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Monday, February 24 2020

Supportive Relationships

In the last Newsletter (Expectations – 18th February 2020) we tried to explain how the process of decision making is linked to the student’s sense of self, the antecedent condition they bring to any situation.  In class, we want them to ‘decide’ to learn the contents of the lesson but we understand, especially for those students with a toxic sense of their self that there are a multitude of other concerns in their environment that can attract their attention. These ‘other things’ will inevitably be perceived threats to their social survival.

The process is like this:

  • There is a situation with various ‘focal points’, each will bring up memories of past experiences.
  • These memories will allow us to predict what will happen now, given these circumstances.
  • That expectation will have a strong emotional content.  For damaged kids these are typically, frustration, fear or hatred.
  • The culmination of this sequence is that they will decide on a path of action, based on past experiences that will reinforce the existing sense of self.

How the child navigates their classroom is through their previous experiences – children learn to ‘know something’ about what will occur and prepare them for what they expect to happen.  Damaged kids are more likely to expect the worst, hence the negative feelings like fear, etc.  This is where the relationship with the teacher is critical!

There is a ‘popular’ view that we have to get the emotions out of the way so we can learn.  Emotions are very important in any lesson.  We need to be stressed to behave and behaviour leads to learning.  The trick is to be appropriately stressed, not too little or not too much (see ‘The Intricacy of Stress – 19th June 2017) by the situation that leads to what we want them to learn. 

The teacher has a professional responsibility to develop a relationship that supports both the significance of the lesson and, more importantly the integrity of the student.  This is a relationship that is really a one-way street.  The teacher really has to give without any expectation of a return.  However, the reality is that you will get so much more back but these rewards are not easily recognised.  These kids can change but it takes a lot of time and a lot of the change takes place long after they have left your classroom.  We all know that most people had a teacher who really inspired them – the thing is rarely do these teachers know what a wonderful job they did.  It’s the same here.

The quality of the relationship with all students starts at the very first meeting – even before a word has been spoken.  Your very appearance will affect their opinion on how much of a teacher you are.  I’m a great believer that all teachers have a ‘uniform’; it is to be modest, neat, clean and appropriate for the lesson.  A mistake many young teachers is to be ‘cool’ and dress to appeal to the kids.  This never works – you are their teacher not their best ‘friend’, you have to be their authority.  Your room is also central to this ‘first impression’.  How it looks reflects how important you think the work carried out in that space is, that is how important is the lesson.

These initial arrangements send a message that the work we will do is important.

As soon as the teacher speaks the personal connection becomes more influential.  Trust is vital for any relationship and people will give more credence to non-verbal communication.  The break-down of the emotional content of any dialogue is consistently given as:

  • 7% is conveyed in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% in the tone of the voice
  • 55% in the body language, how you hold yourself, your facial expression, etc.
  • I’m not sure how these figures have been established but I’m sure they reflect the importance of each element of any personal communication.  This means that 93% of the vital emotional content rests with the messenger and not the message!

The interpretation of these perceptions is hard enough for all children but, as usual it is more difficult for those who have a history of abuse.  These kids will:

  • Minimise or misinterpret any positive message.  Because they have been ‘disappointed’ so many times before they have lost trust in those in authority.
  • They are hyper-sensitive to negative clues.  As mentioned above, damaged kids anticipate the worst and will scrutinise at the presenting environment for any possible threat.
  • Commonly developed their sense of self in an abusive situation they have an extreme disability in understanding or ‘reading’ the non-verbal cues.  The inconsistency in their parent’s emotional reactions to situations never allowed them to use those emotions to predict what will happen next!
  • Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming signal.  It is a feature of abused kids to have a high level of emotional reactivity.  As children they were not taught to sooth themselves when they were ‘hurt’ and so when they think they might be threatened they become crushed by their emotions.

