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Monday, July 27 2020

The Complexity of Stress

In the last few Newsletters we have discussed the impact on cognitive development from neglect and abuse.  Also discussed is the understanding that stress levels are the response to our homeostatic imbalance, that is how our need for physical, emotional and intellectual gratification is being met.  When we are out of ‘balance’ stress is directed to those parts of the brain that control behaviours that allow us to act to regain equilibrium.  This process is either acquired through our genes or learned by interacting with the presenting environment to satisfy our needs.

 

This fundamental feature is understood by all who deal with performance, it is our motivation.  We need to generate a sense of having a deficit to generate a performance.  Just watch every advertisement on TV; I want to be happy, people with the latest (insert anything here) are happy therefore to be happy I will buy it!

 

Like most activities in our culture the leading proponents of motivation are in the field of sport.  Think about the popular motivational coach, seen in many of the movies and series depicting sport where the coach appeals to each player so they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and win.  These are not real, but today’s coach understands getting the right level of arousal is important to get the best out of each athlete.  It is in the field of sports psychology I first came across the following diagram:

 

For the hypothetical sportsperson ‘S’ the graph shows that if they are aroused to the level S1 they will perform below their best, that is they can’t be bothered.  The same applies to S3 when they are so stressed they are unable to focus and they also fail to excel.  To get the best performance they have to be roused to that ‘right’ amount – S2.

 

The same applies for teaching.  If we examine a student ‘S’ then if we can’t engage them (S1) they will not perform, we all understand this and engagement has always been an important consideration in any teacher training package.  However, the other extreme, if we over arouse them (S3) they cannot excel.  We need to get the ‘sweet spot’ in our lessons.  This is where we have to understand the complexity of stress management.

 

The first complication is that this graph is different for each individual.  One size does not fit all and coaches and teachers who pitch their ‘message’ at some imagined individual are only inspiring one person and that imagined person will reflect their own sense of what is important. I understand that there is a need to address the team or class as a group and have a group goal but this is not a time for individual arousal.

 

The second, more complicated consideration is about those kids who have been subjected to neglect or abuse.  Apart from the condition explained above these kids come to class already disengaged (S1) or over stimulated (S3) before we even start the lesson.  You see the model outlined above assumes that the lesson or game is the only thing that occupies their mind, that the child has satisfied all their other needs.    

 

The schematic model of the tri-part brain above shows the parts of the brain that deal with various needs.  The brain stem and mid brain house most to the behaviours that address our physical needs.  The limbic system concentrates on the social emotional world and it is the cortical system, the cerebrum and frontal lobes we need to have aroused to get the students to best learn their academic lessons.  We know that children subjected to neglect and abuse spend all their time trying to survive and belong, they ‘live’ in the lower parts of their brain rarely accessing that area teachers need to engage.

 

Even for those kids who have had the advantage of an optimal childhood, loving, responsible parents who appropriately provide for their needs, this is difficult.  Childhood and adolescence is a time when we are learning the skills of socialisation and a threat to be excluded from the groups will captivate the child’s attention much easier than learning to multiply fractions.  Like-wise, a young teen who has developed a crush on a fellow student will be much more interested in paying attention to that ‘problem’ than understanding Hamlet (perhaps it is the time for Romeo and Juliet).

 

However, for the students we are trying to help the potential distractions away from the tertiary functions of their brain are immense.  Many of these kids live in a constant state of hypervigilance against being abused, they are already over stressed as far as classroom matters are concerned.  At the other end, those kids who have been neglected not only have never learned the value of new information the neurological tools that would make learning a relatively successful event have been lost.

 

Teachers are constantly under valued by society for a few reasons.  The first is everyone went to school and spent many years being exposed to what they think is teaching and so feel they could easily do that.  Another activity that devalues the complexity of teaching is that we often get to coach junior teams.  These are kids who want to learn and are already motivated.

 

The real professional teacher takes on those kids who:

  • Don’t want to learn
  • Can’t see the purpose of learning
  • Believe they can’t learn
  • Spend their waking moments trying to survive and belong
  • Have physical disabilities either genetic or those resulting from brain damage resulting from neglect and/or abuse

I’m sure there are other difficulties we face as teachers, but these are real challenges that are for all practical purposes ignored by our critics.

