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Monday, November 28 2022

The Pain of Rejection

The theory underpinning our approach to behaviour management is that we behave to survive and when we are successful at fulfilling all of our needs we are in a state of homeostatic equilibrium, that is we are calm and secure.  This feeling of comfort is felt at a physical, social and an intellectual level.  Our brain has evolved to deal with the demands of these three levels with the emergence of three distinct parts:

  • The Brain stem/Mid Brain – this deals with our physical needs
  • The limbic System – this is the part of the brain that controls our social and emotional care  
  • The Cerebral Cortex – this is where our intellectual needs are supported


When we experience either a threat to our safety or a deficit to our needs our brain triggers a sense of stress which in turn will activate a behaviour that is designed to either protect our self or seek to acquire something from our environment to return us to equilibrium.  This stress is a physical expression of our drive to survive (see Newsletter 105 – Drives and Needs - 11 November 2019).


Our opening line, that behaviour is driven to survive is predominantly true.  It is the foundation of most models of behaviour and the common reply if you ask what is the fundamental purpose of behaviour.  However, this is not true; people commit suicide, they deliberately end their survival and, apart from some forms of euthanasia it is invariably the result of rejection, either from an intimate partner or a group!  The thing is belonging to our immediate group of people is directly linked to survival.


So, to survive we have to have our physical needs as well as our social needs satisfied because they are directly related to survival and a threat will result in stress but more importantly a failure to protect will result in pain.  The link between an injury and the experience of pain is straightforward and accepted.  If I put my hand on a hot stove-top I will experience pain.  In a recent New Scientist (19 November 2022) the process of pain is discussed in the feature article and the process of that experience in the brain.


In the example mentioned above, when the hand hits the hot stove-top three particular parts of the brain are activated.  These are:

  • The thalamus – this is the relay station where all the information from our senses (except smell) pass through to be distributed across the brain.
  • The anterior cingulate cortex – this is the core component of the pain network and is activated when the subject receives a painful stimulus.
  • The insula – the cortical region linked to the detection of a situation that will impact on our ‘self’.  This allows us to actually perceive the pain.

Of course, these descriptions are necessarily simplified for what these areas of the brain are responsible for but their activities are relevant for discussing pain.


The thing is the same mechanism is activated when we are subjected to the sting of rejection, it leads to the same experience of pain.  There is no physical cause but being left-out can produce that same fear response.


In 2015 Choong Wan Woo of the University of Colorado coupled the level of pain experienced with the mental state of the individual.  In an experiment he controlled an application of heat on the arms of volunteers during a brain scan.  As the temperature increased so did the pain.  However, if the subjects were told to think about blistering heat their experience of a level of pain was elevated compared to others who were directed to think about a warm blanket.


This is an important characteristic when you are considering those children who have experienced a history of abuse and neglect.  They have an expectation to be rejected because of what they believe that is what they deserve (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame - 3 July 2017 and Newsletter 135 – Toxic Shame 31 August 2020).  These kids are conditioned to expect rejection just as those participants in the experiment who imagined blistering heat expected high levels of pain.


What is the significance of this information?  It is critical when a teacher is managing behaviour in a classroom using time out, the removal of a student and it validates the critical importance of developing a healthy relationship with all students.


In the first instance, if time out is used as a punishment of the child, not the behaviour then this is personal rejection and will have the same painful consequences as capital punishment did, when applying the cane, physically hitting a child was allowed.  It is critical that the child understands it is their behaviour that is being rejected never the student (see Newsletter 16 – Time Out 17 July 2017).  Teachers who just throw the child out might as well cane them.  Physical punishment never works and neither does psychological punishment!


There are laws that protect children form being physically attacked; there are no specific laws that shelter them from psychological assault.  Is this because we can’t see the damage?  I think that is the case but I also believe that this type of information is absent from teacher training at any level.  Too many teachers are unaware of the damage they could potentially do!

