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Monday, September 07 2020

Dealing with the 'Exploding Kid'

At the core of our work is the idea that stress is the determining feature of behaviour.  In previous essays we have explained that when our homeostatic equilibrium, our sense of calm and security is threatened we become stressed and then we act to deal with that stress; we choose our actions from the memories of what worked before.  However, there are situations that are so threatening the stress overwhelms the usual process and we lose control of our behaviour.


The following diagram illustrates the changes in which we use our brain to deal with increasing levels of stress.


This complex diagram outlines the process of the brain ‘gating down’ the rational thought process as stress levels rise.  When we are calm we can access the neo and sub cortex and we can make considered decisions, this is the part of the brain we want in our classrooms.  But, as we become more aroused our decisions are more ‘emotional’ and their rationality deteriorates until we just respond in a reflexive manner.


There is a gender difference that develops as the stress levels rise, although this difference is not exclusive; males externalise their distress and while females internalise their disturbance.  It would be easy to explain this difference citing the cultural environment in which children have traditionally been raised and I believe this is a contributing factor.  However, an alternate explanation has been offered.  In the early stages of human evolution, the time when humanoids organised into groups to increase their chances of survival and reproduction a primary threat to safety was a deadly clash with another tribe.


The result of such clashes was the killing of the adult males and the capture of females and children, this practise was still present in the war in Kosovo in 1998-99; at this time Serbia forces executed many Albanian men while seizing the woman and children.  In these circumstances the best chance of survival for men is to fight or flee, outward actions while for woman and children it is to comply.  Another characteristic that supports this reasoning is that, if you examine the suspension rates of children, an indicator of acting-out dysfunctional behaviour the rates that boys are suspended jumps dramatically when they pass into puberty, that is they adopt adult male behaviours.


To return to the theme of this essay, when you are confronting a child that is out of control you have to understand they are incapable of engaging in any rational thought so, it is pointless talking to them.  However, they are very able to hurt themselves or others so you have to intervene.


Most importantly you have to have a pre-arranged plan of what to do when this situation inevitably arises.  This plan’s foremost purpose is to protect the welfare and safety of all involved.  This is why structure is so important – there is no doubt that you will be unable to remain calm in such a threatening situation that is, you will lose a significant capacity for rational thought yourself and so, having a structured set of steps you have to follow, that have been prepared in calm conditions will make sure you take the right steps.


The use of boundaries will help handle the crisis.  Understand you will be threatened and make sure you keep your boundaries intact, this will help you stay in charge of the situations (see Boundary Considerations - 22nd October 2018 and Respecting Other’s Boundaries – 26th November 2018).  You can effectively harness the power of boundaries by moving close enough to the child in question so you get their attention but not close enough to threaten them.


Now you have their attention don’t attempt to reason with them, there is no point but, in a firm, low voice, give them a short, clear instruction.  When you have done this disengage from them don’t give them the opportunity to engage you.  The thing is in most cases the child will accept a direction that gives them a way out of their predicament.  At some level your authority will still have some influence.


This approach will not work in all cases, some children who have had a traumatic childhood will not be able to take advantage of your proposal.  When facing an ongoing crisis, it is the teacher’s responsibility to:

  1. Protect themselves – if something happens to them and they are unable to continue to function they are of no use.
  2. Protect all other students and staff - it is often a good move to take all others out of the classroom or near vicinity for their safety and to remove the perceived threat the student might experience by their presence.
  3. Protect the child as much as you can from being harmed, either physically or psychologically.
  4. Protect the property.

In extreme cases the police may need to be called.


When the crisis is over you will experience an amount of pent-up emotions.  It is natural to harbour aggressive, negative feelings towards the offending student and the unfairness of being placed in such a challenging situation.  You may experience resentment, anger and fear because you have been psychologically and perhaps physically assaulted.  This will pass; to facilitate your return to your equilibrium the following will help:

  • Be aware of your feelings
  • Don’t take it personally.  The child has complex problems - it’s not about you
  • Debrief – Discuss the event with an appropriate colleague
  • Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP.  This can be quite cathartic!  Date and sign it
  • Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments
  • Look after yourself at home too - exercise, relaxation, music etc.


Dealing with children is not easy and it takes a special teacher who can turn-up day after day to work in such a volatile environment.  It is important that you understand how to do this.  Following News Letters will expand your knowledge in dealing with these explosive students.

Posted by: AT 12:07 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 03 2020

Routine - Support for Student Expectations

The most significant advantage humans have over other forms of life is our ability to predict what will happen given a certain set of circumstances.  So you can see predictability underpins expectations.  When we recognise a set of conditions that led to us having a great time we get excited anticipating another positive experience.  Conversely another set of conditions may provide us with a warning – we are not going to ‘enjoy’ what we expect next.

When a student enters a room they will be confronted with a set of features that they will interpret and then imagine what to expect.  This connection drives the emotional content of their minds and good teachers know how they feel about what you provide is directly related to how they will engage in your lesson.  If they expect to be bored they will be set up for boredom there will be no stress that calls for the child’s brain to attend – there is nothing worthwhile here.  If they are afraid they will be primed for protection against your lesson and the stress levels will be elevated to a level that excludes cognitive thinking – nothing can be learned effectively.

The successful teachers want what I call a ‘Goldilocks’ brain one that’s not too hot – over stressed and not too cold – under stressed but one stressed just right!  The way they will behave in a lesson is quite literally shaped by the way they feel.

Most significantly, both the student and the teacher’s expectation of a lesson depend on the experience of the previous lesson.  So it is important that the teacher understands that how they present their lessons sets the expectations of the students now and in the future.  We can’t expect the students to come into class just feeling good about your subject just because you like it but we can build up experiences of past ‘feel good’ moments that the kids will bring into the next lesson.  It’s like banking, the more you put into building an expectation account the more interest you will get and that’s compound interest. 

You have to remember that so much of their expectation is stored in the emotional area of the brain and this is why the relationship between teacher and student is the most significant factor in teachers being able to engage their students.  This is particularly true for those ‘difficult students who have a history of failure.  The successful teacher will develop a relationship with students and with the teacher’s support slowly change the student’s expectation about your lessons and their ability to learn.

Students with behavioural problems provide the greatest challenge to the teacher’s ability to engage them in learning.  It is important to understand these students will minimize or misinterpret any positive stimuli.  They either think they are not worthy or don’t trust the teacher’s motives. They are also hypersensitive to negative social cues and they are hyper-vigilant about potential threats. They also fail to understand or read non-verbal cues they don’t easily get what is presented to them and they are highly likely to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any negative, incoming stimulus.  All this history of failure means that to create expectations for success in children who have only experienced failure requires patience and quiet determination.

So what do we need to do?  The following points will help:

  • Students decide how important the lesson is from how professional the teacher presents themselves. You need to look like a teacher – have your ‘teacher’s uniform on’, look like you love your work and most of all look like you are happy in their company.
  • Students register the importance of the lesson by the interest the teacher displays.  How could we expect the students to be enthusiastic about maths if the teacher is blasé about solving simultaneous equations?  Emotions are contagious and so is curiosity!
  • Messages about the effectiveness of the lesson come from the state of the room and the presentation of the lesson content. The recent discovery of Mirror Neurons (the subject of an essay on the Web Page) highlighted the importance of this point.  A neuroscientist Iacoboni had volunteers watch films of people reaching for various objects in a tea time setting (teapot, cup, jug, plate of pastries, napkins) in different contexts.  In every instance when the subjects saw the person in the scene reach for a cup, a basic set of ‘reaching’ neurons fired in the subjects.  But different additional sets of mirror neurons would fire depending on what expected action was suggested by the setting.  In one case the setting was neat and orderly as if the meal was about to be enjoyed.   The player was about to drink some tea and one form of additional neurons fired.  The other setting was cluttered as if the meal had been finished and the cup was ready to be cleaned up and there was a different set of neurons activated.  The brain knew what was coming next!  If the student comes into a room that is organised for learning their learning neurons will light up.  If the room is untidy and dirty another set will fire.

There is a popular view amongst some educators that we need to get emotions out of the way so we can teach the kids but good teachers know that emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition. They are a fundamental element of why thinking and learning happens and emotions fire expectations.  Through the child’s experience they learn to ‘know something’ that is about to happen so let’s make that quality learning!

Posted by: AT 10:58 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 29 2020


At the beginning of these last three essays I promised to discuss the significance of the way we conduct our classroom to ensure we could get the best learning outcomes.  We have discussed structure and expectation and now I will address what I described as ‘lesson content’ which I often refer to as the pedagogy of the lesson.  I have to make a clear distinction between what I mean as the pedagogy and what is generally accepted in the education community.


The common belief is that pedagogy is the study of how knowledge and skills are communicated between the teacher and the student.  This is a huge area of study and is well covered and understood in any teaching course and rightly so; it is extremely important.  The difference between what is understood and what I want to add to the discussion is that like most theoretical approaches the approach is top-down, that is it is up to the teacher to put the knowledge and skills ‘into the student’.  I will argue that it is the teacher’s role to present the topic to be studied so it is available to the student which would literally be exactly the same process but it is also the responsibility of the teacher to produce an environment where that student can focus on the lesson.


Learning, be it knowledge or skills is the acquisition of memories and the ability to manipulate those memories to address presenting challenges.  Learning is not a top-down process it is bottom-up under the ‘control’ of the student.  The key consideration is what does the student want to or need to learn rather than what we want them to learn!


In a previous Newsletter (see Motivation Students – What Drives Them’ – 03/14/2019) I discuss my model of human needs and the following are the major points:

  • The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied.  When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance.  Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens.  If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on to either cool or heat the environment as required.  In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.


  • The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:
    • Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically comfortable.  If we are too cold we will seek to warm ourselves.
    • Secondary Drives - our need for emotional stability is controlled in the limbic system.  This is predominantly focused on our social acceptance.
    • Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes.  This is where we satisfy our curiosity.


The point is the teaching goals are focused on the tertiary part of the child’s brain but access here is only achievable if the child’s social and physical needs are satisfied.  


Throughout these essays there is a theme that understands that children with severe behaviours are subjected to stress in the classroom because their expectations learned in a dysfunctional home clash with that of the school.  These issues have been well canvassed but there is more to consider for all kids when ensuring their primary and secondary drives are satisfied.  Kids are not little adults and they need to develop skills that will allow them to ‘survive’ in their community and eventually reproduce.  The following is an illustration from Andrew Fuller that explains the different developmental stages.

What is well known is, in the early years the brain sets itself up to learn new skills. It does this by providing an excess of the material myaline that consolidates memories by creating a sheath around newly formed neural pathways to consolidate that pathway (memory) and make it more efficient. 


This process of creating and consolidating memories continues throughout life.  What is particularly important for the teacher is the formation of peer relations and self-esteem critical for the development of the child’s sense of self.  For most kids this is a process that occurs consistently both at home and at school but for some, those raised in dysfunctional homes there is a conflict.  This is where the teacher is required to address this disparity. 


Successful teachers, particularly in primary schools, the age these skills are under construction almost reproduce a sense of family in their classrooms (see Newsletter - The Tribal Classroom’ – 08/10/2018) where social skills are part of the hidden pedagogy!  Professor Bill Mulforde of the University of Tasmania has shown that “some of those other outcomes of schooling, such as socialisation, are in fact better predictors of later life chances such as employment, salary and so on, than literacy, numeracy and exam results”. 


Recent studies have shown that about age eleven this same excess myelination is present in the prefrontal lobes.  This is the time our ‘teenage brain’ begins to mature.  This is the part of the brain that is required to succeed in academic pursuits.  Again, the teacher needs to deliver the content of each lesson understanding that there is a need to progressively make the coursework self-directed so they graduate as independent learners.


What I have not discussed and really what is never overtly recognised is the arrival of each child’s sexuality.  The PDHPE syllabus does address sexuality but apart from a period when some schools adopted the Safe Schools initiative that supported the diversity of sexual expression, those kids with more complex needs are ignored.  Like most, I have no advice about this problem other than to understand it exists and is significant for all children and be aware that solving simultaneous equations is hardly going be more interesting than a first infatuation!


This essay doesn’t really give ‘rules’ on what to do.  Somehow good teachers get these issues and we get through these stages of development however, for those kids who have been raised in difficult homes the teacher has to be doubly aware that their growth from learning the rules of being human, mastering communication skills and successful socialisation on to becoming a productive, reproductive adult is a difficult task!  This is why structure, expectation and of course strong relationships are indispensable.



Posted by: AT 11:12 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 22 2020


In the last Newsletter we discussed the importance of structure as part of this expanded examination of the characteristics of an effective classroom learning environment.  The underpinning concept that defines structure is that there is a realistic connection between actions and the consequences of that action.  This assumes there is a recognised framework in which this process operates.  This is where expectations are important; what we expect to happen depends on the customs of the environment in which the action is taken.


Perhaps the foundational assertion of our work in regards to children who are raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that the behaviours they learned to make the most of their opportunities to get their needs met or more likely to minimise the damage inflict upon them by their abuser.  They had learned what to expect in a given situation.  The importance of this work is to teach these children to predict what will happen in this new environment.   Of course, this is not the case for those children raised in chaotic, unpredictable families who come to our schools with no expectations at all.  For those kids who have been raised in an environment where they had no idea what would happen to them we need to provide the link between what they do and what happens next. 


Until the child experiences the new set of consequences their existence can only be a speculation; an imagined world if you like.  The following diagram illustrates this process.

This is the connection between what is the remembered experiences and what could be the imagined result of their actions.  In this process the emotional content is significant in any decision made and is expressed as a form of stress.  Having built up our behavioural repertoire through remembering the outcomes of previous experiences each ‘situation’ will generate a level of stress depending on how damaging was that incident.  If left unchecked when these children are faced with a situation that has the memory of a negative outcome the student descends on a negative emotional cycle that may start with frustration and if not resolved generate a level of fear about any future event with the same beliefs.  The power of these emotions excludes the child from even imagining a different outcome.  If this is attached in any way to the school, the work or interpersonal relationships they will eventually hate going to school; unable to imagine any other outcome but failure.


Unfortunately, we see too many of our kids, particularly when they are in upper primary of secondary completely disengaged from school.


The task for the teacher is to build-up an alternate bank of memories that will allow the child to choose an imagined experience as the result of their actions.  This process takes time, time older students with severely damaging behaviours do not have a lot of.  This underlines the importance of the need for predictable and consistent delivery of consequences discussed in the last Newsletter.  However, there are other ways to teach these kids the ‘rules’ of their contemporary environment.  One method which came into fashion was the teaching of social skills.  The leader 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.


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.


Finally, the way the teacher corrects the dysfunctional behaviour is significant.  When the student acts in an inappropriate way it is very important that the feedback is exclusively about the behaviour and nothing to do with the student.  We have all witness teachers who, through lack of training or sheer frustration make comments like:  

  • ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
  • ‘Is this your best you can do’?
  • ‘Why did you do that’?


These comments put the blame on the student.  Instead they should say things like:

  • How can we make this ‘…’?
  • ‘What can we do this ‘…’?
  • ‘What will it look like if ‘…’?

 By using language that projects into the future with an improved outcome the student is more likely to be able to imagine a better future.


Teachers who face-up every day to students with such challenging behaviours are also subjected to the challenges of expectations.  Over the many years I worked with these difficult kids I rarely, if ever was given the type of encouragement I would give to the students.  Children, the authorities identify as bad are generally placed in programs that attempt to make them invisible.  The teachers, who work with these kids experience this same insignificance.  This is not fair, I contend these teachers should get the most attention for the difficult work they do but, working with these kids any notion that life is fair is soon discarded.  Like the kids, you have to cling to the fact that these kids can take control of their actions and when they do they get the real intrinsic reward that drives their behaviour.  You also have to look for that same intrinsic behaviour when you see your students taking control of their life.  There can be no better reward!

Posted by: AT 01:36 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 15 2020


In the last Newsletter (see ‘Nature vs Nurture’ – 8th June 2020) I made the point that to assist these children with severe behaviours we needed to create an environment that helped them develop a new set of memories that would drive an alternative way for them to deal with stressful situations.  Of the three major components, structure, expectations and lesson content, it is structure that is the most important to be delivered at the beginning of the change process.

For the sake of this essay, structure means the predictable coupling of actions and consequences, that is if I do this, that will happen!  Of course, this condition is not realistic, in the real-world if I do this there may be a lot of possible outcomes.  The example I use when discussing this with students is as follows.  Say I choose to drive home as fast as my car will go and on the other side of the road.  There are a lot of imaginable consequences.  I could:

  • Have a direct crash with an oncoming vehicle
  • Force all the approaching cars off the road
  • Be killed by losing control and hitting a tree
  • Be arrested
  • Really enjoy myself and get home early
  • Etc.

The thing is, as a mature adult I can imagine these possible outcomes and make a mature decision that is best for me – drive home safely on the right side of the road.  All the outcomes above could still happen but compared to the other decision I might make the chances of this are very low.   It is this ability to predict future outcomes that empower us to make smart decisions.

These Newsletters have as their focus assisting children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment.  The form of abuse can vary.  In some cases, the assault on the child is always delivered the same way.  It might be dad bashing the child whenever they ‘make a mistake’.  The result is the abuse is predictable and the child learns a behaviour that best deals with dad’s abuse, this feeling of having some control is transferred to the classroom and these kids are not usually a major management difficulty.  This is not a ‘better’ form of abuse it just has different long-term outcomes for the child.  

The children that do cause the most trouble in the classroom are those raised in an abusive and unpredictable environment.  This range of possible outcomes is different than the example above.  In that case there was a sense of logic between the choice of action and what may happen.  For these kids there is no understandable connection between what they do and dad’s, or mum’s response.  The chaotic behaviour of the ‘parents’ is a result of parent addiction or mental illness.

Take the example of a young boy being in a fight with a peer and this is reported home.  One possible outcome is that dad belts the child for fighting.  The next time this happens dad praises the boy for ‘being a chip off the old block’; the next time he takes the child to make peace with his rival, etc.  What the father does depends on how the father feels and, although more sophisticated kids can take this into account they can’t in early childhood and so never develop a set of memories that would allow them to predict what might happen the next time they are faced with such a situation.

The use of structure, the close association with actions and consequences when dealing with these dysfunctional kids is to reconstruct the conditions the child should have experienced in early childhood.

New-born children have no capacity to make a choice and are dependent on others to get their needs met.  In a healthy environment this is what happens, at first completely and then the babies start on the road to control.  Initially, they may learn to cry when they are hungry, they cry and mum feeds them; crying works – the action gets the desired consequence.  As they get older this feels a little less structured but good parents and teachers of very young children still consistently control the outcomes which is the predictable environment.

As the children develop they should be encouraged to make decisions about how they should behave but never about an issue that the child does not understand the harmful outcomes of a wrong decision.  It is not ‘good parenting’ to ask the child what they would like for dinner and when they say a popular take-a-way which is repeatedly advertised, they do not understand the implications to their health now and in the long-term, so should not be making the decision of what to have for dinner.

