In the previous Newsletters (see Conversations - 10th March 2020 and The Inner Critic - 17th March 2020) we focused on helping those students with dysfunctional behaviours regain a positive sense of self about themselves. These ‘improvements’ are only effective if they can blend with their outer world. No one is an island, we live in a community and we need that community to get our social needs at least met. Happiness or as I would say homeostatic equilibrium is highly correlated with having close, personal relationships – the powerful need to belong.
As always, children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect miss out on developing the skills that support the development of such relationships. The thing is, the behaviours they develop to protect themselves drive others away or in a closed community like a classroom and they become ostracised.
Ostracism comes from a practice in ancient Greek culture when those who ‘displeased’ the community were sent away for 10 years as punishment. Today, we still see it as a form of punishment, ‘Time Out’ is a useful practice in schools where students are excluded for a period of time because their behaviour was not acceptable (see Time Out – 17th July 2017). It is rightly seen as a more humane negative consequence than alternatives, historically corporal punishment.
However, ostracism can be an extreme form of cruelty. We have all seen children excluded often because they don’t ‘meet the standards’ of the dominant group. The classic example is the ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena where a group of girls reject an individual. Boys, all kids suffer from being ‘left out’ of a team, an activity even a birthday party. Teachers understand the power of eye contact, children who are distressed because someone ‘looked at them’ or the subtler weapon of ‘refusing to make eye contact’.
It seems the most damaging times for this to occur is about age eight to nine when kids have not yet learned how to protect themselves, not learned discretion and from thirteen to fourteen years when developing kids place a high value in belonging to a group.
Most usually it is the children who have not learned the social skills required to belong that are the target of social rejection and these are the very kids we are focussed on. The girls are most likely to be frozen out of the group, the classic Queen Bee behaviour but they will do anything to be accepted back. The boys, on the other hand are more likely to react in violent ways. The extreme examples are seen too often with the tragic school shootings.
To address this situation, we need to reverse the problem of being ignored and we do this by the use of effective social skills. That is, behaviours that we use to effectively communicate with others to get our needs met in a socially acceptable manner. These behaviours are either verbal and/or non-verbal that reach out in a manner that results in a mutually beneficial interaction.
The non-verbal expression is important, especially if you are meeting for the first time. In reality we all do make initial judgements about ‘strangers’ long before they open their mouth. Foremost is how interesting they appear, their clothes, how they stand and if they are projecting a sense of friendship towards us, that is, are they smiling, making appropriate eye contact? Of course, what will ‘make them interesting’ is how much they are either like us or appear to like us. The value of any ‘relationship’ is how much they support our needs.
The value of the actual communication that takes place also depends on how we see the person contributing to us. The content of the conversation needs to have a cultural match. By this I mean if I’m trying to belong to a group of basketball fans I really will be more successful if I tap into their interest. I probably would strike out if I started to discuss the implications of the Reserve Banks latest interest rate cuts or vice-versa. Not only should we express opinions perhaps more importantly we need to listen to what is said.
How do we teach these skills to our troubled, excluded kids? Like most things we have communicated in these latest Newsletters we need to become the substitute parent, create the environment that allows these important skills to develop. The following steps will help:
1. Identify the Problem
There will be plenty of times, those teaching moments when you witness your students failing to effectively relate to their peers. It is appropriate to stop what you are doing to take advantage of this moment and explain to the class what is really happening. Point out how important belonging is to everyone in the class, what didn’t work and importantly what would. This is a time when you can ‘cash-in’ on the relationship you have built up. All the kids, especially the one who has made the social blunder can feel threatened.
2. Set Goals
There are countless ways in which social faux pas occur. These can generally be described as ‘bad manners’; things like grabbing something without asking, talking over the top of others, etc. An effective goal that addresses a lot of social incompetence is to identify and teach good manners.
First you have to teach what is socially effective manners. Remember, these kids learned the behaviours they are displaying in an environment where they worked. Some families sit around the dining room at meal time and if they want the salt they are taught to ask for it with a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’. Other kids, most likely the ones we are concerned with may well eat in front of the television, take-a-way and have no need to ask, they learn if you want something you take it without asking just like mum and dad. So, you have to teach manners!
Then you have to practice. Initially you can teach the skills directly through role play activities. Social skills training is usually a ‘teaching moment’ activity, that is you take the opportunity to engage in a quick lesson before moving back to the lesson plan for the day. However, some tough classes need a more formal approach. I have used pre-set scenarios to initiate role play between two, or sometimes more and have the rest of the class evaluate the participants effectiveness in solving the social problem. For example, the card might read “Jack has just taken your coloured pens without asking and you need them. He is refusing to give them back”. Two students would randomly select a role, either Jack or the other and act out that scene. They would be evaluated, the class suggest alternate approaches and redo the scene, you can even change the participants and continue until everyone thinks the problem is solves to a satisfactory level.
3.With younger students I have even run a ‘Behaviour Lotto’ when students get points every time they identify ‘correct’ behaviour. Points also go to the student who has displayed that behaviour. Whatever source you use, be sure to reinforce the positive behaviour.
Finally, as always model what you want. These dysfunctional kids learned their inappropriate behaviour from their role models. Make sure you are the role model for the behaviours that will allow them to successfully belong with their peers!
This Newsletter is a break from the recent theme that we have been following. This is because in the current climate with the development of COVID-19, schools have become a very difficult place to be. It is important to remember sustained elevated stress is a problem to our physical and psychological health.
We are very much at risk of being overcome by hysteria. Bad news travels fast and too many people are very willing to circulate false or sensational messages through social media. Children are particularly susceptible to this problem.
This is not to suggest COVID-19 is psychological, it is most definitely not and there is real need to be anxious. The thing is not to let your anxiety morph into fear and impair your ability to make good decisions.
