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Monday, October 25 2021

Dealing With Students' Anxiety

As schools return to full time attendance teachers should be aware that the prevalence of anxiety amongst their students will be elevated.  We have dealt with anxiety previously (see Newsletter – Anxiety – 24 July 2017) however in this essay the focus will be on the effect anxiety has on the level of concentration.

Anxiety is that lingering apprehension or almost chronic sense of worry about particular things or even life in general.  Professionals would diagnose someone as having clinical, generalized anxiety if they displayed three or more of the following over a six-month period:

  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Concentration Problems
  • Irritability
  • Muscle Tension
  • Sleep Disorders

In general, anxiety is described in three ways; panic attacks, social anxiety and generalised anxiety.  We will focus on concentration which will be the product of their generalised anxiety.

In a recent article in the Conversation, 18 October, 2021 Elizabeth J Edwards from the University of Queensland reported that one in seven Australians are currently experiencing anxiety. The prevalence of anxiety among children is 6.1% of girls and 7.6% of boys.  These statistics were before the COVID pandemic and if research reported in the Journal of Medical Association can be applied to our population then it has doubled.

Throughout these essays the impact of stress on our cognitive functions is at the heart of our approach to improving the learning outcomes (see Newsletters - Generating Stress – 20 July 2020 and The Complexity of Stress - 27 July 2020).  It must be remembered that stress is just a response to our personal level of homeostatic equilibrium, that is how our needs are being met.  In our everyday life we experience a continuous variation in these levels of stress depending on how our needs are satisfied by our immediate environment.

 

We have already pointed out that we need children to be suitably stressed to be motivated learn, and that there is an optimum level of anxiety that will have the child perform to their potential.  Too little stress, they will not engage, too much and they will not take advantage of their cognitive resources (see The Complexity of Stress - referenced above).  This is the focus of this essay.  As you move along the level of arousal you go from low levels of anxiety up to extreme levels which result in trauma.  The results of these levels of arousal come from the work of Bruce Perry, a professor of psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago are summarised in the graph below.

 

This graph shows how as we increase the level of arousal different parts of the brain dominate the thinking process and result in the behaviours associated with these processes.  This is not to say no learning takes place when we are in an elevated condition.  We use all our brain all the time it’s just a matter of where it is focused.

 

The following diagram shows how the capacity for high order thinking, the process of academic learning is influenced on our levels of stress and these levels are controlled by our security in our immediate environment.

The table below presents and excellent summary of the impact of stress on our ability to participate in meaningful education.  Examining the bottom row shows as we increase of level of anxiety we move from being calm through the various stages of arousal to the level of terror.  The next two rows above this show the impact on our cognitive organisation with the focus moving away from the neocortex, the part of the brain used for working memory, to lower parts of the brain.  Eventually this means predominately using the autonomic section of the brain where all responses are reflexive.

 

The top row is important because to be truly motivated to learn we have to delay the gratification of that knowledge into the future.  This really only occurs when we are calm and have access to these areas of the brain that create such memories, the limbic system and the neocortex.

 


This Newsletter puts reason to what we know to be true, school-based learning takes place when each child is calm and relaxed.  This is why the management of classroom dysfunctional behaviours is so important.  Whenever such behaviours exist the learning capacity is reduced proportionately to the level of stress that behaviour produces in the offending student, their classmates and the teacher.

Posted by: AT 07:53 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 18 2021

Dealing With A Crisis

Throughout these essays the focus has been on providing an environment that allows the students to focus on their schoolwork in a calm and secure manner.  However, I am certain that any teacher who works in difficult communities will be confronted by the uncontrollable child who at times will behave in a way that is temporarily ‘out of control’.  These are periods where the focus is on managing the immediate crisis.  Without preparation when such an explosion happens what you do will depend on what you have planned to do before-hand.  At the time of the crisis everyone, including your own’s stress levels will be so elevated it is difficult to make considered actions.

 

The following provides a scaffold to create a framework that will support your actions while experiencing such a crisis.