The ‘out of control’ students that we are discussing have missed the early years of encountering predictability and so we have to create the conditions to deliver that experience.  Teachers sometimes are reluctant to introduce such a tight structure into their classroom because the majority of kids are well beyond this phase of development, they can deal with a degree of freedom to make decisions.  However, presenting such a predicable classroom will not hamper any of these advanced kids’ development; knowing what to expect makes everyone feel secure.

For those kids who are ‘out of control’ we need to reconstruct the conditions they should have experienced in early childhood.  The more we can couple the consequence to the action the quicker they develop a new set of memories and these can replace those that drive their dysfunctional behaviour.  This means in the classroom we need to develop a set of rules that describe the behaviour and what happens if you act that way.  These can be desired outcomes, positive reinforcement or just the opposite, negative consequences.  In a previous Newsletter (‘Creating Structure’ – 12th August 2019) I have described the process of constructing the type of desired environment.

 Choosing behaviour all gets back to applying memories of what happened in the past and imagining what will happen in the future.  The purpose of structure is to build a new set of memories that hopefully will eventually replace those feelings of hopelessness these children have because they never developed consistent conditions that allowed them to imagine a future.

A note to the teacher; if you are dealing with a fourteen-year-old child understand you are dealing with fourteen years of memories.  Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately change, this takes time and when they are really threatened they will have no choice but to revert to their dysfunctional behaviour.  But, if you hang in long enough they will eventually understand the link between what they do and what happens to them and if you do this for them you are setting them off to a life with some sense of empowerment.

Posted by: AT 09:04 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 09 2020


In the previous Newsletter (see ‘The Importance of Emotions’ 3rd March 2020) we discussed not only the importance of the emotional condition of the student in the lesson but also the difficulty the teacher has in determining that state.  To avoid misinterpreting how the child is feeling and the problems that can cause, we turned to conversation to clarify the real emotional situation.  However, like all things about educating those difficult, damaged students it in very likely these kids struggle to make meaningful conversations.

It was first acknowledged as early as 1995 that children from low socioeconomic areas were behind in their language skills.  Claudia Wallis in her article ‘Talking with—Not Just to—Kids Powers How They Learn Language’ (Scientific American Mind May/June 2019) points out that these kids are likely to hear 30 million less words than their peers from wealthier groups.  This figure is an average, of course there are wealthy families that don’t talk that much and the converse is true but it holds as an average.

I have no problem hypothesising that children from abusive and particularly neglectful families will have an even greater disparity.  The well documented effect abuse and neglect has on over all brain development will exacerbate this problem.

John Gabriel of the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology has confirmed the early hypothesis but has realised that it is not just the number of words they hear, the quantity but the way in which they hear them, the context.  That is, it is hearing the words in conversation that is the factor and the better the quality of that conversation the better the development of the child’s conversational skills.  In fact, it has been calculated that every additional conversation increases the child’s verbal ability.

In a future Newsletter I will discuss the importance of self-talk in self-managing behaviour.  It is widely accepted that we think in word, that is we talk to ourselves about the situation we experience.  Of course, it is not that simple we experience emotions, especially things that frighten us without a dialogue.  One view is that the words follow the feelings another view is the two are linked and, as we will explore, self-talk can influence emotions.  Either way, kids with traumatic backgrounds are disadvantaged.  First, they will have a limited vocabulary which will restrict the breath of their thinking, therefore their behavioural options. Secondly, the emotions they mainly experience will be of anxiety and fear.  Therefore, we should do everything we can do to increase their conversational skills.  After all self-talk is a conversation with someone who should be your best friend – yourself and so the richer we can make this the better will be our relationship with ourselves, our sense of self!!

We need to be a bit more specific when describing conversation, it needs to be a real exchange, not the teacher ‘talking’ to the student but what is described as conversational twinning or duets.  This back-and-forward exchange means the student has to understand what the conversation is about, that is really comprehend what was said and then respond appropriately.  For abused kids this is definitely not likely to be an easy task.  They rarely participate in family conversations and are less likely to be expected to have an opinion.  So, how do we develop this critical skill, for these kids in a busy classroom?

There is a wealth of excellent information on teaching conversation available on the web and teachers, especially in primary school are well trained in this practice, so the following comments, although appropriate for all students are really aimed at our special kids.

If you work in a school that has some of these students, and that most likely means all of you reading this, it is important to create a planned part of your day that provides an opportunity to develop conversation.  This can be group discussions, circle activities where you create a continuous conversation one sentence per person around the circle or one on one conversations about topics you introduce.  You can design spaces, say in a library that encourage children to talk together or ask open ended questions that challenge children to go deeper as they express ideas.

Be aware of the character of your students, some will love to dominate any conversation, they love the sound of their own voice.  These kids can severely intimidate kids who lack the confidence to join in, they are afraid of being exposed.  Don’t force the issue, if you push them to participate their anxiety will increase and the conversation will be lost.  Of course, some kids are generally quiet and are happy to listen.

There are plenty of strategies, things like working in pairs, having circle discussion moving around with each child contributing to build a conversation, this encourages them to listen.  As pointed out above a conversation requires the participant to understand what was said before constructing a suitable reply.  Dominant members of the circle are prone to just wait for the other to stop talking so they can have their say.  Teachers should be aware of this, in the unequal authority between teacher and student it is easy for the teacher to ‘know what should be done’!  This is disastrous but I know I am often guilty of this very thing.  If you have to, teach listening skills!

The next thing is to decide on what topics to teach.  This is up to the imagination and creativity of the teacher, there is no real limit.  But, it is not always easy to get the right topic at the right time.  You can have the same amount of success if you have a ‘Topics Jar’ which is full of issues that will start conversations.  You can just pick one out and have that as the topic of the day!

However, with our focus on helping those students with severe behaviours it is advantageous to discuss topics that will help them come to terms with their circumstances and discover new ways to approach their schooling.  A couple of suggestions are:

  • Gratitude
    • What are some of the things you feel grateful for today?
    • What do you have but don’t need but are happy you have?
    • What are some things you have that are easy to complain about but are glad you have for rainy days?
    • What do you get to do that other children can’t do?
  • Empathy
    • Did you have a chance to be kind today?
    • How do you think other people feel when you are kind to them?
    • Who gets teased at school and why?
    • How do you think the kids doing the teasing feel about themselves?
    • Does anyone ever try to stop teasing?
    • If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
  • Mental Health
    • What feeling is the most uncomfortable – embarrassment – anger – fear – or something else?
    • What are some things you could tell yourself when your brain tells you things that are too negative to be true?
    • How will you face your fears?

Helping kids whose behaviour is driven from a history of abuse and/or neglect is a principled profession but it comes with an extremely challenging responsibility.  However, at the heart of all their behaviours is an emotion that drives their behaviour.  Helping them comprehend what is going on for them in the presenting environment requires them to think and they need the words to make that process meaningful.  By improving their ability to have a productive dialogue with others strengthens their ability to talk to themselves!

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Monday, November 25 2019

The Social Teacher

This is the third in this series of Newsletters on the needs and drives of students and how this relates to their learning.  By now you should be conscious of the destructive power of rejection which is particularly potent for developing children.  This is when they are forming their sense of self.

Your acceptance is also critical when it comes to learning new work.  We all find it stressful when we are confronted with problems for which we have no answer.  Kids find this as well, especially those who have no self-confidence.  When they will feel supported they are more likely to approach that new work.


The illustration above shows the connection.  If there is no relationship between the teacher and the student the student must face the lesson alone with only their existing memories to help them.  As this is a stressful situation the child is doubly disadvantaged because the increased emotional arousal makes cognitive thinking all the more difficult.  This is a dysfunctional situation.

However, if the teacher and the student have a supportive relationship then the student goes to the new work supported and importantly feeling protected and safe.  These are the conditions for future learning.

For children with a healthy sense of self, this connection is important especially in the early years.  If you have children, you probably got sick of hearing just how much Ms Smith knows more than you.  Infants need to have that strong bond.


As they mature and develop their own sense of self the relationship becomes progressively less important and by the time they reach their senior years and into tertiary studies the teacher’s ability to facilitate the information to be learnt is more important than the relationship. The graphic above illustrates this point.

In the primary school the relationship needs to be strong as indicated by the line between the teacher and student.  In secondary the relationship becomes a little less important and the need to connect socially with their peers becomes more important (see Newsletters Tribal Teacher, 29 July 2019 and Tribal Classroom, 1 August 2018).  The teacher needs to expand the feeling of connectedness beyond being more directly involved with the student.  By the time students reach their senior secondary years and into their post school learning even this relational situation becomes less important.  They are more focused on the establishment of intimate relationship and in most cases, if the go to university they may well be in a class on over 100 students and never talk to their teachers, in fact I believe most don’t even attend and watch an online versions of the lecture.

However, for those children who have been raised to develop a toxic sense of their ‘self’ the strength of the relationship remains essential throughout their schooling.

Almost without exception, when you ask any of your friends they will have had at least one teacher that they really connected with, that inspired them.  Conversely, if you think about your own schooling there will be teachers who made no connection and even made you loath their lessons.  For me, it was Smithy (real name) who inspired me and an un-mentionable maths teacher who is at the heart of my fear of mathematics!   

You have to understand that every day you can be either of those teachers depending on how you relate to them.  If you are reading this, I’m pretty sure I know what type you are but it is worth reminding ourselves that this is a profession and you are obliged to build a positive relationship with all your students particularly those whose behaviour towards you initiates a natural repugnance.  These are the children, and by now we know why they behave that way that need you to accept them.  Ironically, although they are hard to like, they remain suspicious of any attempt they perceive to be kindness, if you hang in with a genuine effort they are the ones who crave attention the most and the ones who thrive when someone believes in them.

You need to be that teacher who, to paraphrase Barack Obama has got the heart, the empathy, to recognise what it’s like to be a young teenage mum, have been traumatised in early childhood, to have seen parents fight, part or die.  You will have all these kids and more in your class and you have the most precious gift, you can be that teacher who allows them to move into a healthy life.  What a privilege.

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Monday, October 14 2019


These Newsletters concentrate on the lessons from neuroscience for describing student’s dysfunctional behaviour.  However, there is value in re-visiting some of the old models that pioneered analysis of behaviour.  This essay focuses on the work of Rudolf Dreikurs, the Austrian psychiatrist who worked in the United States.  He followed the models developed by Alfred Addler who believed that the development of personality was underpinned by of the feeling of inferiority in relation to others.  Dreikurs claimed that every child’s action was grounded in the idea that they were seeking their place in the group.  Success in belonging developed well-adjusted children however, the experience of rejection could cultivate faulty behaviours that could drive the ‘others’ further away.

When the application of this approach is focused on the classroom the key to dealing with these behaviours is to re-establish the connection with the students.  This is the work of the teacher who, in Dreikurs’ theory will be successful if they understand how each child acts to get the attention they desire. 

He describes four categories, attention seeking, power, revenge and inadequacy or withdrawal.  There have been some interpretations of this work that suggest the student goes from attention seeking through to power to demand attention and if all these fail they withdraw.  This may be the case, they may be discrete behaviours or, as I would contend all behaviour is unique and the model ‘chunks’ behaviours for convenience.  Whatever the situation the model does provide a fresh insight that will increase each teacher’s arsenals of techniques to deal with misbehaviour.

As stated above, the underpinning concept for the model is the drive is the need to get recognition from the teacher within the group.  Their behaviour is the response/reaction to the success of their actions; rejection produces an intensification of their actions.  This increase in the effort to get attention would explain the escalation from attention seeking to power.  

The Model

Attention Seeking – acting to draw attention to themselves

  • Behaviours – Behaving in an annoying manner to get attention.  Things like tapping their fingers, swinging on their chairs, late for class and a host of other creative behaviours.
  • Effect on Teacher – They will certainly ‘get your attention’ but for all the wrong reasons.  You will become irritated and annoyed and the intensity can challenge your confidence.  Your impulse will be to fulfil their wish and ‘give them attention’.  You can find yourself yelling, nagging. Pleading or even doing things for them. 
  • Child’s Response – They may stop the inappropriate behaviour for a while and go back to it when you think you have ‘won’ or they might find substitute behaviour to continue the attack.
  • Strategy – You may ignore the behaviour if it is not too intense but this rarely works for a real attention seeker.  You can use low level interventions like standing in close proximity, use non-verbal cues or a single direct instruction however, eventually use the structure you have initiated in the class (see Newsletter – Creating Structure 12th August 2019).  The secret is to give them attention for appropriate behaviour – catch them doing the ‘right thing’.

Power – They demand your attention by behaving in a manner that challenges you to ignore them. 

  • Behaviours – They become non-compliant, provocative and defiant.  They happily engage you in an argument or threaten you with their non-verbal communication.  They may throw things around the room or attack other students.
  • Effect on Teacher – You will feel threatened, challenged and be tempted to engage them in a power struggle, after all you are the teacher.  You will be thinking things like ‘you can’t get away with that’ or ‘I’ll make you comply’.  Inexperienced or unassertive teachers may feel inadequate in dealing with these kids and kick them out of class. 
  • Child’s Response – If you do challenge them they may intensify their behaviour they may enjoy the realisation they have got your attention.  Even if they do comply, this is more likely for younger students, they will remain defiant often using passive aggressive behaviours to continue the ‘struggle’. 
  • Strategy – Refuse to get trapped into any power struggle, acknowledge at least to yourself that you can’t make anyone do anything, you can just provide the consequences for the decision they will make.  So, have your structured consequences and deliver them in a calm manner.  However, you need to complement this approach with an effort to build a relationship.  After they have calmed down you can, privately ask them what they want from you.  Suggest a time and place to do this and give them the respect of listening carefully to what they have to say.  Work out a plan with the student and follow through with that plan.

Revenge – These kids have moved beyond expecting attention, their motivation is to punish those who ignore them.  Even though they want to ‘hurt’ others their actions are a really a sense of projecting their pain onto something else.  I suspect this is the cause of a lot of apparent senseless vandalism.

  • Behaviours – They are sullen, vicious towards others and will use violence.  They scratch cars and destroy the property of others without a sense of guilt.  The target is often the school occasionally resulting the fires.  They don’t care that no one knows who was responsible just that someone got hurt!
  • Effect on Teacher – They feel deeply hurt and outraged.  The revengeful actions leave the staff disgusted and, if they know who was responsible a deep dislike is developed; how could they do this to us?  The teachers naturally want to retaliate, get even!
  • Child’s Response – They will either escalate their behaviour or choose another ‘weapon’.  They continue damage property to hurt others.
  • Strategy – If you know who it is, the key is to hang in with them longer than they expect.  Somehow show them that they are worth your efforts.  Sometimes you don’t know who it is but this underlines the importance of having this tenacity for every child.  Never retaliate but deliver the consequences without showing your own feelings.  This is the time to remember all kids are worth the effort.  If appropriate acknowledge that they are hurting.

Inadequacy or Withdrawal – At this stage they have given-up trying to get attention.  However, they have not ‘given-up’ the need for attention.  They still want to be accepted so don’t give up on them.

  • Behaviours – They appear not to care about their work or what happens to them.  Punishment is never a productive response especially for these kids (see Newsletters ‘Consequences’ 36th March 2018 and ‘Consequences Neither Punishment nor Reward’ 4th April 2018).  Older students truant a lot even staying away from school completely.
  • Effect on Teacher – You feel inadequate because you can’t seem to reach them.  You may even start to agree with them almost confirming they are hopeless.  There is the temptation to ‘over-help’ them even doing the work for them.  Or, you come to expect they will do nothing and leave them to waste away. 
  • Child’s Response – Its hard to see any escalation in their behaviour.  They continue to withdraw or at best pretend to ‘have a go’.
  • Strategy – Never give up on these kids, don’t criticise, don’t pity them.  They are a real challenge but can be retrieved.  Try to find some interest, some strength they may have and exploit this as a way into their world.  Set tasks around this ‘interest’ and break the work down into manageable, errorless tasks and celebrate any milestone you can achieve.  Encourage, encourage, encourage!

Dreikurs’ model provides an alternate way to observe behaviour however, following these Newsletters and other resources we provide, you will conclude that every behaviour is unique, driven by distinctive needs and developmental histories.  The strategic advice given above, complies with all our advice and that can be expressed as:

  • Expected standards
  • Predictable and consistent structure

The key is to have effective, positive relations will all your students even those that challenge you every day.  They are worth it!

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Monday, August 12 2019

Creating Structure

There will be times in your teaching career where you will have to deal with an extremely disruptive class.  The students may have such a low sense of respect for the school, for you and unfortunately, for themselves they don’t worry about the impact their behaviour is having.  The question for the teacher is ‘where to start’?  There are so many inappropriate behaviours it appears to be overwhelming.  Too often we just start to ‘fix everything’ and that becomes impossible so this Newsletter will provide a structured approach to taming this class.

The illustration below shows a range of problems faced in the class.  Instead of trying to deal with all of them, choosing one concentrates the teacher’s efforts.   This doesn’t mean you accept the other behaviours, you do what you have been doing but by making a real, extra effort on one you can make a difference.


 Now you have chosen the issue you want to address take the following steps to solve this problem.  You do this by creating classroom rules.  Before we start just a reminder that it is most effective if you include the class in this process but if they are not willing to engage you can implement this by yourself or if you can with colleagues.  The process follows these steps:

1. Identify the Real Problem

Because you think ‘it’s annoying’ is not a reason you will get support  from the class.  You have to identify what really is the problem with talking and you need to acknowledge there are times you want your student to talk but at the right time for the right reason.  Remember this is ‘inappropriate talking’ that we are concerned with.  The class will soon identify, with your help plenty of reasons this is hurting their learning.  These include things like ‘no one else can hear the teacher’, ‘it’s rude to talk when others are trying to listen’, ‘it interrupts others who are trying to concentrate’ etc.  Eventually you will get to the real problem hopefully that the class agrees with or at least they are told why inappropriate talking hurts their learning. 

The final purpose might be as follows:

  • Talking when someone else is, stops that person being heard and stops learning. Talking too loud distracts others from learning both here and in other classes

Then write this down as the problem we are going to solve, put it on display - Inappropriate Talking Stops Learning.

2. Brainstorm Possible Solutions

Once you have identified the problem get the class, including yourself to brainstorm possible consequences.  Stick to brainstorming ‘rules’ that is don’t discuss them as they are suggested just get them down.  One exception to this is when they come up with ridiculous but funny ideas.  If such a proposal gets a laugh then you can bet more will follow.  Allow one, sometimes these are gems but stop it there.

A Typical List might be:

Sent from class – Yelled at – Given a warning – Given the cane

Write lines – Given homework – Cut out their tongue

Clean-up the playground – Kept in to make up time

Sent to principal – Made to stand in the corner – Shift seats

3. Yes/ No the Solutions

Now, for the first time you discuss each consequence using the following criteria:

  • Is it a consequence or is it a punishment?  The difference has been explained in a previous Newsletter but briefly, a consequence is understood to be a result of that action not just something the teacher made-up to upset the student!
  • Is the consequence appropriate for the level of the behaviour?  You might find that students are often too severe in their idea of what is required, Keep these realistic.
  • Can the consequence be realistically applied?  It’s no use putting in place a consequence that is against the rules of the school or department.  For instance you can’t keep students in after school without a lot of parental permission.
  • Do the students accept this as a fair outcome for that behaviour?  It must be seen to be fair for all concerned.

