Dealing with Students with Severely Dysfunctional Behaviours
Integrate or Special Placement
Previously I discussed the issues that need to be addressed regarding the discipline and welfare practices within schools (see Newsletter - Student Discipline – What About Welfare – 7 September 2021). This is relevant considering the current review on student discipline, being conducted by the Education Department. The draft proposal makes a series of vague recommendations that promises increased support but imposes diminished access to consequences that would be targeted at specific students with highly disruptive behaviours.
The document discusses behaviour in general terms and would be acceptable for the vast majority of students. However, it fails to address the difficulty schools confront dealing with those students whose behaviour is outrageous and threatens not only their own safety and security but also endangers all other members of the school community. It must be noted that these students are most in need of support and more importantly compassion from everyone in the community but their offensive behaviour repels such management.
The foundations of the dysfunctional behaviours that clash with that which is acceptable in a school community is varied and as always, I do not include those students who have a psychotic or biological disorder. Regardless, the beginnings of this dislocation occurs in the early years of their development. I identify three fundamental causes which I will now describe briefly but for a more detailed account I have posted Chapter 2 of my book Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids (Austin Macauley, London 2021) in the resources of our webpage Frew Consultants Group.
The causes are:
Abuse – this includes physical, sexual, emotional/social and the less acknowledged intellectual and spiritual. When children are abused the elevated stress levels inflicts real physical damage to the brain with decreases in those areas that assist cognition, the hippocampus, prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus collosum along with an increase in the size of the amygdala. The result is these students struggle to comprehend the messages coming from their environment and becoming super-sensitive to perceived external threats.
Neglect – children need to learn how to behave and this learning is a result of being exposed to situations that threaten their security. They either learn by trial and error to behave in ways that restores their equilibrium or are taught by a parent or carer how to behave. There are two ways this process can undermine normal development:
The first is that the parent/carer provides an environment that is at odds with what is considered ‘normal’. If, for instance a child wants its mother’s attention it may be that the only way to achieve this is to scream loudly and hit out at the mother. If this works then the child has acquired the behaviour for getting attention. However, later, at school when the child is excluded and becomes desperate for acceptance they will employ those behaviours that worked in their childhood but these are ‘dysfunctional’ in the classroom!
The second is when children are not stimulated enough. The brain develops throughout life but will never be as active as in the first three years. To develop, it requires the stimulus so the appropriate behaviours can be learned. For many behaviours there are critical periods of time when the conditions in particular parts of the brain are primed for this development. The most cited is for sight – a child born with cataracts is blind they will not receive light as a stimulus and so will not learn to see. In the real world, children who have experienced this and have not had the cataracts removed by about the eighth month will not be able to interpret sight even when the cataracts are removed despite there being nothing wrong with the neurological circuitry for sight. It is just that when the opportunity to learn to see is past, the brain removes the neurological matter for the sake of efficiency. A less dramatic but more common is the absence of appropriate attachment to others in the first years. This results in relationship problems later in life.
All too often, these children are the casualties of both abuse and neglect and it is vital that we understand this damage has been done to these kids, they are victims and should attract our compassion, However, their actions challenges those who are subjected to their threatening, dysfunctional behaviour.
Although these behaviours that arise from their malicious environment they manifest in various ways. The result of the behaviours is that they can’t effectively interact with their peers in a way that benefits themselves and their contemporaries. As an aside, the best thing, in fact the main task of a parent is to teach their child how to interrelate with their friends and their parents by about age three. After this, it is the quality of the contact with others that determines their sense of self. Using this understanding, the most helpful thing we can do for these damaged kids is teach them to re-engage with their classmates in a way that nurtures all parties. The question is how do we do this?
This has resulted in a clash of tactics between those who believe in dealing with the problem while maintaining the child’s presence in the school against those who advocate the removal for a period of time until the student ‘learns’ how to behave in a manner that allows them to return to school where they, and their peers can access their lessons; inclusion versus exclusion!
Almost exclusively, academics and bureaucrats support a policy of inclusion. Academics are extremely vocal in their advocacy for full integration and it is difficult to argue with their reasons for supporting this approach. However, they are naive about the reality that exists in public schools particularly in poor socio-economic areas. To implement their models would require a significant increase in resources that don’t exist in any public school. The current proposal from the department promises increased support without releasing details.
The department has made similar guarantees and allocated extra funding in the past but to paraphrase a former, leading consultant and principal ‘the promised support for schools in the 1990s that was provided rarely, if ever made it beyond District and Regional Offices. The increased necessary workload for teachers involving reports from specialist, doctors, counsellors, year advisors and teachers (repeated annually for each child) was a total inefficient use of resources. District and Regional personnel had to be employed to review all the material with schools receiving the pittance left over after all their salaries had been paid. Their role seemed to deteriorate into periodically telling teachers how they were getting it wrong’! Experience suggests they will not deliver the support required at the school level and, as always imposing the responsibility for dealing with these kids back onto the school.
The bureaucracy cites the position of the academics for their support of inclusion, but I would contend the cost of providing alternate settings for these students is prohibitive compared with any cost of support in an existing facility. The cynic in me suspects they also cater for the parents who fervently challenge any suspension, let alone exclusion.
Neither the academics nor the bureaucrats consider the damaging effect the extreme behaviours have on the teaching and learning of the other members of the classroom. This population that has always been disregarded but it is these students who also suffer from the presence of these students. It has been established that students with extreme behaviours and the chaotic classrooms that are a product of those behaviours is a significant retardant to learning outcomes not to mention the potential psychological and/or physical damage classroom members could suffer. Authorities continue to look at the damage these children inflict on a school in an abstract manner, for teaching practitioners their presence presents a serious challenge they can’t ignore.
Before we continue this discussion, it is important to seriously examine what is best for the student involved. The key questions that are never really forensically addressed are presented below:
What is best for the child – these severely dysfunctional students require intensive therapeutic interventions to help them deal with their mental health issues. Where can these be best delivered?
What is best for their peers – the presence of these students in a class presents a significant barrier to all learning outcomes regardless of the motivation of the remaining students.
What is best for the teachers and the school community – in the existing state of affairs all concerns are on the offending student with equity being put forward as the reason they should be retained. I would contend that equity applies to everyone in a community and the presence of any child with a disability should be provided with the required support where ever that can best be delivered so that everyone can reach their potential.
I would argue that these are questions never really considered by those who are responsible for the policy.
I would strongly note that the position I advocate is primarily to give these damaged students the most effective support, the whole purpose of our Group is to provide resources to teachers to help them achieve this.
As pointed out in the previous Newsletter, schools can have as many as six children who would attract a diagnosis of severe dysfunctional behaviour, such as conduct disorder for every 100 students. The absolute minimum requirement to affectively deal with even one of these students would be:
One support officer – someone who is always available to look after the child when the inevitable ‘melt-down’ occurs. Allocating a certain number of hours may appear to be supportive but the timing of any outburst rarely matches with the presence of that support officer
A qualified mental health professional appointed to every secondary and large primary school to deliver appropriate, ongoing therapy for these students. An important point must be acknowledged around the provision of suitable mental health interventions. Most existing programs refer to providing ‘trauma informed practice’. This catch-all label is meaningless unless you understand what this practice refers to. In all my research the only effective intervention to deal with complex trauma, and these kids are inevitably in this category is long term intense one on one therapy. This is just not available in public schools and in damaged, remote areas the presence of any qualified psychologist/psychiatrist, never mind in sufficient numbers is improbable
Intensive training and development for all teaching staff – teachers are barely trained in adequate techniques for dealing with the expected disruptive behaviours in any classroom but there is no effective and appropriate training I have seen. As mentioned in the point made above, there are some courses offered to teachers that advocate ‘trauma informed practices’ but I strongly maintain that teachers should never get involved in any form of therapeutic interventions with these students. There is a real potential to make matters worse; I advocate training in providing an effective learning environment that presents structure and expectations while retaining a professional relationship (see Newsletter – Competence and Warmth - 31 August 2021)
An on-site pleasant and secure setting where the student can be located when they are inevitably psychologically overwhelmed
The number of resources outlined as being required is not an exaggeration, these kids are extremely damaged and to deal with the potential numbers in a large secondary school in poor socio-economic areas is being quoted as high as twenty-six per 100 students. These extra resources, that would be required would be extremely significant. There is nowhere near any effective support in the current administration and I would argue they will never be provided.
The provision of off-site settings for these students to attend has always been the reluctant compromise for addressing this problem. The drawback is that these special facilities require buildings, fully trained staff and effective programs. The current programs offered by existing settings are ad hoc and at best a reflection of the opinion of existing staff, particularly the principal.
Regarding these facilities, apart from the requirements outlined above other current issues would need to be addressed. These are:
The lack of sufficient places – schools are desperate to find a suitable place for these students and all would have a substantial waiting list.
There is an inability to access such placements in rural and remote areas.
Inconsistent access to programs. Staff who are not school based and know the students control the Placement Panels
Special training and development for all staff appointed to these setting. There is no such training available and teachers appointed are just expected to manage these most difficult students
Integration is variable. For example, the 4:1 Model, that is four days at the setting and one day at the referring school is very unpopular with schools and are extremely difficult to justify for all students. Integration should only occur when the student has gained the skills to form real friendships. A strong case could be made for that integration not to occur at the referring school, their history will bring unfair challenges from staff and students they have previously damaged.
There is no recognition of the skills and experiences of the personnel in these school and is not seen as a ‘good career move’
This is a time when the department is inviting comments on their proposed Discipline Policy. I would suggest that the critique presented here should form the foundation of that policy, the draft promises much in the way of support but unless that is spelled out and reflects the bare minimum outlined above, history would suggest the ‘promises’ will not materialise while the reduction in schools’ abilities to provide meaningful interventions, that is time out is reduced. Real investment into effectively dealing with this problem may incur a short-term cost but the long term benefit for the student and their community lasts a life time.
NSW Department of Education is currently reviewing its Welfare and Discipline Policy and the proposed change reflect the Department’s preoccupation with providing flattering statistics rather than a focus on the students who need support. The proposed policies are designed to reduce the statistics of suspensions etc. without providing schools with any functional alternative consequence to help those students whose behaviour interferes with their learning, their cohort’s learning and the teacher’s ability to present their planned lesson.
This trend of weakening the teacher’s and school’s ability to deliver effective interventions that address a student’s dysfunctional behaviour has persisted for years. I believe this is in response to the vocal protests of the parents of these children and the condescending attitude of academics who propose ‘alternative’ interventions. The latter make the assumption that these kids can be ‘controlled’ and more naively the resources required to implement the programs they recommend are provided. It is this failure of the Department to provide the adequate resources for schools to actually deliver effective welfare interventions that perpetuates the persistent problems severe behaviours present. It is shameful, but not unexpected that the department ignores or even acknowledges their dereliction of responsibility but continues to place the accountability on to schools!
