflect and engage in higher-order thinking. This can be unrealistic if they are in a state of emotional dysregulation, particularly those children who have experienced significant trauma and loss. As I talked about in my blog on the Arousal Continuum (https://www.epinsight.com/post/compensate-for-my-brain-state-the-arousal-continuum), we need to support them to reach a calm state to engage in curiosity and problem-solving. Helping children to Reason can be likened to reaching the top floor of a high-rise building. We need to work our way up, ensuring that they are first regulated and relationally supported. Here are some principles and ideas.
Regulating on the Ground Floor
- Consider the child’s state of arousal. At the calm and alert levels, they may be more easily reassured by reminders about the daily routine and open to playful interactions which can lead on to simple forms of reflection. If they are shifting into alarm or fear, they may be dysregulated by our proximity and attempts to connect with their feelings. What they need first is those patterned, repetitive and rhythmic activities which calm their nervous system. Have a look at my blog on Regulate - https://www.epinsight.com/post/the-constellation-of-regulation-part-1-of-the-3-rs
- Be mindful of the child’s developmental stage. For them to reach a state which is conducive to Reason, they may require higher levels of structure and differentiation to mitigate the barriers to executive functioning and emotional regulation. Do they need a change of seating to promote better attention? Can they organise themselves more effectively by following a checklist? Are they less anxious about what’s happening now and next when this is visualised on their desk or a nearby wall? Can we provide clearer and more concise instructions and extra processing time to support their memory and planning?
- Just as we can be pro-active about scheduling regulating activities and making the day predictable, we can actively lay the foundations for Reason. Louise Bomber recommends having regular pauses for reflection. This can be as simple as taking a few minutes after an activity to ask how the child feels now, what they now know that they didn’t before and what questions they might have. We are using our own regulated state and our relationship to help foster deeper reflection and creativity.
- You should always check your own state. What kind of impact is the child’s behaviour having on you? Are you ready to intervene? Can you stay open and engaged whilst withstanding difficult words and actions? Do you have enough self-control to dampen the evocative cues carried by your verbal and non-verbal communication; cues which may heighten the child’s stress? You may need to take a break or spend a few extra moments thinking through your response. You won’t be able to help a child to Reason if you’re struggling to Reason yourself.
Connecting before Correcting
- Kim Golding’s “Two Hands of Teaching” promotes warmth and nurture alongside structure and boundaries. In this sense, discipline should not occur without understanding. If we move too quickly towards consequences, without taking the time to connect with the child’s experiences, we are more likely to cultivate mistrust, increase emotional dysregulation and contribute to shame.
We need to be curious about the child’s thoughts and feelings underpinning their behaviour. Some children may be able to put this into words when we gently ask “Tell me how you were feeling?” or “What was going on for you in that moment?”. But it can be very powerful to wonder about their inner experience out loud. For example, we can say “I wonder if you were really worried about…?” or “I’m guessing that you were really about annoyed when…”. I wrote more about the Relate stage of the 3 Rs in a previous blog - https://www.epinsight.com/post/relational-routes-part-2-of-the-3-rs
- Connecting first involves validating and empathising with the child’s experience. For example, we can say “I can see why that made you so cross”, “That must have been so hard for you” and “I hear what you’re saying. It must have hurt to feel that way”. Dr Dan Siegel describes how connection helps the child move from a state of reactivity to receptivity. By conveying acceptance and communicating comfort (not just with our words, but our posture, tone of voice and getting below their eye level), we are helping to soothe the internal storm.
- Kim Golding recommends that we don’t rush to reassure the child. Even in our adult relationships, we instinctively want to tell others that things will be ok, to challenge their negative perceptions and to offer quick advice. This can be done with the best of intentions, but it can also be about making ourselves feel better. If we reassure too quickly, we may inadvertently be signalling that the child’s experience is being dismissed or is too tough to handle. We need to stay in the moment and offer hope. An example might be “I know that you feel as if no-one likes you. That is so so hard. Even when I tell you that people do like you, it must be difficult to believe. I hope that I can help you to see things differently in the future”.
