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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, May 28 2018

Planning for a Disaster

Answer this:

If a bat and a ball cost $1.10 and the ball costs ten cents more how much does the bat cost?

Ask any group and the number of incorrect answers never ceases to amaze.  This is an example used by Daniel Kahneman to illustrate our propensity to make quick decisions.  Kahneman, a psychologist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics through his appreciation of our propensity to make quick decisions.  In his influential book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ he explains the reasons we make quick decisions and discusses the problems that can occur.  Although fast decisions are made in an emotional setting and can be considered a gut reaction Gladwell also bases them on instinct, a process described in his book Blink.

Slow thinking may not always be needed to yield the best answer it will be the most considered and most likely to provide that best answer.  Slow decisions are more accurate and considered.

However, when you examine the work done by institutions that manage natural or man-made ‘disasters’ you soon find that they do not have the luxury of making slow decisions.  At the time they have to act immediately to minimize the losses that will occur unless early support is available.  It is the same for a teacher at the time when ‘that student’ behaves in a disastrous manner.  The teacher does not have the time for ‘slow’ consideration; they must act immediately.  This is why a planned, structured behaviour management plan is so important.

In a previous Newsletter I presented the illustration below to describe, albeit a simplistic interpretation of decision-making.


When we apply this to our ‘disaster model’ we can demonstrate how the process works for both cases.  The most important planning is done away from the scene of the destruction, preferably before but at least after experiencing such an event.

Kahneman presents the concept of ‘what you see is all there is’ (WYSIATI) that underpins decisions.  At the time a decision needs to be made WYSIATI will determine the decision made.  This is because all we rely on is what we know we know; our known/known condition.  This is how quick thinking operates.  But it is obvious that when we are faced with a decision that requires a decision we understand that the following conditions are present:

  • Known/Known – as described above
  • Known/Unknown
  • Unknown/Unknown

If we are dealing with a child we ‘know’ what we have observed the child do.  It is unlikely we know what has historically happened to the child either during their childhood or at home that morning or even in the playground before class.  We do not have access to his/her emotional memories nor their beliefs but we should comprehend that these plus other complex factors will weaken the precision of the consequence we deliver.  This is why it is important to find out as much as you can about every child in your class.  The more you decrease the unknown the more effective your intervention will be.

Then there are the ‘unknown/unknowns’ the questions we don’t even know to ask.  But they will be there and they are the reason behaviour management is at best an imprecise practice.

So this is where the teacher’s slow thinking takes place, the development of classroom rules and structure, the acquisition of ‘historical’ information about each child’s behaviour history and the accumulated information about behaviour and the management of it’s dysfunctional expression.  Now when the inevitable classroom disaster occurs the teacher is best equipped to make an effective ‘fast decision’.

There is a bonus pay-off for this approach.  These effective fast decisions are also described as fluent decisions. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in California, has termed this fluency as the feeling of ‘flow’ and are associated with feelings of confidence, control, being in the zone.  He described that for highly practised tasks, fluency and accuracy go hand in hand.  For example a musician might report feelings of flow when performing a piece that has been internalised after years of practice.  Sports men and women will often described as being ‘in the zone’ during competition.

On a personal level a teacher who achieves this level of expertise in behaviour management will feel more confident, more in control.  In addition to this, people who display fluency command respect and are seen as competent.  Their behaviour in the midst of the situation appears authentic and informed even when the inevitable mistake is made.

Posted by: AT 11:25 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 21 2018

At the Time – There is No Choice

We have been discussing the process a child, anyone goes through for a given behaviour event.  Of course the caveat still remains that the visual representation below is extremely simplistic but it provides a scaffold on which to begin a more complete explanation.

If we consider this schematic model, it is evident that the only section  considered to be under the immediate control of the student is the decision to act and then the actions.  This can be referred to as the ‘cognition driven behaviour’ and this is where the various varieties of cognitive behaviour programs operate however it also contains the emotional component of the decision.  More about this matter later.

The antecedent condition, for the child will be their current homeostatic status, are they happy, stressed, indifferent, whatever their state it is brought to the situation.  For those kids with a history of abuse and neglect and a history of failure rarely do they bring to a situation a sense of homeostatic calm.  At this stage of the cycle they have very little control of their ‘condition’ but that will influence their reaction to the situation they find themselves in.

The situation is not in their control especially at school.  Even on the broadest sense they have to by law attend school even if it is a source of continuous failure.  But like all of us we are always finding ourselves in situations outside our control.  That’s life!

At the end of the cycle is the consequence that follows the actions.  There is no guarantee that if we act in a certain way we will get a predictable result.  This unpredictability will be discussed in a later Newsletter but for now we understand that consequences follow our actions but they are delivered by powers, for these kids at school it is teachers.

This leaves us with the part of the behaviour cycle we could control.  The following line of reasoning highlights the failings of cognitive behaviour therapy at times of emotionally charged situations. 

The cause of the limitations of cognitive interventions involves our instinctive survival response to threats.  In the diagram below the process of responding to a stimulus is represented.  How that response is developed depends on how the stimulus incites our memories.

The stimulus linked to the situation comes in to the thalamus, the clearing-house for the brain where it is distributed across the brain.  To facilitate our survival when under immediate serious threat that stimulus will go directly to the amygdala.  Here we can respond to threat long before we are consciously aware of the situation.  This is the general adaptive syndrome or flight/fight immediate adaption to protect us.  This process by passes all but genetic memory and is, excluding extensive training, beyond our control.  This is the fast track in our decision-making.