This essay examines the role of discipline and welfare, with particular emphasis on the extreme end of the dysfunctional, behaviour scale. Apart from those few, unfortunate children who suffer from real psychotic illness, the vast majority of students that fall in this category do so because of their aberrant, early childhood development (see Newsletters - The Impact of Neglect – 12 September 2017 and TheCharacteristics of the Abused Child – 26 September 2017). Estimates of the numbers of these children with severe, dysfunctional behaviour range from between 3% to 11 % (however, this figure varies according to the socio-economic profile of the school). For most of the school population it only requires minimal use of discipline and welfare but even so some kids are a bit naughtier than others. It should be no surprise that teenagers in particular do get into a bit of trouble. It really is part of their responsibility to test boundaries to gain independence but most of these are easily dealt with. It is at the last two levels where the strength of a school’s program is tested. The ideal Discipline and Welfare Policy can be summarised in the diagram below.
Integrated Discipline and Welfare Program
It has to be acknowledged that the use of time out is the only practical consequence for disruptive and damaging behaviours and it is this cohort that will be subjected to the more severe form of time out, suspension. Suspensions are never imposed easily, in some research I conducted it takes on average two hours of the school executive’s time to make use of this action; of course in some cases the amount of time is much more and this comes from the school’s existing budget of personnel. Over the last twenty years or more there has been a progressive erosion about the application of all forms of time out.
I have written extensively about the application of Time Out, (see Newsletter - Time Out– 17 July 2017) and I have included a full chapter from my book Insights into the Modern Classroom devoted to that subject (see Resources page - Frew Consultants Group). These sources outline the practice of using this form of consequence for dysfunctional behaviour. I am not going to discuss this here except to point out that Time Out is the only discipline tool schools have to deal with these extreme kids and not to use it discounts the value it affords to the school and more importantly the offending student.
Let’s take the example of a student with severe, antisocial behaviours that manifests as physical and/or psychological violence to their class mates or the staff. No matter how the Department tries to hide the existence of these kids the statistics confirm their existence and most public schools experience this type of behaviour on an all too regular basis.
As mentioned above, in some areas the numbers are much higher than others. In the research I cited previously the number of long-term suspensions in a district in Western NSW was 5.8 per 100 children, that is for a school with say 500 students there would have been 29 long-term suspensions while in another district in North Sydney had 0.5 long-term suspensions per 100 students which translated into 2.5 long-term suspensions. The workload the behavioural problems generated varies immensely yet the department demands the same overall compliance for both districts. In the latest expulsion statistics I could get (2016) over three hundred students were expelled from the system, this would only occur after multiple suspensions.
We have to accept a couple of facts:
That the behaviour of these most damaged kids can not function in regular school until they have learned to socialise in a manner that allows them to join in and to be accepted by their class mates and the school
School staff neither has the training nor the time to implement any effective interventions
School counsellors would need specialist training, particularly in dealing with early childhood trauma however, even with such training they would not have the time
The only way to effectively address the needs of these children is in specialist settings.
I can already hear the outcry from those who resist such exclusion and I would happily support their position if schools were provided with the appropriate number of extra staff suitably trained in mental health issues along with the capital resources needed to accommodate these. However, without such support forcing these students to remain at a school exacerbates the suffering for the student and the schools. As this is the situation across NSW schools, and I expect the rest of Australia the reality is that the current conditions are abusive for the student and the rest of the school community and the Department is responsible for this abuse.
There is no disputing the fact that dysfunctional behaviour continues to be the major impediment to learning outcomes in public schools. The Department continues to ignore this fact and places it’s faith in ‘compulsory’ training in being a ‘quality teacher’ or more recently a ‘leader’, neither will have any impact on the problems caused by these most difficult kids yet somehow the leadership feel they are making a difference.
A less charitable person than myself would point to the fact that parents have identified the problem caused by these students and have migrated their kids to the private system where these students are either never enrolled or they are ‘expelled’ at the first sign of trouble. The result is we are left with two different education systems and no prizes for identifying the system available for those in the low, socio-economic communities.
In no way do we blame the students who display these severe behaviours, the whole approach of our service is to support these kids who deserve our compassion. It is outrageous that the government’s response, through the department is to continue to ignore the problem while progressively increasing public funding to private schools. The result is a social residualisation of our comprehensive public schools and a dislocation of our community!
I have long been of the opinion that modern leadership of organisations is flawed. The contemporary approach taken by management is disconnected from the purpose of the enterprise. Modern leaders, in true top-down style impose their strategies on an organisation assuming they understand the conditions at the work place. This is a departure from the time-honoured approach where problems were solved where they occurred and management existed to support those solutions. The current disorder in NSW’s schools is an excellent example of this failure.
In NSW public schools, the working conditions have created a crisis across the state with many schools unable to provide teachers for their students. In May, there was 1,148 teaching positions vacant with too many schools having ten or more unfilled. For example, in the troubled Walgett Community College there are 12 vacancies for a student population of 117. This deficit is repeated across the state and these raw statistics ignore the lack of availability of casual teachers who traditionally cover for those on leave.
This shortage is directly linked to the growing and intensifying administrative demands on teachers and these are a result of the managerial style of the Department’s senior leadership. Teachers’ focus is no longer solely in the classroom but dealing with prescribed compliance hours of training to meet the Teaching Standards, assessment of the School Excellence Framework and unreasonable workloads. As a result, teachers are leaving in droves; 40% - 50% are leaving within the first five years in the job, up to half those who start a teaching degree leave before completion. Over-worked teachers’ mental health is in crisis, 58% of teachers suffer what they describe as ‘quite a bit’ of stress with workloads that require 10 – 20 hours of unpaid labour just to get their work done.
The current conditions are the culmination of changes that began in the late 60’s and early ‘70’s. These changes resulted from the application of the scientific model of the physical world being applied to the social world. Academics in the teaching subjects like psychology, economics, etc. longed to be accepted as scientists. The resulting changes were shaped by two of the giants in the philosophy of science, Karl Popper who believed that theory was legitimised by data and Thomas Kuhn who supposed that theoretical paradigms are discarded when they no longer predict events. Together, their reliance on data made way to the scientific, physical or social approach was dependent on measurement – if you can’t measure it it’s not worth doing.
With this new approach those ‘social’ faculties in universities, who had long suffered the barely concealed contempt from the pure physical sciences embraced this new approach. Amongst the most successful was the Business School at Harvard University who scrutinised and ‘measured’ business practices to produce their celebrated Master of Business Administration. The attractiveness of their course was based on the principles of leadership that focused on data, on costs and profits - more bang for your bucks, value added practices - more from less and marketing. This approach paid early dividends in the market economy and business enthusiastically embraced the idea of ‘the manager’ who controls everything. This is classic ‘top down’ management.
The adoption of this ‘administrative’ approach swept through the public service and soon ‘would be leaders’ adopted this methodology to run their departments. The education bureaucracy enthusiastically embraced it with leaders being appointed because of their understanding of administration principles. This was in direct contrast to the past practice where leaders were promoted from the ranks because of their understanding of that portfolio and the problems faced by those who functioned within that structure. The focus shifted diametrically from bottom-up practices where those in the classrooms and schools ‘solved’ problems and leadership supported their approach to top-down where leadership defined the problems and directed those below to implement their ‘managed’ solutions.
The emergence of this top down model coincided with the time when politicians began to take an interest in education. They realised that they could influence what was taught and so how it should be taught. In education, more than other portfolios Ministers had a sense of familiarity: they had all attended school. This direct action started with Cavalier, followed by Metherell and they really embraced this new-found power.
An example of their self-importance saw Metherell, on a whim mandated that every child should be bi-lingual and so a whole new department was founded just to implement his idea. This became known as LOTE (language other than English). Programs were written, resources developed and mandated hours of instruction imposed on each school. Teachers in classrooms across the state wasted hours teaching those mandated hours, students at best learned to count to ten in a variety of languages. It was a misuse of money that took years to eventually ‘disappear’.
A more expensive example was the introduction of the Learning Management and Business Reform, the famous LMBR that wasted well over $750 million tax payer’s money. Schools were pushed through probably the most incompetent and expensive reform I ever witnessed and it made no secret of its purpose, to replace the existing finance, human resources, payroll and student administration systems that had emerged across the state’s 2208 public schools; this lust for control from the top has preoccupied the department since 2006.
The decisive move to take an active role in the education portfolio coincided with the developing practice where the Minister appointed their Departmental Head, their Secretary. The qualities of that appointment was not necessarily or not even preferably from the education field. Candidates impressed the Minister with their administrative abilities. Successful Secretaries are not thoughtless, they understood if you want the job and want to keep the job you serve the Minister above all others. The most convenient way to impress the Minister was embedded in all the trappings of the MBA, cost-based approach, more bang for the bucks and appeal to the ‘market’; this is music to any politician’s ears.
As the Secretary owed their position to the Minister it was not long before the Senior Executive were appointed by the Secretary and the same loyalty to those above is mandatory. In theory, these positions are designed to be the link between the classroom and the leadership. They are specialty portfolios where they apply their ‘administration’ techniques, directly to those below and report how those orders are implemented to those above.
As a result of this insulated approach to senior management, exchanges between these levels of the Department became an echo chamber with each reinforcing the beliefs of the other. They are almost completely unaware of the problems at the school level.
In the study of top down leadership by Sidney Yoshida entitled ‘The Iceberg of Ignorance’ he concluded that:
Front line workers knew 100% of the problems they faced
Supervisors were aware of only 74%
Middle managers were aware of just 9%
Executives were only aware of 4% of the problems
Like a lot of these studies, the actual percentages are arbitrary but they do provide a metaphor that describe the executives’ severely limited understanding of what is wrong within the company. This incompetence is easily applied to the Department of Education.
In reality, the Minister is completely in the hands of the Secretary and the Senior Executive. The Secretary soon ‘educates’ the Minister drawing on their 4% of what they know about the problems and before long the Minister becomes an ‘expert’ believing they understand the prepared speeches they read at conferences and in the parliament.
In more recent times, when problems become too obvious to ignore a new and increasing phenomena has been appropriated and that is the use of professional consultancy firms
This brings us to the last desperate effort of the leadership to solve the problems caused by their top down approach and ironically that is to go up to the world of consultancy.
Millions of public-school funding is now being gifted by the NSW Department of Education to high cost global consultancy firms such as KPMG, PwC, McKinseys, BCG and others. As the Department uses the top-down approach to management, the use of consultants that sit atop of the Minister and Secretary; puts these firms one more step further away from the problem. Yet, despite having no prior knowledge about schools they fabricate the most sophisticated analytical tools to investigate any problem. In reality their investigations are directed by what they know and that is less than the 4% understood by the Secretary. The fact that they are one step further away from the problem doesn’t seem to matter, they create glossy reports, produce fancy graphs and come to conclusions palatable to the Department leadership.
