One ‘truism’ we hear constantly is that change is inevitable, and I accept this however, if you take this on face value you are ignoring two points that must be considered. These are, change is not always for the best and the second point is that change evokes stress. In contemporary years, society’s expectations of schools have never been more intense. The issues facing schools are the increasing emphasis on schools’ accountability through close evaluation of its performance based on external testing, particularly the NAPLAN test in an environment where external departmental support is being reduced.
Coupled with thi, is the emphasis placed on students to succeed in a narrow range of all the skills they will need to acquire. Literacy and numeracy are just two elements in a child’s education but the whole worth of our efforts is based on these factors that are at the heart of the NAPLAN test. Not only does this put pressure on the teachers but I am well aware the students are also pressured.
Further, when the media focuses on a social problem there is a perceived assumption that schools need to ‘solve’ the problem. At the end of my career I remember listening to the radio going home from school where the ‘problem’ of our unfit youth was being discussed. The majority of the calls taken by the presenter reinforce the view that it was the ‘school’s fault’. Of course, I was silently defending our school, silently making the case that was not our fault!
Then I realised I was acting in the adversarial manner so typical of our modern society. It is obvious the people listening are also prone to take one side or the other. I understand that many parents agree with the position ‘it’s the school’s fault’. This conflict breaks down the community spirit and invariably leads to tension and stress conditions both for the parents and the teachers. This situation is not conducive to collaborative solutions to help our kids.
Of course, things are not perfect and today’s students can do better. It is also true that schools are part of our community and do have a part to play. I am aware that:
Some parents do feel anxious in regards to what is happening with their child at school
Some students are over-anxious about their schooling
Teachers are becoming more and more stressed
I know good schools always want you to contact them when you are concerned, they know they are far from being perfect and will make mistakes. But sometimes children do not divulge the whole story when they talk about what has happened at school but it’s the only version the parents hear.
To help parents (when I refer to parents, I include all other primary care providers including guardians) get a clearer picture of what is really happening and more importantly, help you minimise the stress you, the parents and the child may be experiencing I have outlined some steps you might take that could help you get a better idea of what is really going on at school and how to help them develop personal skills and resilience. I have summarised below some information you may share with parents:
1. Sharing too much
When your child comes home from school with tales about being bullied either by ‘mean’ girls, ‘aggressive’ boys or ‘insensitive’ teachers, keep in mind that your children feed off your emotions and can get more distraught when they see you distressed. Try to keep our own anxiety in check while sympathising with theirs. You should be the emotional rock; the person who understands and supports your child. Then get the facts and if need be you should contact the school.
2. Advocating too hard
We all want to stand up for our children, but our eagerness to advocate can sometimes actually raise everyone’s anxiety levels. If your child shares a school problem with you, your first instinct is often to march into the school and try to resolve it. This tells your children that you don’t have faith in us or in your child to fix their problems. Your first priority should be to help them find a solution they can implement without your help, every time. Again, if it is serious contact us.
3. Compensating for weaknesses
It is truly an unusual child who is great at everything. So it follows that generally there will be areas at school in which they struggle. We want our kids to have healthy self-confidence and instead of focusing on and compensating for weaknesses, remind them to play to their strengths. Children can’t always avoid their weak areas, but by focusing on strengths we build self-efficacy and confidence.
4. Overplaying strengths
Linked closely with the previous point is the risk that too much positive affirmation can easily turn to pressure. Compliment children when they excel, but don’t make their excellence a reason you love them or to expect even more from them.
5. Having great values
Sometimes children make poor choices and I know they fret about their family finding out – it can seem like a fate worse than death. Let your children know that while values are important, you understand the realities and temptations they face. Disapprove of the behaviour but never of them. Don’t create a culture where your children are too anxious to come to you and admit they messed up.
6. Hiding your troubles
If your family is struggling financially or fighting with each other, don’t make the mistake of thinking your children are better off not knowing. They are very good at sensing problems and if they suspect something and if don’t know the whole story they can blow it out of all proportion. Should we pile our own troubles on our child’s shoulders - no, but it doesn’t hurt to be honest about what your concerns are and more importantly what you’re doing about it. By sharing what makes us anxious and how we deal with it we’re modelling practical ways to resolve anxiety.
At the end of 2016 year I conducted my last Year 12 Graduation assembly. At that ceremony I saw the whole school community at its best. The students made the school proud as one after the other presented themselves as the mature and dignified young men and women who I could see will make great members of their community. The staff could rightly feel a sense of achievement looking at these young graduands and knowing what they have achieved. Most inspiring for me was the number of parents and friends who joined the celebration. All the struggles, disputes of the previous years were over but it was through these times the young children learned to become these great young adults. Never lose sight of this achievement that is repeated year after year in all our schools.
There will be times in your teaching career where you will have to deal with an extremely disruptive class. The students may have such a low sense of respect for the school, for you and unfortunately, for themselves they don’t worry about the impact their behaviour is having. The question for the teacher is ‘where to start’? There are so many inappropriate behaviours it appears to be overwhelming. Too often we just start to ‘fix everything’ and that becomes impossible so this Newsletter will provide a structured approach to taming this class.
The illustration below shows a range of problems faced in the class. Instead of trying to deal with all of them, choosing one concentrates the teacher’s efforts. This doesn’t mean you accept the other behaviours, you do what you have been doing but by making a real, extra effort on one you can make a difference.
Now you have chosen the issue you want to address take the following steps to solve this problem. You do this by creating classroom rules. Before we start just a reminder that it is most effective if you include the class in this process but if they are not willing to engage you can implement this by yourself or if you can with colleagues. The process follows these steps:
1. Identify the Real Problem
Because you think ‘it’s annoying’ is not a reason you will get support from the class. You have to identify what really is the problem with talking and you need to acknowledge there are times you want your student to talk but at the right time for the right reason. Remember this is ‘inappropriate talking’ that we are concerned with. The class will soon identify, with your help plenty of reasons this is hurting their learning. These include things like ‘no one else can hear the teacher’, ‘it’s rude to talk when others are trying to listen’, ‘it interrupts others who are trying to concentrate’ etc. Eventually you will get to the real problem hopefully that the class agrees with or at least they are told why inappropriate talking hurts their learning.