Then place a Y beside those that meet the criteria and N against those that fail to pass the fairness test.

The following could be the result of this process.

Sent from class Y – Yelled at N – Given a warning Y – Given the cane N

Write lines N – Given homework N – Cut out their tongue N

Clean-up the playground N – Kept in to make up time Y

Sent to principal Y – Made to stand in the corner N – Shift seats Y

When you have completed this process eliminate the N’s.

4. Rank the Consequences

Now you go through the consequences left and rank them from the most severe (1) to the least severe.  The final list might be:

Sent to principal                          (1)

Sent from class                            (2)

Shift seats                                     (3)

Keep in to make up time            (4)

Apologies to the class                 (5)

Given a warning                          (6)

5. Implementation

Here you must decide if you want to have one consequence or devise a cascade from the least severe on to the most.  If the mild level consequence does not stop the behaviour the next most punitive one is applied and so on until the student is sent to the principal!  When you have decided on the ‘rule’ then write it down and display it somewhere in the classroom so the students are reminded of the new set of conditions in the class.

6. Evaluate

After the rule has been in place for a reasonable amount of time it is wise to evaluate how effective it has been in dealing with the disruptive behaviour.  Wait a while to do this evaluation because quite often when you introduce a rule the students who are most likely to cause problems will test to see if you are serious.  This is where our ‘golden rule’ for behaviour management comes in.  Always be consistent and persistent, if you are not the students will not think you a sincere!  But if, after a time there is no change, and you have been vigilant then you can repeat the steps coming up with a new set of consequences.  If the class has not really been changed by the rule you put in maybe it is time for you to set the rule without them.  Just make sure they know what is going to happen.

If the behaviour has changed then slowly let it fade away, the class has accepted a new standard.  Then you can work on another of the problems you identified.

Remember there are some behaviours that are dangerous our just too severe to go through this process and are not up for negotiation!  These you must deal with.  But for most dysfunctional behaviour this approach will allow you to take ‘control’ or more realistically have the students take control of their actions.  A pay-off is that when you get on top of a few of the behaviours most classes come to understand that you can make things change and you are in charge of providing a safe learning environment for them.  When you gain such a reputation life becomes better in other classes so it is well worth the effort!

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Monday, August 05 2019


The use of ‘levels’ systems is a popular form of behaviour control and management in institutions that deal with children who struggle with their conduct. When used correctly, it can be an effective tool to improve children’s behaviour. When used incorrectly, levels systems can be in themselves a cruel form of abuse. It can be particularly hurtful for children who have no experience of appropriate behaviour.

Inappropriate Behaviour

The definition of inappropriate behaviour is difficult. The appropriateness of any action is related to the person or persons who are exposed to the behaviour. Therefore, any judgement of a student’s conduct depends on the group in which their behaviour is displayed.  Group members will experience the inappropriateness of behaviour when they feel it is offensive or threatening. In reality, they will know this because their physical and/or psychological boundaries will have been violated.

To be offended or not, presents as two discrete sets of behaviour; you are either offended or not offended; you cannot be partially offended. This is not to say the magnitude of the affecting behaviour is not on a gradient. Obviously, levels of offence can range from mild disapproval through to sheer terror. However, when working with dysfunctional children; trying to teach them about offensive behaviour by tolerating any such behaviour will confuse the child.

Children who habitually demonstrate dysfunctional behaviour need to learn appropriate conduct.  Learning can only be through trial and error, and if they are to assume a state in which their habit is to act appropriately, there will be a time when they have to think about how to behave. To pass through this phase of behaviour modification requires both the child, and the arbitrator, to be in a calm state. When stressed, they will revert to their existing habitual reactions to any situation. In a group setting, the arbitrator must be aware of his or her own activities as well as the actions of all other members of the group. This does not excuse inappropriate behaviour, but it provides a major complication in the process of changing behaviour.

The following issues arise for levels systems:

  • Others define what is offensive.
  • When more than one person is in control of behaviour arbitration, the definition of appropriate can vary.
  • Individual arbitrators’ boundaries are not constant; on one day they will tolerate behaviour (because they are in a good mood), and on the next day they will punish that same behaviour
  • Workers are tempted to tolerate mild misbehaviour either because they take the patronizing view that it is the best they can do or the worker fears any outburst from the child if they impose a sanction.
  • The environment must promote a feeling of calm acceptance of the child.

Levels systems can be a productive tool in the task of changing behaviour. However, to successfully implement a program requires a thorough understanding of:

  • the complexity of the program
  • the dangers of misuse
  • every child’s need to be accepted into a calm, supportive environment

There are various methods to create a ‘scoring’ method to track a child’s behaviour across any school day.  When you are working with severe disturbed children it is prudent to divide the period of time they achieve a positive ‘score’ into small chunks, say ten-minute blocks.  These can be accumulated across a day and then across an extended period of time.  This design will depend on the children.  However, the scores should always be on display and you should never take away any points the child has earned.  This is extremely unfair for those kids who struggle to initially achieve even the tiniest improvement and is no more than a form of punishment, something they have a lot of experience about and there is no more certain way to have these kids opt out of this process.

For a successful levels program to be put implemented the following conditions must be in place:

  • Feedback should indicate the level of success the child has achieved as a proportional number (a percentage).
  • Students must continually reach this mark to progress. They must be allowed to move up and down until they can unconsciously behave in an appropriate manner.
  • The goal should not be 100 per cent success, as human error is constant and should not be ignored.
  • The environment must be consistent and persistent.
  • Implementation should be done in calm, non-threatening manner (100 per cent acceptance of the child and 100 per cent rejection of inappropriate behaviour).

The over-riding principle of a level system is solely to provide feedback to the child in regards to how they are behaving within the functional definitions of the classroom.  One of the great failings occurs when teachers and schools use their ‘Levels System’ as a form of punishment or reward.  This is extremely counter-productive as any resulting changes that are driven by that external motivation will not become integrated in the child’s habitual behaviour.  In a future Newsletter I will discuss the failings of the use of rewards and/or punishment as a motivation of behavioural change.

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Monday, July 29 2019

The Tribal Teacher

The focus of our work is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours.  These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self, exclusion or neglect from the only ‘tribe’ they have ever experienced - their family.  Louis Cozolino, the American psychologist has been at the forefront of this approach in assisting children with a history of abuse.  He has provided a detailed review of what he calls the tribal classroom in his book ‘Attachment-Based Teaching - Creating a Tribal Classroom’ (see Newsletter of 1st August 2018 – The Tribal Classroom). 

Unfortunately, or some would declare ‘fortunately’ this approach has morphed into a formal program that has provided a step by step approach to develop creating a ‘tribal classroom’.  We have seen this ‘trademarking’ of many a ‘good idea’ repeated over and over again in behaviour modification programs; take the positive psychology movement that has spawned ‘Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support’ (PBIS), the once valued ‘Reality Therapy/Choice Theory’, ‘Assertive Discipline’; the list goes on.  These are all underpinned by a deal of common sense but as soon as you ‘formalise’ it you lose the ability to cater for the diversity of our children.  

However, the point is, we can help these kids by providing group activities that promote the opportunities for all students to develop secure attachments to the group and from that within the classroom.  The students we focus on will find this difficult at first but by providing a few group-rules their anxiety can be reduced and they can develop what Cololino describes as a social synapse.  The formal program outlines these as:

  • Attentive Listening
  • Showing appreciation of everyone’s contribution
  • Each student having the right to participate, or not
  • There is a sense of mutual respect

In this Newsletter I want to focus on the teacher’s role in this approach.  I am not going to indulge into restating all the great information that is available including the ‘quality teaching’ model – another systematization of common sense but as the ‘parent’ of the tribal class.

At the top of every good parenting inventory is the importance of being a good role model.  Children are so busy watching what you do they can’t hear what you are saying.  They will become the person you are so it is important to ‘be the person’ you want them to be. 

It goes beyond just modelling, as ‘parent’ you are the leader of the group and what the students want more than anything else is a consistent, predictable environment where they can learn, through trial and correction how to successfully navigate through life with a sense of self-control.

There is an age ‘gradient’ in this approach.  When they are very young they are unable to really make meaningful choices, they don’t have enough knowledge and so you have to present them with situational scenarios where they learn the fundamental skills.  This necessitates a more ‘authoritarian’ approach but this must be balanced with complete fairness in a nurturing environment. 

Someone has to be in-charge and that person is you!  As they get older, this authoritarian approach by the teacher changes to become one of a ‘constructionist’ where the responsibility for student behaviour is placed firmly on their shoulders.  In my experience this is a rare achievement, most school leavers still have a fair bit of ‘improving’ to do but by the time they are about to exit school we would hope they are all at least predominantly responsible.

They need to experience the negative consequences when they choose the ‘wrong’ behaviour in an effort to get their needs met but these should be delivered with the emphasis on the behaviour not the child.  In your dealings with the students, at any age the following is a good guide to achieving this:

  • Encouragement should outweigh praise.  The latter can become destructive in their teens.
  • Consequences should always replace punishments.  Punishment never works in the long run (see Newsletter 2nd April 2018 – Consequences – Neither Punishment not Reward) punishment teaches the kids what not to do.  Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving.  The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours.  They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.
  • Co-operation should always dominate obedience, this is age sensitive. For instance, more and more we see young children defying their parents when it comes to them ‘getting their way’.  I watch my grandchildren using a whole range of behaviour to change their parent’s decisions after they have said ‘no’!  There are times when ‘because I said so’ is probably the right thing to do; these children are not able to understand the long-term consequences of eating the junk food they crave!

However, eventually we want our children to be independent, communal obedience is a feature of political dictatorships and social cooperation is the mark of a healthy society. 

Finally, here are some ‘parent tips’ to help you engage with your class:

  • Be involved with their life – find out about their interests, where they have lived, understand their history at an appropriate level.  We don’t have the right to understand the details of their ‘intimate’ life but when the student knows you are interested they are more likely to form the relationship that will help them engage in your lessons.

How often have I helped a relationship with a ‘troubled’ student just by finding out which sporting team or ‘rock star’ he/she follows.  When I know this, I take every opportunity to ‘bump into them’ in the playground an engage in some good-fun banter.

  • Always get to the classroom before the students and as they arrive greet them with their name and, if appropriate give them a ‘high five’, ‘fist pump’ or just shake hands; do this with a smile.  This is one of the most powerful things you can do, it sends the message that you want to be there.  Contrast this with the effect teachers, who arrive late and then criticise the students for not ‘waiting quietly in line’!  What message is that behaviour sending to the class?
  • Tell them things about your life.  Some teachers balk at this; I suspect they feel their life is none of the student’s business.  On an intimate scale they are right, your personal life is your business but if you accept the importance of a relationship you have to participate.  Telling them stories about your childhood, as lame as these may feel to you is very powerful.  It humanises you.
  • Finish the lesson with a story – in primary schools this can be a serial, despite the benefits of engaging them in literacy the ‘right’ story teaches them about life and at least you send them home looking forward to the next day!  It is hypothesised that this is a primitive need, a throw-back to the times when tribes finished their days sitting around a campfire exchanging stories.

This Newsletter has focused on a teacher’s approach to the tribal classroom and is not to be considered part of the extensive literature being bombarded into schools and an ever-increasing rate.  I believe that relationships are at the core of all successful educational experiences.  Further, they exist in the lower areas of our brain, the limbic system and as such are much more difficult to access and to change. 

This modern approach to teacher training focuses on cognitive contributions which are quick and easy to implement for educated adults (teachers) but:

  • They are not appropriate for the young developing mind which requires ‘lessons’ for their emotional and social education
  • These cognitive lessons ‘disappear’ when the students’ stress levels are raised and they start behaving based on their emotional and social beliefs.

When all is said and done the teacher/student relationship is the most important feature of quality education and that boils down to how each participant feel about each other.

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Monday, July 22 2019


Teaching very difficult students is extremely stressful.  Although there will be incidents that are exceedingly traumatic, it is the day to day grind of working with these kids and that build-up of stress that will destroy your health.  At these times you will build-up an excess of physical and emotional energy.  Unless you do discharge this energy, it remains ‘locked’ in your physiology.  Debriefing is the process of discharging that energy, especially the emotional element.

Much of the literature on debriefing refers to the process of providing a service for those who have been exposed to a traumatic event.  This Newsletter is more about you having the means to deal with your own emotional load within a school or other specialist setting.  For ‘extreme’ traumatic events you need specialist support to deal with the victims.

On an individual level, the self-delivered debriefing process is very much following the steps outlined above in the recovery section.  These are the physical, emotional and behavioural activities itemised in this section.  This ‘self-help’ is predominantly the use of physical practices such as going to a gym, jogging, swimming anything that gets you to use up that energy that had been activated at the time you were stressed. 

One technique I have used that is effective to immediately release the physical excess present after a very stressful incident is to go to a private place in the school, with a towel and out of the sight of others, twist the towel as hard as I could, I would talk to it, get all my frustrations out on that piece of material.  The feeling of release was significant. 

I have seen others use the action of punching a special bag or other inert object to achieve this result.  There are mixed opinions about using this approach.  There is some evidence it doesn’t relieve the emotional component caused by the aggravation, the participants remain angry towards the object of their frustration. 

There is also the idea that punching, as a solution for a problem could be generalised.  Punching another may have a short-term pay-off but there is a chance that the practice of punching an inert bag could unconsciously evolve into punching the object that caused the stress!  Some would argue that it is the repetitive movement of the punching that reproduces a type of soothing, this repetition has seen in the rhythmic technique in swimming also seen as a productive approach to elevated stress levels.

The self-help approach may not be as effective in dealing with the psychological load as would working with others.  It may well be that you can get support from a colleague when you are under elevated stress levels.  This could be a friend or co-worker who you trust.  It is best, but not vital if this support person works in the same field.  They will understand the problems you face and their validation carries a lot of weight.  You both know what is really going on.

The use of your own intimate partner, wife, parent or even one of your children is not so clear cut.  To provide an effective environment for a victim the support person must remain partially detached from the concerns raised in this issue.  It is hard for your intimate other not to feel an emotional connection, it is the nature of the relationship!  However, they will be your greatest support and not sharing is shutting them out, this is not advisable for a meaningful relationship. 

This is a real difficult issue; the best debriefing really is from someone who can remain detached from your emotions but compassionate about how you would feel because they really understand what it is like to be in that situation.

Therefore, try to develop a network of supporters who you can use and who will use you when they are needed.  Personal contact is preferable but the use of technology such as Skype is a good substitute.  Avoid social media, the things you say at this time will be sensitive and not for public consumption or for your record!

The last thing I will mention is debriefing for those establishments that deal with difficult kids as a group.  These are vital in maintaining a healthy team culture, they allow the psychological wounds that occur throughout each day but these sessions are not for those occasional times when the level of personal damage is significant, either for the students or a staff member.  This is the cool down time, the time for the physical body to recover is complete.

In the work place there will be times when the outburst has created issues that challenge the practices of the organisation.  These may involve the potential of future discipline action or legal concerns.  This does not imply there is no need for debriefing but at these times the management should provide professional, independent counselling.  However, for the day to day situations a less formal, but no less important debriefing practice there is a benefit of having the ‘team’ debrief itself!

There are some rules to be followed if you are setting-up a formal debriefing session at the end of each working shift.  These are fairly obvious:

  • Begin Simply – Even if you know there has been a fairly difficult situation the staff has dealt with don’t go straight into discussing that.  By generally discussing the day that issue will emerge when the ‘time is right’.  This relies on a level of trust that must exist!  In fact, without trust debriefing can become an additional stressor!
  • Equal Rights – Although we don’t have equal rights in our places of work we do have equity at a personal level.  No one individual’s needs are more important than any others.   Debriefing is not about allocating blame or setting future agendas it is solely about dealing with the emotional discomfort of the day.
  • There are no ‘power plays’ – We will never repair everyone’s emotional state if there is an obvious difference in how each member of the team is valued; any imbalance of power will not allow long term issues to be addressed effectively.
  • No Secrets – Too often people fail to tell exactly how they feel.  On the one hand it may be because they don’t trust everyone at the meeting or they may feel that others can’t handle their feelings.  Often the stress is because there has been a conflict between staff members.  It is these that must be addressed; if not they can destroy the whole program.  There are no records of these meetings and any comments are to stay within the group.  If, as a result of the discussion the group agree that some things need to change then everyone is involved in the decision and those outside of the team should not be privy to the discussions that led to that policy change.
  • The Environment – Conduct the debriefing in a pleasant environment.  Make sure everyone is comfortable and there are no distractions.  Avoid everyone having a cup of coffee or tea as enjoyable as that may seem, debriefing is a formal part of the day.
  • Punctuality – always start and finish at a set time.  On most days you will feel the atmosphere lighten and, in my experience, when the debriefing is accomplished the groups will soon be laughing about the day.  Be aware that in all stressful occupations the humour has a very dark quality; this should be expected and although may sometime appear to be disrespectful, you have to remember these are the people who front up every day and do there best for the kids.  Their actions define the respect they have for the students! 

If, on the other hand the mood within debriefing remains tense still finish at the designated time.  The issue will still need to be addressed but by waiting for the next opportunity allows time for all to reflect on the situation.  The main thing is not to carry on discussions with colleagues about the issue outside the confines of the debriefing process.  To do so would be very destructive.

Debriefing is an important practice to maintain the health of any organisation that deals with highly demanding work.  In a perfect world this would be a formal part of every working day however, in today’s busy world there seems to be no time for taking care of others.  This is a travesty, taking time to debrief is the best long-term investment any organisation can make!

Posted by: AT 07:57 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 18 2019

Converting Teachers' Lessons to Intrinsic Motivation

How often do we hear the comment ‘anyone can teach’ and I have to agree.  I see ex- footballers, netballers, etc. most afternoons ‘teaching’ youngsters how to play their sports.  The thing is anyone, who has the knowledge can teach someone who wants to learn that topic.  What defines a professional teacher is one who can teach a child something they:

  • Don’t want to learn
  • Don’t think they can learn
  • Have no reason to learn

Yet every day we go into our class armed with a syllabus full of topics that children, not only have the above attitudes, they often have no idea what the teacher is talking about.  But, every day successful teachers meet this challenge and they do this by motivating their students.

In a previous Newsletter, I discuss human motivations and how they are related to our physical and emotional wellbeing.  When we are dealing with the curriculum we are dealing with the child’s intellectual ‘wellbeing’!  The challenge is to create a level of stress that will motivate the child to learn.  We want our students to ‘want to know’ about the topic we are presenting; we want them to be motivated to learn.

In 1985, Edward l. Deci and Richard M. Ryan published ‘Intrinsic Motivation and Self- Determination in Human Behaviour’ and this underpinned what was to become Self-Determination Theory.  This theory explained how motivation supports the journey to independence, to make one’s own choices and control one’s life.  Of course, I can’t argue with this as a goal although I would add a few things like being ethical, responsible and contributing to make your community a ‘better place’.

