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Monday, May 22 2023

The Impact of Elevated Stress

In the previous Newsletters we have discussed how stress is generated when we feel vulnerable because the conditions in our external environment pose a threat to our safety.  Further, we examined how this elevated stress impacts on our choices of behaviour in order to protect ourselves.  We also discussed how stress is needed not only to initiate behaviour but that stress allows us to learn new methods to deal with hostile external conditions in the future.  As can be seen from the illustration below, as an individual becomes more aroused their brain is said to ‘gate-down’.  Although the graph moves up from a state of calmness the neurological attention is moving down from the cerebral cortex, through the limbic system on to the midbrain/brain stem hence the phrase ‘gating down’.  

You can notice that we have moved from being able to consider a range of alternate behaviours when using our total brain into a condition of concrete thinking where we will only access behaviours that have worked before.  These issues have been covered in detail in two recent Newsletters, 228. Stress = Life - 1st March 2023 and 233. Gender Differences in Dealing with Early Childhood Trauma – 3rd April 2023.


In this essay we want to describe how people deal with this problem, first in a dysfunctional manner and then how to act in a way that will allow us to deal with future situations that echo the characteristics of the threatening environment.  In their early careers Margaret Paul and Erika Chopich presented a model of the different responses to threatening levels of stress; the following outline is founded in their work.


All addiction is an attempt to deal with painful stress which of course drives the need to return to homeostatic equilibrium.  Unfortunately, the use of any dysfunctional, protective behaviour in which you redirect your cognitive process or manipulates the cause of the threat or if you change the chemical composition of your brain without making a change to your behaviour condemns you to always being at the mercy of such situations.


These dysfunctional behaviours are shown in the illustration above, the people and activity addictions are the attempt to redirect the cognitive process of the perpetrator and, of course substances addiction is a well-known method of protection.


When you talk to substance addicts they almost invariably will tell you the first time they were ‘high’ on whatever substance they felt a sense of peace and personal power.  For kids with a history of abuse and that resulting sense of toxic shame it is no wonder the slide into addiction is easy.  Of course, the issue is that the more they use the drug of choice the more they will need of it.  Eventually, and this applies to all addictions the behaviour to protect themselves from stress becomes the source of future stress.


Activity addiction is not easily recognised as an addiction.  To understand the process that makes an activity an addiction is that whenever they feel stressed they will busy themselves with a distraction.  This is more easily illustrated in adults with the workaholic being the poster child of activities addiction.  Years ago when I was forming this model I was explaining it to a colleague.  When I mentioned activities addiction he exclaimed ‘that’s me’!  I had suspected that was the case and I continued on with ‘you don’t have to be that way’ to which he quickly replied, ‘that’s alright, I’m going to do my PhD’!  I had suspected this because of his frenetic approach to his work and the times he talked about the deteriorating quality of his marriage.  Needless to say, him achieved his PhD and lost his marriage.


This same addiction is seen right across society, from children being addicted to activities such as skateboard riding to becoming a fanatical football fan to some underserving team.  A word of caution, not everyone who has a consuming hobby, loves a particular team or spends most of their free time involved in a sport is an addict.  It is when they retreat from difficult situations they achieve that status, for that colleague, every time his wife wanted to address their problems he was ‘too busy’!


Finally we come to the people addiction and understanding the use of this type of protection will help you recognise what drives some of the behaviours of students. When being stressed by other people those choosing to protect themselves have a choice, they can try to control the other person or resist any attempts for the other to affect them

The types of people addiction are shown in illustration below.

The attempts to control the ‘other’ using overt behaviours can be summed up as ‘if you stress me, I will stress you back to a level you will leave me alone’!  They are, as the graphic indicates bullies; they threaten, use their friends to tease them or mock them to make them the centre of ridicule.  Eventually, the perpetrator will withdraw removing the source of the stress from the overt control addict.  This may work in the short term, the stressing behaviour of the adversary my cease but unfortunately when a similar situation arises the student will have to again be aggressive.


An alternate way to ‘control’ the stressful situation caused by another is to be so nice to them they will never attack you.  This is the covert method of people control.  Like the overt model the use of being a ‘best friend’ or ally is that you have to submerge your own need to avoid being exposed.


