This is the ability to understand the experiences, desires and intentions of yourself and others. With theory of mind individuals can predict and interpret the behaviour of others and act in a way that can make use of this knowledge.
The development of theory of mind is a gradual process from birth and it is complex. Prior to its emergence, in very early life there is little separation of the self. It has long been held that the child believes that everyone knows everything they are experiencing. However, there is no direct evidence of this, they don’t ‘know’ their mother shares their thoughts it’s just that they believe she does.
However, the child does experience things on a personal level, the beginning of a sense of self. Between five to seven months they experience fear and anxiety and this relates to ‘them’ being under threat. This development of separation continues and between 15 and 24 months at which stage they can pass the ‘spot test’ a process that confirms the child knows it is them in the mirror. This is achieved by putting a mark usually a dot of colour on their forehead, when they know it reflects themselves they will touch or try to remove the spot, they know it should not be theirs. Prior to that age they don’t firmly see their reflection as being of themselves and don’t comprehend that the mark should not be there. This test is extensively used to measure the same occurrence of theory of mind in animals.
The classic test is the false belief task. This involves telling a child a story about two children, say Sally and Anne who put a toy in a basket. When Sally leaves the room, Ann hides the toy in a box. The child passes the test by reasoning that Sally will look for the toy in the basket when she returns. However, a more telling confirmation of a child having a real sense of ToM is when they know they can tell a deliberate lie and/or keep a secret. This is evidence that they can keep their thoughts and desires private and others have no access to these.
It is postulated that the acquisition of theory of mind is developed in stages and I suspect this is the same as other developmental stages such as the arrangement of hearing and sight all part of building a repertoire of activities that define the individual. The particular stages dealing with theory of mind are:
The understanding that someone might want something, they perceive other’s desires. This is why a two-year old is unable to share or take turns unless directed.
Understanding people have different and diverse beliefs about the same situation. Even adults, when asked to describe a scene, say an accident will have a different perspective. It is a mature response to accept these differences but unless this ability is established people will refuse to see a different point of view.
Accepting people have a different knowledge base, they may not comprehend or understand that something is ‘true’ even though you ‘know’ it is real. The same conflicts outlined in stage 2 will also apply.
Appreciate that people can have false beliefs about the world. This. Of course, should include themselves. How many wars are fought over the failure of populations to achieve to acquire this state of understanding.
People can hide emotions or may act one way while feeling another. This is a sophisticated skill for a child. They learn to do this as a protection for themselves and accept others may well be doing the same thing.
It is a waste of time expecting infants to share, consider others or take turns until they develop theory of mind and this happens through experience, modelling and shaping behaviour.
Another concept that is an extension of theory of mind is mentalization. This is more about the application of theory of mind and how behaviour is used to realize our needs, how the implicit self and the explicit other are entangled and that this relationship will guide actions. Mentalization can be automatic, that is, actions are processed without delay, they are reflexive with little conscious effort. Contrarily, decision making can be controlled, requiring effort with full awareness of the situations.
The optimal use of decision making occurs when there is an ability to mentalize one’s own state of mind as well as that of the ‘other’. Imbalance results in a skewed assessment of the situation, that is if the individual has too much focus on self and is less consideration of the other, their actions are unbalanced and less effective. The converse is equally true, too much consideration of the other will also result in less than optimal behaviour.
The emergence of theory of mind is linked to the health of the environment in which the child is raised, specifically their attachment to their caregivers. The balance between the needs and perceptions the ‘self’ and that of the ‘other’ depends on the security of that attachment. If the child develops a healthy understanding of the gap between their internal world and the outer world they can make effective life decisions. However, if there is an insecurity in the attachment then there will be an imbalance with the child either giving too much consideration to their perception or conversely to the external situation. Children whose early experience with caregivers includes abuse and/or extreme neglect will develop a severe imbalance that results in extremely dysfunctional behaviour.