Redirecting through Relationship
- Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson promote the concept of “Connect and Redirect”. When thinking about the second part of that formula, they emphasise that it can be tempting to talk too much and begin preaching and demanding. Simply describe what you see with succinct language, rather than immediately focusing on what the child is doing wrong. This can reduce the potential for dysregulation and provides a natural pause for the child to reflect and take a different course of action.
- Some children who have experienced trauma and loss have understandably learnt that their trust in people has been misplaced or inconsistently respected. Moving quickly to consequences may prove shaming and reinforce negative perceptions of themselves. For these children, Louise Bomber recommends that we resist the urge to give “Either…or…” statements with a sanction overtly highlighted and instead provide some positive choices to give them control. So if a child is reluctant to start a piece of work, we can give some options about the materials to choose or what part of the task they want to start first.
- We don’t leave connection and empathy behind when we redirect from less appropriate behaviour. We can set limits in a firm yet gentle way which accepts the thoughts and feelings underpinning the behaviour. For a child who has hit out, we can say “I know that you thought I was ignoring you, but hitting can hurt my body. We need to be gentle with our hands”. For a disagreement between friends, we can state “It was really hard when you thought he wasn’t letting you play. Calling him names can make him sad. In school, we use kind words”.
- After we have outlined boundaries and rules in a positive way, we can help the child to engage in problem-solving and reflection. We can start by being curious about their perspective: “What did you want to happen in that moment?” or “How did you feel when…?”. After this initial exploration, we can begin to talk about more appropriate ways of expressing feelings or responding to situations. Focus on open and curious language such as “Let’s think of what we could do differently” and “What about if you…?”. You may need to make a list of ideas and talk through which ones are most doable and what help the child may need in putting the plan into action.
Repairing and Reattuning
- Dr Allan Schore has spoken about how ruptures in relationships are very common. How we repair these ruptures sets the template for how children become resilient to difficult emotional experiences. They learn that mis-attunements are temporary and fixable. Perhaps the first step is being kind to yourself – when supporting a child who has experienced trauma and loss, there will be many ups and downs and days where your compassion and understanding are reduced. Looking after yourself and debriefing with a colleague, friend or relative on a difficult day will help you to Regulate-Relate-Reason.
- Repairing flows from our ability to accept and empathise with the child’s experience. We can say “I’m sorry if you felt that I was ignoring you” or “I realise that you thought I didn’t care and that’s why you got so angry”. It’s important that we are upfront about any responsibility we have for the situation and apologise if we got things wrong. We might say “I was getting frustrated because I know how hard you can work. It must have been scary when I raised my voice and I’m sorry for upsetting you”.
- Our language plays a key role in how we can get back into attunement with the child and help them reach the state which allows for deeper reflection and problem-solving. Louise Bomber has promoted the idea of “parts language” – we can talk about how the child is showing their excited part, angry part or sad part. This emphasises that the child is not all good or all bad. Our words can also convey a sense of wanting to reconnect and make things right – some examples include “I know that things didn’t go well yesterday but I was thinking about you and I’m glad to see you today”; “I’m still here for you and I’d like us to try again” and “We’ve found out that we need to practise this so that things will be easier in the future”.
- While taking a break or going to a relaxing place may help with the Regulate side of the 3 Rs, having “time out” in the traditional sense may induce shame and remind the child of previous rejection and isolation. Having “time in” with a trusted adult can show that the relationship has not been broken by a concerning behaviour. This can be as simple as maintaining some form of proximity or presence while the child engages in a regulating activity. If there has been a rupture with another adult or peer, the child can be supported in writing a letter/postcard to say sorry or thinking of an act of kindness.
