Much is written about the importance of our sense of self, previously we discussed the concept of a toxic sense of self (see Toxic Shame 7 March 2017). This is the sense children who are raised in an abusive or neglectful environment believe about themselves. They believe that it is they who are ‘wrong’, that they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.
Because our sense of self is the greatest regulator of success, that is, how we perceive ourselves will determine what we will do, much of our work is focused on changing this faulty self-belief. The only way we can achieve this is by re-producing the mechanism that created the false sense of self. This is the real work of the teacher, to produce an environment that provides the conditions that develop the memories that produces a positive sense of self in the students.
The illustration below crudely explains this process.
I used the term ‘crudely’ as the process of matching behaviour with desired consequences and subsequently producing the neurological structure to reproduce these behaviours is extremely complex. However, this description will help explain the formation of our sense of self which really only consists of memories. Of these it is the kind of emotional memories formed in early childhood that dominate this personal sense.
The process follows this sequence, initially we have a drive that is linked to a state of homeostatic disequilibrium, that is we feel disturbed and feel impelled to change this situation. In the first instances we try an ‘action’ and evaluate the outcome relative to the need, that is the consequence. In the model it is from the situation that moves to the action (at this initial stage the decision is not used) that results in a consequence. If this works and we regain a sense of calm, when the same situation occurs the process to regain a sense of calm will again be activated. If the same action gets the same desired result this is strengthened and as the process is repeated eventually this will be the behaviour learned to deal with this situation.
In the mean-time every time we run through this sequence we are provided with feedback (see the broken lines from consequence to ‘memories’) and this feedback constructs a bank of emotional and cognitive memories. This memory bank is our sense of self. The formation of this sense of self produces the section in the model to include decision-making.
The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood. In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional. This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions.
Eventually the child’s hippocampus, the more cognitive section of the limbic system becomes active and the memories developed here are also included in the decision making. These memories have an impression that is attached to some ‘reason’ the connection between action and consequence was established. This contrasts to the emotional memories that are powerful but with no conscious ability to make that action/consequence link.
At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable. At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories. But, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to the emotional memories. It is my understanding that this emotional dominance of our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produced levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met. Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed, cease trying and disengage from their world. This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins that toxic shame.
The final broken lines in the model illustrates the compounding issue of the toxic sense of self. It establishes that our memories, our sense of self is with us all the time. In the model this is the antecedent condition we bring to any new situation that will influence our approach even before we get to the decision-making stage. How this manifests, in class is that these students refuse to even to contemplate engaging in behaviours to get their needs met because any such action will displease others and they will re-experience their ‘abuse’. They just don’t get involved and this disengagement is common in our classrooms!
To be successful a therapeutic intervention needs to encourage the retrieving of a positive sense of self. This requires an examination of their internal world, to recognize and acknowledge the myriad of faulty feelings and beliefs. This necessitates access to a qualified mental health professional. However, as teachers we are faced with a significant number of these children on a daily basis and we are not qualified to deal with them in such a manner. So, what can we do?
Referring back to the model, we need to manipulate that sense of self environment re-building it in stages. The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences. The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage! This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.
There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence. It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child. If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they re NOT a mistake!
Another important contribution for these children is to teach them how the brain operates and how all behaviour has a purpose, it is designed to get something. Part of this training is to discuss the fact that any behaviour can have a range of consequences. The sign of maturity, what we want them to achieve is that you must choose the behaviour that is most likely to get the consequence you want but, if this doesn’t happen this time it is still the behaviour they should choose. It is the one that has the best chance of success, it’s their ‘best bet’!
It is also important to understand that if you choose a behaviour that may have one possible negative consequence that you don’t want then you can’t do that behaviour. If the chances are slim and you take a chance and that disastrous consequence does follow then you must take responsibility and not blame others.
The road to recovery is cyclic, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously. They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.
In our formative years the brain has only one function and that is to initiate behaviours that allow us to survive. Of course, this fundamental truth can get lost as our interactions with our outside environment get more complex but all behaviour can be traced back to that central truth. Just how powerful this drive is can be demonstrated every day in emergency wards where people’s brains have shut down every activity but the bare minimum – they are comatose. This simple fact that would make understanding behaviour reasonably simple but life’s not simple and the rising, tragic levels of suicide provides the exception to the foundational rule; survival is the prime drive for behaviour! I will argue that individuals select not to survive because of their learned beliefs and these beliefs are more powerful than evidence the evidence from their immediate environment. (This Newsletter follows that of the 11th June 2019 – Faulty Beliefs).
Despite the anomaly of suicide, the brain’s purpose is to facilitate behaviours that allow us to survive. The model below helps us understand this process:
At the heart of this model is the link between situation, the presenting environment, our actions and the consequences. That is, we find ourselves in a threatening situation and we act to alleviate the stress caused by that situation. The resulting outcome is noted and ‘stored’ for future reference, that is it is remembered. This is the feedback loop in the model above. Successful responses will be reinforced and be available whenever a similar situation occurs.
In early childhood these memories are emotional, that is when we find ourselves in a situation similar to a previous threatening one, our emotional memory of that early encounter will evoke a response. That ‘feeling’ is the first expression of a belief! Later, when our brain matures we develop cognitive memories that function the same way but put reason to the stress we experience and this motivates us to act. This is the lower feedback loop in the model. We build up a sophisticated internal map of our ‘world’ and how the conditions it presents impacts onto our homeostatic state. These memories inform our decisions on how to act!
Initially, the sequence follows the observation of the threat, that is our senses alert us to the danger, they provide the data that drives the behaviour. But, one of the things that has allowed us to become the most successful species is our ability to use the memories we have built up to imagine or anticipate impending problems. These are as fundamental as having been threatened by a crocodile in a stream one day we become extremely cautious when we approach the stream on subsequent days. That is, we have a belief that there will probably be a crocodile if we go near that stream another day and so when we approach we will be anxious and consequently more cautious even though there is no sensory evidence, no data that indicates the presence of a threatening reptile.
The internal map of memories, beliefs allow us to ‘know’ things that are not relative to the data in our immediate circumstance. The authority of our belief systems is such that we can navigate our way around the world. If we were limited to act just on the explicit evidence we would be stuck in space. As I write this I have a belief that my car is in the driveway yet I have absolutely no direct data to confirm this, I just ‘know it’, beliefs are powerful tools. In fact, I could not even find my driveway except through clumsy and time-consuming trial and error if I didn’t ‘know’ where to turn as I go through the house!
So, we have two systems that regulate our behaviour. The first is incoming data – things like a car speeding towards us in a threatening manner, we will ‘decide’ to jump out of the way. The second is to always look both ways before we go onto the street because we believe it is possible that a car might threaten our safety even though we can’t know if a car is there without checking the data. The belief produces behaviours that ensure our safety even though there is no immediate evidence. We become careful!
The two systems that are equally important, serve the same purpose but are different. Our senses provide the data to perceive our immediate world. Our beliefs, our memories let us understand our world outside the confines of our perceptions and provides reasons for choosing protective behaviours. These operate independently and the brain only cares about how helpful either system is for its survival.
In the model, the feedback from the memories to the ‘antecedent conditions’ reveals the impact our ‘beliefs’ have on the way we view our environment. That is when we are confronted with any situation our perception of the incoming stimulus is influenced by previous experience. For most, this has given us a huge advantage in successfully managing our lives but, there is a malicious disadvantage for those whose memories are of abuse or neglect.
The students at the heart of these Newsletters invariably suffer from Toxic Shame (see Newsletter – 3rd July 2017) which results in a set of beliefs that are relevant to the abusive/neglectful environment in which they were developed. It takes some effort to understand how such a destructive set of beliefs could emerge in a child but if we put ourselves in their position we would see that these beliefs gave them the best chance of survival. Even the idea that they are worthless can reflect any circumstance where they felt worthwhile. Feeling valued could initiate a sense that you should ‘fight back’, defend yourself but for a child with an abusive parent any such sign of assertiveness would be crushed. It is safer to believe that defective image.
At school these children experience a positive environment where the senses, the data is or should be non-threatening and supportive. If you take the example of the crocodile in the river, the calm supportive environment may well be present but these kids know the possibility ‘of a croc lying in wait if the drop their guard’. The presence of a reassuring setting should make the child suppose things are safe and they can act in an appropriate way to get their needs met. But, of course they don’t! These kids remain suspicious, there may well be a croc lurking below the surface. Teachers get frustrated when they provide all the support for these children but their behaviour doesn’t easily change!
The answer is in the fact that these beliefs developed over a period of time and they drove the behaviour that was the most likely to ensure security. That is the situation, the pattern of environmental factors was not the exclusive one but the most likely. The brain learned to dismiss those that did not fit that arrangement.
When the child who has developed a strong belief about their sense of self has that challenged, is presented with an alternate supportive set of data, this dissimilar event on its own will not over-ride the beliefs. This may be a ‘one-off’ occurrence and we can still remember what could be coming next! Deep held beliefs are hard to change even in the face of over whelming evidence.
Take the argument about evolution and the conflict it has with those who believe in intelligent design, the Bible. These people cling to a very strong commitment to that story and any counter claim, evolution is denied despite all the evidence put to them. To accept they were wrong is a perceived, direct threat to their survival. Even a small concession would unravel the whole system and so they will defend even the most bizarre claims with what others would find preposterous. It is tempting to dismiss these people but if you understand they really have this belief system you realize they are not stupid.
The same goes for our kids. Too often I see well-meaning teachers take these kids on an excursion, say to an adventure style park where they successfully experience abseiling, rock climbing, etc. This, one-off adventure will not change their beliefs, it is just that a ‘one off set of data’ is no match for their beliefs. One problem is these adventure programs are run by non-school staff and they see the excitement of each group of students as they go through their courses and they think they are successful. But the kids return to school and not much has changed for these kids. Unfortunately, the teachers ‘see’ the kids cope with the challenges they face on these courses but get discourage when the kids, despite this evidence don’t change!
Beliefs can be changed but be prepared for a long process that must include an environment that consistently provides the ‘proper, positive data’ and a messenger that is acceptable. There is no surprise in the appreciation of the importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is at the heart of all learning!
Although the data may ‘shout’ at the student, if it threatens them they will shout back. There is absolutely no value in confronting these students when they are under threat. The teacher must patiently wait for the right time and quietly offer an alternate view of the situation and their safety. Remember, the feeling of being under threat will be expressed in the emotional memories. If the child feels threatened enough their protective behaviours will emerge and they will go into a state of flight or fight. The teacher must remain calm and remain present!
To change beliefs takes a skilled teacher with a well set-up classroom and one who is prepared to chip away at the student’s faulty beliefs. They have to be the right person with the right data at the right time! And they need to be very patient. It is hard to turn these kids around but it will be the most rewarding teaching you will ever do!
In the late Twentieth Century American Psychologist Albert Ellis became frustrated with the lack of consideration given to the emotional side of psycho-therapy. This was in reply to the stimulus – response approach that had become popular in the late sixties when leaders in psychology, like Skinner adopted a rationalist approach to behaviour. Their ideas were underpinned by the belief ‘if it can’t be measured it is not worth considering’. Ellis accepted the importance of feelings in driving behaviour and so founder what was called Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy.