 

Of course, being forewarned is a benefit and the first thing to do is to identify any potential student who is likely to explode uncontrollably.  Apart from preschool, and in some cases kindergarten all kids come to a new school year with a record.  Teachers are entitled to be warned about those very difficult kids and if possible, have some prior knowledge about any potential problems with their behaviour.  However, if you are not forewarned you will soon observe an explosion and after two or three such events you should start to collate that information for yourself.  What you need to record is:   

  • Previous episodes of persistent outbursts of severe behaviours.  When these occur ask yourself:
    • Where these flare-ups are likely to happen: in the classroom, in a particular subject, moving between periods; knowing this will allow you to address that environment.
    • When do they happen: after a change of routine, when left alone, when they are with another particular student, in a crowd or when isolated.
  • Other factors:
    • The frequency these outbursts occur
    • The antecedent conditions of the environment, are they agitated when they arrive at school, maybe they have had a ‘custodial’ visit from a separated parent
    • Warning behaviours, do you see them becoming agitated

From this data you can build a picture of the conditions that you need to design and alter the classroom setting in a way that makes the uncontrollable, manageable.

 

Despite your best efforts there will be times when you are confronted with such an outburst and these events follow a particular pattern as shown below.

 

The Trigger

The information you acquire from following the steps above help you identify just what is the trigger for this outburst.  The warning signs may be the emotional state of the student, they may be extra argumentative or just a bit more restless than usual.  You can often see this heightened level of stress in their body language their muscles are tight, fists clenched, etc.  Knowing possible triggers for a student may enable you to remove them or reduce their occurrence.

 

Escalation

You will observe the early phase of escalation in their body language, their eyes narrow, mouth tightens and jaw thrust forward.  You may observe a change in their breathing patterns.

 

Their behaviour becomes more overtly threatening:

  • They become more defiant, disobedient, making insulting comments.
  • Their voice becomes louder, challenging, threatening, swearing, arguing
  • Body language becomes even more threatening – fists clenched, tapping feet or fingers, chest and shoulders puffing up, hands on hips

 

This is a time to start to intervene, to try to stop this crisis by following the steps below:

  • Don’t stand too close or touch them
  • Model non-hostile body language, hands off hips, fists unclenched, no finger wagging
  • Remind them of previous success they have had in gaining self-control; acknowledge their strong emotions but show confidence
  • Consider physical activity e.g., a supervised run or send them for a message, just get them out of the immediate environment.

 

The Crisis

At this stage the child is incapable of rational thinking.  You will observe the following behaviours:

  • They may spit, push, kick, choke, head-butt, bite, pull hair, pinch, punch etc.
  • They may flee from room or grounds
  • They may use objects as weapons to smash, break or throw
  • The child has lost self-control and may harm their self-and/or others

 

The best action you can take at this time is to control your own behaviour.  Deal with them in a way that shows that you are not going to get involved in the crisis.  Address the child as follows:

  • Use a firm, low voice, refer to them by name and give a short clear instruction and repeat it several times if needed.  Keep tone and volume of voice consistent
  • At times you may need to stand back and let a tantrum run its course.  It may be necessary to remove other students/audience
  • Don’t attempt to intervene in a playground fight without back-up.  Say STOP and send for help
  • After outburst get child to time-out ASAP
  • Be aware of your own reactions, take some slow deep breaths.

 

 Recovery

After the crisis everyone needs to return to a calm state, to a condition known as homeostatic equilibrium where:

  • The student’s body chemistry is returning to normal
  • The muscles become progressively more relaxed
  • Ritual inappropriate behaviours become less frequent

It is important to note that the student is not yet at baseline and is vulnerable to re-escalation.  The child should be moved to a quiet place where there is no audience, allowing them to calm down.  This gives you and the rest of the class that same opportunity.

 

At this time, you should show concern for the student and support them.  It is tempting to unload on them to get rid of your heightened stress but refrain from lecturing, becoming hostile etc. and just as important is to resist the temptation to rescue them.

 

Throughout all our communications one of the consistent principles for dealing with difficult kids is that we have a 100% rejection of the inappropriate behaviour and a 100% acceptance of the child!  This is the time to demonstrate that principle.

 

Post Crisis

When the child has recovered enough you have to deal with them.  Remember that their outburst has taken its toll on their physical condition.  They may go through a stage of emotional withdrawal, crying, exhaustion, fatigue, depression, muscles relax and they may slump forward.  They may be thirsty, hungry, or even need to urinate, their body has been under extreme levels of stress.

