This is the start of a series of Newsletters that focus on how children who have experienced abusive and/or neglectful childhoods, those children who are the focus of our work develop dysfunctional behaviours. Recently we examined our sense of self in two Newsletters. This prompted the impetus to go back to discuss basic human needs and drives. This examination will take the form of a series of essays that build towards a finished model.
Let’s start with the fundamental drives for all species, the drive to keep our particular gene profile alive. This is based on the work of Richard Dawkins who expanded Darwin’s model of survival of the fittest. Dawkins postulated that in its basic form, our bodies are just vehicles to maintain the survival of our particular genome. This was the foundation of our drive to survive, keep supporting our genes and to reproduce, ensuring that if, and when we die our genes will have been passed on to another host!
The fundamental purpose for our existence is to survive and reproduce! Of course, it is not that simple. All of us are driven to behave in lots of unique and complex ways however, if you look at any behaviour, the result of being ‘driven’ it can be traced back to these two instincts. Of course, the drive to reproduce becomes more significant as we reach maturity. It is not a real issue for primary aged students but does become a consideration for the secondary system, not only the curriculum but teacher awareness of the emergent attentiveness to the business of reproduction!
When we feel completely safe and secure we experience a level of calm that allows us to access the top levels of our brain. This is the position of homeostatic equilibrium. However, when we are not ‘safe and secure’ we experience a level of stress and that stress provides the drive to behave, to act in a way that will bring us back into equilibrium.
In the late 1960’s a psychologist named McLean introduced the concept of our brain that described it as having three distinct levels that were linked to our evolutionary journey. He called this the tri-part brain with the following stages:
Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain
This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis. Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back to homeostasis. This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.
Remember times when you had run ‘out of breath’, maybe under the water for too long recall how desperate you become to get some oxygen into your lungs. This desperation is the stress that fuels the behavioural drive.
The ‘lessons’ assembled in this part of the brain begin to happen from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy. We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs. A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.
This is referred to as the reptilian brain because this most reptiles failed to develop beyond that point. They do not have any social organisation and the times they do group together is because that environment supplies their physical needs such as food, water or the opportunity to reproduce.
Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System
This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs. The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation. This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.
The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded. In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.
The lessons learned here are almost but not quite as inflexible as those in the brain stem/midbrain but because they were predominantly learned in early childhood they are very hard to change and for our dysfunctional kids changes here are at the heart of providing success at school and beyond.
Despite some significant exception for all intents and purposes it is in this area of our brain problems of relating occur for the children we deal with. Thinking back over the more than 100 Newsletters most problems faced by teachers and/or dysfunctional students occur because of the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong in one environment and those to survive in the environment of the early childhood.
Schematic Representation of the Brain
Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes
This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species. It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy. We can modify the genes of plants to get more and improved plants, we have industrialised the capture of fish and so on. All these come from our intellectual brain.
Unfortunately, this has also allowed us to build weapons, dare I say it of ‘mass destruction’, exploited and polluted the planet’s resources to an extent that survival of our species is threatened.
This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom. Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed and unlike the lower levels where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to get the students to want to learn. The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.
In the next Newsletter(s) we will discuss models of needs and drives but this essay explains the underpinning of all behaviours and that is to survive and reproduce. I accept that some, if not all readers will disagree with my fundamental model but I argue that there are such a range of these models, the most influential being Maslow’s is because they are examining the secondary expression of the underpinning position of being in homeostatic disequilibrium.
The successful integration into a community at any level is crucial for mental health of everyone. For the kids with PTSD, relationships are matters that are fraught with difficulties. The development of techniques to establish significant connections with others, at all levels takes place in early childhood. The different types of relationships are established in a sequential order. That is from the exclusive attachment to their mother up to the affiliation with peers.
The most powerful adult relationship is that to an intimate other. Part of fulfilling the evolutionary demand to reproduce in our society is most often with a significant partner. The power of this type of relationship is made obvious by the initial intensity of the establishment of a loving relationship and the emotional pain when that love ends. This is the last type of connection developed in our species and it is a strong echo of the first intimate relationship with the significant care-giver at birth.
The structure of this intimate connection is first established at birth when the child attaches to the parent. At this time the child is totally reliant on their carer(s) for all their needs, their very survival depends on an adult taking care of them. Attachment theory is a major field of psychology and beyond the scope of this essay but it gives a great illustration of this process. Secure attachment occurs when the care-givers meet the needs of the infant. Not only are the physical needs met so are the social and emotional ones satisfied.
Within the description of the course of development there is a consistent correlation between early childhood abuse and neglect and disordered attachment. And the children with severe behaviours are invariably those with insecure attachment.
It is obvious that if you leave a child alone to fend for themselves, they will die. So, the dysfunctional children who have made it to your classroom have had some support in these early years but not enough. The example of an extreme form of neglect is illustrated with children who were in the found in the orphanages of the Eastern European countries at the end of the Cold War, particularly one in Romania. At one level they were fed and clothed but had little, or no emotional/social bonding or mental stimulation. They just lay in their cots all day. The outcomes are horrific.
The kids causing trouble in our schools may not be so damaged however there are plenty of individual kids have suffered a range of abuse. These kids will not have a secure attachment to their primary parent and as this early failure is the template for future relationships. The difficulty continues throughout development.
When they get to school they should be on the way to developing the next level of relationships and that is the ability to affiliate with other children. In an ideal situation this occurs in preschools or supervised play where the carer givers teach skills like sharing and cooperation.
As said, kids who are unable to form primary attachments are already at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing these affiliations and they are very likely to have parents who do not teach them how to appropriately respond to the inevitable conflict between kids or they don’t even provide the opportunity to learn.
To address this relational deficit in a classroom is an enormous challenge for the teacher but one that must be faced. The outcome we want for these kids is to be a valued part of their community so the task is to make them a valued part of your class.
The first skill is for them to recognise the social norms of mainstream society that should be reflected in the classroom. Initially this is achieved by teaching social skills through classroom discussions on topics about sharing and relationships that have struggled. Stories about fictional kids who are experiencing difficulties in their life, say the break-up of their parent’s marriage are a great class discussion.
Providing negative consequences to the students when they break the social expectations is an appropriate response but only if there is an accompanying explanation about why the actions were inappropriate. Early on this might seem to be a waste of time. As pointed out before, these kids will have little empathy in the first instance but by teaching them not only what is not appropriate but also why it is inappropriate you are front-loading the brain with connections that may bear fruit in the future.
As the development of the child’s sense of self is enhanced through smart cooperative learning and volunteering class activities these programs work well in developing the ability to form healthy attachments.
We have established that the children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment have verified brain damage and the theme of our work is to provide rehabilitation through changing their Renvironment. Predominantly this is focused on schools but these principled interventions work even better if they are applied around the clock which can occur in special settings such as juvenile detention centres.
However, one of the frustrations for teachers or supervisors is the length of time it takes for any real change to occur. There are two things to consider about this; the first is the extended time interval required for real neurological change to be entrenched that drive new behaviours, the second is the difficulty in changing deep held beliefs. The focus of this Newsletter is on the first of these problems, the impediment of time!
Changing the neurological organisation of the brain in any permanent sense requires the extinguishing of the existing circuits and the construction of a replacement path. This is known as plasticity. This plasticity varies throughout the brain, from the brain stem, through the limbic system and on to the cerebrum. Behaviours learned in the brain stem are extremely non-plastic, that is they are very hard to change. This makes sense as those behaviours are designed to support our physical wellbeing, such as breathing, blood pressure, balance, etc. that are vital for our survival and this resistance to change protects us.
Those social/emotional lessons that are stored in the limbic system are also hard to change. This is where our affective memories are stored and these are the organisation of our sense of self. We develop our sense of self in the early years and the behaviours that accompany this have been learned because they have provided the ‘best way’ to survive in the environment in which they are learned. It is in this area our beliefs are maintained and, although arguably easier to change than those maintaining our physical security, they are also ‘hard-wired’ making change a time-consuming event.
The importance of both the physical and socio-emotional functions are important to our survival and so it makes sense to protect them from change; this is why they are so locked into the brain circuitry.
The part of the brain that remains relatively plastic, that is reasonably easy to change is the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, mostly in the frontal area associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving. Those other areas of the cerebrum are associated with the development of fundamental skills that complement our survival mechanisms, things such as vision, speech, etc. are also developed in the early years and most likely share the non-plasticity of the lower levels of the brain. These are:
Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing
Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech
There is not the behavioural need to change these although there is a case for mediation for students who did not receive the appropriate level of stimulation in the developing years.
Although I have seen no research that would describe the level of plasticity in these areas a clue to the difficulty is in the problems faced by children who have been born with cataracts that have not been removed before about eight months. Up until this time the conditions in the occipital lobe are extremely plastic, this is referred to as its ‘window of opportunity’ when the brain’s neurons are surrounded with supporting materials, principally myeline the material that sustains and enhances the circuit. After that time has passed the myeline that has not been used along with the unemployed neurons are removed in a process called pruning. This makes the circuit even more efficient and long-lasting it also makes the behaviour controlled by the neural path non-plastic.
The difficulty faced by many teachers who work with these children is that their day to day teaching focuses on those frontal areas, associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving, the stuff of the curriculum. We see how relatively quickly children can learn new material. We are also exposed to a range of intervention programs, almost exclusively based in the cognitive behaviour therapy model to help children deal with their dysfunctional behaviour. We make the mistake of assuming the pace children learn say history or mathematics should be the same pace they learn to change their behaviour!
The real rate of change that can be expected from the deep-seated brain damage from abuse or neglect is best understood when it is compared to brain damage that is a result of a physical trauma, say a motor vehicle accident. People and families that work with such casualties expect the road to recovery to be slow and very difficult for the patient. Although this process can be frustrating usually the victim and their support are very committed to make the effort to get better, or to recover as much functionality as they can.
Rehabilitation is basically placing the patient in an environment that will stimulate the behaviour that is required to function in that environment. For example, if the individual needs to learn to walk again they will work through a process where the legs are exposed to conditions that demand a ‘walking’ response that will encourage new pathways to form. This can take months even years to recover even if only partially. The thing is the community knows the ethics of providing this support and the economic value of the intervention. The thing is, these victims did not deliberately choose to have their disability and their prospects of having a ‘successful’ life is hindered by their injury.
It takes a rare individual to take the same view of a teenager whose dysfunctional behaviour is expressed in a violent outburst in their classroom or sits in the back of the classroom completely disengaged in learning. It takes an even exceptional political/bureaucratic system that would provide the same level of support for this victim of an acquired brain injury. It is easy to feel compassion for the victim of a motor vehicle accident who may well have lost their ability to dampen their behaviour, become compulsive. It is much harder to have that same compassion for a ‘compulsive’ child when we have no evidence of the ‘accident’ they suffered by being born into the wrong family!
The thing is, these kids can be helped, we have the same ethical responsibility to take up this challenge. Despite the obvious decency of taking on the task there is a measured economic advantage for the community if we do. There is the access to such an amount of untapped human resources and the reduction in the financial burden of providing institutional interventions, such as detentions centres, courts, etc. that attempt to control these behaviours.
For teachers, there needs to be proper training in the techniques of providing the correct therapeutic environment and the encouragement to ‘stay the distance’ through the long period of recovery. It will be worth it!
Working with children with severe behaviours is extremely challenging. The personal demands you will experience working with these difficult children are not to be underestimated; they are extremely stressful. In one of my books (see resources) I discussed the concept of toxic resilience. The idea is that to be successful in a highly demanding vocation you need top be resilient. Working with difficult students over time certainly qualifies as being a demanding job; it demands a high level of resilience. But, this resilience comes at a cost. The ability to keep fronting up to these children places you in a situation that has a high likelihood of producing constant elevated stress. This constant exposure has a significant negative impact on an individual’s personal health, a situation that is understated and largely unrecognized.
Resilience has been defined as the ability to display constant competence under high levels of stress and produce quality outcomes despite demanding conditions. This definition is now accepted for every age group. This has long been held as a strength especially in education. It has allowed us to keep going long after others would have given-up. This is a quality required when dealing with these kids. One of the prerequisites for success is to hang in with them long after they had expected you to give-up.
In earlier Newsletters (The Intricacy of Stress, June 19th 2017 and Anxiety 24th July 2017) we have discussed the biological consequences of elevated levels of stress particularly when those levels are maintained over a period of time. You must be aware that you are working in such an environment.
The following is just a brief outline of symptoms, causes and recovery techniques that you can use as some sort of guide to self-care around maintaining a healthy level of resilience in this very difficult job.
In the Newsletter we have discussed the healthy stress cycle, arousal with its flight/fight/freeze response, the discharge of the released energy and a return to rest. We have also discussed what happens if, before we return to our baseline homeostasis, we are again provoked to a level that produces another cycle and the cycle is incomplete. The level of confined stress is magnified. This build-up is gradual and, unless you are vigilant you will not realise you are becoming burned-out, a not so nice way of saying you are dangerously stressed. If this is happening you may notice changes to your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as changes in your behaviour. These are:
Feeling very tired or exhausted all the time
Changes in sleep patterns
Changes in eating habits
Low immunity, catch everything that is going about
Feel like nothing matters
Work is either extremely boring and worthless or it is overwhelming and you can’t cope
Feel like a failure, you feel helpless or detached
Your level of motivation has dropped
You become cynical and start to criticize everything
Avoid responsibilities by missing, either taking excess sick leave or other forms of leave
Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkley was renowned for her work around occupational burnout. She has described five causes for burnout and these are:
1. Work Overload – People have too much work to do in their day or, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they are given or, they are not supplied with the resources to complete their work. In any modern public school all three conditions are the norm.
2. No Autonomy – When we are given a responsibility but not given the authority to make decisions about how that task should be done or the freedom to plan the work we become disempowered. This leads to frustration that can build to resentment.
3. Under Valued – As teachers we are always looking to provide our students with positive feedback when they complete a task. We understand that this sort of response helps them become motivated to carry on. Somehow this simple technique is ignored when we are dealing with our colleague or those we supervise. When we fail to provide positive feedback or some type of reward we feel under-valued or disrespected.
A particular problem you will face if you ‘specialise’ in dealing with these damaged kids is that the mainstream educational community has no real time for these children other than mouthed clichés when they make the headlines in the media. This discounting from the leadership send a message to colleagues that don’t work in this area that somehow your work is not important. This can be quite disappointing.
4. Not Supported in the Workplace – This leads on from the latter part of the previous point. However, when you are working with these very difficult kids there will be time, more than is usual when the students will have to be removed from their class. This is where the teacher requires the support of the rest of the school. These students must be removed for everyone’s safety, including their own but they must be supervised. There is nothing more demoralising than sending a student out and having them return almost immediately with little or no intervention being delivered.
5. Fairness – This is another point hat is underpinned by the understanding that you will be working with difficult kids. Shallow educators equate teaching quality with the attainment of high grades in their classrooms. This insult is carried on by the community and the media. There is little understanding of the difficult work you do on top of the delivery of curriculum which is the task of those teachers working in ‘selective’ environments. Everyone deserves respect especially those who work without minor extrinsic rewards.
6. The ‘Meaning’ of your Work – This is the final part of the causes that make working with these difficult kids a dangerous place to take on. You should not expect your colleagues or your supervisors to understand the value, not to mention the difficulty of the work you do. I worked for ten years as a principal of a special school for adolescents with severe behaviours in a very needing area in South-West Sydney. During that time, I had four supervisors all of whom were wonderful people but I know they had no idea and little interest in what we were doing at the school. This is where you need to believe in your understanding of the work you do and if possible, create alliances with contemporaries from nearby areas. These days you can contact similar colleagues ‘on-line’ one advantage of the digital world.
When discussing recovery let’s use the same three categories, physical, emotional and behaviour. In reality, these are really just the reverse of those things we have identified as the causes of stress.
Physical – Lots of the things that have used to deal with your elevated stress have affected your health. It’s doing almost the opposite that will help you recapture your physical health. There are some simple things you can do:
Get regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be excessive and really it needs to be ‘age appropriate’. Don’t develop an obsession with exercise, that is a symptom of activities addiction, that is exercising so you avoid the issue that is causing the stress. It might be jogging or walking the dog, anything that gets you out and about. Joining in a team activity would tick two of these boxes.
Try meditation, follow the guidelines outlined for the students, they will be the same. It is also a good idea to take meditation or yoga classes to get out and meet others.
Avoid drugs, this goes without saying. It is part of our western culture to reach for a drink when we are over worked and the thought of a stiff drink at the end of the week is tempting. Like all things, in moderation is a good guide.