He reduced the complexity of behaviour to the following:
It is in the ‘Beliefs’ where ‘rational’ behaviours become ‘irrational’. Those who have been following my work will see that this sequence forms part of my schematic representation of the processes of behaviour management as shown below.
My model is more complex but it does incorporate both emotional and cognitive memories but as consistently pointed out in my work the emotional memories are far stronger when we are considering behaviours that are triggered by stressful events, that is when we are being ‘threatened’.
A significant element in the dysfunctional behaviours displayed by students who have very disruptive actions is that of Toxic Shame often referred to in this blog (Toxic Shame - 7th March 2017) and this ‘shame’ is established in early childhood in an abusive or neglectful environment and is predominantly retained in the emotional memories and so these beliefs are the principal driving factor in decision-making when under stress.
At the heart of Toxic Shame is the feeling that you are a ‘mistake’, not that you have made a mistake. It’s a feeling that:
Is not based on reality
Is a false message that creates a false sense of self
Is put on us by others
That is a chronic, permanent state
Exaggerates our faults.
Ellis produced a list of faulty beliefs that described how this feeling of shame is expressed in the life of a casualty of childhood abuse. These are:
I must be loved or approved of by every significant person in my life or I will be a worthless person
I must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
When people act unfairly or badly they should be severely punished.
It is terrible and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them.
Human unhappiness is caused by external events and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances
I must feel anxious if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome and keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurrence.
It is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
I should be dependent on someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely.
I should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
The world should provide me with what I want and when it doesn’t it’s a terrible place and I can’t stand it.
My past is the most important part of my life and it dictates how I live.
It is easy to understand why people with dysfunctional behaviours hold the acceptance that how life treats them is, and has to be dependent on others. You can see it in all the points outlined above and that’s because when their sense of self was being formed, in early childhood they had no self-control. So why should they now?
It helps to understand the thought process used by these people but more importantly how do we help them? Of course, long-term mental health intervention for each individual would be ideal but as teachers, we are neither qualified nor would we have the time for such an intervention. And, unfortunately the chances of the vast majority of our students who come to us with such beliefs the chances of them getting access to such a service in miniscule.
However, what can be done is to create an environment that has a highly structured connection between what is done and what happens. If a child does ‘X’ they will get ‘Y’ as much as possible and when the consequence is being delivered it is always attached to the action and never to the person. As they become aware of the connection between what they do and what happens they start to take responsibility for their behaviour and eventually for their life. Of course, it is impossible to get a 100% connection between actions and consequences but for these kids, the more often you can reinforce the link the better their chances of taking responsibility for their life and that is the best learning outcome any teacher could hope for.
Dealing with disability has become a major focus for our governments in recent years. The recent Royal Commission into disability has shone the spotlight onto the difficulties facing those with a disability. At the school level, teachers have constantly advocated for governments to provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of these children. I’m confident that we continually promote this cause because we want all our students, including those with an inability to:
achieve their authentic sense of value,
exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities,
access all opportunities that are available to others
In our schools we capture a full range of disabilities under the following categories:
Our schools are tasked with providing them support to take their place with all students and so we provide the things needed to achieve this goal. This might be relatively simple to identify for those obvious deficits such as vision, sensory or physical but how to address behaviour, mental health or autism becomes a more difficult task. Leaving autism aside, this is a very specific disorder, I would contend that behaviour and the vast majority of mental health issues share a historically mutual experience and that is early childhood abuse and/or neglect.
To be deemed as disabled, the impairment or condition experienced by a child must impact on their daily activities, communication and/or mobility. These incapacities can be a result of:
DNA Malfunction – these are the disabilities that result from an abnormal interpretation of our genetic code that misdirects our foetal development. These cover a range of disabilities including vision, hearing and other physical impediments and mental health issues that our students are born with.
Accidental Trauma – The range of barriers faced are almost the same as those above but the difficulties are a result of an accident, a fall, a car accident, any event that interferes with the ‘normal’ functioning of the child.
Early Childhood Abuse or Neglect – This covers those disabilities that, like Point 2 describe an intrusion into the ‘normal’ functioning but these impediments are the result of deliberate assaults or neglect of on a normal child.
The undeniable fact is that the children who are causing the vast majority of seriously disruptive behaviours in our schools have suffered from early childhood abuse and/or neglect. This has resulted in these children not only suffering the normal reactions to trauma, their continual exposure to this environment results in specific brain damage that effects their ability to choose appropriate behaviours. This paper seeks to draw attention to this problem but the overwhelming message is that these children have:
Become disabled completely at the hands of adults whose behaviour has caused this damage
Developed ‘presenting behaviours’ which although often quite repulsive are not of their choosing, they are doing the best they can
Presented the greatest challenge for teachers to deal with these children without appropriate acknowledgement or supporting resources from educational institutions
The investigation by the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has unearthed an appalling level of abuse and shone a light onto the long-term damage inflicted on the victims of these crimes. However, that Commission has unearthed just one area of child abuse, it did not include the full range of horrific abusive acts of abuse and neglect that occurs outside of institutional settings, that is in the child’s home and local community.
A sense of the extent of this level of abuse and neglect is shown in the Australian Institute of Family Studies statistics where the number of notifications for abuse or neglect rose from 48,420 (2011 – 12) up to 60, 989 (2015 – 16). These notifications consisted of:
45% Emotional Abuse
18% Physical Abuse
12% Sexual Abuse
These statistics do not include intellectual or spiritual abuse.
Of these children a significant number will go on to develop early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) especially those who are subjected to:
Frequent episodes of abuse that never seems to cease
Unpredictable episodes of abuse, there is no warning the attack is coming
Multifaceted abuse, not the same technique of delivering the threat.
Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty
Although a strict definition of trauma is illusive all definitions have these same contents:
It is a psycho/emotional response to an event or experiences that is deeply disturbing or distressing
It generates an overwhelming amount of stress that exceed an individual’s ability to cope or integrate emotions involved with that event
Causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes the ability to experience a full range of emotions
Any trauma will result in a skewing of our perception to our environment. These are:
Intrusive and distressing thoughts about the event, flashbacks and/or nightmares
Active avoidance of people or places that are reminders of the trauma, withdrawal, dissociation and emotional numbness
Hyper-vigilance, insomnia, agitation and anger outbursts
Children who suffer from PTSD carry these common reactions to trauma. On top of these, they also have exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves and they are reluctant to participate in positive activities. However, it is the continuous elevated levels of stress and the resulting range of chemical actions washing across their central nervous system that will result in real brain damage.
Early work in this field has revealed damage to the frontal lobes and the hippocampus as was clearly demonstrated. This was through investigation in the tragedy of the Romanian orphans, for neglect and serial killers for early childhood abuse. More recent work has shown that the:
Amygdala is increased in size – this makes the victims hypersensitive to perceived threat
Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this translates into a debility in forming memories
Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is the ‘functional’ area of the brain where complex, considered decisions are made.
Cerebellum is reduced in size – contemporary research is revealing the predictive facility of the cerebellum. This influences the prediction of potential outcomes for behaviours
These represent real physical damage to the child’s brain and this will have a direct impact on their cognitive abilities. They are less likely to be successful in an academic world. However, on top of this impediment the damage to these areas of the brain have a direct link to their behaviour. Here in lies the problem; the many behavioural expressions of these disabilities are such they threaten the safety and security of the other students and the teacher.
The following developmental disorders have abuse/neglect at their core:
The majority of the entrenched behaviours associated with these mental illnesses result in socially inept behaviours. They range from dissociation where the child appears to be disengaged and non-threatening to the other extreme, characterized in Conduct Disorder where children display cruel behaviours such as, hitting others, teasing bullying and eventually involved in antisocial activities such as theft and vandalism.
These repellent behaviours offend well-meaning people, including teachers. The result is these children whose disability should engender an empathetic response more often than not are rejected by their peers and community. This rejection compounds their sense of worthlessness and inhibits any motivation to change.
Complementing these behaviours that are directly linked to the brain damage is the reality that even if these children want to take responsibility for meeting their needs they are ill-equipped to do so. The problem is the behaviours they ‘learned’ in their family of origin is functional in that family. For example, a small child might want to get their mother’s attention, they will, like the rest of us try different behaviours until we get one that works. By experimenting with different behaviours they eventually discover that yelling and screaming loud enough will finally force her to pay attention. Even though the attention she gives the child is hardly nurturing it will work. By repeating this process, they learned that to get attention is to scream and yell!
So, when the child is at school and wants the teacher’s attention they do what they have always done – scream and yell! Of course, this will still get attention but in the classroom, there are better ways to get attention but these kids need to learn how to do this. For the teacher, the screaming and yelling will make the student unattractive but for the experienced teacher this behaviour gives a clue to the problems the student and subsequently the teacher faces.
Again, it is not the fault of the student, it is the fault of their childhood.
We must keep in mind these hardened behaviours have been developed as a result of the conduct of the adults and environment in which they developed. They are the fault of the adults who shaped that environment not the child but it will be their presenting behaviour of that child that will influence their acceptance by others.
Appropriate teaching responses to Managing behaviour in the classroom involves:
Understanding the importance of a predictable, stable learning environment
Understanding the effects of early childhood trauma on behaviour and emotions
Understanding dysfunctional behaviour and emotions learned in early childhood will emerge in stressful situations
Understanding students need to operate in a state of calm to learn
Being able to identify and respond to dysfunctional behaviours and emotions
Finally, like all disabilities, schools need resources to allow these students to take their rightful place in society. In our schools all disabilities are underfunded but this particular disability is extremely neglected for the following reasons:
These children do not attract the empathetic support enjoyed by other disabilities. There are no real observable problems, they look healthy and they can behave ‘if they want to’ and so it is easy to think it is their fault.
These children quite often pose a threat to the security and peaceful workings of the classroom. Other students are really disadvantaged to have these kids in class without support.
Teacher training is totally inadequate in preparing teachers for dealing with these children.
There is a lack of provision of specialist settings for these students and there is no professional development for the staff that work in these settings.
This paper is called ‘Malevolent Development - The Condemned Disability’ because the fact that children are treated in such a way requires a certain malicious attitude on the part of the people who commit these atrocities. It is also a condemnation on our broader society that we allow this damage to continue at increasing rates.
Schools are constantly being asked to deal with the problems of society and for these children the school is their only chance. It is up to that broader society to provide the resources for them to do this valuable work.
If you ask a group of educators, from any sector what is the most important feature of successful teacher/student interaction invariably you get the answer relationships. And I would agree. However, personal relationships are hard work even when both parties are committed to having such a connection. It is a challenge when the relationship you need is between a teacher and an angry, oppositional student. It is obvious that it will be up to that teacher to build that relationship, not only is that connection a prerequisite for engagement, how else are they going to participate, it really is an ethical duty.
