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Monday, November 26 2018

Respecting Others' Boundaries

As mentioned in previous Newsletters your boundary is that place where you intersect with the outside world and in most discussions, we focus on how you can protect yourself from assaults.  Although boundaries include physical threats, in this context we are really talking about social attacks.  However, in this work we will include a discussion on our responsibility to not violate another’s boundaries.

This work is specifically for teachers and school executives dealing with children but the principles apply to anyone who supervises others.

One of the determining factors regarding relationships and how negotiations take place is the relative position of power.  Where students are concerned the teacher enjoys a definite power advantage.  They are the official representative of the school, the education department and government when it comes to dealing with kids.  If they make a request the students can assume that request is backed by all those who support the teacher.

Schools are a place of learning and teachers rightly challenge kids to acquire an understanding of that academic material.  At that time, the teacher has studied that material at a tertiary level while for the child it is their first exposure.  It is easy to dismiss their attempts if you are more interested in inflating your ego then supporting that child’s emerging understanding of the work you present.

From the perspective of the students that position of authority allows you to be part of the ruling faction in the school.  The fact that you are part of the ruling elite gives you a type of status that infers more power and authority.

All children are dependent.  The journey from early childhood on to graduation from the schooling system is marked by a steady decline in that dependence.  Therefore, the younger the student the hungrier they are for validation and affection.  Affection reinforces their needs to belong in the group and validation confirms their value to that group.  These are necessary building blocks for a strong and robust sense of self for the adult you.

The core of our work has always had as its main focus helping and dealing with difficult students.  Like all children, students who have been subjected to abuse and neglect hunger for affection and validation.  For these children, the age they are is not as important as the position they find themselves on the development of a strong sense of an authentic self.  I have seen children in their mid-teens who crave for affection and validation, a time when for normal development this need would be diminishing. 

This desire for approval make these children easy to disappoint and the failure to provide appropriate affection and confirmation of their worth is a covert form of abuse.

How do you check that you are not violating the student’s boundaries?  The following questions of self-examination will help you decide:

1. What needs are being met by your action?

When you are concerned about what you are doing, the best thing to do is examine the drives you are satisfying by that behaviour.  Just as you experience levels of stress when others are coming up against your boundary you will, or should get the same feeling sensation if all is not going well at the frontier of yourself.  That’s the time to examine just what is going on.

2. What are your responsibilities?

In your role as teacher it is incumbent on you to deliver consequences for behaviours.  This is at the heart of your professional role and so your interventions regarding the behaviour of others should only be within the domain of your responsibilities.

3. What are others’ responsibilities?

Just as you have a defined area of responsibility so do others, including the students.  It would be wrong if a child misbehaved and you did not deliver the appropriate consequences, perhaps you thought someone higher up the school hierarchy should do that work or you didn’t think it was your job to correct the child.  The fact that the child did not get a consequence does a great deal of harm to the development of strong boundaries in that child.

4. How would you like others to judge your behaviour?

The final question is really, would you behave that way if it was in full view of others.  The disapproval of our peers is a most powerful motivator.  Rejection, in a world sense is life threatening and so when under the public spotlight the drive to act in acceptable ways is extremely powerful.  When you are in a position of power and away from the public view it is easy to forget your responsibilities, and take short-cuts to get kids to confirm.  The real question is ‘am I doing the right thing?’

A good way to protect yourself is to refer to the following ‘check list’:

  • Act as if everything you do is under complete scrutiny           
  • Act with complete fairness – have no favourites
  • Keep everything available for review – keep records of your behavioural interventions
  • Do not use personal emails with students, beware of social media – this is an extremely dangerous area for a teacher.  Remember when you push that ‘send’ button, your message is potentially all over the world, for all time and you can’t get it back
  • Get consent for one on one meetings and hold them in school and in business hours – never take the chance of interviewing students in areas or times that others can misconstrued or the student can make allegations you can’t defend.

Treating others’ boundaries with respect is a difficult thing to get right all the time and despite these suggestions above there is no real, set in concrete rules.  For example, should you ever touch a student?  Of course, there are times when it is really appropriate and professionally proper to support them when they are hurting but that touch must be appropriate.  Eventually it comes down to your professional judgement and if you have the best intentions you will learn to be that real ‘significant other’ students rely on as they make a safe transition into becoming their adult, authentic self!

Posted by: AT 06:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 19 2018


A recent publication from the New York Academy of Science (2017) has examined the literature that reviews the connection between socioeconomic disadvantage and the development of attention, learning, and resilience.  They considered the evidence of over a century particularly with tests that measured cognitive functions, language development, and attention and this has shown a difference between children of low and high socioeconomic status (SES).   The children from families with high SES consistently scored better than those from underprivileged families.

Studies in neuroscience also identify the link between the stress related to poverty and the neurological development of these children's cognitive landscape particularly in the limbic system, that area that modulates reactions to threats, the formation of memories and access to the executive functions of the brain, the prefrontal, and frontal cortex.