The final type of people addiction is that of resistance.  This is when a potential victim of ‘intimidation’ from others chooses to isolate themselves, refusing to accept any responsibility to whatever stressful situation exists.  They refuse to take part in organised activities, are absent a lot and isolate themselves.  However, there will be times when the resistors join forces and justify their behaviour with each other.


These acts of addictive behaviour are not just for the students, adults will also use these forms of control.  The selection of whether or not to be covert or overt depends on their perceived personal power in regard to the other.  It is more likely that a ‘boss’ that is feeling overly stressed will take on the overt role.  It is easier to bully those with less power.  Alternatively, those who work for an overt style boss might find it more comfortable using the covert techniques, ‘sucking up’ to make sure they are not their target.  The use of either control method disempowers the individual, the boss will lose the respect if their staff and those using the covert style will not be respected by fellow workers or skilled managers.


In the last illustration I have presented the student diagram as it applies to staff.

I’m sure we can all recognise these behaviours in our school staff.  Overt control teachers are those who put their students down, ‘why would I waste my time with this lot’.  Covert control teachers seek to be popular by letting their students ignore school norms, forgiving them for not handing assignments in on time.  What they don’t understand is that they are denying their student their right to learn about responsibility and in the long run they are never really respected.  Finally, we have those who sit up the back at staff meetings, reading the paper or talking amongst their allies.


I hope this information will help you identify those students and colleague’s dysfunctional behaviours not to condemn it but to let you approach them with compassion and understanding that these behaviours come from a faulty and toxic self-belief.  I have put a copy of Chapter 8 of my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ called Acting to Protect Yourself.


In the next Newsletter I will talk about how to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way.


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Monday, May 08 2023

Early CHildhood Rejection

The drive to belong is arguably our species’ most powerful need.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, most believe that the determination to survival is primary but suicide refutes this and invariably suicide is a result of rejection.  It is in early childhood that we learn to attach, belong to others especially with early caregivers (parents) and rejection at this time has devastating impact on the development of their sense of self.  Understanding the impact early childhood rejection will help you, not only have compassion for these victims of rejection but assist you make those professional relationships that are critical in your classroom.


Parents can reject their child by:

  • Withholding Affection – If a parent does not show affection or emotional support the message to the child is they are not worthy.
  • Being Overly Critical – When parents consistently criticise their kids for their behaviour, efforts or appearance are again showing they are not considered worthy. 
  • Neglect - Emotional or physical neglect is a more passive way of rejection (see Newsletter 230 - Neglect 22 March 2023). 
  • Comparisons to Others – When parents compare their child to others, particularly siblings it is invariably that they are not as good as the other (however, if they overly praise their child that will have a different negative impact on the child).
  • Abandonment - In extreme cases, parents may abandon their children both physically and emotionally and this can have profound impact on their development.   

It is obvious that significant rejection whatever the form will lead to a sense of toxic shame as described in the last Newsletter.

MRI studies on rejection, even in the least threatening conditions show that when one is rejected the same areas of the brain are activated as they do when we experience pain – rejection really hurts.  In broad terms the changes are as follows:

  • The amygdala, that area processing fear and anxiety is activated leading to feelings of distress and anxiety
  • When a child is rejected their body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which increases heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension.  Continued elevated stress leads to permanent brain damage.
  • There is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive and the effectiveness of decision making is reduced.
  • The link to physical pain is illustrated in studies that show that rejection can make a child more sensitive to physical pain.
  • Rejection can also lead to changes in the levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which can not only affect mood and behaviour but also the ability to learn, make memories!

Overall, the physical and neurological changes that occur when someone experiences rejection can be significant and can have a profound impact on their emotional and mental well-being.


One field of study that is underpinned by rejection is that of attachment.  In general attachment is the emotional bond that exists between people.  It must be remembered, like all behaviours these are learned in childhood and how they are acquired will influence how effective they will be in later life.  Infants have a need to form an attachment in their first six months by being supported emotionally and socially, if not they are rejected.  The study of attachment throws up various descriptions of the styles and, in simplified terms those dysfunctional types can be summarised as:

  • Insecure – these children have a raised fear of future abandonment.  They find it difficult to trust others and struggle in isolation.
  • Avoidance – these children avoid making attachments in the future.  They will appear indifferent and unresponsive to other’s advances.
  • Ambivalent – These children are a mix of the previous two.  They vacillate between seeking comfort with others to pushing others away.


