We have said in an earlier Newsletter, the children we focus on in our work are those who have a toxic sense of shame and this ‘sense’ drives their behaviour. They believe:
They don’t make mistakes; they are mistakes
They are incapable of achieving anything
They are bad - worthless and not fit to have a meaningful relationship with any person.
The worst advice you could give these kids is to be yourself! You have to remember that as a small child these kids have been abused by the very people they should have been able to rely on to teach them how to become an independent adult.
When we witness the ‘out of control behaviour’ that causes so much trouble we need to remember that at the time they really didn’t have any control. They are acting in a way that was taught to them. Their chaotic behaviour is because their parents never provided a consistency that allowed them to develop a set of behaviours that would help them get their needs met.
However, some kids have been abused in a constant manner and they have developed behaviours that protect their self. They will appear to be good or perfect and they work hard to maintain that image but like their out of control abused colleagues their sense of self will be just as negative, just as toxic. These students are harder to identify and often go through school without really achieving anything more than surviving.
The task for the teacher is to be ‘a good parent’ for these kids. You can’t change them but you can provide the support a small child would receive while they re-learn or re-develop an authentic sense of their self.
Take for example their inability to regulate emotions, a hallmark of traumatized kids. When a little child gets upset, say skinned their knee mum or dad would hold them, make soothing noises and reassure them that would be okay. When a 14-year-old PTSD kid gets hurt the teacher needs to treat them like a baby, not on a sarcastic way but to verbally soothe them, validate their pain and reassure them they will be alright. After a period of time, a significant period of time they will have learned the strategies we all use to regulate our emotions and consequently our behaviour.
We also have to deal with their view of being ‘faulty’. As mentioned above these kids believe they don’t make a mistake they are a mistake and so we have to deal with this defective belief. Teach them that nobody is perfect. In fact, an adage I used with students I worked with was they are perfectly imperfect. That is, all humans make mistakes. I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – perfectly imperfect.
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 …’?
At these times they are articulating their sense of failed-self.
At times of ‘failure’ the destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that reinforce their opinion of themselves. 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 when they have failed is with comments like:
‘How can we make this …’?
‘What can we do to…’?
‘What will it look like if …’?
You will inevitably be faced with resistance. Remember you are asking the children to make what they see as a very threatening change. They know their current environment and have learned to live in it. You are asking them to let go of those behaviours and that threatens them. Don’t fight their obstruction. If you correct them straight away you have conflict so in the first instance go with them. The best way these kids know how to cope is to be provocative so start with where they are at the time. Use statements like:
‘You hate being pushed around, don’t you?’
‘You’d rather talk to your friends than listen to me’
‘You’d like to be playing with your computer’
If delivered in a genuine sense, these statements can transform a determination to be uncooperative into a feeling of being understood and so you have the chance to change the resistance into productive engagement.
Their negativity, their practise of saying no to any suggestion can be replaced with an unavoidable yes if you anticipate what they will say. For example, if you place the child in a seating plan you know they will complain and refuse but if you say something like ‘I suppose you’d rather be sitting with Sam’ they will agree. Then, if you’re lucky you can explain why you are moving them and how they can earn the trust to ‘sit with Sam’.
Another goal of your work is to reconnect these kids with their ‘community’ be that their neighbourhood, their class or their school. They have a strong need to belong. If appropriate, engaging the parents could also be beneficial but you need to be careful.
Taking care is especially important when dealing with the parents of older adolescent kids. It is a natural progression for all teenagers to grow away from their parents. For these kids the separation might be their key to the freedom of being their real-self.
This sense of belonging can be realized with smartly planned group work that has as its outcome really cooperative learning. When doing this, inventive teachers organize the make-up of the groups while they appear to be ‘random’. This avoids any chance of the particular student, or the others to feel they are ‘different’.
Also, it is really rewarding if you get these kids to do charity work, especially in a group. The group approach helps overcome the initial fear of failure they will almost inevitably experience. These kids, like all kids get a great sense of self-worth when they help those less fortunate.
