In the previous Newsletters we have discussed changing the behaviour of those kids who, through their dysfunctional behaviour disrupt their learning and the learning of others. What we are focusing on is our attempts to change this situation, and that, of course, leads to the need to modify their behaviour. If you have been following these Newsletters and the books you will understand that all behaviour, including that of these kids, is an attempt to achieve a state of personal equilibrium in the presenting conditions. We act because we become uncomfortable, we become stressed known as a state of disequilibrium, and our actions are an attempt to change that situation. If the response moves us back into equilibrium; that is we feel better then the resulting feedback will reinforce that connection between the situation, the action, and the consequence, if not we will continue to seek an action that will. This simple definition requires an enormous amount of understanding of a person's sense of ‘equilibrium.'
The illustration crudely explains this process
This model attempts to capture just one ‘behaviour cycle'. Of course, this is extremely simplified but helps in our understanding. If we apply this to the following scenario:
1. Antecedent Condition
Little John comes to school after being scolded by his father for being a waste of time. John’s father is an alcoholic who regularly beats his wife. Yesterday he was sent from his math’s class for being disrespectful.
The teacher asks John to sit down the front after a couple of other boys were making noise while the teacher was writing instructions on the board.
At this point John decides what to do. This decision will be arrived at through his memories both cognitive memories, techniques he has been taught by the counselor and emotional memories, what he has learned when dealing with his father as a young child.
John refuses to move because he didn’t make the noise. He is yelling at the teacher telling him he is unfair.
Most likely he will again be removed.
How can we change this process? John is a child, and even before he entered the classroom, he was destined to fail. He came to school already expecting to fail, and at the first opportunity, he made sure he fulfilled this likelihood. But the professional adult in the room is the teacher. What could he do?
The process that changes this cycle is the feedback from the consequences. That is if our actions make things better this information is stored in our memory. The more a particular consequence is linked to the action the stronger the synaptic pathway becomes. This process is especially crucial for the emotional memories. In a sense, it becomes a bit of a competition between the existing synoptic schema evolved in earlier times and the newly created pathway. The consequences are critical, and in the model, the consequences are not in the control of the student but are provided externally. For classroom management, it is the teacher, or it should be who chooses and delivers the consequence.
So how would we deal with John in this situation? It is the teacher who ‘decides' on the consequence. In this instance, there is not much in the short term, but it is through the delivery of consequences that change can be achieved.
The molding of behaviour from being dysfunctional involves the application of consequences. These consequences can be in the various forms:
Natural - The result of the action always follows. That is, you play in the rain, you get wet. This type of consequence is not usually available because the lessons learned here have already been taught.
Logical - This means an understood connection between behaviour and consequence. It includes things like if you waste time in class, you are kept back after the bell. The time is made up. Using a logical consequence may not always be ethically appropriate. For example, if one student hits another, logically, they should be hit back. For so many reasons this is inappropriate, so another consequence should be sought.
Chosen - Although there is no natural or logical connection between the action and consequence, there is an agreement that the connection is an acceptable practice. Most class rules are chosen ones.
The consequences must have the goal as one of the following:
Rehabilitation - The long-term goal of the behaviour intervention is that the inappropriate behaviour the child had used to get their needs met is replaced by one that addresses the need in a socially acceptable way.
Quarantine - The rule should be such that the other students are protected, physically and socially, from the actions of the perpetrator. This need to provide a safe environment is why timeout is often the appropriate consequence.
The selection of consequences determines the effectiveness of the intervention, and this is a crucial decision that should be made by the teacher. But on top of this, the application of these consequences should be consistent, persistent, fair and targeted at the behaviour, not the person.
This topic is discussed in more detail in a following Newsletter.
In the last Newsletter (13th March 2018) it was shown that dopamine is a critical element in motivation. We discussed the significance of dopamine in regards to the motivation of children but what about the motivation of their teachers? It is hard to remain motivated when you have to face up day after day to a class that has one or more students whose dysfunctional behaviour is such they dread that lesson. Just as the students who are causing the anxiety and stress have low levels of natural dopamine due to their history of negative experience, teachers can have their reserves depleted when they face the same conditions in class.
Just as these stressed students have had the dopamine reduced the same conditions can occur for the teachers unless they experience some reward. People with low levels of dopamine experience depression, boredom and loss of job satisfaction. They can become apathetic, fatigued and have no desire to make an effort to change. They become classically ‘burned-out' a condition prevalent in our modern schools.
