3 brain states and collaborative problem solving

ATT teachers recently heard from Sarah Wineberg of REACH to discuss three “brain states” as a way of promoting behavioral understanding. By identifying these brain states, teachers are better equipped to connect and collaborate with children in a way that helps them move through the brain states.

The three brain states are survival, emotional and executive. Some students may experience difficulty building a bridge between them. Learning these techniques can help kids move from the survival or emotional state to an executive one, building skills and allowing for lasting change and problem-solving. 

Basic principles

There are some essential foundation points to keep in mind to help stay focused and on the right track:

  • Modeling has the greatest impact
  • Kids do well if they can
  • Skill not will – assume the positive intent
  • Expect conflict and use it as an opportunity to teach
  • Love, connection and relationships are the best motivators for learning and growth
  • The child is the best source of knowledge

In a typical response to a child or situation, even if a teacher knows the proper response it does not always translate to reality. Practicing these responses helps a teacher respond effectively in the moment. 

Three brain states and responses

  1. Executive state – What can I learn from this?
  1. Emotional state – Am I loved and in an emotionally safe environment?
  1. Survival state –  Am I safe right now?

The survival state is the most unregulated state and in it, students may be triggered by fight, flight and fright or feel helpless and in trouble, Factors that contribute to this can be the teacher’s tone, relationship until now, or when the emotional bank account is imbalanced. 

A picture containing diagram

Description automatically generated

For the teacher, the first step to balance the equation is to regulate ourselves by breathing and gaining the reassurance that we can properly manage the situation. Waiting until a calmer moment will help handle the situation more mindfully. 

For the student, use the following techniques to help them:

  • Encourage them to breathe
  • Validate them in public
  • Have them spend time in a calming corner
  • Provide reassurance and empathy
  • Stay calm yourself as your calm is contagious
  • Remind them to be a STAR = Stop, Take a breath And Relax.

The three brain states correlate to the three states of engagement: regulate, relate and reason. The survival state may look like screaming, tantrum, avoidance, resisting eye contact, eye-rolling or not wanting to be touched. 

Steer clear of telling the student to calm down to avoid stressing them out further. We can only regulate or elevate others to the place that we are at, so if we are currently residing in the survival state, we will need to identify which stage we are in before responding. To promote self-awareness and relate to students, try to identify the triggers that put you into survival mode. 

Often we can just see the tip of the iceberg, but if we look deeper we can discern what the child is really saying. 

A picture containing graphical user interface

Description automatically generated

Empathy as a prerequisite 

The starting line for collaborative problem solving is learning how to empathize to try and regulate the child through a deeper understanding. There are tools and techniques to use to achieve this such as reassurance and reflective listening. 

When interacting with a student, make sure to open with a neutral statement such as, “I noticed that.” “Can you tell me more about what’s going on?” 

According to  Think: Kids, “Lagging skills are the reasons that a child is having difficulty meeting these expectations or responding adaptively to these triggers.” These are not about having teachers be diagnosticians but instead allows teachers to take a best guess as to what may be getting in a student’s way. 

It’s helpful to consider the skills you can identify that are lagging when a student is pulled into their survival state. Helping them figure it out can lead them in the right direction. 

Techniques to try

  • Deep breaths, draw feelings, model or vocalize to children what you are doing, and use a calming activity
  • An emotional state is our response to upset and can only be soothed through connection.
  • Stay with the child and calm them down until they can talk about it.

Behaviors in an emotional state

Sass, chutzpah, attention-seeking, attitude, testing and tears are just some of the major behaviors you will see in students. For the teacher, self-care, sharing with a helpful adult, and empathy can help work through emotional states. For the student, showing empathy, being “curious not furious,” giving jobs, choices, staying close and building the relationship are ways to help. 


Description automatically generated

Collaborative problem-solving stages

The first stage of collaborative problem solving is empathy. We tend to insert our own thoughts when someone else is talking. Real empathy is being able to understand others from their perspective. Empathy is nonjudgmental, feeling with people. Rarely an empathic response begins with “at least.” Rarely can a response make something better. What makes it better is the connection felt through empathy. 

The executive state is the optimal state for problem-solving and learning. It frees us from past conditioning, attunes us to the feelings and experiences of others. The goal is to act out of rational ideas and respond from a place of calm and inspire the student to rationalize, problem-solve or come to a conclusion on their own (or with some guidance.) Getting into the executive state makes it possible when both sides are regulated. 

The second and third stage occurs when the child is regulated, shares adult concern and hears another perspective. This is when the problem-solving magic happens and together you can brainstorm solutions. 

Collaborative Problem Solving solves the problem durably, builds skills, builds connection and relationships. It teaches children to have long-term healthy response techniques, to not avoid conflict and to use every opportunity to learn or teach.

For more resources on the three brain states and collaborative problem solving, check out thinkkids.org and consciousdiscipline.com.