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Monday, July 06 2020

The "Wounded" Child

Early childhood abuse is the most significant cause of dysfunctional behaviour in schools and society.  It is important that teachers and all sectors of the education community understand what constitutes abuse and its prevalence in society.  This Newsletter addresses this issue.

 

In 1962 there was a ground-breaking publication that identified the damage and impact of early childhood abuse and neglect on their subsequent behaviour.  This initiated the understanding of the link between the treatment of children in their early years and their later sense of self and ability to relate to others.  Led by the psychiatrist C. Henry Kempe the paper “The Battered Child-Syndrome” identified the trauma associated with abuse and subsequent cognitive alteration.  This opened a flood of research into this topic and today most developmental psychiatric illnesses have their foundations in early childhood experiences.  These disorders do not include those abnormal behaviours that are the result of a physical defect, things like psychosis, autism and development delay.

 

This is the first in a series of Newsletters that deal with abuse and neglect and the impact these, often comorbid actions have on the child.  This article will deal with a description of abuse and neglect and their prevalence in the western world.

 

Abuse

We describe abuse as any action that invalidates a person’s worth.  It is an assault on a person’s physical or psychological self.  These attacks can range in intensity from mild irritation up to being perceived as life-threatening.  It is at the intense level the damage is done to the developing brain.  In the general literature there are three categories on abuse as mentioned.  These are:

 

Physical

This is the use of intentional force against a child’s body or an unwanted invasion of their physical space.  It can be:

  • Hitting
  • Holding Down
  • Exaggerated Tickling
  • Pulling Hair
  • Twisting Ear
  • Etc.

 

Psychological/Emotional Abuse

This is a form of abuse where the child’s psychological boundaries are violated.  This can take the form of non-accidental verbal or symbolic actions that are likely to result in significant psychological or emotional harm.   Forms of emotional abuse are:

  • Attacking the worth of the child by rejecting them, terrorising or isolating them.
  • Telling the child that they are stupid, un-loveable or unwanted.
  • Being overly harsh in criticising the child.
  • Punishing the child when they become emotional – don’t be a baby, etc. or when they show no emotion when it would be appropriate to do so.
  • When the love of a parent is conditional on their behaviour (I will love you if …)

 

 

Sexual Abuse

This abuse is when an adult or older adolescent uses the child for their sexual gratification or for financial profit of the person committing the act.  This can include:

  • Unwanted touching or penetration of the sexual organs.
  • Adults exposing their own genitals to a child.
  • Exposure to inappropriate sexual experiences or information (i.e. Pornography).

Sexual abuse is a silent destroyer of too many young children in our society especially with the easy availability of pornography on the Internet.

 

There are other forms of abuse that do not get the coverage in most literature but are equally likely to expose the child to toxic levels of stress.  These are:

  • Intellectual Abuse – this occurs when a child is placed in a situation where they are asked to perform a task they are developmentally incapable of successfully achieving.  An example is when a child is given a glass of milk to drink before they have developed the motor skills required for this task.  When they fail they are either labelled as useless by the parent or confirm to themselves the belief that they are at fault because they failed.

 

Intellectual abuse also occurs when a significant other compares one child’s performance against another child implying one is better than the other.

 

  • Spiritual Abuse – One type of spiritual abuse that occurs is when the parents put themselves above the child.  The child must ‘worship’ the parent.  A contrary form of spiritual abuse occurs when the parents put the child above themselves.  The child becomes the focus of their devotion, they can do no wrong.  These children never learn to take responsibility.  In the first instance the parent knows best and you just do as you’re told.  In the latter form the parent will not see any faults in the child’s behaviour and so they never get the natural consequences when they make a wrong choice.

 

The second form of spiritual abuse occurs when ‘religions’ teach that God will punish sinners and all are condemned unless they conform to some dogma.  People who work with children brought up in some cults attest to the damage done through this form of abuse but it would be a brave politician who would underline the damage done when adherence to the word of any god is criticized.

Vicarious Trauma

This is a complex type of abuse.  It occurs not when the individual is the target of the assault but is a witness.  It is an issue for all those who work in highly stressful vocations such as police, reporters and even teachers who work in very difficult communities.  However, for the purposes of linking abuse with subsequent behavioural difficulties I will limit the description to incidents that occur to children.  This happens predominantly on families that experience domestic violence.  This is particularly challenging for children who watch their mother being beaten by a partner.  In a subsequent Newsletter I will describe the acquisition of trauma but for now it is enough that the child is forced to watch what is in reality their source of life be threatened.  The fear is overwhelming and equal, if not more damaging than a direct attack on their person.

 

Neglect

Neglect, if not an overt form of abuse it is a close cousin, it is a passive form of abuse.  It is the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs.  As mentioned earlier, this neglect in a developing child will fail to construct the neural pathways that have been developmentally expected.  When these genetic windows for development stages like attachment are activated, and there is no stimulation then the neurons will be pruned and the opportunity to meet the developmental threshold is lost.  Forms of neglect are:

  • Physical – failure to provide for physical needs such as food.
  • Medical – not providing medical care when the child is sick or needs dental work.
  • Emotional – lack of nurture, encouragement, love and support.
  • Educational – lack of providing educational resources and ensuring regular participation in schooling.
  • Abandonment – leaving the child alone for long periods of time without any support.

 

There are countless studies into the frequency of child abuse and these are frightening and are most likely under reported.  The general view is that from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.  This means that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students to suffer this syndrome.  Although PTSD occurs in every socioeconomic level of society it is not equally distributed across the landscape and resource poor suburbs are reported to have levels of up to 23%.  So, in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD. 

 

Magnitude of Childhood PTSD

When first described Dr. Kempe estimated the occurrence at 6 per 1,000 children or 0.6% of the population experienced early childhood abuse.  However modern studies estimate between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. 

 

These numbers vary across each countries’ economic landscape and across nations.  One can only imagine the level of PTSD amongst the children in the war-torn nations in the world.  The financial cost to conduct a war fails to comprehend the potential future intellectual benefits we could enjoy if these children were allowed to develop their minds to their true potential.  War is societal abuse on children and is sanctioned by political leaders.