The very definition of mass hysteria is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness; that is, they are unable to make logical conclusions. With the confused information distributed by the government, some states closing schools, others not but telling parents to keep their kids home. This along with the saturated news coverage and the access to unreliable social media posts, the potential for hysteria to emerge is real.
So, what to do? Stress is a reaction to internal or external threats (see Newsletters ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017 and ‘Anxiety’ – 24th July 2017 for a detailed description) and this is what drives behaviour. It is a critical factor that is often not understood and that is when you are stressed you will make behavioural decisions from the part of your brain that is connected to the threat. In this case it will be the emotional brain and in adults this part of the ‘thinking process’ is hardly cognitive. We cling to hope and in our emotional/social brain we go to the immediate community for help. This is a time when we need to go to the experts for assistance.
Dealing with stress is extremely difficult when you are under attack and today you’re being threatened by a disease, a loss of so much social support and really being told to work in what others are calling a dangerous environment. The advice to ‘just stay calm’ underrates the immense pressure you are being asked to work in.
Throughout our work we have talked about stress and the need for our difficult kids to control this. Now it’s time for us all to apply those techniques to this situation. This is by applying boundaries between yourself and the presenting problem (see Newsletter ‘Boundary Considerations’ – 31st July 2017). The steps are:
1. Stay Calm
I know this is difficult but it is very important. Take a few deep breaths, count to ten or even repeat this deep breathing for a minute. You can take the edge off your anxiety if you do this.
2. Ask the Questions
What is Really Happening?
In this instance we are being threatened by an epidemic that has real potential to alter our lives; realistically it already has. But, we must keep this in perspective. The Corona Virus-19 is one of a series of Corona Viruses. So far most will have slight symptoms and those who get ill will survive. The most at risk are the elderly and those who are immunocompromised; that is are having treatment for aides, cancer or other medical condition.
Who is Responsible?
Really at this stage it is pointless to blame anyone however, when we get through this it is prudent we assess the performance of those who have been in charge of the community response.
What Do I Want to Happen in the Long-Term?
This is the critical question and I’m sure we would all like things to return to normal. Maybe that will never happen, maybe this will make us re-think our selfish attitudes and become a more compassionate society. However, the immediate task is to follow the advice from the experts. This is available from reliable sources and remember whenever you start to feel overwhelmed apply these boundary questions to remain calm and logical – it’s our best chance.
Marcia and I wish you all the best in these uncertain times. Look after yourself and as always be the person you want your kids to become.
"I think I can. I--think--I--can. I ---think--I—can” are the famous words from the American fairy tale The Little Engine that Could. This is the well-known story that encourages the values of optimism and hard work and in 2007 it was voted into one of the top 100 books for children by the American National Education Association. Of course, I am a fan of positivity and effort but only if it is authentic. The reason I cite this work is to illustrate the influence of the thoughts, the words have on the outcome; the little engine succeeds in the end.
This Newsletter follows the previous one (See Conversations 10th March 2020) and continues to examine the power of words!
Just what is self-talk or our inner voice? It is what we experience when we are thinking, that verbal dialogue when we are conscious of our thoughts. In its developed form it takes place as a dialogue between two or more assessments of a situation. In our model it is the process of making-a-decision on how to act to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium, to feel satisfied and safe. The words we use reflect the internal state of our memories about this or similar situations, they are learned. However, our ability to ‘try out’ different scenarios to solve a problem in our heads depends on what we have accumulated from our existing environment.
Since the advent of modern functional imaging of our brains we have been able to take a closer look at the process. For the most part the same parts of the brain are activated when you are having a conversation with another person as happens when you are engaging in self-talk. The areas of the brain are Broca’s area with the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus but the internal dialogue activates more neural areas. This reflects the two conditions; when talking to another we primarily act on our perception from the outer world while during self-talk our perceptions are internally generated and are less prescriptive, that is we are exposed to a range of options.
Like all behaviours and the memories that underpin them, self-talk is a learned practice. From as early as the 1920’s Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky recognised this internal, private voice and hypothesised that this private speech developed out of the child’s social dialogue with parents or primary caregivers. Recently it has been established that the internal dialogue becomes dominant at about age four, almost coincidently with the emergence of the child’s theory of mind and sense of separation; that is, they are aware they are unattached from others and their thoughts are private. In a sense this is the beginning of Freud’s Super Ego the critical, moralising self that judges us relative to cultural expectation.
During these Newsletters we have discussed the type of development young children who are raised in abusive/neglectful environments experience. This is summed-up in the type of dialogue used by those who suffer Toxic Shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017). The narratives they learned, ‘you’re useless’ – ‘you are hopeless’ – ‘don’t do that’ – ‘you can’t do that’ become the storyline of their internal voice. Changing this, to become like the Little Engine is difficult because, paradoxically there is a soothing quality to these messages. The child is at least familiar with these words and has some knowledge of how to deal with them albeit this acceptance impedes efforts to make a change for these kids. This is at the heart of the struggle in helping to make a change.
So, what to do?
As becomes evident in this work, teachers have to present an environment that allows the children to develop behaviours that suit that environment and let go of those evolved during their dysfunctional past. In this case we have to provide the storyline we want them to adopt. When talking to them replace their shame-based comments self-talk with more appropriate remarks, instead of their ‘I’m useless’ say ‘I know this is hard but you can do this’.
