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Monday, March 28 2022

Dysfunctional Boundaries

I’ve chosen the title Dysfunctional Boundaries because it is the disorganized quality of some individual’s boundaries that leads to their inability to authentically engage with their community.  This is at the heart of our students and our own dysfunctional behaviour.   It is no surprise that the formation of protective boundaries occurs in early childhood when we are ‘taught’ to protect our ‘self’.  The functionality of a student’s boundaries reflects the environment in which they were formed.  Of course, we can put into place physical boundaries where necessary but it is how the dysfunctional boundaries affect teachers in the classroom that is the focus of this Newsletter. 


Our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group and this starts to be formed from the moment of birth.  How our family of origin treats us dictates the nature of any protection offered by our boundaries.  Children raised in functional caring families, at the appropriate age learn the practical, consequential behaviours in response to dealing with a threat or the denial of something desired.  Eventually these allow them to:

  • Think well of themselves
  • Trust others
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Maintain positive expectations
  • Utilize their intellect
  • Have a sense of autonomy


However, the majority of children in our classrooms who present as disruptive are rarely raised in such families (see Newsletter 189 - The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour -   14  February, 2022).  These students have been reared experiencing three types of parenting, neglect, poor modelling of behaviour and abuse.  Of these three, poor modelling and neglect are not as vulnerable to environmental factors.  This is not to discount the cognitive damage but this impairment is less significant at the boundary but more in the impaired belief systems that drive their behaviour.  Abuse creates the stress reactions at the boundary.  The strength of the stress experienced at the time of the presenting violating event replicates the characteristics of the initial abuse.  Teachers need to understand that what they may feel is a gross over-reaction by a student to a classroom situation is most likely a reflection of their formative response in similar situations.


Children who are abused not only suffer a range of types of abuse but also the consistency, or not of that abuse.  By examining the constancy of the type of abuse will describe the extremes of the reactions to abuse in regards to the form of boundary protection they develop.  The extremes are a child who is repeatedly abused the same way in familiar circumstances contrasted with the child who is subjected to abuse in different forms at unpredictable times.


Children who are systematically abused in the same manner learn levels of protection to survive the attack.  Take a couple of examples, as a football coach I have seen, predominantly fathers expect their child to place themselves in physical danger say by tackling a bigger, stronger opponent.  When the child ‘misses’ a tackle the father heaps verbal abuse on them and then rejects them after the game; this is abuse.  In these instances the child who has no desire to play this game will soon learn that the physical risk is less damaging than the rejection.  They learn to behave in a way that ‘protects’ them from abuse.


Another more dramatic form of self-protection during assaults is when a child is subjected to sexual abuse from a father, uncle or other type of powerful adult.  The abuse is most often followed by a threat, the threat is the child will be punished if they tell anyone.  The child is made to believe they were responsible for the abuse, that they caused the defilement, they experience profound shame and because they fear rejection they conceal the desecration.  In these cases the ‘protection’ is to dissociate and so when the perpetrator revisits the victim the child will protect themselves by dissociating.  This works in a short-term dysfunctional manner.


In the case of consistent abuse the child learns a behaviour that is solely designed to ‘deny’ the abuse by presenting as not being ‘hurt’ by the abuse.  I will describe this as building walls to keep the abuse out.  These walls can be presenting as funny, angry, disinterested, the list of avoidance behaviours goes on.   The thing is these actions never reflect their true stressful feelings.


The unfortunate consequence of locking off the outside world is that the child cuts off any chance to get their own needs met.  The illustration below described these walls.

The other type of abuse is the inconsistent, unpredictable type.  In the family of origin  most often this type of abuse occurs when the caregivers are either addicts or suffer some psychotic illness.  In both cases the abuse will be related to the psychological state of the abuser and that is erratic.  Unlike the children who are consistently abused these children have no way of anticipating when and how the abuse will materialise and so they can’t establish any defence and become erratic themselves.  They are vulnerable to abuse from any source as illustrated below.


