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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Circle of Courage

Looking through a Circle of Courage Lens: Why the “other kids” are not the “other kids”

It is bound to happen. In a school, a daycare, a sports practice – maybe even in the middle of a religious service. A child – of any age – will misbehave, perhaps melt down, and even experience a crisis because, for any number of reasons, they cannot manage their overwhelming feelings. Their reactions in these moments can be intense, scary, aggressive, or destructive.  Trauma-informed, resilience-focused adults can help support and regulate a child when this happens, using de-escalation and co-regulation tools and strategies. This is helpful for the child who is in crisis.

Other children and adults, however, often wonder, “What about the other kids?” This is a fair question that is prompted by additional concerns such as:

  • Is it all right for children to witness others struggling? Will it traumatize them?
  • Who will attend to and care for the children not currently in crisis?
  • Why don’t children who act out and cause disruptions have more consequences?
  • It isn’t fair that some children have more attention from the child-caring adult in charge than others.

Let’s look at how we might view these scenarios through the lens of the Circle of Courage resilience model. Throughout, the questions to the above frequently asked questions will be addressed.

Adults can prepare children in their care for these scenarios so everyone knows what they can expect—telling children what might happen, how the adult will respond, how the adult will prepare them for this kind of experience, and what will happen afterward.

All children need to feel a sense of connection and belonging – no matter what. It should not depend on their willingness or ability to be a particular person. Belonging isn’t a privilege but a fundamental human right (Shalaby, 2017). Children don’t get traumatized because they are hurt; they get traumatized because they are alone with that hurt (Mate, 2021).

A script for the adult:
Everyone struggles from time to time. Depending upon what is happening in your life or what has happened, along with your ability to cope, will depend on how you respond to certain situations. This does not make you bad or good – it just is. Chances are, we will experience someone in our group having a hard time – this could be a hard hour or even a hard day. I want you to know that if that happens, I will do what I can to help that person feel better. I will not be mad at that person, and they will not get in trouble. If they are struggling – it means that they need my help. I will ensure you all have a chance to learn and practice what you can do if something like this happens. When someone is struggling, things might get loud and unstructured, but I will do everything I can to keep all of us safe. I may be able to do that independently, or I might call another adult to help me. Later, when things settle down, we will always have an opportunity to talk together about what happened if you want to. We can do that as a group or individually. Even if one of us disrupts our room, everyone will always be welcomed back when calm and settled.

We cannot assume that all children have learned to regulate their emotions and behaviors. Children must have several opportunities to learn and practice emotional awareness and regulation.  Just like learning to read and solve math problems, children must be taught skills and engage in experiences to try out what they have learned.

A script for the adult:
We will spend some time practicing techniques to help relax our bodies. We will practice different ways to slow down our breathing, close our eyes, imagine a happy memory, color designs, draw pictures, or write down our thoughts and feelings. All of us should practice how to calm ourselves down. I want you to feel good at calming yourself down, but I know this isn’t easy for everyone – it takes time and practice.

Children feel safe when they know what to expect and when they are given choices about how to respond in potentially disruptive situations.

I want you to know that this room might not feel very calm if a child struggles. However, even if it is noisy or chaotic, please know I will take care of that. I will keep my voice even and stay in control.  You can do what you need to do for yourself and others around you. Maybe you will try one of the relaxation techniques we practice. You may find that you want to go out into the hallway; you can do that; please stay close to the wall by our room. You may find that you want to put your head down on your desk, which is all right, too. Maybe you will want to sit with one of your friends. You have a choice about how best to take care of yourself.

I know it might not seem fair for those of you who are not disruptive and stay calm most of the time – you might think, why don’t you spend so much time with me, or why doesn’t that person get into more trouble? I understand why you may feel that way. Nevertheless, I have learned that what is fair is not always equal – some of us need more support than others. You know, I would need a lot of support picking apples from a tree because I am not very tall – I might need a stool (or a ladder), but someone else might be able to reach up and pick apples easily because of their height. Is it fair that I get a stool, but the other person does not? The other person does not need a stool, silly, but I do! So, this is the same as staying calm. Some of us find it more difficult than others, so some need more support. That is how it works – if someone needs something, we try to give it to them. As far as consequences are concerned, I think that if a person has a tough time, that is enough pain, and it does not do anyone any good to make them feel worse by punishing them on top of it. I will instead help teach them to better manage a situation next time with additional strategies and practice. I will support them.

