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.