Posted by: AT 10:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 21 2022

Three Strikes and You're Out

In almost every school and every classroom you visit you will see a certain type of behaviour management.  For example a student, let’s say Craig starts to talk out of turn; his name is written on the board.  A short time later he throws something at another student and the teacher puts a tick beside his name.  Craig gets angry and pushes his chair over, another tick and then he swears at the teacher, a final tick and he is removed!  Now he is out of the room and no longer that teacher’s responsibility.  This non-verbal system of control is potentially an effective intervention but there is much more that needs to be considered before it is just introduced!


In 1976 Marlene and Lee Canter published a book called ‘Assertive Discipline: A Take Charge Approach for Today’s Educator’.  Like other programmes of that era such as Rogers’ ‘Decisive Discipline’ and Glasser’s ‘Reality Therapy’ this program was a response to the disruptive environments in the modern classroom.  The feature that made Canter’s approach was the promise to put the teacher in charge again.  A close examination of the program would reveal this has the potential to be an appropriate approach to classroom management.  However, there is one feature of the program that has been embraced without reference to all the necessary groundwork that has to be done prior to its use and that is the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ procedures.


It must be accepted that the approach was promoted as ‘putting the teacher back in charge’ and I hope those who have followed our essays would be wondering why this would be a problem.  There is a subtle difference in that many of the fans of Assertive Discipline interpreted this as being in charge of the students.  One of the most liberating truths you can have is that you can’t make anyone do anything.  All you can do is offer them choices of consequences and they will choose.  In our work we know that the teacher must be in charge of the choices, which is the behavioural expectations and the structured consequences!


The Canters understood what needed to be put in place before the non-verbal cues were used and their advice is well worth reiterating.  They have identified four competencies teachers need to possess in order to successfully manage classroom behaviour.

  1. Identifying appropriate behaviours that form the basis for classroom rules
  2. Systematically setting limits for inappropriate behaviour
  3. Consistently reinforcing appropriate behaviour
  4. Working cooperatively with parents and principals


In our model these points would be:

  1. Establishing expectations
  2. Designing structure, that is consequences for various behaviours
  3. Applying the reinforcement consistently and persistently


As for their Point 4, this would be part of the structure.


We would not be so controlling to state the following steps Canter prescribes for the first day in class.  He recommends the following be asserted:

  • “None of you will stop me from teaching”
  • “None of you will engage in any behaviour that stops someone from learning”
  • “None of you will engage in any behaviour that is not in your interest or the best interest of others”


It is this insistent approach that appeals to teachers who struggle with control of their class.  Canter’s warning to the students is a promise to the teacher that can’t be achieved in every case.


There are two issues here that I would disagree with granted that they are not critical.  The first is I know you can’t make anyone do anything.  This is extremely liberating for the teacher as eventually you can’t be responsible for their choices, nor should you want to be.  The second problem is, for the extreme kids that we focus on, this threat is also a challenge.


Canter strongly focuses on classroom rules which the teacher dictates.  In a broad sense this is the only difference between his approach and ours which, where ever possible the rules are made by the class (see Newsletter 96 - Creating Structure - 12 August 2019 for a full description of how we generate rules).  Our preference on the class designing the rules is that this develops their self-reliance rather than the expectation that they must comply.  To develop unquestioned obedience is a direct threat to democracy and it is possible for rules to be developed with a sense of representative ownership by the students.


To finalise this short examination of Canter’s Assertive Discipline the concept is dependent on the teacher taking charge of the classroom, this is at the heart of its popularity.  Some scholars have likened the teacher to the alpha male in a wolf pack.  Someone who controls behaviour, directs activities and ensures the well-being of the pack.  As far as a wolf pack is concerned this alpha position is always envied and up and coming challengers are constantly emerging and the right to have the power is fought over.  Control is power over others and this is inappropriate for the development of our society.


Further, for every alpha there is an omega wolf, one who lacks the qualities that would allow them to challenge and really has no power.  In a democratic society this is not such a problem, we are all of equal value we just have different abilities.