Until they achieve theory of mind infants should be directed in their behaviour. It’s appropriate to tell them to pack-up their toys, etc. and then thank them for doing so. This is a joint experience between the carer and the child, an example of the child learning through modelling and experience. Until they are unable to consider the other person’s emotional state, it is unreasonable to expect their respect. The presence of mirror neurons, a distinct type of neurons that allow an individual to copy whet they see. If you poke your tongue out at a new born child there is every chance they will return that gesture.
Not only do these neurons allow the child to copy they also interpret the intentions of what they witness. The classic study is exposure to a dinner setting. If the table is set in anticipation of the meal being served a particular set of neurons are excited. However, if the conditions on the table indicate the meal has been finished and it is time to clean-up another set of neurons fire. This underlies the importance of modelling desired behaviours. If you want the child to clean-up then teach them to do it through modelling and the shared experience.
It must be emphasised that theory of mind in the first instance and then mentalization evolve in an environment and the specifications each individual takes as the foundation of their ToM and mentalised state will reflect that environment. When a child moves from one environment to a contrasting one the familiar problems arise. Theory of mind is really the emergence of self!
The core quality that determines a secure sense of self is a personal acceptance within our community. This sense of self commences at birth and the first significant ‘community’ is his or her parents. When a child experiences nothing but affection and positive attention during these early years they will feel as if they are the centre of the universe and that’s how it should be. But at about age one, when they can move about they start to develop their independence. At the same time they start to move independently and being curious can get themselves into some dangerous situations. When this happens, they are told no for the first time! Often the message will be delivered in a sharp, attention grabbing outburst. There is nothing wrong with this action; the parents just want to keep their child safe but the child will be rejected for the first time!
The sudden attention-grabbing effect is necessary to stop the child, to get them to stop what they are doing - to ‘freeze’. In reality they do this and for the first time they experience ‘rejection’. Of course, the parents were doing the right thing, keeping their child safe but the child’s sense of rejection is real and all rejection is at the heart of shame.
The child will continue to explore the world and they will continue to make mistakes. The parents will continue to ‘stop’ them and show them the ‘right’ way to behave. These mistakes expose the child’s incompetence and they will be embarrassed by what they have done. This feeling of rejection of the inappropriate behaviour we call healthy shame. The point is that this rejection is of inappropriate behaviour; it is not the rejection of the person.
As an adult we should experience shame whenever we act in a way that is not true to our character and when we fail to do this we become embarrassed. Because the shame is about what we have done, that feeling is healthy. Healthy shame protects us both from the exclusion from our group and helps us understand the frailties of others.
Kids don’t get the difference between the action and the performer and so functioning parents have to make sure the mistaken behaviour is separated from the value of the child. Soon the child will understand that difference and grow up capable of experiencing healthy shame.
However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. When their child makes a mistake they are often physically punished and/or verbally abused for that mistake, it’s the child’s fault. And all too often the parents expect them to complete a task that is beyond their capabilities. At a sporting event you see kids being scorned because they did not win. When they inevitably fail they are subjected to abuse and rejection.
Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they do not come up to scratch the only conclusion is they are stupid, weak and useless just like dad said they were. This is the core of toxic shame, they have not made a mistake; they are the mistake.
Students with toxic shame take this debilitating belief into school. At any level learning consists of trial and error and so it is at school, there will be the inevitable errors. To healthy kids a mistake informs them that this is not the right way to solve a problem. For the child with toxic shame the mistake is confirmation that they are not the right person to be in the class. These students fear the inevitable negative evaluation about their work and the resulting stress suffered will make any real learning impossible. The inevitable failure reinforces their sense of shame, this toxic shame.
How you interact with the student, who suffers toxic shame will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
‘I can’t do this ……’?
‘Everyone else will laugh at my ……’?
‘I hate this ……’?
The destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that only reinforce their toxic opinion of themselves. These teachers use terms like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best work’?
‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:
‘How can we make this ….’?
‘What can we do to ……?
‘What will it look like if ……’?
Remember you are asking the children to try and that for them is very threatening but if you take a work in progress and use terms like those above you have not rejected their efforts and you have indicated to them that they can continue to improve. It takes a lot of small steps to complete any journey so be patient, they can overcome their most faulty of beliefs.
I used to say to students I worked with they are perfect. Of course, that got their attention but I explained that it is humans make mistakes. I’m human so I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – I’m perfectly imperfect, so are they and so are you.
The particular qualities of early childhood abuse can create high levels of stress that in turn leads to the trauma of shattered expectations, the realisation of our own vulnerability and the capacity of others to commit evil acts. When this happens, infants and preschool-aged kids have not developed the cognitive ability to understand these concepts, but they are traumatized through their separation from security. It is this fear that generates the high levels of stress that fashions the neurological framework of the child.
The intricacy of stress has been described in previous Newsletters but in this work, we are only considering the reaction to very high levels of stress that are the result of the response to the very existence of the child.
The body’s response to threat makes sense when we consider the primary function is to survive, the other drive, to reproduce is not a consideration of the infant. So the response of the brain, the decision-making centre of our bodies, makes optimal decisions for the conditions that we are facing. This flight/fight response is purely instinctive because a young infant is incapable of either flight or fight so the activation of the automatic nervous system would be of little practical use.
The infants do however have the ability to respond in the third of the ‘3F's' (the first two are flight and fight) and that is to freeze. They dissociate. It was a fashion in the past that when children were crying in bed, they were attention seeking and the advice was to ignore them, they would eventually stop. There is some truth in this 'attention seeking' behaviour if the practice has been rewarded, but there are times when the baby is highly stressed, and when they do stop crying they have ‘given-up' on life.
However, when the threat occurs, the brain is awash with a chemical cocktail to prepare a fight/flight response. At the time the incoming stimulus quickly goes through the receptors, through the thalamus, the ‘clearing house’ of the stimulus on to the amygdala. The amygdala perceives the stimulus as representing a real, immediate threat and a sequence of events takes place to prepare the body—first to 'flight,' and if that is not an available option, to 'fight.'
This movement to flight/fight involves a series of synaptic signals that release a cocktail of chemicals that in turn dramatically change the physiological status of the body. This response is known as the general adaptive syndrome. The body is prepared to deal with the identified threat.
It is the importance of the amygdala in this process that results in its ‘abnormal' development. Because the function of the amygdala is important, it becomes more enlarged so it can better deal with future threats. The enhancement of the amygdala along with the resulting propensity to initiate the flight/fight response has a paradoxical effect. When these kids grow-up they become hypersensitive to a stimulus that resembles a threat. As a result, when they are in a situation that may look like a threat their amygdala is activated before they can make a considered judgment about the potential danger.
The second area of brain development that is affected by the conditions of elevated threat is in the ‘higher order' areas of the brain, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes.
In the usual ‘general adaptive syndrome' process, when the threat is over the brain returns to rest. Within the complex chemical activity that achieves this is cortisol that washes across the brain. Unfortunately, if the threat is not ‘turned off' or the process is too frequent the constant presence of cortisol has a corrosive impact on the brain.
The hippocampus is reduced in size by as much as 12% and the frontal lobes as much as 20%. There are other parts of the brain such as the cerebellum that are also damaged, but it is the changes in the hippocampus and frontal lobes that cause trouble for the children in the future. It is in these areas that we develop the ability to make rational decisions and capacity to delay gratification. The hippocampus and the frontal lobes are at the cognitive heart of our success.
So children who have been abused are subjected to real physical brain damage, and that damage is handicapping the very processes that are needed if we are to help them overcome the dysfunctional behaviour that results from their history of abuse. They are more sensitive to stress and therefore more likely to react in their ineffective, habitual manner and are less equipped to make calm decisions required to avoid that dysfunctional habit.
