The successful integration into a community at any level is crucial for mental health of everyone. For the kids with PTSD, relationships are matters that are fraught with difficulties. The development of techniques to establish significant connections with others, at all levels takes place in early childhood. The different types of relationships are established in a sequential order. That is from the exclusive attachment to their mother up to the affiliation with peers.
The most powerful adult relationship is that to an intimate other. Part of fulfilling the evolutionary demand to reproduce in our society is most often with a significant partner. The power of this type of relationship is made obvious by the initial intensity of the establishment of a loving relationship and the emotional pain when that love ends. This is the last type of connection developed in our species and it is a strong echo of the first intimate relationship with the significant care-giver at birth.
The structure of this intimate connection is first established at birth when the child attaches to the parent. At this time the child is totally reliant on their carer(s) for all their needs, their very survival depends on an adult taking care of them. Attachment theory is a major field of psychology and beyond the scope of this essay but it gives a great illustration of this process. Secure attachment occurs when the care-givers meet the needs of the infant. Not only are the physical needs met so are the social and emotional ones satisfied.
Within the description of the course of development there is a consistent correlation between early childhood abuse and neglect and disordered attachment. And the children with severe behaviours are invariably those with insecure attachment.
It is obvious that if you leave a child alone to fend for themselves, they will die. So, the dysfunctional children who have made it to your classroom have had some support in these early years but not enough. The example of an extreme form of neglect is illustrated with children who were in the found in the orphanages of the Eastern European countries at the end of the Cold War, particularly one in Romania. At one level they were fed and clothed but had little, or no emotional/social bonding or mental stimulation. They just lay in their cots all day. The outcomes are horrific.
The kids causing trouble in our schools may not be so damaged however there are plenty of individual kids have suffered a range of abuse. These kids will not have a secure attachment to their primary parent and as this early failure is the template for future relationships. The difficulty continues throughout development.
When they get to school they should be on the way to developing the next level of relationships and that is the ability to affiliate with other children. In an ideal situation this occurs in preschools or supervised play where the carer givers teach skills like sharing and cooperation.
As said, kids who are unable to form primary attachments are already at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing these affiliations and they are very likely to have parents who do not teach them how to appropriately respond to the inevitable conflict between kids or they don’t even provide the opportunity to learn.
To address this relational deficit in a classroom is an enormous challenge for the teacher but one that must be faced. The outcome we want for these kids is to be a valued part of their community so the task is to make them a valued part of your class.
The first skill is for them to recognise the social norms of mainstream society that should be reflected in the classroom. Initially this is achieved by teaching social skills through classroom discussions on topics about sharing and relationships that have struggled. Stories about fictional kids who are experiencing difficulties in their life, say the break-up of their parent’s marriage are a great class discussion.
Providing negative consequences to the students when they break the social expectations is an appropriate response but only if there is an accompanying explanation about why the actions were inappropriate. Early on this might seem to be a waste of time. As pointed out before, these kids will have little empathy in the first instance but by teaching them not only what is not appropriate but also why it is inappropriate you are front-loading the brain with connections that may bear fruit in the future.
As the development of the child’s sense of self is enhanced through smart cooperative learning and volunteering class activities these programs work well in developing the ability to form healthy attachments.
These Newsletters concentrate on the lessons from neuroscience for describing student’s dysfunctional behaviour. However, there is value in re-visiting some of the old models that pioneered analysis of behaviour. This essay focuses on the work of Rudolf Dreikurs, the Austrian psychiatrist who worked in the United States. He followed the models developed by Alfred Addler who believed that the development of personality was underpinned by of the feeling of inferiority in relation to others. Dreikurs claimed that every child’s action was grounded in the idea that they were seeking their place in the group. Success in belonging developed well-adjusted children however, the experience of rejection could cultivate faulty behaviours that could drive the ‘others’ further away.
When the application of this approach is focused on the classroom the key to dealing with these behaviours is to re-establish the connection with the students. This is the work of the teacher who, in Dreikurs’ theory will be successful if they understand how each child acts to get the attention they desire.
He describes four categories, attention seeking, power, revenge and inadequacy or withdrawal. There have been some interpretations of this work that suggest the student goes from attention seeking through to power to demand attention and if all these fail they withdraw. This may be the case, they may be discrete behaviours or, as I would contend all behaviour is unique and the model ‘chunks’ behaviours for convenience. Whatever the situation the model does provide a fresh insight that will increase each teacher’s arsenals of techniques to deal with misbehaviour.
As stated above, the underpinning concept for the model is the drive is the need to get recognition from the teacher within the group. Their behaviour is the response/reaction to the success of their actions; rejection produces an intensification of their actions. This increase in the effort to get attention would explain the escalation from attention seeking to power.
Attention Seeking – acting to draw attention to themselves
Behaviours – Behaving in an annoying manner to get attention. Things like tapping their fingers, swinging on their chairs, late for class and a host of other creative behaviours.
Effect on Teacher – They will certainly ‘get your attention’ but for all the wrong reasons. You will become irritated and annoyed and the intensity can challenge your confidence. Your impulse will be to fulfil their wish and ‘give them attention’. You can find yourself yelling, nagging. Pleading or even doing things for them.
Child’s Response – They may stop the inappropriate behaviour for a while and go back to it when you think you have ‘won’ or they might find substitute behaviour to continue the attack.
Strategy – You may ignore the behaviour if it is not too intense but this rarely works for a real attention seeker. You can use low level interventions like standing in close proximity, use non-verbal cues or a single direct instruction however, eventually use the structure you have initiated in the class (see Newsletter – Creating Structure 12th August 2019). The secret is to give them attention for appropriate behaviour – catch them doing the ‘right thing’.