Never be afraid to teach children about how their thought processes work – this will empower them, and as an aside it is important you understand your own potential inner critic. We live in a ‘thou shall not’ type of world and working with these kids is hard enough without the burden of your own destructive self-talk! So, teach them:
They have the power to manage their own thoughts
They can treat the internal critic as a competitor to be ignored or overcome – answer back with a positive, counter assertion
Take a reality check, just what is the internal voice telling you. You can’t change if you don’t know from what
Recognise where these thoughts come from, they are memories of past experiences that do not have to be repeated
Have a goal, if we want to replace the negative past we have to have an imagined future. Setting goals gives our behaviour a purpose and shapes our new self-talk
Finally, and most importantly when you script a positive self-narrative never refer to yourself in the first person, never ‘I’ or ‘Me’ but speak of he, she or use your name. A great illustration of this occurred when Le Bron James, the famous basketball player was contemplating a change of teams on 2010. He was quoted as saying “one thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision, I wanted to do the best for what Le Bron James wanted to do and make Le Bron James happy”; this is not a sign of egotism but of taking the emotion out of the decision. We are all very good at giving others calm good advice. It is time to do the same for yourself.
Self- talk can be a destructive force in all our lives but the kids we focus on, those very difficult ones really suffer from a constant, internal critic that is the voice of their past memories and emotions that in turn, drive their dysfunctional behaviour. By providing them with an alternate narrative and reinforcing this by teaching them how to use another supportive dialogue you can help them regain control over their behaviour.
Just as a post-script, it probably is unhealthy for any of us to have a 100% positive spin on life. We are human, we have limits and we certainly make mistakes. I can say ‘I think I can ... I know I can … ’ about lots of things that are well beyond my abilities. This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human and that’s good enough for me and should be for everyone else. But, I should know that I deserve to have every opportunity in this life and so do our kids!
In the previous Newsletter (see ‘The Importance of Emotions’ 3rd March 2020) we discussed not only the importance of the emotional condition of the student in the lesson but also the difficulty the teacher has in determining that state. To avoid misinterpreting how the child is feeling and the problems that can cause, we turned to conversation to clarify the real emotional situation. However, like all things about educating those difficult, damaged students it in very likely these kids struggle to make meaningful conversations.
It was first acknowledged as early as 1995 that children from low socioeconomic areas were behind in their language skills. Claudia Wallis in her article ‘Talking with—Not Just to—Kids Powers How They Learn Language’ (Scientific American Mind May/June 2019) points out that these kids are likely to hear 30 million less words than their peers from wealthier groups. This figure is an average, of course there are wealthy families that don’t talk that much and the converse is true but it holds as an average.
I have no problem hypothesising that children from abusive and particularly neglectful families will have an even greater disparity. The well documented effect abuse and neglect has on over all brain development will exacerbate this problem.
John Gabriel of the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology has confirmed the early hypothesis but has realised that it is not just the number of words they hear, the quantity but the way in which they hear them, the context. That is, it is hearing the words in conversation that is the factor and the better the quality of that conversation the better the development of the child’s conversational skills. In fact, it has been calculated that every additional conversation increases the child’s verbal ability.
In a future Newsletter I will discuss the importance of self-talk in self-managing behaviour. It is widely accepted that we think in word, that is we talk to ourselves about the situation we experience. Of course, it is not that simple we experience emotions, especially things that frighten us without a dialogue. One view is that the words follow the feelings another view is the two are linked and, as we will explore, self-talk can influence emotions. Either way, kids with traumatic backgrounds are disadvantaged. First, they will have a limited vocabulary which will restrict the breath of their thinking, therefore their behavioural options. Secondly, the emotions they mainly experience will be of anxiety and fear. Therefore, we should do everything we can do to increase their conversational skills. After all self-talk is a conversation with someone who should be your best friend – yourself and so the richer we can make this the better will be our relationship with ourselves, our sense of self!!
We need to be a bit more specific when describing conversation, it needs to be a real exchange, not the teacher ‘talking’ to the student but what is described as conversational twinning or duets. This back-and-forward exchange means the student has to understand what the conversation is about, that is really comprehend what was said and then respond appropriately. For abused kids this is definitely not likely to be an easy task. They rarely participate in family conversations and are less likely to be expected to have an opinion. So, how do we develop this critical skill, for these kids in a busy classroom?
There is a wealth of excellent information on teaching conversation available on the web and teachers, especially in primary school are well trained in this practice, so the following comments, although appropriate for all students are really aimed at our special kids.
If you work in a school that has some of these students, and that most likely means all of you reading this, it is important to create a planned part of your day that provides an opportunity to develop conversation. This can be group discussions, circle activities where you create a continuous conversation one sentence per person around the circle or one on one conversations about topics you introduce. You can design spaces, say in a library that encourage children to talk together or ask open ended questions that challenge children to go deeper as they express ideas.
Be aware of the character of your students, some will love to dominate any conversation, they love the sound of their own voice. These kids can severely intimidate kids who lack the confidence to join in, they are afraid of being exposed. Don’t force the issue, if you push them to participate their anxiety will increase and the conversation will be lost. Of course, some kids are generally quiet and are happy to listen.
There are plenty of strategies, things like working in pairs, having circle discussion moving around with each child contributing to build a conversation, this encourages them to listen. As pointed out above a conversation requires the participant to understand what was said before constructing a suitable reply. Dominant members of the circle are prone to just wait for the other to stop talking so they can have their say. Teachers should be aware of this, in the unequal authority between teacher and student it is easy for the teacher to ‘know what should be done’! This is disastrous but I know I am often guilty of this very thing. If you have to, teach listening skills!
The next thing is to decide on what topics to teach. This is up to the imagination and creativity of the teacher, there is no real limit. But, it is not always easy to get the right topic at the right time. You can have the same amount of success if you have a ‘Topics Jar’ which is full of issues that will start conversations. You can just pick one out and have that as the topic of the day!
However, with our focus on helping those students with severe behaviours it is advantageous to discuss topics that will help them come to terms with their circumstances and discover new ways to approach their schooling. A couple of suggestions are:
What are some of the things you feel grateful for today?
What do you have but don’t need but are happy you have?
What are some things you have that are easy to complain about but are glad you have for rainy days?
What do you get to do that other children can’t do?
Did you have a chance to be kind today?
