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Monday, August 30 2021

Competence V's Warmth

At the beginning of most teacher’s careers some wise veteran will give the well-worn advice – ‘start in tough, let them know you’re in charge and then you can ease off’.  The idea is to show the kids who’s the boss in the classroom.  This advice holds some truth, you are the teacher and you should be the leader in the classroom but this ‘being tough’ can be counter-productive especially for young children and those who have a poor sense of self resulting from abuse and/or neglect.


From the very first time you meet a new class you have to be a professional teacher and this means you have to ‘teach’ the kids you have in front of you; you have to provide the optimum environment for all the children.  That environment consists of four factors that underpin a successful learning experience.  Each is important but some more than others depending on the maturity of the student. The diagram below illustrates the relationship between these factors where:

  • Pedagogy – This is the lesson content, style of delivery, assessment, etc. those things you should learn in preservice training.
  • Structure – This is the system of predictable consequences for the behaviour that is on display.  That behaviour includes the use of appropriate social skills as well application to set tasks. 
  • Expectations – In an effective classroom everyone knows what to expect, that is the standards of behaviour and work effort.
  • Relationships – Although last on this list, relationships is the most important for developing children, particularly those whose history of abuse/ neglect makes issues of trust tenuous.


(These factors are featured throughout the over 170 past Newsletters but ones for a quick review are:

  • Relationships               26February 2018
  • Creating Structure      12 August 2019 
  • Expectations                17 February 2020)


If you look at the four characteristics three would come under a broad heading of competence, pedagogy, followed by structure and expectation and the relationships represented as the emotional warmth or emotional competence between the student and the teacher.  These are shown below.

If you ask people if they had a teacher that really inspired them most, not all will be able to identify that special person that inspired them and if questioned about why you generally get answers like ‘they believed in me’!  


This connection is particularly important for younger students, they are the more in need of the teacher accepting them.  Schools do this quite well with kindergarten teachers providing a very pastoral approach to their student and as they mature the relationship between the teacher and student evolves into connection with their peers becoming more important.  By the time students are in their final years the subject competence of the teacher becomes much more important.  The following graph illustrates this point.


However, and this is important for those following our work, students who have suffered a history of abuse and/or neglect, do not follow this orderly progression.  They rarely, if ever experience a warm attachment with those who should provide it. 


Having these students in your class presents you with a great challenge.  These kids are hard to like, their behaviour often appals others and so, you need to discipline yourself to accept them unconditionally.  Applying the structure and expectations, the environmental competence allows you to do this.  These kids will ‘break the rules’ but the application of structure and expectations lets you reject the behaviour while completely accepting the child.


Even if you can do, this these kids will fight you at every turn.  They are suspicious of anyone who shows kindness; they are hypervigilant looking to avoid being disappointed by others.  Too often, people try to support them but easily give up and reject them. 


If the teacher is informed and motivated enough they can engage the student and a warm relationship can develop.  When this happens, they will follow the same trajectory as most kids, that is they may be thirteen when they start to trust but they can build from there.  The trust required can only be gained over a long period of time so you need to hang in with them for longer than they expect!


The importance of this connection between warmth and competency is not confined to the classroom, although I would say it is critical in the classroom it is considered essential in all activities where leadership is involved.  Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business School points out that workers require their leaders to be both warm and competent but the warmth must come first.  The illustration below is a modification of the model she and her colleagues presented.

This shows that:

  • Teachers high on warmth and competence are appreciated by the students
  • Teachers that are high on warmth but are incompetent disappoint the students
  • Teachers who are competent but lack attachment create resentment because the students don’t think they care
  • Teachers who are incompetent and detached are disliked by the students


 It’s worth reviewing the things I think underpin a professional relationship a teacher can have with their student. These are:

  • Consistency, students get a sense of security and control if they can trust that they will know what happens when they make a mistake
  • Mutual trust and respect – this is paramount in building positive relationships
  • Understanding and meeting students’ needs
  • Taking the time to communicate and this does not only mean talking to them but actively listen to what they have to say
  • Maintaining consistently high standards in your behaviour
  • Responding to and nurturing a child’s passions or talents
  • Not taking setbacks personally
  • Showing vulnerability – show that you are not perfect and accept the consequences of your mistakes

So, returning to that ‘wise advice’ given to so many beginning teachers, ‘starting hard and establishing your authority before you show your warmth’ is not the best way to start with any class or student.  Sure, this approach will work for older, resilient students but for youngsters, and those damaged students, being tough risks losing the chance to make that emotional connection and you might never get this back. 