As I said at the outset, the drive to belong is powerful and these children, despite the injury inflicted on their ability to make functional attachments will still attempt to belong in their immediate community.  In the first instance, they will seek attachment, be that with other adults, teacher or older peers.  These may or may not satisfy their immediate need but they will try.  Their functional deficiency in attaching will make these kids vulnerable to exploitation.


Some kids, particularly those who have above average abilities may become very self-reliant and successful at school or in other activities.  This may be an attempt to let their parents see they are worthy of their attention.


The rejection makes them hypervigilant, always looking to avoid being rejected again.  This makes them suspicious of others and brings in their lack of trust in others.  If they are in a situation that reminds them of times when they were rejected they will retreat behind protective walls of behaviour that are designed to keep others out.  This can be things like aggression or being extra ‘nice’, anything to avoid opening up to any real meaningful attachment.


As Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania University points out children who have been rejected in early childhood have:

  • Low rates of prosocial skills, they find sharing or taking turns very difficult
  • High rates of aggressive and disruptive behaviours
  • Difficulty in attending to tasks and are impulsive
  • High rates of social anxiety


What to do when working with a student who has disrupted attachment?  It will be of no surprise that our philosophy gives a broad outline of how to help these students:

  • Structure – make sure your classroom is very predictable.  Students with rejection issues often have difficulty with transitions or changes in routine. It is important for the teacher to establish a consistent and predictable routine to help the child feel safe and secure.
  • Expectations – always reinforce the behaviour you expect from them.  Of course that is easy when they are doing the ‘right thing’ but when they are disruptive the rejection of that behaviour must not include the rejection of the child!  This is critical because their hypersensitivity to rejection makes it hard for them to make that distinction.   Remember we accept the child 100% while we reject inappropriate behaviour 100%.
  • Relationships – you can build professional relationships by understanding these kids really suffer a disability that is not of their making.  The way you are consistent, always welcoming them into your class despite what might have gone on in the last lesson and are persistently there for all studenst will allow them to start to trust you and that is the foundation to all good teaching practice!



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Monday, April 03 2023


Gender Differences in Dealing with Early Childhood Trauma


In the last Newsletter we discussed the different reactions to abuse depending on whether the perpetration was consistent and persistent or if it was chaotic and unpredictable in both the probability and the method.  In the case of the consistent abuse children learned behaviours that could protect them and this feeling of control often allowed them to appear very functional in the classroom.  However, these kids still need to embrace the environmental changes that would nourish them rather than hide in those behaviours that protected them in the past.  Unlike those kids whose behaviour is ‘out of control’ all to often they appear to be very successful in the classroom and do not attract the attention of the teacher.


There is another group of students who are never recognised as being in need of additional attention and these are predominantly girls who dissociate when subjected to extreme abuse.  Of course, this delineation is not exclusive as are any generalisations based on gender but there is currently a real difference in the way most adolescent girls and boys respond to elevated levels of stress!


The graph shown below is based on the work of Bruce Perry a legend in the field of childhood trauma. (the following description is from my book Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids).



When we consider the process of increasing levels of stress that are the result of an attack on our safety we experience the following cognitive conditions:

  1. Arousal – This occurs when a child’s attention is drawn to a potential threat.  Under these conditions the student will become vigilant and will lose access to that curiosity that examines alternative ideas but focuses on conditioned behaviours.  If the goal of the lesson is to learn new material or new behaviours, when stress is heightened the opportunity to be taught is gone because the student will only acknowledge established beliefs.
  2. Alarm – The emotional level has increased and the cognitive patterns are ‘frozen’ into a particular response.  There is a broad gender difference in that the girls become compliant in an attempt to avoid attention while the boys start to actively resist the threat.
  3. Fear – At this stage the student reacts to the threat.  The behaviours are out of the control of any cognitive process.  The girls will start to dissociate, numb themselves from the situation while the boys will become defiant.
  4. Terror – At this level everything becomes reflexive, under the control of our basic survival modes of behaviour.  The girls will experience a mini episode of psychosis while the boys will become actively aggressive.