Power – They demand your attention by behaving in a manner that challenges you to ignore them.
Behaviours – They become non-compliant, provocative and defiant. They happily engage you in an argument or threaten you with their non-verbal communication. They may throw things around the room or attack other students.
Effect on Teacher – You will feel threatened, challenged and be tempted to engage them in a power struggle, after all you are the teacher. You will be thinking things like ‘you can’t get away with that’ or ‘I’ll make you comply’. Inexperienced or unassertive teachers may feel inadequate in dealing with these kids and kick them out of class.
Child’s Response – If you do challenge them they may intensify their behaviour they may enjoy the realisation they have got your attention. Even if they do comply, this is more likely for younger students, they will remain defiant often using passive aggressive behaviours to continue the ‘struggle’.
Strategy – Refuse to get trapped into any power struggle, acknowledge at least to yourself that you can’t make anyone do anything, you can just provide the consequences for the decision they will make. So, have your structured consequences and deliver them in a calm manner. However, you need to complement this approach with an effort to build a relationship. After they have calmed down you can, privately ask them what they want from you. Suggest a time and place to do this and give them the respect of listening carefully to what they have to say. Work out a plan with the student and follow through with that plan.
Revenge – These kids have moved beyond expecting attention, their motivation is to punish those who ignore them. Even though they want to ‘hurt’ others their actions are a really a sense of projecting their pain onto something else. I suspect this is the cause of a lot of apparent senseless vandalism.
Behaviours – They are sullen, vicious towards others and will use violence. They scratch cars and destroy the property of others without a sense of guilt. The target is often the school occasionally resulting the fires. They don’t care that no one knows who was responsible just that someone got hurt!
Effect on Teacher – They feel deeply hurt and outraged. The revengeful actions leave the staff disgusted and, if they know who was responsible a deep dislike is developed; how could they do this to us? The teachers naturally want to retaliate, get even!
Child’s Response – They will either escalate their behaviour or choose another ‘weapon’. They continue damage property to hurt others.
Strategy – If you know who it is, the key is to hang in with them longer than they expect. Somehow show them that they are worth your efforts. Sometimes you don’t know who it is but this underlines the importance of having this tenacity for every child. Never retaliate but deliver the consequences without showing your own feelings. This is the time to remember all kids are worth the effort. If appropriate acknowledge that they are hurting.
Inadequacy or Withdrawal – At this stage they have given-up trying to get attention. However, they have not ‘given-up’ the need for attention. They still want to be accepted so don’t give up on them.
Behaviours – They appear not to care about their work or what happens to them. Punishment is never a productive response especially for these kids (see Newsletters ‘Consequences’ 36th March 2018 and ‘Consequences Neither Punishment nor Reward’ 4th April 2018). Older students truant a lot even staying away from school completely.
Effect on Teacher – You feel inadequate because you can’t seem to reach them. You may even start to agree with them almost confirming they are hopeless. There is the temptation to ‘over-help’ them even doing the work for them. Or, you come to expect they will do nothing and leave them to waste away.
Child’s Response – Its hard to see any escalation in their behaviour. They continue to withdraw or at best pretend to ‘have a go’.
Strategy – Never give up on these kids, don’t criticise, don’t pity them. They are a real challenge but can be retrieved. Try to find some interest, some strength they may have and exploit this as a way into their world. Set tasks around this ‘interest’ and break the work down into manageable, errorless tasks and celebrate any milestone you can achieve. Encourage, encourage, encourage!
Dreikurs’ model provides an alternate way to observe behaviour however, following these Newsletters and other resources we provide, you will conclude that every behaviour is unique, driven by distinctive needs and developmental histories. The strategic advice given above, complies with all our advice and that can be expressed as:
Predictable and consistent structure
The key is to have effective, positive relations will all your students even those that challenge you every day. They are worth it!
We have said in an earlier Newsletter, the children we focus on in our work are those who have a toxic sense of shame and this ‘sense’ drives their behaviour. They believe:
They don’t make mistakes; they are mistakes
They are incapable of achieving anything
They are bad - worthless and not fit to have a meaningful relationship with any person.
The worst advice you could give these kids is to be yourself! You have to remember that as a small child these kids have been abused by the very people they should have been able to rely on to teach them how to become an independent adult.
When we witness the ‘out of control behaviour’ that causes so much trouble we need to remember that at the time they really didn’t have any control. They are acting in a way that was taught to them. Their chaotic behaviour is because their parents never provided a consistency that allowed them to develop a set of behaviours that would help them get their needs met.
However, some kids have been abused in a constant manner and they have developed behaviours that protect their self. They will appear to be good or perfect and they work hard to maintain that image but like their out of control abused colleagues their sense of self will be just as negative, just as toxic. These students are harder to identify and often go through school without really achieving anything more than surviving.
The task for the teacher is to be ‘a good parent’ for these kids. You can’t change them but you can provide the support a small child would receive while they re-learn or re-develop an authentic sense of their self.
Take for example their inability to regulate emotions, a hallmark of traumatized kids. When a little child gets upset, say skinned their knee mum or dad would hold them, make soothing noises and reassure them that would be okay. When a 14-year-old PTSD kid gets hurt the teacher needs to treat them like a baby, not on a sarcastic way but to verbally soothe them, validate their pain and reassure them they will be alright. After a period of time, a significant period of time they will have learned the strategies we all use to regulate our emotions and consequently our behaviour.