How do you think other people feel when you are kind to them?
Who gets teased at school and why?
How do you think the kids doing the teasing feel about themselves?
Does anyone ever try to stop teasing?
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
What feeling is the most uncomfortable – embarrassment – anger – fear – or something else?
What are some things you could tell yourself when your brain tells you things that are too negative to be true?
How will you face your fears?
Helping kids whose behaviour is driven from a history of abuse and/or neglect is a principled profession but it comes with an extremely challenging responsibility. However, at the heart of all their behaviours is an emotion that drives their behaviour. Helping them comprehend what is going on for them in the presenting environment requires them to think and they need the words to make that process meaningful. By improving their ability to have a productive dialogue with others strengthens their ability to talk to themselves!
The importance of the emotional arousal in the student is vital if learning is to occur. After all learning is in the first instance based on the formation of memories (see Newsletters: ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017, ‘Empathy’ - 18th February 2019 and ‘Sense of Self – Part 2’ 23rd September 2019). In these essays I have emphasised the importance of getting that level of stress just right, not too little, not too much. It is this stress that provides the energy required to form new memories, to learn new things. But, what is the difference between stress and emotions?
Neuroscience provides plenty of complex answers to this question but for our purposes the difference between stress and emotions is that stress is a response to demands or pressures from an external force. For school children it is the teacher along with the contents of the lesson. Emotions are internally stimulated in response to a feeling about the situation the student experiences. This ‘feeling’ is not related to any concrete understanding of that situation but the arousal will be a result of the stimulated emotional memories.
So, we have two broad types of memories that are present when we are faced with a new situation. The cognitive, extrinsic memories that are the narrative of what happened before in the same or similar situations and the emotional, intrinsic memories of how the situation we are observing reminds us of the feelings of previous experiences.
It is important to understand that young children form and rely on emotional memories far more than the cognitive memories required for academic learning. Very young children are incapable of articulating memories of things that happened to them other than at the time of the immediate experience; they can’t recall that situation in the future. This is known as infantile amnesia.
The earliest recollections you have about your childhood will be after about the age of three. This is when the hippocampus, that part of the brain that initiates cognitive memories is developed enough to lay down the required neural networks to store that memory. More recent investigations suggest that it is the small region, the dentate gyrus, the bridge between the hippocampus and the surrounding structures that is developed at this time. Either way, emotional memories dominate early childhood understanding of what happens for kids and the extent this dominates decreases slowly as they develop. If you ask a child under ten to tell you about their life the conversation will be brief, very brief in most cases. Contrast this with the narrative a teenager will supply if you ask them the same question and you will be there for as long as you can stand it! It stands to reason, emotional memories dominate the developmental stages of childhood and so, learning is an emotional activity!
The importance of emotions was dismissed during the rationalist era in the early sixties. That is when science became fixated on ‘evidence’ and gave rise to terms like ‘if you can’t measure it is not worth considering’. The then leading psychologist, B. F. Skinner led the field and as a result consideration of emotions was a lower form of understanding. This has influenced the psychology of education ever since and it still does. Educational rationalism dominates academic research and bureaucratic curriculum development in a time when the same alliances lament the falling academic achievements of the students they ‘study’. I disagree about the ‘falling standards’ but that is for a different time but I do know that the level of emotions, like the level of stress does impact on the quality of academic learning that will take place for that child.
Authentic teachers understand the importance of emotions for kids to learn. This is why their relationships with each child is so important but as adults we ‘know best’, we understand how the kids feel. We all know the saying ‘don’t assume because it makes an - ass out of - u and -me, well like most adages there is some truth for all us teachers, especially those in primary or junior secondary. If you assume you understand how they feel at any given time and about any given task you will make a fool of yourself and you more importantly will be doing a dis-service to your pupils.
While thinking about these ideas I came across the concept of phenomenology, roughly speaking the idea that rational bias conflicts with lived experience. For the purposes of this work it is that our rational judgement about how and why a student is feeling like they do may well be at odds with exactly why they feel the way they do. It is more important that you find out how they feel about a situation than you ‘seeing’ how they feel about it. To avoid this all you have to do is ask!
I have referred to phenomenology, not just because it is a big word that makes me feel important but because it is the study of the subjective experience of life, the internal view of the world. We have made the point above that children’s learning is dominated by the emotional content of the lesson therefore we need to take the kid’s view of the lesson not what we think it should be if we want them to learn. This is not easy to achieve but the following steps will help:
Give a voice to the kids; ask them for their opinions and join in adding your own views about the topic. When they are talking really listen, don’t wait for them to stop so you can tell them what it’s like. You have to create opportunities for these discussions to take place, it is your teaching duty!
Don’t judge them or the situation they are describing. If as a class discussion allow lots of different views and discuss each without judgment. Encourage controversial and/or ethical discussions. There are plenty of ethical dilemmas you can use at an age appropriate level. This helps the kids understand the complexity of life including their own and it helps develop their critical thinking and moral development.
Teach kindness, we are always encouraged to have empathy, to understand how the other person is thinking or feeling. From this work I hope you get the idea that it is impossible to understand ‘how someone else feels’ or ‘walk in their shoes’; I understand the attraction of ‘experiencing’ what the other is going through but you can’t, and saying you do is can be insulting. I prefer the concept of compassion, we understand the other person is feeling bad, we don’t know how that feels but we know it hurts. Kindness is the step beyond compassion, it is actually doing something for the other or about the situation.
In your classroom publicly recognise acts of kindness and call-out acts of meanness. Develop a culture of caring for others. You can get the class involved in volunteering work where they help those less fortunate. There is lots of evidence about the benefits of such programs for the students and the culture of the school. This teaches that the pursuit of happiness is a selfish occupation, it relies on some external response. The pursuit of kindness is the attempt to produce happiness for others but the magic of humanity is that it leaves you feeling good.
