Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Emotional Safety

by Kayla Mayers, Instructor

When you send your children to school do you expect learning to take place? Do you expect them to feel safe? Because the answers to those questions are a resounding “duh!” there are curriculum standards and zero-tolerance bullying policies in place within schools. There are not policies in place, however, for the kids who suffer from emotional anxiety. No blatant signs exist for a child feeling emotionally unsafe in the classroom, so teachers have to be privy to the underlying meaning of the emotional responses that kids experience. These emotional responses show up in the form of fight, flight, or freeze when a child is living in a stressed mind.

Originally, this response dates back to when humans were physically threatened by predators and their bodies took over and reacted in order to survive. People are no longer threatened by predators, but are threatened by the emotional stress and anxiety brought on by many different factors, such as their home and social lives. Many of the kids in school who appear to be lazy or to be exhibiting bad behavior in the classroom are responding to the threat of stress in the following ways:

·         Fight – physical and verbal fighting with their peers and the adults in their lives

·         Flight – not coming to school or getting themselves kicked out of school

·         Freeze – not participating by putting their heads down or not doing their assignments

As an instructor, I have seen these responses take on many different forms and have learned that addressing the needs of emotionally unsafe kids will go a long way when it comes to their education. These kids are not “bad” or “lazy,” but are unable to take on the challenge of learning without breaking down the emotional barriers in their way. Labeling them will worsen their emotional state, which will make cognition even harder to achieve. Sara Bernard discusses emotional safety within the classroom in her article To Enable Learning, Put (Emotional) Safety First and offers examples as to how to create emotionally safe environments for children (2010).

Her first suggestion is to make the classroom stress-free by making jokes and encouraging creativity (Bernard, 2010). When a student’s mind is clouded with stress and anxiety about home or school life, I have learned that making them laugh often builds a positive rapport that they can rely on every time they come into a session. She also mentions songs and games as a suggestion for lightening up the mood in the classroom. It’s important to find out what makes them smile or laugh and, as Bernard says, use that to consistently make them feel comfortable in their environment.  Along with making them laugh, we can also eliminate stress for our students by learning their likes and dislikes and encouraging them to talk about their interests with us often and in great detail.

Bernard’s second suggestion is to encourage participation, not perfection. She specifically mentions allowing students to make mistakes within an environment of respect and trust. Failure is important for a student’s social and neurological wellbeing (Bernard, 2010). I see students every day that use mistakes to help them discover the correct answer. Before, they would get answers incorrect and the only feedback they got was a big red mark on their homework. When they don’t receive the appropriate positive feedback, they tend to head into one or more of their emotional responses.  When they are using mistakes to guide them, not crush them, they can finally start to shed that seemingly permanent label of “bad” or “lazy.”  This method of teaching, what we call respond-to-the-response, redirects them from expecting perfection to feeling success by simply participating.

The final suggestion in Bernard’s article is to practice active listening by identifying what the students are trying to say (Bernard, 2010). We choose active listening over passive listening because passive listeners do not notice crucial subtleties, such as nonverbal cues. Passive listeners might just move on immediately after the student gives a response. An active listener responds directly to the student and can determine their mood by facial expressions and body language. When the students are actually being heard, it relaxes their brain, which allows learning to take place.

The goal for educators is always to make sure that students are learning and that they are safe while doing it. Those two ideals are so closely related that it can be argued that you cannot have one without the other.  By ensuring that learning takes place in a comfortable environment with laughing, listening, and talking, we are allowing the students to relax their brains in order to learn about the core subjects, such as math and reading. They no longer feel threatened by the classroom predator of learning. Their brains and bodies are no longer going into the fight, flight, or freeze response mode; their minds and bodies are responding to the content in the classroom instead.


Bernard, Sara. (2010). To Enable Learning, Put (Emotional) Safety First. Edutopia.

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