In the current situation it is obvious what they, the leadership are doing is not working. Unfortunately, those at the top have no insight about the cause of this failure. They conclude that failure is not in their planning but in the implementation of those plans by the schools and teachers, it is the teachers’ fault. To address what they believe is perceived ‘failure’ bureaucrats have initiated a two-pronged attack to make the them succeed, to get their solution to work. They have introduced compulsory training particularly in more focused administration and compliance checking of all teachers to make sure they are implementing the dictated solutions. This has resulted in a substantial increase on the demands on teachers’ time, the very thing that has pushed the teacher’s real professionalism and loyalty over the edge. With no sense of introspection or irony the current ‘solution’ is to focus on leadership training for all teachers. They conclude that if the teachers are like them then their problems will be solved.
The sad thing is the answers to our problems lie at the chalkface, with the teachers and their students. Teachers see problems first and, if their professional training and experience is trusted they apply solutions and if those solutions don’t work they can be quickly discarded and another approach tried until something works. This emergence of an organisation is how evolution works, what we currently have is ‘intelligent design’ an approach that embraces theory based on unsubstantiated beliefs requires blind faith. Schools need more than this.
Achieving Excellence as a Teacher - Staying the Distance.
We are currently in a crisis in public education. Recent numbers from the Bureau of Statistics suggests 53% of people who hold a teaching degree do not currently work in education. It is becoming more and more obvious that all the energy and enthusiasm beginning teachers brought to each school is quickly extinguished when the reality of the Department’s obsession with teacher accountability crushes their passion. It has been estimated that 40% of graduates quit in the first five years, not to mention the growing numbers of experienced teachers walking away from their jobs.
‘In the good old days’ new teachers did get informal mentoring from more experienced colleagues. They had time to absorb the life in a school. The whole-school relationships, so crucial in connecting to students was extended across all the schools’ personnel. The school you were appointed to was already a community and you were welcomed in and supported without any ‘documented’ - forced support. Now, with the advent of Professional Teaching Standards in 2011, all teachers, including those with extensive experience are burdened with administrative tasks that achieve nothing more that satisfy some framework that is supposed to verify their professionalism. In reality, this is only busy work and the outcome does nothing more meaningful than some official recognition that the has teacher turned up.
The down-side is that these experienced teachers have no time or energy to really support their beginning colleagues. To survive those first years requires a personal investment to defeat those artificial obstacles erected by our leaders. If you can do that you can still find the absolute joy that comes with teaching.
Most teachers have chosen their careers for good reasons, they want to teach but like all skills some possess more natural talent but that does not define anyone’s career. To become a good teacher requires you to want to become a good teacher, it’s a mindset.
Carol Dweck Psychologist from Stanford University, author of ‘Every Student Has Something to Teach Me’ emphasises the importance of a teacher’s mindset.
For a start, don’t think your present skill set is fixed for all time, too many people think one or all of the following:
The type of teacher someone is, is predetermined, it cannot be changed, it is permanent
Teachers can change the way they teach in the classroom, but they can’t really change their true teaching ability
Some teachers will be ineffective no matter how hard they try to improve
If you have these types of beliefs you will inevitably become discouraged. Instead of looking for ways to improve you will believeyou’re not good enough! Unfortunately, if this is you, you try to hide this perceived failure by avoiding opportunities to learn from others or observe examples of good practice. In today’s climate, you will be ignored and destined to fail yourself and the children in your care.
This attitude reflects those of students who experience toxic shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame - 18 August 2020). The attitude of these kids is that when things go wrong it’s not that they made a mistake it is because they feel they are a mistake. This leads them to adopt a series of faulty beliefs that they articulate through their self-talk (see Newsletter Faulty Beliefs – 6 April 2020). For these teachers who think they are not ‘good enough’ their self-talk will be something like:
I’d be able to do this easily if I was a good teacher
I’ll never be as good as that teacher
I’ll never be able to get these students to learn this
If I take a risk and it doesn’t work out, I’ll lose your status/control/respect
You see, I took a risk and failed; don’t ever try that again. I’ll stick to what I know
Why not face the facts; I’m just cut out for this
Imagine if, in their pretraining and workplace T&D they were taught the following set of beliefs:
No matter how much natural ability you will always find ways to improve
Every teacher, no matter how good they are can significantly improve
The rewards of trying new teaching methods far outweighs the risk of making a mistake
It’s good to discuss my difficulties with others so I can learn from them
We can all become better teachers if we display our humility instead of defending our reputation. No one’s perfect, no lesson is perfect that’s because teachers and students are people so be honest with yourself! When the kids see you wanting to learn you are modelling the very behaviour you want them to adopt.
In the last Newsletter (Just Say No – Not So Easy - 19 July 2021) I outlined the difficulty in getting the time to carry-out all the demands placed on teachers and I suggested that you should prioritise the tasks you really do need to complete. On top of this list is the work you do for your students, in the classroom, preparation, assessment, etc. After this I would aim for continually improving of my teaching skills. To do this you need to:
Take every opportunity to engage in appropriate T&D, read more professional literature, and constantly be on the lookout for new ideas and teaching techniques.
Observe other teachers, in my early career I identified an outstanding teacher, Neil Gower and he became my mentor without knowing it. I watched him every chance I got. He was always willing to share his knowledge with me and anyone else. Knowing Neil, he would not have been a fan of the prescribed mentoring that really misses that relational connection, he was a practitioner!
Confront your problems head-on and ask for help. This is a sign of strength not weakness!
As I stated at the beginning of this Newsletter, too many of our young teachers are leaving, driven out by the meaningless bureaucracy and tedious administration demands and I suspect the decision to leave has been made more easily because they don’t understand that teaching is not easy, sure some find it easier than others but ask any experienced teacher about their first years and they will recount the levels of exhaustion they experienced at the end of every day.
So, you have a choice, even when you are overwhelmed remind yourself, if you want to succeed you will have to make an effort. It’s hard but doable and even though you will never be perfect some days, in some lessons, with some kids you will experience a joy and satisfaction that money can’t buy. Remember, when this happens, and it will if you keep going, you have earned that moment and no bureaucrat can take that away from you! And, for a bonus that kid or those kids will share in that victory!
Political Bias Associated with the ABC Current Affairs Program - The Drum
I have recently become more and more disgruntled regarding what I perceived as being a blatant right-wing bias in the selection of panellist for the current affairs ABC evening show the Drum. To eliminate any confirmation bias on my part I went back over past episodes and assigned participants to various groupings. The distribution of the 144 panelists is shown below:
The number of participants with direct political affiliations was 22. These are:
Stephen O’Doherty - Liberal
Stephen O'Doherty - Liberal
Kathryn Greiner - Liberal
Katrina Hodgkinson- National
Kerry Chikarovski - Liberal
Wendy Machin- National
Brigid Meney - Liberal
Craig Chung Liberal
Craig Chung - Liberal
Jackie Kelly - Liberal
Ewen Jones - Liberal
Kathryn Greiner - Liberal
Kate Carnell - Liberal
Jacqui Munro - Liberal
Adrian Piccoli -National
Kerry Chikarovski- Liberal
Kerry Chikarovski - Liberal
Stephen O’Doherty- Liberal
Alexander Downer - Liberal
Kate Carnell - Liberal
Emma Husar - Labor
John Pesutto - Liberal
This leads to the following distribution:
The ‘one’ ex-Labor affiliate was Emma Husar who left the party after on-going issues between Ms Husar and that party and this was the reason for her participation. I make no judgement about the incidents that lead to her resignation but find it uncomfortable that she was the only representative of the second most dominant political party to be invited as a panelist. In effect, there is mu labor representation on this show!
The Greens had no representation!
I contacted the ABC complaints department on Thursday, 8 July and they have assured me they have passed this on for examination. I informed them I would wait until Monday before I went public with my findings. To my dismay they had the Liberal John Pesutto on the Friday and Adrian Piccoli from the Nationals on the Monday. Pesutto’s appearance meant that there were seven Liberals in the last ten episodes and Piccoli made that eight consecutive representations of coalition affiliates. This is hardly a concession about my concerns.
I believe the evidence cited above provides evidence that this show is little more than a vehicle for the coalition government and does not fulfil the mandate of our ABC.
At the heart of any community is the acceptance and tolerance of all members in that society. Therefore, the best start we can give our emerging citizens is an educational setting where children from all experiences and socio-economic levels attend as equals. This by definition is in a local comprehensive public school. The failure to address the current calamity that is testing the federal government comes from the fact that 70% of the male Ministers in cabinet attended private schools and the Prime Minister went to an all-boys, selective school. They were educated in an environment that lacked contact with children from circumstances of which they have no experience, they are raised in a mono-culture.
Mono-Cultures have long been known to have an adverse effect on the production of food. Although the economic advantage is obvious, planting, harvesting and packaging are relatively uniform resulting in increased profit margins that benefit the few. However, there is a cost to the health of the plants and the surrounding environment.
The continual use of one type of species means there is a concentration of the nutrients extracted from the soil and this needs to be replaced by specific fertiliser that is sourced from another area. Further, the practice of mono-culture farming leads to mutation of the plants with a reduction of resistance to any disease that is encountered.
The practice on mono-culture farming is perhaps more disturbing when we consider it’s practice in the farming of livestock. Of course, there is the same economic rationality: specialisation leads to profit maximisation but like the species concentration in plants, animals suffer from lack of diversity. Studies have shown that the use of a specific genetic strain in a bovine population leads to a decrease in the fertility of the herd, a reduction in the resistance to disease and a loss in vitality.
The extreme catastrophe of this in-breeding is seen in the world of dog shows. Breeders have selected pairs of dogs that are closely match up with the view of getting a more exaggerated physical character that is admired, especially by the judges. The most tragic case is in the breeding of the British Bulldog. These poor dogs are now so disformed they live in continual discomfort struggling to breath, susceptible to disease and are depressed. The deformity is so pronounced that bulldogs bred for showing can only give birth via caesarean section, their head is so large it won’t fit down the birth canal!
So, what is the point of this information? I will argue that the lessons from the natural world do apply to our social world and this mono-culture approach to the nurturing of our children particularly with regards to schooling.
Just like any biosphere the step-by-step brain development of any child depends on the environment in which it is raised. We develop our behaviours by addressing the problems we confront in ways that satisfy our sense of belonging within that environment. If I attend a ‘selective’ school of any kind I will be limited to the culture of that school.
It’s not hard to appreciate that, if I attend a wealthy boy’s school, one that has the best facilities, an ‘inbred’ culture that has evolved over many years I would develop the behaviours that reflect those values.
The first public recognition of the toxic masculinity of these schools was seen on the ‘4 Corners’ 2020-episode exposure of the hyper-masculinity of the boys from St Kevin’s school in Melbourne. Despite attempts to downplay this as a one-off incident, the activities of an ex- Kambala School student, Chanel Cantos has revealed otherwise. Ms Cantos sent out a partition asking for girls that had experienced forms of sexual harassment and rape. She was overwhelmed by the response with over 100 testimonies indicating that a significant number of boys from the Sydney elite schools had little or no respect for the girls.