Canter puts a great deal of emphasis on the use of I-messaging, that is when he is correcting student’s behaviour he is directing the student on what to do.  This can be at the level we describe in boundary setting:

  • When you … - describe the students behaviour
  • I feel … - let them know the impact their behaviour is having on you

In our model:

  • Because … - explain the impact the behaviour is having on their environment, that is the effect on others and their own learning.

In Canter’s model this last step is:

  • I would like … tell the student what to do.


When students are not complying, maybe they are angry or distressed or just defiant then Canter will use statements like ‘I understand’ or ‘that’s not the point’ to get some movement towards compliance.   What he advocates is that you should take control. So when a student doesn’t want to do an assignment you would say something like ‘I understand you do not like this subject but it will be examined in the test’ or ‘that’s not the point, you need to understand this’.  However, this verbal intervention has a limit and non-compliance soon attracts a behaviour check.  We discuss these issues in Newsletter 144. Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult times (30 November 2020).


There is much to admire about Canter’s model however, the teacher needs to be of a certain personality type to make it work most of the time.  To do this you must be an assertive teacher by nature.  There are a range of personality types in teaching and all need to introduce into the classroom what both Canter and us insist on and that is expectations and structure and these are to be administered consistently and persistently.  Unlike Canter we hold that the most important characteristic is a relationship between the student and the child that is equal in importance.  The difference is in their responsibilities.

Posted by: AT 05:21 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 14 2022

Modifying Behaviour - To What?

I guess there is an accepted assumption we all make when we consider introducing programs that are designed to modify children’s behaviour because how they are acting is not working for them.  And that’s fair enough, the purpose of these essays is to help teachers deal with those kids who are failing at school because of their dysfunctional behaviour.  We know what we want them not to do but if we want this to become a decision that comes from them, from their beliefs then this is a more profound undertaking and this should only be done in a way that empowers the child.

Of course, we want them to function in the world, teach them how to behave in certain situations but at a deeper level what do we want their basic ‘skill set’ to be?  When you think about this you realise modifying behaviour is really modifying their sense of self.  Remembering that behaviour is just a method of getting our needs met and those kids who are acting in a dysfunctional manner are satisfying their needs.

Take for instance a scenario where a student helps another complete a task.  That student may be motivated to improve the other’s learning for ethical reasons, they want them to succeed.  On the other hand that ‘other student’ may have access to something the students wants and so the help is more trans-actual, the drive is for an overt, selfish reason.  It is the motivation to act that exposes the core make-up of the student. 

For the children on which we focus, those who have experienced neglect and/or abuse we understand they have a ‘damaged’ sense of self.  This is best described as having a sense of self that exposes a core of toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame – 03 July 2017).  I see no ethical impediment in helping that child change such an unhealthy sense of self.  But the ethical question I have to ask myself is what do I want the child’s sense of self to be?

This forces us to face a couple of issues before we make such a decision.  The first is to consider the environment in which they live.  Most of these kids live in dysfunctional environments and those behaviours we want to eradicate are really functional in their homes.  By imposing what we consider functional may jeopardise their security at home.  So we have a conundrum.  Taking away their existing behaviours might be good for the classroom but might be very risky for them ‘at home’ where they are getting the best they can with the behaviours they have. 

However, teaching them to act other ways to suit different contexts, a type of ‘code switching’ allows them to succeed in both settings. This choice of behaviour to suit the setting is used by successful people.  Teaching the kids can behave one way at school and another at home can later be applied throughout their life, it empowers them to behave to get their needs met.

The goal of intervention should never be to change the child but to empower them and then let the child understand they have the power to change if they want to. To teach them additional behaviours that will let them meet their needs in this new environment gives them choice.  This is a difference between this approach and what has been the conventional method of dealing with students who have severe behaviours.