There are two points to make at this time.  The first is obvious; it is clear that the only feeling state where ‘new learning’ can take place is that of ‘calm’.  Previously we discussed stress in terms of healthy and unhealthy kinds.  We need a certain level of attention to learn new work but in this instance the arousal is directed at a potential threat.


The second point to be made is the difference between the gender responses.  The following comments are in the broadest terms.  Of course, there are obvious exceptions to these observations some males respond in a way we would expect a female to respond and vice versa.


Initially it could be thought that the difference is cultural, girls and boys have been taught to behave that way.   We give boys aggressive toys and girls things like dolls and toy kitchens to prepare them for their future roles.  Or maybe we just see what we expect to see, boys being boys and girls being girls.


But when you look at the school level data around abuse and dysfunctional behaviour, despite the incidents for abuse being higher for girls than boys the number of boys being suspended or placed in a specialist setting far outweighs that of girls.  The boys act out while the girls internalize.   The reality is there is a difference that is impossible to ignore.


The best explanation I have heard about this difference is an evolutionary view that in early times, once humans generally became the dominant species one of the greatest threats for survival was attack from another tribe.  When this occurred, the victors would kill the males and take the children as trophies.  Sadly, this practice has echoes in modern conflicts where atrocities such as the killings in Bosnia were predominantly of males and the recent incidents of the abduction of school girls in Africa reflect this difference.


When you examine the suspension data in schools, the boys do outnumber the girls across the age ranges but at the onset of puberty, the time we move from childhood the number of boys suspended for aggressive behaviour dramatically increases.  This implies that for the best chance of survival the children of both genders; women would become compliant and the men fight or flight.  Not always were male children taken in some instances they were also killed.  This behaviour is not confined to our species; it is common practice in a lot of herding animals such as the great apes and lions.


One of the tragedies of this ‘difference’ is that despite suffering more abuse the girls are neglected.  Because the boys’ behaviour demands attention the bulk of the resources provided for dysfunctional students are focused on dealing with boys.  As a teacher a compliant girl, frozen in her mind is so much easier to deal with then a boy who is abusing you.  However, both boys and girls are in serious need of attention and support but only boys get it.


With the caveat declared about levels of stress when discussing the protective response to abuse, that is we need a ‘healthy’ amount of stress to act at all, the impact on our cognitive skills of elevated stress levels while seeking resources is comparative to those of protective behaviour in the production of dysfunctional behaviour. 


There is a growing recognition of the need for teachers to recognise students who have suffered early childhood trauma and it is our hope that these Newsletters assist in you recognising those who in the past have slipped quietly through their school years never engaging and always hiding.  However, it is really critical that any therapeutic intervention is only carried out by professional mental health practitioners.  We are teachers and the best we can do is provide the environment that allows these kids an opportunity to experience a calm and supportive existence.

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Tuesday, March 21 2023

Abuse - Consequences

The last Newsletters have described the impact of abuse imposed on children.  In summary these include damage such as:

  • Broad scale reduction in the neural density caused by the lack of appropriate stimulation at the pertinent times and the corresponding, excess pruning.
  • A deficit when it comes to forming memories because the very part of the brain that creates memories the hippocampus is reduced in size by up to 10%.  It is the hippocampus that decides what to remember and distributes this across the cerebrum.  
  • The lack of neural density in the frontal lobes estimate at being as much a 20%. 
  • The scarcity of neurons means the material to build memories is less than children who have had secure childhoods.
  • The increased sensitivity of the amygdala creates a hypersensitive individual.


There are plenty of resources that describe the various types of abuse none better than that found on the Department’s Student Wellbeing policy under indicators of abuse and neglect.  The following is a very short description of the types of abuse that are recognised:

  • Physical - This is the use of intentional force against a child’s body or an unwanted invasion of their physical space.  This is generally:
    •  Hitting
    • Holding down
    • Exaggerated tickling
    • Pulling hair
    • Twisting ear
    • Etc.
  • Psychological/Emotional Abuse

Forms of emotional abuse are:

  • Attacking the worth of the child by rejecting them, terrorizing or isolating them.
  • Telling the child that they are stupid, un-loveable or unwanted.
  • Being overly harsh in criticizing the child.
  • Punishing the child when they become emotional – don’t be a baby, etc. or when they show no emotion when it would be appropriate to do so.
  • When the love of a parent is conditional on their behaviour (I will love you if …)
  • Sexual Abuse

This abuse is when an adult or older adolescent uses the child for their sexual gratification or for financial profit of the person committing the act.  This can include:

  • Unwanted touching or penetration of the sexual organs.
  • Adults exposing their own genitals to a child.
  • Exposure to inappropriate sexual experiences or information (i.e. Pornography).

