Malevolent Development - The Condemned Disability
Dealing with disability has become a major focus for our governments in recent years. The recent Royal Commission into disability has shone the spotlight onto the difficulties facing those with a disability. At the school level, teachers have constantly advocated for governments to provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of these children. I’m confident that we continually promote this cause because we want all our students, including those with an inability to:
- achieve their authentic sense of value,
- exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities,
- access all opportunities that are available to others
In our schools we capture a full range of disabilities under the following categories:
- Mental Health
Our schools are tasked with providing them support to take their place with all students and so we provide the things needed to achieve this goal. This might be relatively simple to identify for those obvious deficits such as vision, sensory or physical but how to address behaviour, mental health or autism becomes a more difficult task. Leaving autism aside, this is a very specific disorder, I would contend that behaviour and the vast majority of mental health issues share a historically mutual experience and that is early childhood abuse and/or neglect.
To be deemed as disabled, the impairment or condition experienced by a child must impact on their daily activities, communication and/or mobility. These incapacities can be a result of:
- DNA Malfunction – these are the disabilities that result from an abnormal interpretation of our genetic code that misdirects our foetal development. These cover a range of disabilities including vision, hearing and other physical impediments and mental health issues that our students are born with.
- Accidental Trauma – The range of barriers faced are almost the same as those above but the difficulties are a result of an accident, a fall, a car accident, any event that interferes with the ‘normal’ functioning of the child.
- Early Childhood Abuse or Neglect – This covers those disabilities that, like Point 2 describe an intrusion into the ‘normal’ functioning but these impediments are the result of deliberate assaults or neglect of on a normal child.
The undeniable fact is that the children who are causing the vast majority of seriously disruptive behaviours in our schools have suffered from early childhood abuse and/or neglect. This has resulted in these children not only suffering the normal reactions to trauma, their continual exposure to this environment results in specific brain damage that effects their ability to choose appropriate behaviours. This paper seeks to draw attention to this problem but the overwhelming message is that these children have:
- Become disabled completely at the hands of adults whose behaviour has caused this damage
- Developed ‘presenting behaviours’ which although often quite repulsive are not of their choosing, they are doing the best they can
- Presented the greatest challenge for teachers to deal with these children without appropriate acknowledgement or supporting resources from educational institutions
The investigation by the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has unearthed an appalling level of abuse and shone a light onto the long-term damage inflicted on the victims of these crimes. However, that Commission has unearthed just one area of child abuse, it did not include the full range of horrific abusive acts of abuse and neglect that occurs outside of institutional settings, that is in the child’s home and local community.
A sense of the extent of this level of abuse and neglect is shown in the Australian Institute of Family Studies statistics where the number of notifications for abuse or neglect rose from 48,420 (2011 – 12) up to 60, 989 (2015 – 16). These notifications consisted of:
- 45% Emotional Abuse
- 25% Neglect
- 18% Physical Abuse
- 12% Sexual Abuse
These statistics do not include intellectual or spiritual abuse.
Of these children a significant number will go on to develop early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) especially those who are subjected to:
- Frequent episodes of abuse that never seems to cease
- Unpredictable episodes of abuse, there is no warning the attack is coming
- Multifaceted abuse, not the same technique of delivering the threat.
- Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty
Although a strict definition of trauma is illusive all definitions have these same contents:
- It is a psycho/emotional response to an event or experiences that is deeply disturbing or distressing
- It generates an overwhelming amount of stress that exceed an individual’s ability to cope or integrate emotions involved with that event
- Causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes the ability to experience a full range of emotions
Any trauma will result in a skewing of our perception to our environment. These are:
- Intrusive and distressing thoughts about the event, flashbacks and/or nightmares
- Active avoidance of people or places that are reminders of the trauma, withdrawal, dissociation and emotional numbness
- Hyper-vigilance, insomnia, agitation and anger outbursts
Children who suffer from PTSD carry these common reactions to trauma. On top of these, they also have exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves and they are reluctant to participate in positive activities. However, it is the continuous elevated levels of stress and the resulting range of chemical actions washing across their central nervous system that will result in real brain damage.