Relationships depend on two central abilities, the first is the capacity to communicate, the second is the ability to experience empathy for that student. Relationships, communication and empathy all take place in the intersubjective space between the teacher and the student; the point where both party’s feelings and beliefs overlap while they encounter a shared situation. The quality of this interaction depends on the teacher’s capability to empathize with the student and to understand the student’s interpretation of the event. It is not the student’s responsibility to make this happen.
If you go looking for a definition of empathy you will be inundated with numerous responses. Within all this is the idea that it is the ability to predict and experience, on a personal level how another individual feels and thinks about a shared situation. As with all ‘behaviour’ empathy is learned through our drive to improve our survival or reproduction. It is perhaps the most sophisticated form of social/emotional intelligence that equips you to navigate collective communications and get our needs met.
Empathy is first learned as an infant and it is no surprise that the earliest experience is in the eyes of a mother. A newborn’s field of vision is limited but it caters for the child to ‘see’ their mother’s eyes; in most cases the overwhelming love felt for a baby will gaze down. And so, it is the non-verbal communication learned in early childhood that holds the key to the development of empathy.
First the eyes, then the facial expression and posture. This conveys so much of the emotional content of our communication. Along with this is the tone of voice, cracking before tears or becoming edgy as we become annoyed. In a nurturing environment, the consistency between the non-verbal cues and the reality of the communication allows the child to grow into an empathetic adult.
In an early Newsletter (28th August 2018 – ‘Accept their lack of Empathy – Just for Now’) I explained that these children with severe behaviours lack empathy. Unlike those children mentioned above, these kids never experienced that consistent affection and care, they were denied the constant connection between life situations and emotional responses; they never learned to accurately predict.
So how do we build that relationship and subsequently build an ability for the child to empathize? It is important that you understand that in that intersubjective space between you and the student is a power imbalance that favours the teacher and this must be acknowledged. The teacher has control of this space and they must use that capacity to provide the conditions within that space to nurture the child.
That space must be safe, friendly and predictable, the conditions that allow trust to emerge. It is only when the space is reassuring, the teacher gains an understanding of the child’s intellectual and social functions, the student trusts the teacher and so teaching/learning can take place.
Although you are the ‘expert’ in the relationship it is important to remember that it is a shared experience. The connection between you will be strengthened the more the child is allowed to actively participate. How they do this is difficult as both you and the child really understand the power imbalance. However, there will be some areas where the child ‘knows things’ you don’t. If you seek to uncover their expertise and learn about it, the child will be more willing to engage with you. When we know this about the space it becomes easier to move on to new concepts or ideas.
In any situation, along with power comes responsibility. It is easy to become complacent about empathy or difficult to feel empathy towards a severely disruptive student. To avoid this failure to connect we can employ that most critical teaching technique of being predictable and consistent. The damage is done when we either fail to reinforce a connection between an action and a consequence or we become angry and/or unpredictable in our conduct.
As it is at the point of connection, the intersubjective space where failure occurs it makes sense that to avoid this breakdown you can apply the technique of retaining effective boundaries. Remember boundaries are synonymous with the intersubjective space.
These are outlined is the Newsletter (31st July 2017 – Teaching Practical Boundaries) and the steps are outlined to:
Stay calm – While you, the teacher remains calm you remain in the psychological state that most allows you to make good decisions.
Ask yourself – what is really happening’? The child’s motivation behind a child’s behaviour is not often transparent. An empathetic teacher will be informed about their students’ histories and understand how this will influence their response to the presenting situation.
Understanding that you have the power in the relationship and that you are imperfect, you need to be sure you have not created the conflict. If you have, you must accept your liability and change your behaviour.
If it is the child’s dysfunctional behaviour that has caused the problem them by understanding the driving force behind their disruptive conduct it is easier to maintain a sense of empathy towards them and retain that feeling of calm required to make proper decisions. If this is the case you need to decide what you want from them in the long term and what you need to do to get this.
If things are deteriorating and you are confronted with a failure to build relationships with your students don’t give up easily. This is a time to reflect, pause and contemplate the problem. A healthy attitude a teacher can take for any situations is that you:
Know what you know – you know what to do
You don’t know what you don’t know – you don’t know what to do
The thing that defines great teachers, read this carefully is they know what to do when they know they don’t know what to do and they take the required action; they will do what they have to do.
Finally, your empathetic relationships towards your students are professional, that is not to discount their authenticity but for your mental wellbeing they are to be confined to the school. You can be empathetic towards your students but you cannot live for them. It is their life and your job is to teach them how to get the best out of it for themselves.
Teachers are continually frustrated at the beginning of lessons with the disruption of some students who take a long time to settle down. For some, it's just a matter of them calming down after the excitement of the lunch break or the ‘freedom' of moving from one classroom to the other and for this vast majority experienced teachers have no problems. But, for some students, those with severe behavioural issues this disruptive behaviour can be driven by elevated levels of anxiety, a consequence of the memories of previous unpleasant experiences in the classroom. If we look at particular interventions that have been traditionally used to deal with children who suffer from uncertainty and anxiety, we soon find ourselves examining the use of rituals.
Throughout ancient history civilizations emerged in relative isolation. One cause of anxiety, common in all communities was death and almost all developed intricate rituals to deal with the anxiety and sadness of this inevitability. To deal with this tribal communities developed rituals, funeral ‘services’ to ease the pain of grieving. The application of a set of prescribed activities somehow lessens the heartache of loss.
Other rituals developed to deal with the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of the future. For example, when early communities made the change from being hunter - gatherers to a reliance on agriculture, they soon realized that the success of next year’s crop depended on a range of factors that were beyond their control. To ease the anxiety they developed rituals, including the sacrifice of animals or other humans to appease a supernatural force in the hope that this ritual would ensure next year’s crop.
It becomes evident that rituals are useful in dealing with occasions that are potentially ‘dangerous’ or where the desired outcome is marginally out of your control.
At a personal level, rituals can be any sequence of actions that may consist of words, touching objects or focusing on a particular object that is designed to reduce tension. These activities are developed by repeatedly performing the same act every time we are exposed to that uncertainty. It is the focus on the sequential activity that alleviates the anxiety of contemplating on the potential outcome of the task at hand.
The use of rituals is widespread in sport. As a coach, I used the same sequence of activities before every game no matter how important each was. For the 45 minutes before each kick-off, all players and staff were required to complete a set of tasks. Within each task players were taught to incorporate their own ‘rituals,' such as putting their left boot on first, listening to music or whatever within the framework of the team procedure. When it came time to take to the field, I had ensured they were ‘ready to play’; they had confidence in their ability to succeed.
An important fact is that both the players and I understood that the rituals in themselves had no magical powers but the use of a structured predictable (how often do I use the words structured predictability) sequence of events helps reduce anxiety and focus on the task at hand.
Now returning to our challenging students, they have a sense of self that is associated with academic failure. As teachers, we need to be prepared to deal with their understandable anxiety. Remember, whenever they have come into a classroom, they have come face to face with the memories of past experiences, most of which are recollections of failure and embarrassment. In fact, to ask these kids even to try to do academic work puts them in an extremely vulnerable position. Furthermore, to invite them to do their best, risks potential ridicule or rejection if they fail. Better to be a 'bad' kid than a dumb kid is a choice they make.
So, if you have students like this, or even if you have kids that are extremely well adjusted the use of rituals will increase the early engagement and consequential success of your lessons. The teams I used to coach were of elite standard and played at a national level, and they certainly understood and benefitted from this structure. However, it is those damaged kids who will get the best out of this approach.
No one can ever predict the future with certainty. Most of us have a fair idea what will happen if we follow a specific course of action. These kids, who come from chaotic backgrounds, have no idea they have any influence on what happened to them. But, if the start of today's lesson is the same as yesterday’s and the day before, eventually they will get a sense of predictability and instead of being full of anxiety from the very start of the lesson they are at least available for the next step of the lesson.
Rituals are also effective for teachers who suffer from anxiety when facing a class. I’m sure we all had a level of anxiety when we began our careers and I’m equally sure there are classes that still cause us increased levels of apprehension. Having a ritual will help the teacher just as much as their students.
One of the hallmarks of successful students is their resilience; that is, their ‘toughness’ they display when facing some stressful situation that may have long-term negative consequences. Resilient kids soon get over inevitable set-backs and get on with their life. Teachers know there is a clear link between a student’s resilience and their learning outcomes and school bureaucrats and educational academics have quickly adopted this link and promote the development of resilience in our schools.
They understand that students with healthy resilience have confidence in their ability to get through the hard times and have a positive outlook about their future. Resilient kids have:
A deep-seated trust in their community, that they will be safe and supported even when they make a mistake
They have confidence in their ability to solve problems and that they will be supported while they work through difficulties
They have a strong sense of self and know they are valued by those that care for them
They have the ability to control their levels of stress when faced with a difficulty.
It will come of no surprise that those students who have severe behaviours, those for whom we advocate and we deal with in these Newsletters are not resilient. In fact, they are just the opposite and It is no wonder.
Children with severe behaviours:
Do not trust the community and never expect support; their experience has taught them just the opposite!
They have no confidence that they will succeed, not in the short term and they have no concept of long-term consequences
They have a toxic view of their sense of self, that is they don’t make mistakes they believe they are mistakes
They are imprisoned by their inability to control the overwhelming effects of stress levels experienced when they are under threat.
They have given-up on their self.
The fact is when these children are faced with a crisis situation that threatens their sense of security they will either be consumed by that stress, that is they can erupt with high levels of anger, act out against the threat or they can internalize these acute emotions or implode into and dissociate from the problem. In either case they are beaten by the stress; they are firmly locked into this dysfunctional response.
The fact is the vast majority of these kids have developed this non-resilient sense of self because of the parenting they have received and the idea that the teacher can provide effective therapy to help them develop resilience is fanciful. It is important to recognise that teachers are not therapists, they have to deal with these kids within the confines of four walls and a significant number of ‘other kids’. So, what can we do in our resource poor classrooms for these kids?
As always for so many of these kids the only chance they have is their teacher so again, it is up to the teacher to try to develop their resilience. Sadly, unless they can, these students will never reach their learning potential.
So, what to do? Well resilience can be considered a personal set of characteristics we would want for all our students. We want them to:
Have a positive sense of their worth
Have them develop a sense of trust and be trusted by others in their class and life
Have the confidence that they have the ability and the right to solve their own problems in their own way while knowing the support is there if and when they fail
Have a sense that they can pursue their own goals and careers; they have something to live for.
The solution in the classroom lies is in the way the classroom is run; by the teacher presenting a very structured set of behaviour rules each child learns to develop a sense of power over the situations in which they find themselves. They gain an understanding that their outcomes are related to their actions both positive and negative. Keeping in mind, as the student’s confidence develops it is important to increase the level of challenge to a level that ‘gets the child’s attention’ but not too much that will overwhelm them.
This structured action – consequence organisation will allow the students to gain a cognitive understanding of how the world works. But, this is only half the equation.
The level of personal support the teacher offers is critical if we are to develop personal strength in these kids. Just how much we are there with them while they learn reinforces their sense of worth, first to you a significant other in their life and gradually to themselves. This level of support, in a normal situation is proportional to the age of the student. That is, young students require high levels of support and this drops as the students mature, developing their resilience as they age.