In the US the Child Protection agencies get around three million reports each year. This involves 5.5 million children. Of the reported cases, there is proof of abuse in about 30%.  From these cases, we have an idea how often different types of abuse occur:

  • 65% neglect
  • 18% physical abuse
  • 10% sexual abuse
  • 7% psychological (mental) abuse

However, girls are more likely to be abused then boys because girls are more likely to internalize their feelings while the boys that attract the most attention because they act out their pain therefore being recognised as being damaged.

Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD. 

 

The next Newsletter will describe the impact abuse and neglect have on the structure of the brain.

Posted by: AT 08:43 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 29 2020

Pedagogy

At the beginning of these last three essays I promised to discuss the significance of the way we conduct our classroom to ensure we could get the best learning outcomes.  We have discussed structure and expectation and now I will address what I described as ‘lesson content’ which I often refer to as the pedagogy of the lesson.  I have to make a clear distinction between what I mean as the pedagogy and what is generally accepted in the education community.

 

The common belief is that pedagogy is the study of how knowledge and skills are communicated between the teacher and the student.  This is a huge area of study and is well covered and understood in any teaching course and rightly so; it is extremely important.  The difference between what is understood and what I want to add to the discussion is that like most theoretical approaches the approach is top-down, that is it is up to the teacher to put the knowledge and skills ‘into the student’.  I will argue that it is the teacher’s role to present the topic to be studied so it is available to the student which would literally be exactly the same process but it is also the responsibility of the teacher to produce an environment where that student can focus on the lesson.

 

Learning, be it knowledge or skills is the acquisition of memories and the ability to manipulate those memories to address presenting challenges.  Learning is not a top-down process it is bottom-up under the ‘control’ of the student.  The key consideration is what does the student want to or need to learn rather than what we want them to learn!

 

In a previous Newsletter (see Motivation Students – What Drives Them’ – 03/14/2019) I discuss my model of human needs and the following are the major points:

  • The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied.  When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance.  Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens.  If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on to either cool or heat the environment as required.  In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.

 

  • The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:
    • Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically comfortable.  If we are too cold we will seek to warm ourselves.
    • Secondary Drives - our need for emotional stability is controlled in the limbic system.  This is predominantly focused on our social acceptance.
    • Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes.  This is where we satisfy our curiosity.

 

The point is the teaching goals are focused on the tertiary part of the child’s brain but access here is only achievable if the child’s social and physical needs are satisfied.  

 

Throughout these essays there is a theme that understands that children with severe behaviours are subjected to stress in the classroom because their expectations learned in a dysfunctional home clash with that of the school.  These issues have been well canvassed but there is more to consider for all kids when ensuring their primary and secondary drives are satisfied.  Kids are not little adults and they need to develop skills that will allow them to ‘survive’ in their community and eventually reproduce.  The following is an illustration from Andrew Fuller that explains the different developmental stages.

What is well known is, in the early years the brain sets itself up to learn new skills. It does this by providing an excess of the material myaline that consolidates memories by creating a sheath around newly formed neural pathways to consolidate that pathway (memory) and make it more efficient. 

 

This process of creating and consolidating memories continues throughout life.  What is particularly important for the teacher is the formation of peer relations and self-esteem critical for the development of the child’s sense of self.  For most kids this is a process that occurs consistently both at home and at school but for some, those raised in dysfunctional homes there is a conflict.  This is where the teacher is required to address this disparity. 

 

Successful teachers, particularly in primary schools, the age these skills are under construction almost reproduce a sense of family in their classrooms (see Newsletter - The Tribal Classroom’ – 08/10/2018) where social skills are part of the hidden pedagogy!  Professor Bill Mulforde of the University of Tasmania has shown that “some of those other outcomes of schooling, such as socialisation, are in fact better predictors of later life chances such as employment, salary and so on, than literacy, numeracy and exam results”. 

 

Recent studies have shown that about age eleven this same excess myelination is present in the prefrontal lobes.  This is the time our ‘teenage brain’ begins to mature.  This is the part of the brain that is required to succeed in academic pursuits.  Again, the teacher needs to deliver the content of each lesson understanding that there is a need to progressively make the coursework self-directed so they graduate as independent learners.

 

What I have not discussed and really what is never overtly recognised is the arrival of each child’s sexuality.  The PDHPE syllabus does address sexuality but apart from a period when some schools adopted the Safe Schools initiative that supported the diversity of sexual expression, those kids with more complex needs are ignored.  Like most, I have no advice about this problem other than to understand it exists and is significant for all children and be aware that solving simultaneous equations is hardly going be more interesting than a first infatuation!

 

This essay doesn’t really give ‘rules’ on what to do.  Somehow good teachers get these issues and we get through these stages of development however, for those kids who have been raised in difficult homes the teacher has to be doubly aware that their growth from learning the rules of being human, mastering communication skills and successful socialisation on to becoming a productive, reproductive adult is a difficult task!  This is why structure, expectation and of course strong relationships are indispensable.

 

 

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Monday, June 22 2020

Expectations

In the last Newsletter we discussed the importance of structure as part of this expanded examination of the characteristics of an effective classroom learning environment.  The underpinning concept that defines structure is that there is a realistic connection between actions and the consequences of that action.  This assumes there is a recognised framework in which this process operates.  This is where expectations are important; what we expect to happen depends on the customs of the environment in which the action is taken.

 

Perhaps the foundational assertion of our work in regards to children who are raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that the behaviours they learned to make the most of their opportunities to get their needs met or more likely to minimise the damage inflict upon them by their abuser.  They had learned what to expect in a given situation.  The importance of this work is to teach these children to predict what will happen in this new environment.   Of course, this is not the case for those children raised in chaotic, unpredictable families who come to our schools with no expectations at all.  For those kids who have been raised in an environment where they had no idea what would happen to them we need to provide the link between what they do and what happens next. 

 

Until the child experiences the new set of consequences their existence can only be a speculation; an imagined world if you like.  The following diagram illustrates this process.