Deci and Ryan discuss motivation that is underpinned by three drives:

  • Relatedness – A sense of belonging, interacting with others.  Caring for them and having that support returned
  • Autonomy – To be the causal agent in your life.  Your behaviour is self-endorsed and you are the master of your own destiny
  • Competence – You control the outcomes of your behaviour, you have the knowledge and skills to be successful in your community

These drives are very specific and can be part of any model of human needs but they have in common being involved with the cognitive processing of behaviours.  From the previous Newsletter this type of motivation is only possible as an active drive if our physical and emotional needs are generally satisfied.  The following discussion will describe this model but keep in mind that a successful fulfilment is limited to children who have a secure sense of self.

There are two further facets to be considered and these are:

  • Extrinsic Motivation – A drive that comes from an external force or demand to achieve nonessential goals.  In the extreme this motivation will be to get a pleasant reward or to avoid a disagreeable punishment.
  • Intrinsic Rewards – These come from the individual’s core values and a desire to seek new challenges and experiences.  The behaviour is at the heart of curiosity and enhances their expression of their ‘best self’.

The Model describes motivation being on a continuum based on the amount of external/internal motivation.  The continuum runs from an ‘amotive’ position, a point of no motivation, no prospective outcomes and no drive to behave through to a situation where all behaviour is driven by the internal drives outlined above.  The relevant behaviour is driven by self-interest and will satisfy the person’s desires; this is the point of authentic, intrinsic motivation.  Because the outcome they are working towards is so ‘rewarding’ the students will be fully focused on the task.

The point of interest for the teacher is how do we get the students to this point when we present them with another lesson on ‘simultaneous equations’?  This is particularly challenging when dealing with disengaged students.  In a previous Newsletter (Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward – 2nd April 2018) I discussed the problem of using rewards as a form of motivation however, when you are faced with a student with no interest you may find offering a reward is the only option.  This should only be the point of entry into the student’s world on motivation.

The task is to somehow link the pursuit of a ‘reward’ with a student’s sense of control.  That is, they have some power in the transaction that drives participation.  If you can then link this with an attachment to their values system, that is, if they can understand simultaneous equations it will enhance their drive for:

  • Relatedness - they are accepted by their peers and admired by the teacher
  • Competence – they have mastered a difficult skill
  • Autonomy – They have become independent in dealing with this mathematical problem

The teacher can support this change by teaching their students about goal setting.  Explain that to learn to solve simultaneous equations can have long term benefits; depending on the maturity of these students this could range from next week’s test for very young or disengaged students to university entry for those rare, mature, students.  Then teach them about breaking this task down to short term achievable goals that give them, and you a chance to reflect and celebrate.

The result is the student will become more engaged in the lesson.  As success breeds success the more you can develop this intrinsic motivation the most successful your students will be.  Sounds easy but it is not however, it can be achieved with patience and persistence.

Posted by: AT 10:39 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 11 2019

100 Ways to Say "Well Done"!


We all enjoy praise and it is recognised as an effective method to motivate students.  However, in the times of Skinnerian psychology, the reward/punishment approach to behaviour modification, there was an emphasis on positive reinforcement as a method to sculpt children’s behaviour.  Of course, it’s hard not to feel this way, who doesn’t like to be praised?

The emphasis on praise has led to the ‘every one’s a winner’ approach to motivating children, whether that be in school or in sport.  This tactic has back fired on a lot of fronts least of all in fostering enthusiasm – ‘why try if I get a trophy anyway’ and, what’s more the trophy means nothing!

Studies in business conducted by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada in 2013 looked at the effectiveness of praise and criticism.  They found that the optimal ratio was 5.6:1, that is almost six occasions where the staff were prise for every piece of critical feedback.  The low end had a ratio of 0.36:1 a very negative environment.

You do need to provide ‘negative’ feedback to correct behaviour, how will they learn without it but it must be a criticism of their actions, what they do.  Never about what you think they are, for the students with histories of abuse and neglect and the resulting toxic shame, any negative description of what ‘they are’ only reinforces their poor sense of self.

There are times when it is impossible to provide any positive feedback.  When I first started to work with these disabled kids the idea was you had to provide at least four positive comments before you could make a negative one.  Teachers being assessed had to maintain this 4:1 ratio.  I have seen teachers, placed in front of an ‘out of control’ class desperately trying to find something positive to say let alone keep up the prescribed ratio!  Children will see any praise at this time as disingenuous and the teacher will lose their credibility!  Sometimes you have to get them quiet enough they will provide a genuine reason to praise them.

It becomes obvious that praise has some value but research has shown that the value is what you praise and what you criticise.  When you praise the child for ‘what they are’ saying things like, you’re very clever, you are a natural, you find this work very easy, etc.; there is plenty of evidence that this has a negative effect.  Children praised for ‘what they are’ will lack motivation and lose interest in the tasks and have their grades actually fall.  Most dangerous is to tell them they are very clever.

The praise should be directed at their effort and their attempts to complete tasks.  Things like ‘I can see you have made a good effort in doing those maths problems’ or ‘that work is really good, I can see how much you have improved your maths ability’.  If they think they are getting better they will keep on trying!

A more detailed description of this work is covered in a previous Newsletter on Praise found in the blog for September 12 2018.

Finally, there are a very powerful group of students who have been so rejected they view any type of praise as suspicious, they see it as an attempt to manipulate them.  For these kids just consistently praise them for the right thing without expecting any positive feedback and they will eventually change their attitude as long as you hang in.  Remember it has taken years of negative reinforcement to get them to the toxic sense of self they present, it will take a significant amount of persistence to change that position.

So, it is important to choose your words carefully.  The following are some sentence starters that might help:

  • You’ve got it made.
  • That’s right!
  • You’re on the right track now!
  • That’s good!
  • You are very good at that.
  • That’s coming along nicely.
  • That’s very much better!
  • Good work!
  • I’m happy to see you working like that.
  • You’re really working hard today.
  • You’re doing a great job.
  • You’ve just about got it.
  • That’s the best you’ve ever done.
  • That’s it!
  • Congratulations.
  • I knew you could do it.
  • That’s quite an improvement.
  • Now you have figured it out.
  • You are doing much better today.
  • Now you have it.
  • Not bad!
  • Great!
  • You’re learning fast.
  • Keep working on it. You’re getting better.
  • Good for you.
  • Couldn’t have done better myself.
  • You make it look easy.
  • You really make my job fun.
  • That’s the right way to do it!
  • One more time and you will have it.
  • You’re getting better every day.
  • You did it that time.
  • That’s not half bad.
  • Wow!
  • That’s the way!
  • Nice going.
  • Now you’ve figured it out.
  • Sensational!
  • You haven’t missed a thing.
  • That’s the way to do it.
  • Keep up the good work.
  • That’s better.
  • Nothing can stop you now!
  • That’s first-class work.
  • Excellent!
  • Perfect!
  • That’s the best ever.
  • You’re really going to town!
  • Fine! Terrific! You’ve just about mastered that!
  • That’s better than ever.
  • Nice effort.
  • Outstanding!
  • Now that’s what I call a fine job!
  • You did very well.
  • You must have been practicing!
  • Fantastic!
  • You’re doing beautifully.
  • You’re really improving.
  • Right on!
  • Good remembering.
  • Keep it up!
  • You did a lot of work today.
  • Tremendous!
  • You’re doing fine.
  • Good thinking.
  • You are really learning a lot.
  • Keep on trying.
  • You outdid yourself today.
  • I’ve never seen anyone do any better.
  • Good on you!
  • Good going!
  • I like that.
  • Marvellous!
  • I’m very proud of you.
  • I think you’ve got it now.
  • You figured that out fast!
  • You remembered!
  • That’s really nice.
  • It’s a pleasure to teach when you work like that.
  • You’re right.
  • That makes me feel good.
  • That’s great!
  • That’s it!
  • Way to go!
  • Well, look at you go!
  • Now you have the hang of it.
  • Much better! Wonderful
  • Super!
Posted by: AT 11:30 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 04 2019

The Impact of Language on the Behaviour Of Students with Behaviour or Emotional Disabilities.

The ability to effectively communicate with students is the hallmark of a great teacher.   Personal communication, because of its emotional content is at the heart of building good relationships.  The feeling of the message is just as important as the content.

It is believed that in any face to face interaction, 7% of the emotional meaning of a message is expressed with the words; 38% of the emotional component is communicated via the tone of the voice while more than half, 55%, is conveyed through facial expressions and body language

Children who have severe behaviour, or emotional, disabilities have, as a major characteristic, an extreme disability to understand, or read non-verbal cues.  This incapacity is known as dysemia.  In particular they have a hypersensitivity to negative social cues and are almost oblivious to positive messages.  Teachers, who deal with these students, need to understand that what they may consider to be a small correction will be interpreted as a major rejection; legitimate negative feedback becomes a perceived attack. 

On top of this difficulty in providing correction when students act in an inappropriate way, is that these students will also minimize, or misinterpret any positive stimulus provided by the teacher’s attempt to build a positive self-image for that student.  The value of positive reinforcement as an aid to learning is also diminished. 

The truth is, these students do not easily comprehend the intended objective of any message.  This disability creates problems at the very source of relationships and that is our communication.  What the teacher believes she is ‘saying’ and what the student ‘hears’ is very likely to be confused.

Students with this disability have a compounding feature, a propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus.  If they perceive the situation they are faced with as being fearful the initiation of their protective behaviour reduces their capacity to make sound, rational decisions about their behaviour.

From the figures cited above it can be seen that our body language and facial expressions provides the bulk of the emotional content of our communication.  On the surface, this may appear to be an easy area to rectify; the teacher just needs to present herself in a warm, friendly manner.  However, these students, with their developed hypersensitivity to emotional stimulus are not ‘easily fooled’.  Teachers cannot fake their approach to these students.  Not only will they misread the emotional content, they will also identify magnify the negative component in the message.

So how do we communicate with students with emotional and behaviour disabilities?  First, we need to re-evaluate our attitude to these children.  They are hard to like; their disability is usually expressed in ways that others find offensive.  When their behaviour ‘hurts us’ that pain will be reflected in the very non-verbal cues, those we need to regulate.  

Teachers need to use very strong boundaries, understanding they are not really the cause of the dysfunctional behaviour it is a reflection of their history and finally they need to confirm a genuine affection for these children.

How the teacher moves around the classroom should also be considered.  These children are easily ‘spooked’ and it is a good technique to marginally slow down their movements and make that movement predictable, they know where we are going.  This relaxed movement allows the students to mirror this stress-free posture.

Proximity, that is moving close to a student who is misbehaving is often cited as an effective behaviour management strategy.  By standing close to the troubling student the teacher is effectively entering that child’s boundary and they will become aware there is a potential threat and they will change their behaviour. 

For students with severe behaviour problems boundaries are a troubled area.  For some, the definition of ‘proximity’ is marginal but they are hypersensitive to any perceived threat. It is important to never move that close to the student that you really are invading their personal space.

As over a third of the emotional meaning of any message is conveyed in the teacher’s tone of voice, like body language, the teacher cannot fake a caring and friendly quality in their speech; they must be genuine.  In a sense, the adjustment made in the movement is mirrored in how the teacher talks. It is important for the teacher’s voice to be no more than moderately paced and almost monotonic.  Any quick fired talk, or a voice that fluctuates across the vocal range, will emotionally confuse these students.

Experienced teachers often use the technique of deliberately lowering their voice to calm a noisy class down.  Others make quiet, shhhh sound to evoke a sense of calm in the classroom.  This latter practice may arouse childhood memories of a mother’s nurturing.  We understand that this is not as likely for the abused child but when the rest of the class settles, so does the emotional excitement for the damaged child.

As stated, the words in the message makes up only 7% of the emotional content.  However, even if we get the body language, the facial expressions and the tone in our voice right the substance of the words are important.  The words will communicate the lesson content but they also direct the student’s attention, critical for students with severe behaviours.   The manner instructions are delivered is an effective method of behaviour management. 

The thinking process of students who are struggling to control their behaviour is at best confused.  Giving clear, concise and short instructions direct the student’s attention and conveys what they are expected to do.

An effective instruction includes the following features:

  • Start with a verb, it is direct instruction – ‘Go to page three’!
  • Keep sentences short; less than five words to avoid confusion.
  • Limit instructions to short pauses while you continue to scan the class.
  • Give direct instruction only when you are starting ‘have to’ tasks.  If you are offering optional tasks you give the students choice.
  • Questions are excellent for engaging attention or starting a discussion but when you want them to start a class use direct instruction.
  • Use thanks rather than please at the end on an instruction.  Saying ‘thanks’ conveys the sense you assume they will complete the task. 
  • Use the word ‘now’ if the class is becoming distracted, this is like the starter’s pistol at the beginning of a race.
  • Give instructions in a firm, calm and measured manner. 
  • Wait ten seconds after the instruction is complete.  Resist the temptation to fill the gap of silence.

Just as you go to work in your ‘teacher’s uniform’, dressed as a professional, clean and well-groomed, at work you bring your teacher’s voice!  For example, I may use ‘colorful’ language when I’m out with my close friends but I will not swear in some social settings; I refrain from telling jokes at a funeral.  What you say must be what the students expect from a teacher.

If I see a student is upset I mirror their expression in an attempt to support them.  This mirroring, matching their body language and tone conveys a message that I am in tune with their feelings.  Unconsciously, they get the message that I respect how they feel and I am there to support them.  Once they become more settled, I would continue to reflect their improved emotional state.

When I am discussing an issue with students I often say ‘you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion’.  Of course, I want them to listen to what I’m saying.  You must give the student that same respect.  You don’t have to agree with them but by acknowledging you have listened, you can understand their point of view and a mutually acceptable outcome is more likely to be achieved.

To demonstrate your respect for what they say, start your replies to their statements with phrases like:

  • I appreciate
  • I recognize
  • I acknowledge
  • I understand
  • I respect

Finally, whenever you are in a dispute with a student avoid the word BUT; such as ‘your ideas are good BUT they would not achieve anything’; using ‘but’ indicates you completely disregard the ‘ideas’.  Of course, they might be wrong, however when you ignore their point of view you reject them.  We know that rejection is significant stressor for any person.  Always remember, if you want the students to get control of their behaviour you have to get their arousal down to manageable levels.  On top of this the student may have information that will help resolve the situation.

Students with behaviour, or emotional disabilities are at the mercy of their emotions.  If teachers can develop their communication skills to a level that minimizes the risk of driving these students into emotional overload, they will go a long way towards the effective management of their classroom.

Posted by: AT 07:02 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, January 28 2019

Tips for Emotional Encounters

Much has been written about how to deal with difficult situations.  In the ‘Resources’ section of our Web Page, I have included a program I designed to deal with difficult interviews, ‘Ready – Steady – Go’ which provides you with practical tips relating to the preparation of a difficult interview and the advantageous way to conduct that interview. The following is a quick summary of the ‘Ready’ section of that program.

Quite often, at school you will be faced with an inescapable meeting with a very difficult parent, colleague or student.  The advice is to give yourself a short amount of time to:

  • Check your emotional condition (you may already be stressed from the day to day activities)
  • Calm yourself down
  • Make sure your boundaries are on; protect yourself physically and mentally

Those who have followed these Newsletters or been exposed to the philosophy behind the work we do at our consulting practice know the importance of stress in the management of behaviour.  Stress is a signal from our brain that we are uncomfortable and we will act to return to a state of homeostatic equilibrium, that is regain our sense of comfort.  When you are facing another person, who is attacking your sense of well-being the part of the brain that will be accessed is that part that controls our socio/emotional state; the limbic system.

So, as stress increases our access to the cognitive, thinking processes to control our behaviour decreases.  To take advantage of the tips outlined in our ‘Ready – Steady – Go’ program and those available all over the internet, you need to access the executive, frontal lobes, top of the brain where rational thought takes place.  The following is advice to help you manage your emotions during those difficult encounters. 

We have all heard that old adage ‘fake it until you make it’ and there is some truth to this.  Simone Schnall and James Laird, of Clark University have investigated what they call Self-Perception Theory which declares that when you act as though you are experiencing a certain emotional sense your body language will mirror that sense of ‘being’.  The all-important key to this is that your body provides a feedback message ‘confirming’ our self-chicanery. 

So, when you embark on a stressful interview act as though you are quite comfortable and confident, then not only will the other person perceive you as having such self-assurance you will feel that you have it!  It goes without saying confidence is not arrogance so state your case in a quiet, unassuming manner.

Then there is the contagious capacity of how you present yourself.  If, as I suggest you present as calm and assured this will encourage your partner in the dispute to mirror that behaviour. 

When I taught students about the effect their emotions have on their decision making I often talked about working from the very low levels of the brain.  I referred to this as being in the reptilian brain and informed my students of this information!  So, when I interviewed two students who had been in a verbal slanging match I would ask, was ‘Max’ acting like a lizard?  This was followed by ‘How many lizards where there’?  The language was a short cut to remind them that there is no use trying to convince someone of logic when they are agitated.  Wait until they return to their ‘thinking status’!

The next bit of advice is about a significant aspect that influences the ‘connection’ between you and the other person and that is eye contact.  So much has been written about the eyes.  Our folklore, our literature is littered with references to the power of the ‘eye’!  They are ‘the window to our soul’, ‘the doorway to our heart’, ‘our eyes met across a crowded room’, ‘life passed before her eyes’ and when you can’t make your point, you demand the other person to – ‘open their eyes’!  There is something powerful about eye contact.  If you are in a discussion with another person and they look anywhere other than in your eyes, the only conclusion you can reach is that they are not interested.

However, just to make things a bit more confusing, the appropriateness between cultures needs to be considered.  In some traditions, it is a sign of aggression if you look directly into another’s eyes.  So, when students, who may be in trouble don’t look you in the eye it may well be a sign of respect.  Of course, we all have experienced that defiant student who unwaveringly glares at you when you are discussing some dispute, hardly respect more likely some veiled threat!   

I understand this but I suspect that when individuals get beyond a notion of power difference, eye contact between people is more universal.  That is, when we get to the stage that we are building a relationship eye contact is crucial.

Jodie Schulz, of Michigan State University discusses the 50% - 70% Rule.  This recommends you make eye contact 50% of the time you are speaking and 70% when they are talking.  This sends the message that you are more interested, or at least as interested in what they have to say compared to what you say.

On top of this the transition away from that focus should be gradual.  Abrupt changes to your attention indicate that you have been ‘uncomfortable’ looking in their eyes inferring a sense of insincerity.  Or, if you look away at something quickly the message is that the thing you set your gaze on is ‘more interesting’ than listening to what they have to say.

As the relationship develops, the level and ease of eye contact increases.

As I indicated at the start of this Newsletter, the resource we have up-loaded to our webpage provides a formal procedure in dealing with difficult people.  This article provides some clues to help you create the supportive emotional setting to facilitate a successful outcome in those difficult meetings.

Posted by: AT 10:53 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, December 10 2018

Testing Tough Kids

A diagnosis frequently made for students who cause behavioural problems is Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).  ODD is characterized by constant disobedience and hostility towards authority.  This diagnosis is a fair description of those kids who continually oppose and defy teacher instructions.  In a previous Newsletter I discussed the importance of trust and the lack of trust is at the heart of ODD.  This condition is the gold star expression of loss of trust. Most information about this condition discusses its causes and manifestations; but the question rarely asked is why do they choose to act in a way that almost guarantees a negative consequence.  What is it about that drive to defy when the cost can be so punishing?

