In recent months the term ‘gas-lighting’ has come back into use thanks to the behaviour of ex-president Trump. His continual claims of a rigged election, and his ‘overwhelming victory’ has resulted in a fatal attack at the very heart of America’s democracy. Despite repeated denials, the presentation of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the failed courtroom appeals, numerous people have chosen to believe his lies and still refuse to accept that this whole outrageous event is based on a lie! The question is how does this tactic of lying apply to dealing with dysfunctional students?
The purpose of these Newsletters is to help teachers deal with student’s dysfunctional and destructive behaviour. The use of gas-lighting is not obvious but if you haven’t already experienced a version of this practice to avoid responsibility, sooner or later you will.
The name ‘gas-lighting’ came from a 1938 play of Patrick Hamilton called Gas Light which told the story of a husband who manipulated his wife though lies and deception until she was convinced she was going mad. This is a form of coercive, psychological manipulation to undermine another’s perception of truth allowing them to be deceived. Kids often use this technique when they are caught doing something inappropriate and their ‘defence’ goes something like ‘No I didn’t’, ‘It wasn’t me’; even when you have personally witnessed their behaviour they will continue to deny it was them. I remember working with conduct disordered adolescent students who were frequently in trouble with the police. Their advice to each other was always the same - ‘just deny it, never own-up’ and unfortunately this often worked.
So, why does this tactic work? First, they project an air of confidence, being certain about their story. Then, when you protest they may attack you both personally implying you don’t know what you’re talking about or they will accuse you of picking on them. They will stick to their story rarely conceding the validity of any evidence you present. On those rare occasions they do concede they will acknowledge a part of your evidence but this is rarely decisive, it never alters the basis of their lie. However, when they do this, they will use their concession as proof they are telling the truth – ‘see I’ll admit when I’m wrong’! Their whole motivation is to get you to doubt your version of events!
This doubt is a natural response when we are challenged; it works because healthy adults understand that everyone sees the world through our own eyes. We appreciate we all focus on different things in the environment so we must interpret events differently. It is well known that, if you ask four different people to describe a road accident you will get four different stories, in fact if the stories are identical the statements will be suspected as being colluded.
Not only do we perceive things differently we indorse what we see with our memories of similar events confirming our truth. But these memories are as personal, just as what we perceive is personal, both sides of the perception of an event is highly influenced by our history. You need to realise that everyone’s judgement about any event takes place in their brain and it is impossible to verify what you see any other way. The result is we should have some doubt about our point of view and be prepared to change it when faced with evidence! This is what mentally healthy people do. This mature approach to life is exactly why ‘gas-lighting’ works!
The student’s use of this deceitful form of ‘gas-lighting’ is primarily to avoid the consequences of their behaviour. If students realise you are vulnerable to self-doubt they will keep on using this tactic. This continued doubting leads to a fall in your confidence you can become isolated, confused and depressed. The other kids in your class can see what is going on and your status as leader in the room will be threatened. You need to take control of the situation.
First of all, trust yourself, if you are reading this I am confident you are the sort of person that wants the best for all the kids, particularly those we focus on in our work, those abused and neglected kids who have never had a real chance until they get to a good school. Counter their monopoly on the conversation and control over what is the truth. Be like a broken record (for those younger readers, a record is a plastic disc that has grooves and a needle that move around to produce music – a broken record gets caught in one track and repeats the line of music over and over until you stop the record) just keep repeating what you know and what is going to happen. When they complain acknowledge their complaint, maybe say we will talk about that later and repeat what you know and what is going to happen.
One tip is to trust your emotions, even if you have good intentions and a clear understanding of what happened when the students attack you, you will feel threatened. Take this as a sign that you need to put on your psychological boundaries (see Newsletters Boundary Considerations - 22nd October 2018 and Respecting Other’s Boundaries – 26th November 2018) to protect yourself. Ask the ‘boundary questions’:
What is really going on?
Who is responsible?
What do you want to happen in the future?
Addressing these questions helps you keep grounded.