Emotional – When you are ‘burned-out’ you really do not feel good about yourself and you tend to isolate from others. Some simple ideas are:
Reach out to those who are close to you. Your first though is probably they don’t want to hear about your problems but in most cases, you would be wrong. People are flattered when you seek them out. The very act of choosing to speak to them communicates that you trust them and value them. They will be supportive.
Socialise both in your work and in the community. At work you are with people you probably would not choose to mix with unless you had to. But, you are with them during your working day and by trying to get to know them the consequential interactions are much more pleasant. Don’t be afraid to initiate the contact.
Get your work into perspective especially when working with challenging kids. The modern demands on teachers is on outcomes and we can get swept up in the idiocy of this approach to education. All teachers know that learning outcomes depend on a range of factors with the teacher being one. Assess your value with the effort you put into your work.
Behavioural – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ How often have we heard this cliché but for the most part it is true? These are some things to do:
High achievers are reluctant to say no to any request but there are times when you should say just that. You have to maintain a proper life – work balance and that requires you to limit the demands placed on you. Get into the habit of leaving your work at work. I understand this has always been impossible for teachers, it still is but in dealing with that work you do take home make sure you make a timetable that includes an appropriate of non-work activities.
Think about how you work and how you could improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of your efforts. This may include delegation of some activities that really could be done by others. I had a process where, if I though some demand was trivial I would put it into a designated file and wait to see if the person who sent the directive followed-up their request (this is common practice for most teachers and principals). If the demand was repeated then I would complete the task. Of course, you need to know those things that must be done!
Plan; this can be an overall strategy for the school year or term but if so you need to break this down into smaller goals such as what you want to achieve in the next month, or whatever you choose but it is great to have a lesson plan that includes what you need to do. When you have a plan, it takes away a lot of your stress.
The message is, look after yourself! There is a statement made in every life-saving course I have been to and that is, never jump into a river to save a child if you can’t swim. It is equally true that you can’t help damaged kids get better if you become ill yourself.
One ‘truism’ we hear constantly is that change is inevitable, and I accept this however, if you take this on face value you are ignoring two points that must be considered. These are, change is not always for the best and the second point is that change evokes stress. In contemporary years, society’s expectations of schools have never been more intense. The issues facing schools are the increasing emphasis on schools’ accountability through close evaluation of its performance based on external testing, particularly the NAPLAN test in an environment where external departmental support is being reduced.
Coupled with thi, is the emphasis placed on students to succeed in a narrow range of all the skills they will need to acquire. Literacy and numeracy are just two elements in a child’s education but the whole worth of our efforts is based on these factors that are at the heart of the NAPLAN test. Not only does this put pressure on the teachers but I am well aware the students are also pressured.
Further, when the media focuses on a social problem there is a perceived assumption that schools need to ‘solve’ the problem. At the end of my career I remember listening to the radio going home from school where the ‘problem’ of our unfit youth was being discussed. The majority of the calls taken by the presenter reinforce the view that it was the ‘school’s fault’. Of course, I was silently defending our school, silently making the case that was not our fault!
Then I realised I was acting in the adversarial manner so typical of our modern society. It is obvious the people listening are also prone to take one side or the other. I understand that many parents agree with the position ‘it’s the school’s fault’. This conflict breaks down the community spirit and invariably leads to tension and stress conditions both for the parents and the teachers. This situation is not conducive to collaborative solutions to help our kids.
Of course, things are not perfect and today’s students can do better. It is also true that schools are part of our community and do have a part to play. I am aware that:
Some parents do feel anxious in regards to what is happening with their child at school
Some students are over-anxious about their schooling
Teachers are becoming more and more stressed
I know good schools always want you to contact them when you are concerned, they know they are far from being perfect and will make mistakes. But sometimes children do not divulge the whole story when they talk about what has happened at school but it’s the only version the parents hear.
To help parents (when I refer to parents, I include all other primary care providers including guardians) get a clearer picture of what is really happening and more importantly, help you minimise the stress you, the parents and the child may be experiencing I have outlined some steps you might take that could help you get a better idea of what is really going on at school and how to help them develop personal skills and resilience. I have summarised below some information you may share with parents:
1. Sharing too much
When your child comes home from school with tales about being bullied either by ‘mean’ girls, ‘aggressive’ boys or ‘insensitive’ teachers, keep in mind that your children feed off your emotions and can get more distraught when they see you distressed. Try to keep our own anxiety in check while sympathising with theirs. You should be the emotional rock; the person who understands and supports your child. Then get the facts and if need be you should contact the school.
2. Advocating too hard
We all want to stand up for our children, but our eagerness to advocate can sometimes actually raise everyone’s anxiety levels. If your child shares a school problem with you, your first instinct is often to march into the school and try to resolve it. This tells your children that you don’t have faith in us or in your child to fix their problems. Your first priority should be to help them find a solution they can implement without your help, every time. Again, if it is serious contact us.
3. Compensating for weaknesses
It is truly an unusual child who is great at everything. So it follows that generally there will be areas at school in which they struggle. We want our kids to have healthy self-confidence and instead of focusing on and compensating for weaknesses, remind them to play to their strengths. Children can’t always avoid their weak areas, but by focusing on strengths we build self-efficacy and confidence.
4. Overplaying strengths
Linked closely with the previous point is the risk that too much positive affirmation can easily turn to pressure. Compliment children when they excel, but don’t make their excellence a reason you love them or to expect even more from them.
5. Having great values
Sometimes children make poor choices and I know they fret about their family finding out – it can seem like a fate worse than death. Let your children know that while values are important, you understand the realities and temptations they face. Disapprove of the behaviour but never of them. Don’t create a culture where your children are too anxious to come to you and admit they messed up.
6. Hiding your troubles
If your family is struggling financially or fighting with each other, don’t make the mistake of thinking your children are better off not knowing. They are very good at sensing problems and if they suspect something and if don’t know the whole story they can blow it out of all proportion. Should we pile our own troubles on our child’s shoulders - no, but it doesn’t hurt to be honest about what your concerns are and more importantly what you’re doing about it. By sharing what makes us anxious and how we deal with it we’re modelling practical ways to resolve anxiety.
At the end of 2016 year I conducted my last Year 12 Graduation assembly. At that ceremony I saw the whole school community at its best. The students made the school proud as one after the other presented themselves as the mature and dignified young men and women who I could see will make great members of their community. The staff could rightly feel a sense of achievement looking at these young graduands and knowing what they have achieved. Most inspiring for me was the number of parents and friends who joined the celebration. All the struggles, disputes of the previous years were over but it was through these times the young children learned to become these great young adults. Never lose sight of this achievement that is repeated year after year in all our schools.
Throughout these Newsletters the consistent premise has rightly been that the effective management of stress underpins all successful behaviour management programs. That is, for a teacher to present an effective learning environment it needs to minimize those conditions that threaten the safety of all members of the classroom.
Of course, there will inevitably be situations that disturb this desired state of calmness and when this happens we will act to alleviate that stress. In a perfect world we would have learned to take actions to relieve that tension but there will always be circumstances that are beyond our current competence and it is under these circumstances that we have a choice, we either learn how to deal with this new situation, the ‘adult’ response or we act just to get rid of the stress. This short-term reaction is at the heart of addiction and that addiction includes the compulsion to act in inappropriate ways.
There are three ways addictions are manifested; through the use of substances that alter the impact of the emotion, the use of activities to distract thoughts from the problem and the third is focused on stress that has its source in personal interaction; this I call ‘people addiction’.
The use of substances is long been used to alter emotions. When anyone mentions addiction the first thing most people think of is the classic drug addict and I would argue that at the heart of the reason these chronic addicts are around is their early childhood abuse. I have worked with children who are suffering from such addiction and they will invariably tell you that the first time they got high/drunk/bombed-out was the first time they felt good about themselves. Never be under the illusion drugs don’t work but the problem is that like all addictions the more you use them the more the need for the effect and eventually the need for the drug becomes the primary problem for the user.
The second type is activities addiction. This is where the person becomes so focused on a task or hobby they can’t think about anything else. You can see this with over-the-top sports fans who live every moment for the team. Or with kids, when a new craze sweeps the country you see those who become obsessed with it. While ever I am fully engaged I will not have to feel the emotions from my ‘shame’.
You see activities addiction in the work place. Years ago, when I was formulating these ideas I discussed them with a colleague. He stopped me and said – you are describing me. I had suspected he was somewhat engaged in such addictive behaviours as he was having difficulties in his life but was enjoying success at work. When I started to expand my thoughts he cheerfully told me it was alright, he had just enrolled to study for his doctorate. He achieved his doctorate but lost his family.
The catch with activities addiction is summed up by those who become workaholics. The extra output they achieve because of the hours and the intensity they put in to their work results in their promotion. Soon they are in positions where the workload becomes the problem, like the substance they need more and eventually they break down.
The last type of addiction is what I refer to as people addiction. In reality, this is most likely the reflection of how the children learned to survive in the abusive relationships in which they were raised. As with other addictions these behaviours are the result of previous experiences of success in alleviating unhealthy levels of stress. This ‘people addiction’ is the product of behaviours that worked directly on the stressor, the ‘abusive other’.
The first type of people addiction is that of overt control. The tactic is to stress the other person much more than they stress you. In a sense, you abuse them straight back and in such a way they will stop their behaviour. This can be done through all types of aggression ranging from physical attack, making fun of the other person, discounting their worth, any form of attack on their physical or psychological safety.
People will take this form of defense when they hold a position they perceive as being superior to the other person. This could result in overt behaviour against a younger sibling, a different gender, usually female or someone you perceive to be in a ‘lower’ social ‘class’.
Overt action can make the original aggressor stop but this does not provide protection from future attacks and as with all addictive strategies, there is a long-term cost. The aggressive behaviour pushes others away and so the danger is you become distant from others. Those who use overt control limit their opportunity to have productive relationships; they become isolated, frustrated and bitter.
The reverse approach is that of covert control. This strategy consists of being so nice and cooperative towards others they will have no reason to attack you. A common phrase used by those who adopt the covert position is ‘I don’t care – whatever you want to do’. These children are nice to be around because they are sensitive to your needs and do whatever they can to make sure you get them met. They avoid unpleasant situations at all costs.
They take up this position for the same reasons as those who take up the overt position, because they consider themselves less than the offending other. The problem is their own needs are never met and resentment and anger will build-up but remain internalized. This adds to their feelings of worthlessness.
The final position is that of resistance, the students choose to ignore the source of the attack by not getting involved with any of the other students or activities. They rebel against any organised activities and are absent a lot. They will avoid anything that has the potential to cause stress.
The cost of opting out of interactions with others is the loss of opportunity to get any needs met. These students become isolated and marginalized.
So, what to do? Dealing with situations that threaten your composure requires you to control the impact of these ‘attacks’ and to achieve this you need to develop strong boundaries (see Newsletters - ‘Teaching Practical Boundaries’ 31st July 2017 and ‘Dealing with Difficult Kids’ 4th September 2017). Successful management of all stressful circumstances relies on the honest response to the questions that underpin all responsible behaviour. These are:
What is really going on?
Who is responsible?
If its my actions then take responsibility and change that behaviour
If it’s the ‘others’ behaviour then understand you can’t make them do anything and you must behave in a way that has the best chance of getting your needs met in the long term
Let go of this relationship?
Understanding how to produce effective boundaries distinguishes adults from children, despite their real age and teachers rely on this ability to survive in the most difficult of classes.
This is a follow-up Newsletter from ‘The Impact of Abuse’ where I described the different outcomes of unpredictable or predictable abuse. This article expands on the characteristics of those children who lived in a family where the destructive treatment was always the same. As pointed out the people from this background felt they had to be better than, invulnerable, good/perfect, independent and totally in control. In fact, they had to be ‘perfect’ or others would discover just how damaged they were.
Elene Aguiliar, the author of many books on coaching recently wrote about understanding perfectionism. Despite not linking this need for perfection to an abusive childhood much of what she says helps us understand these children. She recognizes that at the heart of perfectionism is a belief that, in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best all the time. Our very worth as a human being is tied to our perfection.
This belief has its core in toxic shame (see Newsletter 7th March 2017), the view that if I make a mistake I am a mistake and so to have any sense of worth I have to be mistake free!
It is prudent to remind ourselves we are dealing with children with a damaged sense of self. We all know, or should know perfection is unattainable but the striving to achieve perfection is at the heart of all real success. We don’t want these children to stop trying but we want them to understand the reality of any situation in which they find themselves.
When talking to students I used to tell them all that I am a perfect human. Having engaged their cynical attention, they obviously knew how flawed I am. I went on to explain that no human is perfect, I’m not perfect so I must be a perfect human! By repeating this catch phrase, it became part of our shorthand communication and understanding that these kids rely on external validation, when they had made a mistake I could remind them that they are perfect. This is possible when you have developed a genuine relationship with the child, you can correct the work without having them link this with their sense of self.
We all have a real tendency to see ourselves as being imperfect and that is how it should be; this allows us to have humility and compassion, we know we have flaws but still have a sense of worth. We also can observe the faults of others without dismissing their importance. The thing is, these kids not only see their acceptance being tied to being faultless they see others as perfect. They will accept their validation or rejection without question, they have no autonomy.
To change this sense of toxic shame is a long-term project. This belief is linked into the child’s emotional memory and any cognitive discussion will have limited success. The secret is to set-up the lessons in such a way that the expectations are realistic, that is the child can achieve the goals at least 70% of the time. It is a mistake to make the work too easy, kids can see through this but having a success rate that is significant will encourage real participation.
When giving feedback be careful of how you assess their work. As children mature they need less praise and in fact teenagers are likely to reject those who praise them (see Newsletter Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward, 4th February 2018). Make your comments about the work and their effort if appropriate, never say well done when you and the student know there has been little effort.
You need to understand that when presented with new work these children will already be experiencing negative thoughts like:
I can’t do this ….
Everyone will laugh at my ….
I hate ….
They are already set-up for failure.
Too often I have seen teachers, who have little understanding of these dynamics make comments about the resulting poor efforts by the children saying things like:
What do you think you are doing ….?
Is this the best you can do……?
Why did you do that?
Comments like these reinforce the child’s self-perceptions and destroy any chance of developing a working relationship. At best, the child will agree with the teacher, of course I can’t do this, at worst they will really resent that teacher.
As pointed out above, keep the feedback focused on the work. When presented with their work acknowledge what has been done and suggest improvement using statements akin to:
How can we make this ….?
What can we do to ….?
What will it look like if ….?
Using this approach is conveying the message that you believe they can see a better way to do things, at least you are being inclusive and that is a sign of acceptance despite their lack of ‘perfection!
As the teacher you have to be aware of the emotional state they come to each task; their natural reaction is to resist ‘having a go’. Don’t confront this but acknowledge it with the following type of statements:
You hate being told to do this work.
I understand you would much rather be outside.
I get you don’t like doing this type of work.
They still have to do the work, they are students and you have to teach curriculum but by telling them you know they don’t want to, gives them the message you care about them and appreciate the extra effort they have to make. You can transform a determination to not even try into a feeling of at least being understood.
This Newsletter started addressing the problems those students raised with persistent patterns of abuse and their faulty belief that they have to be ‘perfect’. The suggestions outlined will support a teacher’s efforts to develop an authentic sense of self in these students. The same approach will work just as well for those students who think they are totally ‘imperfect’ and failures. It is all about validating their humanity.
At the centre of good classroom management is a structured discipline and welfare policy that provides known consequences for actions. The secret is to make the child understand the connection between what they do and what happens as a result of that action. Of course a 100% connection is not a reflection of the real world. There are many consequences that can be linked back to any action. For example if I speed on my way to work I could get to work early, enjoy the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, have an accident, kill a pedestrian, there are a lot of possibilities that can follow my action. So why is the tight link between the child’s actions and the consequences you deliver so important?
The objective of these Newsletters focuses on those students whose behaviour is severely dysfunctional however, the techniques we present will support all students. Our premise regarding those with severe behaviours has been that for the vast majority of the kids their problems can be traced back to an abusive/neglectful childhood.
In previous newsletters we have discussed how memories are formed and that those memories direct our behaviour. As a child we have a need and we try an action. If that satisfies the need we ‘remember’ it and when the need returns and we try the same action that memory gets stronger until it becomes our habit. If the action doesn’t get a result memories are not formed. This is at the heart of some of the behaviours we have discussed elsewhere, if throwing a tantrum worked once then I will try that again and if it continues to be effective that will become the habitual behaviour. As we know that’s fine until you try to get that need met in a different environment. Kids from these environments had a sense of control in their formative years but the tools they learned to get that control were specific to an environment that clashed with the one considered to be ‘normal’ such as the classroom.