Creative ways to visit the Top Floor
- Margot Sunderland offers a wide range of creative techniques for having conversations. These can involve saying something to a puppet so that the child can hear it indirectly, role-playing situations with the puppet and even talking directly to the characters/objects which the child has drawn or constructed in a sand tray. Arts and crafts can provide a safe arena for talking about feelings and co-constructing narratives about the self and others.
- Social stories can be helpful for describing a typical situation, outlining how different perspectives are ok and offering simple choices for resolving or bypassing a problem. Visual timelines and feelings thermometers can be considered for identifying moods and tracking their frequency and intensity over time. There may be certain times of the day where the child is more prone to dysregulation and in need of more support to engage in Reason. Body maps and jigsaws are useful for representing the “parts language” mentioned earlier.
- Visual and tangible methods of reflection can be effective. Dr Dan Siegel recommends the “hand model of the brain” as a way of saying “I’m about to flip my lid”. Louise Bomber suggests a “hand of options”, with each finger representing a potential motive for a peer’s behaviour. We should always start with the child’s perspective and then gently explore other possibilities. Dr Karen Treisman talks about a “self-esteem hand”, with the fingers depicting what the child is proud of, what they like about themselves, what other people like about them, what makes them unique and what they bring to other people’s lives. This can be helpful for children who are at risk of shame and self-criticism when limits are set.
- Music, creative arts and physical activity aren’t just powerful conduits for Regulation; they can also present opportunities to practise planning, sequencing and decision-making. We can use instruments as a way of exploring “what it sounds like” to be calm, excited or angry. Sitting back-to-back, with one person calling out a picture to be drawn, can develop listening skills and perspective-taking. Obstacle courses and orienteering in the outdoors can provide experience with giving and following directions and working together.
I think Regulate-Relate-Reason is a really useful model for working with children and young people in a biologically respectful manner, particularly those who have encountered adverse experiences in the distant or recent past. In my view, they are not discrete steps or a linear process. Regulate-Relate-Reason is a sequence of engagement which ebbs and flows. Even when children are emotionally and cognitively available for reasoning, they still rely on us to regulate and relate to their inner experience.
References & Further Reading
Bomber, L.M. (2020). Know Me to Teach Me: Differentiated Discipline for those recovering from Adverse Childhood Experiences. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Bomber, L. M. (2007). Inside I’m Hurting: Practical strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Bomber, L.M. & Hughes, D.A. (2013). Settling to Learn: Setting Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviours: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioural Challenges. Eau Claire: PESI Publishing & Media.
Golding, K., Phillups, S. & Bomber, L.M. (2021). Working with Relational Trauma in Schools: An Educator’s Guide to using Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hiebert, M., Platt, J., Schpok, K. & Whitesel, J. (2017). Doodles, Dances and Ditties: A Somatosensory Handbook. Denver: Mount Saint Vincent Home.
McCann, L. (2018). Stories that Explain: Social Stories for children with Autism in Primary School. Cheshire: LDA Learning.
Meredith, M. (2020, May 27th). Post Pandemic Pastoral Care 4 – Building Positive Relationships. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX1BQXTJX18
Perry, B.D. (2020, April 2nd). 4. Regulate, Relate, Reason (Sequence of Engagement): Neurosequential Network Stress & Trauma Series. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNuxy7FxEVk
Perry, B.D. (2020, August 21st). CASEL CARES: Helping children and families manage stress and build resilience with Dr Bruce Perry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqsWvHMpexg
Perry, B.D. & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook (Revised and Updated Edition). New York: Basic Books.
Schore, A. (2014, May 14th). Dr Allan Schore on resilience and the balance of rupture and repair. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbfuBex-3jE&t=1s
Siegel, D.J & Bryson, T.P. (2015). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind. London: Scribe Publications.
Sunderland, M. (2015). Conversations that Matter: Talking with Children and Teenagers in ways that help. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Treisman, K. (2017). A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma: Creative techniques and activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.