In the previous Newsletters (see Conversations - 10th March 2020 and The Inner Critic - 17th March 2020) we focused on helping those students with dysfunctional behaviours regain a positive sense of self about themselves. These ‘improvements’ are only effective if they can blend with their outer world. No one is an island, we live in a community and we need that community to get our social needs at least met. Happiness or as I would say homeostatic equilibrium is highly correlated with having close, personal relationships – the powerful need to belong.
As always, children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect miss out on developing the skills that support the development of such relationships. The thing is, the behaviours they develop to protect themselves drive others away or in a closed community like a classroom and they become ostracised.
Ostracism comes from a practice in ancient Greek culture when those who ‘displeased’ the community were sent away for 10 years as punishment. Today, we still see it as a form of punishment, ‘Time Out’ is a useful practice in schools where students are excluded for a period of time because their behaviour was not acceptable (see Time Out – 17th July 2017). It is rightly seen as a more humane negative consequence than alternatives, historically corporal punishment.
However, ostracism can be an extreme form of cruelty. We have all seen children excluded often because they don’t ‘meet the standards’ of the dominant group. The classic example is the ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena where a group of girls reject an individual. Boys, all kids suffer from being ‘left out’ of a team, an activity even a birthday party. Teachers understand the power of eye contact, children who are distressed because someone ‘looked at them’ or the subtler weapon of ‘refusing to make eye contact’.
It seems the most damaging times for this to occur is about age eight to nine when kids have not yet learned how to protect themselves, not learned discretion and from thirteen to fourteen years when developing kids place a high value in belonging to a group.
Most usually it is the children who have not learned the social skills required to belong that are the target of social rejection and these are the very kids we are focussed on. The girls are most likely to be frozen out of the group, the classic Queen Bee behaviour but they will do anything to be accepted back. The boys, on the other hand are more likely to react in violent ways. The extreme examples are seen too often with the tragic school shootings.
To address this situation, we need to reverse the problem of being ignored and we do this by the use of effective social skills. That is, behaviours that we use to effectively communicate with others to get our needs met in a socially acceptable manner. These behaviours are either verbal and/or non-verbal that reach out in a manner that results in a mutually beneficial interaction.
The non-verbal expression is important, especially if you are meeting for the first time. In reality we all do make initial judgements about ‘strangers’ long before they open their mouth. Foremost is how interesting they appear, their clothes, how they stand and if they are projecting a sense of friendship towards us, that is, are they smiling, making appropriate eye contact? Of course, what will ‘make them interesting’ is how much they are either like us or appear to like us. The value of any ‘relationship’ is how much they support our needs.
The value of the actual communication that takes place also depends on how we see the person contributing to us. The content of the conversation needs to have a cultural match. By this I mean if I’m trying to belong to a group of basketball fans I really will be more successful if I tap into their interest. I probably would strike out if I started to discuss the implications of the Reserve Banks latest interest rate cuts or vice-versa. Not only should we express opinions perhaps more importantly we need to listen to what is said.
How do we teach these skills to our troubled, excluded kids? Like most things we have communicated in these latest Newsletters we need to become the substitute parent, create the environment that allows these important skills to develop. The following steps will help:
1. Identify the Problem
There will be plenty of times, those teaching moments when you witness your students failing to effectively relate to their peers. It is appropriate to stop what you are doing to take advantage of this moment and explain to the class what is really happening. Point out how important belonging is to everyone in the class, what didn’t work and importantly what would. This is a time when you can ‘cash-in’ on the relationship you have built up. All the kids, especially the one who has made the social blunder can feel threatened.
2. Set Goals
There are countless ways in which social faux pas occur. These can generally be described as ‘bad manners’; things like grabbing something without asking, talking over the top of others, etc. An effective goal that addresses a lot of social incompetence is to identify and teach good manners.