The following illustration shows the difference between those children with no learned ‘protection’, those with an exposed core and those who have developed ‘walls’ of behaviour to protect themselves.  The differences are explained in reference to five qualities of self-esteem.


Those with no protection are the children it is so easy to identify as being damaged.  They see themselves as not only being out of control but also not worth caring about.  They are vulnerable, bad and rebellious, dependent on others and of course unable to behave appropriately.  Conversely, those who have learned to hide their real feelings believe they must appear to be totally in control, they are good students, invulnerable and independent.  These students have learned to hide their real feelings from their immediate families so concealing them in the classroom is no challenge.


It is the second group that I worry about the most as they are difficult to identify and are more often female.  I recall a family I dealt with when principal of a school for Conduct Disordered and Oppositional Defiant students.  This family came to the school from Cambodia where they had suffered during the reign of Pol Pot.  The boy was clearly acting out, reflecting the characteristics of the exposed core.  I had reason to meet with the boy’s father and because he could not speak English he brought his daughter to translate.  She appeared to be a ‘straight A’ student, polite, well-spoken and articulate the very model of a pupil with a strong wall of protection.  I checked with the school and they agreed with my assessment, she was a ‘star’ student.  I have no real evidence that I’m right but that girl suffered at least as much trauma as her brother and I suspect, like all females probably more.  There is no way she will get any special care from the school, all their support resources are focused on the acting out behaviours.  Yet like all those kids living behind walls help should have been provided.


As I have outlined before, there is a growing number of teaching tuitions on dealing with trauma usually described as Trauma Informed Practice.  Our opinion on these is best explained in our previous Newsletter 193 (Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD, 13 March 2022).  To recap teachers are not mental health professionals nor do they have the time to address these students’ considerable disabilities while teaching in a classroom.  This is exactly why we take the approach we do and that is endeavoring to control the amount of stress provoking incidents in the classroom.  This is why the calm, safe, predictable and consistent environment managed by a teacher with a genuine warmth towards the children is the best we can do for both the out-of-controlled student and those hiding their pain.


Understanding the damage suffered by these kids and the difficulty of dealing with their protective behaviours in a classroom presents a huge challenge which is not acknowledged by the bureaucracy nor the academic world.  But it is a real problem faced by teachers every day.  Despite the difficulty these kids present the teacher must not:

  • Give up because the repetitive dysfunctional behaviours continue without apparent change, these kids are never a ‘quick fix’
  • Become discouraged because students will block approaches.  For them to trust others is too risky therefore they avoid relationships.  The trick is to hang in longer than they expect you to.


We often hear the characteristic of empathy being a prerequisite for being a ‘good teacher’.  I understand the intention behind this belief but I prefer the quality of compassion.  Empathy infers you ‘know how they feel’ but it is impossible for anyone to know how it feels to be abused as a child.  Even if you have had that experience you can’t know how another feels but you must know it is an horrific form of abuse put on a child when they are unable to defend themselves.   These kids are not bad they are injured so never give up on them even if it means they need to be referred to a more suitable environment.

Posted by: AT 07:49 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 21 2022

Boundaries - The Point of Contact

In the previous Newsletters we discussed the impact stress has on our ability to ‘control’ our behaviour.  As explained, stress occurs when the conditions of the outside world threaten our survival either from attack or the denial of needed resources; the level of threat determines the level of stress!  This ‘point of contact’ occurs in the cerebellum where the perceptions of the environment, arriving via the purkinje cells are compared to learned effects assembled in our memory and communicated by the granular cells (see The Importance of Stress - Tuesday, March 1, 2022 for more details).  This is the biology of our boundaries, the space between our physical and psychological sense and the outside world.  Our boundaries define where we begin in relation to all others.


We have determined in the previous Newsletter that as the level of stress increases your ability to control your actions decreases.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the way to control your behaviour is to control the stress which is generated in the cerebellum.  In regard to classroom management the level of stress experienced by the students will determine the level of cognitive control, the potential learning that is available to all members of the class.  This is the biological explanation of why calm classrooms have always been recognised as being the most effective.