The final purpose might be as follows:
Talking when someone else is, stops that person being heard and stops learning. Talking too loud distracts others from learning both here and in other classes
Then write this down as the problem we are going to solve, put it on display - Inappropriate Talking Stops Learning.
2. Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Once you have identified the problem get the class, including yourself to brainstorm possible consequences. Stick to brainstorming ‘rules’ that is don’t discuss them as they are suggested just get them down. One exception to this is when they come up with ridiculous but funny ideas. If such a proposal gets a laugh then you can bet more will follow. Allow one, sometimes these are gems but stop it there.
A Typical List might be:
Sent from class – Yelled at – Given a warning – Given the cane
Write lines – Given homework – Cut out their tongue
Clean-up the playground – Kept in to make up time
Sent to principal – Made to stand in the corner – Shift seats
3. Yes/ No the Solutions
Now, for the first time you discuss each consequence using the following criteria:
Is it a consequence or is it a punishment? The difference has been explained in a previous Newsletter but briefly, a consequence is understood to be a result of that action not just something the teacher made-up to upset the student!
Is the consequence appropriate for the level of the behaviour? You might find that students are often too severe in their idea of what is required, Keep these realistic.
Can the consequence be realistically applied? It’s no use putting in place a consequence that is against the rules of the school or department. For instance you can’t keep students in after school without a lot of parental permission.
Do the students accept this as a fair outcome for that behaviour? It must be seen to be fair for all concerned.
Then place a Y beside those that meet the criteria and N against those that fail to pass the fairness test.
The following could be the result of this process.
Sent from class Y – Yelled at N – Given a warning Y – Given the cane N
Write lines N – Given homework N – Cut out their tongue N
Clean-up the playground N – Kept in to make up time Y
Sent to principal Y – Made to stand in the corner N – Shift seats Y
When you have completed this process eliminate the N’s.
4. Rank the Consequences
Now you go through the consequences left and rank them from the most severe (1) to the least severe. The final list might be:
Sent to principal (1)
Sent from class (2)
Shift seats (3)
Keep in to make up time (4)
Apologies to the class (5)
Given a warning (6)
Here you must decide if you want to have one consequence or devise a cascade from the least severe on to the most. If the mild level consequence does not stop the behaviour the next most punitive one is applied and so on until the student is sent to the principal! When you have decided on the ‘rule’ then write it down and display it somewhere in the classroom so the students are reminded of the new set of conditions in the class.
After the rule has been in place for a reasonable amount of time it is wise to evaluate how effective it has been in dealing with the disruptive behaviour. Wait a while to do this evaluation because quite often when you introduce a rule the students who are most likely to cause problems will test to see if you are serious. This is where our ‘golden rule’ for behaviour management comes in. Always be consistent and persistent, if you are not the students will not think you a sincere! But if, after a time there is no change, and you have been vigilant then you can repeat the steps coming up with a new set of consequences. If the class has not really been changed by the rule you put in maybe it is time for you to set the rule without them. Just make sure they know what is going to happen.
If the behaviour has changed then slowly let it fade away, the class has accepted a new standard. Then you can work on another of the problems you identified.
Remember there are some behaviours that are dangerous our just too severe to go through this process and are not up for negotiation! These you must deal with. But for most dysfunctional behaviour this approach will allow you to take ‘control’ or more realistically have the students take control of their actions. A pay-off is that when you get on top of a few of the behaviours most classes come to understand that you can make things change and you are in charge of providing a safe learning environment for them. When you gain such a reputation life becomes better in other classes so it is well worth the effort!
The use of ‘levels’ systems is a popular form of behaviour control and management in institutions that deal with children who struggle with their conduct. When used correctly, it can be an effective tool to improve children’s behaviour. When used incorrectly, levels systems can be in themselves a cruel form of abuse. It can be particularly hurtful for children who have no experience of appropriate behaviour.
The definition of inappropriate behaviour is difficult. The appropriateness of any action is related to the person or persons who are exposed to the behaviour. Therefore, any judgement of a student’s conduct depends on the group in which their behaviour is displayed. Group members will experience the inappropriateness of behaviour when they feel it is offensive or threatening. In reality, they will know this because their physical and/or psychological boundaries will have been violated.
To be offended or not, presents as two discrete sets of behaviour; you are either offended or not offended; you cannot be partially offended. This is not to say the magnitude of the affecting behaviour is not on a gradient. Obviously, levels of offence can range from mild disapproval through to sheer terror. However, when working with dysfunctional children; trying to teach them about offensive behaviour by tolerating any such behaviour will confuse the child.
Children who habitually demonstrate dysfunctional behaviour need to learn appropriate conduct. Learning can only be through trial and error, and if they are to assume a state in which their habit is to act appropriately, there will be a time when they have to think about how to behave. To pass through this phase of behaviour modification requires both the child, and the arbitrator, to be in a calm state. When stressed, they will revert to their existing habitual reactions to any situation. In a group setting, the arbitrator must be aware of his or her own activities as well as the actions of all other members of the group. This does not excuse inappropriate behaviour, but it provides a major complication in the process of changing behaviour.
The following issues arise for levels systems:
Others define what is offensive.
When more than one person is in control of behaviour arbitration, the definition of appropriate can vary.
Individual arbitrators’ boundaries are not constant; on one day they will tolerate behaviour (because they are in a good mood), and on the next day they will punish that same behaviour
Workers are tempted to tolerate mild misbehaviour either because they take the patronizing view that it is the best they can do or the worker fears any outburst from the child if they impose a sanction.
The environment must promote a feeling of calm acceptance of the child.
Levels systems can be a productive tool in the task of changing behaviour. However, to successfully implement a program requires a thorough understanding of:
the complexity of the program
the dangers of misuse
every child’s need to be accepted into a calm, supportive environment
There are various methods to create a ‘scoring’ method to track a child’s behaviour across any school day. When you are working with severe disturbed children it is prudent to divide the period of time they achieve a positive ‘score’ into small chunks, say ten-minute blocks. These can be accumulated across a day and then across an extended period of time. This design will depend on the children. However, the scores should always be on display and you should never take away any points the child has earned. This is extremely unfair for those kids who struggle to initially achieve even the tiniest improvement and is no more than a form of punishment, something they have a lot of experience about and there is no more certain way to have these kids opt out of this process.