I have thought long and hard about this problem and investigated all the popular psychology movements such as the positive psychology movement with their list of character strengths and virtues and American psychologist Ken Sheldon’s personalities and traits.  There has been a rationalisation of these works and there has been a movement to distil personality characteristics into 'The Big Five' Personality Traits’ (for a detailed description of my investigation into this issue I have down-loaded Chapter 4 of my book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ in the resource section of our webpage).  However, this work is focused on what exists now, I want to describe what I would want any changes to these kid’s sense of self to lead to and I arrived at the following:

Sense of Self

A strong independent sense of self allows the students to approach work with confidence and purpose.  This is achieved by learning how to act when confronted with new problems in life.  This requires strong boundaries which allows us to apply the following approach to problem solving. When you feel the stress of being ‘out of control’ you should do the following:

  • Stay calm
  • Ask yourself the following questions:
    • What is really happening?  This is not always obvious.
    • Who is responsible?
      • If it’s me then I have to change my behaviour
      • If it someone else I have to decide what I want and act in a way to get those needs met in the long term.  It is critical that you understand you can’t make anyone change unless they want to!
  • Then act to address the stressful situation

The Reality of Self

The reality is that you are:

  • Special - You have unique abilities that can improve your life and/or the life of others
  • Precious - You are alive, this will not always be the case so don’t waste a moment.
  • Unique - There is no one alive that is like you so do not compare your ‘worth’ with others 

This is critical that you accept this and also understand everyone else is special, precious and unique, we have this in common and this fact should be celebrated!


We are social beings and get our needs met more effectively when we behave within a community.  Successful integration depends on us developing appropriate social skills for the community in which we operate.  Rejection from the community is life threatening so knowing how to get on with others is imperative.   


We have to realize that we make our choices about how to act to get our needs met and in the end it is our responsibility to do just that.  However, we need others but understand that no one exists just to serve us so understanding that our actions can harm others and we must be accountable for that!


Autonomy differs from sense of self in that healthy adults conduct themselves in their community in a manner that respects the needs of others while defending their own authentic self.  Autonomy is a fundamental trait that allows you to be the author of your own life.  You can take an internal attitude towards where you want to go and what you want to do. 


A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction.  Successful people have aligned their life’s purpose with their distinct sense of who they are.  They have long term goals that has been reduced to manageable short-term goals.  Of course, it is usual and appropriate for aspirations to change over time but for each day to be moving toward a successful future.

Developing such a set of core beliefs is not easy especially for the kids whose life has acted against them ever achieving such a healthy sense of self.  The way we can help them move towards such a state is using those techniques we come back to all the time.  Have high expectation of how they should behave in your class, provide a meticulous structure that reinforces those expectations and deliver this with a genuine acceptance of the child which will allow the development of those strong relationship that underpins all our work!

Posted by: AT 08:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 07 2022

The Purpose of Education

Just what is the purpose of the work we do in our classrooms?  This is a critical question for all teachers; what do we want our students to achieve?  The answer to this question is really complex when you apply it to well-adjusted students but becomes much more difficult when applied to those who have been subjected to abuse and/or neglect; those students who are the focus of our work.


If you search for definitions of ‘the purpose of education’ you will find comments like ‘being there to give us knowledge of our place in the world, and the skills to work in it’ or ‘for acquiring knowledge and skills that will enable people to develop their full potential, and become successful members of society’.  Even the NSW Department declares that educations prepares “our learners for rewarding lives as engaged citizens in a complex and dynamic society”. 


These views represent a rationalist’s goals for education, that is they consider the purpose of education to be a tool to equip children to become successful members of society.  We consider this to be the secondary purpose, it won’t surprise anyone who has followed our work that we believe the primary purpose is to develop a functioning adult, a characteristic that all children have to develop but one that is extremely challenging for those on which our work focuses.


We understand that children are not little adults, in fact of all the animal kingdom our infants are the most dependent.  Our task is to develop the maturity that a functioning adult requires.  Of all the species humans have the most complex brain, where learning how to behave takes place.  But unlike our cousins our brain takes so much longer to develop to maturity.  The illustration below shows the stages of the brain’s development.  The process can be described as the development occurs from bottom-up and from back to front. 