However, and importantly, for students with severe behaviours this relationship between support and development is not directly related to ‘age’ but to the level of their self-control. A totally dysfunctional thirteen-year-old will need the same level of personal support as a child in kindergarten. When you have one of these dysfunctional students in your class it is your professional duty to give them this level of support. The good news is they will develop at a quicker rate if you get the environment right.
Resilience is a desirable quality for all of us, we deserve it. Damaged kids have had that ability taken away from them through the abuse or neglect they grew-up in. Society owes it to them to develop those characteristics that were denied them so they can take their rightful place in their community!
At some time in your training you have been in a discussion about morality and how it can be threatened by reality. The exercise is more likely than not about the run-a-way trolley car where you have to make a decision, do you let five individuals die or will you act by pulling a switch that changes the lane but by doing this you deliberately kill one person to save the five?
The most common response reflects a utilitarian view of the world. The loss of one life is better than that of five but is that a moral stance, are you interfering with destiny? Does being faced with such a choice involve a moral obligation?
The recent movie ‘The Eye in the Sky’ is a Hollywood version of this dilemma; do we kill a few for the sake of the many? How you answer might well be prompted by how attached you are emotionally to the participants.
The stark confrontation of this conflict was brought home in the movie Sophie’s Choice where a mother was forced to choose one child to live or both would die. This is an impossible dilemma.
The exercise not only makes us think about the difficulty of living a moral existence it also shines a light on the participant’s compassion and empathy.
Scientists have made interesting findings while studying how the brain responds to these moral judgments. Neuroscientists have highlighted the role of the prefrontal cortex and area of the brain that deals with generating social emotions. It is the emotional function of the dilemma that makes us agonize over choice when the situation is personalized. This is the power of the choice Sophie had to make.
These findings have been confirmed through replication and further study including considering the influence of elevated stress and different types of brain damage. In fact, the people with damage in this region due to stroke or other causes experienced severely diminished empathy, compassion and sense of guilt.
So what is the relevance of this information in informing practice for dealing with kids who have been abused or severely neglected? A major consequence of the early childhood abuse/neglect is the real damage to the brain in particular the prefrontal lobes. These are reduced in size by up to 20% and the neural density is significantly reduced. These children are for all intents and purposes brain damaged.
When undertaking the task of dealing with these children many teachers try to evoke some sense of shame for behaviours they have done that hurts others. This may well be an appropriate approach when dealing with healthy kids but for these kids (along with those on the Asperger’s spectrum) it has little impact. Judgments made are driven by the utilitarian approach but because they have no emotional attachment to others the so-called utilitarian approach is self-centered. They are only concerned about how they fair.
The easy answer is this apparent selfish approach is malicious and they in turn deserve no compassion from you the teacher. But this would be wrong; this is one of the things that makes dealing with these very difficult kids so hard. It’s not their fault they were made this way by their abusers when they were infants. They need even more compassion.
So what to do? The first thing to do when dealing with these kids is to put in place a very structured environment that has a clear relationship between the child’s actions and the consequences that follow. Because they are so egocentric they will soon learn to act in a way that is best for them. Your structure needs to provide for this close link. And the consequences are not only negative but just as importantly positive outcomes for functional behaviour.
Behind all your work is the principle of parenting the child in a way that will allow them to develop a new set of psychological traits and so given time with structure along with positive relationships and expectation they can develop compassion and empathy and the satisfaction it will bring to their life. Your work in this field is so important!
We continually reinforce the importance of the relationship built with the students, particularly those with dysfunctional behaviours. These relationships are very much based on an emotional connection and rely on how we feel/think about the child, how they must be feeling and thinking as we interact. This ability to ‘put your self into their shoes’ is explained by what is known as Theory of Mind. Individual development of Theory of Mind begins when a child first develops a sense of separation from their primary care giver, a sense that they are a distinct identity.
Up until about age three children feel they are part of a combined consciousness, they think that whatever they know everyone else knows, that all minds are in a sense connected. They slowly come to terms with the fact that only they know what they are feeling, thinking, what are their desires, etc.; others can’t possibly ‘know’. Ultimately they realize their thoughts are their own and there is an advantage if they can deduce what the other is thinking.
This ability to recognize the mental state of the other and therefore predict what will happen next becomes more sophisticated over time. Just watch how older children manipulate their juniors and how parents and teachers do the same. This ability to anticipate what the other is thinking is a skill in which successful adults, including teachers excel. But thinking you know what another is thinking remains a ‘guess’ and for teachers of children with a toxic sense of shame, an incorrect ‘guess’ can have devastating outcomes.
There has been a lot of research into this ‘mind reading’ with varying results. Initially mirror neurons (see an essay on this topic in the resources page) were seen as underpinning this ability. Mirror neurons are activated in your mind when you see another person performing an action. How they are activated depends on the anticipated purpose of that action. Therefore our own brains anticipate, predict what the other is going to do next. In recent times the importance of these neurons in predicting other’s behaviour has been questioned but remains a possible explanation.
Rebecca Saxe, in her popular TED Talk claims to have located the part of the brain, the right temporopartietal junction, and area just behind the right ear that specializes in thinking about both our sense of self and thinking about others’ thoughts. She has demonstrated this through manipulation of the magnetic field in this area and through the traditional study of people with injuries in this area and the impact these have on their functioning. Like mirror neurons this gives a clue but not a definitive explanation.
It seems both accounts explain the intent of the behaviour but we really can’t know what another is really thinking; it is impossible. There is as much chance of ‘knowing’ how another thinks or feels as there is in answering Thomas Nagel’s famous question ‘what is it like to be a bat’? We can have no idea, bats navigate with sound, they can fly; this statement demonstrates just how impossible that would be. So why does this strong belief we know what others are thinking, this belief that underpins our ability to empathise, to have compassion, to care about others holds us together as a community? The answer is in predicting behaviour in particular situations.
The one ability we do have is that of pattern recognition. This is the foundation of our sense of self and how we fit in our environment. We learn about life through repetitive actions and consequences; that is we learn the pattern of behaviours in particular circumstances. And this seems to be effective in helping us negotiate with others. After all, these others come with an almost identical genetic profile and have the same process of developing their ‘sense’ in a ‘human’ environment. We don’t develop a bat sense in a bat environment!
It is an examination of this last point that explains the risk of believing you can read others’ minds. Throughout the work of our consultancy we have focused on the dysfunctional behaviour of children who cause us difficulties in the classroom. In the overwhelming majority of cases these kids not only have been raised in ‘dysfunctional’ environments, the result of their early abuse and/or neglect has left them with substantial brain damage in the parts of the brain that control behaviour.
The impact ‘cerebral difference’ has on our sense or the sense of others, is described by Jane Joseph, who examined the brain of an elite climber, Alex Honnold. Honnald is famous for climbing the sheer faces of steep mountains and cliffs without any safety equipment; any mistake would be his last. What Joseph wanted to know was their any difference in the climber’s perception of fear. She did this by placing Hannald in a fMIR machine and examining his response to very emotive and disturbing photographs that in a normal population light up the amygdala, the seat of our emotions especially fear in our brain. When examined Hannald displayed no increase in activity in this area. It is obvious that the performance of his brain was markedly different to the normal person in a fear evoking situation and any prediction others made about how he would feel when threatened would almost certainly be wrong.
Amy Dowel from the Australian National University, who studied psychopaths, provides collaborating evidence for the particular difference in response to emotional conditions. The psychopaths had little trouble passing a test that is based on recognising the faces of happy, sad, angry, etc. individuals and their results in these areas were the same as the general population. But when the picture required the identification of someone who was ‘upset’ the psychopaths could not recognize this. The capacity to recognize distress in others was a particular blind spot in their ability to predict what was going on. This explains how psychopaths can be charming and engaging on most levels yet can treat others appallingly with no concept of their feelings.
Research into the area of ‘mind reading’ is becoming better at predicting other’s potential behaviour thanks to bigger data sets and more powerful computing techniques. In the area of suicide prevention the results are well above that of chance and in fact Facebook have installed a function that will alert users if they are presenting a pattern of ‘behaviours’ that indicate a risk of self-harm or suicide.
But the dependence on reading the other’s mind remains a problem for all of us but particularly for those working with damaged kids. We know these kids have damaged brains and as for their amygdala’s they have the opposite response to threat as that of Hannalds. These kids have enlarged amygdala’s and are overly activated when confronted with threatening situations. Their responses will be different from the climber’s and more importantly, for the sake of prediction the general population.
On top of this, the historical patterns the teacher relies on to predict what these children are thinking will be completely different than the patterns on which these children base their predictions. You can’t know what they are thinking. That is, you see the world through your history and they see it through a different history, they are not the same and so guessing ‘what comes next’ will not be the same.
So what to do? Well in the first instance interact with these kids in a compassionate way basing your responses or reaction on the behaviour they present not the behaviour you predict. This may cause some problems initially, when you want to intervene early and avoid problems but the more you delay your responses the more you can discover their particular patterns and start to understand why they behave in a certain way. Teachers have to reject certain dysfunctional behaviours but by doing so you teach them about your world and they can learn new patterns of behaviour. Understanding that you can’t really understand where their behaviour is coming from helps you remain compassionate about the child in the face of outlandish behaviour and supports the important relationship.
Understanding the problems that come with really knowing what students are thinking underscores the importance of structure in the classroom. The more structured the actions and consequences are, the faster the students will understand how their behaviour is connected to what happens to them. That is, they will develop a new set of expectations about their life and how they can take control.
We have been discussing the process a child, anyone goes through for a given behaviour event. Of course the caveat still remains that the visual representation below is extremely simplistic but it provides a scaffold on which to begin a more complete explanation.
If we consider this schematic model, it is evident that the only section considered to be under the immediate control of the student is the decision to act and then the actions. This can be referred to as the ‘cognition driven behaviour’ and this is where the various varieties of cognitive behaviour programs operate however it also contains the emotional component of the decision. More about this matter later.
The antecedent condition, for the child will be their current homeostatic status, are they happy, stressed, indifferent, whatever their state it is brought to the situation. For those kids with a history of abuse and neglect and a history of failure rarely do they bring to a situation a sense of homeostatic calm. At this stage of the cycle they have very little control of their ‘condition’ but that will influence their reaction to the situation they find themselves in.
The situation is not in their control especially at school. Even on the broadest sense they have to by law attend school even if it is a source of continuous failure. But like all of us we are always finding ourselves in situations outside our control. That’s life!
At the end of the cycle is the consequence that follows the actions. There is no guarantee that if we act in a certain way we will get a predictable result. This unpredictability will be discussed in a later Newsletter but for now we understand that consequences follow our actions but they are delivered by powers, for these kids at school it is teachers.
This leaves us with the part of the behaviour cycle we could control. The following line of reasoning highlights the failings of cognitive behaviour therapy at times of emotionally charged situations.
The cause of the limitations of cognitive interventions involves our instinctive survival response to threats. In the diagram below the process of responding to a stimulus is represented. How that response is developed depends on how the stimulus incites our memories.