From the above, it becomes clear that boundaries are the place teachers should concentrate to control their own levels of stress and to limit the opportunities for students to violate each other’s boundaries.  Within the classroom boundaries are the point of contact between everyone.  When any of these ‘relationships’ become threatening there will be an increase in the levels of stress, boundaries are being violated. 


So just what are boundary violations?  These can be both physical, external and psychological, internal described below.


External Boundary Violations

These are the assaults on our physical sense of safety and include:

  • Standing too close, or any type of touching without permission.  This includes being hit, sexually violated or even tickled against your will.
  • Others violating your rights to privacy.  For example, someone going through your bags or wallets, eavesdropping on your conversations, looking at the data on your smart phone
  • Others exposing you to risk (i.e. Exposing you to their illness, they smoke in a no smoking area, not isolating when infectious, driving too fast for your comfort)


Internal Boundary Violations

These are the attacks on our psychological wellbeing.  Examples of these include:

  • Being yelled or screamed at
  • Someone lying to you or breaking a commitment they made
  • Calling you names
  • Patronising or telling you what you should do without being asked
  • Being sarcastic
  • Shaming you or your community
  • Rejection from the group


Any interaction that creates stress is a boundary violation.


What is important to the strength of any boundary violation is the closeness of the relationship.  In the illustration below you can see how this operates.



There is a gradient of potential stress from a high propensity to be aroused through the interaction with intimate others.  That is the closer the relationship the more potential for elevated levels of stress and the more need for honest communication. 


The most important yet the most difficult is the relationship you have with your ‘self’, Level 1 on the diagram.  This is critical for teachers to ‘get right’ when they question their own practices.


In a later essay we will deal with the need for honest reflection on your own behaviour in any stressful situation.  The reason self-evaluation is difficult is because your sense of self is really an amalgamation of your beliefs, in a sense you are trying to evaluate your performance using the same set of personal values that led to the behaviour.  Also, we can only interpret the behaviour of others when we reach the stage of development identified as acquiring a ‘theory of mind’, that is when children become aware that others are separate form ourselves.  But, just as we have difficulty in evaluating our own behaviour our evaluation of others is created by projecting those values on the ‘other’ and using these as the ‘reference point’ for our decision.


Another important fact is that we are hard wired to evaluate the external environment, this is how we predict the potential action of others in our group.  As Louis Cozolino in his excellent book ‘The Social Neuroscience of Education (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2013) points out, if we put a person in a brain scanner and ask them to analyse the behaviour of others, all sorts of neural networks become activated.  However, if we ask that same person in the same scanner to analyse their own behaviour there is much less activity.  Analysing others is most often reflexive and automatic while self-awareness requires concentration, effort and runs the risk of triggering anxiety.

We progress through the descending threats to our boundaries with Level 2 being the most important relationship.  For a child this begins with the primary caregiver exclusively up until birth and most likely from then on.  In the early years any boundary violation of an infant is most probably involving the parent and this contributes to the destructive nature of the early abuse.  As we get older we expand our circle of relationships increasing the potential to have our boundaries violated but reducing the intensity of a lot of these violations.  For example if your very best friend criticises say your hair that would be more stressful than if a stranger said something about your hair.  In the first instance you would be really hurt but the same comments from a stranger might just mildly annoy you.


In the classroom the relationship between the teacher and the students should be, and most usually is very strong particularly relative to the stage being taught.  Most parents have experienced that time when their five-year-old corrects you because their primary source of information, the truth is their teacher!  By the end of their schooling the relationship is still important but not nearly as powerful.  This is why teachers must present themselves and the classroom as being non-abusive but rather safe, calm, consistent and predictable and where they are all highly esteemed.