First you have to teach what is socially effective manners. Remember, these kids learned the behaviours they are displaying in an environment where they worked. Some families sit around the dining room at meal time and if they want the salt they are taught to ask for it with a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’. Other kids, most likely the ones we are concerned with may well eat in front of the television, take-a-way and have no need to ask, they learn if you want something you take it without asking just like mum and dad. So, you have to teach manners!
Then you have to practice. Initially you can teach the skills directly through role play activities. Social skills training is usually a ‘teaching moment’ activity, that is you take the opportunity to engage in a quick lesson before moving back to the lesson plan for the day. However, some tough classes need a more formal approach. I have used pre-set scenarios to initiate role play between two, or sometimes more and have the rest of the class evaluate the participants effectiveness in solving the social problem. For example, the card might read “Jack has just taken your coloured pens without asking and you need them. He is refusing to give them back”. Two students would randomly select a role, either Jack or the other and act out that scene. They would be evaluated, the class suggest alternate approaches and redo the scene, you can even change the participants and continue until everyone thinks the problem is solves to a satisfactory level.
3.With younger students I have even run a ‘Behaviour Lotto’ when students get points every time they identify ‘correct’ behaviour. Points also go to the student who has displayed that behaviour. Whatever source you use, be sure to reinforce the positive behaviour.
Finally, as always model what you want. These dysfunctional kids learned their inappropriate behaviour from their role models. Make sure you are the role model for the behaviours that will allow them to successfully belong with their peers!
This Newsletter is a break from the recent theme that we have been following. This is because in the current climate with the development of COVID-19, schools have become a very difficult place to be. It is important to remember sustained elevated stress is a problem to our physical and psychological health.
We are very much at risk of being overcome by hysteria. Bad news travels fast and too many people are very willing to circulate false or sensational messages through social media. Children are particularly susceptible to this problem.
This is not to suggest COVID-19 is psychological, it is most definitely not and there is real need to be anxious. The thing is not to let your anxiety morph into fear and impair your ability to make good decisions.
The very definition of mass hysteria is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness; that is, they are unable to make logical conclusions. With the confused information distributed by the government, some states closing schools, others not but telling parents to keep their kids home. This along with the saturated news coverage and the access to unreliable social media posts, the potential for hysteria to emerge is real.
So, what to do? Stress is a reaction to internal or external threats (see Newsletters ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017 and ‘Anxiety’ – 24th July 2017 for a detailed description) and this is what drives behaviour. It is a critical factor that is often not understood and that is when you are stressed you will make behavioural decisions from the part of your brain that is connected to the threat. In this case it will be the emotional brain and in adults this part of the ‘thinking process’ is hardly cognitive. We cling to hope and in our emotional/social brain we go to the immediate community for help. This is a time when we need to go to the experts for assistance.
Dealing with stress is extremely difficult when you are under attack and today you’re being threatened by a disease, a loss of so much social support and really being told to work in what others are calling a dangerous environment. The advice to ‘just stay calm’ underrates the immense pressure you are being asked to work in.
Throughout our work we have talked about stress and the need for our difficult kids to control this. Now it’s time for us all to apply those techniques to this situation. This is by applying boundaries between yourself and the presenting problem (see Newsletter ‘Boundary Considerations’ – 31st July 2017). The steps are:
1. Stay Calm
I know this is difficult but it is very important. Take a few deep breaths, count to ten or even repeat this deep breathing for a minute. You can take the edge off your anxiety if you do this.
2. Ask the Questions
What is Really Happening?
In this instance we are being threatened by an epidemic that has real potential to alter our lives; realistically it already has. But, we must keep this in perspective. The Corona Virus-19 is one of a series of Corona Viruses. So far most will have slight symptoms and those who get ill will survive. The most at risk are the elderly and those who are immunocompromised; that is are having treatment for aides, cancer or other medical condition.
Who is Responsible?
Really at this stage it is pointless to blame anyone however, when we get through this it is prudent we assess the performance of those who have been in charge of the community response.
What Do I Want to Happen in the Long-Term?