This is the connection between what is the remembered experiences and what could be the imagined result of their actions.  In this process the emotional content is significant in any decision made and is expressed as a form of stress.  Having built up our behavioural repertoire through remembering the outcomes of previous experiences each ‘situation’ will generate a level of stress depending on how damaging was that incident.  If left unchecked when these children are faced with a situation that has the memory of a negative outcome the student descends on a negative emotional cycle that may start with frustration and if not resolved generate a level of fear about any future event with the same beliefs.  The power of these emotions excludes the child from even imagining a different outcome.  If this is attached in any way to the school, the work or interpersonal relationships they will eventually hate going to school; unable to imagine any other outcome but failure.

 

Unfortunately, we see too many of our kids, particularly when they are in upper primary of secondary completely disengaged from school.

 

The task for the teacher is to build-up an alternate bank of memories that will allow the child to choose an imagined experience as the result of their actions.  This process takes time, time older students with severely damaging behaviours do not have a lot of.  This underlines the importance of the need for predictable and consistent delivery of consequences discussed in the last Newsletter.  However, there are other ways to teach these kids the ‘rules’ of their contemporary environment.  One method which came into fashion was the teaching of social skills.  The leader in this field was Arnold Goldstein the professor of Psychology and Education at Syracuse University.  He introduced a method of social skills training in 1973 to deal with juveniles in detention.

 

He overtly taught the children in his charge how to act in a manner that would be acceptable within the cultural environment that is for us, the school. This was done through the following processes:

  • Modelling – the children are shown examples of how to behave in a given situation where previously they have failed to get what they want.  The model needs to be someone who the students respect.
  • Role-Playing – The students are given scenarios to investigate through acting out how they should behave.  This process can be threatening at first but will become a powerful tool in changing behaviour.  Remember, the brain, where memories are formed and stored after a while will form the memories from the role play as an alternative choice for the student.  The scenarios, at first are provided by the teacher, later can be from a random list or when engaged at the request of the participants.
  • Performance Feedback – This initially is provided by the facilitator but as the students engage they can all contribute.  Approval is the best type of reinforcement and as the skills become more accepted there will be an intrinsic reward that follows.  They will start to enjoy the process of rehearsal and the rewards that go with that.  The satisfaction comes when they take these new skills and use them successfully in their day to day experiences.

 

Finally, the way the teacher corrects the dysfunctional behaviour is significant.  When the student acts in an inappropriate way it is very important that the feedback is exclusively about the behaviour and nothing to do with the student.  We have all witness teachers who, through lack of training or sheer frustration make comments like:  

  • ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
  • ‘Is this your best you can do’?
  • ‘Why did you do that’?

 

These comments put the blame on the student.  Instead they should say things like:

  • How can we make this ‘…’?
  • ‘What can we do this ‘…’?
  • ‘What will it look like if ‘…’?

 By using language that projects into the future with an improved outcome the student is more likely to be able to imagine a better future.

 

Teachers who face-up every day to students with such challenging behaviours are also subjected to the challenges of expectations.  Over the many years I worked with these difficult kids I rarely, if ever was given the type of encouragement I would give to the students.  Children, the authorities identify as bad are generally placed in programs that attempt to make them invisible.  The teachers, who work with these kids experience this same insignificance.  This is not fair, I contend these teachers should get the most attention for the difficult work they do but, working with these kids any notion that life is fair is soon discarded.  Like the kids, you have to cling to the fact that these kids can take control of their actions and when they do they get the real intrinsic reward that drives their behaviour.  You also have to look for that same intrinsic behaviour when you see your students taking control of their life.  There can be no better reward!

Posted by: AT 01:36 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 15 2020

Structure

In the last Newsletter (see ‘Nature vs Nurture’ – 8th June 2020) I made the point that to assist these children with severe behaviours we needed to create an environment that helped them develop a new set of memories that would drive an alternative way for them to deal with stressful situations.  Of the three major components, structure, expectations and lesson content, it is structure that is the most important to be delivered at the beginning of the change process.

For the sake of this essay, structure means the predictable coupling of actions and consequences, that is if I do this, that will happen!  Of course, this condition is not realistic, in the real-world if I do this there may be a lot of possible outcomes.  The example I use when discussing this with students is as follows.  Say I choose to drive home as fast as my car will go and on the other side of the road.  There are a lot of imaginable consequences.  I could:

  • Have a direct crash with an oncoming vehicle
  • Force all the approaching cars off the road
  • Be killed by losing control and hitting a tree
  • Be arrested
  • Really enjoy myself and get home early
  • Etc.

The thing is, as a mature adult I can imagine these possible outcomes and make a mature decision that is best for me – drive home safely on the right side of the road.  All the outcomes above could still happen but compared to the other decision I might make the chances of this are very low.   It is this ability to predict future outcomes that empower us to make smart decisions.

These Newsletters have as their focus assisting children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment.  The form of abuse can vary.  In some cases, the assault on the child is always delivered the same way.  It might be dad bashing the child whenever they ‘make a mistake’.  The result is the abuse is predictable and the child learns a behaviour that best deals with dad’s abuse, this feeling of having some control is transferred to the classroom and these kids are not usually a major management difficulty.  This is not a ‘better’ form of abuse it just has different long-term outcomes for the child.  

The children that do cause the most trouble in the classroom are those raised in an abusive and unpredictable environment.  This range of possible outcomes is different than the example above.  In that case there was a sense of logic between the choice of action and what may happen.  For these kids there is no understandable connection between what they do and dad’s, or mum’s response.  The chaotic behaviour of the ‘parents’ is a result of parent addiction or mental illness.

Take the example of a young boy being in a fight with a peer and this is reported home.  One possible outcome is that dad belts the child for fighting.  The next time this happens dad praises the boy for ‘being a chip off the old block’; the next time he takes the child to make peace with his rival, etc.  What the father does depends on how the father feels and, although more sophisticated kids can take this into account they can’t in early childhood and so never develop a set of memories that would allow them to predict what might happen the next time they are faced with such a situation.

The use of structure, the close association with actions and consequences when dealing with these dysfunctional kids is to reconstruct the conditions the child should have experienced in early childhood.

New-born children have no capacity to make a choice and are dependent on others to get their needs met.  In a healthy environment this is what happens, at first completely and then the babies start on the road to control.  Initially, they may learn to cry when they are hungry, they cry and mum feeds them; crying works – the action gets the desired consequence.  As they get older this feels a little less structured but good parents and teachers of very young children still consistently control the outcomes which is the predictable environment.

