Ruby Payne: Understanding the “Why” Behind Behaviors
In her keynote address, former principal Ruby Payne explained why discipline strategies in schools aren’t working—and how to use the knowledge of the “why” behind behaviors to adjust those strategies.
Ruby Payne, a former principal in Barrington, Illinois, kicked off her keynote address at the NAESP Pre-K-8 Principals Conference with humor: She joked about naming her company Aha! Process because no one knew how to answer the phone. “Hello, Aha!” they’d say, confused. But beyond the humor was insight into social-emotional learning that left attendees with a better understanding of the “why” behind behaviors—and tools they could implement to be more compassionate leaders to children from all demographics.
The “Why” Behind Behaviors
Payne didn’t just learn these tools overnight. In preparation for her most recent book, Emotional Poverty in All Demographics, Ruby read roughly 500 books to review the research and learn how to establish the emotional structures in your brain and what happens when your environment does not allow you to get them all. The research allowed her to take a deep dive into neurobiology so that she could learn the “why” behind behaviors.
She asked attendees to consider how many adults bring into the school additional emotional noise before and after holiday breaks. People go through emotional stages to either stagnate or grow, she said, noting that people who exhibit bitterness or anger often have a wound—a trauma—that was never addressed. This goes for children, too.
Payne addressed the connection between nature and nurture. “Genetics cocks the gun; the environment pulls the trigger,” she said. “There are more connections in a child’s brain by the time a child is 3 years old than there are stars in the sky.”
Environmental factors and experiences reinforce those connections, especially between an infant and a caregiver. During the address, Payne showed a video clip modeling serve and return: This is when a parent smiles at a child when they babble, which reinforces their development. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon. A baby uses all of their abilities to get their mother’s attention. When the mother ignores the baby, this triggers a stress response in the child. It’s the basis of the fight or flight response, and this repeated response has a wear-or-tear effect on the body.
Reactivity and Response
She then posed a reflection question to attendees: How many minutes does it take to calm down after becoming angry? The answer: 25 to 30 minutes. This statistic brought about a surprising response from the NAESP audience, full of leaders in education who found themselves suddenly reflecting on how quickly they all expect students to rebound from an anger-inducing situation at school.
Emotional responses happen so much faster than thought, she said. Your emotional self is highly structured by the time you are 3 years old and becomes restructured in adolescence after puberty. The average female brain cries and feels ready to talk within 2 minutes of when an emotional event occurs. With boys, it takes 3 to 5 hours—yes, hours—for an emotional event to make it to their brains and for them to start to understand what caused it.
So what does it look like for principals and assistant principals to take this information and put it into practice in their schools? When speaking to a male student following an emotional event, go shoulder to shoulder and not eye-to-eye, said Payne. They’ll feel more comfortable processing what happened and be open to giving you more—often better—information. Boys will also talk more if they can do something with their hands.
One important strategy that she shared was the fastest way to calm an angry child is by having them look at the ceiling. She recommended putting things—pictures or sayings—on the ceiling to get them to look up. She also mentioned that drinking water is a great way to reset the brain. Water metabolizes cortisol. Shoulders will relax when this has happened, and that means the student has started to come down from the emotional event and become more open to talking about it.
Administrators can share these practical strategies with classroom teachers and easily implement them in classrooms of all ages.
Amy Mason is principal of Madison County Elementary School in Gurley, Alabama.