Knowing the Right Thing to Do
11 forbearers well, as they survived outdoors under threat of wild-animal
attack and were at the mercy of weather extremes. The amygdala alerts
our bodies that we are in immediate danger. If we encounter a snake in
our path, we halt. If we see a child in danger, we rush in to help.
The amygdala responds before we stop to think. Before we know
it, our heart is pounding, breathing is shallow, and our mind is hyper-
focused on stopping or escaping from the threat. At the command of
our amygdala, adrenalin spurts through our system, making us feel
“pumped” to do what we have to do in the crisis.
Here’s the problem: the amygdala functions as it always did. If
we are threatened, even if the threat is an interpersonal slight or a traf-
fic jam, we can hit overdrive. The common term for this is “amygdala
hijack” (Goleman, 1995). We shift into “fight-or-flight” response even
if the danger is not real or substantial. To the amygdala, a threat is a
threat: adrenalin is triggered.
Road rage is an example of an overreacting amygdala. The trig-
gered driver literally becomes combative, ready to fight. If you have
been in a car with a driver having a road-rage attack, or if you have
been that driver, you have witnessed or experienced an amygdala
hijack. To complicate the experience, “coming down” from an amyg-
dala hijack takes time. Meanwhile, we may say or do something we
regret. Perhaps this is what judges are wary of: irrational decisions based
in fear rather than in strength. One thing is clear: If at all possible, don’t
make a decision when you feel threatened. In panicky times, your brain
is only partially operative. The amygdala, a primitive force, blocks
other brain functions.
Wait until you can catch your breath and see through to the other
side of the danger. When you feel like your professional self again, you
will be able to make a decision that courts will uphold.
Cozolino (2010) advises: “As we mature, our amygdala matures
with us. It seems to be much more gentle with us and is much less acti-
vated by anxiety.” Gladwell says we can teach ourselves to make better
snap-decisions. Awareness of the amygdala’s power to overtake us is
useful to our decision-making process.
CODES OF ETHICS
Given these complexities of making fair and wise decisions, keeping
perspective is necessary. Early childhood professional organizations
offer us guidance through codes of ethics. The gold standard is the
National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC)