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Monday, August 29 2022

Return from Suspension

In the last Newsletter we discussed problems associated with suspensions.  This essay examines the process of re-integration after the suspension has been served.  Returning is always an emotional time for the student, their parents and the school staff.  The range of emotions will vary from some students whose behaviour is so out of character they will be ashamed.  Others, whose issues are so ingrained they may still be resentful and very angry.  The tone of these meeting will be varied but the desired outcome the same, to have a successful return to school.


When dealing in such a varied emotional landscape the person conducting the return from suspension meeting needs to be conscious of what the mood will be.  One technique I used when I knew I was going to be confronted with an angry family was to just delay the meeting slightly to give then a chance to settle and more importantly to reinforce my personal boundaries.  I found revising the documents that led to the suspension helped and these were fresh in my mind.


I would suggest to start the meeting with a review of the situation that led to the suspension.  Preferably I would ask the student why they thought they were suspended.  In the best case they would know and after checking with the parents if they agreed we could quickly move forward.  However, if there remains a disputed assessment of the event then it is time to take control of the meeting.  You should have evidence that you can cite but the bottom line is the decision is the schools, it is not a courtroom and the principal only has to be convinced of the events.  Parents should have already been issued with their rights to challenge the suspension so this meeting is not the place for such conversations.


Eventually you will get to that part of the meeting that you will have to clearly define the behaviour you expect from all students including the one in front of you.  Again, this is beneficial if you can get the student to identify the behaviours expected, but if not you need to be able to describe the school’s expectations and the structures, suspension being one that support those expectations.  It is important that you let the student know you believe they can behave in such a manner.  This is a tricky time because it is so tempting to point out why they failed before.  The toxic word that you should avoid is BUT; it’s too easy to say but you did this or that which caused the suspension.  You may need to point these things out however, you should try to weave this information into the conversation in a supportive manner; the word BUT immediately invites contention.


Suspension has two functions, the first is to protect the other students, physically and socially, from the actions of the perpetrator. The need to provide a safe environment is why ‘time out’ is often the appropriate consequence.  This has been imposed through the suspension.  The second is to address the inappropriate behaviour the child had used to get their needs met and replace them with behaviours that will allow them to get their needs met in a socially acceptable manner.  


It is at the times when very difficult students are returning from suspension structure becomes important – structure allows everyone to understand what is expected and therefore where the responsibility lies. The use of a structured program that is especially designed to deal with the child’s behaviours can assist with managing their conduct in the short term and moulding permanent functional behaviours in the long term.  This structure can take the form of an independent behaviour program (IBP) that the teacher can construct with the child, his/her parents and the supervising teacher.  However, if the child and/or their parents do not want to participate you should still design such a program so they know the process and the consequences for behaviour.  The following steps will help you design such a program.


Define the behaviours you want to target:

  • Be specific about exactly what the child is doing and the impact that behaviour is having.  There are ample examples of how to observe and record incidents of mis-behaviour and this provides a starting point for discussion.
  • Limit the behaviours to what you need to deal with immediately - do not take on too much.  If you can eliminate one or two quickly then you can move onto other behaviours. 
  • Spell out the consequences – these must include positive and negative.  It is not enough to extinguish behaviours knowing that they do serve a purpose.  You have to replace that behaviour with a new one that will serve the same need.
  • Keep a record of the behaviour – this allows both you and the student to track change.  This will provide an intrinsic reward for both of you.  Just a warning often students will increase the level of their inappropriate behaviour at the beginning of the process just to see if you are serious.
  • Evaluate – after a period of time check to see if the situation has changed.  If not, you can revisit the process and try another strategy.  In some cases, the student’s behaviour is so far beyond the resources of a school they must be excluded.  The process and your records will be invaluable as evidence for the expulsion.

This is the time you can identify the supports that the school can offer.  These can range from extra academic work, time with the school counsellor and/or a teacher who that have a positive relationship with who can act as a mentor.  In some cases there might be the need for the student to self-refer to in-school time out.  This often allows them to remove themselves before they explode.  However, this must be highly organised, everyone know how the student activates this (I have used a time-out card successfully), where they go and what happens before they return.  Like most this can be very individualised for each student.