Other forms of Abuse that are not recognized by the Department include:

  • Intellectual abuse which occurs when a child is placed in a situation where they are asked to perform a task they are developmentally incapable of successfully achieving.  Consider this abuse in regards to academic testing to identify rankings!  It also occurs when children’s performances are compared in any discipline
  • Spiritual abuse occurs is when the parents put themselves above the child.  The child must ‘worship’ the parent.  A contrary form of spiritual abuse occurs when the parents put the child above themselves.  The child becomes the focus of their devotion, they can do no wrong.  These children never learn to take responsibility.  In the first instance the parent knows best and you just do as you’re told.  In the latter form the parent will not see any faults in the child’s behaviour and so they never get the natural consequences when they make a wrong choice.


The point is that children who have been subjected to neglect and abuse live with a real, imposed disability which causes them to exhibit a range of dysfunctional behaviours that can impact their academic success and social-emotional well-being.  As their teacher, you play a critical role in their lives.  It is important to recognize these behaviours and take steps to address them in a sensitive and effective manner.  Previously I have talked about children who have adopted behaviours that were functional in a dysfunctional home but whose behaviours become dysfunctional when they find themselves in a functional classroom.  

Rather than describe specific behaviours I will focus on the broad issues that drive those dysfunctional actions.  One of the most common is the difficulty children who have experienced abuse have with their ability to regulate their emotions.  These children may be prone to outbursts, aggression, and other disruptive behaviours and when a crisis is over they will take much more time to regain an emotional state where they can participate in the lesson.  It is important to create a safe and supportive environment where students feel comfortable expressing their emotions.

Another common problem exhibited by children who have experienced abuse is the difficulty with the establishment of positive social relationships.  The most critical undertaking children of all ages is to acquire the social behaviours that allow them to participate in their community; rejection creates more damage than any other assault!    These kids are more likely to exhibit overt aggressiveness towards their classmates or withdraw from the class.  These kids will struggle to make or retain friendships. 

Critically these children are likely to struggle academically.  Because they are hypervigilant they may have difficulty focusing. If the abuse is ongoing they may miss school due to injuries or appointments with social workers, and may struggle to keep up with coursework.

Finally they can experience a range of physical symptoms, including chronic pain, headaches, and fatigue which will impact on their attendance or in the least their level of engagement.

It is important for teachers to be aware of the signs of child abuse and to take appropriate action if they suspect a student is being abused.  Teachers are mandated, through Child Protection laws to report suspected abuse or neglect.  All schools are familiar with these requirements but when in doubt it is important to make the report.

Our whole purpose is to support teachers when dealing with these kids.  Our model of structure, expectations built in an atmosphere of positive relationships is key.  In doing so you create a safe and supportive environment for all students.  You promote positive behaviour, creating a sense of belonging, and providing opportunities for students to feel valued and respected.

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Monday, March 13 2023

Neglect - Passive Abuse


In the last Newsletter we discussed the damage that occurs when a child is exposed to extreme levels of stress.  Of course, this stress is generated by conditions in the environment often, but not always the reaction to abuse.  Neglect could be considered to be the inverse of these conditions.  It is a condition where the environment fails to provide the stimulus that is needed to form the neural connections that build the cognitive structure that determines our sense of self!


Appropriate stimulus is essential in early childhood when the brain is primed to develop foundation networks and there is an abundance of neural material to create the behavioural schemas to navigate the environment.  It is a process of trialling behaviours that will address the needs we have to survive in homeostatic equilibrium.  Over this period of exploration one solution will take primacy.  With progressive use of the neural pathway that facilitates that behaviour will reinforce it creating a memory.  This process is referred to as long term potential (LTP) and is characterised by the popular declaration ‘neurons that fire together are wired together’!  These will eventually become the long-term memories that drive our behavioural choices.