We also have to deal with their view of being ‘faulty’. As mentioned above these kids believe they don’t make a mistake they are a mistake and so we have to deal with this defective belief. Teach them that nobody is perfect. In fact, an adage I used with students I worked with was they are perfectly imperfect. That is, all humans make mistakes. I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – perfectly imperfect.
How you interact with the student will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is 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 …’?
At these times they are articulating their sense of failed-self.
At times of ‘failure’ the destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that reinforce their opinion of themselves. Terms 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 when they have failed is with comments like:
‘How can we make this …’?
‘What can we do to…’?
‘What will it look like if …’?
You will inevitably be faced with resistance. Remember you are asking the children to make what they see as a very threatening change. They know their current environment and have learned to live in it. You are asking them to let go of those behaviours and that threatens them. Don’t fight their obstruction. If you correct them straight away you have conflict so in the first instance go with them. The best way these kids know how to cope is to be provocative so start with where they are at the time. Use statements like:
‘You hate being pushed around, don’t you?’
‘You’d rather talk to your friends than listen to me’
‘You’d like to be playing with your computer’
If delivered in a genuine sense, these statements can transform a determination to be uncooperative into a feeling of being understood and so you have the chance to change the resistance into productive engagement.
Their negativity, their practise of saying no to any suggestion can be replaced with an unavoidable yes if you anticipate what they will say. For example, if you place the child in a seating plan you know they will complain and refuse but if you say something like ‘I suppose you’d rather be sitting with Sam’ they will agree. Then, if you’re lucky you can explain why you are moving them and how they can earn the trust to ‘sit with Sam’.
Another goal of your work is to reconnect these kids with their ‘community’ be that their neighbourhood, their class or their school. They have a strong need to belong. If appropriate, engaging the parents could also be beneficial but you need to be careful.
Taking care is especially important when dealing with the parents of older adolescent kids. It is a natural progression for all teenagers to grow away from their parents. For these kids the separation might be their key to the freedom of being their real-self.
This sense of belonging can be realized with smartly planned group work that has as its outcome really cooperative learning. When doing this, inventive teachers organize the make-up of the groups while they appear to be ‘random’. This avoids any chance of the particular student, or the others to feel they are ‘different’.
Also, it is really rewarding if you get these kids to do charity work, especially in a group. The group approach helps overcome the initial fear of failure they will almost inevitably experience. These kids, like all kids get a great sense of self-worth when they help those less fortunate.
Hopefully after a significant period of time the seeds of positivity will emerge and the teacher should do as much as they can to cultivate this positivity through the lessons they give.
Much is written about the importance of our sense of self, previously we discussed the concept of a toxic sense of self (see Toxic Shame 7 March 2017). This is the sense children who are raised in an abusive or neglectful environment believe about themselves. They believe that it is they who are ‘wrong’, that they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.
Because our sense of self is the greatest regulator of success, that is, how we perceive ourselves will determine what we will do, much of our work is focused on changing this faulty self-belief. The only way we can achieve this is by re-producing the mechanism that created the false sense of self. This is the real work of the teacher, to produce an environment that provides the conditions that develop the memories that produces a positive sense of self in the students.
The illustration below crudely explains this process.
I used the term ‘crudely’ as the process of matching behaviour with desired consequences and subsequently producing the neurological structure to reproduce these behaviours is extremely complex. However, this description will help explain the formation of our sense of self which really only consists of memories. Of these it is the kind of emotional memories formed in early childhood that dominate this personal sense.
The process follows this sequence, initially we have a drive that is linked to a state of homeostatic disequilibrium, that is we feel disturbed and feel impelled to change this situation. In the first instances we try an ‘action’ and evaluate the outcome relative to the need, that is the consequence. In the model it is from the situation that moves to the action (at this initial stage the decision is not used) that results in a consequence. If this works and we regain a sense of calm, when the same situation occurs the process to regain a sense of calm will again be activated. If the same action gets the same desired result this is strengthened and as the process is repeated eventually this will be the behaviour learned to deal with this situation.
In the mean-time every time we run through this sequence we are provided with feedback (see the broken lines from consequence to ‘memories’) and this feedback constructs a bank of emotional and cognitive memories. This memory bank is our sense of self. The formation of this sense of self produces the section in the model to include decision-making.
The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood. In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional. This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions.
Eventually the child’s hippocampus, the more cognitive section of the limbic system becomes active and the memories developed here are also included in the decision making. These memories have an impression that is attached to some ‘reason’ the connection between action and consequence was established. This contrasts to the emotional memories that are powerful but with no conscious ability to make that action/consequence link.
At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable. At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories. But, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to the emotional memories. It is my understanding that this emotional dominance of our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produced levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met. Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed, cease trying and disengage from their world. This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins that toxic shame.
The final broken lines in the model illustrates the compounding issue of the toxic sense of self. It establishes that our memories, our sense of self is with us all the time. In the model this is the antecedent condition we bring to any new situation that will influence our approach even before we get to the decision-making stage. How this manifests, in class is that these students refuse to even to contemplate engaging in behaviours to get their needs met because any such action will displease others and they will re-experience their ‘abuse’. They just don’t get involved and this disengagement is common in our classrooms!
To be successful a therapeutic intervention needs to encourage the retrieving of a positive sense of self. This requires an examination of their internal world, to recognize and acknowledge the myriad of faulty feelings and beliefs. This necessitates access to a qualified mental health professional. However, as teachers we are faced with a significant number of these children on a daily basis and we are not qualified to deal with them in such a manner. So, what can we do?
