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Monday, July 31 2017

Teaching Practical Boundaries

Throughout these newsletters, and my other publications I have pointed out that all behaviour is driven by stress and stress is produced when we are seeking something to satisfy our needs or to protect our sense of self.  It is in this latter purpose that boundaries function as indicators of safety and security.  For the purposes of this newsletter I will focus on teacher’s boundaries.   All too often teachers focus their attention onto their students’ wellbeing and habitually neglect their own health.  This newsletter is about the need for teachers to develop strong boundaries and some easy techniques to implement them.

Boundaries are the space between you and the outside world.  That is they define where you start in relation to all others and how that ‘relationship’ can generate stress.  It must be noted stress is not all bad; we know it is required to motivate any activity but we are focusing on stress that hinders the effectiveness of the teaching.  This essay is about having good professional boundaries in the classroom and in the school.

Having functional boundaries means accepting that we are separate from our students.  We have our own needs, attitudes and values and that the students have their own emotions, needs, attitudes and values.  The difference is that they are developing boundaries.  You need to have your ‘teacher boundaries’ already in place.

We have all had lessons, well at least I had plenty when things were not going to plan and I was being stressed about it.  This is the time when we must be totally honest in the appraisal of what is going on.  (Refer back to the Newsletter of 10th July about the locus of control for a description of responsibility).

 The Process

The following provides a template for the use of boundaries for you in the classroom.  Of course these steps can be applied to all your life.

1. Recognition your Boundaries are being challenged

Be conscious of your feelings towards the class and the lesson. If you can sense your feelings are changing, becoming frustrated or worried your boundary is being challenged; this change of feelings is a ‘stress attack’.

2. Actively Stay Calm

We are well aware that if we become too stressed we lose our objectivity but be grateful for the initial onset because it alerts you that there is a problem.

It is important that you learn to quickly control that stress.There are many techniques to learn how to evoke a quick relaxation response. The use of neuro- linguistic programming is excellent for this however any short relaxation technique followed by the establishment of an associated cue (the anchor) will do.

3. Ask the Questions

  • ‘What is really happening’?  This is often not the obvious event.
  • ‘Who is responsible’?
    • If ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take action to address the cause of the stress.
    • If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
      • ‘What is causing the attack’?
      • 'What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?

4. Take Action

Assert your right without threatening the other person.You can use the statements:

  • ‘When you …………’
  • ‘I feel……………….’
  • ‘Because…………..’

The ‘when you’ is the time to describe to the student, or the class just what actions they are doing that is causing the problem.  The ‘I feel’ allows you to let them know how their behaviour is upsetting you.  Don’t be afraid to tell them how you really feel and finally the ‘because’ gives you the opportunity to tell them what are the consequences of their behaviour.  This is not a time to talk about ‘punishments’ they will get if they continue to behave that way but the real cost of their behaviour, the loss of learning, etc. that is the outcome of their behaviour.

Or if the attack is much more serious or the students are not engaging in the process of solving the problem the more serious approach can be:

  • ‘If you ………………’
  • ‘I will…………….…..’

This is when you can spell out that if they behave in a certain way you will deliver a set of consequences.  The decision on what to do is theirs but they will have no control over what happens next.

5. Let Go

Sometimes even if you have done everything possible to regain control of the class using the right techniques and with the best intentions but things are still not working.At this time you must seek to get help.

Finally there will be students whose behaviour is beyond the resources of your school.  If after you have tried ever possible intervention at your disposal there may come a time that that student has to leave the school.

It is important for teachers to develop strong, healthy boundaries.  It is not easy to manage the inter actions of thirty kids with all their problems and immaturities not to mention the additional demands modern education bureaucracy demands of all staff.  However, strong boundaries will support your health and resilience and allow you to really enjoy even those most difficult students.

Posted by: AT 01:17 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 24 2017


Teachers have always had to deal with anxious children from the first day at kindergarten to the last day of their tertiary entry examination and the years in between.  At a basic level anxiety is another expression of fear and the two are products of stress.  No surprise here and in other Newsletters (particularly the 19th June 2017) this is discussed in detail.  To recap stress in itself is not a bad thing, we need a level of stress to engage in the world but too much stress or distress will hinder performance especially in the classroom.