For a successful levels program to be put implemented the following conditions must be in place:
Feedback should indicate the level of success the child has achieved as a proportional number (a percentage).
Students must continually reach this mark to progress. They must be allowed to move up and down until they can unconsciously behave in an appropriate manner.
The goal should not be 100 per cent success, as human error is constant and should not be ignored.
The environment must be consistent and persistent.
Implementation should be done in calm, non-threatening manner (100 per cent acceptance of the child and 100 per cent rejection of inappropriate behaviour).
The over-riding principle of a level system is solely to provide feedback to the child in regards to how they are behaving within the functional definitions of the classroom. One of the great failings occurs when teachers and schools use their ‘Levels System’ as a form of punishment or reward. This is extremely counter-productive as any resulting changes that are driven by that external motivation will not become integrated in the child’s habitual behaviour. In a future Newsletter I will discuss the failings of the use of rewards and/or punishment as a motivation of behavioural change.
The focus of our work is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours. These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self, exclusion or neglect from the only ‘tribe’ they have ever experienced - their family. Louis Cozolino, the American psychologist has been at the forefront of this approach in assisting children with a history of abuse. He has provided a detailed review of what he calls the tribal classroom in his book ‘Attachment-Based Teaching - Creating a Tribal Classroom’ (see Newsletter of 1st August 2018 – The Tribal Classroom).
Unfortunately, or some would declare ‘fortunately’ this approach has morphed into a formal program that has provided a step by step approach to develop creating a ‘tribal classroom’. We have seen this ‘trademarking’ of many a ‘good idea’ repeated over and over again in behaviour modification programs; take the positive psychology movement that has spawned ‘Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support’ (PBIS), the once valued ‘Reality Therapy/Choice Theory’, ‘Assertive Discipline’; the list goes on. These are all underpinned by a deal of common sense but as soon as you ‘formalise’ it you lose the ability to cater for the diversity of our children.
However, the point is, we can help these kids by providing group activities that promote the opportunities for all students to develop secure attachments to the group and from that within the classroom. The students we focus on will find this difficult at first but by providing a few group-rules their anxiety can be reduced and they can develop what Cololino describes as a social synapse. The formal program outlines these as:
Showing appreciation of everyone’s contribution
Each student having the right to participate, or not
There is a sense of mutual respect
In this Newsletter I want to focus on the teacher’s role in this approach. I am not going to indulge into restating all the great information that is available including the ‘quality teaching’ model – another systematization of common sense but as the ‘parent’ of the tribal class.
At the top of every good parenting inventory is the importance of being a good role model. Children are so busy watching what you do they can’t hear what you are saying. They will become the person you are so it is important to ‘be the person’ you want them to be.
It goes beyond just modelling, as ‘parent’ you are the leader of the group and what the students want more than anything else is a consistent, predictable environment where they can learn, through trial and correction how to successfully navigate through life with a sense of self-control.
There is an age ‘gradient’ in this approach. When they are very young they are unable to really make meaningful choices, they don’t have enough knowledge and so you have to present them with situational scenarios where they learn the fundamental skills. This necessitates a more ‘authoritarian’ approach but this must be balanced with complete fairness in a nurturing environment.
Someone has to be in-charge and that person is you! As they get older, this authoritarian approach by the teacher changes to become one of a ‘constructionist’ where the responsibility for student behaviour is placed firmly on their shoulders. In my experience this is a rare achievement, most school leavers still have a fair bit of ‘improving’ to do but by the time they are about to exit school we would hope they are all at least predominantly responsible.
They need to experience the negative consequences when they choose the ‘wrong’ behaviour in an effort to get their needs met but these should be delivered with the emphasis on the behaviour not the child. In your dealings with the students, at any age the following is a good guide to achieving this:
Encouragement should outweigh praise. The latter can become destructive in their teens.
Consequences should always replace punishments. Punishment never works in the long run (see Newsletter 2nd April 2018 – Consequences – Neither Punishment not Reward) punishment teaches the kids what not to do. Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving. The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours. They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.
Co-operation should always dominate obedience, this is age sensitive. For instance, more and more we see young children defying their parents when it comes to them ‘getting their way’. I watch my grandchildren using a whole range of behaviour to change their parent’s decisions after they have said ‘no’! There are times when ‘because I said so’ is probably the right thing to do; these children are not able to understand the long-term consequences of eating the junk food they crave!
However, eventually we want our children to be independent, communal obedience is a feature of political dictatorships and social cooperation is the mark of a healthy society.
Finally, here are some ‘parent tips’ to help you engage with your class:
Be involved with their life – find out about their interests, where they have lived, understand their history at an appropriate level. We don’t have the right to understand the details of their ‘intimate’ life but when the student knows you are interested they are more likely to form the relationship that will help them engage in your lessons.
How often have I helped a relationship with a ‘troubled’ student just by finding out which sporting team or ‘rock star’ he/she follows. When I know this, I take every opportunity to ‘bump into them’ in the playground an engage in some good-fun banter.
Always get to the classroom before the students and as they arrive greet them with their name and, if appropriate give them a ‘high five’, ‘fist pump’ or just shake hands; do this with a smile. This is one of the most powerful things you can do, it sends the message that you want to be there. Contrast this with the effect teachers, who arrive late and then criticise the students for not ‘waiting quietly in line’! What message is that behaviour sending to the class?
Tell them things about your life. Some teachers balk at this; I suspect they feel their life is none of the student’s business. On an intimate scale they are right, your personal life is your business but if you accept the importance of a relationship you have to participate. Telling them stories about your childhood, as lame as these may feel to you is very powerful. It humanises you.
Finish the lesson with a story – in primary schools this can be a serial, despite the benefits of engaging them in literacy the ‘right’ story teaches them about life and at least you send them home looking forward to the next day! It is hypothesised that this is a primitive need, a throw-back to the times when tribes finished their days sitting around a campfire exchanging stories.
This Newsletter has focused on a teacher’s approach to the tribal classroom and is not to be considered part of the extensive literature being bombarded into schools and an ever-increasing rate. I believe that relationships are at the core of all successful educational experiences. Further, they exist in the lower areas of our brain, the limbic system and as such are much more difficult to access and to change.