For children who live with addicted parents or those with severe mental illness there is a lack of any predictability in their life. Addicts and those with unstable perception do not provide an expected connection between the consequences they deliver for a child’s action and so the child can’t effectively learn how to behave.
For example, if the son of an alcoholic gets into a fight and his father finds out the reaction from the father could be:
A belting for hurting the other boy
Getting a great deal of approval for being tough
Being taken down to the other kids house to apologize.
The list goes on but in reality these and many other consequences the father dreams up are delivered depending on the ever-changing mood and perception of the father. The result is the child has no idea that what he does influences what happens to him.
The children from families appear ‘out of control’, dependent, vulnerable and just ‘bad’ but this is because they have no sense of control yet they still have the needs they try to satisfy.
How we can help these kids develop a sense of control is by attaching a most predictable consequence for their actions. Developing the link between actions and consequences is where the rules come into play. For example if they talk inappropriately in class they get the same consequence, or maybe a sequential set of consequences they expect. This is why the mantra of being consistent and persistent in your delivery of consequences is critical if you want them to develop that sense of control. If they get this sense of control in your classroom there is a chance they will develop the confidence to use that capacity into the world.
The other thing you can teach them is that life is not really that predictable. Take the example of me speeding while driving to work; some of the possible outcomes I could get are getting to work early, enjoying the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, having an accident or kill a pedestrian. Only two of those consequences are in any way beneficial for me. They are getting to work and being thrilled by my speeding but I certainly don’t want the remaining three consequences. Of course the probability of these things happening varies. I suspect that the chances of killing someone is not very high and I’m most likely not going to be caught BUT if I do speed I must accept that every one of those possible consequences could occur and that they would be my responsibility.
So, we teach the kids, yes there are probabilities and more likely than not you will get away with acting in an inappropriate manner but eventually that consequences you did not want will come up. As I said to the kids, ‘well your number has come up, you knew that could happen so accept it is your responsibility’. If you never want to have a particular consequence never do the action that can extract that outcome.
Linking actions to consequences is the greatest empowerment you can give to these damaged kids. Not only will it make their position in life more powerful it provides you with a ready-made language to manage your classroom.
Creativity is recognised as the essential quality our students should have when they graduate from all of our tertiary institutions. So, it follows that schools should be ‘teaching’ this characteristic. This is not lost on our masters and the development of creativity is mandated in our National Curriculum and reiterated in almost every vision statement associated with schooling. Even the Gonski Report emphasised the importance of this in our schools and so we should provide lessons that lead to the acquisition of an education that produces creative thinkers.
This importance placed on creativity is because it is identified as the driver for change in a world where the rate of environmental transformation is increasing at an almost exponential rate. It is generally accepted that unless we change our industrialised approach to providing for our populations we will face the inevitable collapse of our planet.
Before we address the provision of ‘curriculum for creativity’, let’s investigate what we mean by ‘creativity’. Like most concepts, when you look for a definition you are faced with a multitude of explanations and creativity is no different. To simplify each definition emphasises that to be creative in any new development should provide a unique way of interpreting our environment (I have loaded a Chapter, ‘Teaching Creativity’ from my book ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom – The Getting of Wisdom for Teachers’ in the resource section of our Web Page).
We also need to define what type of creativity we are discussing. James C Kaufman of the University of Connecticut described four forms of creativity, ‘Mini C, Little C, Pro C and Big C. The first three describe a continuum from critical thinking to people who work in the creative fields, comedians, musicians, those who are vocationally creative but not necessarily eminent. However, it is the Big C definition that is generally accepted as being the goal of creativity that changes the world and this is at the heart of this work.
However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is ‘creativity’ and what is just ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’. The mix-up is best observed in the latest emphasis on the STEM approach to learning (project based learning focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths), this is where schools consider they address the issue of creativity. The combined approach encourages the use of ideas from a mix of precepts to synthesise a ‘better’ outcome for a design brief. This critical problem solving, in the main is just a more sophisticated organisation of existing knowledge and is not technically creative. This is not to depreciate this work but it is not really creativity and if we continue to use this approach to the world’s problems we will end up with a much more effective, streamlined, wrong answer to our problems, the inevitable failure will just be ‘more efficient’.
This confusion is seen throughout much of the literature around this subject. The first of the educational reformers was Ken Robinson whose TED talk on creative education is one of the most watched in that series. The most recent pundit is Davis Eagleman who, along with his musical friend Anthony Brand wrote the best-selling book ‘The Runaway Species – How Human Creativity Remakes the World’. The central premise is that we must take existing practices to solve problems and ‘bend them, break them or blend them’ to achieve new solutions. The bending or blending holds for critical thinking but what does breaking them achieve? Probably no more than putting us back to square one, we still have a problem.
So, how do we achieve new creative ideas that by definition are different from existing knowledge when all we have at our disposal is that existing knowledge? In the essay I have provided, you will find a detailed description of the neuroscience involved in creative thought but for this work it is best explained as some phenomena that takes place when implicit memories, those unintentional, emotional and unconscious memories are combined with those explicit memories, conscious recollections.
Graham Wallis, the founder of the London School of Economics described this subtle difference between critical thinking and creativity back in 1926 with his five-step model. Without going into detail, he described the process as first immersing yourself in the problem, looking at all the details and possible solutions. Then, and this is the movement into the creative approach you ‘incubate’ all you have found. Now you leave the solution to your unconscious mind to make unique and often exceptional connections between all memories, implicit or explicit without the interference of our taught-thinking processes. Finally, that creative solution will emerge in some ‘aha’ moment, those ‘moments’ that have been celebrated since Archimedes cried out eureka when he solved a problem about fluid dynamics while sitting in his bath. History is full of such moments (again I refer you to the essay in our resource page.
This use of our memories has continued on and the Explicit – Implicit Interaction (EII) is a current popular model. To summarise what you need is a challenge, then a long period of time to really personally examine all aspects of this problem. This gathering of data will underpin the emergent answer and importantly this data must be stored in your memory not in a smart phone or computer (there is another whole argument about artificial intelligence and creativity but that’s for another time). Then you must ‘let go’ of the control of the search for a solution and your mind may provide you with that creative ‘aha moment’.
Now, how do we teach creativity in our schools? There is no surprise regarding the clash between what our political masters desire, creative graduates and what they demand from our schools. The current educational model is dominated by outcomes based learning. Our syllabuses are highly prescriptive leaving little room for divergence. It is so crowded there is no time for deep consideration. Teachers can’t wait for the incubation of a creative idea.
Coupled with this is the current obsession with standardised testing both of students and teachers. The former have their regular numeracy and literacy inspections while the teachers are ‘performance analysed’, based on their students’ results forcing them to ‘teach to the test’; to ensure they are just like everyone else. This emphasis on reaching ‘milestones’ is a barrier to creativity.
The answer is not easy, creativity is an emergent quality that comes from individuals who see a problem. What we can do is provide all our students with the abundant learning environment that includes exposure to as diverse a curriculum as possible making sure those ‘implicit’ subjects from the arts are given equal billing.
Along with this ignite their curiosity and encourage their uniqueness and give them time to ponder. The hardest thing to do when seeking creativity is to let go of control. That applies to the individual seeking that break-through or the bureaucrats who want their people to be creative.
In a previous Newsletter (4th September 2018) we spoke about the importance of looking after yourself while working in a stressful classroom. At that time, we discussed things that you can do to maintain healthy levels of stress on an ongoing way. Suggestions were to:
Debrief – Discuss the incidents with a trusted other; why they happened and how to avoid a repeat of those situations that generated that stress.
Boundaries – This is a topic that has been examined in recent postings but in general it is how to protect yourself in the stressful situation.
However, as we approach the end of the school year, this article focuses on the recovery from a long and stressful year at the chalk-face.
It is a tradition that teachers are all asked to ‘enjoy a well-earned break’ by the authorities of the day but to do so would rely on an ability to control our bodies through some cognitive instruction. Such a statement demonstrates the lack of understanding of how the brain works. It is as useful as telling a dysfunctional child to behave themselves! If it was only that easy.
At the end of any school year even the most competent teachers suffer from an annual ‘burn-out’. This happens because during any day the teacher is confronted by situations that ignite our fight/flight response. It is this reaction that prepares us for the release of hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine and epinephrine. The energy generated by this response should be released as we actually physically fight an opponent or flight from the situation. Following that sequence, we release cortisol into our system to readjust our physical sense of wellbeing.
But, as teachers it is inappropriate to take physical action against our students and so the energy we created for survival is not used and remains in out body. Further the cortisol that naturally follows has no real work to do and so remains taking a corrosive toll on our body.
During the year, with the overwhelming schedule that demands a teacher’s time there is little opportunity for ongoing maintenance for each episode and so there is a cumulative cost on teachers’ physical wellbeing.
When we come to the ‘big-break’ teachers are tired, worn out and even though there is a demonstrated link between stress and illness. Paradoxically, when the teacher goes on leave and the situations that constantly generate that stress somehow that ‘readiness to protect’ is removed and it is common for teachers to suffer some physical disintegration. How often do you hear of colleagues getting the flu at the beginning of any holiday?
So, to take advantage of the annual opportunity to recover the first consideration is on our physical wellbeing.
It is well understood that exercise uses those stress hormones and importantly releases the endorphins that promote a feeling of mental health. Exercise uses our energy budget and then promotes healthy sleep patterns that also support our physical wellbeing.
Just how much exercise depends on your own physical shape. It would be pointless for someone in their twilight years to take off on a marathon run. For some a brisk walk is an appropriate holiday start to recovery.
If you take these walks outdoors you will restore your connection with nature. This is called ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding’ that calms the nervous system and reduces inflammations and increases our blood circulation. This ‘earthing’ is also associated with working in the garden.
Finally, think about undertaking some relaxation activities. These can be formal joining some meditation classes or yoga or it could be a restful hobby like painting or knitting.
Just make sure the exercise is pleasurable – resist any thought of building another challenge. This is about recovery not kicking off another ‘task’!
Feed your Recovery
There is plenty of information about the use of food and supplements to reduce your stress. If you look at any of these resources they will include the obvious warnings about fatty foods, too much alcohol or caffeine. This will be a bit of a challenge around the celebrations of Christmas especially on ‘the day’ but use common sense.
What will be helpful is to take time to prepare your ‘special’ meal with someone you enjoy sharing wonderful moments with. Take the time to find that particular recipe, source the ingredients and delight in being the ‘Master Chef’ in your kitchen.
Share Your Love
Take the time to reconnect with family and friends. Shelley Taylor of UCLA coined the phrase ‘tend and befriend’, the reverse of ‘fight or flight’. Instead of generating the defensive stress response; ‘tend or befriend’ releases oxytocin that enhances our wellbeing.
This is reported to be stronger for woman than men but I would encourage all men to give this a go. Taylor cites the benefit of cuddling, hugging kissing and loving intimacy as a great way to rebuild your body.
Not only share the intimacy, share activities like going to concerts or sporting events. Share laughter and those moments that are so rare in your working life.
Finally, take control of your smart phone. For most of my career I did not have any way to contact the ‘Department’ when I was on holidays and I got through. If something is so important you will be contacted so take control of your digital life. The friends on Face Book will not ‘tend or befriend’ you so get some human contact!
This is the last Newsletter for 2018 so we would like to thank you for your support and also thank you for all the work you do for those children who need you. Have a great break and we will be back next year!
Much has been written about the significant relationship between learning outcomes and trust. Trust across all levels of the schooling system whether that is between the community and the school, the system and individual schools and most importantly between the teacher and the student(s).
Dean Fink, from Ontario in his article ‘Trust in Our Schools: The missing part of school improvement?', gives an excellent summary of research that shows that across the developed nations PISA results correlate strongly with the social levels of trust. Statistically, high levels of trust result in better learning outcomes. He points out that when policy makers introduce easily measured testing regimes and insidious compliance tasks the level of trust contracts. He goes on to suggest that the Australian "federal government's recent school improvement efforts are heavy on low trust strategies." This observation explains the emerging dissatisfaction experienced by teachers across the system and the exodus of young teachers from our profession.
This significant relationship, between trust and learning is more critical when dealing with those students with severe behaviours. Their developmental history almost ensures a natural distrust of the authority at school.
Erik Erikson, the German-born American developmental psychologist points out that psychosocial development including basic trust occurs in the first two years of development. A child raised in a predictable and affectionate home with caregivers who are reliable and competent will have the confidence to trust the rest of their environment. That is, they are optimistic about their future and teachers and schools are afforded trust.
Conversely, and generally the children with severe behaviours are raised in homes where the opposite conditions apply. That is their environment is chaotic, attachment is at best marginal and there is no foreseeable individual success; why would these children have any trust?
The thing is, trust is the belief something will happen following a given set of circumstances. At school, these insecure students will at best predict an unpleasant outcome but more likely will have no idea what will happen. It becomes critical that their teacher must develop the child’s confidence in the future before any meaningful learning can take place.
There are steps in developing trust in students. These are:
Provide a predictable, caring environment where the boundaries between the teacher and the student are well defined. Providing a structured set of expectations allows the student to develop the sense that it is their behaviour that initiates adverse outcomes, not the belief they have an inherent incompetence. This separation of the student's sense of worth from the mistakes they make will slowly have them accept corrections from the teacher without destroying the relationship.
Students with a history of abuse and neglect are locked into the present moment as they tried to survive the situation in which they find themselves. Eventually, they will be able to project into the future by trusting the advice given by the teacher despite the lack of any evidence these things will happen.
They will come to believe that putting in an effort will pay-off despite there being no real understanding between their efforts and some future reward. So often we teach students subjects that, in all honesty they really would find it difficult to connect to some future but because they trust us they learn these lessons now without a guaranteed pay-off.
This last point is huge for these challenging students. When they have developed real trust, they are risking their vulnerability, having faith that we will not exploit this exposure. Never underestimate the core levels of fear these kids live with. In early childhood, their abuse and neglect was linked with dying and this experience has imprinted overwhelming feelings of fear that normal children would never associate even with low-level rejection or mild threats. For these children to expose themselves is an enormous level of faith in the teacher. Eventually, this trust could be generalized and they could begin to trust the world.
Developing trust in these children is a gift from you. Any teacher who takes the time to develop this level of trust is making an incalculable contribution not only to that child but also to their classmates, their school, and society. The real bonus is their success will repay you in a way that is your real, unmeasured contribution to education!
Early childhood trauma is well established as the major contributor to disrupted neurological and behavioural development in children. The inevitable outcome from the abuse and/or neglect that creates this trauma is a child whose repertoire of behaviours coupled with an adverse cognitive construction limits their ability to engage in our classrooms on an equal footing. Although there is a recognition that these children do suffer from a ‘mental health' disability there remains a reluctance to embrace these kids with the same compassion as those whose disability is more visible and less offensive.
But what constitutes trauma? (The term ‘trauma’ is also used in the medical field to describe an assault on the physical body, but for this work, we are discussing psychological trauma) The short answer is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or a negative event that is painful and overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.
The three conditions where trauma can occur are:
Shattered Expectations – We all have a belief that things will be OK in the future. We live on an ideal beach with the surf lapping at our front door – then a tsunamis hits and your family has washed away; you're driving home from work and you’re hit by a truck that is out of control.
These events and countless other potential disasters, if experienced, force you to accept that a single person has no real control over natural forces. Most of us will never have to face such events but for those who do the resulting stress levels leads straight to trauma!
Human Vulnerability – All our life we wake with an expectation that we will live through the day and repeat this process over and over. We fail to see the fragility of our bodies and the tenuous grip we have on life. However, if you witness an unexpected death, a road accident, murder, industrial accident or perhaps the onset of a fatal disease you become fully exposed to the reality of death and how helpless we are to prevent it. If you have ever seen such an event, you will understand the trauma that surrounds it. Imagine working in an area such as a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster, this human vulnerability is reinforced time and time again. It's little wonder soldiers, police, rescue workers, etc. are highly likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress.
The Human Capacity for Evil - History is full of major events that illustrate our capacity for evil. The holocausts, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia and the countless war crimes reported throughout history all confirm that humans are capable of a level of ‘evil’ behaviour that is rare in any other species.
Such malevolent actions are not limited to these large-scale examples, go to any emergency ward in any public hospital, and you will see children, women and male victims who have been beaten for no reason than to satisfy some wicked person’s desire.
The reality that some humans do not share a capacity for kindness, tolerance and a fair-go shatters the belief system we depend on and when we witness extreme malevolence we become traumatized.