This is the critical question and I’m sure we would all like things to return to normal. Maybe that will never happen, maybe this will make us re-think our selfish attitudes and become a more compassionate society. However, the immediate task is to follow the advice from the experts. This is available from reliable sources and remember whenever you start to feel overwhelmed apply these boundary questions to remain calm and logical – it’s our best chance.
Marcia and I wish you all the best in these uncertain times. Look after yourself and as always be the person you want your kids to become.
"I think I can. I--think--I--can. I ---think--I—can” are the famous words from the American fairy tale The Little Engine that Could. This is the well-known story that encourages the values of optimism and hard work and in 2007 it was voted into one of the top 100 books for children by the American National Education Association. Of course, I am a fan of positivity and effort but only if it is authentic. The reason I cite this work is to illustrate the influence of the thoughts, the words have on the outcome; the little engine succeeds in the end.
This Newsletter follows the previous one (See Conversations 10th March 2020) and continues to examine the power of words!
Just what is self-talk or our inner voice? It is what we experience when we are thinking, that verbal dialogue when we are conscious of our thoughts. In its developed form it takes place as a dialogue between two or more assessments of a situation. In our model it is the process of making-a-decision on how to act to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium, to feel satisfied and safe. The words we use reflect the internal state of our memories about this or similar situations, they are learned. However, our ability to ‘try out’ different scenarios to solve a problem in our heads depends on what we have accumulated from our existing environment.
Since the advent of modern functional imaging of our brains we have been able to take a closer look at the process. For the most part the same parts of the brain are activated when you are having a conversation with another person as happens when you are engaging in self-talk. The areas of the brain are Broca’s area with the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus but the internal dialogue activates more neural areas. This reflects the two conditions; when talking to another we primarily act on our perception from the outer world while during self-talk our perceptions are internally generated and are less prescriptive, that is we are exposed to a range of options.
Like all behaviours and the memories that underpin them, self-talk is a learned practice. From as early as the 1920’s Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky recognised this internal, private voice and hypothesised that this private speech developed out of the child’s social dialogue with parents or primary caregivers. Recently it has been established that the internal dialogue becomes dominant at about age four, almost coincidently with the emergence of the child’s theory of mind and sense of separation; that is, they are aware they are unattached from others and their thoughts are private. In a sense this is the beginning of Freud’s Super Ego the critical, moralising self that judges us relative to cultural expectation.
During these Newsletters we have discussed the type of development young children who are raised in abusive/neglectful environments experience. This is summed-up in the type of dialogue used by those who suffer Toxic Shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017). The narratives they learned, ‘you’re useless’ – ‘you are hopeless’ – ‘don’t do that’ – ‘you can’t do that’ become the storyline of their internal voice. Changing this, to become like the Little Engine is difficult because, paradoxically there is a soothing quality to these messages. The child is at least familiar with these words and has some knowledge of how to deal with them albeit this acceptance impedes efforts to make a change for these kids. This is at the heart of the struggle in helping to make a change.
So, what to do?
As becomes evident in this work, teachers have to present an environment that allows the children to develop behaviours that suit that environment and let go of those evolved during their dysfunctional past. In this case we have to provide the storyline we want them to adopt. When talking to them replace their shame-based comments self-talk with more appropriate remarks, instead of their ‘I’m useless’ say ‘I know this is hard but you can do this’.
Never be afraid to teach children about how their thought processes work – this will empower them, and as an aside it is important you understand your own potential inner critic. We live in a ‘thou shall not’ type of world and working with these kids is hard enough without the burden of your own destructive self-talk! So, teach them:
They have the power to manage their own thoughts
They can treat the internal critic as a competitor to be ignored or overcome – answer back with a positive, counter assertion
Take a reality check, just what is the internal voice telling you. You can’t change if you don’t know from what
Recognise where these thoughts come from, they are memories of past experiences that do not have to be repeated
Have a goal, if we want to replace the negative past we have to have an imagined future. Setting goals gives our behaviour a purpose and shapes our new self-talk
Finally, and most importantly when you script a positive self-narrative never refer to yourself in the first person, never ‘I’ or ‘Me’ but speak of he, she or use your name. A great illustration of this occurred when Le Bron James, the famous basketball player was contemplating a change of teams on 2010. He was quoted as saying “one thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision, I wanted to do the best for what Le Bron James wanted to do and make Le Bron James happy”; this is not a sign of egotism but of taking the emotion out of the decision. We are all very good at giving others calm good advice. It is time to do the same for yourself.