Finally, and as always model – model and model the behaviour you want from your students. The fact that acts of kindness will make the child contented can be multiplied for the teacher by the number of students they assist.
In the last Newsletter (Expectations – 18th February 2020) we tried to explain how the process of decision making is linked to the student’s sense of self, the antecedent condition they bring to any situation. In class, we want them to ‘decide’ to learn the contents of the lesson but we understand, especially for those students with a toxic sense of their self that there are a multitude of other concerns in their environment that can attract their attention. These ‘other things’ will inevitably be perceived threats to their social survival.
The process is like this:
There is a situation with various ‘focal points’, each will bring up memories of past experiences.
These memories will allow us to predict what will happen now, given these circumstances.
That expectation will have a strong emotional content. For damaged kids these are typically, frustration, fear or hatred.
The culmination of this sequence is that they will decide on a path of action, based on past experiences that will reinforce the existing sense of self.
How the child navigates their classroom is through their previous experiences – children learn to ‘know something’ about what will occur and prepare them for what they expect to happen. Damaged kids are more likely to expect the worst, hence the negative feelings like fear, etc. This is where the relationship with the teacher is critical!
There is a ‘popular’ view that we have to get the emotions out of the way so we can learn. Emotions are very important in any lesson. We need to be stressed to behave and behaviour leads to learning. The trick is to be appropriately stressed, not too little or not too much (see ‘The Intricacy of Stress – 19th June 2017) by the situation that leads to what we want them to learn.
The teacher has a professional responsibility to develop a relationship that supports both the significance of the lesson and, more importantly the integrity of the student. This is a relationship that is really a one-way street. The teacher really has to give without any expectation of a return. However, the reality is that you will get so much more back but these rewards are not easily recognised. These kids can change but it takes a lot of time and a lot of the change takes place long after they have left your classroom. We all know that most people had a teacher who really inspired them – the thing is rarely do these teachers know what a wonderful job they did. It’s the same here.
The quality of the relationship with all students starts at the very first meeting – even before a word has been spoken. Your very appearance will affect their opinion on how much of a teacher you are. I’m a great believer that all teachers have a ‘uniform’; it is to be modest, neat, clean and appropriate for the lesson. A mistake many young teachers is to be ‘cool’ and dress to appeal to the kids. This never works – you are their teacher not their best ‘friend’, you have to be their authority. Your room is also central to this ‘first impression’. How it looks reflects how important you think the work carried out in that space is, that is how important is the lesson.
These initial arrangements send a message that the work we will do is important.
As soon as the teacher speaks the personal connection becomes more influential. Trust is vital for any relationship and people will give more credence to non-verbal communication. The break-down of the emotional content of any dialogue is consistently given as:
7% is conveyed in the words that are spoken.
38% in the tone of the voice
55% in the body language, how you hold yourself, your facial expression, etc.
I’m not sure how these figures have been established but I’m sure they reflect the importance of each element of any personal communication. This means that 93% of the vital emotional content rests with the messenger and not the message!
The interpretation of these perceptions is hard enough for all children but, as usual it is more difficult for those who have a history of abuse. These kids will:
Minimise or misinterpret any positive message. Because they have been ‘disappointed’ so many times before they have lost trust in those in authority.
They are hyper-sensitive to negative clues. As mentioned above, damaged kids anticipate the worst and will scrutinise at the presenting environment for any possible threat.
Commonly developed their sense of self in an abusive situation they have an extreme disability in understanding or ‘reading’ the non-verbal cues. The inconsistency in their parent’s emotional reactions to situations never allowed them to use those emotions to predict what will happen next!
Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming signal. It is a feature of abused kids to have a high level of emotional reactivity. As children they were not taught to sooth themselves when they were ‘hurt’ and so when they think they might be threatened they become crushed by their emotions.
These un-natural, but understandable responses to your best efforts can be disheartening but you must remember you are dealing with students with a real disability. These kids need the same patient understanding normal infants get when they are learning to walk. When they fall down we understand they are just learning and we encourage them to try again. When these kids appear to reject our efforts understand we will have feelings such as disappointment but don’t be had by those feelings, encourage them to ‘try again’.
So, how you interact with the student will make a big difference in the emotional quality your relationship. Understand that when these students are faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
‘I can’t do this …’?
‘Everyone else will laugh at my ….’?
‘I hate …’?
A caustic teacher who is examining their work, who may well be trying to challenge the student, could make comments that reinforce their negative opinion of themselves. Don’t make destructive comments like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best work’?
‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:
‘How can we make this …’?
‘What can we do to …’?
‘What will it look like if …’?
We understand it takes a lot of time to change the past memories, especially for those kids who have little of no experience of a positive expectation in their life. But, it can be done. By consistently presenting an environment that reflects a consistent, persistent and supportive (there are those words again) environment children can change their expectations of the future and when we achieve that they gain access to their imagination. They become free to choose their way in the world.
One re-occurring theme in these Newsletters is the importance to consider the processes of the brain – after all, if it’s not the brain that controls behaviour than what is it? Just how difficult your work is when dealing with kids becomes clear when you appreciate the complexity of that vital organ. Attempts to describe this complexity have resulted in some interesting ‘statistics’, the inverted commas indicate my scepticism but it is believed that the human brain has between 80 and 86 billion neurons almost half in the cerebellum. To remind you of how many that is: a million seconds is equal to more than 11 days; a billion is the equivalent of 32 years; 86 billion takes 2,752 years, that’s a lot of seconds.
Now add to that the fact that each of those neurons has 1,000 potential connections, that is the neural networks that control our cognition have 1,000 different possible ways to connect to the next neuron and this goes on through a colossal number of possible connections to compose a thought! The reality is that the number of possible neural arrangements in any brain is infinite and just to make it a bit more challenging it constantly changes.