 

Psychologically they may feel regret or remorse over what they have done but for kids with severe dysfunctional behaviour which would attract the diagnosis of conduct disorder they are more likely to be concerned about the consequences you must impose.

You will need to discuss the event with the child.  When doing so:

  • Use open ended questions with a long wait time and LISTEN.  You don’t need to fill the silences
  • Discuss with the child what they could do differently next time.  Let the ideas come from the child … don’t give them the answers
  • Have the child be specific about what they will do next time, telling you how that will look and sound.  This helps them move towards change and growth and avoids “parrot responses”
  • Be sure you don’t reward the student for the outburst e.g. By giving too much TLC, special activity, food afterwards
  • Now is the time to talk about what happened but not why.  Stick with what you saw and heard and focus on how the child calmed down … what was helpful?

 

Debriefing

This is that important time when you look after yourself.  The following steps will help you do this:

  • Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP.  This can be quite cathartic!  When finished date and sign it and file it, this is the data for future planning!
  • Don’t take it personally; remember these children have complex problems resulting from what has been done to them and these are not your fault.  The cause of the outburst and how they behave during that crisis has nothing to do with you but how you deal with the event is the skill you can learn.
  • Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments.
  • Teaching in difficult schools results in being exposed to such outbursts much more frequently.  This will take its toll unless you deal with the pent-up stress that will naturally build-up in your body.  Talking it over with someone who understands the environment in which you work allows you to relieve this stress.  A supportive colleague is ideal.   
  • You may talk it over with your ‘at home’ partner but this is not as effective.  Home should be your haven a place to relax and see that your personal needs are met.  Exercise is always important but it may be particularly beneficial after a day when you have dealt with such a crisis.

 

Working with damaged students is the most challenging work teachers face and the least acknowledged by educational authorities.  However, the value of this work cannot be underestimated.  These kids will never learn when they are in a state of conflict and that is a loss is not confined to that child.  The other students who are victims or spectators to such outbursts will also be incapable of learning in any effective way and of course the teacher will be distracted from their planned lesson.  This is a time when you must acknowledge the value of the great work you do.

Posted by: AT 05:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 11 2021

Emerging From Lockdown

Of all the public activities that are planned to re-start after lockdown, none seems to be more pressing for politicians than the opening of schools.  There have been many promised dates that have come and gone but it seems, in the current situation with vaccination rates meeting acceptable levels schools will open in the near future.  There has been plenty of advice on how this will happen but the one consideration that is not really addressed but is critical, is the anxiety that is inevitable for many of our students not to mention the staff.  Not least of these concerns is the real fear of contacting this contagious disease.

 

Since lockdown was introduced students and staff had to learn to work in a completely different environment.  It goes without saying the structure of each child’s ‘at home’ learning would vary from house to house.  Some parents, who had time would develop their own timetable while others just let the kids work at their own pace hopefully getting their work done.  In any case, most kids were living in isolation and this seclusion presents a significant problem.

 

Living near a beach, and being ‘retired’ I was conscious of the number of students who were in the surf during so called school time and, I know if I was them I would have ploughed through my lessons just to ‘hit the surf’.  Now we are expecting the students to come back to a regimented program.

 

These constantly changing conditions will create a deal of anxiety for the students as well as the staff and parents.  They have all been through a continual upheaval through this pandemic.  The whole community has been unsure about the future, this has been going for almost two years with no real solution in sight.  Some students are more hypersensitive to conversation than others.  We all have different levels of self-confidence, and this will influence the level of anxiety we experience.

 

The immediate task for the school in regards to the mental safety of the students is to deal with the resulting anxiety.  The social fabric of the classroom will have to be re-established, there is a need to reconstruct the sense of belonging to the group (see Newsletter - The Tribal Classroom – 6 April 2020 and Creating a Calm Environment – 3 November 2020). 

 

One way of doing this is to take advantage of any opportunity to do some type of group work especially for younger students.  Of course, the relationship with the teacher is critical and hopefully this has remained during the on-line meetings but the student to student relationships are just, if not more important.