Self- talk can be a destructive force in all our lives but the kids we focus on, those very difficult ones really suffer from a constant, internal critic that is the voice of their past memories and emotions that in turn, drive their dysfunctional behaviour. By providing them with an alternate narrative and reinforcing this by teaching them how to use another supportive dialogue you can help them regain control over their behaviour.
Just as a post-script, it probably is unhealthy for any of us to have a 100% positive spin on life. We are human, we have limits and we certainly make mistakes. I can say ‘I think I can ... I know I can … ’ about lots of things that are well beyond my abilities. This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human and that’s good enough for me and should be for everyone else. But, I should know that I deserve to have every opportunity in this life and so do our kids!
In the previous Newsletter (see ‘The Importance of Emotions’ 3rd March 2020) we discussed not only the importance of the emotional condition of the student in the lesson but also the difficulty the teacher has in determining that state. To avoid misinterpreting how the child is feeling and the problems that can cause, we turned to conversation to clarify the real emotional situation. However, like all things about educating those difficult, damaged students it in very likely these kids struggle to make meaningful conversations.
It was first acknowledged as early as 1995 that children from low socioeconomic areas were behind in their language skills. Claudia Wallis in her article ‘Talking with—Not Just to—Kids Powers How They Learn Language’ (Scientific American Mind May/June 2019) points out that these kids are likely to hear 30 million less words than their peers from wealthier groups. This figure is an average, of course there are wealthy families that don’t talk that much and the converse is true but it holds as an average.
I have no problem hypothesising that children from abusive and particularly neglectful families will have an even greater disparity. The well documented effect abuse and neglect has on over all brain development will exacerbate this problem.
John Gabriel of the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology has confirmed the early hypothesis but has realised that it is not just the number of words they hear, the quantity but the way in which they hear them, the context. That is, it is hearing the words in conversation that is the factor and the better the quality of that conversation the better the development of the child’s conversational skills. In fact, it has been calculated that every additional conversation increases the child’s verbal ability.
In a future Newsletter I will discuss the importance of self-talk in self-managing behaviour. It is widely accepted that we think in word, that is we talk to ourselves about the situation we experience. Of course, it is not that simple we experience emotions, especially things that frighten us without a dialogue. One view is that the words follow the feelings another view is the two are linked and, as we will explore, self-talk can influence emotions. Either way, kids with traumatic backgrounds are disadvantaged. First, they will have a limited vocabulary which will restrict the breath of their thinking, therefore their behavioural options. Secondly, the emotions they mainly experience will be of anxiety and fear. Therefore, we should do everything we can do to increase their conversational skills. After all self-talk is a conversation with someone who should be your best friend – yourself and so the richer we can make this the better will be our relationship with ourselves, our sense of self!!
We need to be a bit more specific when describing conversation, it needs to be a real exchange, not the teacher ‘talking’ to the student but what is described as conversational twinning or duets. This back-and-forward exchange means the student has to understand what the conversation is about, that is really comprehend what was said and then respond appropriately. For abused kids this is definitely not likely to be an easy task. They rarely participate in family conversations and are less likely to be expected to have an opinion. So, how do we develop this critical skill, for these kids in a busy classroom?
There is a wealth of excellent information on teaching conversation available on the web and teachers, especially in primary school are well trained in this practice, so the following comments, although appropriate for all students are really aimed at our special kids.