Tim Wilson, in his book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ contends that our cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute while the unconscious mind will check out 12 million sensory inputs for threats or opportunities in that same time. Unbelievable, but you would have all experienced a time when you perhaps ducked to avoid an incoming ‘missile’ like a stray ball and you did this without any conscious effort. You did move because of the effort of your unconscious mind.
How is this enormous complexity relevant to expectations? In our model of the process of learning and behaviour (see below) the attention the students bring to the classroom exists at the junction between the antecedent condition and the situation.
The model shows only one ‘situation’ but we know that the child, and the teacher has a potentially 40 ‘identified’ situations and so many more unrecognisable. That is, what the student will make a decision about, how to act in that instance of a lesson depends on what they require for homeostatic equilibrium, that is what is concerning them at that moment and what they see as helpful in that environment. Toby Wise of the University of London points out that people prioritize their attention when determining safety or danger in a busy setting, such as crossing a road. This suggests that people pay more attention to things they have learned is associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs.
Children, from abusive backgrounds certainly have learned to be hyper-sensitive to potential dangers and whenever they feel threatened in class they will act to deal with that threat. I looked back over the past Newsletters for some background references for you but I came to the realisation that this concept is one of the significant elements that is at the heart of all our work. Kids who have lived through frightful situations will have a predisposition to see the potential danger in any situation and so they are unable to see that moment of time as an opportunity to learn.
There are two things that help that situation. The first is to deal with the antecedent condition and this is the student’s sense of self. Students with a sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017) will always see any lesson as a threat. Remember, they see themselves as being a mistake and therefore any actions they take will be mistaken. They fail before they start!
Recent newsletters have discussed the sense of self (16th and 23rd September 2019 and 3rd February 2020) and the ambition for the teacher is to develop a sense of self-worth and capability. If they learn to see the lesson not as a threat but as an opportunity they will make the decision to act in a way to get the consequence of learning the lesson; that is, they will have a path through the learning process.
The second problem is the how the environment is perceived. This is where the learning environment is critical. This ‘lesson preparation’ is our bread and butter, we need to:
Understand the specific & explicit goals of our lesson
Students know what the purpose of the lesson is
Have lessons targeted at their ability
Communication through various mediums (white board/smart board etc.)
Work areas and materials organised
Pace the Lesson
Time for students to guide their own learning
Early finishers tasks…
However, for these damaged kids, and I contend for all kids we need to go beyond this ‘text book’ approach. None of these factors address the problem of the student’s expectations. None of these factors alleviate their fear of failure. The real ‘preparation’ for teaching these kids is in the formation of a strong, professional relationship (see Relationships 10th February 2020) that will enable the development of their independent, empowered sense of self.
In the model presented above it is the feedback loops that will change the student’s sense of themselves, that is the antecedent conditions they bring to school. Just as children in functioning families required emotional support while they learned their value, these children, even though they may be objectional teenagers with highly tuned oppositional defiance, they also require that same support. As professional teachers you are obliged to provide that support and meeting that obligation will be one of the most rewarding professional experiences you will enjoy in your career!
In our last Newsletter we discussed how important relationships are when correcting student’s behaviour. This applies to all students but especially to those whose conduct is particularly challenging. When we think about relationships we generally consider a transactional connection between individuals, transactional because we expect to contribute to that association as much as we anticipate it being a source to address our needs.
However, relationships between the teacher and student does not have a ‘transactional’ component, it is a one-way process. In general, teachers harmonize with parents providing the age-appropriate support for each child. A healthy parent provides support for the child as they learn to behave in a way that allows them to eventually learn to get their needs met in their environment. In early childhood the parent does almost everything for the child, as the child masters a behaviour they move on to a more sophisticated behaviour. Eventually, in the teenage years the child will demand independence from the parent and if that process has been successful this will be a smooth transition. Those of you who have had teens will definitely understand that the kids think they are ready for the world long before you do but things generally work out.
The same transition is observed in our school yard. Kindergarten kids need a lot of personal support as they learn. The teacher provides plenty of encouragement as they face new challenges. As they develop, that control is gradually passed back to the child and by the time they graduate from school, if we have been successful the students are independent learners.
This is all well and good however, for the kids that come from abusive families that ordered progress does not exist. From the previous Newsletter and one on relatedness (21st October 2019) we have discussed the problems for those kids when they are in a ‘school environment’ that clashes with the one in which they developed their behaviour. They have to start again – in regards to behaving, they become as needy as any infant. This will require the teacher to ‘parent’ a child that although physically may appear to be close to maturity will be undeveloped in their behaviour. This demands a special quality in the teacher, to treat a threatening, abusive teenager like a treasured infant is a challenge and that is what I want to discuss in this essay.
I believe that humility, on the part of the teacher is the distinctive quality of the relationship that best describes what is required to support these kids, and in fact all kids. We have time and again pointed out that consistent, structured consequences for behaviour is the key to making a change and we have also reinforced the reality that this process takes a lot of time. To hang in with these kids takes a lot of inner strength but this is not to be confused with self-confidence. Humility is a quiet confidence in your ability as well as an acceptance that you don’t know everything.
This adoption of humility is covertly at odds with the current mentality of modern management practices which regrettably dominates teacher training. Let us explain, the focus on T&D in NSW at least is on the development of leadership skills. I’m on record as saying that leadership is a quality that emerges to address the problems of the environment in which it exists; it has a ‘bottom-up’ quality. To train novice teachers for leadership roles requires a ‘top-down’ approach where proficiency comes not from experience but from ‘a book’. My concern is that when you successfully learn the lessons from theory you are captivated by its narrative. The belief you are now qualified is reinforced by your supervisors which develops a misplaced degree of self- confidence.