The types of trauma that tend to have the greatest adverse psychological consequences are those related to interpersonal or intentional trauma. These include childhood abuse and neglect.
But identifying these underpinnings of trauma do not appear to be relevant when discussing the trauma of young children. Their cognitive development would make any real comprehension of the conditions outlined above almost irrelevant. So, what are the conditions that traumatize kids?
This is a difficult area, what will traumatize an infant is different from say a two-year-old, this difference reflects the variation in their social/intellectual development. I have attempted to create a crude model that illustrates the differences. I have put these into stages. However, the underpinning feature is the shattered sense of safety.
Stage 1. Infancy
Traumatic factors will include frightening visual stimulation, loud, unexpected noise, being hurt or abandoned. The child's increased stress levels are a response to the fear of ‘death' even though they are incapable of that concept. For them, ‘death' is the removal of support.
Stage 2. Early Childhood
The initial conditions still apply, but now the reliance on relationships becomes a more significant factor. Children, who are abused by primary care-givers not only suffer the trauma of that abuse they also interpret that as a complete rejection from the very person they rely on for survival. Because they are intensely ego-centric that rejection must be because they are ‘bad’. This is the foundation of their sense of toxic shame.
There is also the situation when they see their mother beaten. Mum represents life and when that is threatened the child suffers trauma. Some research contends that seeing mum beaten does more damage than being hit their self. Bizarrely, they will believe they deserve to be punished but not their mum. Seeing their siblings abused continues this trend of helplessness in the face of evil.
There was a time when people believed that because their ‘memories' had not developed that the children would not suffer long-term consequences from the abuse and resulting trauma. This idea that there is no impact could not be further from the truth. Early childhood is the most vulnerable time for children and those who visit abuse or neglect on children at this time in their life are creating the maximum psychological scar possible.
In the Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries (31st July 2017) I outlined the process of establishing effective boundaries. The work described how you know your boundaries are being threatened and how to protect yourself. This simplified approach is useful to either protect yourself from harm or to teach students how they can protect themselves and to develop independence.
Of course, boundaries are not that simple in the complex world of a teacher and the following will help create more professional boundaries that allow you to stay ‘in control’ in the most challenging situations.
Let’s start with a more realistic description of how we create our boundaries. In a pure form your boundary is the interface between your-self and non-self. As we grow we constantly build a connection between incoming stimulus, how that affects us and what happens if or when we act in response to that stimulus. Eventually, after a number of trial and errors a set of rules will develop; those rules will be our reality. The more consistently the impact of the stimulus and/or the consequence of our behaviour is interconnected the stronger will be the accepted reality. The link is why we really start to believe we know what just happened or what will happen in any experienced situation.
The day to day correlation between our experiences of the physical world is considerably robust. We soon learn that if we jump off a wall we fall to the ground or if we go out into the rain without protection we get wet. But, people are biological beings and our experiences are dependent on the environment in which we develop. Therefore, the correlation between what happens in my reality and yours is not so consistent.
However, there is enough of a matched response to situations between individuals to allow a broad sense of a shared reality. This is particularly true if the development of our reality is within a homogenous group. When we grow-up in a neighbourhood with shared socio-economic and cultural norms, the links between actions and consequences are more likely to be alike. The chances are that you and the person with whom you experience an event will share the similar beliefs about that incident. This shared reality will allow you to predict what is most likely to happen in a given situation and that is essential in building a safe and secure environment.
What are the complications for teachers?
The first is that there is a probability that you will be working in a community where the cultural expectations you learned are not the same as the culture you are working in. The expectations of families, for their kids may clash with yours. What you expect to happen may not be what they expect to happen. To compound this problem, even within communities over time traditions change; the older you become the more out of touch you are with those pesky teenagers who grow-up in a ‘modern’ environment. So again a clash of customs will occur. It is this clash which will create a level of tension. To protect yourself from that tension the likely thing is to defend your view of reality which by implication means you reject the other view. You’re right and they are wrong!
The second professional consideration is that you are dealing with children who are just developing their sense of reality. Because of their limited experience very young children are still learning the stimulus-response/action-consequence connections. Also, many of these lessons belong on the developmental path they are age dependent and so their reactions you expect for a given situation may not be present. Say you are annoyed at something they have done, it may well be that they just didn’t know what to do. Your ‘annoyance’ may provide the correct feedback they need to create this reality!
Finally, the kids we are focused on, those with damaged childhoods will most likely have an interpretation of any situation where there is a disagreement. Their idea of what should happen, their reality may well be very much at odds with yours. One example of this clash of realities is that many of these kids are comfortable in a noisy, chaotic classroom while such a classroom will/should strain your sense of ‘safety and security’ this situation will violate your boundaries. But, when you get the class under control, achieve a state of calm this situation will threaten the abused child, it is not their reality.
One of the great impediments to having strong and effective boundaries is the faulty belief that your reality is another’s reality. This can never be the case (see Newsletter - Theory of Mind, 7th August 2018) your internal world, your reality is yours, it is unique and has developed in response to your perceptions and the environment in which you developed. Too many people take for granted that their reality is the only reality and when there is a clash in the response to a situation they believe the other person is deliberately taking an action that annoys you.
As a teacher, you have a professional duty to understand that the children you are dealing with may have a very different view of the world so it is worth repeating the third step in setting those practical boundaries.
Ask the Questions
‘What is really happening’? This is often not the obvious event.
‘Who is responsible’?
If ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take action to address the cause of the stress.
If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
‘What is causing the attack’?
What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?
Boundaries are extremely important in every part of our life but it is no more important than when you are in charge of a classroom. This is where your skills define you as a professional teacher! Remember reality is just a set of rules learned to live in the environment you first develop and continue to live. These children need the reality that will help them change their reality and so you need to create a structured and supportive environment that will facilitate this.
This change takes time so you have to rely on your own boundaries to allow you to hang in with these most deserving kids. Understanding their reality, how it damages them, how to help this change should be your reality and this will give you the resilience to turn up each day.
If you have young children or, as in my case grand children, recently you may well have been terrorised by the title song from Disney’s blockbuster film Frozen. It was the most requested karaoke song in 2014 and is a tune loved by children all over the world. What made Frozen the number one animated film of all time and why do kids love its pivotal song ‘Let It Go’ so much? Two psychologists decided to find out. Their verdict: the song recognises our desire to be happy and free.
But why are the words ‘let it go’ so important if we want to be happy and free? The fact is, if you look at the opposite of the positive emotions like happiness and freedom you arrive at feelings like anger, sorrow, hatred and fear. While ever you hold onto these types of emotions you are locked into a negative spiral that keeps you their prisoner.
For all of us a great portion of our happiness is tied up in our relations with others. We love being with those we care for, our friends and family and while these relationships are running smoothly, life will be OK.
So how is it with the students you teach. Unlike family and friends the relationship is not so easily formed and is often one sided especially for those kids with abusive backgrounds. These damaged kids find it very difficult to establish the kind of relationships that leave them happy and content. More importantly for teachers, often their behaviours are so repulsive they sabotage any attempt you may have of forming a positive relationship.
In a recent research paper from the Monash University it was found that teachers, particularly those who handle the discipline side of our work are eight times more likely to be abused, psychologically and six times more likely to be physically attacked then the general public. It is part of our professional duty to deliver consequences for dysfunctional behaviours and we have to learn to deal with the abuse that often follows.
It is not unusual for these most difficult kids to abuse their teacher, most often verbally but in too many cases they physically attack the teacher. We understand that these severe behaviours have their origin in their past and even though it is an extremely difficult thing to do, we must separate the behaviour from the child.
The alternative is to not ‘forgive’ the child and let the incident dominate the future relationships. This is holding a grudge and a grudge is the feeling of anger and resentment and drives the desire to ‘get even’.
We are human so think about the last time you were wronged, did you hold a grudge and if so was it a feeling of carrying extra weight? We often talk about ‘carrying’ a grudge like we’ve got a heavy load.
In an experiment the psychologist asked participants to remember when they’d experienced conflict. One group were asked to recall a situation that ended in forgiveness, while the other group were asked to remember a situation where they did not forgive the offender. All participants were then asked to jump five times as high as they could.
Participants in the ‘forgiving’ group jumped the highest, while the ‘grudge holding’ group jumped almost one-third lower (on average) than the forgivers. So there it is; carrying a grudge really does weigh you down. Forgiveness can lighten the burden so let revenge go.
It is most important that teachers let go of this extra burden in their life. Letting go is not easy, it may well be the most difficult thing you can do but it is imperative if you want to retain your mental health. There are some things that you can do. These include:
Debriefing – After any situation that you are ‘attacked’ you need to go over the circumstances around the issue. It is best to do this with a trusted and informed colleague who understands your work. The use of your family should only be as a last resort as it will cloud the boundaries of your home and your place of work.
Boundaries – We have spoken about boundaries elsewhere but briefly they protect you from abuse you don’t deserve, inform you of your contribution to any incident and let you plan how you will deal with the problem if it happens again. The fundamental questions are:
What is really happening?
If it’s me then I have to take action
If it’s the student I have to take action – this doesn’t seem fair but you are the professional and you must understand your health is your responsibility. Don’t hold a grudge!
Decide what you want in the future and take action to make that happen.
The final step is to let go. Generally it just requires you to forgive the student and start each new day afresh but in some cases no matter what efforts you put in nothing changes and you continue to be abused. If things are like this ‘letting go’ may mean someone leaves the relationship!
In a recent Newsletter we discussed how important a relationship is to enhance the learning for students in our class. This importance lies in the reality that we have evolved to live in groups to share resources rather than in isolation where we would have to fend for ourselves. That means our individual success depends on how we fit into that group, how socially aware we are. This is not the case for all creatures, reptiles and some mammals do live in isolation but for the higher forms of mammals belonging to a group is critical for success.
It follows that the strength of our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group. Children who do develop this sense of belonging are categorized as being able to:
Think well of themselves
Regulate their emotions
Maintain positive expectations
Utilize their intellect
They learned these skills through their association with a healthy group, from their family and their school.
However, our interest 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 or exclusion, neglect from the only company they experience.
In light of this it is informative to examine how we developed the reliance on the group. In the first stage of evolution there was little development of social groupings and the subsequent social brain. This ‘social brain’ coincided with the growth of the limbic system, that place where our emotions and sense of connectedness resides. About 100,000 years ago humans moved into tribes and the social development began.
The benefits of this tribal life went beyond the provision of food, shelter and security it extended to more time for ‘child care’ meaning there was more time for the development of our physical and cognitive skills. Along with this was the development of language, from grunts, to words, from grooming to non-verbal communication. This drive to communicate coupled with more security and better nutrition provided the conditions for the expansion of our brains.
The size of these groups has been shown to be between 50 and 75. This number is still a likely size of other primates who live in groups. These seem to be the numbers where strong bonds and attachments are formed. The cohesion found is supported by a sense of sharing and fairness. We trust things will be fair and we can rely on our group for support when we are struggling.
In contemporary times the tribe has been replaced by the big cities. Now in those cities we live not in discrete groups of about 75 we live with millions of strangers, our contribution to this metropolis often lacks satisfaction, being detached from the feedback your support is providing. We have become very individualised moving away from the supportive benefits of the tribe.
Successful arrangement of these large cities relies on some form of hierarchical authority that needs to dominate the organization. Those in ‘authority’ enjoy their own sense of power and the rewards that come with ‘individual success’ but they are not attached to those who serve them. Likewise workers in large industrial organisations have no contact with those who consume their production.
This loss of an encompassing tribal sized community has forced people to look for alternate ways to belong. This means we look to ‘belong’ to a football team, a political party, or a religion, something that we can identify with. This gives us something to defend but the support back from these communities is questionable. These types of communities have invariably become another version of industrialisation. Football teams have moved from being a ‘district team’ to a ‘franchise’ that really belongs to their owner not the fans. They are businesses where power and authority rest with those who compete for the leadership position.
There is no doubt that this marginalization of the group for the development of large industrial organization has led to an increase in our consumption of materials and benefits in services but at what cost.
However, what has been observed in this industrial age that the best outcomes are achieved when tasks are carried out by subset, tribe-like groups within the larger organisation. Success depends on tasks being designed to be completed by a special section, armies divide into units, police have squads, etc. there is an understanding of the benefit of ownership. This advantage comes from the social interaction of the group.
Schools have by design understood this process and have organized their children into classes. There have been attempts to ignore this process, we have had accelerated progression and vertical streaming but approaches satisfy the rationality of cognitive learning in fact they exemplify this approach but they have failed. Learning is about the development of the brain and the best conditions for neural plasticity for children, the creation of autobiographical memories the substance of all curriculum is in the tribal group.
As teachers it is relatively easy in primary school to create your class as a tribe. It is not as easy in the secondary years but it’s not as important but can still be done. The trick is to develop an identity for the class, create a culture that the kids want to belong to. Handle disputes as you would in a large family emphasizing the responsibility each class member has to the whole.
Creating this tribal class will not only benefit the students’ social learning it will provide the environment that will enhance their academic achievement.
A relationship between a teacher and their student is generally accepted as being the critical factor in the successful engagement of the child in learning. Just how these relationships evolve will give teachers a clue to developing and maintaining this most important dynamic in the classroom.
How or the type of relationship reflects the environment in which the child is raised. Remember it is the environment that builds or changes the neurologic structure of the brain. If the first experiences are good then there is a flow on effect that allows future bonds to be easily made. Of course the converse is true and the severe dysfunctional kids we are focusing on will have a reduced ability to form healthy relationships.
The emergence of a relationship for a child occurs from the very first interaction with their caregiver usually their mum. Evidence that they are seeking a connection comes almost at birth evidenced by, from the very beginning mothers and others can get a baby to smile and ‘giggle’ by their attention. In fact from a very early age, if you poke your tongue out at an infant they are very likely to return the gesture. Now the tongue is a complex muscle and not easily controlled however this reflected behaviour is attributed to our mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons were first observed at the University of Parma in Italy where a team of researchers, Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi were trying to map the neurological pathways of a chimp performing a motor action. The experiment was in a break but the chimp was still wired to the recording device. One of the experimenters picked up a piece fruit and the part of the chimp’s brain associated with movement lit up despite the monkey remaining still. Subsequent work has shown these mirror neurons exist in humans as well.
The crucial thing about these neurons is they send messages without any cognitive assistance; that is they convey massages without words. These are the non-verbal communications that supply the emotional content of the relationship. They help us understand the others’ emotions and they also communicate intentions. In one famous experiment the subjects were faced with a dinner table. In one sequence the subjects were exposed to a table that is ready for dinner to start. In the second condition the table looked as if it was ready to be cleaned up. Although the items were identical different parts of the brain were in use. This indicated that the subjects had anticipated what comes next.
One of the findings around these studies is that children who suffer Autism or Asperger’s have fewer mirror neurons than the average child. This may account for these children’s struggle to accurately read the feelings or intentions of others. Of course this is only a small part of this very complex disease but may go some way to explaining their difficulty in successfully integrating in a big classroom.
As far as the emotional message is concerned the exchange from one person to others is contagious. Everyone knows if one person yawns it is very likely his or her companions will join in. The same with laughter or sadness they are infectious. Emotions such as Guilt, shame disgust, pride, etc. are all communicated through this system of mirror neurons
It is important for teachers to remember the students get 93% of the emotional content of any message through your facial expression, tone of voice and posture. These messages will be automatic and unconscious because they are communicated through the mirror neurons.
Because of this the authenticity of insincere messages are very hard to fake. Paul Ekman the famous psychologist from the University of California studied facial expressions and concluded that there are 90 different facial muscles that can produce 10,000 different facial expressions. These give us information about our intentions. They fill in the gap between what we say and what we mean.
As pointed out earlier students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships. The style of relationship formed reflects the environment it is experienced in and if they haven’t been exposed to nurturing relationships they will find accepting positive relationships difficult later in life. These students:
Minimise or misinterpret positive stimuli
Are hypersensitivity to negative social cues
Find it extremely difficult to understand or read non-verbal cues
Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus.
These students are at a disadvantage, they think everyone is against them and they even suspect or misconstrue the intentions of the most positive teacher. But this is just another example of the chance we have to have a positive impact on the behaviours of these most needy kids.
We have to remember that the brain is a work in progress and they can change. However, to make that change in these most difficult/damaged students will take a great deal of effort. But they can be taught how to create relationships. This involves the teaching of social and emotional skills to change the structure of the brain and constant repetition strengthens these changes. This is part of the interventions to assist the children suffering Autism or Asperger’s.
We have to remember these children are not their traits; they are not locked into a genetic destiny. They have the ability to change and you can effect this change through your treatment of these most needy children.