The stimulus linked to the situation comes in to the thalamus, the clearing-house for the brain where it is distributed across the brain. To facilitate our survival when under immediate serious threat that stimulus will go directly to the amygdala. Here we can respond to threat long before we are consciously aware of the situation. This is the general adaptive syndrome or flight/fight immediate adaption to protect us. This process by passes all but genetic memory and is, excluding extensive training, beyond our control. This is the fast track in our decision-making.
But this fast track to the amygdala is also the route to our emotional memories that are located in this area. This means that the emotional memories are the first referenced in regards to the situation. That means we ‘feel’ about the situation before we think about it.
A slower response is through the thalamus to the hippocampus where our cognitive, autobiographical memories are located and then move up to the frontal lobes where a considered decision can be made. It is through this slow track route the cognitive approach operates. We see the situation, we ask what is going on and what can we do to that will make the situation better for us.
This works unless the emotional memory is so powerful that the decision via the so-called slow route is over ridden and the decision will be the habitual one that has been in use. This is a problem for kids who have been raised in abusive, neglectful environments. The way they have learned to respond worked best for them growing-up but is inappropriate in the current situation.
The secret to working with these kids is to create an environment that, as much as possible minimizes those kids being placed in situations that stimulate their destructive emotional memories.
In 1995 Daniel Goleman released his blockbuster, self-help book Emotional Intelligence. This book was soon one of the top sellers across the globe, and the concept of emotional intelligence became the focus of leadership and management courses. At this time I was principal of a school for students with severe levels of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorders, and I was subjected to workshops promoting the importance of emotional intelligence while I witnessed the destructive impact emotions had on these students. I had always thought there should be a companion book Emotional Stupidity.
Emotions are a primitive form of self-talk; that is our feelings give us feedback of our state of wellbeing. How we feel drives our decision-making and whether or not these decisions are constructive or destructive. This bias depends on the conditions a child experienced while the area of the brain that controls emotions is developed. In education the inclusion of emotions has until relatively recently been excluded from studies related to learning with the focus being on the cognitive processes of memory, attention, perception, and the like. These are the fields of interest in the areas of cognitive neuroscience.
Jaak Panksepp produced another significant book in the field of neuroscience around the same time called Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Panksepp understood that affective (feelings) are supported by the parts of the brain that are developed in early childhood, and when formed they become almost automatic responses to prescribed stimulus. This approach contrasted with the existing beliefs that the brain examines the current situation and makes a rational decision. This mistake of dismissing of the emotional component of decision-making is best seen in classic economics where early theories were underpinned by the idea that people are rational.
Today there are still some leaders in education who hold to the initial theory of cognitive reasoning and feel that changing behaviour only involves teaching the rationale behind the behaviour that should be chosen in a particular situation. The popularity of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy approach, in schools, can be explained by how it outlines logical steps in making decisions about how to behave. Schools are awash with such programs however they are ineffective especially for those students with severe behaviour.
LeDoux, in 1996 demonstrated the impact the emotional content of any situation impacts on the decision-making process. The illustration below explains just how the system operates. In life all knowledge about our environment, internal and external is harvested by our receptors, the five senses and this information is relayed to the thalamus. The thalamus sends this directly to the amygdala, which assesses it for potential danger. If the amygdala senses immediate threat it will instigate a general adaptive response to put us in a state of flight, fight or freeze. The decision will be taken out of our hands.
If the amygdala is not concerned with the potential threat, the thalamus sends the information through to the hippocampus and eventually the frontal lobes for cognitive contemplation. It is when we are not ‘alarmed’ we can follow the steps taught through cognitive behaviour therapy.
On a continuum between these extremes, we can be provided with information about the environment where these conditions led to something going wrong. This positioning on the continuum will decide the level of the anxiety.
Anxiety happens even for well-adjusted individuals, but it is extreme for those who have suffered damage to the amygdala, the hippocampus of the limbic system and the frontal lobes. This damage is most likely occurring in early childhood development (for a description of the brain damage that occurs when a child grows up in an abusive, neglectful environment see Newsletter of the 6th November 2017) when the amygdala becomes ‘over-active’, the hippocampus and frontal lobes significantly reduce in size. It is easy to see that kids with a history of abuse and neglect are at an even more considerable disadvantage trying to control their behaviour.
This vulnerability of students who have suffered early childhood trauma from abuse/neglect reinforces the necessity of a safe, predictable environment and a trusting relationship with the teacher and class if they are paying attention to the lesson and access their cognitive processes.
Last week we witnessed another massacre of 17 American school children being gunned down by Nicholas Cruz an ex-student of the school. Early reports point to Cruz as being a ‘disturbed’ student who was in constant trouble while at school and had since dropped out. Now experts are suggesting that this boy suffers from a disorder called foetal alcohol syndrome.
Foetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) is permanent brain damage that is a result of the mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy. The amount of damage is related to the amounts of alcohol, when it was consumed and the genetic disposition of the mother. As a result the severity of the damage is across a spectrum FASD ranging from mild to severe.
The speculation regarding the probability of Nicholas Cruz suffering from this disorder is most likely underpinned by the appearance of his face. Children who have this condition are generally short, have low body weight but the clinching factor is their small head with a low nasal bridge, small eyes and a thin upper lip.
Coincidental to this tragedy is the release of a study from Western Australia on children in detention. This study has just been published in the BMJ Open and reported in The Conversation (14th February 2018). The study pointed out that 90% of all children in custody suffered a mental illness but of these inmates one in three had FASD, a distinct form of disability. Unlike the other common disorders in the population that become incarcerated, FASD is not a developmental condition but a brain based condition, that is the brain is damaged on a continuum that is related to the environment in which the foetus matured. It is critical to understand that FASD cannot be cured; it is permanent brain damage. The best we can do is assist these children manage their impediment.
The frequency of FASD in the population is in dispute. One strong factor for this uncertainty is the reluctance of the medical profession to make this diagnosis. Doctors are aware that such a finding places the blame squarely on the mother and condemns them to a life of guilt. However, in the latest Journal of American Medical Association they found that one in twenty children suffered from FASD; they had suspected the number to be more like one in one hundred. They still suspect this figure underestimates the prevalence of the disorder.
In Australia using various data from states and territories, the estimations are of 0.01 to 1.7 per 1,000 births but when examining the indigenous population this rises to 0.15 to 4.70 per 1,000 births. One study has found very high rates of FASD in some remote communities with the number of cases diagnosed at 120 per 1000 for children born between 2002 and 2003. These figures are debatable because of the poor registration of this disease but for any school there is a high possibility that these students are present and provide a unique challenge. For schools in remote regions with a high indigenous population the challenge is immense.
The behaviour manifestation of FASD is directly related to the cognitive impediments and parallels the dysfunctional behaviour of other types of brain damage. In particular there is a loss of the functions in the prefrontal cortex, the so-called executive part of the brain. This results in a lack of impulse control, poor decision-making and inept socialization. Other areas of brain damage impair memory and language acquisition and low attention spans.
Just like the disorder the level of dysfunctional behaviour will be expressed on a continuum. Some children may appear to act like the class clown, they may be just naughty or lazy or they may appear to be totally out of control and impossible to manage. No matter how ‘bad’ their behaviour is it is important to keep in mind that these kids struggle to remember what is expected of them, to understand the presenting social context and make any decision other than that dictated by their impulsive nature.
All this information is of little help in managing these students in your classroom other than to give an understanding of the challenges both teacher and student face. And, as in most cases the availability of system support for these difficult students is dubious if not non-existent. So what is the practical advice?
A review of the available therapeutic interventions shows that the best chance for these kids is to be born in a stable loving home, not a likely prospect. What is apparent is the longer they do live in a caring, non-violent environment the more they can have a substantial life.
So it is important that the teacher provides a stable, predictable environment with strong positive relationships. This requires strong professional boundaries (see Newsletter - Teaching Practical Boundaries 31st July 2017) that allow you to stay calm and make a professional decision around the behaviour of these children. As always the other students’ rights must be equally dealt with. This requires a very structured and predictable set of expectations. This will, in many cases mean some sort of time out for the student (See Newsletter - Time Out – 17 July 2017.)
Because these students will never recover from their disability there is a strong case to introduce an independent behaviour program (See Newsletter – Independent Behaviour Programs – Contracting for Behaviour Gains - 23rd August 2017.) That is the student and the class understands that consequences for the FASD student are different. This difference must be explained to the class but not the reasons for them. In my experience, when kids are included in the purpose for this practice they become very comfortable providing they are protected from any impact of the inappropriate behaviour.
In 2002 Malbin reported on the incarceration of FASD sufferers in the Journal of Law Enforcement. He came to the conclusion that catering to the strengths helps in the care of these sufferers. From this work it can be assumed that music, be that singing, composing or learning an instrument seemed effective; this helped with their emotional stability. Studying very concrete activities helped. Predictable subjects such as spelling, mathematics allow them to enjoy success building a more positive outlook to school. The more ‘grey’ area such as literature is a struggle but story telling or if they can independently read this provides a non-threatening access to literary skills.
Finally physical activities are useful as long as they are non-threatening and very importantly have no level of interpersonal contact. Not only are FASD kids impulsive and likely to retaliate without thinking they are also 50% more likely to display inappropriate sexual expression and that includes touching.
Kids with FASD provide an extreme challenge to schools. Not only is their little or no support it remains a fact that these kids are not responsible for their brain damage and it is hard to hold them responsible unless we, society gives them the special support they need to become responsible. It is possible that in Florida we have seen the devastating outcomes that can occur if we turn a blind eye to these kids.
Years ago I produced a program that helped children deal with their anger, and it was interesting to look back at that work about this idea of ‘madness' and how my studies have influenced my thinking on this subject.
I understand that when we are angry, we lose access to our rational, cognitive brain. Anger describes a stress response to the clash between your expectations and the environment, and this stress take us into the fight, flight, freeze realm particularly that of the fight. It is the unrealistic expectations that are at the heart of this ‘mad’ response that dominate the high levels of anger we see from those students who have been the subject of early abuse or neglect.
These kids can have very distorted expectations that are underpinned by their faulty belief. For them, if things are to be fair, they must be perfect. These kids project their anger externally and blame their environment. This externalization is a classic response from those who carry large doses of toxic shame.
The other end of this scale comes for kids who have low personal expectations. Because they expect to fail, their frustration turns in on their sense of self; their anger is driven by the expectations of their internal environment. They get very angry with themselves.
The modern setting for the expression of anger for school kids is on social media. ‘In my day' that is in the ‘olden days’, anger was dealt with in the playground. Rarely a lunchtime went by without a fight of some kind. These were almost but not exclusively between boys, and the occasional girl's fight was a cause of much excitement. This gender bias reflects the reality that boys act out with their frustrations and girls internalize.
Since those 'bad old days,' the schoolyard has become a much more peaceful place or at least we have become better at stopping this violence. But now it seems it is the girls’ turn to act on their anger through social media. This difference between physical and psychological abuse makes me think about that proverb – sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Not true; all attacks, physical or psychological will hurt all but those with the personal power to withstand either form of attack.