Always let your warmth come through from the beginning BUT always understand you have to set up all your competencies, pedagogy, structure and expectations.  This takes time and while you do this the relationships will hold everyone together!

Posted by: AT 09:17 pm   |  Permalink   |  1 Comment  |  Email
Monday, June 07 2021


Followers of my writing understand the four characteristics I believe should be nurtured in our children.  These are a healthy sense of self, the ability to relate to others appropriately, develop a sense of autonomy and finally to have a purpose in life.  In this Newsletter I want to discuss the subtlety of purpose especially for the kids whose history leads them to believe their life has no purpose (see Newsletter Creating Purpose - 12 February 2018)!


A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction.  If you examine people who you would consider successful and content you would see individuals involved in a range of endeavours.  These activities extend from working in large corporations, making million dollar deals to those who have dedicated their life to a political ideal.  Others have devoted their life to a particular sport or recreation and others who work with charities helping those less fortunate than their self.  The list is endless but there is a commonality and that is they have an intrinsic motivation that drives their behaviour.  These successful people have aligned their life’s purpose with their distinct sense of who they are. 


In the best of situations, we can work in jobs that are directly related to our intrinsic goals.  For the children coming from a disadvantaged base it is unlikely that they will have in the first instance the ability to work in an area that captures their imagination.


This is the problem; how do you get these children who think they are worthless to even attempt to plan for such a future.  This can be achieved by not only using short term goals to engage them, in the first instance and to encourage them to always strive for excellence in the tasks you set them.


One problem that must be addressed is that in the early stages of change there is a significant amount of negativity that is part of their sense of shame.  These children have a default position of failure and we are asking them to attempt something that they may well find very threatening.  This can be overcome providing them with the key pillars of any successful classroom, structure, expectations and healthy relationships – no surprises here!


A technique to help students engage with learning, I learned from a colleague and friend Randall Clinch provides a useful description of our approach to classwork.  His approach divides the motives for undertaking effort into four categories.  In the first instance Randall spoke of a negative cycle that could be initiated when undertaking a challenge.  These are the negative traps we can fall into if we do not approach work with the best of motives:

  • Excitement – This is the feeling of excitement when we choose not to attend to our work.  Instead of attending school we may decide to truant and that can be accompanied with a sense of excitement.  There is a sense of danger the first time we take such a risk.   But excitement is a short-term feeling feedback that you are doing ‘the wrong thing’ and can help motivate you not to truant.  

However, the more you truant the less excitement is experienced and the easier it is to ‘do the wrong thing’. 

  • Hardness – This is a feeling we experience when we have to do something we are made to do, something we don't want to do or something we think we can't do. This is prevalent in all classrooms where teachers insist on the students doing their work.  It can also be a problem when we start a new job.  Everyone experiences some apprehension when they are placed in an unfamiliar setting.
  • Guilt – Guilt is closely associated with shame so there is no surprise that these children can be victims of this emotion.  We feel guilt when we know the work we have done is not our best effort.  If the task we have been set is not engaging then it is tempting to just put in a minimal effort.  What our students need to know is that most jobs are boring especially at the start.  Some jobs, such as production line work will be boring and it is hard to remain enthusiastic about it.
  • Frustration – This is the final trap we can fall into if we fail to take a positive attitude into our work.  Frustration comes after we complete a task and as we look back we recognize that our actions have not met our expectations.  The task is finished and we have to submit something that will produce a sense of shame.  The redeeming factor, if there is such a thing is this is healthy shame.

The alternate to these negative outcomes from not putting in our best effort are given below. 

  • Excitement – This is the feeling that comes from the expectation of an activity that holds an element of fear. For a pleasing life we need a bit of excitement.  It is important on a personal level and explains the popularity of ‘dangerous’ carnival rides such as the roller coaster.  And it’s no surprise teenagers are particularly attracted to ‘excitement’ but of all the motivators the satisfaction excitement provides is very short lived.  The ‘excitement’ of an activity soon abates and we require either other activities or we need to take even more risks.

Excitement is no motivator for long term success in work.