 

As always, when we have to re-set any program in our classroom we need to restore the appropriate underlying properties and the diagram below illustrates these:

 

 

The focus on pedagogy is our core business, and it is while delivering the curriculum the other pillars to the model are established.  This is what we do best but at this special time it is most important that the organisation of your classroom is very business-like!  Think about the difference it makes when going out for dinner.  If the seats, table arrangement, music, welcome from maître d’ and ambience are all not working in tandem, that affects your experience and overall enjoyment; it’s the same in the classroom.

 

Until the students have completely resettled it is important to have that emphasis on cooperation.  Have a lesson plan that incorporates teacher talk; paired work; sharing with class; workbooks; review/game.  Paired and group activities promote student relationships and have them present their findings to the class.  I know this is telling you to suck eggs but kids working in isolation is good practice some of the time but less important in circumstances where we are trying to re-establish peer relationships. 

 

Remember humour is one of your most powerful teaching tools!  Laughing is proved to:

  • Improve memory recall
  • Increase conceptual understanding
  • Increase attention to a task
  • Stimulate brain regions important for complex and abstract thinking
  • Activate brain growth

Make sure your class is a place where there is an emphasis on having fun!

 

It is most important to reinstate the structure in the classroom (see Newsletter – Creating Structure - 6 April 2020).  This is not about classroom rules although it often is and at this time might be needed until the accepted behaviour is established.  However, it is about establishing the routines you want in your lesson, the steps that you provide the students with the predictable sequencing of the lesson.  This provides the students with a sense of security and fosters confidence in the way the lesson will go.  The establishment of ritual at the start of each ‘lesson’ allows the teacher to quickly focus the children on the task at hand.

 

It is vital that both the teacher and the student knows what will happen in a lesson, there are no surprises, these expectations will need to be restored (see Newsletter – Expectations – 6 April 2020).  This is the remembered experience of what happened before when the particular environmental conditions were present.  If they know what happened before, they can imagine what will happen next and if the structure is effective and the expected consequence is delivered, the student is not disturbed and can remain calm.

 

There is an old adage that people live up or down to your expectations and this is critical for the teacher but it is only a truism if the teacher and student know what that expectation is!

 

Research has shown that the teacher/student relationship is the central quality of a successful learning experience (see Newsletter – Relationships – 4 April 2020 and Competence Vs Warmth 31 August 2021).  The advantages of a strong, supportive relationship are:

  • Teachers higher in ‘warmth’ tend to develop greater confidence in students
  • Students who believe their teacher is a caring one tend to learn more
  • Positive relationships enhance social, cognitive and language development
  • Students’ feelings of acceptance by teachers are associated with emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement in class

 

It is important to understand that this relationship is professional, you are the adult in the room and you are the one with academic qualifications that authorise your right to be in that classroom.  You have to support their needs, they have no obligation to support your needs, this makes you the authority.

 

It is also important to understand that as the students gain in competent independence the significance of the relationship becomes less important.  All things being in place, by the time they reach Year 12, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator.  But, in the very early years of schooling the teacher/student relationship is critical.  The exception to this is when you are dealing with very damaged kids of whatever age.  In a sense they need the same attention as the infant until they regain some control over their behaviour.  This latter circumstance is the focus of all our work.

 

Finally you must look after yourself!  Be aware of the following conditions:

  • Don’t take the inevitable problems with the end of lockdown personally.  The school and the children create complex problems – these are not about you, but you have the professional responsibility to address them
  • Be aware of your feelings, you should be ‘stressed’, it is not easy to deal with when you have so many students to nurture so look after your self
  • Debrief – Discuss problems with an appropriate supportive colleague.  Keeping things to yourself never solves the problem (see Newsletter – Debriefing – 4 November 2020)
  • Report to your supervisor in writing any issues that have been unforeseen or potentially threatening. This can be quite cathartic!  Date and sign it
  • Look after yourself at home too - exercise, relaxation and maybe listen to music, etc. but rarely is alcohol the answer!

 

It is a very difficult time for all teachers and in the present environment support from the top is limited if not non-existent so it is essential you look after yourself and your colleagues!

Posted by: AT 09:49 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 04 2021

ALP Could Lose the Unlosable Election

It seems unthinkable that a Government as corrupt and incompetent as the current Liberal/National coalition led by Morrison and Joyce could be returned to power but it is a real possibility.  The question is why is Labor rejected bALPy their traditional voters, the ‘true believers’, the very people they claim to support? 