These un-natural, but understandable responses to your best efforts can be disheartening but you must remember you are dealing with students with a real disability.  These kids need the same patient understanding normal infants get when they are learning to walk.  When they fall down we understand they are just learning and we encourage them to try again.  When these kids appear to reject our efforts understand we will have feelings such as disappointment but don’t be had by those feelings, encourage them to ‘try again’.

So, how you interact with the student will make a big difference in the emotional quality your relationship.  Understand that when these students are 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 …’?

A caustic teacher who is examining their work, who may well be trying to challenge the student, could make comments that reinforce their negative opinion of themselves.  Don’t make destructive comments 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 is with comments like:

  • ‘How can we make this …’?
  • ‘What can we do to …’?
  • ‘What will it look like if …’?

We understand it takes a lot of time to change the past memories, especially for those kids who have little of no experience of a positive expectation in their life.  But, it can be done.  By consistently presenting an environment that reflects a consistent, persistent and supportive (there are those words again) environment children can change their expectations of the future and when we achieve that they gain access to their imagination.  They become free to choose their way in the world.

Posted by: AT 05:21 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 17 2020


One re-occurring theme in these Newsletters is the importance to consider the processes of the brain – after all, if it’s not the brain that controls behaviour than what is it?  Just how difficult your work is when dealing with kids becomes clear when you appreciate the complexity of that vital organ.  Attempts to describe this complexity have resulted in some interesting ‘statistics’, the inverted commas indicate my scepticism but it is believed that the human brain has between 80 and 86 billion neurons almost half in the cerebellum.  To remind you of how many that is: a million seconds is equal to more than 11 days; a billion is the equivalent of 32 years; 86 billion takes 2,752 years, that’s a lot of seconds. 

Now add to that the fact that each of those neurons has 1,000 potential connections, that is the neural networks that control our cognition have 1,000 different possible ways to connect to the next neuron and this goes on through a colossal number of possible connections to compose a thought!  The reality is that the number of possible neural arrangements in any brain is infinite and just to make it a bit more challenging it constantly changes.

Tim Wilson, in his book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ contends that our cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute while the unconscious mind will check out 12 million sensory inputs for threats or opportunities in that same time.  Unbelievable, but you would have all experienced a time when you perhaps ducked to avoid an incoming ‘missile’ like a stray ball and you did this without any conscious effort.  You did move because of the effort of your unconscious mind.

How is this enormous complexity relevant to expectations?  In our model of the process of learning and behaviour (see below) the attention the students bring to the classroom exists at the junction between the antecedent condition and the situation.

The model shows only one ‘situation’ but we know that the child, and the teacher has a potentially 40 ‘identified’ situations and so many more unrecognisable.  That is, what the student will make a decision about, how to act in that instance of a lesson depends on what they require for homeostatic equilibrium, that is what is concerning them at that moment and what they see as helpful in that environment.  Toby Wise of the University of London points out that people prioritize their attention when determining safety or danger in a busy setting, such as crossing a road.  This suggests that people pay more attention to things they have learned is associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs.

Children, from abusive backgrounds certainly have learned to be hyper-sensitive to potential dangers and whenever they feel threatened in class they will act to deal with that threat.  I looked back over the past Newsletters for some background references for you but I came to the realisation that this concept is one of the significant elements that is at the heart of all our work.  Kids who have lived through frightful situations will have a predisposition to see the potential danger in any situation and so they are unable to see that moment of time as an opportunity to learn.

There are two things that help that situation.  The first is to deal with the antecedent condition and this is the student’s sense of self.  Students with a sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017) will always see any lesson as a threat.  Remember, they see themselves as being a mistake and therefore any actions they take will be mistaken.  They fail before they start!

Recent newsletters have discussed the sense of self (16th and 23rd September 2019 and 3rd February 2020) and the ambition for the teacher is to develop a sense of self-worth and capability.  If they learn to see the lesson not as a threat but as an opportunity they will make the decision to act in a way to get the consequence of learning the lesson; that is, they will have a path through the learning process.