Referring back to the model, we need to manipulate that sense of self environment re-building it in stages. The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences. The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage! This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.
There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence. It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child. If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they re NOT a mistake!
Another important contribution for these children is to teach them how the brain operates and how all behaviour has a purpose, it is designed to get something. Part of this training is to discuss the fact that any behaviour can have a range of consequences. The sign of maturity, what we want them to achieve is that you must choose the behaviour that is most likely to get the consequence you want but, if this doesn’t happen this time it is still the behaviour they should choose. It is the one that has the best chance of success, it’s their ‘best bet’!
It is also important to understand that if you choose a behaviour that may have one possible negative consequence that you don’t want then you can’t do that behaviour. If the chances are slim and you take a chance and that disastrous consequence does follow then you must take responsibility and not blame others.
The road to recovery is cyclic, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously. They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.
We have established that the children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment have verified brain damage and the theme of our work is to provide rehabilitation through changing their Renvironment. Predominantly this is focused on schools but these principled interventions work even better if they are applied around the clock which can occur in special settings such as juvenile detention centres.
However, one of the frustrations for teachers or supervisors is the length of time it takes for any real change to occur. There are two things to consider about this; the first is the extended time interval required for real neurological change to be entrenched that drive new behaviours, the second is the difficulty in changing deep held beliefs. The focus of this Newsletter is on the first of these problems, the impediment of time!
Changing the neurological organisation of the brain in any permanent sense requires the extinguishing of the existing circuits and the construction of a replacement path. This is known as plasticity. This plasticity varies throughout the brain, from the brain stem, through the limbic system and on to the cerebrum. Behaviours learned in the brain stem are extremely non-plastic, that is they are very hard to change. This makes sense as those behaviours are designed to support our physical wellbeing, such as breathing, blood pressure, balance, etc. that are vital for our survival and this resistance to change protects us.
Those social/emotional lessons that are stored in the limbic system are also hard to change. This is where our affective memories are stored and these are the organisation of our sense of self. We develop our sense of self in the early years and the behaviours that accompany this have been learned because they have provided the ‘best way’ to survive in the environment in which they are learned. It is in this area our beliefs are maintained and, although arguably easier to change than those maintaining our physical security, they are also ‘hard-wired’ making change a time-consuming event.
The importance of both the physical and socio-emotional functions are important to our survival and so it makes sense to protect them from change; this is why they are so locked into the brain circuitry.
The part of the brain that remains relatively plastic, that is reasonably easy to change is the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, mostly in the frontal area associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving. Those other areas of the cerebrum are associated with the development of fundamental skills that complement our survival mechanisms, things such as vision, speech, etc. are also developed in the early years and most likely share the non-plasticity of the lower levels of the brain. These are:
Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing
Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech
There is not the behavioural need to change these although there is a case for mediation for students who did not receive the appropriate level of stimulation in the developing years.
Although I have seen no research that would describe the level of plasticity in these areas a clue to the difficulty is in the problems faced by children who have been born with cataracts that have not been removed before about eight months. Up until this time the conditions in the occipital lobe are extremely plastic, this is referred to as its ‘window of opportunity’ when the brain’s neurons are surrounded with supporting materials, principally myeline the material that sustains and enhances the circuit. After that time has passed the myeline that has not been used along with the unemployed neurons are removed in a process called pruning. This makes the circuit even more efficient and long-lasting it also makes the behaviour controlled by the neural path non-plastic.
The difficulty faced by many teachers who work with these children is that their day to day teaching focuses on those frontal areas, associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving, the stuff of the curriculum. We see how relatively quickly children can learn new material. We are also exposed to a range of intervention programs, almost exclusively based in the cognitive behaviour therapy model to help children deal with their dysfunctional behaviour. We make the mistake of assuming the pace children learn say history or mathematics should be the same pace they learn to change their behaviour!
The real rate of change that can be expected from the deep-seated brain damage from abuse or neglect is best understood when it is compared to brain damage that is a result of a physical trauma, say a motor vehicle accident. People and families that work with such casualties expect the road to recovery to be slow and very difficult for the patient. Although this process can be frustrating usually the victim and their support are very committed to make the effort to get better, or to recover as much functionality as they can.
Rehabilitation is basically placing the patient in an environment that will stimulate the behaviour that is required to function in that environment. For example, if the individual needs to learn to walk again they will work through a process where the legs are exposed to conditions that demand a ‘walking’ response that will encourage new pathways to form. This can take months even years to recover even if only partially. The thing is the community knows the ethics of providing this support and the economic value of the intervention. The thing is, these victims did not deliberately choose to have their disability and their prospects of having a ‘successful’ life is hindered by their injury.
It takes a rare individual to take the same view of a teenager whose dysfunctional behaviour is expressed in a violent outburst in their classroom or sits in the back of the classroom completely disengaged in learning. It takes an even exceptional political/bureaucratic system that would provide the same level of support for this victim of an acquired brain injury. It is easy to feel compassion for the victim of a motor vehicle accident who may well have lost their ability to dampen their behaviour, become compulsive. It is much harder to have that same compassion for a ‘compulsive’ child when we have no evidence of the ‘accident’ they suffered by being born into the wrong family!
The thing is, these kids can be helped, we have the same ethical responsibility to take up this challenge. Despite the obvious decency of taking on the task there is a measured economic advantage for the community if we do. There is the access to such an amount of untapped human resources and the reduction in the financial burden of providing institutional interventions, such as detentions centres, courts, etc. that attempt to control these behaviours.