The ‘boundary questions’ will also make you confront the evidence and unless there is a very strong case stick with your beliefs. You may be wrong on rare occasions but what you lose by making a mistake is not as significant as the loss of authority if you change just to avoid a difficult situation. Another thing about evidence, it will never convince another when emotions run high – you will be wasting your time. At these times the importance of your relationship is paramount because it will be this that will allow you both to move on.
Until recently, kids learned to use the technique of ‘gas-lighting’ from their parents. They watch their mother or father lie to get their way and if it works of course they will do it. Other kids turn to lying as a survival mechanism. If their parents dish out severe punishments, physically or psychologically children will lie to protect themselves. Unfortunately, lying has become part of our daily life almost celebrated in newspapers and television. Why would we expect our children to respect truth when we see lack of consequences for poor behaviour on a daily basis.
This is why your work is so important, not only will you teach the importance of truth you will teach them to recognise ‘gas-lighting’ when that technique is used against them.
It won’t take long in any teacher’s career before they have a student or a class that behaves in such a dysfunctional way it can be called a crisis. For the unprepared, this is a time that will really test your character and, in some instances the resulting trauma can leave you and many of the students with long term psychological or even physical damage.
A crisis rarely, if ever is a single-time event there is a beginning, climax and an end. The illustration below charts the progress of such an emergency.
It starts with a trigger, something that sets the event into motion. It is not always easy to see what is the cause but on investigation there will be something. The next phase is the escalation where things ‘heat-up’ until we reach a crisis that can be a single event or as illustrated come in waves. Eventually things will calm down but everyone involved is left in need of repair. So, what to do about this? I was recently alerted to a procedure called the Haddon Matrix that deals with crisis management which provides a useful scaffold that can be applied.
William Haddon was a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health and in 1960 was the lead author of the book ‘Accident Research: Methods and Approaches and later became Supervisor of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 1970 was faced with the problem of reducing the number of traffic accidents in his state. He approached this multifaceted problem by organising all the statistics in a matrix that sequenced the data based on personal attributes, vector or agent attributes and environmental attributes; before, during and after an injury or death. By utilizing this framework, one can then think about evaluating the relative importance of different factors and design interventions.
The Matrix has been originally organised along two dimensions, the first based on the sequence of an incident, pre-event, event and post event based against the factors that are likely to initiate an incident, things that will influence the event and finally what conditions shape the final outcome of the event. When applied to the analysis of a classroom crisis the following elements must be considered:
What is it?
This is hard to really know. Each of us come to any situation already in a state of expectations, this is natural. However, for some students they can arrive with an already heightened level of emotions. I would have confidence in that the real explosive events the students are highly charged and perceive a threat to their wellbeing. This may or may not be observable but possible signs are the student may be emotional on arrival at school or after recess/lunch break. They can be restless or argumentative. Their body language indicates heightened levels of stress, tense muscles, tight fists etc.
What to do?
Early reassurance or distraction may prevent any escalation
Acknowledge their feelings and ask what’s wrong “I can see you’re angry, what’s up?”
Listen and let them get it off their chest
Discuss solutions where possible
Be supportive, calm and friendly
Respect their personal space
Encourage them saying you know they’ll do the right thing even though they’re upset. “You were angry but I can see you’re working hard at calming yourself …. Good for you!”
Remind them of expected school rules
Direct them to an activity to engage their thoughts or discharge energy build-up. For example get them to complete some school work you know they enjoy, carrying things for you, send them on a message to another teacher
Don’t react in the early stages to minor challenges such as dirty looks or a mumbled comment under the breath.
What is it?
They are preparing for the fight/flight/flee response and you can see evidence for this in their body language which reflects escalating stress:
Face – eyes narrow or wide, tight mouth, menacing look, red or paling skin, jaw or head thrust forward
Breathing becomes more rapid, shallower or deeper
Their behaviour changes, they become:
Body language becomes threatening – fists clenched, tapping feet or fingers, chest and shoulders puffing up, hands on hips
Defiant, disobedient, use insulting comments (these can usually be about weight, age, parentage or sexuality of another student or the teacher)
What to do?
At this point avoid antagonising them:
Don’t stand too close or touch them
Model non-hostile body language, hands off hips, fists unclenched, no finger wagging
Remind them of previous success they have had in gaining self-control; acknowledge their strong emotions but show confidence
Consider physical activity e.g. a supervised run
What is it?