I understand that the motives behind the nasty comments found in the many social comments are complicated and are dealt with elsewhere in our blog but this Newsletter aims to provide advice on how to deal with the anger comments can raise
Too often the advice given is to just ignore them. It is difficult to overlook nasty comments designed to hurt or insult your sense of self. Teachers at every level are subjected to such comments from upset children and more increasingly irate parents. This growing phenomenon is becoming a real work/health issue in the profession and one that does not seem to be going away. So what to do?
My fallback position when being ‘attacked' always has to examine my boundaries. These simple sets are:
Remain as calm as you can be. Always remember that as your stress levels raise, your ability to think declines when you are stressed, and anger management is a cognitive exercise.
Ask yourself ‘what is really going on here'? In the program, I devised I referred to this as asking if the anger was justified or unjustified. What I now do is ask:
What is really going on?
Who is responsible?
If the answer is that I'm responsible, then I must take action to address the conditions that have resulted in the other person being ‘justifiably' angry with me. If the answer is the other person is responsible and my anger is ‘justified’ then things become much more cerebral.
I now need to ask myself – ‘what do I want to have happen in the long run’? Any long-range thinking requires a calm mind. The more we descend into the fight/flight way of thinking the shorter the time horizon becomes. These actions are designed for instant realization.
When you have worked out what you need to do then implement your plan.
The very last step is to ‘let go' of your anger. This 'letting go' is not as simple as putting your feelings aside. Whenever you do become angry, your body prepares for a physical response – fight or flight. That energy includes a lot of physiological tension, and if you leave this unexpressed, it will have a detrimental effect on your health. So after you have dealt with the cerebral garbage you need to discharge this ‘energy', this physical garbage. If you are lucky enough you can involve yourself in some sporting activity such as take a run or play a game of tennis but at school, the opportunities are not so available.
I have found that something as simple as screwing a towel or a jumper up as tight as I can and focusing my energy on that exercise helps enormously. I sometimes indulge in a bit of unprofessional quietly whispering unprofessional profanities. Not cool but sometimes this helps.
Above all, be charitable in how you feel about the others in this situation. When you forgive you are giving that gift to yourself. It is a bonus if the other person also accepts your kind offer.
Schools have always had an obligation and a need to provide efficient behaviour management programs. I’m old enough to have experienced the range of techniques that have been tried to get kids to behave. In the mid 1900’s I had first ‘hand’ experience of corporal punishment. The boys were caned on a regular basis if they did not conform to the rules of the school. In my early teaching days the cane still was the weapon of choice for some male teachers but this barbaric approach was on the way out and eventually banned.
This didn’t solve the problem of misbehaviour and so we saw the development of a range of ad hoc programs introduced, all promising a solution. These included, ‘Assertive Discipline’, ‘Reality/Choice Theory’, ‘Restoration’ and the current liberator ‘School Wide Positive Behaviour System’ (SWPBS) which is in reality a corporate introduction of the ‘Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports’ (PBIS) that is based on positive psychology.
Each of the system has flaws and the predictable ‘failure’ of all these programs is that they:
Fail to deal with the severe end of behaviour issues schools face
Impose a system that struggles to adapt to the various contexts that are a function of schools
Are generally reflective of a middle class population
I have sat in on senior executive training where the popular comment ‘unless the solution is simple it is incorrect’ was bandied about as if saying so makes it so. This maybe fine when you are dealing with the world of physics where observations of phenomena are consistent, always the same. That is every time we drop a ball in the classroom it falls at an exact speed. This consistency has allowed the reductionist approach to problem solving to drive the scientific revolution of the last century.
The failure of this reductionist approach to dealing with the biological world, the world of behaviour where even if you can reduce the causes of behaviour down to fundamental features they will never be put together to rebuild that same person. The environment influences the growth of any biological system including behaviour.
So to produce an effective behaviour management program at the school level it is necessary to accommodate the ‘top-down’ requirements of the Department with the ‘bottom-up’ needs of the school community, their unique environments each of which requires different responses for the social context.
The top-down issues are related to the formal requirements imposed on the school. These are articulated in the new departmental documents that deal with behaviour. They will include the obligation to provide a safe working environment and to provide support for students with disabilities. These are not negotiable.
But it is the bottom-up influences, the unique features of the school that is the ingredient that will determine the success or failure of any behaviour management program. This is where the teachers and the students have a real investment in the practice.
There are a few things that are essential and these are:
Children have to be taught limits – it is naïve to believe kids are born as little angels. Apart from my grand children they can be naughty and perhaps they should be so. They are looking for boundaries and it is strong boundaries that make a good behaviour plan. Kids know what to expect when they behave in a certain way.
Children need to be able to predict – our ability to ‘guess’ what will happen if we choose to act in a certain manner gives them a sense of power; they develop a sense of ownership over their lives.
Children need a strong parent figure – students soon understand and appreciate a teacher who will set strong boundaries and impose them while respecting that child’s intrinsic worth. Too often young teachers try to be popular and fail to discipline the kids. These teachers soon lose the respect of their class.
I believe when it comes to dealing with discipline there is an unsaid ‘self’ always preceding that word. We should focus on teaching self-discipline to our kids and that requires a great deal of self-discipline by the teachers and the school. Its not easy but teaching self-discipline to a child is probably the most valuable lesson they will get at school.
In the previous Newsletter I reviewed the cause of trauma, this included the ‘shattered expectations,' ‘human vulnerability' and ‘the capacity for evil.' In that paper, I explained that infants and preschool-aged kids had not developed the cognitive ability to understand these concepts, but they are traumatized through their separation from security. It is this fear that generates the high levels of stress that fashions the neurological framework of the child.
The intricacy of stress was described in a previous Newsletter, 19th June 2017 (see the ‘Blog') but in this work, we are only considering the reaction to very high levels of stress that are the result of the response to the very existence of the child.
The body’s response to threat makes sense when we consider the primary function is to survive, the other drive, to reproduce is not a consideration of the infant. So the response of the brain, the decision-making centre of our bodies, makes optimal decisions for the conditions that we are facing. The following conclusion I have drawn is this flight/fight response is purely instinctive because a young infant is unable to either flight or fight so the activation of the automatic nervous system would be of little practical use.
The infants do however have the ability to respond in the third of the ‘3F's' (the first two are flight and fight) and that is to freeze. They dissociate. It was a fashion in the past that when children were crying in bed, they were attention seeking and the advice was to ignore them, they would eventually stop. There is some truth in this 'attention seeking' behaviour if the practice has been rewarded, but there are times when the baby is highly stressed, and when they do stop crying they have ‘given-up' on life.
However, when the threat occurs, the brain is awash with a chemical cocktail to prepare a fight/flight response. At the time the incoming stimulus quickly goes through the receptors, through the thalamus, the ‘clearing house’ of the stimulus on to the amygdala. The amygdala perceives the stimulus as representing a real, immediate threat and a sequence of events takes place to prepare the body—first to 'flight,' and if that is not an available option, to 'fight.'
This movement to fight/flight involves a series of synaptic signals that release a cocktail of chemicals that in turn dramatically change the physiological status of the body. This response is known as the general adaptive syndrome. The body is prepared to deal with the identified threat.
It is the importance of the amygdala in this process that results in its ‘abnormal' development. Because the function of the amygdala is important, it becomes more enlarged so it can better deal with future threats. The enhancement of the amygdala along with the resulting propensity to initiate the fight/flight response has a paradoxical effect. When these kids grow-up they become hypersensitive to a stimulus that resembles a threat. As a result, when they are in a situation that may look like a threat their amygdala is activated before they can make a considered judgment about the potential danger.
The second area of brain development that is affected by the conditions of elevated threat is in the ‘higher order' areas of the brain, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes.
In the usual ‘general adaptive syndrome' process, when the threat is over the brain returns to rest. Within the complex chemical activity that achieves this is cortisol that washes across the brain. Unfortunately, if the threat is not ‘turned off' or the process is too frequent the constant presence of cortisol has a corrosive impact on the brain.
The hippocampus is reduced in size by as much as 12% and the frontal lobes as much as 20%. There are other parts of the brain such as the cerebellum that are also damaged, but it is the changes in the hippocampus and frontal lobes that cause trouble for the children in the future. It is in these areas that we develop the ability to make rational decisions and capacity to delay gratification. The hippocampus and the frontal lobes are at the cognitive heart of our success.
So children who have been abused are subjected to real physical brain damage, and that damage is handicapping the very processes that are needed if we are to help them overcome the dysfunctional behaviour that results from their history of abuse. They are more sensitive to stress and therefore more likely to react in their ineffective, habitual manner and are less equipped to make calm decisions required to avoid that dysfunctional habit.
Much of the content of these Newsletters and the conclusions of a huge volume of research I share with you, concentrate on the disadvantage that children who have suffered through poverty or neglect experience. There is no doubt poverty results in reduced scores on a range of standard tests, but new research suggests that these kids can sometimes outperform their more privileged peers.
Some findings that illustrate the impact of poverty are:
Children tend to do worse on tests that involve memory processing speed, language, and attention.
They are 40% more likely to have learning difficulties
They suffer a gap in their verbal ability because their parents have limited vocabulary
Factors like hunger, unsafe housing, and parental instability all contribute to “toxic stress” that impairs brain development.
Abused or neglected children have less 'gray matter' in the areas critical for learning, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes.
A new line of research has identified a silver lining if you like for these disadvantaged children and the adults they become. Always keep in mind the brain is not only capable of change through epigenetics and its natural plasticity more than anything else, it is adaptive. The chaos that results in the identified cognitive problems is capable of developing the ability to outperform their peers when the environment they found themselves in is chaotic!
In a study by Chiraag Mittal, a professor at Texas A&M University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015) had subjects perform a series of tasks in conditions that created a range of diversions, flashing lights, etc. Then they had them perform tasks that needed them to categorize shapes but under conditions that rapidly changed the criteria for that categorization.
Researchers found that people who had predictable childhoods did better working under the conditions that challenged their attention. In the second type of task, that of attention shifting those who had a more unpredictable childhood performed much better.
The explanation that children raised in harsh environments had developed a sense of hyper-vigilance because ignoring potential threats could have detrimental outcomes. They looked at the flashing light because they had to ‘check it out' as a potential source of danger. So in tests that require focused attention, children raised in poverty showed the risk of trusting that their immediate environment would remain safe was too dangerous for them. But they excelled in the task-shifting test because they carefully followed any changing landscape as they were on the lookout for potential danger.
This task switching ‘advantage’ is not the only cognitive enhancement that a difficult childhood can bring. Bruce Ellis in the Perspectives on Psychological Science reviewed a number of studies that found some additional advantages people from harsh or unstable backgrounds enjoyed.
The outcomes were:
Children from divorced families had better early childhood memories; the elevated emotions associated with the family breakdown assist memory formation.
Children whose parents were verbally aggressive were better able to recognize emotions; they relied on identifying the mood of their parents to avoid upsetting them.
People who had suffered trauma seemed especially skilled at identifying similar situations; again this reflects the need to avoid conditions associated with previous traumatic experiences.