 

In our work we provide advice to address these issues but predominantly we believe it is the teacher’s ability to provide an environment that minimises the lower cognitive distractions allowing these children to gain access to their academic brain.  This is achieved through presenting an environment that is structured, predictable; the kids know what to expect and there are strong relationships across the classroom.

Posted by: AT 08:24 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 20 2020

Generating Stress

Our work is focussed on helping those children who are failing at school because of their behaviour.  In the last Newsletters we scrutinised abuse and neglect (see BLOG page www.frewconsultantsgroup.com.au) and how these alter developing brains.  It is the changes to the neural pathways and the early lessons learned or more likely not learned, that are behind much of this disruptive behaviour we see as children get older.  In this Newsletter we will examine the source of the damage directly related to abuse causing excessive stress.

 

To really understand stress, we need to examine its purpose.  This takes us back to first principles of biology.  All living organisms are driven to survive and reproduce.  This was first articulated by Richard Dawkins in his seminal work, The Selfish Gene.  When there is a ‘threat’ to these base drives, all organisms act to eliminate that threat and all actions, even those of plants are initiated through some neural action.  To avoid making this an enormous essay I will confine my comments to our species and even that is complex.

 

There is an optimum set of conditions that supports our survival and when we have achieved these conditions we are completely safe.  We can be considered to be in equilibrium.  However, when we are not in equilibrium, that is, the conditions are not right, things are out of balance, we are then in a state of disequilibrium; somehow, the conditions in the external world are such that they no longer support us or threaten our safety.  This creates stress, the drive to change our situation and return to stability.  This is a continuous process, we never remain in complete balance, for example, we constantly require oxygen to live and we can only collect this is short breaths.  If you have any doubts about the strength of the drive to survive hold your breath for three minutes and just see how powerful the drive to get that oxygen becomes, nothing else matters.

 

It is relatively straightforward to accept this drive in the physical world; the biological set points are constant and the processes to make the required physical adjustment to return to that point after deviation is predictable and the ‘behaviour’ to adjust becomes relatively unconscious.  Psychosocial drives are a little more confusing, humans need to be accepted by others to survive and reproduce.  Although not as immediately dramatic this need for acceptance is just as powerful and more significant when discussing behaviour in a group setting such as a classroom.   

 

The final drive is the need to know things.  This is our tertiary drive, the one we need to learn new things, the one teachers rely on to motivate their students.

 

The following model categorizes needs into three sets; primary, secondary and tertiary and connects them to the three levels of the brain as outline in McLean’s tri-part brain, the physiological world connected to the brain stem and mid brain, social/emotional drives associated with the limbic system and the cerebrum and frontal lobes dealing with tertiary drives, our intellectual efforts.  These are described in a previous Newsletter but are reiterated below:

Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain

This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis.  Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back in balance.  This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.

The ‘lessons’ accumulated in this part of the brain begin to form from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy.  We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs.  A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.

Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System

This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs.  The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation.  This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.

The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded.  In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.

Despite some significant exception, for all intents and purposes it is the dysfunctional attempts to satisfy these needs that create the problems in dealing with student behaviour.  Thinking back to the types of problems faced by teachers, it is the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong and the social behaviours of these children.

Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes

This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species.  It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy. 

This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom.  Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed.  Unlike the lower levels, where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to force the students to learn.  The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.

 

There is still a great deal of mystery about stress just what is it and how is it physically generated.  More recent works are suggesting the cerebellum is critical in assessing the homeostatic status of each person in the presenting environment.  Whatever the process, it is clear that we need stress to behave.  It is the level of stress that is critical, not enough and there is little action, too much and we can’t function.

 

In the next Newsletter we will discuss stress in these terms leading to the key thesis of my work.  It is the teacher’s control of the environment and therefore the level of stress that is the key, not only to successfully managing children with extremely dysfunctional behaviours but also getting the best learning outcomes for all students.

Posted by: AT 08:41 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 13 2020

Damage to the Brain

In the last Newsletter I discussed the various forms of abuse and neglect.  In this essay I will discuss how these duel forms of maltreatment impact on the neural formation of the brain and how that shapes the child’s academic and behavioural performance. 