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 – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go.  These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion.  However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
  • Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment.  It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents. 
  • Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time.  They are children who will avoid what we may consider mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt a task.

The prevalence of anxiety at a clinical level is about 14.5% or one in seven Australians and in the majority of cases it starts in childhood.  As with all things there is a coming together of genetics and environmental conditions that lead to anxiety but as always teachers can only impact on the environment in an attempt to limit the levels of anxiety in their classroom.

So what to do?  If you really have concerns about the level of anxiety of a student in your class then you must refer them to the school counselor and/or tell the parents about your concerns.  The latter is not as easy because this is news for whatever reason they don’t want to hear.

However, for the day to day running of the class, when you think a child is really anxious to the level you have concerns encourage them to talk about it.  The following questions will assist both you and the child:

  • Tell me about how it feels being anxious?
  • What is making you anxious?
  • What do you fear will happen?
  • What does it stop you from doing?

A technique that can be effective is for the teacher to establish a procedure where they can give the child some space to calm down.  This is a type of ‘time out’.  In fact you can empower the child to control his or her access to time out through some non-verbal cue.  For example, the child could move an object on their desk that signals to the teacher that they are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.  The teacher would then ask that child to go and get something from say the principal or the office.  Of course the principal and the office would be aware of the purpose of the visit and provide that time out while the child remains in supervision.  Just the provision of this retreat can be enough to alleviate threat of anxiety and give the child a sense of control over their fears.

However, dealing with anxiety like all classroom activities is best served when the relationships between the teacher and the students along with the students’ relationships with each other are strong and positive.  This, along with a calm and a really predictive environment will help minimize the impact anxiety will have in your classroom.

Posted by: AT 01:10 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 17 2017

Time Out

The delivery of a negative consequence for students whose actions are unacceptable is a difficult thing with the social and ethical restrictions that eliminate older, ‘traditional’ penalties.  In fact it is hard to think of any form of ‘punishment’ that teachers can impose that is not a form of ‘time out’ (TO) or exclusion.  This should not distract from the effectiveness of this practice as effective time out is a form of rejection and that is a very powerful motivator for the vast majority of children.

Time out achieves two outcomes in the short term, first it is the removal of the student who is disrupting the class and secondly the lesson can continue for the remaining students.

There are another benefits including the offending student can learn there is a consequence for their inappropriate behaviour and the exclusion can give them a quiet place to regain the emotional equilibrium.

The use of TO should never be a surprise; the class needs to have it known that this is the consequence for poor behaviour.  Whether or not there are specific warnings given to students who are ‘heading for TO’ depends on the students’ expectations.  There doesn’t seem to be any evidence one way or the other but the implementation must be consistent.


Stage 1  - The teacher makes the decision to remove positive stimulation from the student while they remain in class.

Stage 2  - The student is physically removed to another location in the classroom and instructed to watch but not participate in the lesson.

Stage 3  - The student is removed from the instructional activity and is not allowed to watch the lesson. 

Stage 4  - The student is removed from the room and is sent to a designated area for a brief duration of time. It requires the school to designate a specific space or location and to organise a level of supervision for the students. 

Stage 5  - If all forms of time outs in the school have failed then it may be that the student is removed from the school all together.  This is school suspension.

Length of Time Out

It is a fair rule of thumb that time out should be no more than five to ten minutes for young primary students up to fifteen to twenty minutes for older students.  However, the range of time can be from seconds, say Stage 1 to days, Stage 5.

Returning From Time Out

There should be a predetermined length that the students expect but the students should also understand that return should not happen unless there is a significant demonstration of appropriate behaviour. 

Legal and Ethical Guidelines

Before TO is used the following guidelines should be followed:

  • There must be conformity to the local education’s authority guidelines on time out, suspension, exclusion and expulsions
  • There should be the provision of written procedures so that parents, students and relevant school community members understand the process.  The legitimate educational function of time out is identified (i.e. reduction in dangerous or disruptive behaviour, protection of educational environment, etc.)
  •  Records should be kept of significant TO’s
  • For the higher stages of time outs supervisors, and parent/guardians, should be notified.