At this stage the child is incapable of rational thinking. You will observe the following:
They may spit, push, kick, choke, head-butt, bite, pull hair, pinch, punch etc.
They may flee from room or grounds
They may use objects as weapons to smash, break or throw
The child has lost self-control and may harm self or others
What to do?
At this time there is not a lot you can do except keep everyone as safe as possible.
In a firm, low voice, use their name and give a short clear instruction and repeat it several times if needed (broken record). Keep tone and volume of voice consistent
At times you may need to stand back and let a tantrum run its course. It may be necessary to remove other students/audience
Don’t attempt to intervene in a playground fight without back-up. Say STOP and send for help
After outburst get child to time-out ASAP
Be aware of your own reactions, take some slow deep breaths.
What is it?
At this time everyone is calming down, returning to some states of equilibrium. This involves:
The student’s body chemistry is returning to normal
With the battle over the muscles become progressively more relaxed
Ritual behaviours become less frequent
It is important to note that the student is not yet at baseline and is vulnerable to re-escalation
Child should be in a quiet place with no audience
What to do?
Allow calming down time for the child and for yourself. It is a time when you can show concern and support. You will be understandably upset but avoid anything that could be seen as being hostile don’t lecture, reprimand or even rescue the child.
What is it?
The level of exertion required during the crisis phase now exacts its toll. The student may:
Go through a stage of emotional withdrawal, crying, exhaustion, fatigue, depression, muscles relax and they may slump forward
Be thirsty, hungry or need to urinate
Feel remorse/regret and worry about consequences
What to do?
This is the time to engage with the child using the following techniques:
Use open ended questions with a long wait time and LISTEN. You don’t need to fill the silences
Discuss with the child what they could do differently next time. Let the ideas come from the child … don’t give them the answers
Have the child be specific about what they will do next time, telling you how that will look and sound. This helps them move towards change and growth and avoids “parrot responses”
Be sure you don’t reward the student for the outburst. This is tempting by giving too much TLC, special activity, food afterwards but for some this is seen as positive feedback for the behaviour which is not appropriate!
Now is the time to talk about what happened but not why. Stick with what you saw and heard and focus on how the child calmed down … what was helpful?
The advice given applies to the crisis as it unfolds but the point of Haddon’s Matrix is to plan for the possibility for that same or similar crisis to occur again. In the first instance you should look after yourself:
Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP. This can be quite cathartic! Date and sign it
Don’t take it personally. The child has complex problems … it’s not about you
Look after yourself at home too … exercise, relaxation, music etc.
Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments.
Then review what happened using a matrix to facilitate a plan for future events. It is always good to devise your own way of making such accounts. I would use something like the following:
In a previous Newsletter Challenging Beliefs – Not so Easy (see - 04/02/2017) we discussed the basicprinciple behind the formations of beliefs and why they are powerful. In this essay we will revisit some of these concepts and why beliefs have such a powerful hold on behaviour. Understanding the process of formation provides the processes and conditions that drive a behavioural change.
Beliefs are the internal maps of our environment we assemble from the moment we are born. These maps are the memories of the connection between actions in and from the environment and the experienced impact on our self that followed those actions.
All behaviour, when examined closely is designed to support our survival and later the ability to reproduce, this is the Selfish Gene Model proposed by Richard Dawkins. In early childhood when our internal maps are being formed, it is the drive to survive that governs our behaviours. These internal maps are memories of the best way to get our needs met in the environment in which we are raised.
For example, if we need to get the attention of a distracted, uncaring mother and after various trials we find the best, most reliable way to do this is to throw a tantrum then the memory of that behaviour will determine what we will do next time mum ignores us! We expect to get attention with anger and when we do, this belief is reinforced.
Over time we develop a whole network of memories associated with various situations and the more these are reliable, the more they ‘work’, the more they become the truth; they become our fundamental view of the world. This belief allows us to operate effectively to deal with incoming senses because they worked before. The belief becomes a ‘permanent’ part of our memory and as well as assessing incoming evidence about the environment, it also allows us to ‘know things’ without reference to the environment. As I sit here typing I ‘know’ my car is in the driveway, I know my kids are at work; I confidently know these things even though I have no real evidence. This ‘knowing’ makes my life more efficient because in most cases my beliefs will match the unseen evidence.