Hopefully after a significant period of time the seeds of positivity will emerge and the teacher should do as much as they can to cultivate this positivity through the lessons they give.
Much is written about the importance of our sense of self, previously we discussed the concept of a toxic sense of self (see Toxic Shame 7 March 2017). This is the sense children who are raised in an abusive or neglectful environment believe about themselves. They believe that it is they who are ‘wrong’, that they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.
Because our sense of self is the greatest regulator of success, that is, how we perceive ourselves will determine what we will do, much of our work is focused on changing this faulty self-belief. The only way we can achieve this is by re-producing the mechanism that created the false sense of self. This is the real work of the teacher, to produce an environment that provides the conditions that develop the memories that produces a positive sense of self in the students.
The illustration below crudely explains this process.
I used the term ‘crudely’ as the process of matching behaviour with desired consequences and subsequently producing the neurological structure to reproduce these behaviours is extremely complex. However, this description will help explain the formation of our sense of self which really only consists of memories. Of these it is the kind of emotional memories formed in early childhood that dominate this personal sense.
The process follows this sequence, initially we have a drive that is linked to a state of homeostatic disequilibrium, that is we feel disturbed and feel impelled to change this situation. In the first instances we try an ‘action’ and evaluate the outcome relative to the need, that is the consequence. In the model it is from the situation that moves to the action (at this initial stage the decision is not used) that results in a consequence. If this works and we regain a sense of calm, when the same situation occurs the process to regain a sense of calm will again be activated. If the same action gets the same desired result this is strengthened and as the process is repeated eventually this will be the behaviour learned to deal with this situation.
In the mean-time every time we run through this sequence we are provided with feedback (see the broken lines from consequence to ‘memories’) and this feedback constructs a bank of emotional and cognitive memories. This memory bank is our sense of self. The formation of this sense of self produces the section in the model to include decision-making.
The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood. In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional. This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions.
Eventually the child’s hippocampus, the more cognitive section of the limbic system becomes active and the memories developed here are also included in the decision making. These memories have an impression that is attached to some ‘reason’ the connection between action and consequence was established. This contrasts to the emotional memories that are powerful but with no conscious ability to make that action/consequence link.
At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable. At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories. But, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to the emotional memories. It is my understanding that this emotional dominance of our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produced levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met. Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed, cease trying and disengage from their world. This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins that toxic shame.
The final broken lines in the model illustrates the compounding issue of the toxic sense of self. It establishes that our memories, our sense of self is with us all the time. In the model this is the antecedent condition we bring to any new situation that will influence our approach even before we get to the decision-making stage. How this manifests, in class is that these students refuse to even to contemplate engaging in behaviours to get their needs met because any such action will displease others and they will re-experience their ‘abuse’. They just don’t get involved and this disengagement is common in our classrooms!
To be successful a therapeutic intervention needs to encourage the retrieving of a positive sense of self. This requires an examination of their internal world, to recognize and acknowledge the myriad of faulty feelings and beliefs. This necessitates access to a qualified mental health professional. However, as teachers we are faced with a significant number of these children on a daily basis and we are not qualified to deal with them in such a manner. So, what can we do?
Referring back to the model, we need to manipulate that sense of self environment re-building it in stages. The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences. The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage! This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.
There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence. It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child. If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they re NOT a mistake!
Another important contribution for these children is to teach them how the brain operates and how all behaviour has a purpose, it is designed to get something. Part of this training is to discuss the fact that any behaviour can have a range of consequences. The sign of maturity, what we want them to achieve is that you must choose the behaviour that is most likely to get the consequence you want but, if this doesn’t happen this time it is still the behaviour they should choose. It is the one that has the best chance of success, it’s their ‘best bet’!
It is also important to understand that if you choose a behaviour that may have one possible negative consequence that you don’t want then you can’t do that behaviour. If the chances are slim and you take a chance and that disastrous consequence does follow then you must take responsibility and not blame others.
The road to recovery is cyclic, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously. They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.
We have established that the children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment have verified brain damage and the theme of our work is to provide rehabilitation through changing their Renvironment. Predominantly this is focused on schools but these principled interventions work even better if they are applied around the clock which can occur in special settings such as juvenile detention centres.