Unfortunately, too many children come to school with highly damaged boundaries or no ability to construct a boundary, this is the subject of our next Newsletter.  Providing the environment that supports the development of healthy boundaries can be achieved is one way we can assist those damaged children to get some sense of their ability to control their own behaviours and that is all any of us can do!

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Sunday, March 13 2022

Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD

In the previous Newsletters we discussed stress and early childhood trauma, in this essay we will link these issues to help teachers cope with these students in class.  To do this it is important to appreciate that teachers have to deal with the results of the disabilities generate in their classroom.  Even if only one student is suffering from the effects of early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the potential impact their behaviour can generate on the other students is significant. 

Over the years there have been a succession of intervention programs that have been designed to help teachers deal with the dysfunctional behaviours experienced when these damaged students attend the classroom.  All of these have some value and experienced teachers learn to take a pragmatic approach when applying the tactics described.  The latest of these types of approaches come under a methodology described as ‘trauma informed’.  The Department of Education, NSW has an excellent publication called ‘Trauma-informed practice in schools: An explainer’ which provides a thorough description of both the causes and approaches teachers can take to deal with the resulting disordered behaviours.  However, and this is where our approach differs significantly from other programs, the cognitive damage that drives these dysfunctional behaviours resides within the student’s brain, ingrained in their cerebral belief systems.  To change these structures requires a significant intervention over a substantial period of time by a highly trained mental health worker.  This is not practical nor ethically acceptable for teachers who have to deal with these students for relatively short periods of time in a setting that has to cater for the needs of up to twenty-nine other students.   

[A Note:  Our approach is to help teachers control what they can, the external environment of the classroom in a way that minimises the impact of excessive stress on the behaviour of students and the teacher.  This philosophy will lie behind all our future work.]

Add to this is the geographical disproportionate rates of lost learning this disability afflicts on our society.  It is generally estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD resulting from childhood trauma and in some low socio-economic areas, the proportion can be up to 26%.  This means that in a class of thirty students a teacher may have between zero students with these behaviour problems or up to eight who are suffering from PTSD.  Not only will these disabled students’ behaviour impede their classmates’ learning but they will also have a cumulative effect on each other.  This distribution becomes more concentrated when you consider the number of students who attend private schools that do not enrol students with disrupting behaviours so the ratios would be higher than those estimated above in certain areas.


Another issue is predominantly these behaviours are carried out by boys, approximately 80% of referrals to special settings and suspension data along with proportion of adults in incarceration supports this tendency; males act out and females internalise.  

There is a real difference of expression between the genders which appears when the students begin to be emotionally aroused.  The boys resist the threatening characteristics of the environment while the girls become compliant.  The simple answer to conclude that these behaviours are cultural and historical, females have learned to stay quiet about how they feel and suffer in silence while the boys fight back.  However, there is an alternative explanation of these disproportionate numbers.  This is based on the work of the anthropologist Louis Leakey who concluded that once humans became the apex species the main threat to survival was attacks from another tribe.  In the event of such battles, males had a greater chance of survival if they act-out, fought the invaders or ran to safety; that is they took action.  Such a response was not as effective for females and children.  They were more likely to survive if they surrendered or dissociated; they would be taken as trophies, it was a preferred action to survive (for a more detailed discussion about Dissociation see Newsletter 67 – Dissociation - 29 October 2018).

The graph below illustrates the impact that increased levels of stress has on the behaviour of students.


This particular graph is based on the work of Bruce Perry well known psychiatrist who has been at the forefront of research into the impact of abuse on the cognitive development of children.  It can be seen that as the level of stress increases (the ‘X’ axis) the mental state (the ‘Y’ axis) ‘escalates’ from being able to think in an abstract manner, the style of engagement we want in our classroom up until the boys are ‘out of control’ and the girls are suffering a mini psychotic episode, a condition where nothing is learned.