These so-called advantages are only an expression of survival mechanisms demonstrated by children who have suffered abuse, neglect or poverty. Hyper-vigilance and avoidance are focal points of children’s attention. To treat these ‘abilities' as being an advantage is misleading - it's only an advantage when the child is in a threatening environment. It's good to remember that in a classroom that is chaotic, these kids will possess the required skills, but for the rest of the class, their learning environment is spoiled.
The optimal learning environment is calm, predictable and accepting so the task for the teacher is to gradually and patiently have these students trust that the classroom environment is safe and so they can relax their hyper-vigilance and risk trying new ways to learn.
When working with kids who have been traumatized, it is wise to remember their behaviour has saved their life. The best we can hope for is they can relax in their classroom. Remember all too often they return to the chaotic environment where these skills are essential so don't take them away.
When we think about children who come from abusive families we generally think about those kids with severe behaviours. These kids are easy to recognize, their behaviour is ‘out of control’, they don’t seem to be able to take charge of their behaviour and are difficult to manage in class.
Teachers who have worked with these kids understand that behind the overt image of being just bad or rebellious is a child who feels extremely vulnerable and dependent on others to ‘look after’ him/her. It’s just that they don’t know how to protect themselves. Although they are difficult they are the easiest to identify and attract or more accurately demand the bulk of resources.
There are two more groups of children who are the victims of abuse but do not present as the ‘classic’ abuse victim. The first of these are a set of kids whose perpetrator has been consistent in the way they abuse their victims. These children will often present as very much in control and not reliant on anyone else. They can be seen as a bit arrogant, that they feel better than others and present as being ‘perfect’.
The difference in the groups is that in the first instance the child has lived in an unpredictable environment, usually associated with parents who either suffer from a major addiction or debilitating mental illness. This means the consequences for their behaviour is never predictable. If, for instance they get into a fight with a neighborhood friend they may receive a thrashing from the parent. Another time they will be congratulated for ‘standing up for themselves’. Another time they will be sent to their room. The point is they never know what they will get from an action they choose. Hence, their belief systems dictates their behaviour, not good enough, no control, bad and useless.
The second group suffer but in the totally opposite way. They always know what will happen and so they do learn a set of behaviours that protect them. They know if dad comes home drunk and they make a noise they will be punished, not sometimes but always. It doesn’t take long for these kids to know what to do to survive. This level of self-control carries over into the classroom and like at home they do not draw attention to themselves.
This is not to say the abuse they suffer is not as damaging, all abuse is damaging and will have the same devastating impact on their sense of self. Because they have to be ‘good or perfect’ they have to be independent they can never take the risk to step out of their cocoon of safety. They know how to please others but have no idea how to please themselves.
Because of this they can go through school pleasing the teachers, their classmates and these kids never draw attention to themselves. Unlike the ‘classic’ child of abuse whose problems are there for all to see this second group will have their breakdowns much later in life when they realize they have been locked into a pattern of behaviour that has robbed them of their life.
The last group of abused kids who fly under the radar are the girls. I believe that more girls are abused than boys yet in all formal settings for students with severe behaviours the boys far outnumber the girls. Look at suspension rates, look at special placements, look at the detention facilities. The male representation is overwhelming.
So why, if abuse is at the core of poor behaviour do girls not at least equal the boys in representation? The short answer is that males act out; the boy will aggressively either destroy the classroom environment with their ‘out of control’ behaviour or actively seek approval or the opportunity to ‘please’. The girls don’t.
The easy answer is that culturally girls have been conditioned to swallow their pain, to do as they are told. This is true but there is a more evolutionary reason. In ‘primitive times’ after humans had generally got control of the other animals the main threat to the tribe was anther tribe. When conflict broke out between the tribes, the males did the fighting and they killed as many of the men as they could and took the women and children as trophies. So to survive, for men it was to fight or flee while woman and children had the best chance of survival if they complied.
So at school we see the majority of girls who have a history of abuse just sitting in class ‘doing as they’re told’ with no idea they could participate in the lesson let alone life.
When we hear about dealing with kids from abused backgrounds we are only focusing on to the first, ‘acting out group’; those other kids who do not draw attention to themselves also miss out on their chance because they don’t ask for help.
Just because these kids do not make us uncomfortable or demand our attention through their dysfunctional behaviour doesn’t mean their lives have not been destroyed by the actions of their perpetrators, they have. It is up to us to provide assistance for these kids and until we do we are only partially addressing the results of childhood abuse.
Neglect, if not an overt kind of abuse, is a close cousin, it’s a passive form of abuse. Neglect is the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs. As pointed out in other essays, the child builds a neural scaffold in response to the impact stimulus. It is how that 'stimulus' effects the child's homeostatic status. For example, when a stimulus enters the brain, through the receptor (say the eye) and is then via the thalamus distributed across the brain it will be assessed according to how that event impacts on their safety and comfort.
The human infant is born with the least instinctive neurological scaffold, and so the vast majority of neural pathways are constructed to suit the environment that the child finds itself.
The thing is the development of any pathway relies on the presence of a stimulus. That is, no stimulus no pathway. Therefore, we can consider neglect as being the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs.
A dramatic example of just how important the stimulus is when a child is born with cataracts on their eyes it is in a sense blind to any visual stimulus. If the cataracts are not removed before about eight months, the child will never be able to see properly despite having the potential for full development of that property. They need the stimulus at that time of their life to develop that neurological ability.
The thing is the brain has periods where development is expected. These are genetic windows for the production of competencies like sight, attachment, movement, etc. If there is no stimulus to activate the neurons to create the pathways not only will the opportunity be lost but the very neurons that are present to form the paths will be ‘pruned,' that is removed from the neurological material to make the brain more efficient. There is no way yet known to replace them.
Forms of neglect are:
Physical – failure to provide for physical needs such as food.
Medical – not providing medical care when the child is sick or needs dental work.
Emotional – lack of nurture, encouragement, love and support.
Educational – lack of providing educational resources and ensuring regular participation in schooling.
Abandonment – leaving the child alone for long periods of time without any support.
The most infamous example of the impact of neglect has on the development of the brain, and subsequent behaviours comes from the children in Romanian orphanages who were found after the fall of the Communist government in 1989. These children had reduced volume in their hippocampus, frontal lobes and cerebellums. The illustration below is perhaps the most famous picture of the real impact of neglect. It represents a cross section of the brain of a Romanian orphan, on the right and that of a 'normal' child of the same age.
When you are working with students who have suffered from such neglect, and there are too many for us not to believe they are in every school, particularly in schools that serve low socioeconomic areas you will be required to have the patience with these kids who ‘just don't get it.' They don't straight away but persevere with kindness and one day they just might ‘get it' and that will be because you understood and cared.
One of the most difficult disruptive behaviour teachers have to deal with is that of the child with a passive aggressive personality Disorder (PAPD). This behaviour is described in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV. If four of the following personality descriptions for Passive Aggressive Behaviour Disorder are present, then a formal diagnosis can be made by a specialist. But each of these behaviours is passive and annoys all teachers. These are:
Passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks
Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
Is sullen and argumentative
Unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority
Expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate
Voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune
Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition
The Goal of PAPD
These students take great delight in making others angry while seeing themselves as the victim in any resulting dispute. Their behaviour infuriates his teachers in many ways. For example, when given a task they appear to start work but would soon employ one or more of the following gambits:
Procrastinate, asking detailed inane questions, looking for equipment, complaining of working conditions or others interfering with their space.
Work extremely slowly, infuriating the teacher. Complaints would be met with statements like “I’m going as fast as I can” or “I want to get it just right”.
Working quickly with no real effort, answering teacher’s complaints “That is the best I can do” or “You (the teacher) didn’t explain it properly”.
Ruining his, or others work ‘by accident.' He would cut wood wrongly, spill ink, etc. then declare his bad luck.
The goal seems to be to make the teacher angry in a way that allows the student to stay out of reach of any negative consequences that may imposed. If the teacher did try to deliver any consequence, they would declare that the teacher was unfair and picking on them for no reason. The goal is to passively resist the teacher while appearing to stay within the rules.
The Cause of PAPD
The underlying cause of this behaviour is rooted in the child’s upbringing. Primarily it is the fear of expressing his anger overtly. There are four possible circumstances in childhood that cause children to adopt passive aggressive behaviours. These are:
As a child, any angry outburst was met with a much-amplified angry response from those (the parents) at whom the anger was directed. It became dangerous to express anger.
Parents operate their social interactions in a passive aggressive manner.
If the child was in dispute with a peer, in a social setting that included their parent, regardless of the rights or wrongs of the situation, their parent always took the side of the other child. This parent’s fear of rejection caused them to make their child the scapegoat. The parent was more interested in their social connection and dismissed their own child’s legitimate claim for fairness.
The child has a passive aggressive parent and a mother who did not support the child in the father’s presence. The mother spoils their child when the father is not present. The child feels betrayed in the father’s presence but the mother’s covert support leads the child to believe mum is supportive.
How to Deal With this Behaviour
First, it is important to explain to the student that you know what they are doing and why they do it. At this time it is good to provide examples of their behaviour and the outcomes that followed, both short and long term.
This 'interview' should be carried out in private with plenty of ‘I' statements. Don't use statements that are inclusive. For example, if the student’s name was Rob and I said to him “Rob we have a problem," it is better to explain that ‘I have a problem." Passive aggressive students need to be independent of any authority figures. Further, never say things like "You always do this." The student will soon find examples to disprove this statement and use this as a deflection from the real issue. ‘Always’ statements are gold for the passive aggressive student.
This intervention should be conducted in a flat, matter of fact manner without any hint of the teacher taking control or acting in a ‘superior’ manner. However, within the message, you should reflect a genuine concern for the situation the student finds them self in.
Next set clear, defined boundaries, make statements like "If you do this, this will happen." The student will test these limits and complain that they are a waste of time.
The goal of the intervention is to show the student that they can take control of the situation by giving up the desire to control the teacher. Point out the short and long term benefits of their change of behaviour. Also, point out the certainty of negative consequences that follow if they continue their existing behaviour. Do this in a quiet, clinical manner reinforcing that it is impersonal. Finally, strengthening the fact that they are in total control.
It is challenging to make a complete change in the passive aggressive student's behaviour. While they remain in their family situation, this behaviour will be reinforced. However, at school, they may come to understand that the authority of teachers is thoughtful and designed to assist learning. In the final analysis, there is no real control that can be forced on anyone except self-control. This reality check is important for both students and teachers.
Throughout these newsletters, and my other publications I have pointed out that all behaviour is driven by stress and stress is produced when we are seeking something to satisfy our needs or to protect our sense of self. It is in this latter purpose that boundaries function as indicators of safety and security. For the purposes of this newsletter I will focus on teacher’s boundaries. All too often teachers focus their attention onto their students’ wellbeing and habitually neglect their own health. This newsletter is about the need for teachers to develop strong boundaries and some easy techniques to implement them.
Boundaries are the space between you and the outside world. That is they define where you start in relation to all others and how that ‘relationship’ can generate stress. It must be noted stress is not all bad; we know it is required to motivate any activity but we are focusing on stress that hinders the effectiveness of the teaching. This essay is about having good professional boundaries in the classroom and in the school.