As the children develop they should be encouraged to make decisions about how they should behave but never about an issue that the child does not understand the harmful outcomes of a wrong decision.  It is not ‘good parenting’ to ask the child what they would like for dinner and when they say a popular take-a-way which is repeatedly advertised, they do not understand the implications to their health now and in the long-term, so should not be making the decision of what to have for dinner.

The ‘out of control’ students that we are discussing have missed the early years of encountering predictability and so we have to create the conditions to deliver that experience.  Teachers sometimes are reluctant to introduce such a tight structure into their classroom because the majority of kids are well beyond this phase of development, they can deal with a degree of freedom to make decisions.  However, presenting such a predicable classroom will not hamper any of these advanced kids’ development; knowing what to expect makes everyone feel secure.

For those kids who are ‘out of control’ we need to reconstruct the conditions they should have experienced in early childhood.  The more we can couple the consequence to the action the quicker they develop a new set of memories and these can replace those that drive their dysfunctional behaviour.  This means in the classroom we need to develop a set of rules that describe the behaviour and what happens if you act that way.  These can be desired outcomes, positive reinforcement or just the opposite, negative consequences.  In a previous Newsletter (‘Creating Structure’ – 12th August 2019) I have described the process of constructing the type of desired environment.

 Choosing behaviour all gets back to applying memories of what happened in the past and imagining what will happen in the future.  The purpose of structure is to build a new set of memories that hopefully will eventually replace those feelings of hopelessness these children have because they never developed consistent conditions that allowed them to imagine a future.

A note to the teacher; if you are dealing with a fourteen-year-old child understand you are dealing with fourteen years of memories.  Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately change, this takes time and when they are really threatened they will have no choice but to revert to their dysfunctional behaviour.  But, if you hang in long enough they will eventually understand the link between what they do and what happens to them and if you do this for them you are setting them off to a life with some sense of empowerment.

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Monday, June 08 2020

Nature vs Nurture

Historically we have argued about the strongest influences on our levels of achievement as to whether it is our genetic make-up, (our nature) or our experiences (our nurture).  This has consistently shifted towards nurture as being the dominant feature.  What is important for us teachers to remember is that it is in this field we operate.

At the time of conception, a child is subject to a given genetic blue print that determines its physical self; their hair colour, how high they grow, etc.  I must point out that these pre-set specifications are not all definitive, for instance the height of a child will vary depending on their diet, etc., but in very recent times the discovery of the process of epigenetics shows that we continually alter our genes.  This is the gene’s response to their environment but of course that is part of their nurture!  For the sake of this essay the child’s genetics determines their capacity including their cognitive potential.

 As educators we are most interested in the brain and how best to interact with it to maximise the student’s learning.  Despite the Pollyanna view of many education leaders in that if we try hard enough for long enough we can all succeed, the myth of meritocracy prevails.  In reality children are born with a normal distribution of all features including their potential ‘learning achievement’.  This capacity to learn is reflected in the efficiency they can establish memories and their exposure to experiences!  That is, the child perceives a situation, tries an action and if that works ‘remember’ to do that next time the situation occurs.  When the child is motivated for whatever reason, the neurons in the brain try different combinations to generate the desired action that will result in satisfaction.  Eventually they come across one sequence that succeeds, this success motivates them to try again.  If this next attempt is also successful the pathway becomes stronger eventually being myalinated, coated with a sheath for efficiency and is stored as long-term memory – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’!   Nature is not a form of egalitarianism; some kids form these memories after a few exposures while others require a multitude of repetitions to make the connection! 

If you have taught mathematics you will have experienced this difference.  Some kids only have to be told once how to do a computation and they get it and remember it.  Sadly, I have experienced those beautiful kids who try, and try to learn for example, how to multiply fractions and by the end of the lesson they ‘get it’ but tomorrow, when they return to class ‘it’ has gone – much more work is needed for this to become a long-term memory.  This variation in the ability to form memories is expressed as a normal distribution when aggregated across the total population; most in the middle and fewer as we move away from the average.  Where any child finds themselves on this curve has nothing to do with their worth or character it is just their genetic inheritance.  So, if they are on the extreme they will have very different abilities through no fault of their own.  

But nurture is different in the sense that, unlike genetics the characteristics of the environment in which a child is raised is imposed on them.  They had no choice about who would be their primary ‘carer’.  Throughout these Newsletters we have discussed the importance of the developmental environment in the formation of behaviours (See Newsletters – ‘The Impact of Poverty and Neglect’ – 20th August, 2018 and ‘Poverty and Student Success’ - 19th November 2018).   We have focused on children who are raised in chaotic, unpredictable homes where the connection between what they try today that works will work when repeated because the parent’s response is different there is no consistent firing of networks to allow memories to develop. 

For this discussion we need to focus not on this deficit but describing the type of environment that will provide the best opportunity for the students to build a rich and varied neural architecture.  In the next few newsletters I will discuss these features in detail but for now they are:

  • Structure – all kids need to know what will happen when they act, this is how they construct their memories
  • Expectation – everyone needs to know what behaviours will create what outcomes.  This is like structure but is a shared quality between teacher and student.  We need to know what works to solve problems.
  • Lesson Content – I have proposed that in the first instance the ability to quickly create memories is a significant indicator of academic success.  The next characteristic is the assortment of those memories.  The richer and secure an environment is, the more memories are developed.  The more stored memories you have, the better equipped you are to solve new problems.

It is important to keep in mind student achievement is directly linked to:

  • Their genetic make-up
  • Their developmental environment

When considering issues around education I find a pictorial approach helps me think and draw conclusions, they are sort of thought experiments.  Below The following diagram I devised to illustrate the significance of these factors.  It is not critical to examine this for the points I want to make but I suspect some will find it helpful.

I have used an arbitrary measure for achievement (Units of Achievement) which allows for comparison.  I have chosen four students, S1, S2, S3 and S4 and they fall on either, extreme end of the curve.  In this set-up we have two born with very poor neural efficiency (S1 and S2) and they find memory formation extremely difficult.  S3 and S4 have been born with the natural ability to quickly form and retain memories.