If you examine this graph you can see how the stress controls the area of the brain we access to survive.  This represents a fear response, the fight/flight/freeze explains the protective behaviours likely to be observed.  There is a similar impact on behaviour when students’ stress levels are elevated because they can’t get their needs met.  Of course, this model reflects the propensity of genders, there are plenty of students who will react contrary to this portrayal, the girls will act out and the boys internalise.


In the illustration below it can be seen that at any given level the teacher believes they are ‘engaging’, that is they are influencing their level of arousal, the student reaction will vary.  This is another version of the importance of the inverted ‘U’ curve discussed in a previous Newsletter (The Importance of Stress - Tuesday March 1 2022).  The difference is that in what appears to be an unacceptable level of classroom arousal will terrify Student 1 while hardly disturbing Student 3 who finds the chaotic lesson reflects their childhood environment.  In a sense they are happier when things appear to be out of control.



Another extremely important consideration is the impact increased stress has on decision making.  Many of the behaviour management programs offered to schools are based on the use of some type of cognitive intervention.  The classic is the once popular ‘Stop -Think – Do’ program created by Lindy Petersen an Australian clinical psychologist specialising in behaviour management of students.  The approach is to teach the students to stop before they react to a situation and then think about the consequences of their automatic behaviour and compare this to a more functioning response and then do what is best!   This makes sense to everyone and when it is discussed in the school counsellor’s office the projected long-term outcomes will be appear to be excellent.  But, back in the classroom, when the student is confronted and they become highly aroused this idea of delaying any attempt to protect themselves is ineffectual.  The table below illustrates the impact stress has on our cognitive functions including our consideration of long-term outcomes.

It can be seen that as the level of threat increases the reference to future consequences becomes increasingly less considered.


It is obvious that the levels of stress initiate descending levels of our cognitive functions and in the case of the students with extreme disordered behaviours we work with, any elevated stressful environmental conditions will access entrenched belief systems that drive their reactions.  The most effective and attractive approach would be to change these belief systems however this process is extraordinarily difficult for a practicing mental health worker dealing with the student in a one-to-one environment over an extended period of time.  Such an approach is not available to a teacher who is not a trained mental health worker, does not have the luxury of dealing with the student individually over a period of time.  Our only chance to improve the learning outcomes of all our students is to focus on the other side of the ‘equation’ and that is to control the level of stress in the classroom.

Posted by: AT 10:04 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 07 2022

Early Childhood Trauma

In the last Newsletter we discussed the features of stress which results from an imbalance between our needs and the availability of conditions within our environment to get those needs satisfied.  This is the mission of all biological creatures, to live in a safe and secure environment, we are no different.  However, if we experience a life-threatening situation and we are unable to defend ourselves the extreme levels of stress generated are not launched, the body is captured in a fight/flight readiness with the accompanying physiological changes.  This inability to discharge these energies to act means we remain in a state of ‘readiness’.  This is the embodiment of trauma.


In its pure state the essence of trauma can be summarized as follows:

  • The stability of life based on a steady expectation of what will happen has been shattered
  • The victim has come face to face with their own vulnerability in the natural world; they can die or become extremely injured
  • The victim has come face to face with the capacity for evil in human nature, their trust in the goodness of others is shattered


Childhood trauma, usually understood to be from birth to age six has a distinct set of features that have a profound impact on a child.  In these years the child has not developed the behaviours to protect themselves by fighting, hardly an option or fleeing and so they are much more vulnerable (they can freeze, that is, dissociate which will be discussed later).  The importance of their carer becomes another factor in the severity of childhood trauma. 


In one instance it may be that the parent whose own survival is threatened becomes unavailable to protect the child and so they feel abandoned.  For example a child witnessing an assault on say their mother will become extremely traumatised as she is their connection to survival.  Contrary to this tragic experience is when the malevolent acts of abuse unloaded onto the child by that caregiver or authority figure.  The very person they rely on to survive is trying to ‘kill’ them.  It is unwise to compare any psychological experiences but we can’t help thinking this latter practice is the most-evil form of abuse!