I have taught many such children and have felt helpless in the face of this self-destructive behaviour.  Even if you give them the choice to change their behaviour; they understand the consequences of continuing that behaviours and you know they really don't want those results; they will still ‘choose' to act in that defiant manner.  My understanding is that the behaviour is an inability of trust.  The fact is they believe that if they follow your direction, they are conceding to you power over them and in their history trusting someone exposes them to abuse and/or neglect.

This refusal to ‘do’ as required has huge ramifications for teachers who have one or two such characters in their class.  Statistics from the US estimate that about 10% of all children develop ODD but these statistics may well be exaggerated however, there is general agreement that at least 2% of children will reach the threshold of ODD diagnosis. 

Another point to be considered is the ‘severity’ of the expression of defiance; this can range from mild, general reluctance to extreme levels of defiance.  There is another factor that reflects the correlation between socioeconomic dimensions of a community and the frequency of the expression of ODD. 

So as a teacher you had better prepare yourself for such students.  Even in the day-to-day evaluation of students, learning relies on students ‘being told' how to respond to situations presented to them; such a regimented approach to ‘success' for assessing the ODD student makes this way impossible.  Because of their defiant attitude they almost always are obliged to refuse to comply.

This refusal is because:

  1. For the ODD student, the very presence of an authoritive direction means the student is driven to say no!  Compliance means giving up their ‘safety.’


  1. To really try to do the test to the best of their ability exposes them to the risk of failure.  These children will avoid taking chances because of their innate vulnerability.  These kids will inevitably come from a position of toxic shame (see Newsletter 19) and the drive to defy is enhanced by the belief that to be good you need to be perfect.  These kids are already refusing to complete lesson tasks so they know they will fail.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this Newsletter, these ODD children will refuse to follow a direction even if they understand any negative consequence of their disobedience and the loss of something they may like if they conformed.  This dilemma, of being dammed if they did and dammed if they didn't, was exemplified in a test given to a young delinquent in a detention centre.  He refused to answer any question on the exam paper.  When it was returned, he had received an ‘E’; he genuinely thought the ‘E' stood for excellent and you could see the delight he was experiencing.  It was easy to find this amusing but it was so heart-breaking when you understood what this meant. 

In the first instance, this boy was so intellectually delayed he had no idea that consequences were related to his actions.  But why would he think he was responsible for a result that was linked to his efforts?  Life was done to him and right now life had given him an ‘E'!  The second distressing message was the delight he showed when he thought he had passed.  His reaction confirmed was that he really would like to be such a success.

Helping these children is the core of our Consultancy.  Providing this 'help' is a challenging undertaking but one worthwhile.  There is no proven way of dealing with these kids or for that matter all those kids who are going to ‘fail' in a punitive system that wants to sort the good from the bad.  All I know is that if you can build enough trust in these kids, so they do want to participate in school you will have past the teacher's test – with a great big ‘E'!

Posted by: AT 09:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 26 2018

Respecting Others' Boundaries

As mentioned in previous Newsletters your boundary is that place where you intersect with the outside world and in most discussions, we focus on how you can protect yourself from assaults.  Although boundaries include physical threats, in this context we are really talking about social attacks.  However, in this work we will include a discussion on our responsibility to not violate another’s boundaries.

This work is specifically for teachers and school executives dealing with children but the principles apply to anyone who supervises others.

One of the determining factors regarding relationships and how negotiations take place is the relative position of power.  Where students are concerned the teacher enjoys a definite power advantage.  They are the official representative of the school, the education department and government when it comes to dealing with kids.  If they make a request the students can assume that request is backed by all those who support the teacher.

Schools are a place of learning and teachers rightly challenge kids to acquire an understanding of that academic material.  At that time, the teacher has studied that material at a tertiary level while for the child it is their first exposure.  It is easy to dismiss their attempts if you are more interested in inflating your ego then supporting that child’s emerging understanding of the work you present.

From the perspective of the students that position of authority allows you to be part of the ruling faction in the school.  The fact that you are part of the ruling elite gives you a type of status that infers more power and authority.

All children are dependent.  The journey from early childhood on to graduation from the schooling system is marked by a steady decline in that dependence.  Therefore, the younger the student the hungrier they are for validation and affection.  Affection reinforces their needs to belong in the group and validation confirms their value to that group.  These are necessary building blocks for a strong and robust sense of self for the adult you.

The core of our work has always had as its main focus helping and dealing with difficult students.  Like all children, students who have been subjected to abuse and neglect hunger for affection and validation.  For these children, the age they are is not as important as the position they find themselves on the development of a strong sense of an authentic self.  I have seen children in their mid-teens who crave for affection and validation, a time when for normal development this need would be diminishing. 

This desire for approval make these children easy to disappoint and the failure to provide appropriate affection and confirmation of their worth is a covert form of abuse.

How do you check that you are not violating the student’s boundaries?  The following questions of self-examination will help you decide:

1. What needs are being met by your action?

When you are concerned about what you are doing, the best thing to do is examine the drives you are satisfying by that behaviour.  Just as you experience levels of stress when others are coming up against your boundary you will, or should get the same feeling sensation if all is not going well at the frontier of yourself.  That’s the time to examine just what is going on.

2. What are your responsibilities?

In your role as teacher it is incumbent on you to deliver consequences for behaviours.  This is at the heart of your professional role and so your interventions regarding the behaviour of others should only be within the domain of your responsibilities.

3. What are others’ responsibilities?

Just as you have a defined area of responsibility so do others, including the students.  It would be wrong if a child misbehaved and you did not deliver the appropriate consequences, perhaps you thought someone higher up the school hierarchy should do that work or you didn’t think it was your job to correct the child.  The fact that the child did not get a consequence does a great deal of harm to the development of strong boundaries in that child.

4. How would you like others to judge your behaviour?

The final question is really, would you behave that way if it was in full view of others.  The disapproval of our peers is a most powerful motivator.  Rejection, in a world sense is life threatening and so when under the public spotlight the drive to act in acceptable ways is extremely powerful.  When you are in a position of power and away from the public view it is easy to forget your responsibilities, and take short-cuts to get kids to confirm.  The real question is ‘am I doing the right thing?’

A good way to protect yourself is to refer to the following ‘check list’:

  • Act as if everything you do is under complete scrutiny           
  • Act with complete fairness – have no favourites
  • Keep everything available for review – keep records of your behavioural interventions
  • Do not use personal emails with students, beware of social media – this is an extremely dangerous area for a teacher.  Remember when you push that ‘send’ button, your message is potentially all over the world, for all time and you can’t get it back
  • Get consent for one on one meetings and hold them in school and in business hours – never take the chance of interviewing students in areas or times that others can misconstrued or the student can make allegations you can’t defend.

Treating others’ boundaries with respect is a difficult thing to get right all the time and despite these suggestions above there is no real, set in concrete rules.  For example, should you ever touch a student?  Of course, there are times when it is really appropriate and professionally proper to support them when they are hurting but that touch must be appropriate.  Eventually it comes down to your professional judgement and if you have the best intentions you will learn to be that real ‘significant other’ students rely on as they make a safe transition into becoming their adult, authentic self!

Posted by: AT 06:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 29 2018


The dominance of male students who appear in suspension data or are attending special settings for ‘out of control’ behaviour, is a feature of all school systems.  If you agree with us that most dysfunctional behaviour is formed in abusive early childhood environments, this reality is counter-intuitive as young girls are at least as likely to be subjected to abuse as boys.  In fact, there is a strong case for inferring that girls are more likely to be abused when you consider that sexual assaults by adult males are most likely to be directed to females. 

The simple answer to this quandary is that these behaviours are cultural and historically females have learned to stay quiet about how they feel and suffer in silence.  There is some truth to this but I offered an explanation about these disproportionate numbers.  This belief based on the work of the anthropologist Louis Leakey who hypothesizes that boys have evolved to externalize their actions.  Once humans became the apex species the main threat to survival was attacks from another tribe.  In the event of such battles males had a greater chance of survival if they act-out, fought the invaders or ran to safety; that is they took action.  Such a response was not as effective for females and children.  They were more likely to survive if they surrendered or dissociated.  They would be taken as trophies.

Reasons that lead me to support this conclusion are that even in modern ‘tribal wars’ like those during the break-up on Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, the Balkans and Kosovo saw acts of murderous brutality against the male populations.  The resulting mass graves were primarily filled with the bodies of potential opponent soldiers. 

I believe this underlies an examination of the suspension data in our schools.  Up to about age ten or eleven the suspension rate of boys is marginally higher than girls.  When we look at the data for puberty and beyond the figure for boys explodes.  I suggest this is when their adult disposition is initiated.

If you look at the most common diagnosis of dysfunctional behaviour that results from early childhood abuse the most common are Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Dissociation Identity Disorder.  The first two disorders are largely populated with boys; in the latter girls dominate the numbers.

In broad terms dissociation from the immediate environment is on a continuum ranging from mild detachment to a more severe isolation.  It is a detachment from the reality rather than a loss of reality that occurs if the child is suffering a psychotic episode. The clinical description of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a single person who experiences himself/herself as having separate parts of the mind that function with some autonomy.  It manifests as a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings and actions. 

As stated above almost exclusively these people have documented histories of repeated, overwhelming and often life threatening trauma during sensitive developmental stages of childhood.  At the time of the abuse when the child is faced with this overwhelming trauma and there is no physical escape, they go away ‘in their head’.  This is a highly creative method of survival allowing them to endure in apparent hopeless situations.  If the trauma is repeated eventually this develops as an automatic response to situations which have similar environmental characteristics, despite not being life threatening.  That is if the stimulus presented has strong ‘reminder’ qualities of the original traumatic event(s) the child will dissociate.

How does this disability appear in the classroom?  It does and is a real interference to the potential learning outcomes for these students.  The problem for teachers is that these, mostly girls are quiet and compliant and pose no obvious challenge.  The student’s ‘invisibility’ is intensified in classrooms where there is a core of students with acting out, dysfunctional behaviours.  Teachers are so occupied controlling the obvious problems these girls are left to suffer in silence.

However, schools have a duty to support these students so they will learn.  The following approach will at least create the conditions that allow the students to operate in an environment that will improve the student’s personal control.  These include:

  • Creating a structured environment where the students learn to predict the consequences of their behaviour thus allowing them to regain a sense of control in their life
  • Developing a place that is safe and secure for the students
  • Developing strong boundaries for the students so that they can protect themselves against stimuli that has the same characteristics as the early abuse but not the same ‘real threat’
  • Presenting a program where the students get their needs met
  • Developing a cognitive framework for the students so that they can sort out how they think and feel, undoing damaging ‘self concepts’ and learning about what is ‘normal’
  • Hold the students responsible for their behaviour

The dissociated student presents a real challenge but along with the steps outlined above it is powerful to point out to the student that they have the right to participate and to get their needs met.

Posted by: AT 10:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 24 2018

Getting to the Truth

One of the time-consuming things teachers face is trying to get to the truth of student disputes.  Despite the protests of many parents who insist ‘their child would not lie’ it is a fact of life that kids will lie on occasion especially if they are trying to avoid trouble!  This is an unpleasant job but it is an inevitability for those running a classroom or school.

I came across an article in Scientific American by Roni Jacobson ‘How to Extract a Confession … Ethically’ and it referenced the process used by President Obama’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG).  In the wake of the unethical interrogation techniques used in the Abu Ghraib prison during the second Gulf War, there was a demand for guidelines that authorities could use when interviewing ‘suspects.’  The process described in the HIG report meets the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association. 

There are times when you will need to get to the truth to:

·         Teach the student that has made a mistake that there will be consequences eventually

·         Protect the student (or teacher) who is the victim of the lie

·         Demonstrate fairness in the school setting

Also, remember there are some students who will immediately ‘spill their guts' and they are not the problem.  This technique is for students who are practiced in avoiding facing the consequences of their inappropriate behavior.

The following are the steps developed to get to the truth of the matter in a practical and still ethical way:

1.     Build Rapport

Think about the ‘good cop – bad cop’ scenario and then eliminate the bad cop.  Develop an empathetic approach to the student you are questioning.  You want to build an atmosphere of cooperating as you approach the problem. Forming such a relationship is the critical step, not only to get to the truth but because you are genuinely concerned for the student, relationships can survive even after you get a confession.  The action and the child are separated.

2.     Fill in the Blank

Don’t just ask direct questions straight from the start but begin by telling what you know about the situation in a manner that suggests you already know what happened.  As you go on the guilty student will start to add details or correct part of your story without realizing they are doing so.  Don’t go ‘in for the kill’ when this starts to happen – you are building a case, be patient.  Research conducted in 2014 indicated that people who are interrogated using this method tended to underestimate how much they were telling the interrogator.

3.     Surprise Them

The students who know they are under suspicion often practice their answers ahead of time.  In the age of mobile phones, I have seen texts between students where stories are ‘coordinated.'  Under the pressure of the interview they try to keep the story intact while they struggle to remain calm and relaxed.  If you ask them something unexpected, something out of the blue about the incident they often slip-up while they try to fit the new facts into their fabricated story.

4.     Ask Them to Tell the Story Backwards

It might appear counter-intuitive, but students who are telling the truth will add more details as the retell their story.  Those students who lie will stick rigidly to their tale being careful not to make changes.  Inconsistency is part of how memory works.  This technique exploits the difficulty liars have reconstructing their story from the back to the front.  Again the HIG investigation found that liars produced twice as many details when telling their story in reverse order often contradicting their original story.

5.     Withhold Evidence Until the Crucial Moment

A study showed that when people were confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing early in the interviewing process, they either clammed up or became hostile.  After a period of time, when you have established the ‘right’ conditions, that is they think they are safe the release of evidence will often be accepted because they give up trying to sustain the lie.

Finally, this is just a technique to get to the truth; it is not a set of tools to BEAT the student.  When it works beware, you might be tempted to take pride in how ‘clever’ you are.  It is never a competition, finding the truth is just to help all the students!


Posted by: AT 10:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 17 2018

Areas of Indifference

Teachers are often faced with a class that is ‘out of control’ and we previously have discussed (Taming that Difficult Class April 2018) the advantage of taking an inventory of all the ‘things that are wrong’ and dividing them up into manageable chunks.  The crafty understanding behind this approach is the handling of the students’ stress levels, their level of arousal that any change to existing behaviour involves.

The graph below illustrates the process involved.  When the teacher changes the behavioural environment in such a way that the student’s behaviour attracts a negative consequence that student will be thrown into a state of disequilibrium and experience the stress that comes from that disorder.  However, if the consequences are not overwhelming and delivered in a way that respects the child and focuses on the behaviour, that stress will soon subside and the student will return to a state of calm even though they have accepted a ‘new environment’ as being normal.

So if the teacher has followed the advice of examining all the problems and choosing one to attack it is important that the targeted behaviour is not extremely threatening.  From this it is obvious that the taming of a dysfunctional classroom is a process over time that involves a change in the structured environment that occurs during that period of time.  You never ask for big changes and you move the behaviour in a non-threatening manner.  The harder you push the more stressed they will be and the more they will resist.

This model exploits the process used by negotiators who work to resolve conflict between two parties.  In any dispute there are some areas that both can agree are not that important and are willing to sacrifice to facilitate a settlement.  These are referred as areas of indifference.  Once they give them up they no longer become in dispute.  By slowly moving both parties through these areas they eventually identify the core problems and the energy can be focused on a possible solution.

As teacher we are not negotiating the right for all students to be taught in a calm, supportive environment and so we focus on moving the students to our desired position through a series of their points of indifference.  Each stage refers to a ‘rule’ you have negotiated using the process discussed.  This is important because you can refer to that rule when delivering the consequence while pointing out the student’s ownership of that consequence.  This allows the relationship to remain in place over the long term.

This diagram illustrates the step process in making change in the classroom.

Finally be aware that your behaviour towards the students as they move through this process is important.  When they inevitably complain about the new situation you should pay them the courtesy of actively listening to them making sure your non-verbal communication, body language, facial expression and tone of voice is not confrontational. 

If you do follow this process of structured management there will come a time when the students will accept that you do have control and that is for their benefit.  You have created a new environment and they have learned a new set of behaviours to achieve a state of equilibrium.

Posted by: AT 12:52 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, September 12 2018

The Dangers Of Praise

‘Good girl/boy’ or ‘you are such a clever little boy/girl’ etc. are everyday comments I hear when around teachers and parents when they are talking to their kids.  It wasn’t always like that.  I hate to put on my ‘in my day’ hat but before the 1960’s the custom was children are seen and not heard, children developed their position in the community by their actions and by watching adults.  So what happened?

The reason given for this change is that at the beginning of the space race the United States felt humiliated by the success of the USSR.  This failure created a lot of retrospection and review amongst a range of their systems including their education practices.  Coincidentally a book “Psychology of Self Esteem’ by Nathaniel Branden, the founder of the self-esteem movement came out and this caused a ‘positive praise’ movement that is alive and well to this very day.

No longer were children just a part of the family unit, ‘good parenting’ made them the focal centre of the family.  Educators were taught that praise was a valued tool to raise the educational outcomes.  I remember in my early years in ‘special education’ my American peers were expected to provide four positive comments to the class, morsels of praise for each negative statement.  I must say that in my classes for students with severe behaviours, even the most ‘inventive’ teacher would have trouble adhering to this requirement without resorting to ridiculous incidents.

Granted the development of a strong sense of an authentic self is critical for all children but the term self-esteem is confusing and clouds that concept.  An authentic sense of self is a truthful understanding of your character and abilities.  This allows for self-criticism and improvement.  The term self-esteem suggests that what is important is to value what you are.  The difference is subtle but important.  The latter view, the importance of the self is defensive, the popular book ‘I'm OK – You're OK’ by Thomas Harris (1969) is based on the idea that whatever you do you are ‘alright’. 

The former is more like taking the view that ‘I’m imperfect and that is not OK; I have work to do’.  This approach allows you to understand that you are not perfect, you make mistakes but because you are a good person you will work to improve.  This is a better approach to achieving authenticity.

Enough of this philosophy the question is what is wrong with praising our students?  Well it depends on how, when and for what you praise them.  Lets start with the two lesser issues around praise; the when and how to commend. 

Young children below the age of about seven will take what an adult says on face value.  If you say to them ‘great job’ or ‘what a clever girl’ they take that on face value, they believe you.  Soon they mature and become more critical of others’ judgments; teenagers are very suspicious of praise.  They understand the truth; that praise is a form of manipulation and for it to have any validity it must be earned.  There is an inverse relationship between age and the effectiveness of praise. 

For the older kids an effective approach is the ‘second hand’ method.  You can do this by saying to a student or a class that Ms. Smith told me you did some great work in her art class.  I would of course follow that with some friendly humour like ‘she must have got her class mixed up’ to avoid their potential embarrassment.  This second-handedness allows the kids to be a step away and the fact Ms. Smith told someone else about you indicates she really must have been impressed.  Another way to provide this second hand praise is to tell another staff member about how much you value the class in a situation where they can overhear you.