I would argue that these boys had their ethics and character nurtured in a culture that lacked healthy exposure to girls in their formative years and as a result, they never developed the neural pathways that lead to a healthy respect for girls.
This is the most sensational example of the destructive effect mono-culture schools have on the boy’s social development. Attending such a school encourages this sort of behaviour and so impressionable adolescents conform to the presenting social norms to belong.
However, this is not the only example. Another issue is the presence of schools with a religious bias. Around the middle of the last century I attended a public school. I had heard about a nearby Catholic School but had no idea what that meant. They were ‘different’ to me and as I found out later ‘they’ had the same opinion about us. One weekend with my mates I came across a group of these ‘cathos’ and to all our surprise we were very much the same. However, the identification of a group as being ‘other’ of the foundation of prejudice. The student within that religious school will think of public schools as others and public-school kids think of, say Muslim kids as others. The creation of ‘others’ has fuelled the major atrocities throughout history with an extreme example being the holocaust perpetrated in during the Second World War!
It is human nature to want to be better that ‘others’ and when children are separated on religious grounds it will be because the parents see their religious norms as being better that those outside that religion; this creation of a mono-culture at a school weakens the student’s ability to socially integrate with their whole society. I expect there will be a strong protest about that statement but what else can happen!
These same arguments can be easily applied to the creation of selective schools for ‘gifted’ students just as they can for ‘special schools’ for the ‘disabled’. Whenever you create a school culture that identifies those outside that school as ‘others’, as being different you depreciate the social health of both the child that attends that school and the ‘other’ and that has huge life-long consequences.
So, why are these schools still in existence and growing? Why do our governments continue to fund, at ever increasing levels these schools? Well its not to get a better learning outcome! In January, Trevor Cobbold of the Save our Schools organisation demonstrated that these elite schools do no better than the less wealthy public schools in the NAPLAN tests when socio-economic factors are included. There is no logical answer for the existence of a type of school other than the comprehensive community public school where the whole complex human diversity resides and as the World Health Organisation concludes regarding nature, this exposure to diversity is the foundation of a healthy and strong society!
In the current political climate there is no doubt that prejudice is driving the divide in our communities! This should not be tolerated, especially in our multicultural public schools. Teachers know that bigotry and intolerance is not a natural quality, our kids are not born with these characteristics, they learn them. This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.
The basic feature of prejudice is a judgemental attitude towards others based on their ‘group’. Usually, this is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider to be inferior. Conversely but not as frequently, there are situations where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us. The origin of this outlook, this ‘us and them’ mind-set is not inevitable, but it does have its beginnings in our evolutionary journey.
Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain. This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning. These skills helped keep each tribal group bonded. We became a social species, a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups united.
The primary benefit of this group cohesion was to provide safety against animals, collecting of food, etc. continued until we were relatively secure in nature then a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other, competing tribes. During this phase of evolution groups developed the practice of ‘stealing’ food, land and sexual partners from neighbouring tribes. Now it became a matter of us finding safety in our group and those ‘others’ were a dangerous threat to us all! This enemy was now a genuine threat to our survival, so we quickly learned how identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’, who was good and who was bad!
The emergent reliance on social cohesion resulted in neural alterations in the brain’s emerging limbic system. The subsequent functions, such as the ability to interpret emotions in others, attachment, those social skills that allowed us to identify the motives of others supported our attempts to survive and thrive. Successful cooperation led to an increase in the group’s productivity and social security. The ability to belong in our group depended on our compliance to the social norms and these needed to be learned.
This social association meant loyalty to our kinfolk which led to the rejection of other tribes. We learned to critically scrutinise others’ behaviours and reject any differences. The cognitive mechanics of this acrimony began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat. When we detected difference in others ‘alarm bells’ sounded in our brains and we had to alleviate the resulting stress.
Research has shown that when people are thinking in a prejudicial manner the amygdala lights-up, it is activated. This associated effect was first observed in an experiment where white men in the US were shown a range of pictures of other faces. Their amygdala was more active when pictures of black, Afro-Americans appeared indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response. Further examination revealed the same anxious response has been shown when faces of other ethnic groups, aggressive women or even opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think as ‘other’.
The broad result is disturbing in that we view others, including everyone that is like the ‘other’ as being different from us and possessing the same menacing threat. For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals. However, if you see a white man of a similar age, and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’! We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction.
This prejudice has an impact on health. Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress. The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging. Rejection, a social assault results in the same parts of the brain ‘lighting up’ as happens when physically attacked! The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.
So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps, in the first instance it provided an evolutionary advantage but this is no longer the case.
On an individual basis the brain develops over time. The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth. This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment. It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not instinctively respond to differences in race, gender or class. In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends. Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.
However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured dropped this inclination towards social diversity. This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens. It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also constructs the need to discriminate in a micro sense. This means, to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of those in the out-group.
This is the period of the evolving teenage brain. From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations. You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you. The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way. However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger. The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us. This confirms that prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!
The good news is we can unlearn prejudice. We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:
Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm
Developing quota for positions of power.
There have been attempts to do this and with great success. France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal. A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved. There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!
The real driving factor for change is role models. This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics. Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape. In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol. Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.
I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point in regards to Adam Goodes, he made the ‘mistake’ of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out! The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!
The threat that is presented by these outstanding ‘others’ drives the racial backlash witnessed in the last days of the Trump Administration, these demonstrators such as the ‘Proud Boys’ were driven by the emotions of their brain that was responding to their ‘education’!
Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter? Remember, our focus is on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment. The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families. They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream, they are rejected. However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances that reflect their qualities. They are driven to behave that way because of their life long rejection. The acceptance by their group means they now have the security of belonging. To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group. They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees. Within their group they finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them.
If we want to eradicate this ugly side of modern society we should look at how or school system reflects our ‘values’. While ever we support elite private schools, religious and public selective schools which all reinforce social prejudice, we are creating an exclusive culture that must view public, comprehensive schools, that serve the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior. We have the breeding ground of prejudice! This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament who encourage this difference through their financial support. Sadly, both major parties must take responsibility for this.
There is no doubt that prejudice exists and it should not be tolerated. This is especially true in our multicultural public schools. Teachers being more mature, educated and socially aware should not suffer from prejudice however, that process of developing those ‘refined’ characteristics can lead to an unconscious form of intolerance. This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.
The basic feature of prejudice is a judgemental attitude towards others based on their ‘group’. Usually, this is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider inferior. Conversely, there are situations where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us. The origin of this disposition, this ‘us and them’ mind-set is a result of our evolution.
Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain. This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning. This coincided with the time we became a social species a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups bonded.
The primary advantage of safety against animals, collection of food, etc. continued until we were relatively secure in nature then a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other tribes. We developed the practice of taking food, land and sexual partners from neighbouring tribes. It now became a matter of us being safe in our group and those ‘others’ were dangerous. As this was now a genuine matter of survival we learned to quickly identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’
The resulting social change caused cognitive alterations in the brain’s emerging limbic system. The resultant functions such as the ability to interpret emotions in others, attachment, those social skills allowed us to survive and thrive. This cooperation led to an increase in productivity and social security. The ability to belong in our group depended on our compliance to the social norms. This had another effect, this loyalty to the tribe resulted in the rejection of the other tribes. We learned to critically examine others’ behaviours and reject any differences. The cognitive mechanics of this animosity began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat. When we saw the difference in others, alarm bells sounded in our brains and we had to deal with the results.
Research has shown that when people think in a prejudice manner the amygdala lights-up, that is, it is activated. This reaction was first observed when white men in the US were shown pictures of other faces. Their amygdala was more active when shown pictures of black, Afro-Americans indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response. However, the same anxious response has been shown when faces of other races, aggressive women or opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think is ‘other’.
The broad result is that we view others as being different from us but those ‘others’ are all the same. For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals. However, if you see a white man of a similar age and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’! We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction.
This prejudice has an impact on health. Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress. The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging. Rejection, a social assault results in the same parts of the brain ‘lighting up’ as happens when physically attacked!
So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps, in the first instance it was but this is not the case now. The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.
On an individual basis the brain develops over time. The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth. This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment. It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not respond to differences in race, gender or class. In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends. Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.
However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured, dropped this inclination towards social diversity. This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens. It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also drives this need to discriminate in a micro sense. This meant to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of the out-group.
This is the period of the evolving teenage brain. From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations. You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you. The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way. However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley, at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger. The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us. This means prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!
The good news is we can unlearn prejudice. We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:
Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm
Developing quota for positions of power. There have been attempts to do this and with great success. France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal. A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved. There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!
The real driving factor for change is role models. This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics. Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape. In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol. Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.
In his last years playing football Adam Goodes was, in every game he played booed whenever he got the ball. Some commentators said this was not racism, it was just that the crowd didn’t like the way he played and that other aboriginal players were not booed. A common reason given was that he ‘called out’ a young girl who described him as an ape. The next day Goodes explained he did not blame the girl and she needed to be supported. He called out the behaviour she had ‘learned’ from an adult. Despite this the apologists kept referring this as him attacking the girl!
I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point, Adam Goodes made the mistake of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out! The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!
Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter? Well we focus on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment. The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families. They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream.
However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances. Exploited on the basis of their life long rejection. They are finally convinced they now have the security of belonging. To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group. They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees. They finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them. All too often this was their school!
If we want to really support these kids all Australians should look at how their own values are reflected in the schools they support. Elite private schools, religious and public selective schools all reinforce social prejudice. They view the public, comprehensive school that serves the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior. This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament, sadly both major parties must take responsibility for this.
As teachers, we have to check our own preferences in where we want to work being sure that a desire to teach in these needed schools does not expose your own belief that some kids are ‘better than’ and it follows, others are not.
This document provides further comments regarding the new Student Behaviour Strategy. This is a result of being exposed to the ‘Telethon Kids Institute’s Strengthening school and system capacity to implement effective interventions to support student behaviour and wellbeing in NSW public schools: An evidence review’ which it is assumed underpinned the proposed Behaviour Strategy. (Even the title of this review is problematic and would suggest it has been written by a committee.)
I would like to make the following observations that may assist your review of the feedback you have sought.
This report is quite extensive and a very thorough synopsis of what evidence is currently available. As stated it is created “from three sources of evidence: 1) NSW educators’ current practice, capacity and context perspectives and experiences (focus group and interview consultations); 2) Existing international and national policy and practice (Think Tank with experts); and 3) Robust peer-reviewed published evidence describing student behaviour interventions and system-level implementation supports (review of empirical literature).” However, my comment is that, although very concise it produces no new evidence that has not been available in the numerous reports that have preceded it. Further, it is so densely presented it is useless for the average classroom teacher or for that matter school executive considering the well documented evidence of a work-force in crisis over the vocational demands they face. As a retired principal and long-time researcher of student behaviour I found it to be challenging despite my interest and lack of relative time demands.
I will make my criticisms is general terms.