The school should also come to an understanding with the parents, how they can support the school’s actions and how we can reciprocate, the minimum being regular feedback on how the students are going.


I have included a simple ‘action plan’ as an Appendix but this should be seen as a guide.  The school should design their own version and be flexible in making changes as required.  This is where all the agreements between the school, the student and the parents are recorded.


There are a significant number of students whose behaviour is so dysfunctional they need special consideration.  These students are the victims of their developmental environment and deserve our best efforts, that’s why teachers do make a difference in so many children’s lives but be aware there are another large group of kids in your class and they deserve the same compassionate care.



Return from Suspension Form


Name: ___________________                                                          Date:  _________


I have participated in a successful post suspension interview for return to school. I understand that I must accept responsibility for my learning and meet the school’s expectations concerning learning, behaviour & attendance. I agree to support the Code of Conduct; Anti-Bullying Plan, and Harassment Guidelines.

To help create and maintain a positive learning environment the following will apply:



By Whom

Follow up date



























Student’s signature:


Parent’s signature:


Observer’s signature

(where relevant)


Principal’s signature:



Posted by: AT 09:30 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 22 2022

To Suspend - The Difficult Decision

The challenge faced by those who must initiate a suspension, usually the principal, is how to balance two opposing issues, the needs of the offending student being considered for suspension, balanced against the rights of the rest of the students and staff to operate in a safe physical and psychological environment.  Those who follow these essays understand our work is always been to assist those students whose dysfunctional behaviour is the result of their troublesome childhood; these kids deserve all the support we can give them.  However, the decision to suspend is made by the principal who must consider the whole school community.


Those on the ‘outside’ invariably regard the decision to suspend a student for disruptive behaviour as the easy option.  Anyone who has worked within a school will understand that to place a student on suspension is never taken lightly.  The latest proposed version of a new Student Behaviour Strategy sharpens the divide between education practitioners and observers.  It would not be unreasonable to conclude that the Department, in the service of the Minister are firmly in the camp that principals are using suspension as an easy fix for an extremely significant problem in schools that serve low socioeconomic areas.


All external reports I have examined, particularly the recent one the Department commissioned with the Telethon Kids Institute has an undivided focus on the child in question, somehow, they are in isolation.  Of course, they pay lip-service to the needs of the whole school, as does every review I have observed over the last thirty years.  For example, the latest ‘Strategy’ states, ‘we are working to create safe inclusion and participation for all students. To do so, we recognise we need the right support structures in place to ensure all students can learn and thrive’.

They continue with, ‘that addressing student behaviour is ‘integrated within a strategic, system-level approach to learning and wellbeing’.  These are empty words; there has never been anything that resembles such an approach that is experienced at the school level.  Again, schools were promised day 1- 2021:

  • a suite of foundational and specialist professional learning, tools and resources on behaviour support and management
  • a new workforce of behaviour specialists to facilitate integrated service support through advice, collaboration and complex case management
  • access to a panel of behaviour support service providers will be streamlined to support evidence- informed interventions and enable local decision-making.
  • will ensure our workforce has access to the tools and supports they need to manage behaviour across the spectrum of student need, including promoting positive, inclusive and respectful behaviour and responding to and managing complex, challenging and unsafe behaviour’.

Further, ‘We will ensure our workforce has access to the tools and supports they need to manage behaviour across the spectrum of student need, including promoting positive, inclusive and respectful behaviour and responding to and managing complex, challenging and unsafe behaviour’

These words are meaningless; I suspect policy makers believe that once they announce something, it has happened; their work finishes when the glossy report is printed!  Of course this is never the case; unless these supports are not only provided, they must be effective.  As someone who has been very active in the field of behaviour management, I have yet to find a program offered to schools that effectively deals with the levels of behaviours that result in most suspensions. 