Finally, in the ‘how’ category, when you praise a student leave out the ‘I’ in your message; don’t say I am proud of you.  For some kids, especially those who have attachment issues linking the value of their work to your acceptance can be threatening.  You're their teacher, personal acceptance is a given.  Instead link the praise to their work.  “You did a great job’ or ‘Just look how good you set out your title page’.  The praise should reflect what they did and this will lead to intrinsic motivation.

The real issue around praise is the ‘what’.  There are two types of praise personal and process.

Personal Praise

This is when you praise the child for what they are.  Things like, you’re very clever, you are a natural, you find this work very easy, etc.  There is plenty of evidence that this has a negative affect.  Children praised for ‘what they are’ will lack motivation and lose interest in the tasks and have their grades actually fall.  Most dangerous is to tell them they are very clever. 

Psychologist Carol Dweck gave a group of students a relatively easy ‘IQ Test.’ The test was done individually, that is, only the examiner and the student were present. For half the group, the examiner commented, ‘You must be clever.’ The other half was told, ‘You must have really worked hard.’

After a period of time the students were re-gathered for a second test. They were offered a choice of tests. One test was similar to the first test. The other was described as more difficult, but they were told they would learn a lot. Ninety percent of the students who were given the message about making an effort chose to do the more difficult test. The majority of the ‘clever’ kids took the easy option.

What this tells us is that if you praise kids for their intelligence, the following occurs:

  • They don’t make any effort; they expect things to come easily to them.
  • They are afraid to take risks, feeling it is better to be safe and look good.
  • If and when they fail it is final; their failure is evidence that they are not as smart as you told them. More importantly, there is a faulty belief that there is nothing they can do about intelligence. The quantity is given; they can’t get more, and there is nothing they can do to control this failure. They have no useful response to failure.

Process Praise

This is to praise them for their effort.  Be specific about what you are praising them for; describe the detail of what was good about what they did.  Dweck’s work is at the frontier of the ‘effort’ movement that now dominates the current theory of student motivation.  We are to praise them for their effort!  There are problems with the ‘effort’ movement for instance some start to believe that ‘failure’ is only because you didn’t make enough effort but more of that in another Newsletter.

The students who have been praised for their effort are more likely to see failure as a result of not making enough effort. This gives them something to work on to change the result. This approach allows the students to take control, and they are more likely to maximize their learning in areas that capture their interest.

I can’t imagine teaching without praising the students.  We become teachers because we love kids and the joy of seeing them grow into successful, independent young adults.  This is our job!

Posted by: AT 12:07 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, August 14 2018


One of the dangers of working with very needy students is the danger of them projecting their feelings about important relationships on to the teacher.  This projection of a ‘quality’ on to another is a crude definition of ‘transference’.  The student projects their existing, or desired beliefs and feelings relative to a previous relationship on to the teacher. 

Some students who have generally been starved of the healthy, supportive childhood will see the teacher as a support and an object of attraction.  This substitution can be a positive thing in the short term.  It allows a relationship to develop.  However, if the teacher ‘reminds’ the child of an abusive past they will project this negativity on to the teacher and the teacher is seen as ‘the enemy’ and an object of rejection. 

We all know how important relationships are and the phenomena of transference makes clear how the quality of that relationship impacts on the children.

Another danger is that some teachers project their own, unresolved issues on to the students.  A teacher who suffered neglect in their own childhood is vulnerable to look at a similar student through their own emotional attitudes.  This is known as counter transference.

Transference is a difficult issue for teachers.  For the struggling child the fact that they project such qualities on a functional adult may well support that child at the beginning of their recovery.  However, the teacher must be really awake to the dangers of blurring the boundaries with these children.  They must maintain a professional ‘distance’ from the child. 

The following outlines the way counter transference can arise:

  • Either consciously or unconsciously the teacher will be affected if the student projects attraction or rejection on to the teacher.  It will cloud their judgment.
  • The teacher’s personal history will blur their understanding of the student’s behaviour.  The student may represent an unresolved issue such as an inability to deal with aggression and the emotional memory of their personal hurt will affect their reasoning.
  • They will have a predisposition towards a range of students based on whether they are attracted to them or repelled by their presence.  This will result in an inability to maintain a sense of objectivity both positively or negatively.  Furthermore, they will be deterred from engaging with those students whose traits expose their own histories.

The following situations are a strong signal that the teacher is transferring their own unresolved issues onto their students.  These indicators are:

  • Having a need for the student to be dependent on them, they fulfill the teacher’s needs.
  • They need to be liked by the students.  This threatens their ability to deliver inappropriate consequences for misbehavior.
  • Wanting to feel like the expert in front of the students.  They can devalue their colleagues and the students.
  • They need to exert inappropriate control over the student.  This will hamper the student’s independence development.
  • Show too much interest in the student’s personal life.  This is crossing professional boundaries.
  • Being aggressive and confrontational with students or reacting negatively to students who are assertive or aggressive.
  • Being uncomfortable with certain types of emotions such as anger or tenderness.  They suppress these if students display them.
  • Over-identifying with students who have problems that reflect their own.  They ‘know how they feel’ and become too close.
  • Support some student’s defiance against authority.  This is particularly a problem for younger teachers.
  • Idealizing students and investing their own perhaps unfulfilled goals in the student.

Patterns to Watch Out For

  • Dreading or eagerly anticipating a certain class
  • Favoring one class over the other, better preparation, quicker marking of papers, etc.
  • Thinking excessively about students outside work hours.  These can involve sexual attraction.
  • Not being consistent dealing with students in behaviour management.
  • Being too bored to put in an effort in teaching a student or class or being angry for no specific reason.
  • Overly impressed with students or classes.  This may reflect unfulfilled ambitions.  Things like a frustrated musician being unduly impressed by a student with musical talent.
  • Being hurt by student’s criticism.  This brings up past issues of being subjected to anger.
  • Rescuing students by doing their work for them or ignoring their lack of compliance in assessment tasks.

Healthy teachers understand their own flaws and adjust their understanding about the management of situations they face.  Their actions/reactions are appropriate to the immediate problem they face and not just a product of the history of their internalized world.  

The key to dealing with the potential of transference affecting your work is to have very clear professional boundaries and clarify these boundaries with the students.

Posted by: AT 05:32 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 23 2018

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder

Continuing on with the sequence of dysfunctional behaviours faced by teachers in the classroom we come to perhaps the most frustrating, the students with a Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD).  PAPD is the condition where the student on the surface seems to comply with your directions but actually resists them.  This apparent compliance hides the real drive that is to express anger at the situation.  The drive is to be accepted rather than to protect but instead of attention seeking and the consequential behaviours described in the last Newsletter this is a case where the student wants to display their anger but has been taught that this would be too dangerous.  Instead through their behaviour they evoke anger in the other person.

This way of behaving is learned in the early years in families where it is unsafe to express their anger and in many cases never being allowed to express any emotions. These children have aggressive parents who severely punish the child if he/she displays anger.  The anger that they are forced to swallow must be expressed and so is projected on to others. 

A more subtle way PAPD is developed in an environment where the parents

place excessive guilt or shame on their children when they fail to present as sociable and acceptable in the parents’ social circles.  For example when a child appropriately attempts to get their needs met by asserting their rights over other children their parents reject the behaviour as well as the child for the sake of appearing sociably ‘nice’ in the eyes of others.   The child is rejected, devalued and never taught effective behaviours for the sake of the parent’s image.

Another cause of PAPD behaviour can occur if the child is falsely overvalued.  In this scenario the child, typically male, bright is raised in a passive aggressive family.  They have an aggressive father and a mother who is submissive.  In the family the mother is unable to confront the father, get her needs met and so enmeshes the son.  As this occurs when the child is so dependent on the mother he will learn to carry her anger without learning how to express that anger.

Remembering the motivation of these children is to make you angry but without you being able to ‘blame them’.  They do things like ‘accidentally’ spilling ink onto another person’s project, walking to the door very slowly, give one word answers to your questions, they slam doors ‘too hard’ and when you confront them they insist they are ‘doing the right thing’ or it was a genuine mistake.  They take away what they think is any real evidence.

The student is passively resisting the fulfillment of work set for them putting the work off with no consideration of deadlines.  They are reluctantly joins in ‘group work’ but if forced to, they make sure the other students know he doesn’t want to be there. 

When you confront them they protest about the unreasonable demands placed on them, and resent any suggestions of help from the teacher or classmates.

There has been a long dispute as to whether or not PAPD is a developmental disability.  It has been dropped from the DSMV but whether or not it is a classified illness these kids are certainly present in many of our classrooms.

These students can be amongst the most challenging a teacher will face.  The whole motivation behind their behaviour is for you to become angry and these students soon develop a sense of which of your buttons they need to press to achieve this.  They are particularly effective in identifying areas where the teacher has a heavy personal investment.  If they take pride in the presentation of their room the PADD kid will ‘accidentally’ make a significant mess.  Or if you struggle with your weight these kids will be full of suggestions for you to deal with your ‘obvious problem’ after all they are just trying to help.   It is in these areas the PAPD student thrives. 

However there are techniques that will allow the teacher to confront the PAPD student.  These are outlined below:

  • Calmly address the behaviour without rejecting the individual.
  • Get the students to explain why they choose to act the way they have.  Ask them what they wanted to have happen.
  • Establish, for them, that you understand what is going on, what they are doing.
  • Give them a choice in what they need to do next but explain the consequences that will follow will be attached to each action.  It is fine to let them know what you would prefer but they need to know the choice is theirs and the following consequence is their responsibility.
  • Explain to them that anger is a natural process and that people must learn to deal with it.  It may be that the whole class can address the issue of anger and its appropriate management.

When dealing with these kids never impose consequences that have a negative effect on the rest of the class.  You may feel these ‘whole class’ consequences may evoke peer pressure on this student; the risk of rejection should force them to comply.  However, as the aim of the PAPD student’s behaviour, is to annoy others, by punishing the class, they all get angry so you are in fact rewarding the behaviour. 

Remember PAPD is a behaviour the student uses not to avoid the responsibility of dealing with their own anger but because they don’t have the skills to do so.  By approaching them with the belief that they can be taught to take responsibility for themselves, own their anger and express it appropriately they can become productive members of the class.  The teacher needs to be aware of the tactics these students implement and used a systematic approach to deal with them.

Posted by: AT 01:47 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 09 2018

Attention Seeking

In our previous Newsletter we spoke about addictive dysfunctional behaviours that children and adults use to protect themselves from attacks on their sense of self.  If you have followed these Newsletters you understand that stress is the result of finding our self in a state of homeostatic disequilibrium, that is we feel uncomfortable.  Of course this occurs when we are threatened from outside forces but it also occurs when we are denied access to our immediate community.  The sense of personal rejection is the motivation for so much of our behaviour and the following describe just how this rejection can be manifested in our classrooms.  For children from abused backgrounds they are likely to find themselves excluded and their dysfunctional reaction will have unwanted long term consequences.

The Austrian psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs presented a model of how children react to a feeling of not belonging in a classroom.  Dreikurs suggested that when a child feels ostracised they would act in four different ways to rectify this.  Although not stated these styles of behaviour escalate from attention seeking to a challenge of power, then on to seeking revenge and finally withdrawal or avoidance.

Attention Seekers

When children feel left out they behave in such a way as to draw attention to themselves.  This is not a problem if the behaviour is functional but for children who lack the training in ‘level-headed’ behaviour their techniques range from showing-off, the class clown, being forgetful, tapping pencils, the list well known to all teachers goes on and on.  These children do attract your attention but for the wrong reasons and you become annoyed and irritated.

With these kids never acknowledge low-level inappropriate behaviour by referring to it, don’t validate it, don’t nag or appeal to them because this conveys the message you did notice and that is their goal. Attempt to redirect the child by refocusing on the task at hand.  Eventually you may have to deliver consequences for this behaviour.

But remember the purpose is to seek your attention and whenever it is appropriate give them lots of praise and attention.  Attention seeking is a low level attempt by the student to gain attention and is relatively easy to recognise and provide.

Power Seekers

These children react to their rejection by challenging your own boundaries.  They will argue, sulk, refuse to comply and sneer at others.  When pushed they will throw tantrums anything to challenge you to place them ‘at a disadvantage’.

These children react to their rejection by challenging you.

The effect on you is to feel threatened, angry and powerless.  You get a sense of inadequacy and can become defeated.

If you understand the strategy being used by these children you can deal with them by refusing to get trapped in their power struggle.  Just remain calm and deliver the consequences for their behaviour avoiding making comments about their personality.  Remember these kids still crave recognition so catch their good behaviours and praise their positive qualities.  Acknowledge their worth.

Revenge Seekers

These children will try to hurt you as a payback for their perceived rejection of them.  They appear sullen, vicious, and violent, they destroy property, trash or scratch cars or other public buildings.  They will insult you personally, etc. but do this without the need for you to know that it was they who did it.  They have almost given up on being accepted and now want to tear down the community that has rejected them.

You will feel under threat and their behaviour will evoke feelings of outrage or wounded and it is easy to develop a dislike for these children.  In a perverse sense they have your attention.

Remain calm and don’t react in a way that lets them know they have hurt you.  Explain the consequences of their behaviour and deliver them without emotion.  Although challenging, try to hang in with these students, try to convince them of their worth.  This is not so hard to do when you understand the motivation of this behaviour.

Withdrawn Student

These children appear not to care.  They will deliberately fail or make no effort to finish work despite your encouragement.  They are often absent from school and when they do attend they do not bring their equipment.  They appear withdrawn, ‘dead’, making no effort.  They answer the teacher’s encouragement with ‘don’t know’, ‘don’t care’ their behaviour frustrates the teacher leaving them with feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness and a failure.  This can lead to making you feel like giving up on these students.

When you challenge them they will not take responsibility for their actions.

These are the most difficult kids to salvage but can still be reached.  When confronted with these behaviours ignore their failures.  Set easy or errorless learning tasks.  Don’t judge or criticise them and hang in with them longer then they or anyone else expects you to. 

When confronted with these kids remember they are using dysfunctional behaviours to meet valid needs.  Act to provide that sense of belonging through praising any appropriate efforts and never forget the power of inclusion in ‘group work’ with other students.

These kids will provide you with a significant challenge but knowing how to deal with them is what distinguishes professional teachers from others.

Posted by: AT 07:00 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 02 2018

Dysfunctional Behaviour to Deal with Stress

In a previous Newsletter (Different Expressions from an Abused History 25th June 2018) we discussed how children who are abused in a predictable way develop some form of control over their behaviour.  In disputes between individuals, times of undesired border intrusion we all need to develop behaviours that protect us from this aggression while maintaining our sense of security.  The following describes three methods that are often developed that may protect us from the abuse but they prevent learning new, effective behaviours that will easily deal with comparable attacks in the future.  They may protect us but they will only work in the short term.

The following describes how students make such attempts to protect themselves from the painful feelings that are aroused when their boundaries are threatened.  The primary goal of this behaviour is to make the pain go away.  This ‘acting to protect,’ is to eliminate the pain that is at the seat of all addictions.

Any time addiction is discussed the most common interpretation is about the addiction to some type of substance, things like alcohol, marijuana etc.  The use of a chemical or substance is used to make the pain ‘go away’; you can’t feel it. But this only lasts until the effect of the substance wears off.       

There is a second form of addiction where people eliminate the pain by immersing themselves into some activity.  By concentrating on the activity you can ignore the problem.  Again the relief only endures while distraction lasts.  Typical of these addicts are the gamblers addict, or the work-a-holics.

There is a lot more that can be said about these problems but this Newsletter focuses on what I call people addiction.  This describes behaviours the students, and teachers use to deal with the source of the stress; that is the person or people who are causing the discomfort.  Unlike numbing the stress with substances or distracting attention from the stressor with an activity, this form of addiction attempts to control the source of the stress.  This takes three forms, overt control, covert control and resistance.

The first of these is to take the challenge head on.  That is if you stress me I will stress you back much more aggressively so that you will stop causing me problems.  The techniques to do this take the form of actual physical or psychological attack, threat to attack or use of any form of aggression against the boundary of the other person.  So for example, if the teacher wants the student to change seats, that child will adopt a behaviour like making fun of, abusing, discounting the worth of,  or any other technique that makes the teacher feel uncomfortable.  The student is overtly expressing their feelings, needs and ideas at the expense of others including the teacher and ignoring their rights. 

If this works and the teacher backs down to avoid the conflict then the student has protected them self but only until a similar situation reappears.  This use of abuse will only work if the other person backs off.  If they don’t then you have no-where to go to protect yourself.

The thing is, by being aggressive towards others they distance themselves from others and the resulting isolation will leave them frustrated and bitter.  As well they have not learned to deal with this type of attack in an effective way and so will rely on this behaviour every time they are threatened.  These are the ‘in your face’ type of kids that can intimidate all but the must skillful teacher.

The other method of control is through being ‘so nice’ to the other person they have no reason to attack you.  These sort of people will comply with what the other person wants, always trying to predict potential threats and position themselves to avoid such confrontation.  A classic statement these people might make is ‘I don’t care, what do you want to do’?  They suppress their own needs to avoid challenging others. 

This is a covert approach that, like the overt aggressive pattern may work but will leave you addicted to this form of behaviour and you will not develop the healthy boundaries needed to really get your life under control in a long term, healthy manner.

Students who use of this ‘passive’ approach to handle attacks deny their access to the things they need to develop.  They may avoid unpleasant situations but they will be prone to develop anger and a low self-worth. 

These students are hard to recognize particularly in a class with a number of difficult, acting out behaviour problems.  They remain quiet and cooperative as some sort of insurance against being picked on.  Teachers like these kids and its hard to distinguish the tactic of avoiding any conflict with those other nice kids who are well equipped to get their needs met so they are ignored by all but the most astute teacher.  But this is dysfunctional behaviour and should be treated that way.

Individuals will have a tendency to adopt one style, depending on their history of abuse but the overt or covert techniques can be used by the same person depending on their relative social power in the particular conflict to gain control.  That is, in one situation they will attack the source of their stress and the other they will placate that person.  This will in a general sense depend on things like that’s person’s gender, the position in the family and other issues like their social class, the influence of their relatives and the school attended.  However, in all social groups there is an understood pecking order and members have a sense of their position in that group.

Another technique to deal with the stress generated in relationships is to deliberately ignore the source.  These people refuse to engage in any situation that causes them stress.  It is common for teachers to have some students who just refuse to get involved in the lesson.  There could be a range of reasons for this disengagement but one that is not easily recognized is that the lesson is threatening the child’s sense of self and they are choosing to ignore the lesson and therefore ignore the stress.  It may not be the content of the lesson; it may be the fear of being called for an answer or being placed in a certain seating plan.

These people appear to not respect social ‘rules’; withdraw from interactions with others and by doing this they try to communicate that ‘they are not responsible’ for any potential conflict.  If they are ‘not there’ they are not involved and so they avoid the stress that indicates that they are not in homeostatic equilibrium and will remain off-balance in their life.

Take the time and learn to recognize these types of behaviour and while you are at it analyse the behaviour of your colleagues.  You will find those who use an overt approach are those authoritarian teachers who are demanding and inflexible.  Those who are submissive, using covert techniques never hold the kids responsible for their actions, will let them hand work in late without penalty.  Their students are never shown how to be responsible for their actions. 