The key point is that the belief has been developed in a specific environment. Throughout these essays we assert the problem for children raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that when they move from that punishing environment into a different setting such as a classroom, the behaviour driven by their beliefs does not work. Logic suggests that if one behaviour fails then you try a different one after all that’s how you formed your beliefs, but they are not formed that way, evidence will never overshadow beliefs. This is especially so for memories (beliefs) formed in early childhood or when the child is feeling threatened! The evidence is that when a child has established a set of beliefs, logic alone has little chance of successfully making a change, particularly when it suggests behaviours that go against their sense of self. The difficulty when working with these children is for us to understand just how important and powerful their beliefs are and the difficulty in changing the resulting behaviours.
Every one of us needs a sense of certainty when we make-a-decision. Not making-a-decision can lead to either inactivity or procrastination or become reliant on others to tell you what to do. Extreme indecision can lead to aboulomania a mental disorder where pathological indecisiveness leads to emotional anguish; indecision, or lack of ‘knowing.’ This ‘not knowing’ is also associated with obsessive compulsory disorder. We need to sense we are right all the time.
I have an unexplained dislike for the term behaviour modification, it implies that through control you make someone act in a certain way. I also have the same disquiet in regards to operant conditioning based on Skinner’s model of stimulus response/reward punishment model. However, we are working with children who have developed behaviours through the ‘reward and punishment’ feedback from the environment in which they were raised so we can’t disregard this connection. My thesis is that if you want these children to learn to behave in a way to get their needs met in the school environment we have to structure the feedback from their actions to build the connection between their behaviour and their desired consequences. The feed-back will be either they get their needs met in the environment, a ‘reward’ or, if they do not get their needs met, they are ‘punished’. It is through their actions within a structured set of predictable consequences they are modifying their behaviour.
Feedback, whether positive or negative are only consequences of actions and are what happens when you act a certain way. Previous Newsletters (Consequences - 03/26/2018 and Consequences – Neither Punishment nor Reward - 04/02/2017) discuss consequences at depth and the case for establishing them is made in detail in these essays.
Setting consequences is not easy, especially those that are not ‘natural’. For example, if you go out in the rain without protection you will get wet, that’s a natural consequence. Some consequences can be logical, for example if you are asked to pick up papers because you are caught littering, the connection between creating trash and removing that, is rational. However, some consequences have to be imposed. If a child hits a smaller one it would hardly be natural or logical for the child to hit back so society develops a set of ‘chosen’ consequences that follow such actions. It is best if everyone agrees on the consequences but it is essential that they know what will happen!
If we are to build up the child’s sense of independence and the resulting sense of self-empowerment the consequences that are imposed as an outcome must not be influenced by what you want for the child but what the child sees as being significant, that is what they want and don’t want to have happen.
This is where structure and persistence are critical. To develop a new set of beliefs for the child that will drive functional behaviour you have to present an environment that is so structured, so predictable that the evidence, the feedback resulting from behaviour that comes from that environment, will eventually create a set of beliefs that will overwhelm their existing belief structure.
It is important to remember that the belief structure constructed during early childhood was developed by being the best way they had of surviving in their physical and social environment. It is really difficult for anyone to give up their beliefs just based on data. Our reliance on beliefs is powerful and, in some cases regarded as a more reliable test of reality. Recent events in America are testament to this phenomenon. How often do we hear leadership pundits telling us to trust our intuition, use our ‘emotional intelligence’? When we do this, we run the risk of choosing beliefs over evidence. When that best-selling book by Daniel Goleman came out I was working with children with belief systems formed in abusive and neglectful environments. I always thought that emotional stupidity was just as valid a subject!
The real secret is that the consequences are attached to the behaviour, not the child. It will not surprise you to know that this is best done when there is a very supporting relationship between the teacher and the child. This ensures that the child understands it is their behaviour within the structure that controls the consequences not whether or not the teacher likes them. This is how they develop a sense of self-empowerment because they develop the understanding that they control their behaviour and in doing that, they control the consequences good or bad that come their way.
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.