For teachers, there needs to be proper training in the techniques of providing the correct therapeutic environment and the encouragement to ‘stay the distance’ through the long period of recovery. It will be worth it!
Working with children with severe behaviours is extremely challenging. The personal demands you will experience working with these difficult children are not to be underestimated; they are extremely stressful. In one of my books (see resources) I discussed the concept of toxic resilience. The idea is that to be successful in a highly demanding vocation you need top be resilient. Working with difficult students over time certainly qualifies as being a demanding job; it demands a high level of resilience. But, this resilience comes at a cost. The ability to keep fronting up to these children places you in a situation that has a high likelihood of producing constant elevated stress. This constant exposure has a significant negative impact on an individual’s personal health, a situation that is understated and largely unrecognized.
Resilience has been defined as the ability to display constant competence under high levels of stress and produce quality outcomes despite demanding conditions. This definition is now accepted for every age group. This has long been held as a strength especially in education. It has allowed us to keep going long after others would have given-up. This is a quality required when dealing with these kids. One of the prerequisites for success is to hang in with them long after they had expected you to give-up.
In earlier Newsletters (The Intricacy of Stress, June 19th 2017 and Anxiety 24th July 2017) we have discussed the biological consequences of elevated levels of stress particularly when those levels are maintained over a period of time. You must be aware that you are working in such an environment.
The following is just a brief outline of symptoms, causes and recovery techniques that you can use as some sort of guide to self-care around maintaining a healthy level of resilience in this very difficult job.
In the Newsletter we have discussed the healthy stress cycle, arousal with its flight/fight/freeze response, the discharge of the released energy and a return to rest. We have also discussed what happens if, before we return to our baseline homeostasis, we are again provoked to a level that produces another cycle and the cycle is incomplete. The level of confined stress is magnified. This build-up is gradual and, unless you are vigilant you will not realise you are becoming burned-out, a not so nice way of saying you are dangerously stressed. If this is happening you may notice changes to your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as changes in your behaviour. These are:
Feeling very tired or exhausted all the time
Changes in sleep patterns
Changes in eating habits
Low immunity, catch everything that is going about
Feel like nothing matters
Work is either extremely boring and worthless or it is overwhelming and you can’t cope
Feel like a failure, you feel helpless or detached
Your level of motivation has dropped
You become cynical and start to criticize everything
Avoid responsibilities by missing, either taking excess sick leave or other forms of leave
Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkley was renowned for her work around occupational burnout. She has described five causes for burnout and these are:
1. Work Overload – People have too much work to do in their day or, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they are given or, they are not supplied with the resources to complete their work. In any modern public school all three conditions are the norm.
2. No Autonomy – When we are given a responsibility but not given the authority to make decisions about how that task should be done or the freedom to plan the work we become disempowered. This leads to frustration that can build to resentment.
3. Under Valued – As teachers we are always looking to provide our students with positive feedback when they complete a task. We understand that this sort of response helps them become motivated to carry on. Somehow this simple technique is ignored when we are dealing with our colleague or those we supervise. When we fail to provide positive feedback or some type of reward we feel under-valued or disrespected.
A particular problem you will face if you ‘specialise’ in dealing with these damaged kids is that the mainstream educational community has no real time for these children other than mouthed clichés when they make the headlines in the media. This discounting from the leadership send a message to colleagues that don’t work in this area that somehow your work is not important. This can be quite disappointing.
4. Not Supported in the Workplace – This leads on from the latter part of the previous point. However, when you are working with these very difficult kids there will be time, more than is usual when the students will have to be removed from their class. This is where the teacher requires the support of the rest of the school. These students must be removed for everyone’s safety, including their own but they must be supervised. There is nothing more demoralising than sending a student out and having them return almost immediately with little or no intervention being delivered.
5. Fairness – This is another point hat is underpinned by the understanding that you will be working with difficult kids. Shallow educators equate teaching quality with the attainment of high grades in their classrooms. This insult is carried on by the community and the media. There is little understanding of the difficult work you do on top of the delivery of curriculum which is the task of those teachers working in ‘selective’ environments. Everyone deserves respect especially those who work without minor extrinsic rewards.
6. The ‘Meaning’ of your Work – This is the final part of the causes that make working with these difficult kids a dangerous place to take on. You should not expect your colleagues or your supervisors to understand the value, not to mention the difficulty of the work you do. I worked for ten years as a principal of a special school for adolescents with severe behaviours in a very needing area in South-West Sydney. During that time, I had four supervisors all of whom were wonderful people but I know they had no idea and little interest in what we were doing at the school. This is where you need to believe in your understanding of the work you do and if possible, create alliances with contemporaries from nearby areas. These days you can contact similar colleagues ‘on-line’ one advantage of the digital world.
When discussing recovery let’s use the same three categories, physical, emotional and behaviour. In reality, these are really just the reverse of those things we have identified as the causes of stress.
Physical – Lots of the things that have used to deal with your elevated stress have affected your health. It’s doing almost the opposite that will help you recapture your physical health. There are some simple things you can do:
Get regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be excessive and really it needs to be ‘age appropriate’. Don’t develop an obsession with exercise, that is a symptom of activities addiction, that is exercising so you avoid the issue that is causing the stress. It might be jogging or walking the dog, anything that gets you out and about. Joining in a team activity would tick two of these boxes.
Try meditation, follow the guidelines outlined for the students, they will be the same. It is also a good idea to take meditation or yoga classes to get out and meet others.
Avoid drugs, this goes without saying. It is part of our western culture to reach for a drink when we are over worked and the thought of a stiff drink at the end of the week is tempting. Like all things, in moderation is a good guide.