The final type of teacher, the resistive one will ‘fail’ to impose school rules, never participate in staff meetings and generally criticize all efforts to improve the school’s performance.  They cut themselves off but in doing so lose the opportunity to enjoy the benefit that participation brings.

Understanding these dysfunctional behaviours will allow you to recognize the motive behind the behaviour and treat it appropriately by providing the structure and inclusion these kids need.

Posted by: AT 12:40 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 28 2018

Planning for a Disaster

Answer this:

If a bat and a ball cost $1.10 and the ball costs ten cents more how much does the bat cost?

Ask any group and the number of incorrect answers never ceases to amaze.  This is an example used by Daniel Kahneman to illustrate our propensity to make quick decisions.  Kahneman, a psychologist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics through his appreciation of our propensity to make quick decisions.  In his influential book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ he explains the reasons we make quick decisions and discusses the problems that can occur.  Although fast decisions are made in an emotional setting and can be considered a gut reaction Gladwell also bases them on instinct, a process described in his book Blink.

Slow thinking may not always be needed to yield the best answer it will be the most considered and most likely to provide that best answer.  Slow decisions are more accurate and considered.

However, when you examine the work done by institutions that manage natural or man-made ‘disasters’ you soon find that they do not have the luxury of making slow decisions.  At the time they have to act immediately to minimize the losses that will occur unless early support is available.  It is the same for a teacher at the time when ‘that student’ behaves in a disastrous manner.  The teacher does not have the time for ‘slow’ consideration; they must act immediately.  This is why a planned, structured behaviour management plan is so important.

In a previous Newsletter I presented the illustration below to describe, albeit a simplistic interpretation of decision-making.


When we apply this to our ‘disaster model’ we can demonstrate how the process works for both cases.  The most important planning is done away from the scene of the destruction, preferably before but at least after experiencing such an event.

Kahneman presents the concept of ‘what you see is all there is’ (WYSIATI) that underpins decisions.  At the time a decision needs to be made WYSIATI will determine the decision made.  This is because all we rely on is what we know we know; our known/known condition.  This is how quick thinking operates.  But it is obvious that when we are faced with a decision that requires a decision we understand that the following conditions are present:

  • Known/Known – as described above
  • Known/Unknown
  • Unknown/Unknown

If we are dealing with a child we ‘know’ what we have observed the child do.  It is unlikely we know what has historically happened to the child either during their childhood or at home that morning or even in the playground before class.  We do not have access to his/her emotional memories nor their beliefs but we should comprehend that these plus other complex factors will weaken the precision of the consequence we deliver.  This is why it is important to find out as much as you can about every child in your class.  The more you decrease the unknown the more effective your intervention will be.

Then there are the ‘unknown/unknowns’ the questions we don’t even know to ask.  But they will be there and they are the reason behaviour management is at best an imprecise practice.

So this is where the teacher’s slow thinking takes place, the development of classroom rules and structure, the acquisition of ‘historical’ information about each child’s behaviour history and the accumulated information about behaviour and the management of it’s dysfunctional expression.  Now when the inevitable classroom disaster occurs the teacher is best equipped to make an effective ‘fast decision’.

There is a bonus pay-off for this approach.  These effective fast decisions are also described as fluent decisions. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in California, has termed this fluency as the feeling of ‘flow’ and are associated with feelings of confidence, control, being in the zone.  He described that for highly practised tasks, fluency and accuracy go hand in hand.  For example a musician might report feelings of flow when performing a piece that has been internalised after years of practice.  Sports men and women will often described as being ‘in the zone’ during competition.

On a personal level a teacher who achieves this level of expertise in behaviour management will feel more confident, more in control.  In addition to this, people who display fluency command respect and are seen as competent.  Their behaviour in the midst of the situation appears authentic and informed even when the inevitable mistake is made.

Posted by: AT 11:25 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 02 2018

Consequences neither Punishment nor Reward

The formal awareness about behaviour modification came from Pavlov’s experiment on the digestive process of dogs.  Inadvertently he established the connection between delivering a targeted stimulus and the following response in an extended environment.  Eventually, just the presence of the environment without the targeted stimulus generated the response.  In his classic experiment, he measured the level of saliva when presented with food, the targeted stimulus along with a ringing bell, the environment.  Eventually, the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell even though there was no food. This connection was referred as operative conditioning.

Operant conditioning was linked to learning, and later Skinner with his famous experiments on rats and pigeons extended this work.  In simplistic terms, he demonstrated that learning behaviour occurs to either gain a reward or avoid a punishment.  Skinner’s work was at the vanguard of a drive to have psychology accepted as a science.  In support of this Skinner and his peers claimed that the only thing that was significant about psychology was that which is able to measured.  This belief excluded the impact of a person’s internal world - their memories.  Of course, there is the direct connection between pressing a lever and getting a food pellet or an electric shock, and this will be ‘learned,' but this simplistic view excluded the complexity of human behaviour.

Skinnerian psychology soon had a significant influence on education theory.  At the time the dominating technique for teachers to get their students to behave was to either punish them for inappropriate behaviour or reward them when they conformed to the teacher’s demands.  As a young teacher, I remember students being hit, canned when they misbehaved and given early marks, certificates, etc. when they did the ‘right thing.'  This idea did meet Skinner's requirements but limited moulding the behaviour of students.  Of course, most students will act to get a reward or avoid punishment, but the driving force of a student's internal motivation can over ride this.  If we want to change this internal motivation, it will require the child to take responsibility.  The only real discipline is self-discipline.  


Punishment is an imposition of power over ‘another' person, the teacher over the student.  This intervention is an expression of authority by the teacher who assumes the responsibility for behaviour in the classroom.  This power over limits the options for the student when modifying their behaviour. The student is disempowered, and for those students with severe behaviour disabilities, this reinforces their feelings of inadequacy. For those students who are struggling, the use of punishment is associated with blame and only reinforces their weak sense of self.

In my experience punishment is often used because the behaviour of the student has threatened the teacher.  Students’ behaviour can be very offensive and can threaten those around them.  Often the punishment dealt out is a form of revenge resulting from the teacher’s open or concealed anger.

What punishment does do is teach the kids what not to do.  Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving.  The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours.  They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.

Another problem with punishment is that teachers model behaviour and if the student ‘learns’ that if you want them to do something you do this by punishing them, then the kids will learn to become punitive themselves to get what they want.

Finally, if the teacher controls the class through punishment students will only learn what they can and can’t do. For the child, it is just too risky to behave outside the known set rules. This approach eliminates initiative, risk-taking and the development of creativity.


Criticizing teachers for using rewards to motivate students is not a straight forward proposition.  In the past, when I challenged teachers for using rewards, I was invariably met with enthusiastic protests.  Giving kids something they like for doing something you want them to do seems to be a win/win situation, and I agree that in the short term it probably is.  But I challenge this practice to have a long-term benefit for the children. 

Using reward as the goal of the lesson significantly changes the focus of the lesson.  The real objective of any lesson, including learning how to behave appropriately is the value of what is learned not what you get if you ‘behave.'  Reward focus management, in reality, is no better than the use of punishment.

The elemental message is that the subject of the lesson has no intrinsic value.  The kids do the work for the reward not to learn the content.  Instead of becoming inquisitive they become reward driven.  This approach eliminates risk-taking, stifles creativity and like punishment the teacher is the focus of the behaviour, not the student.  Students will not become self-directed learners in the future.

Having said that I am fully aware that working with students who are disengaged from learning the use of rewards, certainly not punishment can be used to ‘capture' a student’s interest.  Rewards at least can make the student feel good for a short time, and this gives us a window of opportunity to begin to engage them in education.

For extremely damaged students the most simple of rewards can be enough to begin this process.  In the illustration below there is a hierarchy of rewards that start with ‘payments’ that satisfy their primary needs.  This type of reward would not be of any use but for the most extreme cases.

The use of tokens, certificates are the most popular reward systems and are used extensively even in the Senior Years of schooling, and this method of motivation is used in the very highest levels of the academic world.  Every year we see the awarding of Certificates of Achievement most of which remain in the filing cabinet only to be accessed when constructing a Resume.

Ask any successful self-directed student how important these are you will most likely get a ‘not very’ response.  All too often the Certificates’ are for the parents and grand parents.

The next level, activities or privilege moves from a token-style reward to a reward that provides a benefit for the student.  This type of reward is still toxic but is consumed within the immediate time and not kept as a reminder.

Above this, we move into the relationship zone where any reward depends on the connection between the teacher and student.  On the surface, this is not a ‘bad' thing, but there is a real danger that in this one the teacher's approval can become the prize.  There is a temptation that the teacher will exploit this.

But as I said at the start of these reflections, I am for anything that will engage the disconnected student, and the final type of praise in the hierarchy is intrinsic reward the real goal of motivation and the one that is self-administered.  Here the lesson becomes the personal ambition of the student.  For behaviour this means the students behave appropriately because of the value they find in that behaviour.


Consequences are not rewards or punishments they are what will happen when you act in a certain way.  As mentioned in the previous Newsletter consequences can be natural, logical or chosen but the qualities they do need are to be delivered in a manner that does not directly attack the person but is wholly related to the behaviour.  This depersonalization allows this to be expressed in a friendly way that doesn't threaten the relationship between the teacher and the student.  The responsibility for the consequence is with the student, and this can be a result that they want.  If they behave in a way that brings them an unwanted outcome they can choose another option that they can try if the situation reoccurs. 

Consequences are not rewards or punishments but they are the results of behaviour and when you can have the student understand that the only power they have to get the consequences they want is to control their behaviour!

Posted by: AT 11:10 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 26 2018


In the previous Newsletters we have discussed changing the behaviour of those kids who, through their dysfunctional behaviour disrupt their learning and the learning of others.  What we are focusing on is our attempts to change this situation, and that, of course, leads to the need to modify their behaviour.  If you have been following these Newsletters and the books you will understand that all behaviour, including that of these kids, is an attempt to achieve a state of personal equilibrium in the presenting conditions.  We act because we become uncomfortable, we become stressed known as a state of disequilibrium, and our actions are an attempt to change that situation.  If the response moves us back into equilibrium; that is we feel better then the resulting feedback will reinforce that connection between the situation, the action, and the consequence, if not we will continue to seek an action that will.  This simple definition requires an enormous amount of understanding of a person's sense of ‘equilibrium.'  

The illustration crudely explains this process

This model attempts to capture just one ‘behaviour cycle'.  Of course, this is extremely simplified but helps in our understanding.  If we apply this to the following scenario:

1. Antecedent Condition

Little John comes to school after being scolded by his father for being a waste of time.  John’s father is an alcoholic who regularly beats his wife.  Yesterday he was sent from his math’s class for being disrespectful.

2. Situation

The teacher asks John to sit down the front after a couple of other boys were making noise while the teacher was writing instructions on the board.


At this point John decides what to do.  This decision will be arrived at through his memories both cognitive memories, techniques he has been taught by the counselor and emotional memories, what he has learned when dealing with his father as a young child.

4. Action

John refuses to move because he didn’t make the noise.  He is yelling at the teacher telling him he is unfair.

5. Consequence?

Most likely he will again be removed.

How can we change this process?  John is a child, and even before he entered the classroom, he was destined to fail.  He came to school already expecting to fail, and at the first opportunity, he made sure he fulfilled this likelihood.  But the professional adult in the room is the teacher.  What could he do?

The process that changes this cycle is the feedback from the consequences.  That is if our actions make things better this information is stored in our memory.  The more a particular consequence is linked to the action the stronger the synaptic pathway becomes.  This process is especially crucial for the emotional memories.  In a sense, it becomes a bit of a competition between the existing synoptic schema evolved in earlier times and the newly created pathway.  The consequences are critical, and in the model, the consequences are not in the control of the student but are provided externally.  For classroom management, it is the teacher, or it should be who chooses and delivers the consequence.

So how would we deal with John in this situation?  It is the teacher who ‘decides' on the consequence.  In this instance, there is not much in the short term, but it is through the delivery of consequences that change can be achieved.

The molding of behaviour from being dysfunctional involves the application of consequences. These consequences can be in the various forms:

  • Natural - The result of the action always follows. That is, you play in the rain, you get wet. This type of consequence is not usually available because the lessons learned here have already been taught.
  • Logical - This means an understood connection between behaviour and consequence. It includes things like if you waste time in class, you are kept back after the bell. The time is made up. Using a logical consequence may not always be ethically appropriate. For example, if one student hits another, logically, they should be hit back. For so many reasons this is inappropriate, so another consequence should be sought.
  • Chosen - Although there is no natural or logical connection between the action and consequence, there is an agreement that the connection is an acceptable practice. Most class rules are chosen ones.

The consequences must have the goal as one of the following:

  • Rehabilitation - The long-term goal of the behaviour intervention is that the inappropriate behaviour the child had used to get their needs met is replaced by one that addresses the need in a socially acceptable way.
  •  Quarantine - The rule should be such that the other students are protected, physically and socially, from the actions of the perpetrator. This need to provide a safe environment is why timeout is often the appropriate consequence.  

The selection of consequences determines the effectiveness of the intervention, and this is a crucial decision that should be made by the teacher.  But on top of this, the application of these consequences should be consistent, persistent, fair and targeted at the behaviour, not the person.

 This topic is discussed in more detail in a following Newsletter.

Posted by: AT 12:13 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 05 2018

Boredom Mark 2

This article is a follow-up to Newsletter 11th of December

Most parents greet their kids at the end of the school day with the proverbial question ‘how was school today,' and the notorious answer is ‘boring.'  Of course, we know that is not the truth, the school day is full of formal and informal learning activities.  However, because each day is much like the last, there is an appearance of sameness that leads to a sense of monotony.  This lack of excitement or novelty leads to the child’s explanation of boredom!  Parents and insecure teachers who worry about the child being bored fail to understand the need for boredom in developing a self-contained and independent sense of self in the child.

The word boredom first appeared in Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ and since that time has come to describe the human condition of feeling we have nothing to do in an uninteresting environment.  That is, we lack external stimulation.  In our classrooms, teachers are experts in the manipulation of their student's external environment to make the subject of the lesson something they desire.  This manipulation of the learning environment is at the core of their practice.

It is not too much of a claim to declare today’s kids, or for that matter kids across the developed world, are the most bored citizens in our history.  Since automation has reduced our need to work hard for the resources to satisfy our fundamental physical needs such as food and shelter, we have had a lot of ‘spare time.'  In fact, since prehistoric humans began to cook, the efficiency of eating is the reason our cognitive development progressed at a rate faster than other species.  The result was we had time to think, we still do but now instead of introspective thinking our time has been exploited by the supply of easily accessible entertainment with its pervasive advertisements that use our natural insecurity and expertly construct a desire for the consumption of prescribed external stimulation.  Watch any ad-break on commercial television, and you will soon be told of all the things you need to have to be happy, successful and desirable.  Of course, most of us can't have all these characteristics but with every passing twelve minutes we a given a new set of promises.

If we do gain some wealth, we will have the money to seek pleasure through new experiences or visiting new places that promise excitement and thrilling adventures.  We can pursue a hedonistic lifestyle but continually toiling on this treadmill eventually the dulling effect of ‘too much’ of a good thing produces a state of boredom.

It is the reliance on the external world to meet our needs that causes this inevitable boredom; so the solution is to develop our internal world.  We only find peace and contentment, the reverse of boredom, from inside ourselves. Exposing children to boredom can force a child to access their inner world, and this plays a most crucial role in the development of their inner strength and resilience.  Kids should be bored on occasion.

I watch my grandchildren with their addiction to their iPads, continual viewing the latest offerings from one of the many streaming services available.  Their elder siblings are continually on their smartphone texting, posting on one of the many social networks.  Their parents may have developed a corresponding addiction to their email account or Twitter, along with the malignant FaceBook. Like all addiction, these electronic channels are accessed continuously to avoid being bored.

Walk through the streets of any modern city, and you will see people ignoring the wonders, not to mention the dangers of their natural environment transfixed to a small rectangle that radiates exciting messages.  Today one of the significant modern causes of road accidents is that drivers are choosing to watch their smartphone over concentrating on the dangerous world speeding past.  Our addiction has become a real traffic hazard.

This devotion to the electronic environment has to be managed better, and one of the most important things a parent can do is not to use the convenience of the television, the iPad; the computer games to entertain their children when they complain they have nothing to do.  Let them be bored.  It is these early years they will learn to go into their internal world, to develop imaginary friends, create ‘games' to entertain themselves.  Later they can avoid being bored by using their imagination to make-up games with their friends.  The need for structure in all sports will involve the formation of rules that teach the skills of negotiation and fairness.  This use of their imagination leads them to acquire the people skills that are so important for their participation in their communities.

Kids who are exposed to periods of boredom become inventive, self-contained, understand that a full life requires some personal investment of their energy.  This development of a strong sense of independence is a slow process that requires patience on our parts, but the long-term outcomes are well worth it.

So don't worry too much if your children are bored.  Leaving them to solve this problem through their own devices builds their inner strength that develops their resilience.  Another benefit is that life does regularly provide unusual and unexpected situations and when these inevitable, exciting occasions do arrive, they will be truly enjoyed.

Posted by: AT 10:00 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 18 2017

Vacuous Shame

In a recent Newsletter (3rd July 2017) I addressed the issue of toxic shame.  I pointed out a sense of shame is underpinned by the pain that is associated with social rejection.  In healthy individuals rejection is always linked to their behaviour.  That is when they act in a way that goes against their ethical status they will feel they have betrayed themselves but any repercussions from their community is linked to their behaviour not their sense of themselves.  Hence this ‘rejection’ is referred to as healthy shame, shame about what we did.

To summarize the previous work, toxic shame is the belief that children and adults have about their sense of self and how that impacts on their lives.  They don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.  When they do something wrong its because they are wrong.  This is in opposition to healthy shame where you are ashamed of the mistake but retain your positive sense of self.

I have always felt this model failed to describe a final type of shame or in fact the lack of any sense of shame.  This sense of or lack of shame is closely associated with the over-indulged and narcissistic child I discussed in a previous newsletter (23rd May 2017).  However, I believe there is a slight difference in this lack of shame, which I have called vacuous shame and narcissism.  In the latter case the child has a feeling of entitlement or superiority over others in their community while vacuous shame is a case where the child has not been taught to socially share with others.

Another quality of vacuous shame is that it is not a sense experienced by the person in regards to their behaviour but it is others who project shame onto their behaviour.  The impact of the inappropriate behaviour that is experienced by others is closely tied to manners.

‘Manners’ is behaving in a way we expect is appropriate for a given social situation and this expectation is governed by social norms.  For example if we are going into a room and I get to the door first I expect that I will hold the door open for you.  However, if I just opened the door and walked straight in and worse let it slam in your face I would predict you to consider my behaviour the height of bad manners and that I was quite shameless.  How we go through a door has a cultural expectancy and when we fail to abide by that we offend our culture.