Evidence Based Practice
Most research into behaviour management is carried out on a case-based manner, that is, the context is between individual students and the teacher. Classrooms are not equipped to implement most findings as the teacher is:
Not properly trained to do this
Responsible for up to 29 other students who are entitled to their attention
Tasked with delivering a set curriculum programmed to be provided in the time allocated
Evidence based practice is a well-worn cliché that appears in a succession of documents and of course should be the foundations of all practice. However, when you examine closely the ‘evidence’ it becomes more obscure. The reasons for this are:
Most evidence is a result of self-reporting, by the student or teacher and this is particularly problematic.
Observational evidence is also uncertain as findings are often limited to the ‘check-sheet’ provided
I have rarely, if ever seen a study that has a hypothesis and therefore a null hypothesis where results are compared to a control group.
The use of Expert Advisory Groups and the Think Tank participants is a problem. Not that they are not all eminently qualified for their professional work, that work is not in the classroom dealing with one or more severely disruptive students while trying to fulfil their professional ‘teaching’ duties; this results in a top-down attitude which disempowers teachers. This perceived lack of relevance on the teachers’ behalf diminishes any enthusiasm for the adoption of the program.
Use of commercial programs is also of limited value. There has been a succession of these programs the latest being based on positive psychology. All of these are of some use but:
They fail to deal with students with severe behaviours; the PBL resource acknowledges this limitation. But it is these very dysfunctional students who are beyond the skill set these programs are providing teachers
Schools who adopt these programs require a substantial investment of time to develop their practice
Staff transfers quickly dilute the whole-school approach unless the training is an annual event
Finally, trauma informed practice is another well-worn cliché but this has more dangerous implications. Of course, it is important that teachers understand the problems students who have suffered trauma face. However, the diagnosis of trauma covers a wide range of disorders and it is really the role of mental health professionals to deal with these issues. It is extremely dangerous for non-professionals to embark on any therapeutic interventions both for the child and the teacher. Instead of being encouraged teachers should be warned about the dangers of embarking on such activities.
My belief is that it is the teacher’s task to provide an environment that minimises the triggers that would initiate a ‘traumatic response’. This is achieved by providing structure and strong expectations delivered through a professional supportive relationship between the teacher and the students. This is where teacher training should be focused.
Lifting educational outcomes through early intervention and targeted support.
The following is a submission regarding the proposed new strategy to deal with student behaviour in public schools.
This current proposal is one of successive attempts to deal with severely disruptive student behaviour in schools. Historically all have failed and, despite the best intentions nothing in this new proposal indicates that this undertaking will be any different. The impediment to success has always been the failure to deal with children at the severe end of the behaviour spectrum. Within all previous and projected behaviour strategies there is an implied but mistaken belief that these children have the ability to self-regulate their behaviour. Until it is accepted that these children are as physically and psychologically disabled as those born with or acquired an impairment from an injury, they will not receive the attention they deserve.
These children suffer from a range of mental health and social issues that are beyond the capacity of a teacher to manage. A significant number have diagnosed illness including autism but the vast majority of those who ‘act out’ in class will attract the finding of conduct disorder or oppositional defiance; which is the consequence of early childhood abuse and/or neglect. The impact of these physical insults on the structural development of their brain is well documented with significant reductions in neurologic size in crucial areas. These include the cerebellum, amygdala, hippocampus and frontal lobes. This interferes with their ability to modulate their moods and make calm decisions.
The following features should be considered:
It is estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD resulting from childhood trauma and in some areas, the proportion can be up to 26%.
Students suffering other mental illnesses have behaviours that contribute significantly to this problem.
The distribution of the students who present the associated behaviours is irregular but closely related to socioeconomic conditions in the community.
Interventions based on cognitive approaches are marginally successful. A more appropriate approach is the provision of highly structured environments with an elevated level of personal support (healthy relationships).
Consequences do not need to be severe but they do need to be consistent and persistent to allow the students to regain a sense of personal control.
Successful interventions to assist students who exhibit these severe behaviours are never short term. Change is difficult and time consuming but it can be achieved.
The community, represented by the department should understand that these behaviours are a result of abuse and/or neglect that has been inflicted on them when they were defenceless. There is a moral and ethical imperative to really address this problem.
At the heart of this policy is the desire to provide equity for all students in the schools. It has been identified by leading educator Professor John Hattie that the absence of students with severe behaviours and the climate of the classroom are the second and third leading cause of improved learning outcomes; the first the student’s ability to self-evaluate. This means that the presence of these students put all other students at a disadvantage and this must also be considered a failure to provide equity. That is, students in a class where one or more of these students attend are at a disadvantage to those who are in classes without such students.
Research conducted on the impact distractions can have on intellectual performance ranges from 13 – 14 IQ points based on the Raven’s Scale. This research considered economic scarcity nonetheless the distraction caused by the presence of threatening classmates would in all probability increase this loss. The impact of such an intellectual performance deficit would take a student with a superior IQ to perform at an average level and those with an average level to achieve at a borderline deficit level. This finding explains Hattie’s conclusions.
The statement “Under the new policy framework, teachers and school staff will be required to consider the impact of a student’s disability and uphold the student’s right to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students” covers the equity considerations of the disabled child. However, and this is an area the department could find themselves vulnerable to litigation, any child who is in a classroom where there is a child with severe behaviours is, based on Hattie’s work and common understanding not able to get the same educational opportunity as students who are in classrooms without behaviour problems. Equity is for every student.
This does not mean the focus is off these disruptive students, as stated above they have a real disability and should be provided with the same support as is provided for all disabilities. A student who has a profound physical disability is provided with all the support they need. This allocation of support should be commensurate for students with severe behaviours.
The emphasis on the use of suspension as a method to manage severe behaviour is also predictable and destined to only exacerbate the problem for schools unless there are some real changes to the training and resources available to implement an alternate negative consequence for severe behaviours.
Schools do not suspend as a first and only resort. In a previous submission made, on behalf of the Secondary Principals Association it was concluded that it takes on average 3.2 hours to complete the suspension cycle. It was also determined that actual suspensions only made 14% of all behaviour management work carried out by a senior executive in a secondary school. Based on suspension details from one district, the then Western District would require 124.7 hours per week just to deal with student welfare issues. This equates to more than three executives doing a 40-hour week just addressing this problem. With the acknowledged substantial increase in the workload in recent years it is clear no school can provide adequate support for behaviour issues and suspension is the only alternative.
Any attempt to reduce the availability of what is effectively the only consequence schools can deliver for physical and psychologically dangerous behaviours will be met with resentment by schools and teaching staff who are already working in an environment consistently described as fulfilling unmanageable demands.
There is no doubt that this process is undertaken will ethical and compassionate intentions and it is in the last two targets real change to the management of student behaviour could be achieved.
2. ‘Building capacity across the workforce through embedded and continuing professional
There needs to be a thorough review of training for behaviour management of teachers. The current reliance on ‘professional programs’ such as those based on the positive behaviour movement who, by their own admission does not deal with these severe behaviours is destined to fail. Also, the emergence of ‘trauma-informed’ approaches that are appearing in the literature are also inadequate. This is a welcome development however; any examination of these programs reveals not much that can be applied by the classroom teacher but is more relevant to improving therapeutic interventions by mental health professionals. Any ‘intervention’ must be one that a teacher can employ and if unable the disabled child should be given specialist support that allows them to function and their class mates continue their learning un-interrupted.
Schools including their teachers need training in how to manipulate the learning environment to minimise conditions that trigger out of control behaviour by these vulnerable students. This requires an understanding of providing structure and expectations in a setting built on professional, supportive student-teacher- school relationships. This is appropriate work for teachers; any intervention above this level moves into the domain of health professionals and teaching staff have no business in this area.
3. ‘Commissioning behaviour services to deliver improved outcomes’
From the statements made for proposed future directions it would seem that there is a push to outsource solutions to the problem of severe behaviour management. There are two issues about this approach:
There is a history of investigations into this problem both in NSW, throughout the country and across the world. Another expert enquiry would do little more than delay the inevitability of having to do something about this problem.
The idea schools can use the services of other government agencies has been advocated since the early 1990’s when terms like ‘seamless integration’ were used. This approach has never worked not the least because all public services do not have the flexibility to facilitate such an integration.
The use of ‘private providers’ is fraught with danger; invariably marketed behaviour management programs have a ‘one size fits all’ approach and to expect the same service to be successful across the vast diversity that is NSW schools is senseless. based on the lack of success in other privatised organisations this approach is not an option if real change is to be made.
The school, and by extension the department owns the problem and is obliged to provide the solution. The real remedy is to prioritise the problem at the school level by providing the training, resources and support that is demanded by their disability. These could/should include:
Advanced training in classroom management and the design of appropriate learning environments
Specialist staff to provide ‘in school time out’ on a case-by case basis
Access to mental health providers
Acknowledgement of the special skill set within the quality teacher’s standards
Special settings for students whose behaviour is extreme and where staff receive advanced training and professional mental health support to deal with these students
There is no doubt that the problems created by students with severe behaviours is amongst the greatest impediments to learning outcomes and there is no disputing that public schools have a disproportionate number of these students and they are not equally distributed across socio-economic regions. Therefore, it is accepted that public schools have to deal with the problem caused by these students and that is the loss of learning both their own and their classmates not to mention the psychological and sometimes physical abuse of other students and staff members.
Dealing with this problem is not only a health and safety issue it is a profound ethical issue that the members of this enquiry must face. It should not a problem that is ‘glossed over’ again.
Teachers just faced the most stressful conditions they have experienced, with the very swift transition from school based to on-line learning only to return to an environment that at any time could prove life threatening for them, their colleagues and students. In this Newsletter I will examine the real mechanics of stress, the abdication of the employer’s responsibility and the need to completely modify the current industrialised approach to providing public education.
Throughout these essays the underpinning message has been for the struggling students to succeed and we need to achieve two things:
Develop a sense of self that allows them to approach their learning with confidence
Provide an environment that does not attack the child’s sense of security and provides them the opportunity to succeed to their ability.
Although both conditions are required for teachers the responsibility to achieve them is not shared. In fact, it is the quality of the environment that determines the level of stress teachers have to deal with.
I just looked up workplace stress on Goggle I got 217,000,000 results (0.63 seconds), that is 217 million bits of advice. I have had a look a few of these and as I already understood they all had advice for you on how to deal with that stress. They were about looking after:
Your Health – diet, smoking, exercise, etc
Support Structures – reaching out to others, finding someone you can share your problems, etc.
Self-Management – take control, say ‘no’, manage your time, etc.
I read one list that advised you ‘become lord of your destiny’!
I remember a few years ago when the Department provided a substantial sum of money to ‘cure’ principals from their stress. All that happened was a consultant made a lot of money and we principals were really left with the understanding that, if we couldn’t cope it was our fault! But, that’s like telling someone who is about to be assaulted that if that was about to stress you it was your fault – no one would do that so why do they blame the teachers for their stress?
