Behavior is your clue: Understanding the window of tolerance

Behavior is communication. Even though adults often tell children to “use your words,” the reality is that children (and adults, too) often struggle to find the words to describe what they are feeling and what they want or need. This is especially true when stress is high. This means that being hungry, tired, bored, overstimulated, worried, scared, angry, or just plain frustrated makes language difficult. For this reason, look to behavior as a clue to help you understand what a child is currently experiencing.

For example, if a child is cooperative, engaged in play or learning, pleasant in nature, and finds it easy to use words to talk about what they are doing or to ask or answer questions, these are all behavior clues that the child is well-balanced. They are not too tired, hungry, bored, overstimulated, worried, scared, angry, or frustrated. We can say here the child is in their window of tolerance.

When not well-balanced and perhaps tired, bored, scared, or worried, you might see behaviors that indicate hypo-arousal, like clinging, whining, inattentiveness, refusing to do things, and appearing foggy and tired. When a child is hungry, overstimulated, angry, or frustrated, you might see behaviors that indicate hyper-arousal, such as yelling, fighting, defiance, impulsiveness, aggression, and an inability to sit still. When in a state of hypo- or hyper-arousal, a child is not in the window of tolerance.

Emotional awareness is the ability to notice being in or out of the window of tolerance.

If you notice the child is not in their window of tolerance and does not yet have their own emotional awareness, it means that the child needs you to prompt them by saying something like, It seems like you aren’t feeling balanced. Let’s take a minute to check in and see what might be going on. How does your body feel? What might your body need to feel more balanced?”

This is a time for a pause. Listen to the child, provide them with suggestions if they are unable to voice how they feel in their body. Perhaps ask them to point to the part of their body that feels most stress or tense.

“It seems like you might need to take a pause. It is okay; let’s pause to see what you need to feel better.”  “I am noticing you are (clinging, arguing, etc.) and when we don’t feel balanced our body can get tight, hot, tired, or even filled with a lot of energy.”

When a child notices they are not in the window of tolerance, they can learn to tell you they need a pause. If not, the adult can encourage a pause for the child, letting them know that this does not mean they are in trouble; it means you are helping them to notice their body is not in balance.

Emotional awareness is something children need to learn and practice. Children need repetitive opportunities to be made aware of when their bodies are and are not in the window of tolerance. Help them describe how their body sends messages to help them know if they are in or out of their window of tolerance. Behavior is a clue that will help you notice when a child is dysregulated. Instead of focusing on the behavior, get curious with the child about the signals their body is sending to them.

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