 

As a young Labor Party member, in the early 70’s I have fond memories of my involvement in the ALP.  We felt part of the movement but this was the time when two ‘clever’, inter-related social changes emerged that changed the way organisations were managed and it marked the beginning of a drift away from the Party and the Unions. 

 

Prior to this time intellectual thought was dominated by the physical sciences.  In universities those academics who taught ‘social’ subjects felt the dismissive attitudes from those who did real research with numbers.  Economists, psychologists, all the social sciences who were craving the same status adopted a rationalist approach to their studies; they started to measure.  Amongst the changes emerged the famous Harvard University’s Master of Business Administration where the application of the ‘scientific method’ became the benchmark for all things related to business organisation. 

 

If this rationalist approach defined the ‘how to approach’ to organisation, the answer to what to organise was supplied by the emergence of neoliberalism, the reliance on market-oriented reforms.  In industry, and in the public service a new class of leader materialised, those driven by targeted efficiency and pleasing the ‘market’.  These new ‘leaders’ became the ruling class of their organisations: they know what is best and believed in their right to dictate the strategies of their organisation.  The resulting sense of self-importance put them at risk of becoming arrogant and disconnected from their base.

 

The result of these two paradigm shifts meant corporations and associations were controlled from the ‘top-down’, a change from the previous organisational style that was ‘bottom-up’, the grass roots providing the purpose of the enterprise and management ensuring these goals were the target of their efforts.  

 

The ALP, always looking to improve soon adopted this change.  From this time on Labor progressively became a top-down organisation and a new class of leaders infiltrated head office using their position power to impose policy, replacing the strategies desired by the branch membership.  Over the following years there has been a gradual but consistent erosion, not only of the relevance of branch membership but a resulting decline in the enthusiasm for the Party.  Although this disenchantment was slow however, there were a few significant markers that symbolised this change.

 

The most telling period of this disconnect and one that will be disputed was during the leadership of Hawke and Keating.  These two have been and still are held-up as true heroes of the Labor Movement; they are still revered by the Party faithful.  Even today Albanese, who could potentially lose the unlosable election still clings to their reforms.  He constantly refers to their reforms as the way of the future with his sermons on productivity projects as the way back to prosperity.  He still clings to the failed, neoliberal practices on which those reforms were built.

 

Of course Hawke and Keating were very popular and both excellent parliamentary performers and they managed to take the Party along with their adoption of free market policies.  Their leadership teams understood the new approach and dominated powerful positions in the Party organisation or Union leadership.  The myth of their positive contribution to the ‘economy’ was promoted by the big end of town, the favourable media coverage they enjoyed, and still do is the wealthy class perpetuating the lie that keeps them in a privileged position.

 

Granted, there was an apparent initial boost in the economy with the adoption of market-economics that are at the heart of their reforms.  Each evening the financial reports indicated the improvements, especially for the share market and companies making record profits.  Business thrived but these changes did nothing for the working class.  Keating and Hawke’s policies reflected the ambitions of big business but, in their defence, they always referred to the lie that you need a strong economy to improve the pot of the working class.  This faulty belief has its roots in Economics 101 – where the goal is to maximise profits.  They, as all neoliberals only see the economy in this light, they are oblivious to the idea that it would be as valid to have a goal of say minimise poverty, a choice that would come from the ALP rank and file!

 

If they used their reliance on the rationalisation of the data they would discover that this shift was the beginning of the ever-widening income gap between the lowest paid workers and those at the top until we are at the point where the highest 20% has more than twice the average of the middle 20% and this middle group has almost three times the income of the lowest paid workers, hardly a policy of any Labor Government.  This data should put to rest any belief in the neoliberal maxim of benefits of the ‘trickle-down’ effect, the rich will pass on benefits to the poor! 

 

The evidence of the Labor leadership’s appreciation of the market economy is in their post- parliamentary careers.  At the time of their retirement the Labor luminaries such as Hawke and Keating, along with others such as Neville Wran and Bob Carr smoothly transitioned from the leadership of the ‘worker’s party’ onto the Boardrooms of big business!  These heroes of the workers sat down with the architects of worker’s poverty.  

 

The decline in the welfare of the working class coincides with the fall in the support for the ALP.  Fifty years ago, Labor got between 45% to 50% of the primary vote.  Today this has dropped to 35% to 40%.  Branches struggle to get enough members to man polling booths or do the letter box drops prior to elections.  