Emotional – When you are ‘burned-out’ you really do not feel good about yourself and you tend to isolate from others. Some simple ideas are:
Reach out to those who are close to you. Your first though is probably they don’t want to hear about your problems but in most cases, you would be wrong. People are flattered when you seek them out. The very act of choosing to speak to them communicates that you trust them and value them. They will be supportive.
Socialise both in your work and in the community. At work you are with people you probably would not choose to mix with unless you had to. But, you are with them during your working day and by trying to get to know them the consequential interactions are much more pleasant. Don’t be afraid to initiate the contact.
Get your work into perspective especially when working with challenging kids. The modern demands on teachers is on outcomes and we can get swept up in the idiocy of this approach to education. All teachers know that learning outcomes depend on a range of factors with the teacher being one. Assess your value with the effort you put into your work.
Behavioural – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ How often have we heard this cliché but for the most part it is true? These are some things to do:
High achievers are reluctant to say no to any request but there are times when you should say just that. You have to maintain a proper life – work balance and that requires you to limit the demands placed on you. Get into the habit of leaving your work at work. I understand this has always been impossible for teachers, it still is but in dealing with that work you do take home make sure you make a timetable that includes an appropriate of non-work activities.
Think about how you work and how you could improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of your efforts. This may include delegation of some activities that really could be done by others. I had a process where, if I though some demand was trivial I would put it into a designated file and wait to see if the person who sent the directive followed-up their request (this is common practice for most teachers and principals). If the demand was repeated then I would complete the task. Of course, you need to know those things that must be done!
Plan; this can be an overall strategy for the school year or term but if so you need to break this down into smaller goals such as what you want to achieve in the next month, or whatever you choose but it is great to have a lesson plan that includes what you need to do. When you have a plan, it takes away a lot of your stress.
The message is, look after yourself! There is a statement made in every life-saving course I have been to and that is, never jump into a river to save a child if you can’t swim. It is equally true that you can’t help damaged kids get better if you become ill yourself.
The Star Wars franchise continues with the release of the latest edition. Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms. The famous ‘Do. or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.
There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles. Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success. These are:
1. Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve your goals. Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort. This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
2. Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former Grit discounts the value of innate ability. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant then intelligence first defined grit when it came to predicting success. She showed that if an individual perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
3. Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of successful. This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972. His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marsh mellow immediately for the promise of an additional one would be successful later in life. In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marsh mellow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.
There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school. The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation. But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.
A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations. For example:
1. Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population. It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style attend the same schools, etc. Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world. Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools; children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities. There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
2. Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder. Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept. I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal? And finally there is nothing wrong changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
3. Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept. High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal. For many children who lived in chaotic homes would find the guaranteed consumption of a marsh mellow now at least give some pay-off. In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk. They are in fact making a rational decision. Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family's socioeconomic status. Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's Prefrontal lobes to over rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes ate reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.
So what are we to do? There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept. We all want our kids to have these qualities. But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child. When they fail, they fail at something – for now. When kids with a history of disappointment do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self. They got their answer wrong this time but they are not wrong!
Yoda was not right, there is trying and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed. But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.
One ‘truism’ we hear constantly is that change is inevitable, and I accept this however, if you take this on face value you are ignoring two points that must be considered. These are, change is not always for the best and the second point is that change evokes stress. In contemporary years, society’s expectations of schools have never been more intense. The issues facing schools are the increasing emphasis on schools’ accountability through close evaluation of its performance based on external testing, particularly the NAPLAN test in an environment where external departmental support is being reduced.
Coupled with thi, is the emphasis placed on students to succeed in a narrow range of all the skills they will need to acquire. Literacy and numeracy are just two elements in a child’s education but the whole worth of our efforts is based on these factors that are at the heart of the NAPLAN test. Not only does this put pressure on the teachers but I am well aware the students are also pressured.
Further, when the media focuses on a social problem there is a perceived assumption that schools need to ‘solve’ the problem. At the end of my career I remember listening to the radio going home from school where the ‘problem’ of our unfit youth was being discussed. The majority of the calls taken by the presenter reinforce the view that it was the ‘school’s fault’. Of course, I was silently defending our school, silently making the case that was not our fault!
Then I realised I was acting in the adversarial manner so typical of our modern society. It is obvious the people listening are also prone to take one side or the other. I understand that many parents agree with the position ‘it’s the school’s fault’. This conflict breaks down the community spirit and invariably leads to tension and stress conditions both for the parents and the teachers. This situation is not conducive to collaborative solutions to help our kids.
Of course, things are not perfect and today’s students can do better. It is also true that schools are part of our community and do have a part to play. I am aware that:
Some parents do feel anxious in regards to what is happening with their child at school
Some students are over-anxious about their schooling
Teachers are becoming more and more stressed
I know good schools always want you to contact them when you are concerned, they know they are far from being perfect and will make mistakes. But sometimes children do not divulge the whole story when they talk about what has happened at school but it’s the only version the parents hear.
To help parents (when I refer to parents, I include all other primary care providers including guardians) get a clearer picture of what is really happening and more importantly, help you minimise the stress you, the parents and the child may be experiencing I have outlined some steps you might take that could help you get a better idea of what is really going on at school and how to help them develop personal skills and resilience. I have summarised below some information you may share with parents:
1. Sharing too much
When your child comes home from school with tales about being bullied either by ‘mean’ girls, ‘aggressive’ boys or ‘insensitive’ teachers, keep in mind that your children feed off your emotions and can get more distraught when they see you distressed. Try to keep our own anxiety in check while sympathising with theirs. You should be the emotional rock; the person who understands and supports your child. Then get the facts and if need be you should contact the school.