  • Enjoyment – This is the ideal motivator for any vocation.  Going to work to do something you enjoy makes life easy.  It is the ideal way to earn your income.  But as I have pointed out the number of people who have the privilege of working at what they love is small and usually for those who have had an equally privileged developmental childhood.
  • Reward – This is working ‘for the money’.  There is nothing wrong for doing this as long as it is in a way that doesn’t clash with your deep sense of worth.  It may be possible to make a great deal of money selling scam products, the market place is full of such schemes.  Unless your intrinsic sense of ethics and personal qualities gives you to believe that taking advantage of other’s gullibility is part of life’s competition, working in such occupations will clash with your intrinsic drives.

However honest work will provide support for your sense of self and the resources to support your real goals.

  • Satisfaction – This is the best type of work.  This is when you work in such a way as to improve your own talents and experiences in a way that will increase the professional skills you possess.  Along with improvement of your ‘self’, there is a great deal of fulfilment in undertaking work that improves the lives of others.  This can be providing things like new roads, fixing cars, working in the service industry and making someone’s experience special because you treated them well.

The fact remains that school work is often threatening for these kids but it can be very boring for all kids.  Unless we make a concerted effort the easy path is into those outlined in the negative outcomes.  It takes a special quality to naturally have enthusiasm for the mundane.  However, this doesn’t mean you have to be downhearted about the work you have to do.  The four positive approaches can help anyone to remain actively engaged in any task.

Posted by: AT 10:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 24 2021

Trauma Informed Teaching

In recent years it has become widely accepted that trauma can have devastating consequences on the mental health and performance of individuals.  Much of our work at Frew Consults Group is underpinned by our understanding of the effects of early childhood trauma and we are finding an increasing number of professional development programs offered to schools that market themselves as being ‘trauma informed’.  It needs to be acknowledged that there is a potential danger of those delivering these programs.  Trauma, and the resulting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very complex mental health injury and it is critical that those delivering these courses and the teachers that participate do not over-step their professional responsibilities and to exacerbate the psychological injury already suffered by these children.


Trauma occurs when events challenge the very foundations of our expected survival.  We all function with the expectation that we will endure and this gives us the confidence to plan and act within our community.  However, there can be times when these expectations are shattered through the experience of:

  • Unexpected life-threatening events such as car accidents, earthquakes, severe illness, the death of a loved one, anything that threatens your stable view of the world.
  • You come face to face with human vulnerability, you witness the injury to another person that demonstrates the fragility of life, in an instant the world changes through events that are out of your control.
  • You come face to face with the capacity for others to preform what can only be called evil in the world.  History is littered with such events, take a tour of any of the more than 1,000 Nazi prison camps created in the period between 1933 to 1945 or visit the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia.  Just visiting such places fills or at least should fill one with an overwhelming sadness.  You can only imagine being an inmate of such a facility.


The damage done by any such traumatic event is the result of the chronic level of stress that is experienced, it is so powerful it overwhelms a person’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved.  This inability to defend one’s self against these threats means that the individual is unable to discharge the energy that the fight/flight/freeze response has generated.  This leaves the individual is a state of constant readiness with their brains awash with a chemical cocktail including adrenaline, catecholamines and especially norepinephrine.  Amongst these chemicals is cortisol which is linked to the healthy discharge of the energy but if this does not occur than the constant presence of cortisol has an erosive effect of the very structure of the brain.


This inability to defend themselves means they are constantly ready for action.  They exist in a state of neuromuscular readiness, primed for action; tapped in a highly aroused state.  This situation results in the following experiences:

  • Intrusive Thoughts - the individual may experience vivid flashbacks of the events, suffer nightmares or develop false memories to protect themselves from the truth of their experience.
  • Avoidance – People will consciously or even unconsciously avoid situations that are associated with the traumatic event or even just avoid any stressful situation as they don’t trust their ability to cope.
  • Hyperarousal – these victims are always ‘ready’ they are constantly scanning the environment for potential threats.



This very brief description of trauma is simplistic, the intricacy of this psychological injury is overwhelming.  In practice trauma is described in three ways:

  • Acute – this is often associated with a single event such as a car crash or witnessing a serious accident.  This type of trauma can usually be successfully treated by a qualified mental health expert.
  • Chronic – this is linked to multiple, long-term and/or prolonged exposure to traumatic events.  Things like domestic violence, bullying, serving in war zones or working in frontline services like police, ambulance personnel and even teaching in a dysfunctional school.  Chronic trauma is much more difficult to treat.
  • Complex – This is particularly relevant to our work because it describes multiple exposure to traumatic events and can be coupled with childhood neglect.  These are the conditions for the children that are the focus of our work.  They are by far the most difficult and dealing directly with the child’s trauma must remain with the health professionals.