However, one of the frustrations for teachers or supervisors is the length of time it takes for any real change to occur. There are two things to consider about this; the first is the extended time interval required for real neurological change to be entrenched that drive new behaviours, the second is the difficulty in changing deep held beliefs. The focus of this Newsletter is on the first of these problems, the impediment of time!
Changing the neurological organisation of the brain in any permanent sense requires the extinguishing of the existing circuits and the construction of a replacement path. This is known as plasticity. This plasticity varies throughout the brain, from the brain stem, through the limbic system and on to the cerebrum. Behaviours learned in the brain stem are extremely non-plastic, that is they are very hard to change. This makes sense as those behaviours are designed to support our physical wellbeing, such as breathing, blood pressure, balance, etc. that are vital for our survival and this resistance to change protects us.
Those social/emotional lessons that are stored in the limbic system are also hard to change. This is where our affective memories are stored and these are the organisation of our sense of self. We develop our sense of self in the early years and the behaviours that accompany this have been learned because they have provided the ‘best way’ to survive in the environment in which they are learned. It is in this area our beliefs are maintained and, although arguably easier to change than those maintaining our physical security, they are also ‘hard-wired’ making change a time-consuming event.
The importance of both the physical and socio-emotional functions are important to our survival and so it makes sense to protect them from change; this is why they are so locked into the brain circuitry.
The part of the brain that remains relatively plastic, that is reasonably easy to change is the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, mostly in the frontal area associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving. Those other areas of the cerebrum are associated with the development of fundamental skills that complement our survival mechanisms, things such as vision, speech, etc. are also developed in the early years and most likely share the non-plasticity of the lower levels of the brain. These are:
Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing
Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech
There is not the behavioural need to change these although there is a case for mediation for students who did not receive the appropriate level of stimulation in the developing years.
Although I have seen no research that would describe the level of plasticity in these areas a clue to the difficulty is in the problems faced by children who have been born with cataracts that have not been removed before about eight months. Up until this time the conditions in the occipital lobe are extremely plastic, this is referred to as its ‘window of opportunity’ when the brain’s neurons are surrounded with supporting materials, principally myeline the material that sustains and enhances the circuit. After that time has passed the myeline that has not been used along with the unemployed neurons are removed in a process called pruning. This makes the circuit even more efficient and long-lasting it also makes the behaviour controlled by the neural path non-plastic.
The difficulty faced by many teachers who work with these children is that their day to day teaching focuses on those frontal areas, associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving, the stuff of the curriculum. We see how relatively quickly children can learn new material. We are also exposed to a range of intervention programs, almost exclusively based in the cognitive behaviour therapy model to help children deal with their dysfunctional behaviour. We make the mistake of assuming the pace children learn say history or mathematics should be the same pace they learn to change their behaviour!
The real rate of change that can be expected from the deep-seated brain damage from abuse or neglect is best understood when it is compared to brain damage that is a result of a physical trauma, say a motor vehicle accident. People and families that work with such casualties expect the road to recovery to be slow and very difficult for the patient. Although this process can be frustrating usually the victim and their support are very committed to make the effort to get better, or to recover as much functionality as they can.
Rehabilitation is basically placing the patient in an environment that will stimulate the behaviour that is required to function in that environment. For example, if the individual needs to learn to walk again they will work through a process where the legs are exposed to conditions that demand a ‘walking’ response that will encourage new pathways to form. This can take months even years to recover even if only partially. The thing is the community knows the ethics of providing this support and the economic value of the intervention. The thing is, these victims did not deliberately choose to have their disability and their prospects of having a ‘successful’ life is hindered by their injury.
It takes a rare individual to take the same view of a teenager whose dysfunctional behaviour is expressed in a violent outburst in their classroom or sits in the back of the classroom completely disengaged in learning. It takes an even exceptional political/bureaucratic system that would provide the same level of support for this victim of an acquired brain injury. It is easy to feel compassion for the victim of a motor vehicle accident who may well have lost their ability to dampen their behaviour, become compulsive. It is much harder to have that same compassion for a ‘compulsive’ child when we have no evidence of the ‘accident’ they suffered by being born into the wrong family!