Having functional boundaries means accepting that we are separate from our students. We have our own needs, attitudes and values and that the students have their own emotions, needs, attitudes and values. The difference is that they are developing boundaries. You need to have your ‘teacher boundaries’ already in place.
We have all had lessons, well at least I had plenty when things were not going to plan and I was being stressed about it. This is the time when we must be totally honest in the appraisal of what is going on. (Refer back to the Newsletter of 10th July about the locus of control for a description of responsibility).
The following provides a template for the use of boundaries for you in the classroom. Of course these steps can be applied to all your life.
1. Recognition your Boundaries are being challenged
Be conscious of your feelings towards the class and the lesson. If you can sense your feelings are changing, becoming frustrated or worried your boundary is being challenged; this change of feelings is a ‘stress attack’.
2. Actively Stay Calm
We are well aware that if we become too stressed we lose our objectivity but be grateful for the initial onset because it alerts you that there is a problem.
It is important that you learn to quickly control that stress.There are many techniques to learn how to evoke a quick relaxation response. The use of neuro- linguistic programming is excellent for this however any short relaxation technique followed by the establishment of an associated cue (the anchor) will do.
3. 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’?
4. Take Action
Assert your right without threatening the other person.You can use the statements:
‘When you …………’
The ‘when you’ is the time to describe to the student, or the class just what actions they are doing that is causing the problem. The ‘I feel’ allows you to let them know how their behaviour is upsetting you. Don’t be afraid to tell them how you really feel and finally the ‘because’ gives you the opportunity to tell them what are the consequences of their behaviour. This is not a time to talk about ‘punishments’ they will get if they continue to behave that way but the real cost of their behaviour, the loss of learning, etc. that is the outcome of their behaviour.
Or if the attack is much more serious or the students are not engaging in the process of solving the problem the more serious approach can be:
‘If you ………………’
This is when you can spell out that if they behave in a certain way you will deliver a set of consequences. The decision on what to do is theirs but they will have no control over what happens next.
5. Let Go
Sometimes even if you have done everything possible to regain control of the class using the right techniques and with the best intentions but things are still not working.At this time you must seek to get help.
Finally there will be students whose behaviour is beyond the resources of your school. If after you have tried ever possible intervention at your disposal there may come a time that that student has to leave the school.
It is important for teachers to develop strong, healthy boundaries. It is not easy to manage the inter actions of thirty kids with all their problems and immaturities not to mention the additional demands modern education bureaucracy demands of all staff. However, strong boundaries will support your health and resilience and allow you to really enjoy even those most difficult students.
The core quality that determines a secure sense of self is a personal acceptance within our community. This sense of self commences at birth and the first significant ‘community’ is his or her parents. When a child experiences nothing but affection and positive attention during these early years they will feel as if they are the centre of the universe and that’s how it should be. But at about age one, when they can move about they start to develop their independence. At the same time they start to move independently and being curious can get themselves into some dangerous situations. When this happens they are told no for the first time! Often the message will be delivered in a sharp, attention grabbing outburst. There is nothing wrong with this action; the parents just want to keep their child safe but the child will be rejected for the first time!
The sudden attention grabbing effect is necessary to stop the child, to get them to stop what they are doing - to ‘freeze’. In reality they do this and for the first time they experience ‘rejection’. Of course the parents were doing the right thing, keeping their child safe but the child’s sense of rejection is real and all rejection is at the heart of shame.
The child will continue to explore the world and they will continue to make mistakes. The parents will continue to ‘stop’ them and show them the ‘right’ way to behave. These mistakes expose the child’s incompetence and they will be embarrassed by what they have done. This feeling of rejection of the inappropriate behaviour we call healthy shame. The point is that rejection is of inappropriate behaviour; it is not the rejection of the person.
As an adult we should experience shame whenever we act in a way that is not true to our character and when we fail to do this we become embarrassed. Because the shame is about what we have done, that feeling is healthy. Healthy shame protects us both from the exclusion from our group and helps us understand the frailties of others.
Kids don’t get the difference between the action and the performer and so functioning parents have to make sure the mistaken behaviour is separated from the value of the child. Soon the child will understand that difference and grow up capable of experiencing healthy shame.
However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. When their child makes a mistake they are often physically punished and/or verbally abused for that mistake, it’s the child’s fault. And all too often the parents expect them to complete a task that is beyond their capabilities. At a sporting event you see kids being scorned because they did not win. When they inevitably fail they are subjected to abuse and rejection.
Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they do not come up to scratch the only conclusion is they are stupid, weak and useless just like dad said they were. This is the core of toxic shame, they have not made a mistake; they are the mistake.
Students with toxic shame take this debilitating belief into school. At any level learning consists of trial and error and so it is at school, there will be the inevitable errors. To healthy kids a mistake informs them that this is not the right way to solve a problem. For the child with toxic shame the mistake is confirmation that they are not the right person to be in the class. These students fear the inevitable negative evaluation about their work and the resulting stress suffered will make any real learning impossible. The inevitable failure reinforces their sense of shame, this toxic shame.
How you interact with the student will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
‘I can’t do this ……..’?
‘Everyone else will laugh at my …..’?
‘I hate this ………..’?
The destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that only reinforce their toxic opinion of themselves. These teachers use terms like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best work’?
‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:
‘How can we make this ……’?
‘What can we do to ……? ’?
‘What will it look like if …..’?
Remember you are asking the children to try and that for them is very threatening but if you take a work in progress and use terms like those above you have not rejected their efforts and you have indicated to them that they can continue to improve. It takes a lot of small steps to complete any journey so be patient, they can overcome their most faulty of beliefs.
I used to say to students I worked with they are perfect. Of course that got their attention but I explained that it is humans make mistakes. I’m human so I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – I’m perfectly imperfect, so are they and so are you.
Look at the video on Youtube – just search Toxic Shame Video Frew Consultants Group. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qovD71NHRc
There is also an essay and a Powerpoint presentation on the Resources page of Frewconsultantsgroup.com.au to use with staff.
ADHD is Real but What Does this Mean for Teachers?
Over the years teachers have been suspicious of the diagnosis Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It seemed that every child who presented with behavioural problems came with, or soon obtained that special diagnosis. I believe a reason for this is that some parents use the diagnosis as a justification for their child’s misbehaviour and a reason to abdicate their permission for schools to deliver consequences.
The diagnosis requires the display of a range of behaviours that could be categorized as having problems of paying attention or difficulty in controlling behaviour. Studies of the brain structure of those with ADHD also show a reduction in the neural density of the left side of their frontal lobe and a reduced number of neurons in the posterior parietal cortex.
The behaviours displayed are exactly the same as those for children who have suffered early childhood abuse and/or neglect (PTSD) and the abnormal brain structures are also present in children who suffer from PTSD.
Another commonality is that the presence of both disabilities is much more common in boys than in girls.
The use of medication varies between the two with stimulants such as Ritalin seeming to be the most prescribed for ADHD. The object is that the stimulant will support the frontal lobe increasing the child’s ability to focus. In the case of PTSD there is some use of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRI’s for adults and some trials being undertaken for children. This has the goal of calming the child, making them less hyper-vigilant or dissociative.
The bottom line is that both do exist and even if ADHD is over diagnosed and PTSD is under diagnosed this is irrelevant for teachers. Teachers deal with the behaviours presented in the class. What is effective for ADHD is effective for PTSD, is effective for a whole range of ‘disorders’ including ‘puberty’ because the teacher’s approach is to provide the environment in which these students operate.
The environment is the classroom and as you know or will come to understand, my view of what makes a ‘quality’-learning environment is much more than the criteria set out in the National Standards.
Of course the pedagogy and the presentation of content is vital and should be at the forefront of preparation but for these disadvantaged kids the social and psychological elements in the classroom must be in place before they will get to any lesson content. These are:
Relationships – Just how they are accepted, how they feel they ‘fit in’ is vital and because their behaviours are frustrating and sometimes repulsive it takes a special teacher to provide that sense of belonging.
Expectations – Any insecurity about what might happen will quickly distract these children. Those with ADHD will soon look for something to occupy their attention, those with PTSD will begin to focus on perceived threats or escape routes just in case they are attacked.
Structure – Structure is much like expectations but expectations is about what may happen in the future Structure is about knowing what will happen when you have done something. These students feel disempowered, they don’t have a sense of control over their life but if we provide this connection between what they do and what happens to them, they will slowly gain the sense that they do have some control, they become empowered.
The real reward for teachers that provide an environment that supports these dysfunctional students is that the approach that works for them is the gold standard for all students.
Classrooms are places where rarely a day goes by without some inappropriate or disturbing behaviour occurs. It falls to the teacher to deal with these situations that usually involve conflict either between students or with students refusing to cooperate in the lesson. To be an effective teacher these are times your personal, assertive skills will be useful. The following tips will help you successfully deal with any such event in a way that enhances the long-term harmony in the classroom.
Address the behaviour without threatening the individual. Instead of saying ‘You shouldn’t scribble in your book. That’s terrible behaviour’ reframe the message into something like ‘scribbling in the book will make your good work look messy, put the pencil down please’. You attack the inappropriate behaviour not the child
Remain silent after you deliver your message. Allow them to digest the message and give them the space to make a decision.
Never apologise for not getting emotionally involved with them. As soon as you either mirror their feelings or retaliate with your own feelings you escalate the student’s mood.
Sometimes they need a considerable amount of time and space and if there is no immediate danger you can say things like “I know you’re really angry now. You need time to settle down. I want you to just sit outside the room.” Then go on with another activity without antagonising them.
When they are acting appropriately and in control put some personal investment into maintaining if not enhancing the relationship. Return to the issue, preferably without an audience and get them to explain the purpose of their inappropriate behaviour. If you can let them know that you understand why they are behaving that way. It may be that another child is teasing them. Really listen to them.
Deliver the consequence for their behaviour. Each member of any classroom should know the consequences for behaviour and that includes the teacher. Remind them they have a choice of actions, but in class as in life we are never in control of what happens to us. At best we can predict what should happen. With this in mind the consequences may be negotiated within the framework of the discipline code.
Maintain Your Integrity. Stand up for yourself in an appropriate level of assertiveness – you are in-charge when being the teacher. The following will help:
Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
Sustain a steady, positive gaze
Maintain appropriate eye contact
Stand up straight
Don’t stand too close or touch them
Model non-hostile body language, hands off hips, fists unclenched, no finger wagging
Finally finish with a positive message, remind them of previous success they have had in gaining self-control. Acknowledge their strong emotions - this shows they care about themselves but let them know you have confidence in their growing ability to take control of themselves.
You need to have control of your classroom so never put off dealing with distracting behaviours. You will hear about tactically ignoring kids mucking up but the times that is the way to go are extremely rare so just because discipline is hard doesn’t mean we don’t do it and if you want a satisfactory time in the classroom – do the hard stuff first.
Note: Another essay – ‘Challenging Behaviours’ has been added to the resource page. This is freely available by logging on to our webpage at www.frewconsultantsgroup.com.au
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.