 

In recent years there has been an acceptance that the resulting cognitive alteration resulting from abuse and neglect constitutes a real physical disability however, there has not yet been a community appetite to eliminate the cause of these preventable brain injuries and the rate of both abuse and neglect continue to rise in our society.

 

The following is an examination of those impairments.  To summarize, the cognitive damage comes from:

  • Broad scale reduction in the neural density caused by the lack of appropriate stimulation at the pertinent times and the corresponding excess pruning.  This is a direct result of neglect; these children do not receive the stimulus required to construct the necessary neural pathways at the time conditions are optimal for that to happen.  When those windows of opportunity pass the brain removes unused material to increase efficiency.  These cannot be replaced and their elimination makes later attempts to learn those behaviours much more difficult.
  • There is a loss of neural material in the very part of the brain that creates memories, the hippocampus; this reduced in size by up to 10% becoming less effective.  It is the hippocampus that not only initiates the formation of memories it also selects what to remember and then coordinates them across the cerebrum and to the frontal lobe. This is critical because it is the coordination of various memories that support high order thinking.
  • The lack of neural density is more prominent in the frontal lobes estimate at being as much a 20% thus reducing its effectiveness.  The frontal lobes are considered to be the executive heart of our critical analysis and long-term decision making.
  • There is an increase in the size of the amygdala because of the amount of ‘use’ it gets in the early years.  The amygdala is critical in first initiating high levels of stress and then protective behaviours.  This increase results in the children being   hypersensitive to any potential threat.  These children find trust difficult making the establishment of teacher student relationships much more difficult.
  • There is a decrease in the size of the cerebellum, an area of the brain that has long been associated with our motor skills but in recent years it is emerging as a most important component of all cognitive activities.
  • Finally, the size of the corpus collosum is reduced in size which hinders the coordination between the hemispheres of the brain.

 

If this physical damage to a child’s brain came from another source than early childhood abuse perpetrated by adults the public outcry would be deafening however this mutilation imposed on innocent children continues to be tolerated.

 

The illustration below is quite well known and is the product of MRI examinations of a ‘normal’ child, referred to as neuro-typical and that of a child who was raise in the notorious Romanian orphanages.  Not only is the reduced size startling but the increase occurrence of the dark shadows in the Romanian child indicates the death of neural material.  The discovery of these children shocked the world and the follow-up research on potential rehabilitation is depressing; these kids are damaged for life.  Unfortunately, in today’s society, too many kids are raised in conditions that have the same cognitive impact, authorities ignore this but teachers are left to deal with these disabilities that are a result of that abuse and neglect.

 

 

I have always held learning is memory and hi-order thinking, the goal of education is the coordination and application of memories; that is our ability to gain and integrate pieces of evidence into an existing scheme of information, our memories to address a problem is our working memory.  The very definition of learning is the establishment and modification of this process.

 

Children who have suffered early childhood abuse and neglect have a real disadvantage both in the deficit in the memories stored across the cerebrum and the lack of neuron material in the frontal lobes to integrate what is available.  This is the real ‘physical’ disability that affects their learning but that cognitive incapacity is not obvious, they look the same as all the other kids.  For example, if a child who is blind trips over a chair and makes a noise they are forgiven and encouraged to try again.  If a child, with the disabilities outlined here picks up a chair and throws it out the window they are punished and rejected by everyone.  In a sense they are abused again!

 

It is little wonder these children do not succeed, not only at school but also in the community.  They have trouble interpreting all exchanges with the outside world.  Their apparent naivety or defiance is often a lack of comprehension.  Teachers can misinterpret this as insubordination when really it is their disability that determines their behaviour.

 

A further physical issue involving the frontal lobe is its interaction with the limbic system, particularly the amygdala.  Amongst the functions of the amygdala is the regulation of emotions.  As mentioned above, we have seen in an abusive environment the amygdala becomes more powerful which means it is much more sensitive to stimulus that may represent a potential threat.  Because of this over-active response to stress these kids will over-react when they even think they are being ‘attacked’.  They have an underdeveloped ability to critically assess the risk of any stressful situation. 