The second problem is the how the environment is perceived.  This is where the learning environment is critical.  This ‘lesson preparation’ is our bread and butter, we need to:

  • Understand the specific & explicit goals of our lesson
  • Students know what the purpose of the lesson is
  • Have lessons targeted at their ability
  • Communication through various mediums (white board/smart board etc.)
  • Handouts ready
  • Work areas and materials organised 
  • Pace the Lesson
  • Time for students to guide their own learning
  • Transitions ready
  • Early finishers tasks…
  • Etc.

However, for these damaged kids, and I contend for all kids we need to go beyond this ‘text book’ approach.  None of these factors address the problem of the student’s expectations.  None of these factors alleviate their fear of failure.  The real ‘preparation’ for teaching these kids is in the formation of a strong, professional relationship (see Relationships 10th February 2020) that will enable the development of their independent, empowered sense of self.

In the model presented above it is the feedback loops that will change the student’s sense of themselves, that is the antecedent conditions they bring to school.  Just as children in functioning families required emotional support while they learned their value, these children, even though they may be objectional teenagers with highly tuned oppositional defiance, they also require that same support.  As professional teachers you are obliged to provide that support and meeting that obligation will be one of the most rewarding professional experiences you will enjoy in your career!

Posted by: AT 06:58 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 10 2020

A Special Relationship

In our last Newsletter we discussed how important relationships are when correcting student’s behaviour.  This applies to all students but especially to those whose conduct is particularly challenging.  When we think about relationships we generally consider a transactional connection between individuals, transactional because we expect to contribute to that association as much as we anticipate it being a source to address our needs.

However, relationships between the teacher and student does not have a ‘transactional’ component, it is a one-way process.  In general, teachers harmonize with parents providing the age-appropriate support for each child.  A healthy parent provides support for the child as they learn to behave in a way that allows them to eventually learn to get their needs met in their environment.  In early childhood the parent does almost everything for the child, as the child masters a behaviour they move on to a more sophisticated behaviour.  Eventually, in the teenage years the child will demand independence from the parent and if that process has been successful this will be a smooth transition.  Those of you who have had teens will definitely understand that the kids think they are ready for the world long before you do but things generally work out.

The same transition is observed in our school yard.  Kindergarten kids need a lot of personal support as they learn.  The teacher provides plenty of encouragement as they face new challenges.  As they develop, that control is gradually passed back to the child and by the time they graduate from school, if we have been successful the students are independent learners.

This is all well and good however, for the kids that come from abusive families that ordered progress does not exist.  From the previous Newsletter and one on relatedness (21st October 2019) we have discussed the problems for those kids when they are in a ‘school environment’ that clashes with the one in which they developed their behaviour.  They have to start again – in regards to behaving, they become as needy as any infant.  This will require the teacher to ‘parent’ a child that although physically may appear to be close to maturity will be undeveloped in their behaviour.  This demands a special quality in the teacher, to treat a threatening, abusive teenager like a treasured infant is a challenge and that is what I want to discuss in this essay.

I believe that humility, on the part of the teacher is the distinctive quality of the relationship that best describes what is required to support these kids, and in fact all kids.  We have time and again pointed out that consistent, structured consequences for behaviour is the key to making a change and we have also reinforced the reality that this process takes a lot of time.  To hang in with these kids takes a lot of inner strength but this is not to be confused with self-confidence.  Humility is a quiet confidence in your ability as well as an acceptance that you don’t know everything.

This adoption of humility is covertly at odds with the current mentality of modern management practices which regrettably dominates teacher training.  Let us explain, the focus on T&D in NSW at least is on the development of leadership skills.  I’m on record as saying that leadership is a quality that emerges to address the problems of the environment in which it exists; it has a ‘bottom-up’ quality.  To train novice teachers for leadership roles requires a ‘top-down’ approach where proficiency comes not from experience but from ‘a book’.  My concern is that when you successfully learn the lessons from theory you are captivated by its narrative.  The belief you are now qualified is reinforced by your supervisors which develops a misplaced degree of self- confidence.