We now take these students and raise them in environments that reflect the conditions at either end of the curve, one end extremely neglectful with no experiences that would at least stimulate the formation of memories.  At the other end these children are raised in a warm and secure family with a rich and varied set of experiences, they have plenty to form memories about.  To mix the starting points I have exposed S2 and S3 to the neglectful environment and S1 and S4 to the fertile environment.

Taking a scale of 100 Units of achievement for both nature and nurture in a perfect world a child could achieve 200 units.  For the illustration I have given them a position 5 Units inside the maximum, so for nature:

  • S1 and S2 get 5
  • S3 and S4 get 95
  • For nurture:
  • S2 and S3 get 5
  • S1 and S4 get 95

When you aggregate their scores:

  • S1, 5 + 95 = 100
  • S2, 5 + 5 = 10
  • S3, 95 + 5 = 10
  • S4, 95 + 95 = 180

It can be seen that there is a potential difference of 160 units of achievement for students, born with very poor cognitive abilities and raised in a very neglectful environment, to those who have been gifted with cognitive potential and raised in a highly supportive and fertile environment. 

The point we have to keep in mind is that no matter how a child is born it is their community, their family and school that makes a difference and it can be a big difference. None of these fictitious students had a choice in how they were born and what they were born into and their achievements at school are out of their control.  However, how the influence of the environment which impacts on the child’s achievements is the responsibility of our whole community.

It would be nice if governments recognised this reality and provided real support through pre-school, school and up to universities but we know how far this is from the reality schools face today.  So, again the task of helping those kids falls to the schools and for those with disabilities, linked to their nature it will be our public schools that bear the load.  I know we always rise to the occasion with the assets we have but just think how much more we could do if we were properly resourced?

Not doing so leads to a massive loss in human potential!

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Monday, June 01 2020

 

Teachers just faced the most stressful conditions they have experienced, with the very swift transition from school based to on-line learning only to return to an environment that at any time could prove life threatening for them, their colleagues and students.  In this Newsletter I will examine the real mechanics of stress, the abdication of the employer’s responsibility and the need to completely modify the current industrialised approach to providing public education.

Throughout these essays the underpinning message has been for the struggling students to succeed and we need to achieve two things:

  • Develop a sense of self that allows them to approach their learning with confidence
  • Provide an environment that does not attack the child’s sense of security and provides them the opportunity to succeed to their ability.

Although both conditions are required for teachers the responsibility to achieve them is not shared.  In fact, it is the quality of the environment that determines the level of stress teachers have to deal with.

I just looked up workplace stress on Goggle I got 217,000,000 results (0.63 seconds), that is 217 million bits of advice.  I have had a look a few of these and as I already understood they all had advice for you on how to deal with that stress.  They were about looking after:

  1. Your Health – diet, smoking, exercise, etc
  2. Support Structures – reaching out to others, finding someone you can share your problems, etc.
  3. Self-Management – take control, say ‘no’, manage your time, etc.

I read one list that advised you ‘become lord of your destiny’! 

I remember a few years ago when the Department provided a substantial sum of money to ‘cure’ principals from their stress.  All that happened was a consultant made a lot of money and we principals were really left with the understanding that, if we couldn’t cope it was our fault!  But, that’s like telling someone who is about to be assaulted that if that was about to stress you it was your fault – no one would do that so why do they blame the teachers for their stress?

No one would argue that teaching is not a difficult job and no one gets through many days without being put into situations that generate stress.  That stress comes from dealing with developing children.  We soon learn that in most cases these are problems to deal with.  Occasionally you would get a few kids that were really difficult and had to be dealt with. In recent years the numbers and the extreme expression of the dysfunctional behaviour has become more significant.  For some schools the Government’s support for private schools has allowed concerned parents to take their students away from the public sector and their attempts to stem this drift has developed selective schools.  The result has been the residualisation of the comprehensive school.  On top of the kid’s behaviour you have to deal with their other kids’ diverse talents and disabilities not to mention their parents!  Remember the presence these stressors are out of your control!

You can add to this increasing external environmental difficulty is the demands on you from the Department.  In my almost fifty years in schools I witnessed the exponential growth in a teacher’s administrative responsibilities.  Today there is a recognition of the excessive burden placed on the teacher and the increasing onus on teachers to provide evidence that they comply with these demands.

The diagram below is an attempt to illustrate the problem:

The amount of stress a teacher accumulates is a balance between the external demands placed on them by their employer and their ability to handle these demands!  When the teacher’s resilience is equal to or greater than the external stressors the teacher will be able to function effectively.  However, when these external stressors are greater than the teacher’s resilience then the teacher is suffering a type of abuse and will be required to use their cognitive energy to survive thus rendering them less effective!

Where does the responsibility lie to solve this problem?   As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, look for any advice and almost exclusively it will place the obligation on the individual.  Even the small support the Department provides is directed at helping teachers increase their resilience.  A popular phrase used was to increase your capacity.  This implies that if the teacher can not provide enough resilience to deal with the external demands then they are the problem, they failed because they were just not good enough!

This is faulty logic that suits the status quo, the same argument that is applied to meritocracy.  It delivers equal demands to all workers and when some succeed, then not to do so means you are a failure; ‘if you have a go you will get a go’! 

A significant result is that because few of us want to fail and even more admit to that failure we go back to school day after day using most of our cognitive energy just surviving, this is what I’m calling toxic resilience we appear to be coping when in reality we are not only suffering continual intellectual abuse we are not being able to teach to the best of our ability!

The Department consistently praises the teachers for their efforts but never ever take any responsibility for their side of the equation! In their WHS Policy they assert:

The department is committed to:

1.11 – providing everyone in its workplaces with a safe and healthy working and learning environment.

They are not complying to their own legislation.

For the first time since retirement I am pleased not to be at a school, I am sure I suffered from toxic resilience through many phases of my career and at my farewell I made the comment the job is now undoable.  Today with the continued growth in demands and now being ordered to teach in a pandemic without the physical ability to provide the recommended conditions even the most resilient teacher would be lying if they claimed to have it all under control!

I have no advice that’s better than you can get readily on the internet but I think my approach to boundaries (see Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries - 31st July 2017) is as good as any.  What needs to happen is the external demands are reduced to a level where all teachers can meet their directives and have the energy to then teach their students.  Maybe its time to become ‘lord of our destiny’ and demand change.  I can’t see how the Department is not breaking its own law and perhaps that’s where this problem will be solved!