The case for the removal of the offending behaviour to benefit the rest of the school community appears to be straight-forward.  The recent misgivings of John Hattie’s work is fashionable however, his seminal work underlined the significance the absence of disruptive students had on learning outcomes which should not be questioned.  This conclusion is hardly surprising, any analysis of the time teachers focus on student management compared to learning instruction is directly proportional to the number of disruptive students present.  You would think the removal of such students would be advantageous if the aim is to maximise learning outcomes.


The difficulty is that like me all teachers, including principals genuinely care about these damaged children and even if all the promised support was available these kids need to experience consequences if they are to change their behaviour.  

The delivery of a negative consequence for students whose actions are unacceptable is difficult within the social and ethical restrictions that reject older, ‘traditional’ penalties.  In fact, it is hard to think of any form of ‘punishment’ that teachers can impose that is not a form of ‘time out’ including suspension.  Effective time out is a form of short-term rejection and that is a very powerful motivator.


This brings us to the difficulty of the decision on ‘whether to suspend or not’.  I have said ‘suspend or not’ because in the current climate, if I had said ‘suspend or what’ for severe behaviours as prescribed by the policy;

  • continued disobedience
  • aggressive behaviour
  • physical violence
  • possession of a gun, knife or prohibited weapon
  • use of any object as a weapon
  • possession of illegal or restricted drugs
  • serious criminal behaviour related to the school
  • persistent or serious misbehaviour, without the mythical supports outlined in policy being readily available at the school at the time required then suspension should be the only option!  So what is the difficulty?


At a superficial level there is the threat implied through the policy that if you suspend you are failing the system.  This is a real fear because the ’system’ does have a position of perceived power over the school and in my opinion the ‘system’ may pay lip-service to the welfare of the student however, the real motivation is to placate those whose judgement comes from a perspective that is outside the school, the academics and parents who assume sufficient in-school support is available.


I do sympathise with the principal when faced with this decision as I have done so on so many occasions during my 27 years as a principal.  Remembering that I never had the suite of in-school supports, over the years I became more confident in my judgement based on a foundation belief that the decision must be the best for the school and all members of my school including the offender.  To facilitate that decision requires a resilient, structured set of consequences for behaviours and that students had a confident expectation that those consequences would be imposed.  This is not to say I was not subjected to pressure from the parents of the students or in fact from my direct supervisor to not suspend, when it was appropriate the decision, although never easy was part of my expectations.


Throughout these Newsletters, I have almost inevitably concluded with my principles of behaviour management, structure, expectations and relationships.  When students are suspended, if the structure and expectations are known to both parties then the student can develop a sense of personal responsibility and consequently a feeling of self-control; eventually they will come to understand they made the choice!  This realisation takes a long time, the reason persistence and consistence is so important but I believe this is the only way schools can have the student take control of their behaviour.  

Posted by: AT 09:28 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 15 2022

Fiduciary Relationships

Fiduciary: an adjective ‘involving trust, especially with regards to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary’.


In our model of a complete learning environment (see below) all the components are important but the one that holds everything together is relationships.  As research shows

this view is held by all serious educators:

  • Teachers who support a student’s autonomy tend to facilitate greater motivation, curiosity and desire for challenge.
  • Teachers higher in ‘warmth’ tend to develop greater confidence in students
  • Students who believe their teacher is a caring one tend to learn more
  • Positive relationships enhance social, cognitive and language development
  • Students feelings’ of acceptance by teachers are associated with emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement in class

In fact, the greatest amount of variance in student achievement is accounted for by the quality of the teacher and student relationship.

Although we may all agree on the importance I would find it hard to recall any time in my professional training where reference to relationships went any deeper than to concede it’s importance.  There is an assumption we all know what constitutes a good relationship. 


If pressed, I expect we would all describe a relationship in terms of an association, a connection, bond or interaction between your ‘self’ and others.  Further, healthy mature relationships accept a level of equity, there is a balance of related power.  There is respect for each-others’ independence but a willingness for each to compromise within certain boundaries.