 

The overt or even unintended arrogance of the leadership is there for all to see.  In some cases that self-importance allowed party representatives to succumb to the temptation of criminal activities, considering they were above the law.  There was a time, not long ago when the NSW Labor Party was a standing joke.  The trials of Edie Obeid and his cronies is well documented but what has to be understood is that their behaviour was carried out while they were in Parliament, representing the ALP.  The question must be asked, how did this happen?  Was it an acceptance that they were amongst the entitled, above the law?

 

These events marked the time when most of the true believers had left and the ALP became an organisation made up of those who see the Party as a way to get into politics.  Despite the rhetoric the focus is no longer on social justice but on what will win votes; pragmatism has replaced principle. 

 

Some telling events where this is evident are failure to support the refugees on Tampa, a cowardly decision that has held the party hostage to a ‘stop-the-boats’, off-shore detention - refugee policy.  The ‘market driven’ decisions on fossil fuels, etc. demonstrates their lack of honest leadership.  The latest support of tax cuts for the rich makes real supporters cringe!  

 

The ‘clever- boys/girls’ of the ALP somehow understand they need the branch members and have produced plenty of enquiries into how they can re-engage with the grass roots.  John Faulkner was critical about the alienation of the older supporters probably vocalising the problem of the marketing approach of the leadership – ‘like us on Facebook’!  And, following the latest loss at the ballot, Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson analysed how the Shorten campaign got it so wrong.  Having such entrenched insiders ensured they would not get to the issue highlighted by Faulkner, they don’t see the membership in terms other than they ‘must be led’.  All the suggested reforms are ‘top-down’ solutions and do nothing to re-establish any power to the branches.

 

The motivation for this essay has been the latest in a long line of ‘captain’s choices’ for preselection for the up-coming election.  The Labor elite are again demonstrating that they know best.  The selection of Daniel Repacholi in Hunter is one example.  I doubt branch members would have selected a candidate whose first actions was to remove pictures of naked women in sexually provocative posing with assault rifles from his Instagram account.  More telling is the appointment of Christine Keneally over the community candidate Tu Le in Fowler.  This is a blatant demonstration of the believed privilege of the leadership group.  The shame of their stated policies on ethnic diversification is ignored while a resident from the wealthy North Shore makes bare-faced claims that she really belongs to that electorate, after all she has committed to move in.  

 

The ALP has lost its way driven by a desperation to get back into power but if they succeed or more to the point when this pitiful excuse for a government is thrown out, the resulting Labor will not know what to do!  Ben Chifley’s Light on the Hill has been replaced by the harsh florescent light in the latest focus group. 

Posted by: AT 10:31 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 04 2021

Multi-Tasking

The hustle and bustle of life in our schools seems to be growing at an ever-increasing rate of knots; already there is really too much we have to do.  This chaos is intensified by the reliance on digital devices.  The constant demands for our attention results in us having to move from one seemingly important task to the next just to get through our work.  This switching of our focus can give us the impression that we are able to get everything done but the evidence clearly demonstrates that our so-called multitasking results in a reduction of the quantity and quality of our output.  This demand on time and the resulting efficiency loss is a problem across our economy but for schools the loss of productivity has distressing outcomes for student’s learning.

 

An accepted definition of multitasking is the practice of performing two, or more tasks simultaneously or more accurately in very quick succession.  Examples are when you are perhaps marking an essay in the staffroom and someone comes in and asks about an event that happened last week.  You stop your assessment, address the issue and return to the marking.  Of course, too often many more ‘tasks’ must be addressed before you get back to the original assignment.

 

Fundamentally there are lots of things our brain simultaneously controls; things like our need to breathe, change our sugar levels, etc., things that are reflexive and there are some habits that are so ingrained, we act on them without consideration.  At this level we do multitask.  However, in the past we needed to concentrate when we were hunting for food, not only was this important for survival but when stalking dangerous prey any mistake could be fatal.  So, for higher order tasks, the work we do at school the evolutionary formation of the functions of our brain, dictates that we can only seriously focus on one thing at a time. 