In these Newsletters we have asserted that the majority of dysfunctional behaviours kids display in schools have their origins in early childhood abuse and/or neglect. The following describes ways children, particularly but not exclusively boys have learned to respond differently when exposed to threat. I say boys because they are more likely to externalize their behaviour. Another strong response to abuse is to dissociate and eventually withdraw form any meaningful involvement in life and this has a particular gender bias. Girls are more likely to internalise and ‘dissociate’ in response to abuse. Dissociation will be discussed in a later Newsletter.
Abuse comes in various forms but it helps to discuss the nature of abuse on a continuum from a highly anticipated manner to a totally unpredictable kind. For example, let’s say a father always treats their children the same cruel way and so the children learn to expect what will happen given a certain set of circumstances. At the other end of the scale is a father who is erratic and completely unpredictable in the way he responds to that same set of circumstances. This latter style of behaviour is a common state for addicts or the seriously mentally ill and so their children have no idea what to expect, they can’t predict and subsequently fail to learn how to behave.
Therefore the hypothesis is that the developed sense of self and the resulting boundary issues reflects the environment in which it is formed. Fundamentally, boundaries are what healthy people use to protect their core sense of self from external influence. In this essay we will contrast those children who have no opportunity to develop functional boundaries with those who are raised in an abusive but predictable environment. The children will either have no protection; an exposed core to the influence of others or build walls of protection and no one gets in! Either experience results in dysfunctional behaviour and teachers should be conscious of this difference when dealing with them.
The illustration below describes these differences in terms that reflect the characteristics of children’s personality. These traits are just to facilitate the conversation. Of course human habits vary from individual to individual and so these personality features exist on a continuum but it is easier to discuss the extremes.
The model refers to the child’s core, their sense of security within the external environment. At the left we describe a child with an exposed core. These are the children raised in a chaotic environment. They are subjected to arbitrary consequences for specific behaviours. For example, say a boy gets into a fight and the father finds out. On one occasion he is praised for standing up for himself, ‘a chip off the old block’ but if he gets into another fight he might be severely punished even getting hit so he ‘knows how the other kid feels’ or maybe taken to the other child’s home where the father could make him apologise or want to fight the other kid’s father. This boy will have no way of predicting what will happen if he gets into a fight. Therefore, he will have no sense of control.
At the other end, the walled core, are the children who have been treated in an abusive manner but always in the same way. In the example this father might praise the son for ‘being a man’, ‘standing up for himself’ or being told about all the success and prestige the father got from ‘winning’ all his fights. The kid knows how to behave to get his father’s approval or avoid his wrath. ‘Encouraging’ the boy to fight is abusive and will impair his ability to form healthy relationships outside the home. The son develops a ‘sense of control’ but only in the family.
The kids with exposed cores are easy to identify at school. They will cause the most trouble in class and destroy your lessons. However, the kids who have built walls of behaviour to survive in their home build a sense of not being vulnerable. They feel they are in control, good or perfect but this belief is false. The thing is they only feel comfortable when they think they are living up to these unrealistic descriptions. To maintain this illusion they cannot consider any other possibility. These kids are harder to recognize and are not an obvious problem unless someone threatens their self-belief. When this happens they will put up this illusionary wall and refuse to change.
We need these kids to take control of their lives but on the walled end of our model interpret control as being on everything. Obviously, those out of control kids have no idea there is any chance of control of anything. The truth is we can, at best control our behaviour and appreciate we can’t make anyone else do what we want them to do. Understanding this is perhaps the most liberating bit of information a teacher can get. All you can do is provide the environment that is most likely to present the conditions that suit the other person and then they choose the action you want.
So what to do for these abused children. The message is the same as always. Provide the structured, consistent environment so the ‘out of control’ kids can build a sense of predictability and those kids behind the walls are shown there is an alternate set of outcomes for their behaviour and that they can begin to trust an alternate way of behaving that might allow them to better function in the school community.
And of course you must maintain respectful relationships with these students. Remember their behaviours have been ‘put on them’ by dysfunctional adults and while they are behaving the way they do they are doing the best they can. It will take your best effort to make a difference for these kids but that’s why you're a teacher.
A successful trait that has evolved in our species is that we have learned to take the advantage of living in groups. It is ‘the group’ that provides us with an advantage in survival through things like shared meals and shelter and has presented us a range of potential partners so we can reproduce. The development of our sense of belonging comes through the process of attachment.
Attachment is a process that begins at birth and evolves from the formation of intimate relationships with our primary carer, usually mum and on through to our attempts to join in with our peers from preschool through our schooling years. It is well understood that healthy attachment is essential for physical and social wellbeing.
However, it is when our attempts to attach with others are declined, our wellbeing is threatened. In recent years since the advent of brain imaging techniques it has been shown that rejection activates the same brain regions as a physical injury. It is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that becomes active when people are experiencing physical pain and the same area is initiated when we experience social pain. Research into this process has shown that the use of pain relief medication can assist people to deal with social rejection just as it does with physical pain relief.
It follows that rejection experienced by our students has an adverse impact on their psychological wellbeing. Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania State University has shown that children who are rejected display one or more of the following behaviour patterns:
Low rates of pro-social behavior, e.g. taking turns, sharing
High rates of aggressive or disruptive behavior
High rates of inattentive, immature, or impulsive behavior
High rates of social anxiety
These rejected children suffer internalizing problems that lead to depression and social anxiety and of course these psychological impediments will have a negative effect on their learning. Their obvious social clumsiness leads them to be the target of teasing and bullying which exacerbates their isolation.
The leader of this victimization from the social group that produces the rejection is usually that member with the most ‘social power’. These are often those with the most confidence, physical prowess or social status. The archetypical, main bully, in the popular media is the star footballer or for the girls the ‘queen bee’. They are so threatening there is obvious pressure on the others in the group to ‘go along with the bullying’ because if they refuse they risk being ostracized as well.
Some children with long-term rejection will eventually deal with their pain by acting out, externalizing their problems. This lashing out can be directed at them selves with the tragic extreme of suicide or in a few but significant cases it can be outward displays of violence towards others.
In an analysis of 15 school shootings in the United States between 1995 and 2001 found that peer rejection was present in all but two of the cases that is in almost 90% of the cases. These perpetrators had suffered both acute and chronic rejection being bullied, ostracized and had been unable to form a relationship with a romantic partner. Of course in these extreme cases there would be other pathological symptoms like extreme depression but it could be argued that these negative traits were a result of the rejection. The question is could these children’s violence been avoided if they had experienced some form of acceptance? This is the tragedy of the lack of genuine psychological support provided for children who are easily identified as being in need.
The pain of rejection is not limited to children; adults who have taken place in experiments including the famous ‘cyber ball trial’ have shown similar feelings of ‘pain’ if they feel excluded. This experiment takes many forms but fundamentally involves three participants, only one that is truly involved. In a simple form each member of the group pass a Frisbee between each other with a generally fair amount of sharing. After a period of time the two confederates, those ‘members’ who are really part of the experiment reduce the number of passes to the research subject and eventually leave them out all together. The subjects consistently report the feelings associated with rejection. This feeling has been confirmed by playing a similar game in a functioning MRI. When the subject is rejected the parts of the brain associated with physical pain light up.
So what to do for those students in your class you know are suffering from rejection? In a perfect world we could send them to the school counsellor where they could be treated professionally but we know that this is not always, if ever available and so it is left to the teacher to at least try to minimize this.
One of the easiest things you can do is manipulate the combinations of students for group work making sure you place that student away from the perpetrators and with empathetic classmates. Teachers already construct groups to achieve the best learning outcomes and so to incorporate the goal of reducing the ostracism is appropriate. In any case I would never allow the students to pick their working partners for any project work, apart from this being a chance to academically strengthen all students it will avoid that most tragic happening I see in schools and on sports teams. When picking teams the process is usually the choice of the best player and down until we get to the last chosen and that is a public display of their lack of value to the group!
You can also weave social skills training into your lessons and even manipulate public speaking exercises that focus on the problems of isolation in general allowing the students to apply this to their life. Make sure that your classroom is inclusive and everyone is of equal value.
In recent Newsletters I have outlined techniques to develop structure in the classroom and have advocated a method of ‘rule making’ that assumes the students are capable of making ‘appropriate’ choices. There is no fundamental problem with this approach however it is important to keep in mind that children are works in progress and we assume they understand what we would consider appropriate.
Until relatively recently it was believed that the brain was fully developed by the time a child turned seven. Since the advent of more sophisticated instruments to examine the brain this assumption has been dismissed and it is well established that the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. This development is not straightforward; there are periods, ‘windows of time’ when the brain prepares itself for the acquisition of new ‘behaviours’ such a sight, personal attachment and all the skills that make us human. At these times the child experiences the particular properties of the environment and learns how to behave in a way that allows them to function in that environment. At the risk of getting ‘off subject’ it is this learning how to behave relative to the environment that is critical to the long-term functionality of that behaviour. In other words if the behaviour, say attachment is developed in a dysfunctional setting, perhaps the mother or father is over anxious, disorganized or suffers from an addiction the behaviours learned by the child at the time will create unhealthy behaviours in a future, functional environment.
The brain matures in two ways, from the bottom up and from the back to the front of the structure. The latter development is through the cerebral cortex where the skills of sight, sound, language, etc. are acquired and situated. The last stage of this development is in the frontal cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex.
The bottom up development goes from the brain stem, up through the midbrain on to the limbic system and finally the cortex. This is not to say all these parts of the brain are not being used until they are ‘turned on’ of course they are but they are not sculptured, not exquisitely structured until the correct neurological conditions are in place, that is abundant myaline to reinforce developed neural pathways and effective pruning of unused neurons at the end of that process.
And so it’s the prefrontal lobes that are the last to be developed and this task is not complete until the mid to late twenties.
In 2004 developmental psychologist Slywester described the early development into two ten-year cycles. In both cases the first four years were characterized by an awkward period of learning followed by the gradual mastery and confidence.
During the first ten-year cycle children learn to be ‘human’, to move, communicate and master fundamental living skills. The second ten-year period they focus on becoming productive, reproductive adults. They explore emotional commitment, sexual expression and a ‘vocational’ interest. They learn these skills through testing behaviours in their environment.
The repercussion for the teacher, and for parents is how much choice about what consequences are appropriate for behaviours when we include the students in the construction of their classroom structure. In crude terms the amount of appropriate responsibility is related to their age, their stage of development. The graph below gives a simplistic illustration of how much freedom of choice is appropriate at a given stage of development.
It can be seen that very young children are dependent and it is the carer’s duty to tell them what to do. I often despair when I hear parents ask a six year old what would they like for dinner. Children are incapable of making appropriate decisions about the food that is good for their long-term health just as they are ill prepared for deciding what time to go to bed.
As they get older the issues that you can introduce choice must be those that do not have a direct bearing on their physical or emotional development. As you introduce them to limited control this must be linked to the consequences and their responsibility for those consequences. This is the balancing act all caregivers must satisfy, that is when ever possible you should only allow the child to make choices when the worst case scenario is tolerable for the child.
And so it is in the classroom. As a teacher there are times when you impose conditions that you know are right for their current level of development. You need to know when they can, and should take responsibility and only when they are able to make those decisions. This is true for lessons and for the setting of behaviour standards.
In the last Newsletter (13th March 2018) it was shown that dopamine is a critical element in motivation. We discussed the significance of dopamine in regards to the motivation of children but what about the motivation of their teachers? It is hard to remain motivated when you have to face up day after day to a class that has one or more students whose dysfunctional behaviour is such they dread that lesson. Just as the students who are causing the anxiety and stress have low levels of natural dopamine due to their history of negative experience, teachers can have their reserves depleted when they face the same conditions in class.
Just as these stressed students have had the dopamine reduced the same conditions can occur for the teachers unless they experience some reward. People with low levels of dopamine experience depression, boredom and loss of job satisfaction. They can become apathetic, fatigued and have no desire to make an effort to change. They become classically ‘burned-out' a condition prevalent in our modern schools.
It is not likely any useful help will come from our system or even from our direct supervisors. We know that the production of dopamine is linked to the seeking of a reward, but I believe teachers are motivated by the intrinsic reward, and that can only come from their desires. The system, the supervisors, can only provide an extrinsic reward as motivation and these fail in all but the most ‘productive-line' enterprises.
So how do we raise the levels of dopamine?
In critical cases, it may require medical intervention. Dopamine is a chemical and medications do exist to support the supply. If you do need that extra support, you need to seek professional advice. However, some take the self-help route to self-medicate and start using illicit stimulants such as cocaine that produce immediate high levels of dopamine and fill the user with extraordinary confidence and motivation. Stories abound about workers in highly demanding work such as flying fighter jets or traders on the short-term money market using these drugs to enhance their performance. However, like all drugs their use may well have short-term benefits, in the long run, they become a significant problem.
One natural way to enhance the levels of dopamine is through proper maintenance of our bodies. Exercise is associated with health levels of dopamine, and the actual pleasure you get from completing a fitness session provides a reward in itself and hence increases dopamine supplies.
Along with exercise diet is critical in the preservation of healthy levels of dopamine. If you look through the literature, you will find that it is just a good selection of foods that help including protein from meat, fish, and poultry, fruits including bananas and avocados, nuts like almonds. Like exercise, there is no magic bullet, but a wholesome approach to your diet is rewarding not only in the supply of dopamine but also the maintenance of your physical health.
This advice is well and good, but you still have to face that tough class. How do you overcome the depressive working conditions that deplete your dopamine? In my experience, it is futile to look outside for support. Supervising teachers are usually too busy, and principals are snowed under with a bureaucratic workload that precludes them from being of much help. However, the conditions that make you help yourself will in the long run make you stronger and self-reliant.
So look at what you do for those students who lack motivation, lack healthy levels of dopamine. The answer is in setting small but achievable goals. The most likely cause of your classroom stress is the behaviour of some or in all cases all of the class. Invariably there is more than one type of behaviour that annoys you. Trying to deal with them all makes the task appear daunting, and the reality is it is impossible to make wholesale changes in one go. So pick one thing you think is achievable and go into the next class determined to make that small change. When you do you get that ‘unexpected outcome’ with its serotonin and the initial dopamine. Keep this up, and as you do move through the changes, you would like, every time you reach a small goal you increase your dopamine and your natural motivation.
So if you want to get back that zest, the excitement you had before you were worn down by the sheer complexity of this work take the advice above. Improve your health through exercise and diet but most of all set yourself reasonable, personal goals. It is this last approach that fuels your enthusiasm and that directly influences the motivation of your students.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has long been associated with the reward system within the brain’s structure. The release of dopamine is a response to the anticipation of a reward. The connection between the expectation and the production of this neurotransmitter is formed when we experience an unexpected reward. That is when we encounter a pleasant surprise our feelings reflect the output of both the dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin is about the satisfaction after the consumption of a reward; dopamine becomes a predictor whenever there is a potential reward present.
Repetition develops a cognitive connection between the situation and the outcome, and it is then the dopamine supplies the ‘fuel' to drive the desired behaviour. Eventually, this relationship between the stimulus and the reward outcomes becomes entrenched and the presentation of environmental conditions automatically ignites the dopamine release and behaviour becomes almost reflexive.
The implications for teachers is clear; if we can assist, in the first instance an association of school-based activities with an ‘unexpected’ reward and this experience is consolidated then when our students present their ‘work' they will be automatically engaged. Eventually, the constancy of the ‘reward' for attending school is not required to initiate the dopamine led motivation, by then the expectations are established.
The process of the development of this dopamine drive develops as follows:
You get an unexpected reward
Understand how this happened
Dopamine is the seeking of ‘how this happens’ identifying the conditions that precede the reward.
It is important to remember that the provision of an identifiable reward is the expectation then the effect of the motivation can die down. However, school life is embedded as a pleasant experience, and more importantly, the teacher can use the process outlined above to introduce new work.
However, when working with students who you wish to re-engage in learning through the use of the dopamine cycle, you have to commence at the very beginning. For them, school is predictably a source of negative consequences, and the continual lack of motivation deletes the natural supplies of dopamine. They are in class with a relatively disadvantaged position, even in access to the dopamine cycle compared to other students. To change this, we can provide that ‘unexpected reward’ enough times, we can stimulate the dopamine response, and there is a chance we can change that expectation! These students are quite capable of becoming motivated about school, but you have to be patient. When we teach them to connect success with school, we are in a sense extinguishing a robust negative association, and so we must try not to reproduce conditions that will sustain the existing response.