If you work in a school that has some of these students, and that most likely means all of you reading this, it is important to create a planned part of your day that provides an opportunity to develop conversation. This can be group discussions, circle activities where you create a continuous conversation one sentence per person around the circle or one on one conversations about topics you introduce. You can design spaces, say in a library that encourage children to talk together or ask open ended questions that challenge children to go deeper as they express ideas.
Be aware of the character of your students, some will love to dominate any conversation, they love the sound of their own voice. These kids can severely intimidate kids who lack the confidence to join in, they are afraid of being exposed. Don’t force the issue, if you push them to participate their anxiety will increase and the conversation will be lost. Of course, some kids are generally quiet and are happy to listen.
There are plenty of strategies, things like working in pairs, having circle discussion moving around with each child contributing to build a conversation, this encourages them to listen. As pointed out above a conversation requires the participant to understand what was said before constructing a suitable reply. Dominant members of the circle are prone to just wait for the other to stop talking so they can have their say. Teachers should be aware of this, in the unequal authority between teacher and student it is easy for the teacher to ‘know what should be done’! This is disastrous but I know I am often guilty of this very thing. If you have to, teach listening skills!
The next thing is to decide on what topics to teach. This is up to the imagination and creativity of the teacher, there is no real limit. But, it is not always easy to get the right topic at the right time. You can have the same amount of success if you have a ‘Topics Jar’ which is full of issues that will start conversations. You can just pick one out and have that as the topic of the day!
However, with our focus on helping those students with severe behaviours it is advantageous to discuss topics that will help them come to terms with their circumstances and discover new ways to approach their schooling. A couple of suggestions are:
What are some of the things you feel grateful for today?
What do you have but don’t need but are happy you have?
What are some things you have that are easy to complain about but are glad you have for rainy days?
What do you get to do that other children can’t do?
Did you have a chance to be kind today?
How do you think other people feel when you are kind to them?
Who gets teased at school and why?
How do you think the kids doing the teasing feel about themselves?
Does anyone ever try to stop teasing?
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
What feeling is the most uncomfortable – embarrassment – anger – fear – or something else?
What are some things you could tell yourself when your brain tells you things that are too negative to be true?
How will you face your fears?
Helping kids whose behaviour is driven from a history of abuse and/or neglect is a principled profession but it comes with an extremely challenging responsibility. However, at the heart of all their behaviours is an emotion that drives their behaviour. Helping them comprehend what is going on for them in the presenting environment requires them to think and they need the words to make that process meaningful. By improving their ability to have a productive dialogue with others strengthens their ability to talk to themselves!
The importance of the emotional arousal in the student is vital if learning is to occur. After all learning is in the first instance based on the formation of memories (see Newsletters: ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017, ‘Empathy’ - 18th February 2019 and ‘Sense of Self – Part 2’ 23rd September 2019). In these essays I have emphasised the importance of getting that level of stress just right, not too little, not too much. It is this stress that provides the energy required to form new memories, to learn new things. But, what is the difference between stress and emotions?
Neuroscience provides plenty of complex answers to this question but for our purposes the difference between stress and emotions is that stress is a response to demands or pressures from an external force. For school children it is the teacher along with the contents of the lesson. Emotions are internally stimulated in response to a feeling about the situation the student experiences. This ‘feeling’ is not related to any concrete understanding of that situation but the arousal will be a result of the stimulated emotional memories.
So, we have two broad types of memories that are present when we are faced with a new situation. The cognitive, extrinsic memories that are the narrative of what happened before in the same or similar situations and the emotional, intrinsic memories of how the situation we are observing reminds us of the feelings of previous experiences.
It is important to understand that young children form and rely on emotional memories far more than the cognitive memories required for academic learning. Very young children are incapable of articulating memories of things that happened to them other than at the time of the immediate experience; they can’t recall that situation in the future. This is known as infantile amnesia.