 

There is plenty of evidence that multitasking degrades the quality of any one’s work.  It is estimated that there is up to a 40% reduction in productivity.  This occurs because of:

  1. The increased time it takes to get through the task.  It is more that an aggregation of the actual time taken to do the task, if you added the minutes spent either uninterrupted or tallied the actual time you were ‘on task’  would not be the same.  You lose time going back to pick-up where you left off.
  2. Our accuracy level decreases; when we shift our focus, a change referred to as context switching, we tend to forget the last part of the work from which we were distracted.  We rarely go back to clarify assuming it will come back and besides we don’t have time.

This productivity loss increases as the complexity of the task we have at hand increases.

 

With all the extra demands placed on teachers by their employer and despite the demonstrated loss of overall productivity it is impossible to avoid multitasking, it is not a practical option.  The Education Department puts more significance into volume of work they can get out of a teacher over the quality of the work from that same teacher.  It is illogical but we have to live with it!

 

I suggest we approach this problem in two ways, the first is to manage those tasks you know you have to address, our fixed work and then also how to survive the unexpected interruptions.  Let’s deal with the first challenge.

 

There are tasks we know we have to do in the day ahead.  In a sense we have some control over these and so we can plan our time to deal with them in a structured way.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Make a to-do list and get the things that you least want to do over with first.  When I was a child I had to eat my cabbage, I always left it until last.  The fact was that I knew I had to eventually eat the cabbage and this realisation spoiled the rest of my meal.  Since I have sort of grown up I get the things I don’t like done first and then I can look forward to the rest of the day. 
  • Prioritize your tasks - of course, there might be reasons to put some tasks at the top of the list; say a report might be due by recess, then this will be at the beginning of your day sheet.  The thing is to get some structure into your plan
  • Group similar tasks, some of your work will require the use of supporting resources so it makes sense to use them when they are available.  Those resources also include your cognitive skills.
  • Reduce distractions, the staffroom might not be the best place to get work done, other teachers will be there resulting in plenty of interruptions to take you away from your work so, if possible find a quiet place to operate.
  • Monitor your progress – set yourself little short-term goals so when your reach them you get a little intrinsic reward.  For example, if I have to mark 30 exams I might divide these into blocks of five.  Even checking the five off in a box can give you a lift!
  • Delegate tasks, if needed – there are many things you have to do that are just part of a combined task.  Don’t do work that is other’s responsibility, they won’t really thank you and you’re not helping them.

At first, you will need to plan to make your to-do list but eventually it will become your ritualised approach to the day.  At the end of my career creating my to-do list was in draft form at the end of the previous day and in the morning, after I checked ‘overnight events’ I finalised my ‘day sheet’.

 

However, in the real world of teaching no day can be planned, everyday throws-up challenges that have to be dealt with IMMEDIATELY and so whatever task you were on must be left!  This is stressful and so I go to the very process I recommend whenever you are facing a challenging situation and that is to put on your boundaries (see Newsletter - Teaching Practical Boundaries – 31 July 2017).  In summary, do the following:

  • Stay Calm – this is always the critical step but particularly when switching your focus.  Remember, it is the last thing you were focusing on that is least remembered so while you are take taking a breath, think seriously about where you are up to in your task.  This allows you to return with a bit more certainty and at least know you should back-track to revise this part of the work. Of, course sometimes things are extreme so make it your practice to always revise the last processes you made when you return.

 

The following deals with the boundaries.

 

  • What is Really Happening – once you have closed the previous task then deal with the current issue.  Ask the question what is really happening and when you have this you ascertain the following:
    • Who is Responsible, if it’s my responsibility then I have to do something to make things right
    • If it is someone else’s fault, I have to know what I want and then decide what I have to do to make that happen.
  • Take-Action, if you want things to change you have to act.  Eventually your involvement in the distraction will be over and so you can return to your current task. 

 

Just as you made sure you closed down the task before you were distracted it is very important that you closed down the distraction before you get back to work.  If the event has been stressful you might need some time to debrief and gather your thoughts.  Don’t rush back straight away because the quality of your efforts will be diminished because you are still thinking about that event.

 

The need for multitasking is inevitable in today’s schools.  However, the loss of efficiency could be reduced by your ability to plan your approach to the tasks you must do. 