The significance of any relationship depends on how close the participants are to each other.  The second illustration presents the expanding levels of importance to the person represented as the ‘self’.  This is the critical phase in the development of healthy relationships.  Your ‘self’ is established in early childhood, it is the beliefs we have about our person that is based on the remembered experiences.  It goes without saying those children who are raised in dysfunctional, abusive or neglectful families will have a damaged sense of ‘self’ which will influence their ability to establish healthy relationships in the future.  To have a healthy sense of ‘self’ that you can take to any relationship you must have an honest sense about your beliefs and emotions.


The next level, which is with an intimate other is the place this early childhood damage is inflicted.  Tragically it is the intimate relationship that is the most powerful, which in a healthy bond is rewarding but for the destructive one the power is damaging and that injury becomes hard-wired into the child’s personality.  To have a healthy relationship you must treat the other with honesty and reveal your emotions, for damaged kids this is extremely challenging and, if in that toxic environment outright dangerous.


The next level is between the ‘self’ and peers or acquaintances.  This developmental stage takes place when the child begins to expand their interactions with others, this may be at pre-school or with families.  This is a level away from the need to completely share your inner secrets, this is where the value of boundaries begins to offer protection.  Friends and acquaintances should not have that intimacy but it a place where you share opinions, ideas and decisions you might make.  This level of interaction is difficult for damaged kids, they have no idea of how much to reveal or in fact to reveal anything becoming extremely secretive.


The final level of relationships is with strangers, those people who we may know at a superficial level or we meet at a function.  The discussions are often referred to as ‘small talk’ and that just about sums the level of personal disclosure you should offer.  You can probably remember some interactions when a stranger tells you their life story with all the intimate details.  That is a sign that they have not developed the boundaries that are so important to relationships.


So, what’s with fiduciary relationships?  The relationships I have described above are what I would call transactional relationships, that is they are a shared interaction for the benefit of both participants and is only possible between two members who have developed those healthy skills. 


Fiduciary relationships are generally referred to as those in financial or legal arrangements where one of the individuals places their trust in the other who has a position of power, such as legal expertise to look after them.  That person, with that authority must act with the sole purpose of benefitting the other.  Teachers have that same responsibility towards their students.


In the hectic conditions experienced in difficult classrooms it is easy to forget this responsibility.  Teachers who have retreated into their ‘self’ become inauthentic, they:

  • Ignore those things for which they are responsible, avoiding further stress
  • Put themselves above the student
  • Fail to deliver consequences for behaviour, positive and negative
  • Take the student’s behaviour personally


As I pointed out earlier, the quality of a relationship one can have with others depends on the relationship you have with your ‘self’.  Too often we are victims of our own flawed beliefs, we interpret the students behaviour through previous experiences and this can cloud our judgement.  If we acknowledge the potential for us to interpret the situation based on our suspicions we can adjust our understanding by making our decisions based on the real world not our internal world!

This is the essence of a fiduciary relationship, you make decisions based on your expert understanding of the ‘real world’ situation and act in a way that advances the growth of your student.  There has been a whole industry built on the ‘study’ of what constitutes quality.  However, I contend that there are four fundamental requirements never truly acknowledged in these descriptions.  These are the characteristics of the teacher’s authentic understanding of their ‘self’ which allows them to develop functional relationships with their students.  These are being:

  • Self- Aware – being conscious of the impact they will have on the student involved
  • Compassionate – Have a genuine concern for the student, putting them first with humility and generosity
  • Concerned – being sincerely interested in each student’s life, their concerns, their interests and their beliefs.  Become fascinated by their life
  • Reliable – they have the ability to instil confidence in the others about their own abilities.  This makes the student feel safe and secure in their presence

These characteristics are never discussed by academics or bureaucrats when describing quality teachers but without them the thousands of words, the T&D projects, the assessments are worthless!


Relationships underpin all our endeavours including in the classroom however, that between a teacher and student is not transactional, there is no equity, the student is not responsible for the teacher’s wellbeing but the teacher has a definite responsibility for the student’s wellbeing, it’s a fiduciary relationship and we have the obligation to gain the expertise to fulfil our contract.