In our system this self-confidence is regarded as a desirable characteristic and an asset when seeking employment or promotion. The competitive nature of the organisation requires teachers to sell themselves through resumes or interviews. The result is that we can easily believe we have the characteristics outlined in our training and revealed in any application. We feel like we are experts and we become susceptible to what is known as the Dunning-Krüger paradox, that is we falsely assess our performance. The work that underpins this paradox has shown that poor performers in a task over estimate their ability, that is over confidence correlates with under achievement. Meanwhile, those who have a degree of self-doubt about how they perform achieve much more than others. This is particularly so when dealing in a social enterprise like teaching.
Humility is underpinned by this modesty about your abilities but also your real sense of worth as a person. There is a reassurance when you accept that you have flaws but also gifts to share. Humility is the opposite to toxic shame where, if you make a mistake it’s because you are a mistake. With humility when you make a mistake that’s OK you can learn from it and move on. This allows you to be grounded in reality, valued as a human and able to provide a model for the students you teach. Humility is its own reward.
Your humility will be a gift for your colleagues and importantly, those you teach. If we rely on the external validation of our abilities, the T&D courses and the creation of our resumes, if challenged we are compelled to defend ourselves. To admit that we are unsure is to reject the process that produced our self-confidence. To retain our sense of expertise we must reject any idea of failure. One of the problems is that those who defend their behaviour in the face of evidence that confirms an error lose their credibility while those who publicly question their actions endear themselves to their contemporaries.
Humility is essential to having a healthy relationship with all students but none more than those damaged kids we are focused on. It allows us to really engage with them when things are difficult. Because we are unsure we are more willing to listen to them, how often do we feel the need to butt into their conversation to tell them what to do. When we really listen to them we may find some new information that will help us both deal with the situation but more importantly when we really listen we are confirming their value to us.
When they see us admit we are unsure, that we will seek help we are letting them know that we are not perfect and that’s alright, and they get permission to make mistakes without being a mistake – never under estimate the power of this.
To paraphrase Saint Vincent de Paul, wanton self-confidence is nothing but a lie while humility is truth. For kids who have a history of abuse, an adult who embodies truth provides that parent that was missing in their early years of development.
Welcome back, this blog started at the beginning of 2017 discussing Bullying which was at the centre of the media’s attention to schools and since then over 100 Newsletters have followed. In the break I went back and looked at this work and was pleased with the number of topics we covered. May I suggest you have a look and please share this resource with any of your colleagues; it’s free and we do it because through our careers, both Marcia and I understood the problems children with severe behaviours pose for teachers, especially in those ‘tough’ schools. We also understand that both pre-training and on-the-job development rarely, if ever addresses this issue. So, welcome to the New Year.
At the beginning of this year we have found ourselves reviewing this work we do addressing the problems children with severely dysfunctional behaviours present to the school - not to mention the destruction that behaviour brings to their own lives. We have spent years thinking and working on this conundrum and, not to dismiss the extreme complexity to do with any discussion regarding behaviour over the next few Newsletters, we want to share with you our underpinning philosophy.
The first premise for our speculations is that we are biological, that is we are living organisms made of cells that interact to support our life. The fundamental defining conclusion is that these cells form specific genes that drive our evolution. It is our genes that determine our humanity, plant genes determine the flowers and so on. Further, to maintain our life, we transform energy into behaviour which allows us to survive and reproduce, to maintain the condition known as homeostasis in the environment in which we exist. We do this based on what we have learned through experience and these memories define our self! So we become a catalogue of memories of how to act to address deficits in our survival in our environment.
In previous Newsletters (Sense of Self, 16th September 2019 and Sense of Self - Part 2, 23rd September 2019) We discussed the progressive process of the development of our sense of self and how it impacts on our behavioural decision-making, these are worth revisiting. This Newsletter emphasises the importance of the child’s relationships in determining that sense of self. One thing is certain – our sense of self is our brain in action; it is the interface of our complex outer world with the developing, complex state of our inner world. This inner world consists of memories, of those we inherit, those we develop unconsciously and those we learn.
Remember, the fundamental drives, to survive and reproduce lie beneath the concept of homeostasis, that is the compulsion to behave in a way that addresses any situation that creates the stress that comes from the discord between our necessities and their availability in our presenting environment. At the primary, physical level, if we hold our breath for too long we experience an overwhelming desire to breathe. However, most ‘learning’ on how to behave, especially in the social realm is taught to us in the early years and that is predominantly by our primary care giver, usually mum.
Throughout these Newsletters and in our books the early establishment of behaviours that are ‘designed’ to deal with our social world have emphasised the fact that behaviours are learned to deal with the presenting environment. For kids raised in abusive and/or neglectful conditions the lessons learned will be their best chance to survive in that environment regrettably they will not be appropriate in a more functional setting. Therefore, in order to deal with situations that place them in a state of disequilibrium in the contemporary environment they are placed in a complex situation, facing conflicting messages from our ‘memory’ in order to make sense of the outer world.
Unlike the majority of students raised in a functioning home, who arrive at a point where the lessons they have learned makes them feel free to make choices on how to behave in order to get their needs met at school. For these damaged kids, their inability to identify any behaviour to make sense of and deal with a perceived threat from the external world of the classroom leaves them immobilised. The resulting distress is a form of ‘madness’, a psychological pain and/or confusion that they cannot easily sooth and so they act in ways that they use to alleviate this pain. These are their out of control behaviours we observe in class.
We all see the world as an ordered integration between our self and the external world. We move around the possible connections depending on the reality of both self and our external world (see below) in any set of conditions. For a given situation there will be times when any permutation is ‘healthy’, you may be happy and the other will be happy or it may be appropriate for you to be sad because of the circumstances in the other world. It is healthy to experience the appropriate emotional state for the situation in which you may find yourself; this is normal.
However, for a child who has predominantly suffered the negative experiences of early childhood abuse and/or neglect, these healthy interactions are unavailable. Their toxic sense of self (See Newsletter Toxic Shame, 7th March 2017) will dismiss the sense of happy self/world.