Posted by: AT 09:31 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 13 2021

Dealing with Students with Severely Dysfunctional Behaviours

Integrate or Special Placement

Previously I discussed the issues that need to be addressed regarding the discipline and welfare practices within schools (see Newsletter - Student Discipline – What About Welfare – 7 September 2021).  This is relevant considering the current review on student discipline, being conducted by the Education Department.  The draft proposal makes a series of vague recommendations that promises increased support but imposes diminished access to consequences that would be targeted at specific students with highly disruptive behaviours. 

 

The document discusses behaviour in general terms and would be acceptable for the vast majority of students.  However, it fails to address the difficulty schools confront dealing with those students whose behaviour is outrageous and threatens not only their own safety and security but also endangers all other members of the school community.  It must be noted that these students are most in need of support and more importantly compassion from everyone in the community but their offensive behaviour repels such management.  

 

The foundations of the dysfunctional behaviours that clash with that which is acceptable in a school community is varied and as always, I do not include those students who have a psychotic or biological disorder.  Regardless, the beginnings of this dislocation occurs in the early years of their development.  I identify three fundamental causes which I will now describe briefly but for a more detailed account I have posted Chapter 2 of my book Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids (Austin Macauley, London 2021) in the resources of our webpage Frew Consultants Group. 

 

The causes are:

  • Abuse – this includes physical, sexual, emotional/social and the less acknowledged intellectual and spiritual.  When children are abused the elevated stress levels inflicts real physical damage to the brain with decreases in those areas that assist cognition, the hippocampus, prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus collosum along with an increase in the size of the amygdala.  The result is these students struggle to comprehend the messages coming from their environment and becoming super-sensitive to perceived external threats. 
  • Neglect – children need to learn how to behave and this learning is a result of being exposed to situations that threaten their security.  They either learn by trial and error to behave in ways that restores their equilibrium or are taught by a parent or carer how to behave.  There are two ways this process can undermine normal development: 
    • The first is that the parent/carer provides an environment that is at odds with what is considered ‘normal’.  If, for instance a child wants its mother’s attention it may be that the only way to achieve this is to scream loudly and hit out at the mother.  If this works then the child has acquired the behaviour for getting attention.  However, later, at school when the child is excluded and becomes desperate for acceptance they will employ those behaviours that worked in their childhood but these are ‘dysfunctional’ in the classroom!
    • The second is when children are not stimulated enough.  The brain develops throughout life but will never be as active as in the first three years.  To develop, it requires the stimulus so the appropriate behaviours can be learned.  For many behaviours there are critical periods of time when the conditions in particular parts of the brain are primed for this development.  The most cited is for sight – a child born with cataracts is blind they will not receive light as a stimulus and so will not learn to see.  In the real world, children who have experienced this and have not had the cataracts removed by about the eighth month will not be able to interpret sight even when the cataracts are removed despite there being nothing wrong with the neurological circuitry for sight.  It is just that when the opportunity to learn to see is past, the brain removes the neurological matter for the sake of efficiency.  A less dramatic but more common is the absence of appropriate attachment to others in the first years.  This results in relationship problems later in life. 

 

All too often, these children are the casualties of both abuse and neglect and it is vital that we understand this damage has been done to these kids, they are victims and should attract our compassion, However, their actions challenges those who are subjected to their threatening, dysfunctional behaviour.

 

Although these behaviours that arise from their malicious environment they manifest in various ways.  The result of the behaviours is that they can’t effectively interact with their peers in a way that benefits themselves and their contemporaries.  As an aside, the best thing, in fact the main task of a parent is to teach their child how to interrelate with their friends and their parents by about age three.  After this, it is the quality of the contact with others that determines their sense of self.  Using this understanding, the most helpful thing we can do for these damaged kids is teach them to re-engage with their classmates in a way that nurtures all parties.  The question is how do we do this?

 

This has resulted in a clash of tactics between those who believe in dealing with the problem while maintaining the child’s presence in the school against those who advocate the removal for a period of time until the student ‘learns’ how to behave in a manner that allows them to return to school where they, and their peers can access their lessons; inclusion versus exclusion!

 

Almost exclusively, academics and bureaucrats support a policy of inclusion.   Academics are extremely vocal in their advocacy for full integration and it is difficult to argue with their reasons for supporting this approach.  However, they are naive about the reality that exists in public schools parti