In the last few Newsletters we have discussed the impact on cognitive development from neglect and abuse. Also discussed is the understanding that stress levels are the response to our homeostatic imbalance, that is how our need for physical, emotional and intellectual gratification is being met. When we are out of ‘balance’ stress is directed to those parts of the brain that control behaviours that allow us to act to regain equilibrium. This process is either acquired through our genes or learned by interacting with the presenting environment to satisfy our needs.
This fundamental feature is understood by all who deal with performance, it is our motivation. We need to generate a sense of having a deficit to generate a performance. Just watch every advertisement on TV; I want to be happy, people with the latest (insert anything here) are happy therefore to be happy I will buy it!
Like most activities in our culture the leading proponents of motivation are in the field of sport. Think about the popular motivational coach, seen in many of the movies and series depicting sport where the coach appeals to each player so they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and win. These are not real, but today’s coach understands getting the right level of arousal is important to get the best out of each athlete. It is in the field of sports psychology I first came across the following diagram:
For the hypothetical sportsperson ‘S’ the graph shows that if they are aroused to the level S1 they will perform below their best, that is they can’t be bothered. The same applies to S3 when they are so stressed they are unable to focus and they also fail to excel. To get the best performance they have to be roused to that ‘right’ amount – S2.
The same applies for teaching. If we examine a student ‘S’ then if we can’t engage them (S1) they will not perform, we all understand this and engagement has always been an important consideration in any teacher training package. However, the other extreme, if we over arouse them (S3) they cannot excel. We need to get the ‘sweet spot’ in our lessons. This is where we have to understand the complexity of stress management.
The first complication is that this graph is different for each individual. One size does not fit all and coaches and teachers who pitch their ‘message’ at some imagined individual are only inspiring one person and that imagined person will reflect their own sense of what is important. I understand that there is a need to address the team or class as a group and have a group goal but this is not a time for individual arousal.
The second, more complicated consideration is about those kids who have been subjected to neglect or abuse. Apart from the condition explained above these kids come to class already disengaged (S1) or over stimulated (S3) before we even start the lesson. You see the model outlined above assumes that the lesson or game is the only thing that occupies their mind, that the child has satisfied all their other needs.
The schematic model of the tri-part brain above shows the parts of the brain that deal with various needs. The brain stem and mid brain house most to the behaviours that address our physical needs. The limbic system concentrates on the social emotional world and it is the cortical system, the cerebrum and frontal lobes we need to have aroused to get the students to best learn their academic lessons. We know that children subjected to neglect and abuse spend all their time trying to survive and belong, they ‘live’ in the lower parts of their brain rarely accessing that area teachers need to engage.
Even for those kids who have had the advantage of an optimal childhood, loving, responsible parents who appropriately provide for their needs, this is difficult. Childhood and adolescence is a time when we are learning the skills of socialisation and a threat to be excluded from the groups will captivate the child’s attention much easier than learning to multiply fractions. Like-wise, a young teen who has developed a crush on a fellow student will be much more interested in paying attention to that ‘problem’ than understanding Hamlet (perhaps it is the time for Romeo and Juliet).
However, for the students we are trying to help the potential distractions away from the tertiary functions of their brain are immense. Many of these kids live in a constant state of hypervigilance against being abused, they are already over stressed as far as classroom matters are concerned. At the other end, those kids who have been neglected not only have never learned the value of new information the neurological tools that would make learning a relatively successful event have been lost.
Teachers are constantly under valued by society for a few reasons. The first is everyone went to school and spent many years being exposed to what they think is teaching and so feel they could easily do that. Another activity that devalues the complexity of teaching is that we often get to coach junior teams. These are kids who want to learn and are already motivated.