No one would argue that teaching is not a difficult job and no one gets through many days without being put into situations that generate stress. That stress comes from dealing with developing children. We soon learn that in most cases these are problems to deal with. Occasionally you would get a few kids that were really difficult and had to be dealt with. In recent years the numbers and the extreme expression of the dysfunctional behaviour has become more significant. For some schools the Government’s support for private schools has allowed concerned parents to take their students away from the public sector and their attempts to stem this drift has developed selective schools. The result has been the residualisation of the comprehensive school. On top of the kid’s behaviour you have to deal with their other kids’ diverse talents and disabilities not to mention their parents! Remember the presence these stressors are out of your control!
You can add to this increasing external environmental difficulty is the demands on you from the Department. In my almost fifty years in schools I witnessed the exponential growth in a teacher’s administrative responsibilities. Today there is a recognition of the excessive burden placed on the teacher and the increasing onus on teachers to provide evidence that they comply with these demands.
The diagram below is an attempt to illustrate the problem:
The amount of stress a teacher accumulates is a balance between the external demands placed on them by their employer and their ability to handle these demands! When the teacher’s resilience is equal to or greater than the external stressors the teacher will be able to function effectively. However, when these external stressors are greater than the teacher’s resilience then the teacher is suffering a type of abuse and will be required to use their cognitive energy to survive thus rendering them less effective!
Where does the responsibility lie to solve this problem? As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, look for any advice and almost exclusively it will place the obligation on the individual. Even the small support the Department provides is directed at helping teachers increase their resilience. A popular phrase used was to increase your capacity. This implies that if the teacher can not provide enough resilience to deal with the external demands then they are the problem, they failed because they were just not good enough!
This is faulty logic that suits the status quo, the same argument that is applied to meritocracy. It delivers equal demands to all workers and when some succeed, then not to do so means you are a failure; ‘if you have a go you will get a go’!
A significant result is that because few of us want to fail and even more admit to that failure we go back to school day after day using most of our cognitive energy just surviving, this is what I’m calling toxic resilience we appear to be coping when in reality we are not only suffering continual intellectual abuse we are not being able to teach to the best of our ability!
The Department consistently praises the teachers for their efforts but never ever take any responsibility for their side of the equation! In their WHS Policy they assert:
The department is committed to:
1.11 – providing everyone in its workplaces with a safe and healthy working and learning environment.
They are not complying to their own legislation.
For the first time since retirement I am pleased not to be at a school, I am sure I suffered from toxic resilience through many phases of my career and at my farewell I made the comment the job is now undoable. Today with the continued growth in demands and now being ordered to teach in a pandemic without the physical ability to provide the recommended conditions even the most resilient teacher would be lying if they claimed to have it all under control!
I have no advice that’s better than you can get readily on the internet but I think my approach to boundaries (see Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries - 31st July 2017) is as good as any. What needs to happen is the external demands are reduced to a level where all teachers can meet their directives and have the energy to then teach their students. Maybe its time to become ‘lord of our destiny’ and demand change. I can’t see how the Department is not breaking its own law and perhaps that’s where this problem will be solved!
During this stage of the COVIT-19 pandemic we have been forced out of the natural pattern of our normal life. The need to socially isolate is important and we all have to play our part if we are to get back to the things we love especially teaching the kids at your school. We are at the relative beginning of the lockdown and during the ‘holidays’ you may be feeling just a bit inconvenienced however, the experts are telling us this will go on for at least two weeks and may continue for months.
In anticipation of the worst scenario and given that, at this time we are still reasonably resilient it is time to get prepared so we get out at the other end intact.
If you don’t already you may start to experience restlessness and irritability. Little things become major issues especially in relationships. Things your spouse or the kids have always done that just annoy you can become appalling. The increase in your stress levels and the probability of considerable conflict are serious concerns for your mental health. Research has shown that having negative emotions increases the likelihood of getting a respiratory illness by 2.9 times. The evidence from China shows a three-times increase in domestic violence. This is not likely to happen but lessons from other times of crisis and the current over-seas experience should make us be prepared for the dangers. Don’t forget the video of the people fighting over toilet paper!
You may experience some of the common effects of isolation which are:
Sadness or depression
Lack of patience
Changes in weight
Inability to cope with stress
There are some actions we can take to get through this very difficult time. These are:
1.Have a Routine
Plan your day, what time you get up, meal times, work times and some time for fun. Structure gives us predictability and a sense of safety that makes us calm.
2. Don’t surf Television, social media or the net
Don’t just grab the remote and channel surf – it’s a sure way to compound your feeling of isolation and hopelessness. Use your Television and social media in a positive and constructive way. For example, plan an event such as watching a movie or a series, tell the other people in your house and invite them to join you. Maybe an introduction to the movie, like - why you chose it, who directed it what else have they done etc. A little research and some background to your shows will add value to the activity and enhance the viewing experience for yourself and others.
Plan your entertainment (reading, listening, viewing, streaming, etc.). Investing more in the process gives us more back by adding meaning to the things we do. Sometimes we need more than cotton wool for the brain.
Remember - the Television doesn’t have to be on. When the show is over, turn the Television off, turn it back on when there is something you know you want to watch.
3. Set Goals
Set out to achieve something each day. If you just lie about binging on TV shows the feeling of powerlessness is reinforced but when you achieve your goal, and it doesn’t have to be too challenging you get a feeling of achievement, you feel worthwhile.
4. Create ‘Zones’ in the House
Some will be working from home so have a designated place for work to be done. It could be the place the whole family uses, the kids for their school work if appropriate. Have other places for hobbies, socialising. The thing is when you move from one place to the other the change of location gives a small sense of being able to ‘move about’ something that has been taken from us.
The least you should do is get outside and if possible, go for a walk maintaining social distancing - if you have stairs even walking up and down those for a few minutes will help. If you have a sport or hobby take this time to work on your ‘skills’. Make this part of your routine. There are plenty of sites on the internet for appropriate exercises I found 522,000,000 results in 0.69 seconds when I typed in ‘exercise for golfers’ – the same numbers are there for most activities!
6.Use your Brain
It is easy to become passive consumers and pass the time on mindless past times. I am not suggesting that you don’t watch TV or participate in some video games but you do need to use your brain. Paradoxically you will become more mentally tired from not using your brain and invigorated when you do. Finish a cross word, read a book, write to friends, organise your photos, start-up a new hobby - there are plenty of things that will keep you occupied.
7. Look After Your Diet
With so much time on your hands and with the temptation of a quick snack it is easy to over indulge. Increased food consumption is a danger but with the extra time it is an opportunity to think about planning a better diet. Good health is linked to good eating habits and now might be a time to make that change.
Take control of your alcohol consumption, most of us enjoy a beer, a good wine or the occasional spirit but like food, with the increase in anxiety caused by the current situation and the amount of time you could have a drink it is too easy to take refuge in the bottle.
8. Maintain Your Relationships
Just as loved ones can annoy you the can make you feel special. Part of your daily plan should be to talk with the others in the house, your spouse and your kids. Talk about things you did in the past, holidays, any moments that were special to you (turn the TV off and put the phones away).
Have a ‘Formal Friday’ when you get dressed up and have a good meal, a favourite beverage with music in the back ground, it’s your night out for the week.
Don’t forget to stay in touch with friends and family while isolated. Make this part of your daily structure and plan to ring at least two people a day. It’s not a bad idea to ring someone you have not called for a while. It will give you a chance to catch-up and them a nice surprise.
9. Limit your exposure to news
Limit your daily news to two reliable, accurate sources only, access them twice a day and don’t google your day away going down various rabbit holes that will take you nowhere that you will gain personal growth understanding satisfaction or inner peace.
For some this period of time with the uncertainty and financial hardship may require special help. Never be afraid to reach out to professionals, your GP or go to any of the on-line services like Beyond Blue, Mental Health Australia Mental health Support Services, Lifeline or the many others available on line.
This Newsletter is a break from the recent theme that we have been following. This is because in the current climate with the development of COVID-19, schools have become a very difficult place to be. It is important to remember sustained elevated stress is a problem to our physical and psychological health.
We are very much at risk of being overcome by hysteria. Bad news travels fast and too many people are very willing to circulate false or sensational messages through social media. Children are particularly susceptible to this problem.
This is not to suggest COVID-19 is psychological, it is most definitely not and there is real need to be anxious. The thing is not to let your anxiety morph into fear and impair your ability to make good decisions.
The very definition of mass hysteria is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness; that is, they are unable to make logical conclusions. With the confused information distributed by the government, some states closing schools, others not but telling parents to keep their kids home. This along with the saturated news coverage and the access to unreliable social media posts, the potential for hysteria to emerge is real.
So, what to do? Stress is a reaction to internal or external threats (see Newsletters ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017 and ‘Anxiety’ – 24th July 2017 for a detailed description) and this is what drives behaviour. It is a critical factor that is often not understood and that is when you are stressed you will make behavioural decisions from the part of your brain that is connected to the threat. In this case it will be the emotional brain and in adults this part of the ‘thinking process’ is hardly cognitive. We cling to hope and in our emotional/social brain we go to the immediate community for help. This is a time when we need to go to the experts for assistance.
Dealing with stress is extremely difficult when you are under attack and today you’re being threatened by a disease, a loss of so much social support and really being told to work in what others are calling a dangerous environment. The advice to ‘just stay calm’ underrates the immense pressure you are being asked to work in.
Throughout our work we have talked about stress and the need for our difficult kids to control this. Now it’s time for us all to apply those techniques to this situation. This is by applying boundaries between yourself and the presenting problem (see Newsletter ‘Boundary Considerations’ – 31st July 2017). The steps are:
1. Stay Calm
I know this is difficult but it is very important. Take a few deep breaths, count to ten or even repeat this deep breathing for a minute. You can take the edge off your anxiety if you do this.
2. Ask the Questions
What is Really Happening?
In this instance we are being threatened by an epidemic that has real potential to alter our lives; realistically it already has. But, we must keep this in perspective. The Corona Virus-19 is one of a series of Corona Viruses. So far most will have slight symptoms and those who get ill will survive. The most at risk are the elderly and those who are immunocompromised; that is are having treatment for aides, cancer or other medical condition.
Who is Responsible?
Really at this stage it is pointless to blame anyone however, when we get through this it is prudent we assess the performance of those who have been in charge of the community response.
What Do I Want to Happen in the Long-Term?
This is the critical question and I’m sure we would all like things to return to normal. Maybe that will never happen, maybe this will make us re-think our selfish attitudes and become a more compassionate society. However, the immediate task is to follow the advice from the experts. This is available from reliable sources and remember whenever you start to feel overwhelmed apply these boundary questions to remain calm and logical – it’s our best chance.
Marcia and I wish you all the best in these uncertain times. Look after yourself and as always be the person you want your kids to become.