The bottom-up refers to the development of the different stages of our three-part or triune brain.  That is we have evolved to have three levels starting with the brain stem and mid brain which is in control of our physical needs.  This is often referred to as the reptilian brain as it regulates the functions that all animals need but are the only ones reptiles use.


The second stage of development is the limbic system where behaviours are learned that will facilitate the satisfaction of our social needs.  The evolution of this social brain is shared with other animal species that have exploited the benefits of working in groups.  The final part of the brain and the part that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our cerebral cortex, our thinking brain.  The behaviours we need to thrive in our physical, social and intellectual environments are controlled in these areas and are learned in a sequential pattern, from the bottom-up!


The brain also develops from the back to the front.  The second illustration shows the periods of development.  The quantity of blue indicates the completed development of each area.  This back to front development is not so much about survival but the development of the tools the brain uses to examine and interpret the environment. 



These represent the lobes of the brain illustrated below:

These have the following basic functions:

  • Occipital Lobe – this is where our vision is controlled, it allows us to interpret the stimulus coming from our eyes
  • Parietal Lobes – the main function of this part of the brain is to interpret our sense of touch
  • Temporal Lobes – This area of the brain allows us to process and understand sounds
  • Frontal Lobes – this is the last to be developed and manages the skills know as executive functions.  Unlike the other lobes this is the area where we plan and solve

problems.  Significantly, this may be the most important part of the brain when it comes to school but it is the last to be developed. 

The descriptions above are very crude in the sense that the brain is the most complex object in the universe but it does illustrate its progressive development.  Because the tools for behaving are mastered gradually over a period of time. This is critical for teachers to understand.


The next illustration shows the stages of the development of the behaviours:


Depending on the stage in which you teach there will be an overriding drive in your students to develop certain skills.  For the school years peer relations and social development are the main ‘learning tasks’ for the child’s brain.


We began this essay discussing the purpose of education and the ‘motherhood’ statements like the purpose of education is for our learners for rewarding lives as engaged citizens in a complex and dynamic society”.  This, like most vision statements underpinned by the rationalists approach to all organisational pursuits results in a ‘truism’ that is so broad it is almost meaningless. 


The unfortunate reality in our modern schools is that the focus from early childhood until matriculation is about learning the ‘measurables’, the ‘outcomes’.  The system demands improvement in those areas that are facilitated by the functions in the frontal lobes and the cerebral cortex the last part of the brain to mature. 


I understand all the brain is developing all the time it is just at a different rate and there are specific ‘windows of opportunity’ when the brain’s own environment is altered to provide an excess of myaline, the material that supports new neural pathways, that protect new memories and behaviours.  If we want to capitalize on this process then we have to provide the conditions that cultivate that specific learning. 


However, when we are dealing with those students who missed out on these conditions at the time they were required, those whose primary care-givers failed to provide, they will be in a state of need in these areas.  If the students are unable to satisfy the needs in their physical or social environment then the resulting stress will necessitate the brain to focus on addressing these deficits.  This comes at the expense of the high-order demands schools place on their students.  Teachers who understand this provide the social, or physical conditions where this is not a problem.


Therefore two considerations must be taken into account when structuring learning tasks:

  1. The need to understand abstract ideas is not a human priority.  Physical and social survival are much more powerful drives and must be satisfied before cognitive learning can take place.
  2. Learning in modern curriculum is cognitive and requires the use of specific neural networks.  These networks are only available when physical and social needs are satisfied.


Even for the well-adjusted children, teaching all students cognitive tasks is a challenge because that area of the brain remains incomplete until the mid-twenties.  However, because of their strong sense of self these kids cope.  Unfortunately, those kids who do not have that same confidence or more tragically the kids who have suffered significant brain damage (see Newsletters 28 Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse - 06 November 2017 and Newsletter 59 – The Impact from Neglect - 12 September 2017) find this cognitive immaturity an added burden.  Their disability is not easily recognised by any other than those teachers who understand the complexity of engaging the underdeveloped, damaged brain!

Posted by: AT 07:38 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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