The real professional teacher takes on those kids who:
Don’t want to learn
Can’t see the purpose of learning
Believe they can’t learn
Spend their waking moments trying to survive and belong
Have physical disabilities either genetic or those resulting from brain damage resulting from neglect and/or abuse
I’m sure there are other difficulties we face as teachers, but these are real challenges that are for all practical purposes ignored by our critics.
In our work we provide advice to address these issues but predominantly we believe it is the teacher’s ability to provide an environment that minimises the lower cognitive distractions allowing these children to gain access to their academic brain. This is achieved through presenting an environment that is structured, predictable; the kids know what to expect and there are strong relationships across the classroom.
Our work is focussed on helping those children who are failing at school because of their behaviour. In the last Newsletters we scrutinised abuse and neglect (see BLOG page www.frewconsultantsgroup.com.au) and how these alter developing brains. It is the changes to the neural pathways and the early lessons learned or more likely not learned, that are behind much of this disruptive behaviour we see as children get older. In this Newsletter we will examine the source of the damage directly related to abuse causing excessive stress.
To really understand stress, we need to examine its purpose. This takes us back to first principles of biology. All living organisms are driven to survive and reproduce. This was first articulated by Richard Dawkins in his seminal work, The Selfish Gene. When there is a ‘threat’ to these base drives, all organisms act to eliminate that threat and all actions, even those of plants are initiated through some neural action. To avoid making this an enormous essay I will confine my comments to our species and even that is complex.
There is an optimum set of conditions that supports our survival and when we have achieved these conditions we are completely safe. We can be considered to be in equilibrium. However, when we are not in equilibrium, that is, the conditions are not right, things are out of balance, we are then in a state of disequilibrium; somehow, the conditions in the external world are such that they no longer support us or threaten our safety. This creates stress, the drive to change our situation and return to stability. This is a continuous process, we never remain in complete balance, for example, we constantly require oxygen to live and we can only collect this is short breaths. If you have any doubts about the strength of the drive to survive hold your breath for three minutes and just see how powerful the drive to get that oxygen becomes, nothing else matters.
It is relatively straightforward to accept this drive in the physical world; the biological set points are constant and the processes to make the required physical adjustment to return to that point after deviation is predictable and the ‘behaviour’ to adjust becomes relatively unconscious. Psychosocial drives are a little more confusing, humans need to be accepted by others to survive and reproduce. Although not as immediately dramatic this need for acceptance is just as powerful and more significant when discussing behaviour in a group setting such as a classroom.
The final drive is the need to know things. This is our tertiary drive, the one we need to learn new things, the one teachers rely on to motivate their students.
The following model categorizes needs into three sets; primary, secondary and tertiary and connects them to the three levels of the brain as outline in McLean’s tri-part brain, the physiological world connected to the brain stem and mid brain, social/emotional drives associated with the limbic system and the cerebrum and frontal lobes dealing with tertiary drives, our intellectual efforts. These are described in a previous Newsletter but are reiterated below:
Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain
This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis. Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back in balance. This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.
The ‘lessons’ accumulated in this part of the brain begin to form from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy. We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs. A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.
Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System
This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs. The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation. This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.
The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded. In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.
Despite some significant exception, for all intents and purposes it is the dysfunctional attempts to satisfy these needs that create the problems in dealing with student behaviour. Thinking back to the types of problems faced by teachers, it is the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong and the social behaviours of these children.
Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes
This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species. It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy.
This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom. Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed. Unlike the lower levels, where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to force the students to learn. The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.
There is still a great deal of mystery about stress just what is it and how is it physically generated. More recent works are suggesting the cerebellum is critical in assessing the homeostatic status of each person in the presenting environment. Whatever the process, it is clear that we need stress to behave. It is the level of stress that is critical, not enough and there is little action, too much and we can’t function.
In the next Newsletter we will discuss stress in these terms leading to the key thesis of my work. It is the teacher’s control of the environment and therefore the level of stress that is the key, not only to successfully managing children with extremely dysfunctional behaviours but also getting the best learning outcomes for all students.
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.