Posted by: AT 09:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 25 2020

The Voice

‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is Latin for ‘I think therefore I am’.  This is one of the fundamental truths of philosophy but René Descartes’ purpose was to prove our existence.  This Newsletter takes a more personal interpretation of this saying.  Our behaviour is driven by our memories and this is the thinking that underpins our actions.  For kids who have a bank of memories laid down in abusive, traumatic environments, their thoughts almost guarantee dysfunctional actions.

None of us are impervious to thoughts of failure.  We all suffer those unwanted thoughts that creep into our psyche when things are not going well.  Research has shown that 94% of people experience unwanted thoughts.  In extreme cases these intrusive thoughts are at the heart of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where the fear that something bad may happen stops sufferers from living a fruitful life.

Anxiety is at the heart of these unwanted, intrusive thoughts.  I’ve just returned from golf and standing over a three-foot putt to make a birdy guarantees my negative self-talk was in full swing.  However, my problems pale in significance when you consider the self-talk of those children who have developed early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We have discussed some of the types of thought patterns when we examined the sense of toxic shame that is interrelated with early childhood PTSD (see Newsletters Toxic Shame, 3rd July, 2017 and Vacuous Shame, 18th September 2017).  The belief that they are faulty and not worthy drives their thought patterns and when they face a classroom task those beliefs have them failing before they start.

So, what to do?  If you were a therapist you could take the time to help them learn that these are thoughts, they exist and they are powerful but they are fuelled by the student’s own history.  But, as a teacher you won’t have the time nor the training to undertake such an intervention.  Teachers always have the wellbeing of their students at the forefront and the natural thing to do is support these kids through praise or reassurance.

Both these approaches are at best marginal in helping.  Saying things like ‘you can do it’ reinforces the importance of the task.  Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University came across a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's in 1863 which stated: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."  Wegner conducted a test on his students asking them not to think about a polar bear while undertaking a set task.  He found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not there hence ensuring it is.  Saying to ignore the negative thoughts ensures they will be present.

Another problem with always reassuring those students is that by doing so you are reinforcing their sense of self and providing attention they may enjoy.  You have to remember that they are comfortable with their beliefs, at least they know ‘what will happen.’  Some students embrace their sense of helplessness and become reliant on your reassurance.

Praise is not any more effective.  It may work for children under the age of seven as they take all your comments at face value.  However, by the time they are twelve they interpret your praise as a sign you think they lack the ability to do the work.  By the time they are teenagers they discount praise to such an extent they equate it with criticism (see Newsletter Dangers of Praise 12th September 2018 for discussion on praise).

We are in the business of teaching and correcting mistakes is a key tool in achieving the acquisition of new knowledge.  We have to criticise the mistakes all kids make and this is a challenge when dealing with these kids who not only know they have made a mistake, they think they are a mistake, the hallmark of toxic shame.  No matter what the problem, be it their behaviour or their classwork you can criticise their work without depreciating the student by following these steps:

  • Be specific, explain the situation as you see it; ‘this is what is wrong’.
  • Acknowledge the positive thing that the student has got right.
  • Empathise, tell them it is not easy for anyone especially the first time they try.
  • Remain calm, don’t let them see you are frustrated with their efforts even if you know they haven’t really tried.  These kids don’t fail on purpose, they fail because they expect to!
  • Keep to the task at hand.  If it is a behavioural problem don’t be side-tracked by discussing something else that happened.  Be like a broken record, this is what we have to deal with now.
  • Be specific in what you want from them.  Don’t assume they know what to do even if you have explained it over and over.  Kids get the message at different times so be patient.  Even if they are trying to annoy you remain professional.
  • Explain the outcome that will be achieved if they do as you expect.  For every action there are consequences and they need to be reminded that they are free to do whatever they want but they will not be free of the outcomes.

Working with these kids is the greatest challenge for any teacher and it is easy to let your guard down.  The following are some of the classic mistakes we can make:

  • Ignore the problem, some behaviour management theorists recommend you ignore problems but only if they are not important.  I agree but it is part of the art of teaching and depends on just how good an ‘artist’ you are.  Sometimes ignoring is just a sign you are too tired to do the hard thing. 
  • Send a double message, you say the right things but your body language and tone of voice, the non-verbal cues are sending a different message.
  • Being impatient, don’t hurry through your explanation.  This tells them you don’t care, or think they are a waste of time.  These kids need more time.
  • Talking too much or too little.  Get in and make your message as effective and efficiently as you can.  Kids, everyone gets turned-off when the ‘teacher’ goes on and on.  Give them the Goldilocks instructions, not too short, not too long but just right.
  • Keep your emotions in check, never lose your temper if you lose that you have lost the student.

I’ve called this Newsletter You’re the Voice after a hit song from John Farnham.  In our family there is a division about just how good he is but there are parts of the song that teachers can apply to this problem:

‘We have the chance to turn the pages over’
 

‘You're the voice, try and understand it’
 

‘With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better’

 

You are often these kids’ only chance, you have the power to help so be their voice until they can speak powerfully for themselves.

Posted by: AT 09:04 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 18 2020

Purpose

One of the hardest things to achieve when working with students with dysfunctional behaviour is to instil a sense of purpose that is beyond short term satisfaction.  In fact, this is a problem for teachers dealing with all students.  Any serious examination of life’s purpose leads to a philosophical exploration into what makes a ‘self’!

In the preparation of my new book, currently in print, I spent a good deal of time examining what characteristics I would like the students to have when they graduated from school.  I have posted a section from that work (Changing the Child) in the resource section of our webpage, Frew Consultants Group that will outline the conclusion I came to and what I mean by the following characteristics:

  • Sense of Self – feeling you are of value
  • Relatedness – able to navigate in your community
  • Autonomy – having a sense of competence and the confidence in that ability
  • Aspirations/Purpose – having something meaningful for which to strive

It is this last point that is the focus of this Newsletter.