It is not likely any useful help will come from our system or even from our direct supervisors. We know that the production of dopamine is linked to the seeking of a reward, but I believe teachers are motivated by the intrinsic reward, and that can only come from their desires. The system, the supervisors, can only provide an extrinsic reward as motivation and these fail in all but the most ‘productive-line' enterprises.
So how do we raise the levels of dopamine?
In critical cases, it may require medical intervention. Dopamine is a chemical and medications do exist to support the supply. If you do need that extra support, you need to seek professional advice. However, some take the self-help route to self-medicate and start using illicit stimulants such as cocaine that produce immediate high levels of dopamine and fill the user with extraordinary confidence and motivation. Stories abound about workers in highly demanding work such as flying fighter jets or traders on the short-term money market using these drugs to enhance their performance. However, like all drugs their use may well have short-term benefits, in the long run, they become a significant problem.
One natural way to enhance the levels of dopamine is through proper maintenance of our bodies. Exercise is associated with health levels of dopamine, and the actual pleasure you get from completing a fitness session provides a reward in itself and hence increases dopamine supplies.
Along with exercise diet is critical in the preservation of healthy levels of dopamine. If you look through the literature, you will find that it is just a good selection of foods that help including protein from meat, fish, and poultry, fruits including bananas and avocados, nuts like almonds. Like exercise, there is no magic bullet, but a wholesome approach to your diet is rewarding not only in the supply of dopamine but also the maintenance of your physical health.
This advice is well and good, but you still have to face that tough class. How do you overcome the depressive working conditions that deplete your dopamine? In my experience, it is futile to look outside for support. Supervising teachers are usually too busy, and principals are snowed under with a bureaucratic workload that precludes them from being of much help. However, the conditions that make you help yourself will in the long run make you stronger and self-reliant.
So look at what you do for those students who lack motivation, lack healthy levels of dopamine. The answer is in setting small but achievable goals. The most likely cause of your classroom stress is the behaviour of some or in all cases all of the class. Invariably there is more than one type of behaviour that annoys you. Trying to deal with them all makes the task appear daunting, and the reality is it is impossible to make wholesale changes in one go. So pick one thing you think is achievable and go into the next class determined to make that small change. When you do you get that ‘unexpected outcome’ with its serotonin and the initial dopamine. Keep this up, and as you do move through the changes, you would like, every time you reach a small goal you increase your dopamine and your natural motivation.
So if you want to get back that zest, the excitement you had before you were worn down by the sheer complexity of this work take the advice above. Improve your health through exercise and diet but most of all set yourself reasonable, personal goals. It is this last approach that fuels your enthusiasm and that directly influences the motivation of your students.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has long been associated with the reward system within the brain’s structure. The release of dopamine is a response to the anticipation of a reward. The connection between the expectation and the production of this neurotransmitter is formed when we experience an unexpected reward. That is when we encounter a pleasant surprise our feelings reflect the output of both the dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin is about the satisfaction after the consumption of a reward; dopamine becomes a predictor whenever there is a potential reward present.
Repetition develops a cognitive connection between the situation and the outcome, and it is then the dopamine supplies the ‘fuel' to drive the desired behaviour. Eventually, this relationship between the stimulus and the reward outcomes becomes entrenched and the presentation of environmental conditions automatically ignites the dopamine release and behaviour becomes almost reflexive.
The implications for teachers is clear; if we can assist, in the first instance an association of school-based activities with an ‘unexpected’ reward and this experience is consolidated then when our students present their ‘work' they will be automatically engaged. Eventually, the constancy of the ‘reward' for attending school is not required to initiate the dopamine led motivation, by then the expectations are established.
The process of the development of this dopamine drive develops as follows:
You get an unexpected reward
Understand how this happened
Dopamine is the seeking of ‘how this happens’ identifying the conditions that precede the reward.
It is important to remember that the provision of an identifiable reward is the expectation then the effect of the motivation can die down. However, school life is embedded as a pleasant experience, and more importantly, the teacher can use the process outlined above to introduce new work.