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Wednesday, August 10 2022

The Purpose of Education

I find it hard to think of a time when the management of the education of our children is in such disarray.  Recent announcements by the Minister and I assume endorsed by her senior bureaucrats have exposed, what I believe to be a level of incompetence not previously experienced by the teaching profession.  The implementation of an increased level of the supervision of teachers’ and schools’ performance, implies that they are not of ‘quality’ resulting in the unrealistic and inconsequential levels of accreditation, the purpose of which seems to reflect a complete distrust of the teaching profession.  The latest initiative is to provide lesson plans to support the teachers, perhaps the most ill-informed and insulting policy I have seen.


As always, in a time of crisis there is plenty of well-meaning and intelligent advice to be offered which I can’t fault.  Amongst these are the obvious ones:

  • Addressing the critical lack of funding for those schools that have the most need contrasted by the over-funding of already wealthy schools
  • A call for the reduction in the teachers’ workloads
  • Increase in the rates of pay for teachers
  • Promoting a culture of respect for teachers


Other innovations that have been adopted but which I feel are of little real value and are compounding the problem include:

  • An emphasis on leadership training, the idea that you can successfully train leaders is a top-down approach that resonates in the echo-chamber of academia, bureaucracy and the professional learning community.  The people who promote this fallacy are the same ones who complain about the lack of ‘educators’ in the top levels of the Education Department.  They realise leadership depends on experience and ‘corporate knowledge’ which is only gained through actually doing the work.  Leaders emerge from the classrooms and schools – the bureaucratic skill can be gained after the foundations are in place.
  • Addressing teacher wellbeing is another distraction.  I believe that teachers’ levels of stress, anxiety and depression are at record levels and there is good reason for that being the case.  The term bantered about is to increase the teachers ‘capacity assuming there is no limit to the workload that can be addressed.  This implies that the teachers are only exhausted because they are not up to the challenge.


There is a glaring omission from these opinions and this is the lack of recognition that there are children involved.  Of course, there will be a righteous outcry that all these are proposed with a view of improving the education of the children.  I contend there are two factors that the present attitude to learning that fail to get to the fundamentals of effective education.


The first of these is the stated aims of education.  The NSW Education Department has the following mission statement – ‘ED's mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access’.  This ambition of global competitiveness is reflected in most other documents relating to the goals of education, which infers education is preparation for competition, particularly in economic terms.  Having our children ‘job ready’ means the needs of commerce direct curriculum.


The second impediment to true education has been the adoption in the mid 1990’s of outcomes-based education.  This represented a narrowing of the focus of the curriculum offered in schools.  The goal was not to develop an expansive learning experience where teachers had more freedom to tailor their lessons to the specific needs of their students but to narrow the focus of what should be taught.  Of course this complemented the rise in the rationalist approach to all things managed from above – outcomes-based education conveniently lends itself to measurement.  The Department could judge the efficiency of their ‘machine’ hence the obsession with the meaningless NAPLAN testing and reward or punish schools accordingly.


On the other hand the United Nations’ second principle of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child states:

The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.


Those of you who have followed my work will not be surprised that I support these principles.  I do not totally dismiss the need for students to be able to enter the workforce neither am I totally against having a purpose for our curriculum, these things are undoubtedly important but they are secondary to what I believe is the real purpose of education.


While writing my last book I discussed behaviour modification, in that case the conduct of students whose behaviour was extremely dysfunctional.  I was faced with the following challenge – to what do we change their behaviour?  I spent many hours researching different philosophies and examining my own beliefs.  Eventually I came to the following four targets for the modification and these represent my goals of education.


Sense of Self

Every student has the right to believe they are special, precious and unique.  Not all children are born into homes that support these characteristics, too many are raised in poverty, in abusive and/or neglectful families and develop a fragmented sense of their value.  It is in our classrooms that these deficiencies at least have a chance of being addressed and how to do that is the focus of all our Newsletters.



We are an extremely social species and so many of our needs can only be satisfied through the interaction with other members of the community.  Social skills are not instinctive, they are learned and how this happens again depends on the early childhood environment.  Eventually relationships in a broad sense are transactional, that is we are entitled to have our needs met in the presenting environment but we have to be responsible to contribute back into that setting.  Children have to learn how to do this and again the classroom may be the only place this can happen.