This link between a stimulus and response is a memory, and like all memory development, the more powerful the reward, the more serotonin, and dopamine are released. In future this dopamine will focus the student's behaviour on seeking the same experience; they become very goal driven.
So what is the lesson for teachers? Dopamine has the potential to be a great motivator for your students. The new task must have echoes of previously successful assignments but must have an additional pay-off. When the students have already engaged the strength of the new ‘reward' does not need to be great. In a sense, we just build on existing, desired structures.
Those students who have a history of neglect and abuse that have carried their negative attitudes to school where they have been reinforced require a lot more work in building a positive association that will eventually produce a dopamine response to learning. As always it is critical to be consistent and predictable to overcome existing behaviours and develop a new approach to school. The great news is that you will experience the most significant rewards when you achieve this and you will make a real difference to that child and your class!
At the time of writing this Newsletter, we are at the end of the Winter Olympics one of our biggest sports carnivals. It is here the champions; the winners are acknowledged. These are the athletes that outshone all others on that day. But we know the performance given at that moment is the culmination of years and years of practice and rehearsal. So too is a child's response to any stressful situation. How they act is not based on the presenting conditions but on a belief system that has been built-up during their ‘training.'
Success at the Olympics has rightly or wrongly become very important to nations, and we have seen the great lengths they will go to support those competitors who are a chance to win gold. All across the world, Nations have programs such as our Institute of Sport who search for every advantage. New research has identified a significant finding that supports what good teachers have always known and that the relationship between the coach and the athlete is one of the critical factors that will allow one winner to emerge given the competitors are in all other ways equally gifted. The pursuit of excellence of behaviour does not have the same appeal. However, for teachers who deal with the most troubled students, the drive for success is just as powerful and for the student how effective that teacher is, will have a life-long benefit that goes well beyond the gold medal race!
According to findings presented in November 2015 at the World Class Performance Conference in London, super-elites, the winners felt that their coaches fully satisfied their emotional needs by acting as friends, mentors and unwavering supporters—in addition to providing superb technical support. High-performing athletes who did not ‘medal’ did not feel that way. "This turns on its head a long-held view that we must simply pair the best technical and tactical coaches to our best athletes to achieve ultimate performance," says Matthew Barlow, a postdoctoral researcher in sports psychology at Bangor University in Wales, who led the study.
Effective teachers know that relationships are the key factor in providing the best opportunity for children to develop into the mature, self-reliant and responsible young men and women. To achieve this, I believe that teachers and parents need to build what is referred to as ‘relationship intelligence.' Before I discuss relationship intelligence, it may be prudent to describe what relationship intelligent isn't.
One thing children need to develop for them to face life's inevitable trials and tribulations are resilience; that is the ability to continue after the set-backs and failures we all face. Resilience is best nurtured when we allow our students to face-up to rejection and failure while we support them as being worthy individuals. It is hard for us all not to ‘make things right’ when we see our children distressed or when they have got themselves into trouble. But if we solve their problems for them, we deny them the very conditions to develop resilience. By just ‘being there’ for them when they are facing relatively small setbacks and not ‘fixing’ things allows them to build their capacity to live through the inevitable setbacks they will face as an adult when they are on their own. This exposure to life’s challenges is of course on a graduating scale; it is ‘age-appropriate’. At school we expect our senior students to be much more independent than our juniors.
So what is relationship intelligence? The following is a list of what I think helps make a good relationships work:
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
In my past life, I have had the privilege of coaching elite athletes who have represented Australia in football, and I have also had the honour to teach our most damaged of students. In both instances the goal was the same, to be the best they could be. Being the best we can be as teachers is in making an intelligent contribution to the personal development of all the children in our care. Support children of all ages, while they are growing to be the best they can be is our task. Our kids will make mistakes, but they will never be mistakes.
In 2011 the then President Ban Ki-moon commissioned a ‘World Happiness Report.' To construct such a report many factors predicted to have a causal relationship for happiness were measured. Amongst such traits were economic equity, life expectancy, the freedom to make choices, etc. a sense of purpose stood out as a most significant factor. It was found that people, who had a good sense of purpose, live longer, have better relationships, sleep better and had a more positive sense of wellbeing. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, best described the importance of having a purpose. He observed that those prisoners who had something meaningful to live for outlasted those who just gave up.
Modern research identifies having a purpose as being a significant indicator of both physical and psychological health. As Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin observes if the concept of purpose were not so vague or ephemeral it would be a top public health priority, but it remains an idea that is ‘unscientific.'
So what is ‘the purpose of life?’
As Ryff observes the concept of purpose is hard to define. The current, fallback position of logging on to the Internet to ‘Google' the answer for this question is of little help. Of course, there are thousands of sites with their ‘explanations’, the majority providing a particular brand of religion as the reason we exist. Other sites give their equally vague explanations, but the thing they all have in common is that it is something to live for, something that makes life worthwhile.
In historical times questions over the purpose of life were probably left to those comfortable enough to have the time to wonder. Most people were busy surviving however even in the most primitive cultures there is a consistent longing for the presence of an afterlife, an organization that gave purpose to the day-to-day struggle to survive.
If we go back to the fundamentals of human drives, our primary purpose, I believe is the need to survive and the need to reproduce. In a vast majority of the developed world, we have by-in-large come to the situation that these essentials are under control. I have argued in other places that this essential satisfaction of the primary drives has given rise to our tertiary needs; that is to understand our self and our place in the environment. I think that it is at this level our hazy graving of purpose is founded.
In these advantaged communities purpose is linked to the vague ‘pursuit of happiness’ and this quest takes two forms. The first is of a hedonic nature; that is choosing to behave in a way that leads to pleasure or the accumulation of ‘rewards' - things that make us feel good. The second way to create a drive is to behave in a way that is of service to others. This selflessness gives a purpose beyond our self and strengthens our connection with community.
Both approaches provide the sense of happiness but with the advent of new methods of investigating what happens at a genetic level, it has been shown that the second approach, the service to others initiates an increase in the levels of activity in the area of the ventral striatum, a part of the brain that is linked to our reward system. Further, this feeling of wellbeing has an impact on the limbic system and people giving of their time to others, soothes the fight or flight response to challenging threats. There is a drop in the levels of cortisol present in these people that are not replicated in those who pursue hedonic activities.
For the teacher, the challenge to make schoolwork purposeful is difficult enough for those children who come from a history of nurture and security. They have in their belief systems a past rich in positive memories, they have no reason to expect their future to be other than more of the same and so if we link this belief into the present lesson we will get engagement. These kids will be open to adaptation and adjustment to any new experience. If the lesson provides knowledge that better informs their understanding, they can modify their future goals.
However, our focus is on those children who have come from a background of neglect and abuse. They have a memory bank full of rejection, physical and psychological cruelty and a well-developed sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter 3rd July 2017). Any consideration of their future, like those of their healthy classmates, is more of the same but their ‘same' provides nothing to look forward to. As all teachers of these students appreciates they are quite understandably fatalistic of their plight and will see no hope presented in the lesson UNLESS we can change this sense of their self and nurture a purpose in them.
Like all efforts to help these kids there are no quick fixes, and we must be prepared to provide the time, the consistency and build a relationship of trust. On top of these fundamentals, we can offer projects that are designed to almost ensure successful completion with a small personal investment from the child. These damaged kids more than most can identify any false patronization, so they have to make an effort.
If possible identify something, they may value. It might be a football club, an interest in fast cars, fashion; it doesn't matter as long as the project you choose involves them investing some energy.
Taking a lesson from the strength of providing a service to others as a personal motivator, the teacher can fabricate situations that allow these kids to perform acts of kindness to others. Things like visiting a retirement village or a pre-school. In my experience, all but the most damaged of children thrive in these environments, and the contribution to the formation of a more 'positive' belief system is exceptional.
As stated at the outset, the definition of ‘purpose' is hard to pin down yet the importance is unquestionable. I contend that developing a definite sense of purpose in these damaged kids is a gift a teacher can give that will make a lifelong difference.
The Star Wars franchise continues on with Christmas seeing the release of the latest edition. Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms. The famous ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.
There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles. Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success. These are:
Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve their goals. Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort. This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former, Grit discounts the value of innate ability. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant on ‘grit’ than intelligence, first defined ‘grit’ when it came to predicting success. She showed that if an individual possessed perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of success. This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972. His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marshmallow immediately for the promise of an additional one, would be successful later in life. In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marshmallow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.
There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school. The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation. But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.
A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations. For example:
Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population. It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style, attend the same schools, etc. Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world. Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools. Children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities. There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder. Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept. I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal? And finally there is nothing wrong with changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept. High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal. For many children who lived in chaotic homes they would find the guaranteed consumption of a marshmallow now at least gave some pay-off. In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk. They are in fact making a rational decision. Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family’s socioeconomic status. Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's prefrontal lobes to over-rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes are reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.
So what are we to do? There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept. We all want our kids to have these qualities. But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child. When they fail, they fail at something – for now. When kids with a history of failure do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self.
Yoda was not right, there is ‘trying’ and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed. But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.
‘This is boring’ - a comment most teachers are subjected to during any given day. Comments like this frustrate young, enthusiastic teachers; of course, the kids don't think this is a problem, often it's just a ‘knee-jerk' reaction in the face of a new topic, but we would do well to examine this perpetual statement. It is hard to under-estimate the difficulty in making something like solving simultaneous equations exciting and stimulating to a class of thirty or so average students on a hot summer afternoon. This is what we are instructed to do, and despite our best efforts, some kids are bored!
The acclaimed major cause of boredom is the response from being forced to do something you do not want to do but are required to do. This is often the case in class especially with such a prescriptive curriculum designed by those who love their subject and see no reason for anything about excitement. In these instances teachers find ways to make those simultaneous equations at least interesting, this is what we do best.
The cause of boredom is a lack of focus on the issue at hand. This lack of attention can have many reasons but all are linked to the student's perception of the situation they find themselves in. On those rare occasions when the opportunity to get their needs and wants are present by the environment presented, boredom is the last thing on the student's mind. But for children, especially teenagers, the chances of the lesson that is being presented aligning with their current interest, is fairly remote. Students’ appetites and imaginations rarely match the environmental conditions of the classroom. They find the schoolroom dull and tedious, it lacks stimulation and is stopping them from doing what they want to do!
But there is more that can drive boredom and teachers should consider this response more carefully. In some cases the claim the lesson is ‘boring’ might cover the real message that the lesson is too challenging! Some kids have such a sense of being ‘failures’ it becomes a better option to be bored than expose themselves to their false reality – they believe it’s better to be bored than dumb! This faulty belief is explained below.
For most kids, this lack of stimulation within the environment drives them to find alternate things to occupy their mind. How they do this is telling for the teacher.
In our modern age, the availability of screen access is a dangerous answer to boredom. Teachers are spending increasing amounts of time fighting against the easy escape into the smart phone. Whether it is the social media or the availability of YouTube, kids have easy access to messages that are enclosed in highly designed, attractive ‘environments’. The content of these messages are not the primary attraction for the child; the fun environment is. However, it is the message that remains after the ‘excitement' dims. Media manipulation of all levels of society thrives on boredom and the ease this ‘boredom’ can be instantly eliminated is seductive and can lead to a type of soft addiction.
Despite the difficulty, teachers are experts at manipulating the classroom environment and can make it at least attractive enough for most to get through the lesson content. This is at the heart of our professional skill set. However, those ‘difficult’ students who reside in all classes provide us with a degree of wisdom that goes beyond the presentation of a slick, stimulating and inviting lesson.
To get back to the issue raised above. The most difficult kids to motivate, those these Newsletters focus on, are the ones with a history of abuse/neglect. Their issues go beyond a lack of stimulation; they find the challenges of the classroom environment threatening and the goals of the lessons unobtainable. What may appear to be the apathetic response, this apparent boredom hides their fear of attempting the work. They ‘know’ they will fail and each time they do there is further reinforcement of their toxic sense of themselves. They are better served to hide in a dispirited cocoon of boredom.
As pointed out it is the perceived lack of stimulation in the environment that causes boredom but I would expand this to take very much into account the child’s expectations of that environment. If a student perceives that at the heart of the lesson the outcome is inevitable exposure of their sense of persistent failure, they will refuse to attempt the work despite the teacher’s best efforts. Better not to try than to demonstrate incompetence.
A final point about boredom; the experience does not have to be unproductive. In some cases, the feeling of boredom can drive the student to find alternative way of dealing with their environment. This can lead to some creative outcomes for the student. This is especially so for students who are confident with the presenting conditions and can move beyond what they see as easy and therefore ‘boring’.
In other cases the boredom, if we don’t divert our attention elsewhere forces us to reflect on the bigger pictures of life, even daydreams are attempts to imagine an alternate future. Of course, it's hard for teachers to understand when these times are of value but the message is not to be too worried about the student's complaints about being bored.
I have often argued that teaching is as much an art as a science and perceived or ‘reported’ boredom can provide real feedback about how your lesson is going and an understanding that nothing is as simple as it appears!
In a recent article, Stop Labeling People who Commit Crimes ‘Criminals’, Kimberly Brownlee from the University of Warwick in Coventry examines the impact labeling has on criminals. Her thesis, describing the person involved with the same terms as the act they committed has ramifications for our work particularly with those difficult students we refer to as ‘dysfunctional,' ‘disobedient,' ‘naughty,' etc. So how do we ‘describe’ the perpetrators of misbehaviour?
As you will have gathered by now, I am a great believer in consequences for actions, and when we commit a crime, there must be some form of sanction for the person involved. Understandably but unfortunately the tendency is to personalize the action; that is, the thoughtless act has been committed by a thoughtless person! How often do you hear someone describe a kid as stupid when they really have done a stupid action. The label defines the child; a child who has been told they are stupid will believe they are stupid! The impact of this labeling has significance for dealing with tough kids.
As far as the student goes there are at least two issues here. The first is that as I've said, they will believe they are that label. In a recent Newsletter (3rd July 2017) I discussed toxic shame, the belief that you have not made a mistake, you are a mistake. These are children who come from a history of abuse or neglect, those who have a shattered sense of self-worth. Whenever these children hear a teacher call them stupid, it is a confirmation of their belief system.
This toxic shame is such a debilitating condition because in their heart of hearts they believe they are always condemned to fail and never see themselves as having a chance to be anything other than ‘stupid' or ‘dysfunctional,' etc.
So how do we deal with this problem? As pointed out above a major part of dealing with dysfunctional students is to teach them that actions do have consequences. Far too many consequences are either not delivered, or the treatment they receive is in no way related to their behaviour. This absence of structure is particularly true for children who suffer abuse. These kids have no sense of personal control; life does things to them rather than they interact with life. So teaching them about actions and consequences is a form of empowerment.
I often hear well-meaning teachers advocating punishment for children who misbehave. I have a few issues with punishment, teachers who like to ‘punish' are ‘committed the assumption of ‘authority'; they arbitrate and distribute the punishment. The problem is this is an expression of power over the child. They believe they can ‘make them behave.' And more often than not the behaviour that must be addressed is at least annoying and as much as the teacher tries to conceal feelings of frustration and anger, the expression of hostility towards that child will damage their relationship.
Another problem with punishment is that the responsibility of the behaviour rests with that authority figure. The child is excluded, in a sense excused from responsibility and will never ‘learn’ about their accountability. There is no developed connection between the act and responsibility. The child acted irresponsibly because they are irresponsible and can’t do anything about that.
This process reinforces the idea of the student becoming the behaviour!
It is in the delivery of the consequences that holds the key to helping address the burden of toxic shame.
Effective consequences are based on the logical outcome of the behaviour. For example, if a student litters the playground then an effective consequences is for them to clean up the playground. Of course, this is not as simple as it sounds, what is a student hits another student? It may be ‘logical' to hit them but not ethical or even effective. In these cases, the consequence is a chosen response to the behaviour, and it is important that the child knows in advance what will happen if they behave in anti-social ways.
If the student understands the connection is just between the action and the consequence, then they can come to understand that the responsibility for the consequence rests with them and if they change their actions the consequences will change. This is a time when the teacher can suggest other ways to behave and strengthen their relationship.
Everyone makes mistakes, and as teachers, when we make mistakes one of the best gifts you can give your class is to identify that you made a mistake. There have been times when I have blurted out something like ‘you stupid thing, ' but eventually, I understood and quickly followed up with something like ‘now I have made a stupid mistake – we both know you are far from stupid but what you just did was not smart.' Surprisingly this always seemed to work, but it’s better to prevent it happening in the first place.
The most important message a teacher can deliver to all students and especially those who suffer from toxic shame is that they are not their behaviour. They really are precious, special and unique!