The thing is, these kids can be helped, we have the same ethical responsibility to take up this challenge. Despite the obvious decency of taking on the task there is a measured economic advantage for the community if we do. There is the access to such an amount of untapped human resources and the reduction in the financial burden of providing institutional interventions, such as detentions centres, courts, etc. that attempt to control these behaviours.
For teachers, there needs to be proper training in the techniques of providing the correct therapeutic environment and the encouragement to ‘stay the distance’ through the long period of recovery. It will be worth it!
Working with children with severe behaviours is extremely challenging. The personal demands you will experience working with these difficult children are not to be underestimated; they are extremely stressful. In one of my books (see resources) I discussed the concept of toxic resilience. The idea is that to be successful in a highly demanding vocation you need top be resilient. Working with difficult students over time certainly qualifies as being a demanding job; it demands a high level of resilience. But, this resilience comes at a cost. The ability to keep fronting up to these children places you in a situation that has a high likelihood of producing constant elevated stress. This constant exposure has a significant negative impact on an individual’s personal health, a situation that is understated and largely unrecognized.
Resilience has been defined as the ability to display constant competence under high levels of stress and produce quality outcomes despite demanding conditions. This definition is now accepted for every age group. This has long been held as a strength especially in education. It has allowed us to keep going long after others would have given-up. This is a quality required when dealing with these kids. One of the prerequisites for success is to hang in with them long after they had expected you to give-up.
In earlier Newsletters (The Intricacy of Stress, June 19th 2017 and Anxiety 24th July 2017) we have discussed the biological consequences of elevated levels of stress particularly when those levels are maintained over a period of time. You must be aware that you are working in such an environment.
The following is just a brief outline of symptoms, causes and recovery techniques that you can use as some sort of guide to self-care around maintaining a healthy level of resilience in this very difficult job.
In the Newsletter we have discussed the healthy stress cycle, arousal with its flight/fight/freeze response, the discharge of the released energy and a return to rest. We have also discussed what happens if, before we return to our baseline homeostasis, we are again provoked to a level that produces another cycle and the cycle is incomplete. The level of confined stress is magnified. This build-up is gradual and, unless you are vigilant you will not realise you are becoming burned-out, a not so nice way of saying you are dangerously stressed. If this is happening you may notice changes to your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as changes in your behaviour. These are:
Feeling very tired or exhausted all the time
Changes in sleep patterns
Changes in eating habits
Low immunity, catch everything that is going about
Feel like nothing matters
Work is either extremely boring and worthless or it is overwhelming and you can’t cope
Feel like a failure, you feel helpless or detached
Your level of motivation has dropped
You become cynical and start to criticize everything
Avoid responsibilities by missing, either taking excess sick leave or other forms of leave
Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkley was renowned for her work around occupational burnout. She has described five causes for burnout and these are:
1. Work Overload – People have too much work to do in their day or, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they are given or, they are not supplied with the resources to complete their work. In any modern public school all three conditions are the norm.
2. No Autonomy – When we are given a responsibility but not given the authority to make decisions about how that task should be done or the freedom to plan the work we become disempowered. This leads to frustration that can build to resentment.
3. Under Valued – As teachers we are always looking to provide our students with positive feedback when they complete a task. We understand that this sort of response helps them become motivated to carry on. Somehow this simple technique is ignored when we are dealing with our colleague or those we supervise. When we fail to provide positive feedback or some type of reward we feel under-valued or disrespected.
A particular problem you will face if you ‘specialise’ in dealing with these damaged kids is that the mainstream educational community has no real time for these children other than mouthed clichés when they make the headlines in the media. This discounting from the leadership send a message to colleagues that don’t work in this area that somehow your work is not important. This can be quite disappointing.
4. Not Supported in the Workplace – This leads on from the latter part of the previous point. However, when you are working with these very difficult kids there will be time, more than is usual when the students will have to be removed from their class. This is where the teacher requires the support of the rest of the school. These students must be removed for everyone’s safety, including their own but they must be supervised. There is nothing more demoralising than sending a student out and having them return almost immediately with little or no intervention being delivered.