This modern approach to teacher training focuses on cognitive contributions which are quick and easy to implement for educated adults (teachers) but:
They are not appropriate for the young developing mind which requires ‘lessons’ for their emotional and social education
These cognitive lessons ‘disappear’ when the students’ stress levels are raised and they start behaving based on their emotional and social beliefs.
When all is said and done the teacher/student relationship is the most important feature of quality education and that boils down to how each participant feel about each other.
Teaching very difficult students is extremely stressful. Although there will be incidents that are exceedingly traumatic, it is the day to day grind of working with these kids and that build-up of stress that will destroy your health. At these times you will build-up an excess of physical and emotional energy. Unless you do discharge this energy, it remains ‘locked’ in your physiology. Debriefing is the process of discharging that energy, especially the emotional element.
Much of the literature on debriefing refers to the process of providing a service for those who have been exposed to a traumatic event. This Newsletter is more about you having the means to deal with your own emotional load within a school or other specialist setting. For ‘extreme’ traumatic events you need specialist support to deal with the victims.
On an individual level, the self-delivered debriefing process is very much following the steps outlined above in the recovery section. These are the physical, emotional and behavioural activities itemised in this section. This ‘self-help’ is predominantly the use of physical practices such as going to a gym, jogging, swimming anything that gets you to use up that energy that had been activated at the time you were stressed.
One technique I have used that is effective to immediately release the physical excess present after a very stressful incident is to go to a private place in the school, with a towel and out of the sight of others, twist the towel as hard as I could, I would talk to it, get all my frustrations out on that piece of material. The feeling of release was significant.
I have seen others use the action of punching a special bag or other inert object to achieve this result. There are mixed opinions about using this approach. There is some evidence it doesn’t relieve the emotional component caused by the aggravation, the participants remain angry towards the object of their frustration.
There is also the idea that punching, as a solution for a problem could be generalised. Punching another may have a short-term pay-off but there is a chance that the practice of punching an inert bag could unconsciously evolve into punching the object that caused the stress! Some would argue that it is the repetitive movement of the punching that reproduces a type of soothing, this repetition has seen in the rhythmic technique in swimming also seen as a productive approach to elevated stress levels.
The self-help approach may not be as effective in dealing with the psychological load as would working with others. It may well be that you can get support from a colleague when you are under elevated stress levels. This could be a friend or co-worker who you trust. It is best, but not vital if this support person works in the same field. They will understand the problems you face and their validation carries a lot of weight. You both know what is really going on.
The use of your own intimate partner, wife, parent or even one of your children is not so clear cut. To provide an effective environment for a victim the support person must remain partially detached from the concerns raised in this issue. It is hard for your intimate other not to feel an emotional connection, it is the nature of the relationship! However, they will be your greatest support and not sharing is shutting them out, this is not advisable for a meaningful relationship.
This is a real difficult issue; the best debriefing really is from someone who can remain detached from your emotions but compassionate about how you would feel because they really understand what it is like to be in that situation.
Therefore, try to develop a network of supporters who you can use and who will use you when they are needed. Personal contact is preferable but the use of technology such as Skype is a good substitute. Avoid social media, the things you say at this time will be sensitive and not for public consumption or for your record!
The last thing I will mention is debriefing for those establishments that deal with difficult kids as a group. These are vital in maintaining a healthy team culture, they allow the psychological wounds that occur throughout each day but these sessions are not for those occasional times when the level of personal damage is significant, either for the students or a staff member. This is the cool down time, the time for the physical body to recover is complete.
In the work place there will be times when the outburst has created issues that challenge the practices of the organisation. These may involve the potential of future discipline action or legal concerns. This does not imply there is no need for debriefing but at these times the management should provide professional, independent counselling. However, for the day to day situations a less formal, but no less important debriefing practice there is a benefit of having the ‘team’ debrief itself!
There are some rules to be followed if you are setting-up a formal debriefing session at the end of each working shift. These are fairly obvious:
Begin Simply – Even if you know there has been a fairly difficult situation the staff has dealt with don’t go straight into discussing that. By generally discussing the day that issue will emerge when the ‘time is right’. This relies on a level of trust that must exist! In fact, without trust debriefing can become an additional stressor!
Equal Rights – Although we don’t have equal rights in our places of work we do have equity at a personal level. No one individual’s needs are more important than any others. Debriefing is not about allocating blame or setting future agendas it is solely about dealing with the emotional discomfort of the day.
There are no ‘power plays’ – We will never repair everyone’s emotional state if there is an obvious difference in how each member of the team is valued; any imbalance of power will not allow long term issues to be addressed effectively.
No Secrets – Too often people fail to tell exactly how they feel. On the one hand it may be because they don’t trust everyone at the meeting or they may feel that others can’t handle their feelings. Often the stress is because there has been a conflict between staff members. It is these that must be addressed; if not they can destroy the whole program. There are no records of these meetings and any comments are to stay within the group. If, as a result of the discussion the group agree that some things need to change then everyone is involved in the decision and those outside of the team should not be privy to the discussions that led to that policy change.
The Environment – Conduct the debriefing in a pleasant environment. Make sure everyone is comfortable and there are no distractions. Avoid everyone having a cup of coffee or tea as enjoyable as that may seem, debriefing is a formal part of the day.
Punctuality – always start and finish at a set time. On most days you will feel the atmosphere lighten and, in my experience, when the debriefing is accomplished the groups will soon be laughing about the day. Be aware that in all stressful occupations the humour has a very dark quality; this should be expected and although may sometime appear to be disrespectful, you have to remember these are the people who front up every day and do there best for the kids. Their actions define the respect they have for the students!
If, on the other hand the mood within debriefing remains tense still finish at the designated time. The issue will still need to be addressed but by waiting for the next opportunity allows time for all to reflect on the situation. The main thing is not to carry on discussions with colleagues about the issue outside the confines of the debriefing process. To do so would be very destructive.
Debriefing is an important practice to maintain the health of any organisation that deals with highly demanding work. In a perfect world this would be a formal part of every working day however, in today’s busy world there seems to be no time for taking care of others. This is a travesty, taking time to debrief is the best long-term investment any organisation can make!