Teaching kids is hard enough without making life more difficult through our own blunders. This newsletter highlights some of the everyday mistakes made in the classroom. By eliminating these you can make your life a lot easier. The following are some of the most commonplace errors seen in the average classroom.
Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, especially when you are extremely busy or struggling to gain control of the class, it’s easy to do one of the following:
Attack the Student on a Personal Level - You can call them ‘stupid’ or say things like ‘your just like your brother/sister’, ‘what else could I expect from you’! Comments like these destroy the relationship so necessary for effective teaching.
Intimidate the Student – Teachers do have a position of power in the classroom not only through their status but just because they are the adult in the room. This use of intimidation is usually a result of the teacher losing their temper and ‘lashing out’ at the student. Actions like this not only destroy the relationship but also expose lack of self-control, a personal ‘weakness’.
Poor Use of Non-Verbal Cues – Be aware that over 90% of the emotional content of any communication is conveyed through your body language, facial expression and tone of voice. It won’t matter what message you vocalize the students will feel the way it is delivered. In the extreme cases teachers are reduced to conducting themselves in a passive aggressive manner that does nothing for the student or the teacher.
Show Impatience – It’s sometimes so hard to be patient, especially after you have given the instruction to the class and you ‘know’ the student has been listening. And nine times out of ten you would be right. But what good does an outburst do? Those students who were not listening still need to hear the instruction and remember when you were at Uni. or in a T&D lecture how your mind wandered. It is impossible for an adult to concentrate 100% of the time and this is more so for subjects that are not exciting for you. So treat the frustration as an opportunity to practice compassion. Also there will be some students who just didn’t understand the instruction and your displeasure will be a source of shame for them.
Talk Too Much/Too Little – This is a bit like hitting the ‘goldilocks’ level of communication. In my experience teachers are more likely to talk too much, unfortunately we all like the sound of our own voice and enjoy the limelight. But once the student has ‘got the message’ the extra talk will turn them off. It is less likely but does happen that the teacher talks too little and the message they think they are delivering fails to get through to the student.
Not Listening – No one likes to be ignored and that includes the children. If you are going to claim to run a fair classroom then everyone deserves the respect of being heard. When you don’t listen not only do you belittle the student you may also miss out on some vital piece of information that can make all the difference to your lesson.
Ignoring Conflict – One bit of advice, that I think is very hard to get right is ignoring any situation that you should deal with. I know in my time I have ‘not heard’ a comment because I know the student has said something not expecting me to hear it so I don’t. Working with very dysfunctional students I have been known to say ‘I’m sorry, I’m a bit deaf and I need to know exactly what you said then. I don’t want to give you the consequence of what I thought you said’. It’s amazing how often the comment ‘repeated’ isn’t really in its original form. But this ‘ignoring’ is about me changing the focus of the behaviour. However, when it is a conflict within the classroom then your responsibility to ensure a safe and secure environment must always be a priority.
Not Modeling the Behaviour You Want – The way you conduct yourself is at the heart of developing a classroom culture. Dress professionally; there is such a thing as a teacher’s uniform, neat, clean and tidy. Make your workspace organized and efficient. Notes on the IWB or computer screen should be neat and spelling correct. Some inexperienced teachers like to appear to be ‘cool’ (is that still the term) but they are not kids, they are paid professional teachers and should model that professionalism so the students can develop behaviours that will empower them to one day present as being ‘professional’.
These are just some of the mistakes that can be made and I know at one time or another I have made them all. Remember we are not perfect but we can strive for perfection. The kids are worth it!
An attempt to include all students into their community school is a moral and legal responsibility. Every education system should have the goal to provide equity of opportunity for education. By excluding students with emotional, or behavioural disabilities is a form of discrimination. However, there can be some legitimate justification for separation of these students, from their peers, for a period of time. Separation should not be longer that absolutely necessary. Reintegration to mainstream society must occur as soon as possible.
Morally a society must accept the ownership of all children including those with disabilities. Children with physical or intellectual disabilities with their requirement for extra, special care normally evoke emotions of compassion. Special consideration to provide for their learning is rarely resisted. Teachers are happy to help students who can’t do tasks, because of their physical or intellectual disability.
However, attitudinal research shows that students with behaviour dysfunctions experience the highest rejection rates of all categories of ‘special’ kids. The reality that these kids with severe mental problems ‘can’t behave’ in a functional manner are somehow transformed to a belief that the student knows what to do but refuses. The teacher translates ‘can’t do’ into ‘won’t do’ and from the perceived refusal builds resentment towards the student. The principal task for the teachers in special programs, when attempting to reintegrate their students back to mainstream is to address this belief. Unlike some of the other disabilities, given time and special attention these kids can learn to act in a functional manner.
The Case Against Integration
The arguments against integration can be summarized as follows:
Classroom teachers are not trained nor equipped to deal with these students
The presence of these often violent and out of control students present a risk to others
Special students need special teachers, they don’t belong in mainstream
Educational services for special students are complex and intrude on mainstream learning
Historically these students do not succeed in mainstream settings. Placement is based on the perceived ‘availability’. That is, schools that take, and succeed with, one student will be rewarded by being the place of referral for all future students
There is a degree to which all these objections could be defended however they are problems that are not insurmountable.
The Case For Integration
It is possibly the most basic human drive to be accepted by society. Therefore, as a civilized society, schools must accept their responsibility for ownership of all children. The arguments for integration are as follows:
There is a moral obligation to include all students in their home school. By learning how to accept students with special needs, including those with an ED/BD disability, schools develop a more supportive attitude that benefits all students
Learning to deal with these students with special needs results in teachers learning new skills. The acquisition of new levels of mastery will satisfy a basic human drive within the school staff.
The ‘special skills’ required to deal with students with severe behaviours involve the use of best practices in classroom management, teaching styles and lesson presentation. The benefits accrued when preparing for the dysfunctional student are translatable to all students. All students should be exposed to best practices.
The use of differential programming is a viable alternative to common curriculum presentation.
Effective preparation for the inclusion of dysfunctional student involves a whole school perspective. This collaborative approach has a flow on benefit for the whole school particularly in the area of student discipline and welfare area.
THE PROCESS OF INTEGRATION
To successfully move an ED/BD student from full time attendance at a special facility on to full time attendance in a mainstream setting is a gradual process. To facilitate this in an effective manner the following steps must be followed.
1. Identification Of The Student’s Needs
Any move to integration must be part of the long-range educational plan of the student. This plan must be the result of collaboration between the student concerned and all significant people involved. When the long-term plan is established the educational needs of the student will be apparent. Identification of the most appropriate setting to integrate into is effectively identified.
Further once the students’ long-term goals are established the staff, at the special setting, can introduce an independent learning package that best prepares the student for successful transition to the new school. This will be in the form of an independent transition program.
2. Initial Contact.
At the time of the initial meeting the staff can address the questions that commonly asked. These include:
Who pays for the increased services required?
What about the safety and liability issues that may arise?
How do the individual needs of the student fit in with the needs of others?
If we take this student will we be identified as a preferred site thus receiving a disproportionate number of these difficult students? These are some of the legitimate concerns of a school and the program staff should prepare to answer them.
If, and when objections to the proposed integration have been overcome it is vital that the staff and the school leader develop a ‘vision’ for the process to be successful.
At this time the following can be addressed:
The setting of achievable outcomes can be established
The support requirements for the school can be outlined
The concept of the dysfunctional student’s integration to the school must be introduced to the rest of the staff. The best way for a positive outcome to be achieved is through thorough planning at this time
After this phase has been completed a final decision on the procedure to be followed is made by the student and all key players such as the parents, program staff, targeted school and other involved personnel.
3. Development Of A Whole School Plan
It is important for the staff of the special program to be available to address concerns when the staff is informed about the integration of the dysfunctional student into their school. At this time the staff member should:
Answer the questions that will come including those outlined above
Highlight the negative aspects of the integration of an ED/BD student
Assist in the development of a school ‘plan’ which incorporates expected outcomes and the establishment of a welfare and discipline policy that includes the special needs of the student within the existing school policy
Development of a team to support the student
Identify support needs required by the school
4. Graduated Integration
The period that has the best chance of success is first thing in the school day. This is the time when the student and the teacher have their highest levels of energy. If either become uneasy about the placement there is not long until the student returns to the special facility. Another important consideration is that lessons traditionally given at this time are based on basic skills such as numeracy or literacy. Instructions are generally more structured providing a more predictable environment for the student. Continuation along a learning plan is less disrupted for the student and the teacher needs less time to fill in the gaps that occur if a student only appeared for one day per week.
When this approach is adopted it creates a daily routine for both parties and the belonging needs are quickly established. It is not uncommon for schools to be the first to negotiate an extension in this period of attendance. The schools quickly adopt ownership of the student.
Partial integration is more difficult in the secondary setting for the following reasons:
In a secondary setting the student will be taught by many staff members. They will have to cope with a range of personalities and management styles. This reduction in consistency creates an extra dimension to the difficulties faced by the student.
The secondary school is not at all likely to have the same subjects recurring at the same time each day. Therefore attempts to partially integrate at a set time each day will most likely mean that the student will be exposed to a variety of subjects all of which are not presented in an unbroken sequence. This situation produces gaps in the instructional presentation of lessons creating a great deal of frustration for both the teacher and the student.
Ideally the secondary integration should be initially for subjects the students enjoy, perhaps craft or art, and they would attend only when these subjects are timetabled. As they become more comfortable at the school, more subjects can be included. This system of integration works well when the special program is in close proximity to the school however if any significant distance separates the facilities this process is not feasible.
In cases, where students face the tyranny of distance, each integration process is best done on a case managed basis where all stakeholders negotiate the integration process and identify how support will be provided.
Develop A Plan For The Student
At the time the targeted school accepts the student then the special program staff should prepare the student for successful integration. At this time the student should receive the following:
Visit the school and be introduced to key support people identified at the previous staff meeting.
Outline the discipline policy of the school and explain the ramifications of acting outside expected levels of behaviour.
Investigate the current programs of the designated class and prepare the student for the best chance of early academic success.
Address the administrative requirements of the school.
It is vital that the student’s apprehension towards the integration be minimized. High levels of stress that come from the student’s uncertainty will almost ensure failure of the integration process.
Develop A Plan For The Teacher(s).
It is a daunting task dealing with the introduction of a student with severe behaviours. To assist the teachers the following steps should be taken:
Training in practices that best meet the academic and behaviour needs of the student
Training should not be a ‘one shot’ input but should be ongoing and supportive
There should be a supportive team formed around the teacher(s) who include staff members of the special facility, school counsellor, specialist teachers, supervising teachers and members of other agencies
Teachers should be invited to join any district support networks that exist, or could be formed
Teachers should be included in any case managed activities that affect the student.
As the student moves from one facility to the other it is important that all stakeholders have a clear picture of what is occurring. The practice of keeping good record such as daily information sheets, personal diaries, etc. provides a useful vehicle for the exchange of information between each facility. At regular intervals the status of the level of integration should be reviewed and the student can move on the continuum between full exclusion to full inclusion.
Teachers have always had to deal with anxious children from the first day at kindergarten to the last day of their tertiary entry examination and the years in between. At a basic level anxiety is another expression of fear and the two are products of stress. No surprise here and in other Newsletters (particularly the 19th June 2017) this is discussed in detail. To recap stress in itself is not a bad thing, we need a level of stress to engage in the world but too much stress or distress will hinder performance especially in the classroom.
Anxiety is that lingering apprehension or almost chronic sense of worry about particular things or even life in general. Professionals would diagnose someone as having clinical, generalized anxiety if they displayed three or more of the following over a six month period:
In general, anxiety is described in three ways:
Panic Attacks – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go. These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion. However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment. It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents.
Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time. They are children who will avoid what we may consider mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt a task.
The prevalence of anxiety at a clinical level is about 14.5% or one in seven Australians and in the majority of cases it starts in childhood. As with all things there is a coming together of genetics and environmental conditions that lead to anxiety but as always teachers can only impact on the environment in an attempt to limit the levels of anxiety in their classroom.
So what to do? If you really have concerns about the level of anxiety of a student in your class then you must refer them to the school counselor and/or tell the parents about your concerns. The latter is not as easy because this is news for whatever reason they don’t want to hear.
However, for the day to day running of the class, when you think a child is really anxious to the level you have concerns encourage them to talk about it. The following questions will assist both you and the child:
Tell me about how it feels being anxious?
What is making you anxious?
What do you fear will happen?
What does it stop you from doing?
A technique that can be effective is for the teacher to establish a procedure where they can give the child some space to calm down. This is a type of ‘time out’. In fact you can empower the child to control his or her access to time out through some non-verbal cue. For example, the child could move an object on their desk that signals to the teacher that they are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety. The teacher would then ask that child to go and get something from say the principal or the office. Of course the principal and the office would be aware of the purpose of the visit and provide that time out while the child remains in supervision. Just the provision of this retreat can be enough to alleviate threat of anxiety and give the child a sense of control over their fears.
However, dealing with anxiety like all classroom activities is best served when the relationships between the teacher and the students along with the students’ relationships with each other are strong and positive. This, along with a calm and a really predictive environment will help minimize the impact anxiety will have in your classroom.
One of the objectives we have for kids whose behaviour is out of control is to have them take responsibility for their actions. Being accountable for your actions is considered the stamp of a positive member of the community and research has shown that successful people are more likely to believe they have control over their destination.
In the mid 1950’s Julian Porter a psychologist looked at the contrasting mindsets that are held when we consider who controls our lives. The contrasting positions are that we are free to do what we liked or someone else was in control. In the days this question was being discussed there was a real difference in who was in charge with a clear division between the working class who had little decision making opportunities and the owners who took a much more authoritarian stance. Religion was also a factor with the ‘will of God’ being a significant driver of beliefs. This debate still rages but the modern version is whether we have free will or are our decisions ‘determined’ by our past, do we have internal control, free will or are we controlled by our memories, ‘external’ factors.
This work continued and the next milestone was the idea to assess influence through an analysis of children’s behaviour related to concepts like personal control and helplessness. This resulted in the Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control Test and a resulting scale from completely personal free will to being totally controlled by external factors.
The scores from these tests placed the child somewhere on the continuum from totally external control to the opposite internal end.
External Locus of Control
Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances
Internal Locus of Control
Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by his/her personal decisions and efforts.
As pointed out above there is a general belief that it is desirable to be towards the ‘internal’ end of the scale. People who have this characteristic have more confidence and belief that they control their destination and are more likely to be successful. A consequence on excessive internalisation results in neuroticism with anxiety and depression.
Although this is the general case it would be wrong to assume the relationship is causal; that is the more you adopt an internal locus of control the more successful you will be. It is acknowledged that your belief system is learned from your environment. The question should be asked does success and privilege come from being responsible or if you’re born into success and privilege you find it easier to take the credit for success?
There is always an ‘however’ when we are discussing children who have suffered early childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or severe neglect. What I do know is that when it comes to measuring the Locus of Control with these kids things are not so simple.
When I worked at a school for students with Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disorder we used a test to measure a range of traits in these kids. This was the Achenbach Test and amongst the range of characteristics this test examined were depression and aggressive behavior which are two features of these kids’ behavior. For the initial test the results that identified their locus of control invariably placed them on the extreme, external end and that was reflected in the lack of responsibility they took for their actions. When they were in trouble it was always someone else’s fault. The other measure was for their level of Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour which was always surprisingly low considering they were expelled from mainstream schooling for their behaviour.
We retested those students who successfully made it through the school and either returned to mainstream or to work. We found that the level of external control they reported had significantly reduced which was pleasing; they were taking more ownership of their behaviour. However, in the exit test they reported an increase in their Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour. At first glance it seemed the program had made them more deviant but I believe the increase in their acceptance of their behaviour had them making a more honest appraisal of their behaviour.
Contrast to this reported bias towards external control with the impact abuse and neglect has on their sense of self. These kids believe they are failures, they are no good and because of this lack of real self-belief they have no expectation of success. It would be a logical hypothesis that these kids would link their failure to their inadequacies; this would mean they have an internal cause of failure.
I can only speculate that this result did not appear on the test we conducted because all the students who were sent to the school were extremely ‘acting out’ and aggressive. One group of kids who suffer from PTSD and Neglect ‘act in’, internalize and I would predict they score on the internal extreme of the scale. The sadness is these are the kids who are predominantly girls do not generally misbehave and are extremely compliant causing no trouble for schools and so receive no support.
So what to do for these kids? The answer is in teaching them healthy boundaries. That is to teach them to self-evaluate their contribution to the situation they find themselves in.