The conditions that support this process are at their greatest in early childhood with the abundance of neurons available and the presence of myaline, critical to the strengthening of pathways.  It is also the time when the brain is particularly sensitive to the environment.  One feature of this process is what is described as ‘windows of opportunity’ when areas of the brain are particularly enriched to support specific undertakings.  A powerful example of this process is in establishing the ability to interpret visual stimulation, that is learning to see. 


If a child is born with cataracts they are unable to receive visual stimulation, there is nothing to evaluate.  It is in about the first eight months the conditions to learn to see are augmented that is, there is abundance of myaline present.  If the cataracts are removed in time the ability to see will be in place.  However if not, then that child will not be able to correctly interpret their visual environment.  This phenomena illustrates the dual types of impairment that are the consequence of neglect.


The first is the necessity of a stimulus to generate the need to create neural pathways, hence memory and resultant behaviours.  The example of the presence of cataracts illustrates just one of the significant processes that require stimulus in early childhood.  In broad sequential terms these periods start with sensory development as illustrated above and the same is required for the interpretation of other receptor inputs such as sound.  The next is the acquisition of language.  All parents rejoice at their child’s first word and it is miraculous how they quickly learn, not only put those words into language. 


The next is social and emotional development.  This starts with attachment where the stimulus provided by the primary caregiver, usually the mother will determine the child’s ability to attach with others.  Attachment theory provides a powerful illustration of how different stimulus results in different properties of the child’s ability to bond with others.  In general, there are four types of attachment very briefly described below:

  • Secure – where the child feels comfortable and protected in the presence of their caregiver.  They grow to feel they have someone on whom to rely.
  • Anxious-Ambivalent – this is the result of inconsistent parenting; the child is unable to depend on the support being there.  This results in fear of rejection of abandonment and these children will be described as ‘clinging’.
  • Disorganise – This develops as a result of consistent failure of the caregiver to respond when the child is in distress.  This has an impact on their ability to regulate their emotions.
  • Avoidant – this is a result of parenting by strict and emotionally distant parents who do not comfort their child when distressed.  These children become extremely independent and often are uncomfortable in intimate relationships.


Each of these types are a result of the social, environmental stimulus that was present at the time the child was ready to develop attachment behaviours.  The same process of relating with others continues with the ability to connect with peers, affiliation is the next stage.  This occurs at playgroup, or preschool, anywhere they mix with children of their own age.


One stage that has been identified but, to my knowledge not examined for the same neural and myaline conditions of early childhood is the emergence of the teenage brain, the time when the frontal lobes, in particular are being developed.  In contemporary culture teenagers spend inordinate amounts of time on electronic devices immersed in social media or the various gaming platforms.  The focus on this particular environment may well develop very sophisticated accommodating networks.  I wonder what stimulus is not being catered for?  At a school level, while we develop an authoritarian focus on numeracy and literacy (the dreaded NAPLAN regime), what are we neglecting to provide the stimulus for a healthy development of self?


In summary, the first behavioural casualty from neglect is the absence of stimulus.  This is a different issue than the presence of inappropriate stimulus which is a separate cause of dysfunctional behaviour.  In this latter case the pathways will be developed and strengthened; the brain does not make ‘principled’ judgements it just provides for the presenting environment.


The second casualty is a result of the brain’s drive for efficiency.  We have discussed the development of dominant neural pathways which were formed through trial and error.  What we must understand that during these trials there are many efforts that did not provide a satisfactory behaviour and were discarded.  This residue of neglected neural connections create an inefficiency in the processing of behaviour and along with those neurons not used they are discarded; this is a process referred to as pruning.  The issue is, once this neural material is removed any attempts to re-address the issues arising from an environmental stimulus are much more difficult to construct.  This is why students who have built a powerful collection of behaviours that work in their early childhood environment struggle if the adult environment they now experience contrasts.  It is very difficult for these students to learn new ‘appropriate’ behaviours!


In summary, the behavioural outcomes from neglect is a child who is at risk of cognitive delay, high levels of aggression and anxiety and social isolation.  For students, and there are many who suffer neglect along with the damage that comes from direct abuse, attempts to help them alter their behaviour is an immense challenge.


The following is an extreme example of the damage done through acute neglect and abuse.