In a recent Newsletter (Addiction 3rd June 2019) I discussed the ‘addictive’ forms of behaviour that teachers deal with, particularly the people addiction. This newsletter takes a more formal look at addiction and the role it plays in behaviour.
Most work, understandably focuses on fear as being the fundamental source of stress. This is reasonable as it is the easiest to observe, we have no problem linking traumatic events with elevated levels of stress; fear is still seen as the most significant emotion. Compounding this is the fact that in animal studies it is relatively straightforward to put a ‘lab rat’ in a situation that evokes panic and study their reactions.
However, the underpinning premise of our model of behaviour is that the task of the young brain is to have us survive. The drive to protect us from outside threats is only one half of the equation, to survive we need to ‘consume’ things, food, water oxygen, love, etc. When these are denied to us our anxiety levels quickly elevate and the resulting stress has just as a profound effect on our wellbeing as does the threat of attack.
This is the seeking phase of our strategy to survive. It is the search for things that maintain a level of satisfaction, that is when we are in homeostatic disequilibrium and we need something to make up the deficit we ‘consume’ and return to equilibrium. This consumption gives us pleasure.
Just like the protection cycle, this seeking sequence is driven by an an electro/chemical response in this case the chemicals are predominantly dopamine and serotonin. These have two separate functions; the serotonin signals the return to equilibrium with the feeling of pleasure; the dopamine fuels the drive to seek what is required to produce the conditions of satisfaction. Unlike the fear related chemicals, these substances are sought for the feelings they produce regardless of an individual’s state of physical comfort. The ‘high’ they produce is the focus of drug addiction.
In the case of satisfaction, the leading drug is in the opioid family, things like opium or heroine. But, it is in the seeking phase, where dopamine is the driver we find the methamphetamine are used, the ‘speed’ and ‘ice’.
Dopamine is not the reward but creates the desperate longing that doesn’t actually feel good in itself but by focusing the attention on a goal it brings a powerful feeling of purpose to the individual. It injects them with a level of energy that is intense, they feel alive. For children with a history of abuse or neglect for them, this feeling of having a purpose is extremely satisfying. They come to crave that feeling of seeking much more than the satisfaction the seeking is designed to satiate.
This critique of the electro/chemical response illustrates the power of the seeking system and how easy it can become a major factor in the driving of dysfunctional behaviour. We are concerned with the behaviour in the classroom, the tantrums, the anger, the violence when kids don’t get their way. It’s prudent to remember that, as with the protective dysfunctional behaviours the tactics they use did work when they were being ‘learned’ but in a different environment they fail to achieve their goal.
The diagram below clarifies how the increase in stress manifests into the outrageous behaviours often witnessed in schools.
Although the elevation of stress levels is the same as the response to the fear of the current environment the expression is different. This may best be demonstrated by a child’s need to be attached. In the first instance it maybe that the child is rejected by a significant other, perhaps a parent. Their earliest reaction will be to try behaviours that have worked in the past to be noticed but when these don’t work the resulting psychological pain is immense. The seeking cycle is when a child selects someone who they want in their ‘world’ and when this other person rejects the child’s advances the dopamine cycle gets ignited and as this grows the behaviour becomes more dysfunctional.
At school the problem surrounding the dysfunctional seeking behaviours can be difficult. In recent years the emergence of children who have become over-indulged in early childhood (see Newsletter 22nd May 2017 – Education the over-indulged and Narcissistic Child’) has resulted in a growth in this form of dysfunctional expression of behaviour, the spoilt brat’s behaviour.
These children begin with wanting something, perhaps a piece of equipment, to be picked in a team or to belong to a group of friends. When they are first denied access to what they want they become aroused and the dopamine is released, this feeds their seeking behaviour and unless they get what they want eventually they will ‘lose control’ over their behaviour.
For the teacher, how to deal with this form of student behaviour is the same as other destructive student behaviours. Keep the classroom calm, teach appropriate boundaries and develop a professional relationship with that student so they get the time to create a sense of self that allows them to survive in their world.
In our formative years the brain has only one function and that is to initiate behaviours that allow us to survive. Of course, this fundamental truth can get lost as our interactions with our outside environment get more complex but all behaviour can be traced back to that central truth. Just how powerful this drive is can be demonstrated every day in emergency wards where people’s brains have shut down every activity but the bare minimum – they are comatose. This simple fact that would make understanding behaviour reasonably simple but life’s not simple and the rising, tragic levels of suicide provides the exception to the foundational rule; survival is the prime drive for behaviour! I will argue that individuals select not to survive because of their learned beliefs and these beliefs are more powerful than evidence the evidence from their immediate environment. (This Newsletter follows that of the 11th June 2019 – Faulty Beliefs).
Despite the anomaly of suicide, the brain’s purpose is to facilitate behaviours that allow us to survive. The model below helps us understand this process:
At the heart of this model is the link between situation, the presenting environment, our actions and the consequences. That is, we find ourselves in a threatening situation and we act to alleviate the stress caused by that situation. The resulting outcome is noted and ‘stored’ for future reference, that is it is remembered. This is the feedback loop in the model above. Successful responses will be reinforced and be available whenever a similar situation occurs.
In early childhood these memories are emotional, that is when we find ourselves in a situation similar to a previous threatening one, our emotional memory of that early encounter will evoke a response. That ‘feeling’ is the first expression of a belief! Later, when our brain matures we develop cognitive memories that function the same way but put reason to the stress we experience and this motivates us to act. This is the lower feedback loop in the model. We build up a sophisticated internal map of our ‘world’ and how the conditions it presents impacts onto our homeostatic state. These memories inform our decisions on how to act!
Initially, the sequence follows the observation of the threat, that is our senses alert us to the danger, they provide the data that drives the behaviour. But, one of the things that has allowed us to become the most successful species is our ability to use the memories we have built up to imagine or anticipate impending problems. These are as fundamental as having been threatened by a crocodile in a stream one day we become extremely cautious when we approach the stream on subsequent days. That is, we have a belief that there will probably be a crocodile if we go near that stream another day and so when we approach we will be anxious and consequently more cautious even though there is no sensory evidence, no data that indicates the presence of a threatening reptile.