2. Advocating too hard
We all want to stand up for our children, but our eagerness to advocate can sometimes actually raise everyone’s anxiety levels. If your child shares a school problem with you, your first instinct is often to march into the school and try to resolve it. This tells your children that you don’t have faith in us or in your child to fix their problems. Your first priority should be to help them find a solution they can implement without your help, every time. Again, if it is serious contact us.
3. Compensating for weaknesses
It is truly an unusual child who is great at everything. So it follows that generally there will be areas at school in which they struggle. We want our kids to have healthy self-confidence and instead of focusing on and compensating for weaknesses, remind them to play to their strengths. Children can’t always avoid their weak areas, but by focusing on strengths we build self-efficacy and confidence.
4. Overplaying strengths
Linked closely with the previous point is the risk that too much positive affirmation can easily turn to pressure. Compliment children when they excel, but don’t make their excellence a reason you love them or to expect even more from them.
5. Having great values
Sometimes children make poor choices and I know they fret about their family finding out – it can seem like a fate worse than death. Let your children know that while values are important, you understand the realities and temptations they face. Disapprove of the behaviour but never of them. Don’t create a culture where your children are too anxious to come to you and admit they messed up.
6. Hiding your troubles
If your family is struggling financially or fighting with each other, don’t make the mistake of thinking your children are better off not knowing. They are very good at sensing problems and if they suspect something and if don’t know the whole story they can blow it out of all proportion. Should we pile our own troubles on our child’s shoulders - no, but it doesn’t hurt to be honest about what your concerns are and more importantly what you’re doing about it. By sharing what makes us anxious and how we deal with it we’re modelling practical ways to resolve anxiety.
At the end of 2016 year I conducted my last Year 12 Graduation assembly. At that ceremony I saw the whole school community at its best. The students made the school proud as one after the other presented themselves as the mature and dignified young men and women who I could see will make great members of their community. The staff could rightly feel a sense of achievement looking at these young graduands and knowing what they have achieved. Most inspiring for me was the number of parents and friends who joined the celebration. All the struggles, disputes of the previous years were over but it was through these times the young children learned to become these great young adults. Never lose sight of this achievement that is repeated year after year in all our schools.
There will be times in your teaching career where you will have to deal with an extremely disruptive class. The students may have such a low sense of respect for the school, for you and unfortunately, for themselves they don’t worry about the impact their behaviour is having. The question for the teacher is ‘where to start’? There are so many inappropriate behaviours it appears to be overwhelming. Too often we just start to ‘fix everything’ and that becomes impossible so this Newsletter will provide a structured approach to taming this class.
The illustration below shows a range of problems faced in the class. Instead of trying to deal with all of them, choosing one concentrates the teacher’s efforts. This doesn’t mean you accept the other behaviours, you do what you have been doing but by making a real, extra effort on one you can make a difference.
Now you have chosen the issue you want to address take the following steps to solve this problem. You do this by creating classroom rules. Before we start just a reminder that it is most effective if you include the class in this process but if they are not willing to engage you can implement this by yourself or if you can with colleagues. The process follows these steps:
1. Identify the Real Problem
Because you think ‘it’s annoying’ is not a reason you will get support from the class. You have to identify what really is the problem with talking and you need to acknowledge there are times you want your student to talk but at the right time for the right reason. Remember this is ‘inappropriate talking’ that we are concerned with. The class will soon identify, with your help plenty of reasons this is hurting their learning. These include things like ‘no one else can hear the teacher’, ‘it’s rude to talk when others are trying to listen’, ‘it interrupts others who are trying to concentrate’ etc. Eventually you will get to the real problem hopefully that the class agrees with or at least they are told why inappropriate talking hurts their learning.
The final purpose might be as follows:
Talking when someone else is, stops that person being heard and stops learning. Talking too loud distracts others from learning both here and in other classes
Then write this down as the problem we are going to solve, put it on display - Inappropriate Talking Stops Learning.
2. Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Once you have identified the problem get the class, including yourself to brainstorm possible consequences. Stick to brainstorming ‘rules’ that is don’t discuss them as they are suggested just get them down. One exception to this is when they come up with ridiculous but funny ideas. If such a proposal gets a laugh then you can bet more will follow. Allow one, sometimes these are gems but stop it there.
A Typical List might be:
Sent from class – Yelled at – Given a warning – Given the cane
Write lines – Given homework – Cut out their tongue
Clean-up the playground – Kept in to make up time
Sent to principal – Made to stand in the corner – Shift seats
3. Yes/ No the Solutions
Now, for the first time you discuss each consequence using the following criteria:
Is it a consequence or is it a punishment? The difference has been explained in a previous Newsletter but briefly, a consequence is understood to be a result of that action not just something the teacher made-up to upset the student!
Is the consequence appropriate for the level of the behaviour? You might find that students are often too severe in their idea of what is required, Keep these realistic.
Can the consequence be realistically applied? It’s no use putting in place a consequence that is against the rules of the school or department. For instance you can’t keep students in after school without a lot of parental permission.
Do the students accept this as a fair outcome for that behaviour? It must be seen to be fair for all concerned.
Then place a Y beside those that meet the criteria and N against those that fail to pass the fairness test.
The following could be the result of this process.
Sent from class Y – Yelled at N – Given a warning Y – Given the cane N
Write lines N – Given homework N – Cut out their tongue N
Clean-up the playground N – Kept in to make up time Y
Sent to principal Y – Made to stand in the corner N – Shift seats Y
When you have completed this process eliminate the N’s.
