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Bullying, Being Bullied, and the Challenges of Dysregulation

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on bullying in local schools. Previous stories focused on the experiences of students and families with bullying and on administrators’ ideas about causes and solutions. Today, we examine the roles that emotional regulation and dysregulation play in bullying at school.

As back-to-school-sale signs appear, many parents are thinking not just of pencils and backpacks but of intangible school preparations: giving children mental and emotional tools to handle the challenges of school-days that may both contribute to, and be exacerbated by, bullying behaviors among students.

One such tool is self-regulation, or “the ability to be aware of and monitor your own energy and/or emotional states and really consider that in the context of the physical and the social environment that you’re in, and to then adjust those emotional energy states accordingly depending on the demands of your environment to achieve some type of goal,” according to Danielle Kent, a Vermont speech-language pathologist and founder and operator of Piece of Mind Therapy and Consulting, LLC.

For many students, this is a challenge.

When a Kid Can’t Self-Regulate

Dysregulation appears in different ways, Kent said, from “high-energy, high-intensity reactions” founded in frustration, to extremely low energy. Children tend more to exhibit higher-energy dysregulation behaviors than adults, she noted, because adults may have learned that loud, angry reactions lead to isolation. But it doesn’t mean adults are not also dysregulated. 

Doctor Melissa Houser, a local family doctor and founder and executive director of the neurodiversity inclusion nonprofit All Brains Belong, said many children she sees in her practice are dysregulated, exhibiting symptoms from aggression to withdrawal to mental exhaustion.

And, said Houser, “bullying is another way that dysregulation manifests.” She later noted, “when we see bullying, there is dysregulation. So then my question is, what are the factors that contribute to this dysregulation?”

It’s Complicated to be Regulated

“Self-regulation is a complex bundle of skills,” Kent explained. Various factors can induce dysregulation for students, meaning they are no longer in control of their emotions or reactions. “The bright lights of the day, the constant ambient noise in the background, the consistent visual input that’s happening throughout different classes on presentations that teachers are providing” can all provide sensory input that is overwhelming to some students and may lead to dysregulation.

School is a continuous stream of “demands on the executive function system,” Kent noted. Students are often handed a barrage of instructions, sent from activity to activity, and moved from classroom to classroom. Not all students can easily switch gears and shift to different tasks, Kent said, noting “that skill is an executive function skill, to be able to do that throughout your day. … everyone has unique executive skills — strengths in different areas.” 

For students who struggle with these demands, emotions can be difficult to control. “It can make transitions really dysregulating, it can make it really dysregulating if you’re interrupted in the middle of an activity, or if a teacher says you need to hurry up,” Kent said. 

Social Demands

“Throughout a school day, there is a consistent demand especially in schools to be able to respond and tune into the actions of your peers around you,” said Kent. She noted this involves more than spoken language — students must read gestures, facial expressions, and subtle cues, like sarcasm; may use augmentative and alternative communication devices; and must follow multistep instructions. Not all students have these skills, and not all students develop them at the same rates or ages, said Kent. Students who haven’t mastered social communication skills may get dysregulated after a tough interaction.

On a related note, “co-regulation” involves “the responsive interactions between two or more people,” Kent said. Adults provide these interactions with young children initially, she explained, but then children step in and begin to coregulate with one another, providing support to peers in challenging times.

Students must have tools to maintain regulation and meet these challenges throughout the school day. Houser noted “your nervous system has to be regulated. Only then can you engage with your environment. Only then can you have purposeful communication. Only then can you build relationships and so on and so on.”

Learning Requires Regulation

Regulation is essential not just for navigating the logistics of the school day, but also for successful learning. 

“In order to engage the higher-level parts of your brain, you need to feel safe and have your basic needs of physiologic and emotional safety being met. If the nervous system does not feel safe, learning cannot happen. So you have to be regulated,” Houser explained.

How It’s Related to Bullying

Regulation can play a key role in school bullying, noted Kent. Although she is not a bullying expert, she noted “my experience has been that students who are bullying typically have had an experience where they have felt powerless, so some type of dysregulating event that has led to some feeling of powerlessness, and that bullying can bring about a sense of power to them.”

For victims, Kent noted, among students with whom she has worked for speech language pathology intervention, bullying “can have a long-term impact on a child’s regulation and wiring. It can lead to more prolonged stress and more prolonged dysregulation.”

What Can Schools Do?

“I am a big advocate that I think this work starts when kids are young, when kids are really little — preschool, kindergarten,” Kent noted, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging differences in regulation needs among individuals. 

“I think it’s an important time to really teach kids about individual differences, and identity differences, neurodiversity differences, but really just promoting that it’s all normalized in the context of human diversity.” Kent noted this work remains essential but gets crowded out in subsequent grades as increasing academic demands require all of teachers’ time and effort in the classroom. 

Bullied and Bullier

One parent of a child in Montpelier schools, who chose to remain anonymous, discussed their experience with their child both having been bullied and having been accused of bullying. Their child is autistic, and “it’s frustrating. I think ultimately there needs to be a lot more recognition and a lot more education for the schools around neurodiversity in general … for the kids’ sake, for the sake of education and communication and response.” 

The parent added that when bullying involves neurodiverse students, someone who is neurodiverse must be present for those conversations.

Houser noted that schools end up addressing trauma triggered outside of schools, but “I really think this is a time that we as a community need to zoom out and wonder, are there shifts needed in the routines in the environments inside of school that contribute to nervous system regulation? I think dysregulation is widespread.” 

“We all do become dysregulated,” Kent said, “and that’s part of being human.”

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