The internal map of memories, beliefs allow us to ‘know’ things that are not relative to the data in our immediate circumstance. The authority of our belief systems is such that we can navigate our way around the world. If we were limited to act just on the explicit evidence we would be stuck in space. As I write this I have a belief that my car is in the driveway yet I have absolutely no direct data to confirm this, I just ‘know it’, beliefs are powerful tools. In fact, I could not even find my driveway except through clumsy and time-consuming trial and error if I didn’t ‘know’ where to turn as I go through the house!
So, we have two systems that regulate our behaviour. The first is incoming data – things like a car speeding towards us in a threatening manner, we will ‘decide’ to jump out of the way. The second is to always look both ways before we go onto the street because we believe it is possible that a car might threaten our safety even though we can’t know if a car is there without checking the data. The belief produces behaviours that ensure our safety even though there is no immediate evidence. We become careful!
The two systems that are equally important, serve the same purpose but are different. Our senses provide the data to perceive our immediate world. Our beliefs, our memories let us understand our world outside the confines of our perceptions and provides reasons for choosing protective behaviours. These operate independently and the brain only cares about how helpful either system is for its survival.
In the model, the feedback from the memories to the ‘antecedent conditions’ reveals the impact our ‘beliefs’ have on the way we view our environment. That is when we are confronted with any situation our perception of the incoming stimulus is influenced by previous experience. For most, this has given us a huge advantage in successfully managing our lives but, there is a malicious disadvantage for those whose memories are of abuse or neglect.
The students at the heart of these Newsletters invariably suffer from Toxic Shame (see Newsletter – 3rd July 2017) which results in a set of beliefs that are relevant to the abusive/neglectful environment in which they were developed. It takes some effort to understand how such a destructive set of beliefs could emerge in a child but if we put ourselves in their position we would see that these beliefs gave them the best chance of survival. Even the idea that they are worthless can reflect any circumstance where they felt worthwhile. Feeling valued could initiate a sense that you should ‘fight back’, defend yourself but for a child with an abusive parent any such sign of assertiveness would be crushed. It is safer to believe that defective image.
At school these children experience a positive environment where the senses, the data is or should be non-threatening and supportive. If you take the example of the crocodile in the river, the calm supportive environment may well be present but these kids know the possibility ‘of a croc lying in wait if the drop their guard’. The presence of a reassuring setting should make the child suppose things are safe and they can act in an appropriate way to get their needs met. But, of course they don’t! These kids remain suspicious, there may well be a croc lurking below the surface. Teachers get frustrated when they provide all the support for these children but their behaviour doesn’t easily change!
The answer is in the fact that these beliefs developed over a period of time and they drove the behaviour that was the most likely to ensure security. That is the situation, the pattern of environmental factors was not the exclusive one but the most likely. The brain learned to dismiss those that did not fit that arrangement.
When the child who has developed a strong belief about their sense of self has that challenged, is presented with an alternate supportive set of data, this dissimilar event on its own will not over-ride the beliefs. This may be a ‘one-off’ occurrence and we can still remember what could be coming next! Deep held beliefs are hard to change even in the face of over whelming evidence.
Take the argument about evolution and the conflict it has with those who believe in intelligent design, the Bible. These people cling to a very strong commitment to that story and any counter claim, evolution is denied despite all the evidence put to them. To accept they were wrong is a perceived, direct threat to their survival. Even a small concession would unravel the whole system and so they will defend even the most bizarre claims with what others would find preposterous. It is tempting to dismiss these people but if you understand they really have this belief system you realize they are not stupid.
The same goes for our kids. Too often I see well-meaning teachers take these kids on an excursion, say to an adventure style park where they successfully experience abseiling, rock climbing, etc. This, one-off adventure will not change their beliefs, it is just that a ‘one off set of data’ is no match for their beliefs. One problem is these adventure programs are run by non-school staff and they see the excitement of each group of students as they go through their courses and they think they are successful. But the kids return to school and not much has changed for these kids. Unfortunately, the teachers ‘see’ the kids cope with the challenges they face on these courses but get discourage when the kids, despite this evidence don’t change!
Beliefs can be changed but be prepared for a long process that must include an environment that consistently provides the ‘proper, positive data’ and a messenger that is acceptable. There is no surprise in the appreciation of the importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is at the heart of all learning!
Although the data may ‘shout’ at the student, if it threatens them they will shout back. There is absolutely no value in confronting these students when they are under threat. The teacher must patiently wait for the right time and quietly offer an alternate view of the situation and their safety. Remember, the feeling of being under threat will be expressed in the emotional memories. If the child feels threatened enough their protective behaviours will emerge and they will go into a state of flight or fight. The teacher must remain calm and remain present!
To change beliefs takes a skilled teacher with a well set-up classroom and one who is prepared to chip away at the student’s faulty beliefs. They have to be the right person with the right data at the right time! And they need to be very patient. It is hard to turn these kids around but it will be the most rewarding teaching you will ever do!
The one of the continuing themes of these blogs is the importance of stress control. This is particularly critical for children raised in chaotic, abusive environments. By remaining calm they have a much better chance of making good decisions. In previous Newsletters (Teaching Practical Boundaries 21st July 2017 and Boundary Considerations 22nd October 2018) I have discussed the value of boundaries and how to engage them. This is relevant for teachers as well as students. One of the central elements in making good decisions is the ability to remain calm.
Very briefly, boundaries should be applied when we begin to feel stressed, it protects us from reactive thinking. As soon as we sense that feeling of unease, the application of your boundary protects you, that is allows you to stay calm, to relax. It is well understood that this composure plays a significant role in this process. However, when anything is unearthed to assist people negotiate their way through difficult times it is only a matter of time before this ability is high-jacked and morphed into a self-help industry; the ‘next big thing’ to solve all society’s ills. If you extend the efforts to remain calm you inevitably arrive in the area of meditation and this is proving to be ‘the next big thing’.
This latest and most powerful expression of this new panacea for our behavioural problems is the Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction program (MBSR); a systematized approach to meditation. This practice has really come out of the work of Richard Davidson who studied with Buddhist meditation practitioners. It has long been understood that the constant exposure to high levels of stress create changes in the brain’s structure. Things like an expanded and more sensitive amygdala, a reduction in the hippocampus, the prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, all of which hinder the individual’s capacity to use their cognitive ability to address the problems that cause the stress. There was an almost opposite impact on the brains of individuals who practiced meditation. In these monks, the amygdala was reduced making them more resilient to stress. The increased size of the frontal lobes and hippocampus enhanced the cognitive capacity of the brain.