A final word of warning, the use of TO will only be effective if the student wants to be in your classroom.  If this is not the case then it may well be a positive result and the behaviour you thought was dysfunctional was indeed functional for that student.  Further to this, where the child goes to do their TO, it should not be to a more attractive place than being in classroom.  For example, if you have a group of students who are friends and they are misbehaving they may well plan to get ‘kicked out’ just to be together with no work to do!

Posted by: AT 01:17 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 10 2017

Locus of Control

One of the objectives we have for kids whose behaviour is out of control is to have them take responsibility for their actions.  Being accountable for your actions is considered the stamp of a positive member of the community and research has shown that successful people are more likely to believe they have control over their destination.

In the mid 1950’s Julian Porter a psychologist looked at the contrasting mindsets that are held when we consider who controls our lives.  The contrasting positions are that we are free to do what we liked or someone else was in control.  In the days this question was being discussed there was a real difference in who was in charge with a clear division between the working class who had little decision making opportunities and the owners who took a much more authoritarian stance.  Religion was also a factor with the ‘will of God’ being a significant driver of beliefs.  This debate still rages but the modern version is whether we have free will or are our decisions ‘determined’ by our past, do we have  internal control, free will or are we controlled by our memories, ‘external’ factors.

This work continued and the next milestone was the idea to assess influence through an analysis of children’s behaviour related to concepts like personal control and helplessness.  This resulted in the Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control Test and a resulting scale from completely personal free will to being totally controlled by external factors.

The scores from these tests placed the child somewhere on the continuum from totally external control to the opposite internal end.

External Locus of Control

Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances

Internal Locus of Control

Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by his/her personal decisions and efforts.

As pointed out above there is a general belief that it is desirable to be towards the ‘internal’ end of the scale.  People who have this characteristic have more confidence and belief that they control their destination and are more likely to be successful.  A consequence on excessive internalisation results in neuroticism with anxiety and depression.

Although this is the general case it would be wrong to assume the relationship is causal; that is the more you adopt an internal locus of control the more successful you will be.  It is acknowledged that your belief system is learned from your environment.  The question should be asked does success and privilege come from being responsible or if you’re born into success and privilege you find it easier to take the credit for success?

There is always an ‘however’ when we are discussing children who have suffered early childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or severe neglect.  What I do know is that when it comes to measuring the Locus of Control with these kids things are not so simple.

When I worked at a school for students with Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disorder we used a test to measure a range of traits in these kids.  This was the Achenbach Test and amongst the range of characteristics this test examined were depression and aggressive behavior which are two features of these kids’ behavior.  For the initial test the results that identified their locus of control invariably placed them on the extreme, external end and that was reflected in the lack of responsibility they took for their actions.  When they were in trouble it was always someone else’s fault.  The other measure was for their level of Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour which was always surprisingly low considering they were expelled from mainstream schooling for their behaviour.

We retested those students who successfully made it through the school and either returned to mainstream or to work.  We found that the level of external control they reported had significantly reduced which was pleasing; they were taking more ownership of their behaviour.  However, in the exit test they reported an increase in their Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour.  At first glance it seemed the program had made them more deviant but I believe the increase in their acceptance of their behaviour had them making a more honest appraisal of their behaviour.

Contrast to this reported bias towards external control with the impact abuse and neglect has on their sense of self.  These kids believe they are failures, they are no good and because of this lack of real self-belief they have no expectation of success.  It would be a logical hypothesis that these kids would link their failure to their inadequacies; this would mean they have an internal cause of failure.

 I can only speculate that this result did not appear on the test we conducted because all the students who were sent to the school were extremely ‘acting out’ and aggressive.  One group of kids who suffer from PTSD and Neglect ‘act in’, internalize and I would predict they score on the internal extreme of the scale.  The sadness is these are the kids who are predominantly girls do not generally misbehave and are extremely compliant causing no trouble for schools and so receive no support. 

So what to do for these kids?  The answer is in teaching them healthy boundaries.  That is to teach them to self-evaluate their contribution to the situation they find themselves in. 