Instead of a real sense of who they are, and for that matter really, who is the other person they construct a ‘self’ that cannot be maintained and becomes disordered. This disordered self oscillates between an idealized world and a punishing one.
In these simple models a child can potentially experience six different senses of self but only one at a time. If they see themselves as ‘good self’ then they could make a judgement about the ‘other’ as being good or bad. Tragically these damaged kids have had a life where they never experienced a sense of autonomy and whether they felt good or bad depended on the behaviour of the ‘other’, life is done to them! This results in a rigid, inhibited personality that struggles to behave appropriately in any situation.
The task of developing a normal, healthy sense of self for these kids is extremely difficult even if they could access effective psychological support. However, you – the teacher can help these children develop their sense of control over their behaviour which will lead to the emergence of a healthier sense of self. And, unsurprisingly this is through providing a supportive, stable and persistent structure in the classroom where they learn the connection between their actions in the classroom environment and what happens to them.
However, just providing this structure is not enough. Remember, the development of a sense of self occurs in the early years and the characteristic of that sense is determined by the interaction between the child and the primary care-giver at that time. The real quality of that relationship determines the effectiveness of the structure. These severely damaged children require the same personal support while they learn to manage the new environment and the teacher needs to provide that support. This responsibility is never articulated in any ‘job description’ but if you want to make a difference you need to concentrate on the maintenance of a healthy relationship even when their behaviour challenges you personally.
So, once again it is the structure, the persistent and consistent consequences along with a compassionate relationship that will best help these needy kids and what a surprise it is these are the same elements that provide the best learning environment for all kids. We understand that this is extremely challenging but we can assure you that there is nothing more gratifying then seeing these kids succeed!
The focus of our work is to help teachers and schools deal with students who disrupt lessons. For as long as I can remember this has always been the number one issue identified in surveys about teacher concerns. However, recently the unreasonable non-educational work load placed on teachers has become equally stressful. This doesn’t mean the problem of students with dysfunctional behaviour is no longer a problem, it is just that the increased work load has added to the pressure felt by teachers.
It would be fair to say that there is little acknowledgement of the problem created by these students despite the overwhelming evidence that their presence has a significant effect on the teacher’s ability to deliver quality lessons and the classmates of these children ability to learn.
Addressing this problem is at the heart of all our work and to date we have provided over 100 Newsletters that point out the causes of these poor behaviours and describe techniques to help, not only the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom but also assist these students develop new ways to get their needs met.
Recently, the latest PISA results were released and like clock-work the politicians and shock jocks were on the band wagon criticising teachers and pontificating their solution to this ‘failing’ – predictably BACK TO BASICS! I have always been critical of this test and our local NAPLAN equivalent. There are lots of reasons these tests are flawed. NAPLAN, for instance is supposed to be a ‘snap shot’ look at the student’s progress without any special preparation. Anyone who thinks those conditions hold today is naïve. Some schools spend much of their time preparing for the test and concerned parents send their children to ‘special’ tutoring to ensure they ‘pass’. There are many other ways to manipulate these figures.
However, Trevor Cobbold, the National Convenor of Save our Schools has examined the latest findings by the OECD about the results and I will quote extensively from his analysis of the apparent failing of our kids. It is evident our students do not try in the test because they have become disenchanted with our school system! Trevor highlights three main causes.
“First, the high and differing proportions of students not fully trying across countries has explosive implications for the reliability of international comparisons based on PISA and that country rankings cannot be trusted. A research study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research last year shows that even with modest but differing proportions of students between countries not fully trying can cause large changes in PISA rankings.
Second, other new data released by the OECD shows a large increase between 2003 and 2018 in the proportion of students in Australia who are dissatisfied with school. This may have led to increasing proportions not fully trying and therefore may be a factor behind Australia’s declining results.
Third, high proportions of students not trying on PISA may also explain, at least in part, the contradiction between Australia’s declining PISA results (for mostly Year 10 students) and improving Year 12 results. PISA has no consequences for students – they don’t even get their own results – so many might not be bothered to fully try. In contrast, Year 12 results matter for future careers and life changes so there is a greater incentive to try hard. The significant improvements in Year 12 results are an indication of an improving education system, not a deteriorating one”.
This increase in Year 12 is encouraging but for our students it is meaningless because by the time they reach 17 years old, if not before poorly behaving students are out of the system. However, it does recognise that teachers are doing their job and instead of being criticised they should be supported to deal with the problems in the lower Years where these behaviour problems exist.
As I pointed out above, dealing with students with severe behaviours is at the heart of our work. It would be encouraging if Universities really dealt with this issue and prepared their trainee teachers in techniques to deal with dysfunctional behaviour. Looking through the courses offered by Universities and talking with new graduates it is evident that they are ill-prepared to take on a tough class.
As 2019 comes to an end it’s time to reflect on the year that was. From our position the year had mixed results. The amount of work we have done in schools and elsewhere has slowly increased and we have plans to build-up that support in 2020. As mentioned the number of Newsletters has passed the 100 mark and I have completed my next book, ‘Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ and it has been picked up by an international publishing company based in London and New York thus providing us with another way to provide support.
Since ‘retirement’ we are one step more displaced from the work place and so not as aware of emerging issues. We would encourage you to let us know what you think of our efforts and provide us with specific problems we can address. You can contact us through the web page, send a text or ring.
Finally, this is the last of the Newsletters for 2019, another year over. Marcia and I would like to thank you for not only hanging in with those difficult students who really deserved to be helped and for supporting us. It is the hardest of work sometimes but I know and you should know you can make a life altering transformation for some kids. You may never know but I assure you that if you approach these kids with respect and a clear purpose you will be the difference.
Take time to relax, recharge your batteries and get ready for another challenging year.
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.