Davidson’s work was subjected to some criticism but subsequent studies have confirmed his findings. In recent years Jon Kabat-Zinn has systematized the approach with his trade mark MBSR where through his organisation the eight-week program is disseminated across the globe; being used in schools, the military, corporations, etc. and is so programmed the Buddhist teacher Miles Neale refers to it as McMindfulness.
MBSR is just the latest addition of a whole industry of happiness. It has become a $40 Billion industry with over 60,000 books on the subject being offered by Amazon alone. Every year we have a ‘Happiness Conference’ where for a substantial amount of money you can learn how to fix your world.
If you sense a bit of cynicism here you would be right. I have no trouble with meditation and you know I endorse teaching these kids to relax. If nothing else I firmly believe the control of stress, the elimination of it is at the heart of all behaviour management programs and teaching practices. But there is a difference between staying calm while you examine ‘what is really going on’ in your environment and focusing so hard on controlling your internal world discounting what is going on in your external world to cause your stress. If you are about to be abused it is of little value to slip into deep meditation.
What underpins MBSR is that any stress you experience comes from inside you and it is your responsibility to deal with it and if you don’t it will only be a result of your poor choices. This is a cruel message to give to kids who have been raised in an abusive/neglectful family. It is obviously unkind to tell them that all they have to do is meditate to be fulfilled in such an environment, their fear and resultant stress may well be keeping them alive but the more damaging element is by telling them it is ‘really their fault’ if they don’t take control of their life reinforces their sense of toxic shame – they know they are faulty!
But I digress, as stated above the ability to stay calm is fundamental to having good boundaries and using meditation will help these students experience some degree of remediation of their cognitive structures. However, we should never lose sight of their suffering and should work towards changing their environment as much as, if not more than changing their response to it.
For students with backgrounds of abuse and neglect the process for relaxation is very threatening. To relax, you need to focus on your internal world, limiting your attention on the stimulus that flows in from the external world. A feature of these students is that they are always scanning their outer zone looking for potential dangers. This hypervigilance, a trademark of PTSD has been crucial to ensure their survival. Now we are going to ask them to take the focus away from the very practice that aided that existence and to go inside their minds.
A complication is that when we get these students to focus on their internal world we are asking them to attend to their sense of self and for most it is to examine their toxic shame. As we have discussed earlier, this toxic shame reinforces their sense of being a failure. This self-reflection seems hardly a practice that will help them develop a new approach to their behaviour but it is a crucial part of their recovery.
Finally, the process of meditation becomes even more difficult when you attempt to conduct relaxation sessions in a group setting, especially if that group consists of students with similar histories. In my experience, you need to limit the opportunity for each student to communicate with others. To teach meditation in such an environment you need to be aware that all the class will be anxious when they are asked to sacrifice their protective hypervigilance and to avoid this they will attempt to sabotage the teacher’s efforts. This is a real difficulty that can be overcome.
In my last school for these kids I used to teach them a bit of meditation (I have uploaded an essay on meditation with a script for meditation that you could use). These were very ‘tough’ kids and I would often have as many as thirty at a time. Before we commenced the meditation, I explained what the process involved, what happened during the process and how that would benefit them. Of course, this information was included during their lessons in how the brain works, part of their recovery curriculum.
I found a few rules help conduct the meditation lessons. I allowed them to lie on their stomachs with their face down. I also was aware that some would try to break the desired atmosphere by making a noise, coughing, sighing and even the occasional noisy ‘expression of wind’. I understood the calm environment threatened them and if they replaced this with behaviour that upset the class they would feel more comfortable. This was common when students first came into the program.
The process was that I would read a script, the same every morning and if a student acted in a way that would upset the process they were quietly removed from the room. When I had completed the script, those students who participated moved onto the next activity. The students, who were removed were then returned to the class to have the script read to them again.
At this time, I would tell them that I could not make them relax, I explained that I understood they felt threatened but I insisted that they should not spoil the process for others. Eventually the students would sit through a complete ‘reading’ and then they could return to their class. I was surprised that after a time, students asked for the relaxation activity.
Working with these kids will provide you with lots of life lessons not the least of which is there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve human suffering, theirs or yours, but as long as you keep learning and moving forward you and your students will move towards that state of authenticity and peace.
In the late Twentieth Century American Psychologist Albert Ellis became frustrated with the lack of consideration given to the emotional side of psycho-therapy. This was in reply to the stimulus – response approach that had become popular in the late sixties when leaders in psychology, like Skinner adopted a rationalist approach to behaviour. Their ideas were underpinned by the belief ‘if it can’t be measured it is not worth considering’. Ellis accepted the importance of feelings in driving behaviour and so founder what was called Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy.
He reduced the complexity of behaviour to the following:
It is in the ‘Beliefs’ where ‘rational’ behaviours become ‘irrational’. Those who have been following my work will see that this sequence forms part of my schematic representation of the processes of behaviour management as shown below.
My model is more complex but it does incorporate both emotional and cognitive memories but as consistently pointed out in my work the emotional memories are far stronger when we are considering behaviours that are triggered by stressful events, that is when we are being ‘threatened’.
A significant element in the dysfunctional behaviours displayed by students who have very disruptive actions is that of Toxic Shame often referred to in this blog (Toxic Shame - 7th March 2017) and this ‘shame’ is established in early childhood in an abusive or neglectful environment and is predominantly retained in the emotional memories and so these beliefs are the principal driving factor in decision-making when under stress.
At the heart of Toxic Shame is the feeling that you are a ‘mistake’, not that you have made a mistake. It’s a feeling that:
Is not based on reality
Is a false message that creates a false sense of self
Is put on us by others
That is a chronic, permanent state
Exaggerates our faults.
Ellis produced a list of faulty beliefs that described how this feeling of shame is expressed in the life of a casualty of childhood abuse. These are:
I must be loved or approved of by every significant person in my life or I will be a worthless person
I must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
When people act unfairly or badly they should be severely punished.
It is terrible and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them.