The results of prolonged stress are most tragic if the threats are present under the following conditions:

  • Caused by human actions directed at the child
  • Continually repeated, the abuse never seems to cease
  • Unpredictable, there is no warning the attack is coming
  • Multifaceted, the same technique of delivering the threat is not repeated
  • Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty

 And to re-emphasise the final and perhaps the most menacing feature of a child’s trauma is when their primary caretaker is responsible for it. 


Another feature of childhood trauma is that it takes place at a time when the development of both the physiology of the brain and the belief systems are at their most emergent.  The significance of this has been detailed in a previous Newsletter (The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour - Monday, February 14, 2022).  At this time we outlined the physical damage persistent and chronic stress does to the brain but because these are so profound they will be reproduced below.

•    The Amygdala, which is sensitive to fear is increased in size which makes the child very anxious.

•    The hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.

•    Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.  It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.

•    Cerebellum which is the area of the brain that evaluates the potential of danger or opportunity in the environment in relation to needs is reduced in size becoming more inefficient.

•    Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum, that is the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres is compromised. 

It needs to be remembered that this is real physical damage to a child’s brain that results more often than not from the actions of a malevolent adult at a time when they are incapable of any defence against such abuse!


In the classroom you don’t get to see this damage but you will have to deal with the behaviours that are underpinned by it.  The major responses to all trauma, including children are as follows:

  • Intrusion:
    • Vivid flashbacks of events
    • False memories
    • Nightmares
  • Avoidance
    • Conscious or subconscious avoidance of situations that produce associated stress
  • Hyperarousal
    • Enduring vigilance for, and sensitivity to, environmental ‘threats’


A more detailed description of the behavioural consequences of these responses are dealt with in detail in Chapter 3 of our book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ which is reproduced in the Resource Section of our Web Page Frew Consultants Group. 


The responses described above are broad descriptions of the impact early childhood trauma has on a victim.  How these characteristics are expressed is very individualised but the table below provides a useful summary of the expressions of early childhood PTSD.



Infants & Lower Primary

Upper Primary & Secondary

  • Feel helpless and uncertain
  • Fear being separated from parent/caregiver
  • Cry and/or scream a lot
  • Eat poorly and lose weight
  • Return to bedwetting
  • Return to using baby talk
  • Develop new fears
  • Have nightmares
  • Recreate the trauma through play
  • Are not developing to the next growth stage
  • Have a change in behaviour
  • Ask questions about death


  • Become anxious and fearful
  • Worry about their own or others’ safety
  • Become clingy with a teacher or a parent
  • Feel guilt or shame
  • Tell others about the traumatic event again and again
  • Become upset if they get a bump or bruise
  • Have hard time concentrating
  • Experience numbness
  • Have fear the event will happen again
  • Have difficulties sleeping
  • Show changes in school performance
  • Become easily startled
  • Feel depressed and alone
  • Discuss the traumatic events in detail
  • Develop eating disorders and self-harming behaviours such as cutting
  • Start using or abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Become sexually active
  • Feel like they’re going crazy
  • Feel different from everyone else
  • Take too many risks
  • Have sleep disturbances
  • Don’t want to go to places that remind them of the event
  • Say they have no feeling about the event
  • Show changes in behaviour

Source:  The Centre for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Interventions

                  Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences

                  Northwestern University - Chicago


In the next Newsletter we will discuss early childhood trauma and how it effects the child’s sense of self, how they come to the class in a sense already failing and following this will be the implications for the teacher.


However, more than anything the teacher will have to overcome some personal difficulties when dealing with these children.  It is important that the teacher: 

  • Does not become critical and/or controlling
  • Understands the difficulty the student is experiencing.
  • Is not to be drawn into the role – ‘playing the part’ of who the student wants them to be.
  • Remain involved, listening and persist with the child.


Students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships.  Addressing this is the key to dealing with these kids but it is only one part of our approach which requires structure and expectations to support these relationships.

Posted by: AT 07:56 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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