Part of having healthy boundaries is the ability to answer the following questions:

  1. ‘What is really happening’?      Sometimes what is in front of you is clear but more often than not the current dispute may just be a symptom of another issue that is not being addressed.
  2. ‘Who’s Responsible’?         Here you can use the Nowicki-Strickland test as a talking point.In all descriptions there is an unspoken presumption that we will take a position on the scale and that might be so as a general observation about individuals.But when we are asking the ‘boundary question’ the answer is not about our personal traits but about the current situation.Sometimes we are completely responsible other times we are completely the victim and all parts across the scale.Teach them that the real responsibility is for their actions not for who they are.
  3. ‘What do we want to happen’?         We want to make sure they understand what their real needs are and it’s their duty to take action to get those needs met.Their first responsibility is to their self.

One of the best bits of advice about behaviour is in the Serenity Pray:

‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

The courage to change the things I can

and the wisdom to know the difference’.

I believe there is one last step missing and that is to ‘let go’.  Understand that we can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do and if the conflict can’t be resolved then we must let go of that issue.  This is perhaps the hardest step in having healthy boundaries.

Posted by: AT 01:47 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 03 2017

Toxic Shame

The core quality that determines a secure sense of self is a personal acceptance within our community.  This sense of self commences at birth and the first significant ‘community’ is his or her parents.  When a child experiences nothing but affection and positive attention during these early years they will feel as if they are the centre of the universe and that’s how it should be.  But at about age one, when they can move about they start to develop their independence.  At the same time they start to move independently and being curious can get themselves into some dangerous situations.  When this happens they are told no for the first time!  Often the message will be delivered in a sharp, attention grabbing outburst.  There is nothing wrong with this action; the parents just want to keep their child safe but the child will be rejected for the first time!

The sudden attention grabbing effect is necessary to stop the child, to get them to stop what they are doing - to ‘freeze’.  In reality they do this and for the first time they experience ‘rejection’.  Of course the parents were doing the right thing, keeping their child safe but the child’s sense of rejection is real and all rejection is at the heart of shame.

The child will continue to explore the world and they will continue to make mistakes.  The parents will continue to ‘stop’ them and show them the ‘right’ way to behave. These mistakes expose the child’s incompetence and they will be embarrassed by what they have done.  This feeling of rejection of the inappropriate behaviour we call healthy shame.  The point is that rejection is of inappropriate behaviour; it is not the rejection of the person. 

As an adult we should experience shame whenever we act in a way that is not true to our character and when we fail to do this we become embarrassed.  Because the shame is about what we have done, that feeling is healthy.  Healthy shame protects us both from the exclusion from our group and helps us understand the frailties of others.

Kids don’t get the difference between the action and the performer and so functioning parents have to make sure the mistaken behaviour is separated from the value of the child.  Soon the child will understand that difference and grow up capable of experiencing healthy shame.

However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. When their child makes a mistake they are often physically punished and/or verbally abused for that mistake, it’s the child’s fault.  And all too often the parents expect them to complete a task that is beyond their capabilities.  At a sporting event you see kids being scorned because they did not win.  When they inevitably fail they are subjected to abuse and rejection.

Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they do not come up to scratch the only conclusion is they are stupid, weak and useless just like dad said they were.  This is the core of toxic shame, they have not made a mistake; they are the mistake.

Students with toxic shame take this debilitating belief into school.  At any level learning consists of trial and error and so it is at school, there will be the inevitable errors.  To healthy kids a mistake informs them that this is not the right way to solve a problem.  For the child with toxic shame the mistake is confirmation that they are not the right person to be in the class. These students fear the inevitable negative evaluation about their work and the resulting stress suffered will make any real learning impossible.  The inevitable failure reinforces their sense of shame, this toxic shame.

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 this ………..’?

The destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that only reinforce their toxic opinion of themselves.  These teachers use 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 is with comments like:

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

Remember you are asking the children to try and that for them is very threatening but if you take a work in progress and use terms like those above you have not rejected their efforts and you have indicated to them that they can continue to improve.  It takes a lot of small steps to complete any journey so be patient, they can overcome their most faulty of beliefs.

I used to say to students I worked with they are perfect.  Of course that got their attention but I explained that it is humans make mistakes.  I’m human so I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – I’m perfectly imperfect, so are they and so are you.

Look at the video on Youtube – just search Toxic Shame Video Frew Consultants Group.

There is also an essay and a Powerpoint presentation on the Resources page of to use with staff.

Posted by: AT 07:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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