But this fast track to the amygdala is also the route to our emotional memories that are located in this area.  This means that the emotional memories are the first referenced in regards to the situation.  That means we ‘feel’ about the situation before we think about it.

A slower response is through the thalamus to the hippocampus where our cognitive, autobiographical memories are located and then move up to the frontal lobes where a considered decision can be made.  It is through this slow track route the cognitive approach operates.  We see the situation, we ask what is going on and what can we do to that will make the situation better for us.

This works unless the emotional memory is so powerful that the decision via the so-called slow route is over ridden and the decision will be the habitual one that has been in use.  This is a problem for kids who have been raised in abusive, neglectful environments.  The way they have learned to respond worked best for them growing-up but is inappropriate in the current situation.

The secret to working with these kids is to create an environment that, as much as possible minimizes those kids being placed in situations that stimulate their destructive emotional memories. 

Posted by: AT 12:00 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 14 2018

A Question of Choice

In previous Newsletters the impact of the emotional memories on the decision – an action coupling was examined and how this powerful affect excludes a cognitive response in a threatening situation.  To address this problem the best approach was to manipulate the environment.  However there is another critical factor that must be considered when considering a cognitive approach in an attempt to modify the behaviour of others and that is at the time of the decision –action process there is no real choice.

To examine these phenomena we have to address a more cogent issue that is disregarded in most literature concerning behaviour modification in educational settings.  That is the faulty assumption that when ‘choosing’ to react to a situation the child is capable of making a thoughtful choice.  They are not!

This brings us directly to the concept of free will, the belief that we make complex decisions by consciously processing information to make that decision.  On the surface this seems to be logical but it assumes that it is when we are conscious we are in the process of deciding.  The evidence is that we make a decision before we are conscious of what that decision is.  The feeling of being in control of our cognition is more a factor of confabulation, creating a memory of how we reached that decision.  The idea that we do not make conscious decisions at the very time of action threatens our sense of self but I will argue that understanding this empowers us to take a more realistic view of the process required to successfully help these children take control of their actions.

Back in the 1980’s Benjamin Lebit of the University of California demonstrated that there was a time difference between a decision being made and the person being ‘conscious’ of that decision.  That is he demonstrated that the brain had made a choice on how to act 0.03 seconds before the person ‘thought’ they had made that choice.

This work has been successfully reproduced albeit with some variations in the size of the time gap and not without some criticism.  There is some who argue about whether or not a decision could be vetoed if the person did not want to carry out the action. 

The inference is that when a situation presents itself the person makes the decision at the unconscious level then that decision becomes available to the conscious mind.  The conscious thought is the delayed representation of the entire decision making process carried out at an unconscious level.

Unconscious decision-making is easily demonstrated when we face an immediate threat and the stimulated amygdala produces an immediate flight/fight response.  This is an efficient often life saving process that does not cause any dissent.  The idea that we also have this same ‘efficient process’ in all our decisions is threatening as it infers we are almost robotic in our life choices and helplessly tied to our unconscious mind.

Another consideration is that these experiments have largely focused on body movements over a short period of time.  Whether or not this has any bearing on this phenomena is unclear however it must be remembered that the only thing the brain can actually do is initiate some type of movement.

I will make that point; at the very time of the decision actually being made I am not conscious of the process.  When discussing this I will always point out that when you are making a point about any issue the sentences you use are constructed unconsciously.  Even now I start this sentence with no conscious thought about how it will end but inevitably it does.  Hopefully this is in a coherent manner (I’m very tempted to end that sentence with some illogical nonsense but then I would sound like a politician carefully constructing ‘safe’ responses to the press gallery).

The point is decisions are made following this process:

The body tells the brain how things are.  This is always in reference to our homeostatic status, our state of comfort.  This is an analysis of the environment via the sensory receptors.

The body then tells the brain how it should be.  This is the crux part of the process.  The brain examines how in the past our actions allowed us to return to the state of homeostatic equilibrium.  That examination is of all the past memories, genetic, biological, every past experience and thought.  The choice that will be arrived at is that which has the believed maximum chance of success in achieving the desired result.

The brain tells the body what it should do.  When this process that is complex is completed then the conscious mind is informed.

It would be really inefficient if every time we had to make a decision we consciously made a ‘mind map’ and considered what would be the best action to take.  Life flows too quickly for that to be practical.  For students with severe behaviours the unconscious decision that has the perceived best chance of success will be complete disobedience or defiance.  This is because when the child was building his/her collection of behaviours the ones that had the most success become the ones that dominate the unconscious mind.

Rather than feeling disempowered by this revelation this gives us the clue for dealing with the child’s behaviour.

The problem is with the existing memories, emotional and cognitive; our ‘mind maps’ have been formed in response to the environment if we want to make a change we must change the environment.  When we change the environment we can introduce alternative memories and therefore change the unconscious decision-making.

This really is the way to modify behaviour when dealing with these kids but it is extremely challenging and time consuming.  As teachers we have to understand that every time we place the child in a situation that reminds them of previous instances of threat they will call up their preferred reaction and reinforce that action relative to the classroom environment.  The challenge is to still deliver consequences for their inevitable mistakes in such a way as to strengthen memories of a more resilient sense of self.  That is we always accept the child but reject the behaviour through consequences.

It takes patience, persistence and a range of abilities that are demanding on the teacher but can be achieved over a significant period of time.  These are skills that are rarely covered in modern teacher training.

Posted by: AT 11:22 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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