The focus of our work is to help teachers and schools deal with students who disrupt lessons. For as long as I can remember this has always been the number one issue identified in surveys about teacher concerns. However, recently the unreasonable non-educational work load placed on teachers has become equally stressful. This doesn’t mean the problem of students with dysfunctional behaviour is no longer a problem, it is just that the increased work load has added to the pressure felt by teachers.
It would be fair to say that there is little acknowledgement of the problem created by these students despite the overwhelming evidence that their presence has a significant effect on the teacher’s ability to deliver quality lessons and the classmates of these children ability to learn.
Addressing this problem is at the heart of all our work and to date we have provided over 100 Newsletters that point out the causes of these poor behaviours and describe techniques to help, not only the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom but also assist these students develop new ways to get their needs met.
Recently, the latest PISA results were released and like clock-work the politicians and shock jocks were on the band wagon criticising teachers and pontificating their solution to this ‘failing’ – predictably BACK TO BASICS! I have always been critical of this test and our local NAPLAN equivalent. There are lots of reasons these tests are flawed. NAPLAN, for instance is supposed to be a ‘snap shot’ look at the student’s progress without any special preparation. Anyone who thinks those conditions hold today is naïve. Some schools spend much of their time preparing for the test and concerned parents send their children to ‘special’ tutoring to ensure they ‘pass’. There are many other ways to manipulate these figures.
However, Trevor Cobbold, the National Convenor of Save our Schools has examined the latest findings by the OECD about the results and I will quote extensively from his analysis of the apparent failing of our kids. It is evident our students do not try in the test because they have become disenchanted with our school system! Trevor highlights three main causes.
“First, the high and differing proportions of students not fully trying across countries has explosive implications for the reliability of international comparisons based on PISA and that country rankings cannot be trusted. A research study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research last year shows that even with modest but differing proportions of students between countries not fully trying can cause large changes in PISA rankings.
Second, other new data released by the OECD shows a large increase between 2003 and 2018 in the proportion of students in Australia who are dissatisfied with school. This may have led to increasing proportions not fully trying and therefore may be a factor behind Australia’s declining results.
Third, high proportions of students not trying on PISA may also explain, at least in part, the contradiction between Australia’s declining PISA results (for mostly Year 10 students) and improving Year 12 results. PISA has no consequences for students – they don’t even get their own results – so many might not be bothered to fully try. In contrast, Year 12 results matter for future careers and life changes so there is a greater incentive to try hard. The significant improvements in Year 12 results are an indication of an improving education system, not a deteriorating one”.
This increase in Year 12 is encouraging but for our students it is meaningless because by the time they reach 17 years old, if not before poorly behaving students are out of the system. However, it does recognise that teachers are doing their job and instead of being criticised they should be supported to deal with the problems in the lower Years where these behaviour problems exist.
As I pointed out above, dealing with students with severe behaviours is at the heart of our work. It would be encouraging if Universities really dealt with this issue and prepared their trainee teachers in techniques to deal with dysfunctional behaviour. Looking through the courses offered by Universities and talking with new graduates it is evident that they are ill-prepared to take on a tough class.
As 2019 comes to an end it’s time to reflect on the year that was. From our position the year had mixed results. The amount of work we have done in schools and elsewhere has slowly increased and we have plans to build-up that support in 2020. As mentioned the number of Newsletters has passed the 100 mark and I have completed my next book, ‘Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ and it has been picked up by an international publishing company based in London and New York thus providing us with another way to provide support.
Since ‘retirement’ we are one step more displaced from the work place and so not as aware of emerging issues. We would encourage you to let us know what you think of our efforts and provide us with specific problems we can address. You can contact us through the web page, send a text or ring.
Finally, this is the last of the Newsletters for 2019, another year over. Marcia and I would like to thank you for not only hanging in with those difficult students who really deserved to be helped and for supporting us. It is the hardest of work sometimes but I know and you should know you can make a life altering transformation for some kids. You may never know but I assure you that if you approach these kids with respect and a clear purpose you will be the difference.
Take time to relax, recharge your batteries and get ready for another challenging year.
The Star Wars franchise continues with the release of the latest edition. Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms. The famous ‘Do. or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.
There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles. Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success. These are:
1. Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve your goals. Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort. This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
2. Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former Grit discounts the value of innate ability. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant then intelligence first defined grit when it came to predicting success. She showed that if an individual perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
3. Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of successful. This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972. His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marsh mellow immediately for the promise of an additional one would be successful later in life. In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marsh mellow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.
There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school. The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation. But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.
A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations. For example:
1. Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population. It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style attend the same schools, etc. Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world. Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools; children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities. There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
2. Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder. Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept. I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal? And finally there is nothing wrong changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
3. Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept. High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal. For many children who lived in chaotic homes would find the guaranteed consumption of a marsh mellow now at least give some pay-off. In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk. They are in fact making a rational decision. Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family's socioeconomic status. Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's Prefrontal lobes to over rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes ate reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.
So what are we to do? There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept. We all want our kids to have these qualities. But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child. When they fail, they fail at something – for now. When kids with a history of disappointment do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self. They got their answer wrong this time but they are not wrong!
Yoda was not right, there is trying and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed. But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.
How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing. This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties. This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning.
As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be. So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.
The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN. Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers. Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.
Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity.
There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!
The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’! This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years. Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.
Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever. However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed. This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence. More success with more effort, sounds familiar!
Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies. In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach. To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!
The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field. How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy! Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field. The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm. Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school! Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.
The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success. Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests. A few points:
Naplan is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test. This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools. This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population. Hardly a significant sample!
The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding. I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.
However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’! If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed! If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.
And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying! Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life! The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!
Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage. Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn. So far - no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.
The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception. A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements. Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate. At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking. The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves. In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’. In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.
Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self - but how? The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do. As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!
Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents. We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment. It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other. Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently. You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background.
In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life. This what good teachers do!
The recent imprisonment of George Pell has focused our attention on the evil abuse suffered at the hands of those whom children should trust. The atrocious revelations, uncovered by Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission and reported across the globe, confirms the magnitude of this appalling cruelty. Unfortunately, the numbers of children damaged by a range of secular and non-secular organisations is most likely to be exceeded by those children who are abused those who they are programed to trust - their families and friends of those families.
Any attempt to quantify the numbers is at best an estimation as so many of the victims never disclose their history. Although estimates of the numbers differ it seems to be between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. This is an increase on the general view that, from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.
The accuracy of these records is not relevant to this paper, they are just presented to give a sense of the magnitude of the numbers of kids who carry the wounds of their abuse or neglect. These statistics indicate that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students suffering PTSD. So, in a class of 30 students you could expect between three to nine students who suffer from the injuries inflicted on them through abuse or neglect.
Also, PTSD is not equally distributed across the landscape; in resource-poor suburbs up to 23% suffer PTSD (in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD). These figures are reflected in behavioural indicators in school systems. The numbers of suspensions positively correlate with the socio-economic profile of a school as does the number of children referred to child protection agencies.
The high levels of stress suffered during these abusive episodes, if systematically repeated will damage the child’s brain leaving them with a permanent cognitive disability. This includes:
Amygdala is increased in size – resulting in a hyper sensitivity to real or perceived danger
Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this is the area where memories are first created.
Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is our executive part of the brain where all the considered decisions are made.
Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is an area of the brain that is intimately involved in all the coordination of thoughts and imagined outcomes for given situations.
They have also learned to behave in ways that may well have saved them in their dysfunctional environment, things like exaggerated anger, bullying or unhealthy compliance.
However, the result of this cognitive damage and their dysfunctional behaviours have created a group of students who:
Have significant brain damage
Are vulnerable to elevated levels of threat
Have entrenched behaviours that repulse and threaten others
Have behaviours that push well-meaning people away
Have behaviours that damage the physical and psychological wellbeing of other members of their community
Having seen what abuse does to the child’s development it is no surprise that childhood PTSD is linked to almost every behavioural illness in the diagnostic manual (the DSM) used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. These include disorders whose symptoms create the difficulties for teachers:
I can’t emphasise enough these children do not easily attract the compassion from society that those kids who become disabled through a developmental mishap or an accident attract, yet their ‘injuries’ have been inflicted on them through the malevolent assaults of adults. They are victims, not of ‘bad luck’ but a cruelty that has never been really identified or accepted by society.
The really difficult issue in dealing with these victims is to foster and maintain an empathetic relationship with these kids. Beneath their severely dysfunctional behaviour is a child who is precious, special and unique. When we accept this, we recognise them as victims of such cruelty. Understanding this sustains our dedication when we are subjected to the very repellent behaviours we might face, particularly when we first encounter them in our classrooms.
Right now, the media is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and appropriately there is an outcry about the abhorrent nature of this abuse and sympathy for the victims. Unfortunately, the media will move on and this compassion for the victims will fade and we will return to the consistent position that these bad children should be punished. The connection between the bad behaviour and the abusive history is forgotten. But we are a professional teacher and we understand that these kids are victims and so we have a right to help them:
Achieve their sense of value
Exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities
Access all opportunities that are available to others
It is tempting to make the case that these kids are more deserving of special support but that would be plain wrong; all our kids need all they need. But, I would argue that these children whose dysfunctional behaviour that has been inflicted on them by adults do not receive the same support as other children with a disability. This is a task that requires specialist training, resources to support teachers dealing with these children and a professional recognition of the special skills required. Despite the difficulty in providing the appropriate programs there is promise that, with the proper interventions these children can make significant progress on overcoming their failings, an outcome not always available to children with more acknowledged disabilities.
This is a challenge for all of society but a professional responsibility for us teachers; it’s hard, it’s not fair but addressing the needs of these ‘unpleasant’ children allows us to display those very qualities that make teaching the profession I am proud to be associated with.
A recent publication from the New York Academy of Science (2017) has examined the literature that reviews the connection between socioeconomic disadvantage and the development of attention, learning, and resilience. They considered the evidence of over a century particularly with tests that measured cognitive functions, language development, and attention and this has shown a difference between children of low and high socioeconomic status (SES). The children from families with high SES consistently scored better than those from underprivileged families.
Studies in neuroscience also identify the link between the stress related to poverty and the neurological development of these children's cognitive landscape particularly in the limbic system, that area that modulates reactions to threats, the formation of memories and access to the executive functions of the brain, the prefrontal, and frontal cortex.
The following characteristics of a low SES community that create these adverse conditions are:
Growing up in poverty has commonly been associated with conditions that trigger elevated even chronic levels of stress. Low SES families are more likely to live in chaotic households where living arrangements are haphazard; the home discipline is unpredictable, there is a lack of routine and access to healthy diets.
Research has shown increased levels of stress-related chemicals associated with the physiological adaption of the body in response to threat including surges in the erosive chemicals catecholamine and cortisol. Continued exposure of these conditions increases the size of the amygdala, which makes the child vulnerable to stress and reductions in other significant parts of the brain including the hippocampus, the frontal lobes, the corpus colossus and the cerebellum.