4. Rank the Consequences
Now you go through the consequences left and rank them from the most severe (1) to the least severe. The final list might be:
Sent to principal (1)
Sent from class (2)
Shift seats (3)
Keep in to make up time (4)
Apologies to the class (5)
Given a warning (6)
Here you must decide if you want to have one consequence or devise a cascade from the least severe on to the most. If the mild level consequence does not stop the behaviour the next most punitive one is applied and so on until the student is sent to the principal! When you have decided on the ‘rule’ then write it down and display it somewhere in the classroom so the students are reminded of the new set of conditions in the class.
After the rule has been in place for a reasonable amount of time it is wise to evaluate how effective it has been in dealing with the disruptive behaviour. Wait a while to do this evaluation because quite often when you introduce a rule the students who are most likely to cause problems will test to see if you are serious. This is where our ‘golden rule’ for behaviour management comes in. Always be consistent and persistent, if you are not the students will not think you a sincere! But if, after a time there is no change, and you have been vigilant then you can repeat the steps coming up with a new set of consequences. If the class has not really been changed by the rule you put in maybe it is time for you to set the rule without them. Just make sure they know what is going to happen.
If the behaviour has changed then slowly let it fade away, the class has accepted a new standard. Then you can work on another of the problems you identified.
Remember there are some behaviours that are dangerous our just too severe to go through this process and are not up for negotiation! These you must deal with. But for most dysfunctional behaviour this approach will allow you to take ‘control’ or more realistically have the students take control of their actions. A pay-off is that when you get on top of a few of the behaviours most classes come to understand that you can make things change and you are in charge of providing a safe learning environment for them. When you gain such a reputation life becomes better in other classes so it is well worth the effort!
The use of ‘levels’ systems is a popular form of behaviour control and management in institutions that deal with children who struggle with their conduct. When used correctly, it can be an effective tool to improve children’s behaviour. When used incorrectly, levels systems can be in themselves a cruel form of abuse. It can be particularly hurtful for children who have no experience of appropriate behaviour.
The definition of inappropriate behaviour is difficult. The appropriateness of any action is related to the person or persons who are exposed to the behaviour. Therefore, any judgement of a student’s conduct depends on the group in which their behaviour is displayed. Group members will experience the inappropriateness of behaviour when they feel it is offensive or threatening. In reality, they will know this because their physical and/or psychological boundaries will have been violated.
To be offended or not, presents as two discrete sets of behaviour; you are either offended or not offended; you cannot be partially offended. This is not to say the magnitude of the affecting behaviour is not on a gradient. Obviously, levels of offence can range from mild disapproval through to sheer terror. However, when working with dysfunctional children; trying to teach them about offensive behaviour by tolerating any such behaviour will confuse the child.
Children who habitually demonstrate dysfunctional behaviour need to learn appropriate conduct. Learning can only be through trial and error, and if they are to assume a state in which their habit is to act appropriately, there will be a time when they have to think about how to behave. To pass through this phase of behaviour modification requires both the child, and the arbitrator, to be in a calm state. When stressed, they will revert to their existing habitual reactions to any situation. In a group setting, the arbitrator must be aware of his or her own activities as well as the actions of all other members of the group. This does not excuse inappropriate behaviour, but it provides a major complication in the process of changing behaviour.
The following issues arise for levels systems:
Others define what is offensive.
When more than one person is in control of behaviour arbitration, the definition of appropriate can vary.
Individual arbitrators’ boundaries are not constant; on one day they will tolerate behaviour (because they are in a good mood), and on the next day they will punish that same behaviour
Workers are tempted to tolerate mild misbehaviour either because they take the patronizing view that it is the best they can do or the worker fears any outburst from the child if they impose a sanction.
The environment must promote a feeling of calm acceptance of the child.
Levels systems can be a productive tool in the task of changing behaviour. However, to successfully implement a program requires a thorough understanding of:
the complexity of the program
the dangers of misuse
every child’s need to be accepted into a calm, supportive environment
There are various methods to create a ‘scoring’ method to track a child’s behaviour across any school day. When you are working with severe disturbed children it is prudent to divide the period of time they achieve a positive ‘score’ into small chunks, say ten-minute blocks. These can be accumulated across a day and then across an extended period of time. This design will depend on the children. However, the scores should always be on display and you should never take away any points the child has earned. This is extremely unfair for those kids who struggle to initially achieve even the tiniest improvement and is no more than a form of punishment, something they have a lot of experience about and there is no more certain way to have these kids opt out of this process.
For a successful levels program to be put implemented the following conditions must be in place:
Feedback should indicate the level of success the child has achieved as a proportional number (a percentage).
Students must continually reach this mark to progress. They must be allowed to move up and down until they can unconsciously behave in an appropriate manner.
The goal should not be 100 per cent success, as human error is constant and should not be ignored.
The environment must be consistent and persistent.
Implementation should be done in calm, non-threatening manner (100 per cent acceptance of the child and 100 per cent rejection of inappropriate behaviour).
The over-riding principle of a level system is solely to provide feedback to the child in regards to how they are behaving within the functional definitions of the classroom. One of the great failings occurs when teachers and schools use their ‘Levels System’ as a form of punishment or reward. This is extremely counter-productive as any resulting changes that are driven by that external motivation will not become integrated in the child’s habitual behaviour. In a future Newsletter I will discuss the failings of the use of rewards and/or punishment as a motivation of behavioural change.
The 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.