Autonomy differs from relatedness in that as adults we can operate in our community in a manner that respects the needs of others but we do not compromise our own beliefs.   Autonomy emerges as the child develops from a completely dependent being, up until they can take control of their life.  This journey in a sense parallels their brain’s development.  It must be recognized that healthy independence is not that you have no need for others, of course everyone needs others and relationships are crucial for satisfying your personal needs.  Autonomy is the process of establishing these relationships while maintaining independence.



A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction.  If you examine people who you would consider successful and contented you would see individuals involved in a range of endeavours.  It doesn’t matter what these pursuits are as long as they are related to the individual’s intrinsic goals.  In best cases an individual’s purpose is reflected in their vocation.  I started my working life as an electrician, it was a good job but I did it just to provide me with the resources to pursue other activities.  Later, when I became a teacher there was a change, I no longer worked only to get resources my work became my purpose and this has sustained me for nearly fifty years.  Not everyone will be this lucky but people do need a purpose and schools should expose their students to a range of opportunities to explore.


Somewhere it is proclaimed ‘build on the rock and not upon the sand’ and in education it is the child’s qualities that provide the foundation, not the array of concerns and approaches outlined above.  For too many kids their early environment does not provide the conditions that will allow them to develop such foundations.  These are the kids who misbehave, are disengaged are ‘problems’ in the classroom.  These are the kids who need their foundations repaired because without that any improvement in the quality of the teacher, their leadership skills or the manipulation of the curriculum will fail to make a difference.

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Wednesday, August 03 2022

Patience Required for Real Change


In the last Newsletter that dealt with anxiety we concluded as we often do, the importance of the environment when dealing with students with severe behaviours.  Compassionately delivering a persistent, consistent and structured approach to discipline and welfare is the only way non-mental health professionals can help these damaged kids but it is not easy and it takes a good deal of time; therefore patience is required!


It takes time because it requires a change in the beliefs of these children. We first addressed the importance of beliefs way back at the beginning of this blog (see Newsletter 5. – Beliefs – 2 May 2017 and Newsletter 89 - Faulty beliefs – 11 June 2019). They are important because beliefs generate our behaviour.  For those damaged kids raised in dysfunctional, abusive and/or neglectful families this task becomes even more challenging.  The reasons are complex and I will explain them in a broad and sequential sense.


The purpose of the brain is to allow us to survive in the environment in which we find ourselves.  We do this by either acting in a way that protects us from threats or acquiring things that nourish us.  Therefore, for every challenging situation we face we have a simple choice about how to act.  This will be based on whether this is a threat to my survival or an opportunity to enhance my life.  This is the elementary task of the brain and the foundation and characteristics of our ‘beliefs’!


The creation of our beliefs begins at birth.  More than any other species human babies are unable to look after their self.  They rely on the actions of their primary care-givers and have no choice but to adopt the behaviours that complement the support that is provided.  They learn how to act though modelling their carer’s behaviour or by altering their behaviour so that carer will provide them with what they need to survive in a homeostatic manner.  These lessons are remembered and become their beliefs, the idea they deliberately make a

‘choice’ about their behaviour is almost meaningless. 


The series of illustrations below show how memories are formed and how those memories become our ‘self’, an amalgamation of our beliefs.  Either as an infant or an adult the process is the same:

  1. In the first instance they are in a situation that threatens their security and they act.  Through trial and error, they discover whether each action provides a consequence that either improves the situation or makes things worse.
  2. Over a series of attempts the successful behaviour becomes progressively more powerful, not only having more neural connections but having these connections insulated with a covering of myaline to make them more permanent, they become automatic!  At this point our memory is formed which allows us to now choose the behaviour that best worked before when confronted by the same or very similar situations.


  1. The final illustration shows how we ‘decide’ to act when confronted with a threatening situation.  The stimulus from the threat provides the ‘situation’ and by referencing both our emotional and cognitive memories we act.  This is our beliefs in action!