Human unhappiness is caused by external events and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances
I must feel anxious if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome and keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurrence.
It is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
I should be dependent on someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely.
I should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
The world should provide me with what I want and when it doesn’t it’s a terrible place and I can’t stand it.
My past is the most important part of my life and it dictates how I live.
It is easy to understand why people with dysfunctional behaviours hold the acceptance that how life treats them is, and has to be dependent on others. You can see it in all the points outlined above and that’s because when their sense of self was being formed, in early childhood they had no self-control. So why should they now?
It helps to understand the thought process used by these people but more importantly how do we help them? Of course, long-term mental health intervention for each individual would be ideal but as teachers, we are neither qualified nor would we have the time for such an intervention. And, unfortunately the chances of the vast majority of our students who come to us with such beliefs the chances of them getting access to such a service in miniscule.
However, what can be done is to create an environment that has a highly structured connection between what is done and what happens. If a child does ‘X’ they will get ‘Y’ as much as possible and when the consequence is being delivered it is always attached to the action and never to the person. As they become aware of the connection between what they do and what happens they start to take responsibility for their behaviour and eventually for their life. Of course, it is impossible to get a 100% connection between actions and consequences but for these kids, the more often you can reinforce the link the better their chances of taking responsibility for their life and that is the best learning outcome any teacher could hope for.
Throughout these Newsletters the consistent premise has rightly been that the effective management of stress underpins all successful behaviour management programs. That is, for a teacher to present an effective learning environment it needs to minimize those conditions that threaten the safety of all members of the classroom.
Of course, there will inevitably be situations that disturb this desired state of calmness and when this happens we will act to alleviate that stress. In a perfect world we would have learned to take actions to relieve that tension but there will always be circumstances that are beyond our current competence and it is under these circumstances that we have a choice, we either learn how to deal with this new situation, the ‘adult’ response or we act just to get rid of the stress. This short-term reaction is at the heart of addiction and that addiction includes the compulsion to act in inappropriate ways.
There are three ways addictions are manifested; through the use of substances that alter the impact of the emotion, the use of activities to distract thoughts from the problem and the third is focused on stress that has its source in personal interaction; this I call ‘people addiction’.
The use of substances is long been used to alter emotions. When anyone mentions addiction the first thing most people think of is the classic drug addict and I would argue that at the heart of the reason these chronic addicts are around is their early childhood abuse. I have worked with children who are suffering from such addiction and they will invariably tell you that the first time they got high/drunk/bombed-out was the first time they felt good about themselves. Never be under the illusion drugs don’t work but the problem is that like all addictions the more you use them the more the need for the effect and eventually the need for the drug becomes the primary problem for the user.
The second type is activities addiction. This is where the person becomes so focused on a task or hobby they can’t think about anything else. You can see this with over-the-top sports fans who live every moment for the team. Or with kids, when a new craze sweeps the country you see those who become obsessed with it. While ever I am fully engaged I will not have to feel the emotions from my ‘shame’.
You see activities addiction in the work place. Years ago, when I was formulating these ideas I discussed them with a colleague. He stopped me and said – you are describing me. I had suspected he was somewhat engaged in such addictive behaviours as he was having difficulties in his life but was enjoying success at work. When I started to expand my thoughts he cheerfully told me it was alright, he had just enrolled to study for his doctorate. He achieved his doctorate but lost his family.
The catch with activities addiction is summed up by those who become workaholics. The extra output they achieve because of the hours and the intensity they put in to their work results in their promotion. Soon they are in positions where the workload becomes the problem, like the substance they need more and eventually they break down.
The last type of addiction is what I refer to as people addiction. In reality, this is most likely the reflection of how the children learned to survive in the abusive relationships in which they were raised. As with other addictions these behaviours are the result of previous experiences of success in alleviating unhealthy levels of stress. This ‘people addiction’ is the product of behaviours that worked directly on the stressor, the ‘abusive other’.
The first type of people addiction is that of overt control. The tactic is to stress the other person much more than they stress you. In a sense, you abuse them straight back and in such a way they will stop their behaviour. This can be done through all types of aggression ranging from physical attack, making fun of the other person, discounting their worth, any form of attack on their physical or psychological safety.
People will take this form of defense when they hold a position they perceive as being superior to the other person. This could result in overt behaviour against a younger sibling, a different gender, usually female or someone you perceive to be in a ‘lower’ social ‘class’.
Overt action can make the original aggressor stop but this does not provide protection from future attacks and as with all addictive strategies, there is a long-term cost. The aggressive behaviour pushes others away and so the danger is you become distant from others. Those who use overt control limit their opportunity to have productive relationships; they become isolated, frustrated and bitter.
The reverse approach is that of covert control. This strategy consists of being so nice and cooperative towards others they will have no reason to attack you. A common phrase used by those who adopt the covert position is ‘I don’t care – whatever you want to do’. These children are nice to be around because they are sensitive to your needs and do whatever they can to make sure you get them met. They avoid unpleasant situations at all costs.
They take up this position for the same reasons as those who take up the overt position, because they consider themselves less than the offending other. The problem is their own needs are never met and resentment and anger will build-up but remain internalized. This adds to their feelings of worthlessness.
The final position is that of resistance, the students choose to ignore the source of the attack by not getting involved with any of the other students or activities. They rebel against any organised activities and are absent a lot. They will avoid anything that has the potential to cause stress.
The cost of opting out of interactions with others is the loss of opportunity to get any needs met. These students become isolated and marginalized.
So, what to do? Dealing with situations that threaten your composure requires you to control the impact of these ‘attacks’ and to achieve this you need to develop strong boundaries (see Newsletters - ‘Teaching Practical Boundaries’ 31st July 2017 and ‘Dealing with Difficult Kids’ 4th September 2017). Successful management of all stressful circumstances relies on the honest response to the questions that underpin all responsible behaviour. These are:
What is really going on?
Who is responsible?
If its my actions then take responsibility and change that behaviour
If it’s the ‘others’ behaviour then understand you can’t make them do anything and you must behave in a way that has the best chance of getting your needs met in the long term
Let go of this relationship?
Understanding how to produce effective boundaries distinguishes adults from children, despite their real age and teachers rely on this ability to survive in the most difficult of classes.
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.