 

To make matters worse, in normal development the frontal lobes reach a stage of development where they assume the role of arbitrating the emotional content of the environment.  This means that, with the exception of real and imminent danger children get a bit of time to assess the situation before deciding about their actions.  This short period of time is at the heart of most cognitive interventions that deal with behaviour modification.  One particular program best illustrates the futility of this ‘thinking’ approach.  Stop – Think – Do is, or was a program popular in schools.  It ‘teaches’ children to stop before they react to a challenging situation and then think about what would be the best response. 

 

Kids with this type of brain injury can’t ‘stop’ they are too finely tuned and immediately react to any perceived threat.  It is obvious that the combination of a damaged frontal lobe coupled with a very powerful amygdala means cognition, carefully assessing what to do is a tactic that is just not available.  These kids will do what they have always done. The chance of any cognitive intervention being of much use for these children when they are threatened is extremely unlikely.  As a result, in the classroom they are highly reactive and to further complicate matters when they are super-aroused plus they will take a much longer time to recover their self-control. 

 

Teachers and school counselors often see this as the student not applying the ‘lessons’ they have patiently taught them, like Stop – Think – Do and give up.  They see the kids as not bothering to apply the ‘perfectly logical practice’ that just makes sense. They don’t see that these children at the time of arousal do not have access to ‘perfectly logical practice’; what they have is a brain that is super alert to danger. 

 

The condition of these children’s cognitive must be considered when thinking about the behaviour of these children and what we can do to help; teachers have no other option.  These essays will not only describe the process that results in this damage but will provide strategies that will help them optimize their own learning and minimize the impact their behaviour has on others.

 

Posted by: AT 09:30 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 06 2020

The "Wounded" Child

Early childhood abuse is the most significant cause of dysfunctional behaviour in schools and society.  It is important that teachers and all sectors of the education community understand what constitutes abuse and its prevalence in society.  This Newsletter addresses this issue.

 

In 1962 there was a ground-breaking publication that identified the damage and impact of early childhood abuse and neglect on their subsequent behaviour.  This initiated the understanding of the link between the treatment of children in their early years and their later sense of self and ability to relate to others.  Led by the psychiatrist C. Henry Kempe the paper “The Battered Child-Syndrome” identified the trauma associated with abuse and subsequent cognitive alteration.  This opened a flood of research into this topic and today most developmental psychiatric illnesses have their foundations in early childhood experiences.  These disorders do not include those abnormal behaviours that are the result of a physical defect, things like psychosis, autism and development delay.

 

This is the first in a series of Newsletters that deal with abuse and neglect and the impact these, often comorbid actions have on the child.  This article will deal with a description of abuse and neglect and their prevalence in the western world.

 

Abuse

We describe abuse as any action that invalidates a person’s worth.  It is an assault on a person’s physical or psychological self.  These attacks can range in intensity from mild irritation up to being perceived as life-threatening.  It is at the intense level the damage is done to the developing brain.  In the general literature there are three categories on abuse as mentioned.  These are:

 

Physical

This is the use of intentional force against a child’s body or an unwanted invasion of their physical space.  It can be:

  • Hitting
  • Holding Down
  • Exaggerated Tickling
  • Pulling Hair
  • Twisting Ear
  • Etc.

 

Psychological/Emotional Abuse

This is a form of abuse where the child’s psychological boundaries are violated.  This can take the form of non-accidental verbal or symbolic actions that are likely to result in significant psychological or emotional harm.   Forms of emotional abuse are:

  • Attacking the worth of the child by rejecting them, terrorising or isolating them.
  • Telling the child that they are stupid, un-loveable or unwanted.
  • Being overly harsh in criticising the child.
  • Punishing the child when they become emotional – don’t be a baby, etc. or when they show no emotion when it would be appropriate to do so.
  • When the love of a parent is conditional on their behaviour (I will love you if …)

 

 

Sexual Abuse

This abuse is when an adult or older adolescent uses the child for their sexual gratification or for financial profit of the person committing the act.  This can include:

  • Unwanted touching or penetration of the sexual organs.
  • Adults exposing their own genitals to a child.
  • Exposure to inappropriate sexual experiences or information (i.e. Pornography).

Sexual abuse is a silent destroyer of too many young children in our society especially with the easy availability of pornography on the Internet.