In our system this self-confidence is regarded as a desirable characteristic and an asset when seeking employment or promotion.  The competitive nature of the organisation requires teachers to sell themselves through resumes or interviews.  The result is that we can easily believe we have the characteristics outlined in our training and revealed in any application.  We feel like we are experts and we become susceptible to what is known as the Dunning-Krüger paradox, that is we falsely assess our performance.  The work that underpins this paradox has shown that poor performers in a task over estimate their ability, that is over confidence correlates with under achievement.  Meanwhile, those who have a degree of self-doubt about how they perform achieve much more than others.  This is particularly so when dealing in a social enterprise like teaching.

Humility is underpinned by this modesty about your abilities but also your real sense of worth as a person.  There is a reassurance when you accept that you have flaws but also gifts to share.  Humility is the opposite to toxic shame where, if you make a mistake it’s because you are a mistake.  With humility when you make a mistake that’s OK you can learn from it and move on.  This allows you to be grounded in reality, valued as a human and able to provide a model for the students you teach.  Humility is its own reward.

Your humility will be a gift for your colleagues and importantly, those you teach.  If we rely on the external validation of our abilities, the T&D courses and the creation of our resumes, if challenged we are compelled to defend ourselves.  To admit that we are unsure is to reject the process that produced our self-confidence.  To retain our sense of expertise we must reject any idea of failure.  One of the problems is that those who defend their behaviour in the face of evidence that confirms an error lose their credibility while those who publicly question their actions endear themselves to their contemporaries.

Humility is essential to having a healthy relationship with all students but none more than those damaged kids we are focused on.  It allows us to really engage with them when things are difficult.  Because we are unsure we are more willing to listen to them, how often do we feel the need to butt into their conversation to tell them what to do.  When we really listen to them we may find some new information that will help us both deal with the situation but more importantly when we really listen we are confirming their value to us.

When they see us admit we are unsure, that we will seek help we are letting them know that we are not perfect and that’s alright, and they get permission to make mistakes without being a mistake – never under estimate the power of this.

To paraphrase Saint Vincent de Paul, wanton self-confidence is nothing but a lie while humility is truth.  For kids who have a history of abuse, an adult who embodies truth provides that parent that was missing in their early years of development.

Posted by: AT 03:49 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 03 2020

Sense of Self

Welcome back, this blog started at the beginning of 2017 discussing Bullying which was at the centre of the media’s attention to schools and since then over 100 Newsletters have followed.  In the break I went back and looked at this work and was pleased with the number of topics we covered.  May I suggest you have a look and please share this resource with any of your colleagues; it’s free and we do it because through our careers, both Marcia and I understood the problems children with severe behaviours pose for teachers, especially in those ‘tough’ schools.  We also understand that both pre-training and on-the-job development rarely, if ever addresses this issue.  So, welcome to the New Year.

At the beginning of this year we have found ourselves reviewing this work we do addressing the problems children with severely dysfunctional behaviours present to the school - not to mention the destruction that behaviour brings to their own lives.  We have spent years thinking and working on this conundrum and, not to dismiss the extreme complexity to do with any discussion regarding behaviour over the next few Newsletters, we want to share with you our underpinning philosophy.

The first premise for our speculations is that we are biological, that is we are living organisms made of cells that interact to support our life.  The fundamental defining conclusion is that these cells form specific genes that drive our evolution.  It is our genes that determine our humanity, plant genes determine the flowers and so on.  Further, to maintain our life, we transform energy into behaviour which allows us to survive and reproduce, to maintain the condition known as homeostasis in the environment in which we exist.  We do this based on what we have learned through experience and these memories define our self!  So we become a catalogue of memories of how to act to address deficits in our survival in our environment.

In previous Newsletters (Sense of Self, 16th September 2019 and Sense of Self - Part 2, 23rd September 2019) We discussed the progressive process of the development of our sense of self and how it impacts on our behavioural decision-making, these are worth revisiting.  This Newsletter emphasises the importance of the child’s relationships in determining that sense of self.  One thing is certain – our sense of self is our brain in action; it is the interface of our complex outer world with the developing, complex state of our inner world.  This inner world consists of memories, of those we inherit, those we develop unconsciously and those we learn. 