Early work in this field has revealed damage to the frontal lobes and the hippocampus as was clearly demonstrated. This was through investigation in the tragedy of the Romanian orphans, for neglect and serial killers for early childhood abuse. More recent work has shown that the:
- Amygdala is increased in size – this makes the victims hypersensitive to perceived threat
- Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this translates into a debility in forming memories
- Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is the ‘functional’ area of the brain where complex, considered decisions are made.
- Cerebellum is reduced in size – contemporary research is revealing the predictive facility of the cerebellum. This influences the prediction of potential outcomes for behaviours
These represent real physical damage to the child’s brain and this will have a direct impact on their cognitive abilities. They are less likely to be successful in an academic world. However, on top of this impediment the damage to these areas of the brain have a direct link to their behaviour. Here in lies the problem; the many behavioural expressions of these disabilities are such they threaten the safety and security of the other students and the teacher.
The following developmental disorders have abuse/neglect at their core:
- Attention Deficit
- Conduct Disorder
- Oppositional Defiance
The majority of the entrenched behaviours associated with these mental illnesses result in socially inept behaviours. They range from dissociation where the child appears to be disengaged and non-threatening to the other extreme, characterized in Conduct Disorder where children display cruel behaviours such as, hitting others, teasing bullying and eventually involved in antisocial activities such as theft and vandalism.
These repellent behaviours offend well-meaning people, including teachers. The result is these children whose disability should engender an empathetic response more often than not are rejected by their peers and community. This rejection compounds their sense of worthlessness and inhibits any motivation to change.
Complementing these behaviours that are directly linked to the brain damage is the reality that even if these children want to take responsibility for meeting their needs they are ill-equipped to do so. The problem is the behaviours they ‘learned’ in their family of origin is functional in that family. For example, a small child might want to get their mother’s attention, they will, like the rest of us try different behaviours until we get one that works. By experimenting with different behaviours they eventually discover that yelling and screaming loud enough will finally force her to pay attention. Even though the attention she gives the child is hardly nurturing it will work. By repeating this process, they learned that to get attention is to scream and yell!
So, when the child is at school and wants the teacher’s attention they do what they have always done – scream and yell! Of course, this will still get attention but in the classroom, there are better ways to get attention but these kids need to learn how to do this. For the teacher, the screaming and yelling will make the student unattractive but for the experienced teacher this behaviour gives a clue to the problems the student and subsequently the teacher faces.
Again, it is not the fault of the student, it is the fault of their childhood.
We must keep in mind these hardened behaviours have been developed as a result of the conduct of the adults and environment in which they developed. They are the fault of the adults who shaped that environment not the child but it will be their presenting behaviour of that child that will influence their acceptance by others.
Appropriate teaching responses to Managing behaviour in the classroom involves:
- Understanding the importance of a predictable, stable learning environment
- Understanding the effects of early childhood trauma on behaviour and emotions
- Understanding dysfunctional behaviour and emotions learned in early childhood will emerge in stressful situations
- Understanding students need to operate in a state of calm to learn
- Being able to identify and respond to dysfunctional behaviours and emotions
Finally, like all disabilities, schools need resources to allow these students to take their rightful place in society. In our schools all disabilities are underfunded but this particular disability is extremely neglected for the following reasons:
- These children do not attract the empathetic support enjoyed by other disabilities. There are no real observable problems, they look healthy and they can behave ‘if they want to’ and so it is easy to think it is their fault.
- These children quite often pose a threat to the security and peaceful workings of the classroom. Other students are really disadvantaged to have these kids in class without support.
- Teacher training is totally inadequate in preparing teachers for dealing with these children.
- There is a lack of provision of specialist settings for these students and there is no professional development for the staff that work in these settings.
This paper is called ‘Malevolent Development - The Condemned Disability’ because the fact that children are treated in such a way requires a certain malicious attitude on the part of the people who commit these atrocities. It is also a condemnation on our broader society that we allow this damage to continue at increasing rates.
Schools are constantly being asked to deal with the problems of society and for these children the school is their only chance. It is up to that broader society to provide the resources for them to do this valuable work.