 

There are other forms of abuse that do not get the coverage in most literature but are equally likely to expose the child to toxic levels of stress.  These are:

  • Intellectual Abuse – this occurs when a child is placed in a situation where they are asked to perform a task they are developmentally incapable of successfully achieving.  An example is when a child is given a glass of milk to drink before they have developed the motor skills required for this task.  When they fail they are either labelled as useless by the parent or confirm to themselves the belief that they are at fault because they failed.

 

Intellectual abuse also occurs when a significant other compares one child’s performance against another child implying one is better than the other.

 

  • Spiritual Abuse – One type of spiritual abuse that occurs is when the parents put themselves above the child.  The child must ‘worship’ the parent.  A contrary form of spiritual abuse occurs when the parents put the child above themselves.  The child becomes the focus of their devotion, they can do no wrong.  These children never learn to take responsibility.  In the first instance the parent knows best and you just do as you’re told.  In the latter form the parent will not see any faults in the child’s behaviour and so they never get the natural consequences when they make a wrong choice.

 

The second form of spiritual abuse occurs when ‘religions’ teach that God will punish sinners and all are condemned unless they conform to some dogma.  People who work with children brought up in some cults attest to the damage done through this form of abuse but it would be a brave politician who would underline the damage done when adherence to the word of any god is criticized.

Vicarious Trauma

This is a complex type of abuse.  It occurs not when the individual is the target of the assault but is a witness.  It is an issue for all those who work in highly stressful vocations such as police, reporters and even teachers who work in very difficult communities.  However, for the purposes of linking abuse with subsequent behavioural difficulties I will limit the description to incidents that occur to children.  This happens predominantly on families that experience domestic violence.  This is particularly challenging for children who watch their mother being beaten by a partner.  In a subsequent Newsletter I will describe the acquisition of trauma but for now it is enough that the child is forced to watch what is in reality their source of life be threatened.  The fear is overwhelming and equal, if not more damaging than a direct attack on their person.

 

Neglect

Neglect, if not an overt form of abuse it is a close cousin, it is a passive form of abuse.  It is the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs.  As mentioned earlier, this neglect in a developing child will fail to construct the neural pathways that have been developmentally expected.  When these genetic windows for development stages like attachment are activated, and there is no stimulation then the neurons will be pruned and the opportunity to meet the developmental threshold is lost.  Forms of neglect are:

  • Physical – failure to provide for physical needs such as food.
  • Medical – not providing medical care when the child is sick or needs dental work.
  • Emotional – lack of nurture, encouragement, love and support.
  • Educational – lack of providing educational resources and ensuring regular participation in schooling.
  • Abandonment – leaving the child alone for long periods of time without any support.

 

There are countless studies into the frequency of child abuse and these are frightening and are most likely under reported.  The general view is that from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.  This means that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students to suffer this syndrome.  Although PTSD occurs in every socioeconomic level of society it is not equally distributed across the landscape and resource poor suburbs are reported to have levels of up to 23%.  So, in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD. 

 

Magnitude of Childhood PTSD

When first described Dr. Kempe estimated the occurrence at 6 per 1,000 children or 0.6% of the population experienced early childhood abuse.  However modern studies estimate between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. 

 

These numbers vary across each countries’ economic landscape and across nations.  One can only imagine the level of PTSD amongst the children in the war-torn nations in the world.  The financial cost to conduct a war fails to comprehend the potential future intellectual benefits we could enjoy if these children were allowed to develop their minds to their true potential.  War is societal abuse on children and is sanctioned by political leaders.

In the US the Child Protection agencies get around three million reports each year. This involves 5.5 million children. Of the reported cases, there is proof of abuse in about 30%.  From these cases, we have an idea how often different types of abuse occur:

  • 65% neglect
  • 18% physical abuse
  • 10% sexual abuse
  • 7% psychological (mental) abuse

However, girls are more likely to be abused then boys because girls are more likely to internalize their feelings while the boys that attract the most attention because they act out their pain therefore being recognised as being damaged.

Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD. 

 

The next Newsletter will describe the impact abuse and neglect have on the structure of the brain.

Posted by: AT 08:43 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

PRINCIPALS

John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance


ABN 64 372 518 772

ABOUT

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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