At the fundamental level our purpose is to survive and reproduce, these two drives control all our behaviour (See Newsletter Drives and Needs - 11th November 2019).  When we are threatened or need something in our lives we will become stressed and behave in a way to address the situation.  Of course, the drive to survive and reproduce becomes much more complicated as we negotiate our way around our community but all behaviour can be reduced to these fundamentals.  I have also uploaded a Chapter from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ in the resource section of the web page that provides a comprehensive explanation of our tri-part brain and how this manages various levels of our integration with our communities.

The focus on aspirations, or purpose has a lot to do with the temporal consideration of our behaviour.  When confronted with a stressful situation, if we act ‘in the present’ we are looking at immediate gratification.  However, if we can project into the future and act in a way that delays our instant satisfaction for the sake of an enhanced outcome in the future we may well be better off.  This ability to resist immediate action or to act in a way that eliminates any future outcome is within our ability.  The notion that you can choose to act is vexed and I do not subscribe to the idea of free-will, not in the immediate sense. I believe what we do is determined and is controlled by the memories we have at any given time.  So, if we want to change behaviour we have to change the memories.  The hypothesis that all behaviour is driven by our memories underpins all our work.

This temporal perspective gives some insight into the significance of having a purpose. The USA’s Declaration of Independence looked to articulate the purpose of their Government and that was expressed in the following:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those who know me will not be surprised that I’m no fan of the American system of Government and I feel the last four words of this declaration reveals its very weakness.  Happiness is about living in the present; it’s about getting what you want – now!  This approach ties the individual to external forces.  If happiness is about getting it follows that we are taking from our external world.  That’s fine while it is available but there are at least two problems.  The first is that, if we rely on the external world to provide our happiness we are at the mercy of things, and relationships that are beyond our control and control is critical for our self-esteem.

The second is more specific to the children we focus on.  Their external world has provided abuse and neglect leaving them with behaviours that encourage further rejection when they try to integrate at school.  If we want to help them we need to provide them with the tools to get a purpose that does not rely instantly on others but act in a way that will provide internal satisfaction in the future; we have to give them a future oriented meaning for their behaviour - meaningfulness.

Meaningfulness is all about looking to the future, delaying gratification for future reward.  It is a path that often forces the student to forgo happiness to pursue their future goals.  This can increase the probability of challenges and setbacks that increase their level of stress.  Living a meaningful life is not easy.

To cultivate this quality in children who have been raised in an environment that has almost completely destroyed any hope for the future is extremely challenging.  It is human nature that our expectations of our future are based on the experience of our past.  The past for these kids has provided little or no real occasions of things that have made them satisfied.

As happiness relies on ‘getting’ things or friendships, meaningfulness requires the student to ‘give’ to the outside world.  It comes from contributing to others, helping others which means forgoing your own ‘happiness’.

So, how do we develop purpose in our students, especially those who have never had hope about the future?  As I said at the beginning, this is one of the hardest qualities to instil in a dysfunctional child.

The first thing is to teach the importance of contributing to the external world be that in learning how to share, to work in charitable activities, to participate with others in a way that teaches the community set of values.  So many of our Newsletters have dealt with the structure, particularly the moral value of the environment but it is important to provide this milieu so the students can move from that foundation into the future.  This is the environment in which they will develop new memories that change their sense of self.

For purpose we need to not only focus on the environment in the classroom but also the work we ask each child to do; this is where goal setting is valuable.  When a child reaches a goal, it provides them with an intrinsic reward which is really a new memory associated with a pleasant emotion.  At first these are short-term goals; abused kids don’t have the luxury of delayed gratification and they won’t stay engaged.  If they are working on a longer project, because the class is more advanced, then set a long-term goal and break it down into bite sized short term goals that allow you to manufacture their intrinsic reward.  Setting goals is an excellent way of encouraging these kids as long as they are attainable.  If they are too hard they will give-up and you will be reinforcing their negative sense of self.

Finally, expose them to as many different experiences as you can.  We want these kids to have a meaningful life but it is not our job to tell them what to pursue, what becomes their purpose.  Give them choice and trust them, eventually to make a meaningful choice!

In my career I often heard parents lament, I just want my child to be happy.  I understand that but the pursuit of happiness is full of risks.  The reliance on ‘others’ inevitably leads to disappointment.  As a teacher it is important that you want your students to live a life with meaning!

Posted by: AT 11:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 11 2020

Trauma and the Environment

Throughout these Newsletters we have consistently maintained the premise that the majority of children who display dysfunctional behaviour at school have a history of abuse and/or neglect that is the cause of their problematic conduct (we have excluded those children whose behaviour is driven by a physical anomaly such as developmental delay, psychosis or autism).  Although we understand there is a real difference between the consequence of abuse and the resulting trauma (see Newsletter - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse – 11/06’2017) and neglect (see Newsletter - The Impact of Neglect 09/12/2017) the merger of both has often occurred for convenience and is the reflection of the reality some children experience.

This combination has long been accepted and as early as 1995 psychologists formalised the impact of both neglect and abuse through the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) index.  This index categorise sufferers based on the number of the following childhood experiences:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • mental illness of a household member
  • problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member
  • illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member
  • divorce or separation of a parent
  • domestic violence towards a parent

In the US over half of all children had suffered at least one of these events.

However, just because there is a strong propensity for these children to experience both abuse and neglect the approach to healing these kids is complex, requires very specialist training and is not nor should be the task of the classroom teacher.  However, we contend that for the classroom teacher the practice we outline is the same regardless of the complexity of the child’s history.

Since the time early childhood trauma and neglect was properly accepted as a significant cause of behavioural dysfunction there was a spate of training programs that advertised themselves under the heading of ‘trauma informed practice’.  From these, teachers were instructed to change their teaching, regarding their behaviour management practices to cater for these kids.  This was setting an impossible task for the teacher and providing no real help for the student.

For the teacher, there is at least two problems; the first I have alluded to above.  Teachers are not mental health professionals and are not equipped to deal with the specifics of the cause of the behaviour.  To modify your behaviour management practices and cater for the individual requires you to really understand the cause of the behaviour and the best way to address that cause.  For a therapist in a one-hour face to face consultation it is hard enough, to think you can do this in a classroom with 30 other kids is farcical. 

The second problem is that by making allowances for abnormal behaviour does not provide the student with the experience of ‘normal’.   