The following characteristics of a low SES community that create these adverse conditions are:

1.Chaotic Environment

Growing up in poverty has commonly been associated with conditions that trigger elevated even chronic levels of stress.  Low SES families are more likely to live in chaotic households where living arrangements are haphazard; the home discipline is unpredictable, there is a lack of routine and access to healthy diets.

Research has shown increased levels of stress-related chemicals associated with the physiological adaption of the body in response to threat including surges in the erosive chemicals catecholamine and cortisol.  Continued exposure of these conditions increases the size of the amygdala, which makes the child vulnerable to stress and reductions in other significant parts of the brain including the hippocampus, the frontal lobes, the corpus colossus and the cerebellum.

2. Social Isolation and Deprivation

Children from low SES have fewer or even lack social interactions.  They are less likely to attend preschool and miss that important opportunity to develop the skills to relate to their peers.  This social isolation has been strongly associated with long-term health issues such as cardiovascular problems and sleep deprivation.

3. Maltreatment

Experiencing abuse in childhood can occur in all SES but research shows that abuse is much more likely to occur in the low SES areas.  This variance indicates that the SES of the neighborhood can explain 10% of the child’s health and adolescent outcomes.

The Gonski Review revealed that schools in low SES areas reflect the conditions of neglect in these homes.  These schools, despite herculean efforts of the teachers are often chaotic because of the characteristics of the children who attend.  The accompanying lack of resources because of government neglect and the absence of wealthy P&C’s exacerbates efforts to improve conditions. There is a further concentration of these undesirable conditions through the exodus of children from higher SES households who send their children from the local school to either private schools or the ‘so-called' selective school, many of which are no more than a weak excuse from the government sector to combat the drift to the private sector.

However, this exposure to adversity does not condemn a child.  Some do acquire a natural resilience that helps their development, but for others it is only through the experience of social cohesion and supportive relationships found at school that children can ameliorate the potential damage carried out in their home.

It is in the schools where the healing can take place, and it is up to society to provide the resources for schools that 'service' these areas.  The real cost of continually ignoring the needs of these communities comes later when society is forced to deal with the unemployment, the mental health issues, the addictions and the continuation of the poverty spiral.

The rewards for effort in this area is not only for the children but also the long-term health and wealth of our society.

Posted by: AT 04:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 12 2018


Teachers are continually frustrated at the beginning of lessons with the disruption of some students who take a long time to settle down.  For some, it's just a matter of them calming down after the excitement of the lunch break or the ‘freedom' of moving from one classroom to the other and for this vast majority experienced teachers have no problems.  But, for some students, those with severe behavioural issues this disruptive behaviour can be driven by elevated levels of anxiety, a consequence of the memories of previous unpleasant experiences in the classroom.  If we look at particular interventions that have been traditionally used to deal with children who suffer from uncertainty and anxiety, we soon find ourselves examining the use of rituals.

Throughout ancient history civilizations emerged in relative isolation.  One cause of anxiety, common in all communities was death and almost all developed intricate rituals to deal with the anxiety and sadness of this inevitability.  To deal with this tribal communities developed rituals, funeral ‘services’ to ease the pain of grieving.  The application of a set of prescribed activities somehow lessens the heartache of loss. 

Other rituals developed to deal with the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the future.  For example, when early communities made the change from being hunter - gatherers to a reliance on agriculture, they soon realized that the success of next year’s crop depended on a range of factors that were beyond their control.  To ease the anxiety they developed rituals, including the sacrifice of animals or other humans to appease a supernatural force in the hope that this ritual would ensure next year’s crop.

It becomes evident that rituals are useful in dealing with occasions that are potentially ‘dangerous’ or where the desired outcome is marginally out of your control. 

At a personal level, rituals can be any sequence of actions that may consist of words, touching objects or focusing on a particular object that is designed to reduce tension.  These activities are developed by repeatedly performing the same act every time we are exposed to that uncertainty.  It is the focus on the sequential activity that alleviates the anxiety of contemplating on the potential outcome of the task at hand.

The use of rituals is widespread in sport.  As a coach, I used the same sequence of activities before every game no matter how important each was.  For the 45 minutes before each kick-off, all players and staff were required to complete a set of tasks.  Within each task players were taught to incorporate their own ‘rituals,' such as putting their left boot on first, listening to music or whatever within the framework of the team procedure.  When it came time to take to the field, I had ensured they were ‘ready to play’; they had confidence in their ability to succeed.

An important fact is that both the players and I understood that the rituals in themselves had no magical powers but the use of a structured predictable (how often do I use the words structured predictability) sequence of events helps reduce anxiety and focus on the task at hand.

Now returning to our challenging students, they have a sense of self that is associated with academic failure.  As teachers, we need to be prepared to deal with their understandable anxiety.  Remember, whenever they have come into a classroom, they have come face to face with the memories of past experiences, most of which are recollections of failure and embarrassment.  In fact, to ask these kids even to try to do academic work puts them in an extremely vulnerable position.  Furthermore, to invite them to do their best, risks potential ridicule or rejection if they fail.  Better to be a 'bad' kid than a dumb kid is a choice they make.