Part of having healthy boundaries is the ability to answer the following questions:
‘What is really happening’? Sometimes what is in front of you is clear but more often than not the current dispute may just be a symptom of another issue that is not being addressed.
‘Who’s Responsible’?Here you can use the Nowicki-Strickland test as a talking point.In all descriptions there is an unspoken presumption that we will take a position on the scale and that might be so as a general observation about individuals.But when we are asking the ‘boundary question’ the answer is not about our personal traits but about the current situation.Sometimes we are completely responsible other times we are completely the victim and all parts across the scale.Teach them that the real responsibility is for their actions not for who they are.
‘What do we want to happen’?We want to make sure they understand what their real needs are and it’s their duty to take action to get those needs met.Their first responsibility is to their self.
One of the best bits of advice about behaviour is in the Serenity Pray:
‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference’.
I believe there is one last step missing and that is to ‘let go’. Understand that we can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do and if the conflict can’t be resolved then we must let go of that issue. This is perhaps the hardest step in having healthy boundaries.
Since the early sixties, the time of ‘flower-power’ and the ‘love generation’ phrases like ‘developing self-esteem’ have been in the forefront of education discussions. It was the time when we put away the rod and, while not spoiling the child we understood the benefits of a child having a healthy sense of themselves. During my early years of teaching we were conscious of building each child’s self-esteem. This goal is still prevalent although different phrases come into and out of fashion. Now the most important trait we should develop is resilience. I would argue that whatever the current phrase is at the heart of all this is the importance of nurturing self-esteem or resilience in our children. However, I would like to place my version of this need to enhance the lives of our children by describing what I call self-love.
Scott Peck, a well-know psychiatrist from the United States relates some research undertaken when he was working with the US Defense Forces. The military hierarchy wanted to understand why some recruits quickly advanced through the ranks to become officers well before their expected time so that they could improve their training. And so they selected the top twenty officers and subjected them to a battery of tests.
One of the tests required these young recruits to list the four most important things in their life. Remarkably they all agreed on the single most important thing in their life and that was their-self. Items two, three and four varied usually citing career, family, children etc. but they all placed them-selves as the most important.
Years later Peck found himself working in the prison system with the most hardened of criminals. He had the opportunity to run the same test with these inmates. Unlike the successful population, there was no clear pattern of what they thought was important to them but the one thing that most identifies within the first four was their self-image. The prisoners were conscious of the importance of what others thought of them, what their reputation was like.
The difference is stark. It seems that successful people are driven by internal motives, what is good for them while unsuccessful ones are concerned by external factors like what will people think about them. This difference explains their behaviour. Ineffective people seek their happiness from external sources; a new car, a big house, people who love them and if they can’t get these things legitimately they take them in the belief they will be happy. A quick analysis of any crime will conclude that the perpetrator took something or someone against the other’s will for their own benefit.
Before I make the case for encouraging teachers to foster self-love in their students I will clarify one thing. Self-love is not about self-obsession the driving force of narcissism. In a previous Newsletter I discussed the modern phenomena of over-indulged children and you often hear others making comments like ‘he/she loves his or her-self’. This is not what I describe as self-love. Self-love is the virtue of compassion, kindness and affection towards one’s self.
I advocate for the necessity to ‘teach’ the property of self-love to our students. But this cannot be done through ‘direct-instruction’; formal lessons will have limited impact on a child’s sense of self but we can provide the conditions where self-love can emerge from the conditions in our classrooms. This is achieved by the school and all the staff modeling the following values and while supporting practices that will lead to the students developing these standards. The school should also abstain from the practices that undermine self-love.
So to the values we should live by:
1. Live Consciously
At the core of self-love is the acceptance of your-self.We have to acknowledge differences to others we have both externally, in our physical world and understand our internal feelings and beliefs are ours.It is our right to keep these to ourselves or share them.This belief includes the acceptance of our values and our right to defend these or modify them if we choose.
Most importantly we consider our-self to be equal to others in our right for dignity and respect.We do not consider that right to worthiness to be better than or worse than any others, we are all worthy.However, we do accept that others may have more talent or prestige in some areas that we will acknowledge without jealousy.
We live in a community that lives by certain social rules and we understand we accept this.We will not profit at the expense of others and claim no special rights or privileges.If we disagree with others we will address the issue with dignity and with compassion towards others however we will not be exploited.We have the right to be received with respect as well as the responsibility to practice that respect to others.We can resist manipulation and collaborate only when it is appropriate and desirable.
We don’t fret agonize over past event nor are we overly concerned about possible future happening.We focus on what is our task now and complete that with a view for future rewards.That is we have the capacity to delay gratification.
Finally we have self-respect, confident in the way we live our lives.We know we are worthy of love and friendship and we can expect to achieve success and happiness in our lives.
We know we can learn new skills and make appropriate choices and we are assured in our judgment and confident in our capacity to solve problems.
Some schools equate making their students feel good with building their self-esteem. It is obvious that providing the conditions that develop self-love are far from ‘making the kids feel happy’, these qualities are tough to live by and hard to maintain and just maybe self-love comes from us providing tough-love for all our kids.
Educating the Over-indulged and Narcissistic Child
23 May 2017
A growing phenomenon in our schools as well as in our society is the focus on ‘self’ by students and a growing number of teachers. We now live with what could be described as a ‘me’ generation. The growth of social media where people report the most everyday events in their life, the number of ‘selfies’ taken and distributed, all indicate an inflation of people’s belief in their importance. Of course this is an over generalized description of a whole generation but there is a growth in self-centered behaviour and its extreme manifestation - narcissism.
The cause of this is commonly linked to modern parenting styles. We are urged to provide unconditional love, which is true but the mistake is translating unconditional love with unconditional feedback. Some kids receive constant praise from a significant adult usually a parent but can be others such as coaches or teachers, where they receive praise without deserving it. It is little wonder these kids expect to be the centre of attention no matter what they do.
We tell them they can be whatever they want which may well be motivated for the best of intentions but by doing so parents create a lot of damage to their children. In other places I refer to this as a form of abuse because they are denied the opportunity to become self-aware, resilient and sociably acceptable in society.
This modern parenting style is only one part of the creation of the narcissistic child. Modern media celebrates the idol child. In movies and television shows the rewards that are associated with young, smart children are for all to see. It is inevitable that any child will see the connection between doing what you want with getting everything you desire. There is no requirement for effort and no one but no one should get in your way.
Surprisingly there is another that develops in conditions that are almost the opposite described above. Children who grow-up in cold, depriving families receive inadequate validation and support about their behaviour and their need for love and attachment skews their development. They cope by repressing negative experiences which would exacerbate their chance of acceptance by developing grandiose ideas about themselves. The drive to present as perfect translates into their self-belief.
For teachers there are two problems. The first is the aggressive parents who attack any member of the school staff if they dare to deal out consequences for children’s inappropriate behaviour. The parents refuse to accept their child made a mistake because they ‘know’ he/she is perfect just like they have been telling them. Unfortunately they are denying their child the opportunity to become really self-aware.
The second is with the students, especially in the secondary years are more than ever focusing on themselves. Social media, especially Face Book is full of posed pictures of young men and women. Modern kids, with their mobile phones have seen an explosion of indulgent movie clips that are put out for all to see. However, the recent increasing trend of sex-ting, the sending of explicit ‘selfies’ to others is a practice that would have been unheard of a couple of decades ago. Instead of modesty, the belief you have some private life, these children place the most intimate information out in public. The danger of this behaviour is alien to them as they have a belief that everyone ‘loves them’ and besides there is a chance they might be the next ‘Kardashian’ – rich and famous!
So what to do? Teachers are being challenged more and more by the ‘entitled’ child and the following advice may help:
Avoid taking battles personally – you are not responsible for the child’s behaviour but you are responsible for providing appropriate feedback and consequences. Keep in mind you may be the child’s only chance to become self-aware.
Place responsibility on the student – always associate the consequence with the behaviour not the child. There is no value in referring to their ‘selfishness’ this makes the discipline personal - about the child, even if you know their self-belief drives that behaviour.
Avoid extrinsic motivation – the worst thing you can do for children who ‘want it all’ is provide more opportunity for them to get more.
Reinforce the benefits of community – get the whole class involved community service projects. Never under estimate the power of volunteering work. This will give these children another way to feel good about themselves.
Educate families – this is not easy if the parents are the cause of the child’s narcissism. It is a productive tactic if it is done on a macro scale, which is the whole school believes in sharing, helping others, etc. the power of the group will at least make the enabling parents keep quiet even if they don’t stop the ‘abuse’.
Modern teacher’s work is hard enough and teaching children to be authentic should not be their responsibility but good teachers understand that until children have that genuine sense of their self, serious education is not an option for the child.
In this time of obsession with the ‘quality teacher’ as being the answer to all the ills of our modern education system it is prudent to look at a few statements and reconcile them.
The first two come from Professor John Hattie in the work that established his reputation. These are:
For learning outcomes:
50% - The Nature of the Student
10% - 18% - The Nature of the School
32% - 40% - The Nature of the Classroom
The four most influential factors cited are:
Absence of disruptive students
Classroom behavioural (conditions)
Quality of teaching
Another statement that is relevant to the discussion in this paper is that studies in memory acquisition or learning have examined the procedural aspects of this process on individuals in isolation. This focus on individualised learning ignores the impact the social setting can have on the process for each student.
I am sure John Hattie is well aware of the interaction between these factors in the first point but since this finding, bureaucratic and some academic leaders have implied that the 50% the child brings to the evaluation is in isolation; as if Hattie’s second point was irrelevant. Practicing teachers are well aware of the impact one or more acting-out students has on the learning outcomes of others. In fact this condition is implied in the second and third of Hattie’s influential factors with the impact of the teachers down to forth place!
This slight of hand has allowed those ‘leaders’ in education to look at teachers as the only variable we can work on. Hence they feel ‘off the hook’ when it comes to taking responsibility for student performance – it's the teachers’ fault.
However, the reality of the classroom is not with the education leadership be that academic, bureaucratic or even political, the latter just imitations of the former; it is with the classroom teacher. It is the in the classroom that how much of the 100% (half the contributing factors) potential each individual student brings, depends on their engagement with the lesson. How much is accessed depends on the atmosphere of that classroom.
It is the teacher who is in charge of that atmosphere that determines the engagement of the student. No problems with that but, and here’s the point, classrooms are social gatherings where the web of personal interconnections establishes the learning climate of the classroom. Each individual brings to the classroom a contribution to that atmosphere through the social connections.
When a class has one, or more students with severe behaviours the impact of their actions has a devastating effect on the learning outcomes of all the children in the class. All humans’ pre-occupation with social networks is ingrained, it is important at a survival level and the threat these students create to everyone else in the classroom is unavoidable. The students and the teacher spend a significant amount of their learning potential psychologically or physically surviving! There is not much left for learning.
Even if a teacher is expert enough to deal with these severe behaviours to do so will take a considerable amount of on-task behaviour away from the lesson. If the teacher is not equipped to successfully deal with these students, any attention to the lesson is almost non-existent.
Back to the premise of this essay, the education elite who evaluate students, teachers and schools, through common testing such as NAPLAN, etc. ignore the environment in which the learning takes place. The distribution of these difficult students is not homogeneous, just as there is no equity in the distribution of all resources to schools. Teachers and students should not be judged unless the total learning environment is considered.
The answer is not to eliminate students with severe behaviours, the whole purpose of our consultancy group is to help all levels of the education community, academics, bureaucrats, schools, teachers and students to overcome conditions that are overwhelmingly the result of childhood trauma or neglect neither of which is the child’s fault. Their presence in any class or school will have a significant effect on learning and its time education leadership took some responsibility and dealt with the problem by appropriate training for staff instead of scapegoating the teachers.
Teachers who work with troubled students are well aware of the importance of the children’s belief system. There is no surprise that these students have an expectation of failure at every level and for the vast majority, their belief about their academic ability is insignificant compared to the importance for them to survive physically and socially.
Beliefs about the world are built from experience. When a certain stimulus occurs a chosen action will get an expected result. So when we are faced with a situation that needs to be addressed we believe something will happen based on what happened in the past.
For most of us this ability to know what will happen, a sort of long range detection device works well and the better people can predict the more intelligent they are deemed to be. The consistent narrative gives us a fundamental view of the world, a sense of consistency, control and cohesion – conditions that give us confidence in the future. In fact all learning is based on the ability to predict so beliefs are crucial.
But for our belief system to be ‘intelligent’ it must be based on reality, that illusive condition that would rely on precise and objective analysis of what is really happening. This precision is hard enough in the objective sciences but extremely difficult in the social fields. A further complexity is that most of these social beliefs are imparted by our parents and have no direct link to the child’s reality. The power of these hand-me-down beliefs can be seen in the religious wars that have raged, and still rage across the globe. People die for their beliefs!
It is obvious that beliefs operate independent of sensory data and will persist in the face of contrary data. They do so because having beliefs, no matter how much they clash with reality provide reason for what is happening, can determine the cause of why things are as they are and underpin our principles.
It is hard enough to take account of our beliefs as adults, every night we see intelligent adults arguing about the current political system. It is easy to lampoon some of the more colorful characters, the USA have a textbook case who when confronted with evidence provides ‘alternative facts’ to maintain his belief system. Change is hard and evidence is insufficient. There has to be a strong emotional component along with evidence to allow a significant change in important life sustaining beliefs.
So we return to these kids we work to support. Their belief of themselves is:
No one cares about me
I am a failure
The list goes on and why wouldn’t they think that? When their belief system was being formed they experience all those conditions. Kids can’t be expected to understand the reality that they have been abused and/or neglected and being kids they believe it is their fault.
So be patient with these kids. Providing evidence is not enough nor is providing security in the short term. I believe that over time with a structured, supportive predictable environment they will develop a new set of beliefs that will allow them to function in our society.
For years it was accepted that by age 3, the brain was fully developed and those educational pioneers, the Jesuits believed that by seven their character and intelligence was fully formed - ‘Give me the child and I will return the man’. This model underpins the traditional view that if you want to deal with troubled kids you have to get them early.
Of course there is a lot of truth in this belief, early intervention is by far the best approach to helping kids in abusive or neglected environments and traditionally policy makers have focused the majority of their resources on this group. This concentration of resources on early intervention has a couple of shortcomings that need to be considered. These are:
Young children who are being neglected or abused are usually unable to seek the help they need and unless others discover their situation they will develop dysfunctional behaviours. Often this only emerges at the time of adolescence. They will not receive the support needed during their ‘early’ childhood.
Modern investigations into the brain development of children have shown that at the time adolescence hits, the child’s brain is in a state of re-organization and abuse at that time can cause specific, additional damage to cognitive and behavioural development.
In the first instance investigation of data that reflects behaviour shows that at about age 11 things change. The boys will start to act-out with dysfunctional behaviours that bring them to the attention of schools. This is an expression of the pain that has gone with their life of abuse or neglect and a reflection of their interrupted development.
The girls on the other hand act-in and the dysfunctional behaviours, although increased are not as obviously alarming as the boys. Girls internalize their pain and withdraw, a type of dissociation that is common for them at the time of their abuse. Girls present a real challenge to educators because unlike the boys who demand our attention the girls sit passively in the classroom often being completely compliant.
The journey through the teen years has been described as leaving childhood to become a productive, reproductive adult (there is a new essay on the webpage that gives a more detailed account of this developmental stage). It is a time when much happens but this Newsletter is about caring for kids with severe behaviours.
So the second concern is that the onset of puberty is characterized by a massive change in the brain’s frontal lobes. As with all stages of development when the time comes for the brain to learn a fundamental skill the area of the brain this skill is situated experiences a surge in the amount of grey matter and the presence of myaline increases 100 times.
Most brutality that occurs to teenagers is in the form of verbal abuse. As kids get older, perpetrators find it more risky to abuse them in a physical sense – they could fight back and hurt the aggressor. However, I don’t think society really understands the severity of the damage verbal aggression produces. There is a belief that words don’t hurt as much as blows but for adolescents the social acceptance is a necessity these words convey a cruel rejection of them and the effects are significant and enduring. The cruel paradox of this teenage abuse is that most often it is the kids whose early abuse created the dysfunctional behaviour that attracts this second round of abuse.
This abuse damages the child’s frontal lobes. As a result these children have trouble interacting with their social environment, have deficits in their expressive language, their memory is impaired in regards to habits, word association and the rational thought processes. MRI evidence has shown a 20% reduction in the size of the frontal lobe in adults with severe behaviours and some of this loss occurs at this time.
Of course we need to continue to strive for successful early intervention but the case is clear, authorities should rethink their piecemeal approach to protecting teenagers and providing proper support for those already damaged.
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.