Remember, the fundamental drives, to survive and reproduce lie beneath the concept of homeostasis, that is the compulsion to behave in a way that addresses any situation that creates the stress that comes from the discord between our necessities and their availability in our presenting environment.  At the primary, physical level, if we hold our breath for too long we experience an overwhelming desire to breathe.  However, most ‘learning’ on how to behave, especially in the social realm is taught to us in the early years and that is predominantly by our primary care giver, usually mum.

Throughout these Newsletters and in our books the early establishment of behaviours that are ‘designed’ to deal with our social world have emphasised the fact that behaviours are learned to deal with the presenting environment.  For kids raised in abusive and/or neglectful conditions the lessons learned will be their best chance to survive in that environment regrettably they will not be appropriate in a more functional setting.  Therefore, in order to deal with situations that place them in a state of disequilibrium in the contemporary environment they are placed in a complex situation, facing conflicting messages from our ‘memory’ in order to make sense of the outer world.  

Unlike the majority of students raised in a functioning home, who arrive at a point where the lessons they have learned makes them feel free to make choices on how to behave in order to get their needs met at school.  For these damaged kids, their inability to identify any behaviour to make sense of and deal with a perceived threat from the external world of the classroom leaves them immobilised.  The resulting distress is a form of ‘madness’, a psychological pain and/or confusion that they cannot easily sooth and so they act in ways that they use to alleviate this pain.  These are their out of control behaviours we observe in class. 

We all see the world as an ordered integration between our self and the external world.  We move around the possible connections depending on the reality of both self and our external world (see below) in any set of conditions.  For a given situation there will be times when any permutation is ‘healthy’, you may be happy and the other will be happy or it may be appropriate for you to be sad because of the circumstances in the other world. It is healthy to experience the appropriate emotional state for the situation in which you may find yourself; this is normal.

However, for a child who has predominantly suffered the negative experiences of early childhood abuse and/or neglect, these healthy interactions are unavailable.  Their toxic sense of self (See Newsletter Toxic Shame, 7th March 2017) will dismiss the sense of happy self/world.

Instead of a real sense of who they are, and for that matter really, who is the other person they construct a ‘self’ that cannot be maintained and becomes disordered.  This disordered self oscillates between an idealized world and a punishing one.


In these simple models a child can potentially experience six different senses of self but only one at a time.  If they see themselves as ‘good self’ then they could make a judgement about the ‘other’ as being good or bad.  Tragically these damaged kids have had a life where they never experienced a sense of autonomy and whether they felt good or bad depended on the behaviour of the ‘other’, life is done to them!  This results in a rigid, inhibited personality that struggles to behave appropriately in any situation.

The task of developing a normal, healthy sense of self for these kids is extremely difficult even if they could access effective psychological support.  However, you – the teacher can help these children develop their sense of control over their behaviour which will lead to the emergence of a healthier sense of self.  And, unsurprisingly this is through providing a supportive, stable and persistent structure in the classroom where they learn the connection between their actions in the classroom environment and what happens to them. 

However, just providing this structure is not enough.  Remember, the development of a sense of self occurs in the early years and the characteristic of that sense is determined by the interaction between the child and the primary care-giver at that time.  The real quality of that relationship determines the effectiveness of the structure.  These severely damaged children require the same personal support while they learn to manage the new environment and the teacher needs to provide that support.  This responsibility is never articulated in any ‘job description’ but if you want to make a difference you need to concentrate on the maintenance of a healthy relationship even when their behaviour challenges you personally.

So, once again it is the structure, the persistent and consistent consequences along with a compassionate relationship that will best help these needy kids and what a surprise it is these are the same elements that provide the best learning environment for all kids.  We understand that this is extremely challenging but we can assure you that there is nothing more gratifying then seeing these kids succeed!

Posted by: AT 03:54 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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