The complexity of dealing with this problem is not surprising, each kid comes with 80 billion neurons that are shaped by unique experiences.  In the broadest possible manner, we can put these kids’ inappropriate development into the following categories:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Development (PTSD) – here the child experiences an assault on their physical or psychological sense of self that evokes a stress response that is beyond their ability to cope (see reference above).  This damages the ability to deal with situations that repeat the conditions of the original abuse, or circumstances that resemble those conditions.  When the environmental conditions change the intense reaction steadily returns to normal.  These kids are often engaged at school.
  • Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD – this is the result of frequent and sustained abuse.  The abusive incidents occur at such a frequency and without warning the child finds it difficult the address any stressful situation.  They have missed those periods of normalcy, peaceful times when they could have learned some coping mechanisms for those day to day disturbances.  So, when they confront the minor stressors found in in any classroom, the traumatic memories evoked are beyond their ability to cope.
  • Deprivation/Neglect – These children have not had the exposure of experiences that allow the child to develop a rich variety of encounters that build their memories.  As teachers we understand the importance of kids being exposed to a lot of different environmental events to build a rich palate of memories.  For these kids not only do they miss out on any variety they fail to be exposed to the most necessary, fundamental experiences:  
    • Affection, this is the key to developing strong attachment and a positive sense of self.
    • Attention is required for a child to get their needs met.  When they are hungry they cry and get fed.  Of course, these strategies change as they get older but the thing is the child gets a sense of control.
    • Structure is crucial for a child to get a sense of safety.  It gives the child the ability to predict what will happen in a given situation.  After relationships, the provision of a structured classroom is crucial for all students to learn.
    • Guidance or lack of appropriate guidance never allows the students to be taught how to operate in social settings.  Little kids regard their parents as being the gold standard for behaviour.  They have nothing to compare with in their formative years.  More often than not these kids have no social skills and so they are unlikeable.

However, as teachers you are left to deal with these very needy kids without the resources you require.  We need to take our lead from the mental health experts and for any therapist dealing with these individuals the first thing they do is try to emotionally stabilise them before they can work on their problems.  Our task is to provide an environment that allows them to ‘stabilise’, this is at the core of our work.  The teacher’s essential task is to present a learning environment that has defined structure, clear expectations and supportive relationships.  These conditions must be in place before meaningful school work can be achieved.

Posted by: AT 09:27 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 04 2020

Prejudice

There is no dispute that in our schools, prejudice exists but it should not be tolerated.  However, it is hard to achieve a state where all kids feel equal.  More importantly, because teachers are more mature, educated and developed, the propensity for us to unconsciously act with prejudice is elevated.  

This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.

The basic characterisation of prejudice is our judgemental attitude to others based on their ‘group’.  Usually, it is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider inferior to our values.  There is the reverse situation where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us.  The significance of this propensity to compare has its beginnings in evolution.  

Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain.  This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning.  This coincided with the time we became a social species a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups bonded.  

This advantage continued but a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other tribes.  This became a matter of us being safe in the in-group and others in the out-group were dangerous.  As this was a matter of survival we learned to quickly identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’

The resulting cognitive alterations, situated in the brain’s emerging limbic system allowed us to survive and thrive because of this co-operation with others.  The ability to identify with our group not only depended on our compliance to the social norms but we quickly obtained the ability to critically examine others’ behaviours and reject any differences.  The mechanics of this perceived animosity began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat.  

Research has shown that when people think in a prejudice manner the amygdala lights-up, that is, it is activated.  This reaction was first observed when white men in the US were shown pictures of other faces.  Their amygdala was more active when shown pictures of black, Afro-Americans indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response.  However, the same anxious response has occurred when shown faces of other races, aggressive women or opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think is ‘other’.  

The broad result is that we view others as being different and in fact we believe those ‘others’ to be homogeneous, to be ‘all the same’!  For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals.  However, if you see a white man of a similar age and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’!  We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction. 

This marked the emergence of self-consciousness, that is we became aware that we were an individual separate from but belonging to others.  We also became selfish, understandable in survival.  Within the group it payed-off to share, we won together.  But with those groups that were not part of us it was a benefit to denigrate them; these outsiders represented a threat.

This prejudice has an impact on health.  Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress.  The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging.

So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps it was in the first instance but this is not the case now.  The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.

On an individual basis the brain develops over time.  The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth.  This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment.  It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not respond to differences in race, gender or class.  In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends.  Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.

However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured, dropped this inclination towards social diversity.  This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens.  It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also drives this need to discriminate in a micro sense.  This meant to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of the out-group.  

This is the period of the evolving teenage brain.  From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations.  You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you.  The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way.  However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley, at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger.  The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us.  This means prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!

The good news is we can unlearn prejudice.  We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:

  • Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
  • Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
  • Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm

Developing quota for positions of power.  There have been attempts to do this and with great success.  France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal.  A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved.  There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!

The real driving factor for change is role models.  This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics.  Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape.  In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol.  Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.

In his last years playing football Adam Goodes was, in every game he played booed whenever he got the ball.  Some commentators said this was not racism, it was just that the crowd didn’t like the way he played and that other aboriginal players were not booed. A common reason given was that he ‘called out’ a young girl who described him as an ape.  The next day Goodes explained he did not blame the girl and she needed to be supported.  He called out the behaviour she had ‘learned’ from an adult. Despite this the apologists kept referring this as him attacking the girl!  

I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point, Adam Goodes made the mistake of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out!  The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!

Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter?  Well we focus on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment.  The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families.  They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream.  

However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances.  Exploited on the basis of their life long rejection.  They are finally convinced they now have the security of belonging.  To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group.  They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees.  They finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them.  All too often this was their school!  

If we want to really support these kids all Australians should look at how their own values are reflected in the schools they support.  Elite private schools, religious and public selective schools all reinforce social prejudice.  They view the public, comprehensive school that serves the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior.  This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament, sadly both major parties must take responsibility for this. 

As teachers, we have to check our own preferences in where we want to work being sure that a desire to teach in these needed schools does not expose your own belief that some kids are ‘better than’ and it follows, others are not.

Posted by: AT 08:53 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
 

PRINCIPALS

John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance


ABN 64 372 518 772

ABOUT

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.

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