2. Social Isolation and Deprivation
Children from low SES have fewer or even lack social interactions. They are less likely to attend preschool and miss that important opportunity to develop the skills to relate to their peers. This social isolation has been strongly associated with long-term health issues such as cardiovascular problems and sleep deprivation.
Experiencing abuse in childhood can occur in all SES but research shows that abuse is much more likely to occur in the low SES areas. This variance indicates that the SES of the neighborhood can explain 10% of the child’s health and adolescent outcomes.
The Gonski Review revealed that schools in low SES areas reflect the conditions of neglect in these homes. These schools, despite herculean efforts of the teachers are often chaotic because of the characteristics of the children who attend. The accompanying lack of resources because of government neglect and the absence of wealthy P&C’s exacerbates efforts to improve conditions. There is a further concentration of these undesirable conditions through the exodus of children from higher SES households who send their children from the local school to either private schools or the ‘so-called' selective school, many of which are no more than a weak excuse from the government sector to combat the drift to the private sector.
However, this exposure to adversity does not condemn a child. Some do acquire a natural resilience that helps their development, but for others it is only through the experience of social cohesion and supportive relationships found at school that children can ameliorate the potential damage carried out in their home.
It is in the schools where the healing can take place, and it is up to society to provide the resources for schools that 'service' these areas. The real cost of continually ignoring the needs of these communities comes later when society is forced to deal with the unemployment, the mental health issues, the addictions and the continuation of the poverty spiral.
The rewards for effort in this area is not only for the children but also the long-term health and wealth of our society.
At a recent retired principal's luncheon, I listened to the guest presenter discuss the outlook of the economy and how schools need to prepare their students for that future. In particular, the impact computerised production and artificial intelligence will have on work practices will be at the heart of this new revolution. The claim was made that by 2050 only 10% of the population would be in employment.
The focus of the presentation was on how would we deliver the skills required for our students to participate in this new world of work? His view was that we would need a range of skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and the usual assembly of abilities that signify the position that we just don't know.
Nonetheless, education systems have not been slow to consider the future and with regular announcements we are informed about what we should be teaching! Recently this has included coding, and then we must continue to emphasize STEM, next week who knows maybe we need to concentrate on numeracy and literacy? Recently the CSIRO presented a paper in the Conversation estimated that 40% of current jobs would be taken over by robots. But they also announced that the most significant skill set needed in the future would be in communications and people skills.
There has always been a sense of doom when new technologies emerge, and in the past, the occupations lost to technology have been replaced by other jobs. The difference this time is the computers have moved from the ‘production line’ and they now dominate many of the service industries. Where a predictable environment exists AI will become the most efficient and cheapest choice for industry. Even professions such as accountancy and the law are under enormous threat. One frightening statistic that confirms this trend is that since 2000 only 0.5% of American workers are employed in industries that have emerged (The Economist June 2017).
While I was digesting the prediction that only 10% of the population would have work I could not help considering ‘what about the 90% unemployed’. And further, I wondered about the wisdom of providing this expected economic/production focused curriculum to the 100% so that we get the 10%?
I make the following points:
If the employment level is going to be 10%, the unemployment level will be 90%
It will be very likely that the ‘best and brightest’ will gain that employment and these will in a sense ‘self-select’ for those positions
That leaves the vast majority with ‘nothing to do.'
John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, pointed out in 1933; that the focus on the economy and solving that problem is not addressing the long-term permanent problem of the human race and that is to live a purposeful life. What he meant was the economy had become the purpose not the servant of society. I fear that modern education has also become the servant of the economy and those who are surplus to requirement are discarded. If you look at the unemployed of today, you see just how much we care about the surplus!
I have been working on my next book that focuses on the most damaged children, the ones who are most likely to be in this unemployed category, and in the process of doing this I have had to consider what kind of education I would like to develop. At the heart of my deliberations is the aim of developing a sense that they can take their proper place in society.
I have come to the following four characteristics I believe underpin a fulfilling life and would be the underpinning tenets of the curriculum. These are:
A Sense of Self – We all need to have a sense of worth, value, and importance. This affirmation is not always 'a given' across the population, and in the event of massive unemployment, a positive sense of worth will be extremely hard to maintain especially if the only focus our curriculum is on preparing everyone for work!
The other component of a strong sense of self is how we relate to the community. It is important that we feel positive about ourselves, but it is critical that we have the sense that our companions also value us. These days I would contend the levels of unemployed youth and the social issues they face and create, are an indication of the future unless we prepare our children for their future reality.
Relatedness – As we are social beings we need to live in a society that we can contribute to and receive support. This requires the skills to cooperate, to share and to support each other. There will also be a challenge in regards to the sharing of resources, and so ethics will be required. We won't survive with a competitive approach.
Aspirations – A sense of purpose is also vital for a healthy lifestyle. We need something to get up for every morning. For the vast majority, our vocation has been that purpose, and when our work matches our aspirations, we have a fulfilling life. If we assume that there are no work prospects we need to develop a sense of purpose in our students.
Autonomy – Finally we need to have a sense of control over our lives. This sense of independence allows us to participate in society from a position of individuality so important for our ability to participate in the democratic process. I would contend that the current worldwide disenchantment with the political process is that individuals have no real sense of control or meaningful contribution.
I remember a past leader of the High-Performance Unit who claimed that if the solution is not simple, it is wrong. This statement is an overused platitude I find most disturbing. I have always thought that simple answers are appealing to simple minds.
The 'simple' answer our current education leaders make is to react to the latest ‘idea,'. This results our leaders lurching from one ‘new idea' to the next and always to prepare the students for work. I return to the point Keynes made; this complete focus on the economy blinds us to any alternate view. What if we just enjoyed and shared the wealth AI provided, what if we could pursue more humanistic endeavours, what if we became satisfied with what we have?
John Lennon ‘imagined a world’ that could be achievable with a change in focus.
Maybe we will have to let go of competition and growth and ‘live our lives in peace’!
A recent paper ‘National Corruption Breeds Personal Dishonesty’ by Simon Makin (March 2017) recognises that the nature of our society shapes the behaviour of our individuals. Over recent years our students have been exposed to what seems to be a never-ending stream of reports about the corrupt actions of sports men and women, businesses, religious leaders, entertainers and politicians. These are their role models and unless formal educators, parents and teachers counter the influence of these corrupt actions, our students are in danger of either adopting the model of corruption or losing faith in the wellness of society.
Further to this, in a report on the ‘soul’ of education by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) one of the authors, Angie Kotler pointed out that “We (schools) are working in a system that mainly reflects and transmits the overt values of capitalism and individuality, with a nod to the niceties of being ‘good citizens’”.
Putting the ‘competitive’ market at the centre of our ethical practice has introduced direct competition between individuals and schools. The driving force is to be successful - I must beat my opponents. This approach has seen politicians and their bureaucrats encourage competition between neighbouring schools and this has led to the immoral fight around the funding of schools. The concept of ‘love thy neighbour’ has been replaced by exploit you neighbour, not only their funding but their ‘best and brightest’ students.
So what are the implications for the teacher and their approach to ethics and morality in their classroom and more importantly on their pedagogy? A true educator has at the heart of their practice the teaching of character. This involves the understanding of how their behaviour impacts on others and accepts the responsibility of the consequences of their actions. Of course there is an expectation that parents should be the primary moral educators but morals are very personalized and the ethics of one family may well clash with their neighbours. It is in the classroom that the children of these neighbours can resolve their differences. It is also abundantly clear in a small population of students that they have lacked any moral or ethical development in their homes.
The need for teachers to become directly involved in the teaching of ethics is supported by none other than international experts like Michael Fullan (2014) and Michael Barber (2012). These outstanding educators have always been advocates for the traditional approach to pedagogy and outcomes but now support the need to find ways for young people to learn in more challenging environments, which develop character, resilience and leadership as well as lead to academic results.
Of course in an era where the prescribed curriculum is overcrowded formal teaching of ethics and morals is not possible but frequently a lesson leads to a situation, or a dispute between two or more classmates which will provide the ‘teaching moment’ when it is the moral and ethical thing to have a such a lesson.
The following is a guideline for teachers while delivering ethically based lessons:
Do no harm to the students or the school
Teach and model the acceptance of the responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions
Always care for your students
Teach the students they have the right for personal determination
Insist on the truth first
Be honest, trustworthy and reliable
Treat others as you want to be treated yourself
It is the last point that best sums-up teaching morals and ethics.
We have all had a student, or two, or more whose behaviour was so outrageous we questioned why were we teaching? These kids are the most difficult to connect with and they don’t seem to want to learn and they destroy the learning of their classmates! But we do carry on because once we get past the frustration we accept that they are that way because others made them that way. And so they are worth that extra effort but where do we focus that ‘effort’?
Having spent a good deal of my career teaching in schools specifically set up for these type of children a question that has occupied me is ‘what right do I have to modifying their behaviour’ and when I have resolved this question a second challenge is how do I want them to behave? I am happy to accept the need for change - for their sake and that of their classmates but the change is in their very sense of self and where does it say this is my job and where are the tools to teach for that change?
I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker. I’m more than happy to step aside and let the parents deal with the behaviours and even more willing to defer to the child psychiatrist or psychologist. But in those classrooms and in those special settings there is no effective psychological or psychiatric support and the reality is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability and/or are no longer available or willing to help. So I am left in class to either wipe my hands of the problem or do something to help the student and protect the classroom.
We are ‘teachers’ and we have a calling that brings us to the classroom. If we thought it was just a job and we were contracted to do our work it would be easy more so now than at any time I can recall. All we would have to do is teach for the NAPLAN Test! Fortunately, we teach the whole child and teach them the full set of skills that allow them to successfully function in society.
To understand what skills I need to teach these children I have distilled the goals I have for all my students into being the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same.
The question is how do I define a person’s best? To answer this I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.
In a western tradition any philosophical question will invariably lead us back to the big three, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle. When it came to the question what is it to be an optimal human, Aristotle integrated his colleagues’ work into the study of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue. He made the case to achieve a happy life by studying philosophy and having an involvement in the community through political activity.
In more contemporary times the leaders in this field include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through ‘being’ instead of doing; all these philosophers plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself.
Positive Psychology rose from attempts to aggregate and rationalize the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. I saw this aggregation as an opportunity to get some clarification about what characteristics would be suitable to develop in these students.
The American Psychologist Ken Sheldon carried out further analysis on what makes the ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership. His categorization, like all works in Positive Psychology has a heavy focus on the future and is particularly focused on goal setting. They are as follows:
Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such as fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity. The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs. They must also combine with our fundamental personality
Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals. Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life. Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self. We are to take an internalized attitude towards life. If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about our selves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self actualized we become.
This examination probably hasn’t helped, it has been a hard journey but I have some conclusions I would share.
The purpose of your teaching is really to empower your students to value their worth in society, take control of their future and become a real part of their community. This is not in any curriculum or text and there is only one way to teach character and that is through the organization of your classroom and you model the traits you wish to see in your students. That’s why real teaching is hard and why teachers matter!
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.