I have chosen the term vacuous adopting the definition of that word as showing lack of thought or content because people have to know the expectations of our culture before they really can be considered offensive.  I believe in today’s world children are taught a different set of norms and expectations than has been the case for their parents.  In modern, western society we have adopted a model for our community that is based on competition.  We see this in the work place, in schools and particularly in our popular media. 

The way to succeed is to win, to get there first.  To not win makes you feel like a failure or a point of ridicule.  Look at the type of humour that drives the modern ‘sit coms’ on TV.  The classic scenario is that the child is smarter than the mother, the mother is smarter than the father and the dog is smarter than everyone.  We are expected to laugh at the mistakes made by the very people who should be teaching us manners.

Before the ‘60’s manners were taught in schools as were their close partner proverbs.  The proverbs gave reason for social behaviour and underpinned the behaviour that enriched life for everyone, good manners.  Proverbs were even used in IQ tests.  Undoubtedly, the principal proverb, one that supports all successful societies and religions is ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – the golden rule. 

This is in opposition to the maxim for the competitive world ‘do unto others before they do it to you’.  Manners, and proverbs are of little value to the competitive world in themselves but they are so important in social cohesion, a quality that is lacking in our modern society.

So let’s finish with that term vacuous shame.  When I see a young person push in on an elderly citizen I see that as being shameful but does that young person understand the impact of their behaviour?  They can’t know this; they can’t experience shame unless they have been taught it.  And it is obvious for too many of our students the lessons of manners is not being taught in the home, in the media nor other social institutions so the real shame of their behaviour must lie with those who have failed to teach them. 

‘Manners’ is no part of modern school curriculum, after all we are competitive but unless we do teach manners we are the ones who should feel the shame.

Finally two quotes that should be considered:

Quote 1:         

‘Children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in the place of exercise.  Children are now tyrants, not servants of their households.  They no longer rise when elders enter the room.  They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up the dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannize their teachers’.                  Socrates

 Quote 2:      

 ‘I am not a cranky old man’             Frew

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Monday, September 04 2017

Dealing with Difficult Students

Kids will muck-up, it’s what they do.  Children are works in progress and the part of their brain that is most required to modulate their behaviour is not fully developed until the mid twenties and it will come as no surprise boys mature later than girls (I will ignore the inevitable smart comments LADIES!).  So dealing with misbehaviour is at the core of our professional practices.  This Newsletter gives you some clues on how to deal with these ‘difficult kids’.

When you find yourself in a confrontation it is important to maintain your integrity.  This is where the structure you create in the classroom is vital.  If the child is violating the expectation of behaviour your actions are seen as imposing that expectation not your expectation.  The difference is subtle but essential in the maintenance of a good relationship.

You need to develop strong personal boundaries.  This self-control will allow you to present your case in an assertive but non-threatening manner:

  • Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
  • Maintain a steady, positive gaze
  • Speak clearly
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact
  • Stand up straight
  • Address the behaviour without threatening the individual
  • Never apologise for not getting emotionally involved with them
  • Remain silent after you deliver your message
    • Allow them time to digest the message
    • Give them time to make a decision.

When you have done this it is important that you reassure their acceptance as a member of the class.  Remember it is the behaviour we don’t want, not the child.  Address the student is the following manner:

  • Be concerned about them “I know your really angry now.  You need time to settle down”
  • Go on with another activity without antagonising them
  • Get them to explain the purpose of their inappropriate behaviour
  • Let them know that you understand why they are behaving that way
  • When they are acting appropriately really listen to them
  • Give them a choice of actions but not the choice of consequences that accompany each action

There will be times when you will be required to be critical of the students.  The delivery of criticism is never easy but when it is necessary criticise the behaviour not the person.  Take the following steps:

  • Be specific
  • Acknowledge the positives
  • Empathise
  • Keep calm
  • Keep to the point
  • Focus on the behaviour
  • Don’t stereo-type or use labels

Finally, procrastination is death when it comes to classroom management.  There is a reason you always hear in regards to discipline – be consistent and persistent – this provides the environment where we can all get on with our learning.


Note:  I have attached another essay that examines the problems schools encounter when they have to deal with students with extremely dysfunctional behaviours.

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Wednesday, August 23 2017

Independent Behaviour Programs

Contracting for Behaviour Gains

It is clear to teaching practitioners that optimal learning for all students takes place in a calm and secure environment. This environment depends on the predictability of consequences for behaviour which is the result of a highly structured process of managing student behaviour.  In the most part good classroom management will result in classes that are a pleasure to participate in for both the teacher and their students.

Of course there are those students who have to test the structure; that is they will just see if you will carry through on your plans to provide good discipline in the class.  These student will ‘break the rule’ to test the environment and that is why the catch cry for all good programs is to be consistent and persistent in the application of your ‘rules’.  I have to confess that, if I see a sign that says ‘wet paint’ I have an overwhelming urge to just touch the paint to see if it is.  There are a lot of students like me but we usually cause no long-term problem if the teacher is indeed persistent and consistent!

Unfortunately, or unsurprisingly there will occasionally be one or more students whose behaviour challenges the structure you have in place well beyond what is reasonable.  These students have severe, dysfunctional behaviours that are a result of their developmental history.  They will continue to challenge the teacher and shatter the security of the classroom unless you take action. 

Throughout the resources of this webpage, and in the various publications there is ample discussion of the origins of this type of behaviour and understanding this allows the teacher to have a deal of compassion for these students.  Nevertheless, it is a teacher’s professional duty to deal with these students regardless of how much resentment it can produce. 

The use of a structured program that is especially designed to deal with these behaviours can assist with managing the behaviour in the short term and moulding permanent functional behaviours in the long term.  This structure takes the form of independent behaviour program (IBP) that the teacher can construct preferably with the child, his/her parents and the teachers supervisor.  However, if the child and/or their parents do not want to participate it is important that they know the process and the consequences for behaviour.

The following steps will help you design an independent 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 you want to deal with - do not take on too much.  If you can eliminate one or two quickly then you can move onto other behaviours.  Eventually the child will think you really are in-charge of the classroom.
  • 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.

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.

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Monday, July 17 2017

Time Out

The delivery of a negative consequence for students whose actions are unacceptable is a difficult thing with the social and ethical restrictions that eliminate 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’ (TO) or exclusion.  This should not distract from the effectiveness of this practice as effective time out is a form of rejection and that is a very powerful motivator for the vast majority of children.

Time out achieves two outcomes in the short term, first it is the removal of the student who is disrupting the class and secondly the lesson can continue for the remaining students.

There are another benefits including the offending student can learn there is a consequence for their inappropriate behaviour and the exclusion can give them a quiet place to regain the emotional equilibrium.

The use of TO should never be a surprise; the class needs to have it known that this is the consequence for poor behaviour.  Whether or not there are specific warnings given to students who are ‘heading for TO’ depends on the students’ expectations.  There doesn’t seem to be any evidence one way or the other but the implementation must be consistent.


Stage 1  - The teacher makes the decision to remove positive stimulation from the student while they remain in class.

Stage 2  - The student is physically removed to another location in the classroom and instructed to watch but not participate in the lesson.

Stage 3  - The student is removed from the instructional activity and is not allowed to watch the lesson. 

Stage 4  - The student is removed from the room and is sent to a designated area for a brief duration of time. It requires the school to designate a specific space or location and to organise a level of supervision for the students. 

Stage 5  - If all forms of time outs in the school have failed then it may be that the student is removed from the school all together.  This is school suspension.

Length of Time Out

It is a fair rule of thumb that time out should be no more than five to ten minutes for young primary students up to fifteen to twenty minutes for older students.  However, the range of time can be from seconds, say Stage 1 to days, Stage 5.

Returning From Time Out

There should be a predetermined length that the students expect but the students should also understand that return should not happen unless there is a significant demonstration of appropriate behaviour. 

Legal and Ethical Guidelines

Before TO is used the following guidelines should be followed:

  • There must be conformity to the local education’s authority guidelines on time out, suspension, exclusion and expulsions
  • There should be the provision of written procedures so that parents, students and relevant school community members understand the process.  The legitimate educational function of time out is identified (i.e. reduction in dangerous or disruptive behaviour, protection of educational environment, etc.)
  •  Records should be kept of significant TO’s
  • For the higher stages of time outs supervisors, and parent/guardians, should be notified.

A final word of warning, the use of TO will only be effective if the student wants to be in your classroom.  If this is not the case then it may well be a positive result and the behaviour you thought was dysfunctional was indeed functional for that student.  Further to this, where the child goes to do their TO, it should not be to a more attractive place than being in classroom.  For example, if you have a group of students who are friends and they are misbehaving they may well plan to get ‘kicked out’ just to be together with no work to do!

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Monday, June 19 2017

The Intricacy of Stress 

Back in 1967, when I was just thinking about becoming a teacher a best seller by Peter Hanson swept the world.  This book, ‘The Joy of Stress’ made a case against the emerging understanding of the dangers of stress.  Early work into trauma described the response high levels of stress had on the body’s physiology in response to a physical threat.   Further work on the systems of the brain revealed the same response: the initiation of a whole range of chemical reactions, an endogenous, stress response of neuro-hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, the list goes on, can be triggered by our mind.  The expert advice was to avoid stress; Hanson’s book told us to embrace it.  So who is right?  Well both are.

Much of the work our Consultancy Group is involved with is intimately tied to the impact of stress on students and teachers.  As teachers we understand we need to engage our students but in schools there is often too much pressure: student behaviour, Department demands, irate parents.  It is obvious we need stress but not too much!

In the most general, clinical terms stress is the state of our emotional anxiety that is the result of threat to our survival.  When everything is going well and there is no anxiety we are in a position called homeostatic equilibrium.  We have a sort of point, or more realistically a series of optimal security positions for our body and our mind.  Things like blood pressure, temperature, secure relationships, etc. all have a position that is optimal for safety and security.  When we are under threat we move into a state of disequilibrium and that chemical reaction described above washes across the brain and activates a series of physiological changes.

There are three critical parts of the brain that best illustrate how this happens.  These are the hippocampus - critical to memory formations, the frontal lobes – where the brain collects, integrates and makes decision, the executive ‘controlling’ area of our behaviour and the amygdala the seat of feelings and arbitrator of threat.  All are required for learning and all ‘powered’ by stress.  There is a complexity in the effect this reaction will have on these three parts.

Too much stress will create an over reaction in the amygdala reinforcing the level of fear that will remain with the child, they become more easily frightened, more ‘efficient’ at recognizing threatening situations.  To compound this deterioration in resilience the child learns to be less able to identify when they feel safe.

The plasticity of the frontal lobes and the hippocampus is the ability to create new pathways, to learn.  The increase in the levels of chemicals particularly cortisol hamper this development significantly reducing the brain’s ability to make memories and access the frontal lobes so future planning can take place.

So in a sense the amygdala becomes more able to detect a good survival outcome but the cost is the changes in the more cognitive parts of the mind.

So how do we manage stress in the classroom?  Obviously, with stress levels we are referring to student engagement.  When I looked this term up in the Glossary of Education Reform, I found that “student engagement” refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education’.  What an example of ‘educational speak’, a committee based statement that covers every possible measure.  But, within this wordy platitude is a crucial fact – it is stress that - ‘extends the level of motivation’ however the question is how much stress?

Sports coaches have long understood the importance of arousal in getting their athletes to perform at their optimal ability.  The ‘Inverted U’ graph below illustrates the point in regards to outgoing performance, no arousal no performance – over arousal no performance but the right amount of arousal we get optimal performance.  This model holds for learning but because the level of stress for learning has to be the ‘goldilocks level’ not to hot - not too cold – just right.

If the level of engagement is too low there will be very little neural stimulation and so very little neuronal excitation. The hippocampus and frontal lobes will suffer a loss in their plasticity and if continuous will have a reduction in size.  The contemporaneous lesson will not be learned and the potential for future learning will be reduced. If the stress levels are too high the amygdala will be highly agitated not supporting the hippocampus or frontal lobes and it will become more sensitive to future experiences, easier to trigger the stress response.

There is a further complication and that is the ‘Inverted U’ curve is individualized, that is in a class of thirty there will be thirty different levels of arousal for the teacher’s attempts to engage the class.  What is an optimal level for one student will fail to arouse one student yet overwhelm another.  The art for the teacher is to individualise this ‘level of arousal’.

Good teachers are mobile in the classroom they get about and this is the time to personalise engagement.  To support each kid’s engagement you need to get to know all you can about the student’s personality and environment.  Taking a real interest in the student not only builds that crucial relationship it provides you with information that allows you to create the right amount of challenge for each student.

As I said earlier, our Group is very involved in dealing with stress particularly those students who have a history of child abuse and resultant trauma.  Acquiring the skill of applying just the right amount of challenge will allow you to bring out the best in all your students.

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Saturday, June 03 2017

Routine – Support for Student Expectations

30 May 2017

The most significant advantage humans have over other forms of life is our ability to predict what will happen given a certain set of circumstances.  So you can see predictability underpins expectations.  When we recognise a set of conditions that led to us having a great time we get excited anticipating another positive experience.  Conversely another set of conditions may provide us with a warning – we are not going to ‘enjoy’ what we expect next.

When a student enters a room they will be confronted with a set of features that they will interpret and then imagine what to expect.  This connection drives the emotional content of their minds and good teachers know how they feel about what you provide is directly related to how they will engage in your lesson.  If they expect to be bored they will be set up for boredom there will be no stress that calls for the child’s brain to attend – there is nothing worthwhile here.  If they are afraid they will be primed for protection against your lesson and the stress levels will be elevated to a level that excludes cognitive thinking – nothing can be learned effectively.

The successful teachers want what I call a ‘Goldilocks’ brain one that’s not too hot – over stressed and not too cold – under stressed but one stressed just right!  The way they will behave in a lesson is quite literally shaped by the way they feel.

Most significantly, both the student and the teacher’s expectation of a lesson depend on the experience of the previous lesson.  So it is important that the teacher understands that how they present their lessons sets the expectations of the students now and in the future.  We can’t expect the students to come into class just feeling good about your subject just because you like it but we can build up experiences of past ‘feel good’ moments that the kids will bring into the next lesson.  It’s like banking, the more you put into building an expectation account the more interest you will get and that’s compound interest. 

You have to remember that so much of their expectation is stored in the emotional area of the brain and this is why the relationship between teacher and student is the most significant factor in teachers being able to engage their students.  This is particularly true for those ‘difficult students who have a history of failure.  The successful teacher will develop a relationship with students and with the teacher’s support slowly change the student’s expectation about your lessons and their ability to learn.

Students with behavioural problems provide the greatest challenge to the teacher’s ability to engage them in learning.  It is important to understand these students will minimize or misinterpret any positive stimuli.  They either think they are not worthy or don’t trust the teacher’s motives. They are also hypersensitive to negative social cues and they are hyper-vigilant about potential threats. They also fail to understand or read non-verbal cues they don’t easily get what is presented to them and they are highly likely to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any negative, incoming stimulus.  All this history of failure means that to create expectations for success in children who have only experienced failure requires patience and quiet determination.

So what do we need to do?  The following points will help:

  • Students decide how important the lesson is from how professional the teacher presents themselves. You need to look like a teacher – have your ‘teacher’s uniform on’, look like you love your work and most of all look like you are happy in their company.
  • Students register the importance of the lesson by the interest the teacher displays.  How could we expect the students to be enthusiastic about maths if the teacher is blasé about solving simultaneous equations?  Emotions are contagious and so is curiosity!
  • Messages about the effectiveness of the lesson come from the state of the room and the presentation of the lesson content. The recent discovery of Mirror Neurons (the subject of an essay on the Web Page) highlighted the importance of this point.  A neuroscientist Iacoboni had volunteers watch films of people reaching for various objects in a tea time setting (teapot, cup, jug, plate of pastries, napkins) in different contexts.  In every instance when the subjects saw the person in the scene reach for a cup, a basic set of ‘reaching’ neurons fired in the subjects.  But different additional sets of mirror neurons would fire depending on what expected action was suggested by the setting.  In one case the setting was neat and orderly as if the meal was about to be enjoyed.   The player was about to drink some tea and one form of additional neurons fired.  The other setting was cluttered as if the meal had been finished and the cup was ready to be cleaned up and there was a different set of neurons activated.  The brain knew what was coming next!  If the student comes into a room that is organised for learning their learning neurons will light up.  If the room is untidy and dirty another set will fire.

There is a popular view amongst some educators that we need to get emotions out of the way so we can teach the kids but good teachers know that emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition. They are a fundamental element of why thinking and learning happens and emotions fire expectations.  Through the child’s experience they learn to ‘know something’ that is about to happen so let’s make that quality learning!

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Monday, May 15 2017


True Grit

16  May 2017

At the core of school’s work is student learning, it’s what schools are there for and because teachers are who they are, they are always looking to improve on this.  Teachers are committed to get each student to maximise their learning outcomes.

Earlier education practices worked on the premise that students came with certain abilities and we should stream them in homogenous classes so they would learn best.  Initially this ‘sorting’ was based on intelligence.   Of course some students are born with a natural gift for schoolwork but this talent is only the potential for success.  

Recent research has established that the major indicator that will determine a child’s success is not their ‘intelligence’ but their character.  So it stands to reason that we should focus on developing character!  The question is what sort of character?

What our students need to achieve sustained excellence in anything they do, is the traits of hard work and ability to stick at a task and see it through.  Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed identified seven characteristics of a successful student, the first being ‘grit’. 

Grit describes a passion for success and requires perseverance, hardness and resilience, sticking to a problem until it is solved.

A simple but telling example of how grit works comes from the different results nationalities get in the PISA Scores for mathematics.  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, describes how some students would take 22 minutes to work out a complicated math question.   Unfortunately the average student gives up after only THREE minutes, preferring to ask for help than work through the problem. Those students who persisted for that extended period of time got the solution.  Their grit ensured success and they would continue to keep in trying as the work becomes harder in the senior years.

Encouraging kids to step out of their comfort zones and take learning and social risks is one of the great challenges for teachers and parents.  It’s critical that we challenge children and young people to attempt activities where failure is a real option. Overcoming setbacks and pushing through difficulties is how character is formed.  Too often we try to protect our kids from the consequences of their mistakes but it is through mistakes and the taking of the responsibility of those mistakes character is built.

A word, or two of warning; grit has become extremely popular in modern times.  Angela Lee Duckworth on a TED Talk that has had over 10 million views talks about her experiences.  It’s hard to argue with TED, but I often do however there is a problem with this adoption of grit to the extent that supporters will accept that it is acceptable that kids do not have a balanced approach to life.  They argue that great achievements come from individuals that are extremely single-minded.  I would argue that, for a child we do require balance.

A second problem is that the total belief in grit promises success.  It is like the myth of meritocracy and the mantra of neoliberalism ‘by hard work to the top’.  The hidden message given to a child by ‘grit’ is that if you fail it is because you didn’t try hard enough! 

So what to do?  I agree that grit; perseverance, delayed gratification and the like are qualities we should teach to all our kids.  And I agree that character is a better indicator of success for a student but this is only on a personal level.  Kids are unique - all have different abilities but while ever we measure success in relation to a population some kids despite all the resilience and perseverance will never top the class, will never win an Olympic Gold Medal.  They need to know they are not failures but the best of people.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


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

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