5. Fairness – This is another point hat is underpinned by the understanding that you will be working with difficult kids. Shallow educators equate teaching quality with the attainment of high grades in their classrooms. This insult is carried on by the community and the media. There is little understanding of the difficult work you do on top of the delivery of curriculum which is the task of those teachers working in ‘selective’ environments. Everyone deserves respect especially those who work without minor extrinsic rewards.
6. The ‘Meaning’ of your Work – This is the final part of the causes that make working with these difficult kids a dangerous place to take on. You should not expect your colleagues or your supervisors to understand the value, not to mention the difficulty of the work you do. I worked for ten years as a principal of a special school for adolescents with severe behaviours in a very needing area in South-West Sydney. During that time, I had four supervisors all of whom were wonderful people but I know they had no idea and little interest in what we were doing at the school. This is where you need to believe in your understanding of the work you do and if possible, create alliances with contemporaries from nearby areas. These days you can contact similar colleagues ‘on-line’ one advantage of the digital world.
When discussing recovery let’s use the same three categories, physical, emotional and behaviour. In reality, these are really just the reverse of those things we have identified as the causes of stress.
Physical – Lots of the things that have used to deal with your elevated stress have affected your health. It’s doing almost the opposite that will help you recapture your physical health. There are some simple things you can do:
Get regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be excessive and really it needs to be ‘age appropriate’. Don’t develop an obsession with exercise, that is a symptom of activities addiction, that is exercising so you avoid the issue that is causing the stress. It might be jogging or walking the dog, anything that gets you out and about. Joining in a team activity would tick two of these boxes.
Try meditation, follow the guidelines outlined for the students, they will be the same. It is also a good idea to take meditation or yoga classes to get out and meet others.
Avoid drugs, this goes without saying. It is part of our western culture to reach for a drink when we are over worked and the thought of a stiff drink at the end of the week is tempting. Like all things, in moderation is a good guide.
Emotional – When you are ‘burned-out’ you really do not feel good about yourself and you tend to isolate from others. Some simple ideas are:
Reach out to those who are close to you. Your first though is probably they don’t want to hear about your problems but in most cases, you would be wrong. People are flattered when you seek them out. The very act of choosing to speak to them communicates that you trust them and value them. They will be supportive.
Socialise both in your work and in the community. At work you are with people you probably would not choose to mix with unless you had to. But, you are with them during your working day and by trying to get to know them the consequential interactions are much more pleasant. Don’t be afraid to initiate the contact.
Get your work into perspective especially when working with challenging kids. The modern demands on teachers is on outcomes and we can get swept up in the idiocy of this approach to education. All teachers know that learning outcomes depend on a range of factors with the teacher being one. Assess your value with the effort you put into your work.
Behavioural – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ How often have we heard this cliché but for the most part it is true? These are some things to do:
High achievers are reluctant to say no to any request but there are times when you should say just that. You have to maintain a proper life – work balance and that requires you to limit the demands placed on you. Get into the habit of leaving your work at work. I understand this has always been impossible for teachers, it still is but in dealing with that work you do take home make sure you make a timetable that includes an appropriate of non-work activities.
Think about how you work and how you could improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of your efforts. This may include delegation of some activities that really could be done by others. I had a process where, if I though some demand was trivial I would put it into a designated file and wait to see if the person who sent the directive followed-up their request (this is common practice for most teachers and principals). If the demand was repeated then I would complete the task. Of course, you need to know those things that must be done!
Plan; this can be an overall strategy for the school year or term but if so you need to break this down into smaller goals such as what you want to achieve in the next month, or whatever you choose but it is great to have a lesson plan that includes what you need to do. When you have a plan, it takes away a lot of your stress.
The message is, look after yourself! There is a statement made in every life-saving course I have been to and that is, never jump into a river to save a child if you can’t swim. It is equally true that you can’t help damaged kids get better if you become ill yourself.
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.