So, if you have students like this, or even if you have kids that are extremely well adjusted the use of rituals will increase the early engagement and consequential success of your lessons.  The teams I used to coach were of elite standard and played at a national level, and they certainly understood and benefitted from this structure.  However, it is those damaged kids who will get the best out of this approach.

No one can ever predict the future with certainty.  Most of us have a fair idea what will happen if we follow a specific course of action.  These kids, who come from chaotic backgrounds, have no idea they have any influence on what happened to them.  But, if the start of today's lesson is the same as yesterday’s and the day before, eventually they will get a sense of predictability and instead of being full of anxiety from the very start of the lesson they are at least available for the next step of the lesson.

Rituals are also effective for teachers who suffer from anxiety when facing a class.  I’m sure we all had a level of anxiety when we began our careers and I’m equally sure there are classes that still cause us increased levels of apprehension.  Having a ritual will help the teacher just as much as their students.

Posted by: AT 11:44 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 05 2018

Childhood Trauma

Early childhood trauma is well established as the major contributor to disrupted neurological and behavioural development in children.  The inevitable outcome from the abuse and/or neglect that creates this trauma is a child whose repertoire of behaviours coupled with an adverse cognitive construction limits their ability to engage in our classrooms on an equal footing.  Although there is a recognition that these children do suffer from a ‘mental health' disability there remains a reluctance to embrace these kids with the same compassion as those whose disability is more visible and less offensive.

But what constitutes trauma? (The term ‘trauma’ is also used in the medical field to describe an assault on the physical body, but for this work, we are discussing psychological trauma)  The short answer is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or a negative event that is painful and overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.

The three conditions where trauma can occur are:

Shattered Expectations – We all have a belief that things will be OK in the future.  We live on an ideal beach with the surf lapping at our front door – then a tsunamis hits and your family has washed away; you're driving home from work and you’re hit by a truck that is out of control.

These events and countless other potential disasters, if experienced, force you to accept that a single person has no real control over natural forces.  Most of us will never have to face such events but for those who do the resulting stress levels leads straight to trauma!

Human Vulnerability – All our life we wake with an expectation that we will live through the day and repeat this process over and over.  We fail to see the fragility of our bodies and the tenuous grip we have on life.  However, if you witness an unexpected death, a road accident, murder, industrial accident or perhaps the onset of a fatal disease you become fully exposed to the reality of death and how helpless we are to prevent it.  If you have ever seen such an event, you will understand the trauma that surrounds it.  Imagine working in an area such as a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster, this human vulnerability is reinforced time and time again.  It's little wonder soldiers, police, rescue workers, etc. are highly likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress.

The Human Capacity for Evil - History is full of major events that illustrate our capacity for evil.  The holocausts, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia and the countless war crimes reported throughout history all confirm that humans are capable of a level of ‘evil’ behaviour that is rare in any other species. 

Such malevolent actions are not limited to these large-scale examples, go to any emergency ward in any public hospital, and you will see children, women and male victims who have been beaten for no reason than to satisfy some wicked person’s desire.

The reality that some humans do not share a capacity for kindness, tolerance and a fair-go shatters the belief system we depend on and when we witness extreme malevolence we become traumatized.

The types of trauma that tend to have the greatest adverse psychological consequences are those related to interpersonal or intentional trauma. These include childhood abuse and neglect.

But identifying these underpinnings of trauma do not appear to be relevant when discussing the trauma of young children.  Their cognitive development would make any real comprehension of the conditions outlined above almost irrelevant.  So, what are the conditions that traumatize kids?

This is a difficult area, what will traumatize an infant is different from say a two-year-old, this difference reflects the variation in their social/intellectual development.  I have attempted to create a crude model that illustrates the differences.  I have put these into stages.  However, the underpinning feature is the shattered sense of safety.

Stage 1. Infancy

Traumatic factors will include frightening visual stimulation, loud, unexpected noise, being hurt or abandoned.  The child's increased stress levels are a response to the fear of ‘death' even though they are incapable of that concept.  For them, ‘death' is the removal of support.

Stage 2.  Early Childhood

The initial conditions still apply, but now the reliance on relationships becomes a more significant factor.  Children, who are abused by primary care-givers not only suffer the trauma of that abuse they also interpret that as a complete rejection from the very person they rely on for survival.  Because they are intensely ego-centric that rejection must be because they are ‘bad’.  This is the foundation of their sense of toxic shame. 

There is also the situation when they see their mother beaten.  Mum represents life and when that is threatened the child suffers trauma.  Some research contends that seeing mum beaten does more damage than being hit their self.  Bizarrely, they will believe they deserve to be punished but not their mum.   Seeing their siblings abused continues this trend of helplessness in the face of evil.

There was a time when people believed that because their ‘memories' had not developed that the children would not suffer long-term consequences from the abuse and resulting trauma.  This idea that there is no impact could not be further from the truth.   Early childhood is the most vulnerable time for children and those who visit abuse or neglect on children at this time in their life are creating the maximum psychological scar possible.

Posted by: AT 06:00 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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