The earliest recollections you have about your childhood will be after about the age of three. This is when the hippocampus, that part of the brain that initiates cognitive memories is developed enough to lay down the required neural networks to store that memory. More recent investigations suggest that it is the small region, the dentate gyrus, the bridge between the hippocampus and the surrounding structures that is developed at this time. Either way, emotional memories dominate early childhood understanding of what happens for kids and the extent this dominates decreases slowly as they develop. If you ask a child under ten to tell you about their life the conversation will be brief, very brief in most cases. Contrast this with the narrative a teenager will supply if you ask them the same question and you will be there for as long as you can stand it! It stands to reason, emotional memories dominate the developmental stages of childhood and so, learning is an emotional activity!
The importance of emotions was dismissed during the rationalist era in the early sixties. That is when science became fixated on ‘evidence’ and gave rise to terms like ‘if you can’t measure it is not worth considering’. The then leading psychologist, B. F. Skinner led the field and as a result consideration of emotions was a lower form of understanding. This has influenced the psychology of education ever since and it still does. Educational rationalism dominates academic research and bureaucratic curriculum development in a time when the same alliances lament the falling academic achievements of the students they ‘study’. I disagree about the ‘falling standards’ but that is for a different time but I do know that the level of emotions, like the level of stress does impact on the quality of academic learning that will take place for that child.
Authentic teachers understand the importance of emotions for kids to learn. This is why their relationships with each child is so important but as adults we ‘know best’, we understand how the kids feel. We all know the saying ‘don’t assume because it makes an - ass out of - u and -me, well like most adages there is some truth for all us teachers, especially those in primary or junior secondary. If you assume you understand how they feel at any given time and about any given task you will make a fool of yourself and you more importantly will be doing a dis-service to your pupils.
While thinking about these ideas I came across the concept of phenomenology, roughly speaking the idea that rational bias conflicts with lived experience. For the purposes of this work it is that our rational judgement about how and why a student is feeling like they do may well be at odds with exactly why they feel the way they do. It is more important that you find out how they feel about a situation than you ‘seeing’ how they feel about it. To avoid this all you have to do is ask!
I have referred to phenomenology, not just because it is a big word that makes me feel important but because it is the study of the subjective experience of life, the internal view of the world. We have made the point above that children’s learning is dominated by the emotional content of the lesson therefore we need to take the kid’s view of the lesson not what we think it should be if we want them to learn. This is not easy to achieve but the following steps will help:
Give a voice to the kids; ask them for their opinions and join in adding your own views about the topic. When they are talking really listen, don’t wait for them to stop so you can tell them what it’s like. You have to create opportunities for these discussions to take place, it is your teaching duty!
Don’t judge them or the situation they are describing. If as a class discussion allow lots of different views and discuss each without judgment. Encourage controversial and/or ethical discussions. There are plenty of ethical dilemmas you can use at an age appropriate level. This helps the kids understand the complexity of life including their own and it helps develop their critical thinking and moral development.
Teach kindness, we are always encouraged to have empathy, to understand how the other person is thinking or feeling. From this work I hope you get the idea that it is impossible to understand ‘how someone else feels’ or ‘walk in their shoes’; I understand the attraction of ‘experiencing’ what the other is going through but you can’t, and saying you do is can be insulting. I prefer the concept of compassion, we understand the other person is feeling bad, we don’t know how that feels but we know it hurts. Kindness is the step beyond compassion, it is actually doing something for the other or about the situation.
In your classroom publicly recognise acts of kindness and call-out acts of meanness. Develop a culture of caring for others. You can get the class involved in volunteering work where they help those less fortunate. There is lots of evidence about the benefits of such programs for the students and the culture of the school. This teaches that the pursuit of happiness is a selfish occupation, it relies on some external response. The pursuit of kindness is the attempt to produce happiness for others but the magic of humanity is that it leaves you feeling good.
Finally, and as always model – model and model the behaviour you want from your students. The fact that acts of kindness will make the child contented can be multiplied for the teacher by the number of students they assist.
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.