There is real structural damage to these children’s brains. Such alterations are:

  • The amygdala which is that part of the brain that initiates the fight/flight/freeze reaction to stress is increased in size making the child more predisposed to being set off by imaginary threats
  • The hippocampus, that part of the brain associated with memory formation and therefore learning.  This is reported to have a 12% reduction in size
  • The prefrontal lobes, the executive part of the brain where our working memory functions are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.
  • The cerebellum, which is critical for the interpretation of the environment’s potential threat is reduced in size
  • There is a reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum which hinders the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres

The result is a real and permanent intellectual disability.


Students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships.  They will:

  • Minimize or misinterpret any positive stimuli – they don’t trust compliments
  • Are hypersensitive to negative social cues – they expect the worst 
  • Find it extremely difficult to understand or read the non-verbal cues of others 
  • Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus


Compounding these problems is the damage done by persistent neglect in early childhood.  The brain is developed though its response to incoming stimulus.  The most graphic example of the need for a stimulus at the time the brain is acquiring a proficiency is for sight.  If a child, born with cataracts does not have them removed within the first year, the lack of incoming light to the brain is not present and so the child does not learn to see.  If the cataracts are removed at a later time, it will be too late because the neural material in the pertinent part of the brain has been removed, pruned to improve the efficiency of the brain.  This phenomena takes place for all learning tasks.  It is particularly important in the formation of attachments and the lack of appropriate stimulus; a mother’s appropriate attention leads to problems associated with connection.


An extreme example of the real damage that occurs to children who suffer from early childhood complex trauma is illustrated by the comparative MRI’s of two children, one from a healthy environment and the other from a child rescued from the infamous Romanian orphanages founded under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980’s.



You can see not only the significant reduction in size of the orphan but also there is an increase representation of the black areas which illustrate areas of their brain damage.


It is the complexity of the damage done to children that makes treatment extremely multifaceted and challenges the most qualified of the medical profession.  The skills needed are well beyond the qualifications and experience of the best teachers. This is why any training under the guise of ‘trauma informed’ must emphasis that trying to directly assist any child suffering from PTSD is potentially damaging.  The only approach, as is always the focus of our work is to provide an environment that is:

  • Structured - so the student can begin to trust their ability to predict what will happen
  • Predictable – The students know what to expect when they choose to behave in a certain way or safely anticipate the behaviour of others
  • Built on Healthy Relationships – the relationship between the teacher and student is the most important feature of any education setting that has children who have been exposed to complex trauma. 

By providing such an environment you allow the child to begin to trust themselves to take control of their lives.

Posted by: AT 07:51 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 22 2021

Supporting a Sense of Self

Whenever people talk about the qualities of successful people they always cite a healthy sense of ‘self’.  This is described in terms like positive self-esteem or self-confidence and there is no doubt that how we feel about our selves really does impact on our performance.  The same relationship holds for our students; if they feel confident they approach their lessons with a positive attitude.  But, what about those students in our classes who suffer low levels of self-esteem, those who has suffered abuse or neglect or those who come into the system with undiagnosed disabilities.  These kids are already at a disadvantage even before they start the lesson!

The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood.  In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional.  This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions; we ‘feel’ confident.


At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable.  At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories.  However, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to our emotional sense.  It is my understanding that this emotional dominance over our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.


For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produce levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met.  Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed or cease trying and disengage from their world.  This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins what I refer to as toxic shame.  


Many, or most of these damaged kids suffer from this toxic shame, that is they expect to fail, they don’t make mistakes, they believe they are mistakes (see Newsletters Toxic Shame – 3rd July 2017 and Faulty Beliefs – 6th November 2019).  The challenge for the teacher is to refute this negative mindset by producing a classroom atmosphere where the lesson is no threat to their sense of ‘self’, eliminating the negative impact of their faulty beliefs!  By consistently presenting an environment that esteems the student their attitude will change but this is not a quick nor easy solution.  Remember, these beliefs have been formed over many years so it may take many years to make a change.  The teacher has an opportunity to make this happen.  


All beliefs are just memories that are formed in response to our needs and the environment in which we find ourselves.  The illustration below crudely explains how this process functions.