We all have difficulty managing our emotions and behavior occasionally. This can be especially difficult when going through a particularly stressful time or have a history of very stressful experiences in our lives. We feel valuable when we can have empathy for and provide support to others.

A script for the adult:
Try to understand that the person struggling is not trying to be “bad,” but rather, they cannot manage their emotions and behavior and need help. You may find that you want to be with one of your friends and find a place in our room where you can sit together while I attend to the child who needs me, and if that is the case, please join your friend. If you are someone who feels good about your ability to calm yourself down and you find others having a hard time with what is happening in the room, please help your friends if they need support. I appreciate that we will all look out for one another.

There are no “other kids”; there are all kids. Providing unconditional connection and belonging, tools to help children manage their behavior and emotions, the agency to make choices when faced with difficult situations, and permission to use their value to support others can empower all children.

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Shalaby, C. (2017). Troublemakers lessons in freedom young children in school. New York, New Press.
Mate, G. (2021). The Wisdom of Trauma. Zaya Benazzo. Science and Nonduality.

    5 Reasons for Teachers to Co-Regulate Emotions

    5 Reasons for Teachers to Co-Regulate Emotions (and How to Start from Day One)

    We cannot expect children who are already stressed and activated to be able to regulate on their own. They need our help. When you help a child regulate, rather than expecting them to regulate on their own, it is called co-regulation. Adults underestimate how much children and adolescents require adult support and guidance to manage their feelings when they are worried, angry, hurt or scared. When adults provide the correct strategies for regulating emotion, the results can mean the world to a child’s success.

    • Improved attitudes towards self, school, and others
    • Enhanced positive pro-social behavior
    • Reduced misbehavior and aggression
    • Reduced emotional distress
    • Improved academic performance

    How can I help my students co-regulate emotions?

    Be with a child when they are feeling out of control emotionally and/or behaviorally. Your demeanor is important. The less words you use at this time, the better. Simply let the child know you understand they are feeling overwhelmed and you are there to help them until they feel more in control of their emotions and behavior.

    Start by teaching breathwork and movement activities to children and then practice them on a regular basis. Encourage them to practice the activities on their own or with the help of their parent/caregiver. The goal is for them to easily engage in breathing or movement changes when they need help regulating their emotions or behaviors. The more they practice, the easier it will become for them to call upon these resources during uncomfortable or overwhelming situations.

    The calmer you remain, the more the child will begin to calm down.  Model how to regulate by taking a deep breath, walking slowly, or distracting the child with play or drawing. Practice this often. It takes many co-regulation experiences for some children to learn how to do so on their own.


    Start teaching breathwork and movement activities to children and then practice them on a regular basis. The goal is for them to easily engage in breathing or movement changes when they need help regulating their emotions or behaviors. The more they practice, the easier it will become for them to call upon these resources during uncomfortable or overwhelming situations. Learn more and download our free co-regulation activity below.

    More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

    The Most Important Factor in Your School Day is YOU

    Lessons are aligned, supplies are ready and schedules are set, but of all the preparations you make each day, the most important factor in your school environment is YOU. Your attitude, energy level and ability to connect, notice and give feedback to students is what matters most, especially for children who have experienced trauma.

    Mirror neurons are believed to be one of the major neuroscience discoveries of recent years. Mirror neurons are brain cells that “fire” both when a person is in action and when a person observes someone else engaged in the same action. What does this mean for us as educators? It means that students will mirror our actions, attitudes and feelings.

    The frame of mind and body you bring to school will set the tone for the day. Checking your own brain/body state often will also help you avoid getting stuck in a conflict cycle that leads to damaged relationships and disruption of learning. Modeling positive emotions and self-regulation will create a climate where everyone feels safe and ready to learn.

    Mirror neurons are the brain cells that make emotions contagious. Checking your own mind/body state often will help those around you remain calm and promote a feeling of safety that allows learning to take place.

    For more ideas on how mirror neurons affect our interactions with kids and how to help our students, check out our Mind Body Skills workbook and the Mind Body Skills online course.