Through early childhood we develop a whole system of memories, schemas across the brain that allow us to identify our ‘self’ in our environment.   They become the cornerstone of the predictive function of the brain for a given set of circumstances. 


We develop an established set of behaviours we expect to work.  In other Newsletters (See 125 – Expectations – 17th February 2020) we discussed the process outlined above and how this provided an expectation of how we could navigate the environment.  



The expectation is the imagined consequence for a situation based on past experience.


This is where the difficulty is in addressing children with severe behaviours exists.  Although it is a complex situation the following relatively simplistic explanation will help.


In any environment an individual will have a multitude of incoming stimulus; estimates vary from 80,000 to one million.  It is in the brain the decision is made about which of these we will attend and this will be those who have the potential to threaten us or provide the ‘resources’ to enhance our life.  Toby Wise of the University of London points out that people prioritize their attention when determining safety or danger in a busy setting, such as crossing a road.  This suggests that people pay more attention to things they have learned associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs.  This doesn’t mean the brain isn’t aware of the total environment but because of our beliefs it has predicted where the attention should be focused.


A significant subdivision of the brain, the reticular activity system – a network of neurons located at the top of the brain stem filters information from the external and internal environment and projects these onto the cerebellum for evaluation.  Repetitive, meaningless stimuli are ignored while those learned, conditions that effect our wellbeing memories - our beliefs, are considered.  The very structure of our brain subconsciously even unconsciously reinforces the importance of our beliefs.


A quick aside, the reticular activity system often referred to as the RAS is promoted as a means of changing behaviour including engaging disconnected students by presenting learning material in a novel way to stimulate interest.  Whether this is a valid technique or another fad is beyond this essay but I suspect this would not work with highly damaged students as it requires the student to be in a calm condition.


This is why real patience is required.  Students whose severe dysfunctional behaviour have a belief system that has worked for them in the dysfunctional environment in which they were formed.  They have these beliefs because they kept them alive; they are their life support.  Unfortunately, the behaviours driven by them do not work in a functioning environment like the classroom.  Secondly, these beliefs are overwhelmingly formed in early childhood and they are particularly hard to change, they are considered as non-plastic because of the strength of the neural pathway and the efficiency of the myalinated sheaths that protect them.  These students have to overcome powerful forces to make necessary changes in their behaviour.


The only way you can change these established beliefs is to engage the process that first formed the memories of the connection between actions and consequences and only when the brain is calm enough to behave in a way that is contrary to their instincts.  And, it will only be after you establish new beliefs that the reticular activity system will change its focus and admit positive stimulus.


Changing beliefs in a classroom is predominantly training in relationships and satisfying responses to situations; it is social skills training.  A pioneer in this field was Arnold Goldstein the professor of Psychology and Education at Syracuse University.  He introduced a method of social skills training in 1973 to deal with juveniles in detention.  His techniques are still effective today.


He overtly taught the children in his charge how to act in a manner that would be acceptable within the cultural environment that is for us, the school. This was done through the following processes:

  • Modelling – the children are shown examples of how to behave in a given situation where previously they have failed to get what they want.  The model needs to be someone who the students respect.
  • Role-Playing – The students are given scenarios to investigate through acting out how they should behave.  This process can be threatening at first but will become a powerful tool in changing behaviour.  Remember, the brain, where memories are formed and stored after a while will form the memories from the role play as an alternative choice for the student.  The scenarios, at first are provided by the teacher, later can be from a random list or when engaged at the request of the participants.
  • Performance Feedback – This initially is provided by the facilitator but as the students engage they can all contribute.  Approval is the best type of reinforcement and as the skills become more accepted there will be an intrinsic reward that follows.  They will start to enjoy the process of rehearsal and the rewards that go with that.  The satisfaction comes when they take these new skills and use them successfully in their day to day experiences. 


Working with these most difficult kids is extremely difficult and you will need lots of patience and resilience, remember their personal, dysfunctional temperament was put on them by others when they had no defence.  If you hang in with them they can learn to take control of their life and function in the classroom and society.  When you succeed appreciate what a significant piece of work you have achieved, an outcome that out-weighs any NAPLAN result!

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Latest Posts


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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