However, when working with students who you wish to re-engage in learning through the use of the dopamine cycle, you have to commence at the very beginning. For them, school is predictably a source of negative consequences, and the continual lack of motivation deletes the natural supplies of dopamine. They are in class with a relatively disadvantaged position, even in access to the dopamine cycle compared to other students. To change this, we can provide that ‘unexpected reward’ enough times, we can stimulate the dopamine response, and there is a chance we can change that expectation! These students are quite capable of becoming motivated about school, but you have to be patient. When we teach them to connect success with school, we are in a sense extinguishing a robust negative association, and so we must try not to reproduce conditions that will sustain the existing response.
This link between a stimulus and response is a memory, and like all memory development, the more powerful the reward, the more serotonin, and dopamine are released. In future this dopamine will focus the student's behaviour on seeking the same experience; they become very goal driven.
So what is the lesson for teachers? Dopamine has the potential to be a great motivator for your students. The new task must have echoes of previously successful assignments but must have an additional pay-off. When the students have already engaged the strength of the new ‘reward' does not need to be great. In a sense, we just build on existing, desired structures.
Those students who have a history of neglect and abuse that have carried their negative attitudes to school where they have been reinforced require a lot more work in building a positive association that will eventually produce a dopamine response to learning. As always it is critical to be consistent and predictable to overcome existing behaviours and develop a new approach to school. The great news is that you will experience the most significant rewards when you achieve this and you will make a real difference to that child and your class!
In 1995 Daniel Goleman released his blockbuster, self-help book Emotional Intelligence. This book was soon one of the top sellers across the globe, and the concept of emotional intelligence became the focus of leadership and management courses. At this time I was principal of a school for students with severe levels of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorders, and I was subjected to workshops promoting the importance of emotional intelligence while I witnessed the destructive impact emotions had on these students. I had always thought there should be a companion book Emotional Stupidity.
Emotions are a primitive form of self-talk; that is our feelings give us feedback of our state of wellbeing. How we feel drives our decision-making and whether or not these decisions are constructive or destructive. This bias depends on the conditions a child experienced while the area of the brain that controls emotions is developed. In education the inclusion of emotions has until relatively recently been excluded from studies related to learning with the focus being on the cognitive processes of memory, attention, perception, and the like. These are the fields of interest in the areas of cognitive neuroscience.
Jaak Panksepp produced another significant book in the field of neuroscience around the same time called Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Panksepp understood that affective (feelings) are supported by the parts of the brain that are developed in early childhood, and when formed they become almost automatic responses to prescribed stimulus. This approach contrasted with the existing beliefs that the brain examines the current situation and makes a rational decision. This mistake of dismissing of the emotional component of decision-making is best seen in classic economics where early theories were underpinned by the idea that people are rational.
Today there are still some leaders in education who hold to the initial theory of cognitive reasoning and feel that changing behaviour only involves teaching the rationale behind the behaviour that should be chosen in a particular situation. The popularity of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approach, in schools, can be explained by how it outlines logical steps in making decisions about how to behave. Schools are awash with such programs however they are ineffective especially for those students with severe behaviour.
LeDoux, in 1996 demonstrated the impact the emotional content of any situation impacts on the decision-making process. The illustration below explains just how the system operates. In life all knowledge about our environment, internal and external is harvested by our receptors, the five senses and this information is relayed to the thalamus. The thalamus sends this directly to the amygdala, which assesses it for potential danger. If the amygdala senses immediate threat it will instigate a general adaptive response to put us in a state of flight, fight or freeze. The decision will be taken out of our hands.
If the amygdala is not concerned with the potential threat, the thalamus sends the information through to the hippocampus and eventually the frontal lobes for cognitive contemplation. It is when we are not ‘alarmed’ we can follow the steps taught through cognitive behaviour therapy.
On a continuum between these extremes, we can be provided with information about the environment where these conditions led to something going wrong. This positioning on the continuum will decide the level of the anxiety.
Anxiety happens even for well-adjusted individuals, but it is extreme for those who have suffered damage to the amygdala, the hippocampus of the limbic system and the frontal lobes. This damage is most likely occurring in early childhood development (for a description of the brain damage that occurs when a child grows up in an abusive, neglectful environment see Newsletter of the 6th November 2017) when the amygdala becomes ‘over-active’, the hippocampus and frontal lobes significantly reduce in size. It is easy to see that kids with a history of abuse and neglect are at an even more considerable disadvantage trying to control their behaviour.
This vulnerability of students who have suffered early childhood trauma from abuse/neglect reinforces the necessity of a safe, predictable environment and a trusting relationship with the teacher and class if they are paying attention to the lesson and access their cognitive processes.
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.