The dominance of male students who appear in suspension data or are attending special settings for ‘out of control’ behaviour, is a feature of all school systems. If you agree with us that most dysfunctional behaviour is formed in abusive early childhood environments, this reality is counter-intuitive as young girls are at least as likely to be subjected to abuse as boys. In fact, there is a strong case for inferring that girls are more likely to be abused when you consider that sexual assaults by adult males are most likely to be directed to females.
The simple answer to this quandary is that these behaviours are cultural and historically females have learned to stay quiet about how they feel and suffer in silence. There is some truth to this but I offered an explanation about these disproportionate numbers. This belief based on the work of the anthropologist Louis Leakey who hypothesizes that boys have evolved to externalize their actions. Once humans became the apex species the main threat to survival was attacks from another tribe. In the event of such battles males had a greater chance of survival if they act-out, fought the invaders or ran to safety; that is they took action. Such a response was not as effective for females and children. They were more likely to survive if they surrendered or dissociated. They would be taken as trophies.
Reasons that lead me to support this conclusion are that even in modern ‘tribal wars’ like those during the break-up on Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, the Balkans and Kosovo saw acts of murderous brutality against the male populations. The resulting mass graves were primarily filled with the bodies of potential opponent soldiers.
I believe this underlies an examination of the suspension data in our schools. Up to about age ten or eleven the suspension rate of boys is marginally higher than girls. When we look at the data for puberty and beyond the figure for boys explodes. I suggest this is when their adult disposition is initiated.
If you look at the most common diagnosis of dysfunctional behaviour that results from early childhood abuse the most common are Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Dissociation Identity Disorder. The first two disorders are largely populated with boys; in the latter girls dominate the numbers.
In broad terms dissociation from the immediate environment is on a continuum ranging from mild detachment to a more severe isolation. It is a detachment from the reality rather than a loss of reality that occurs if the child is suffering a psychotic episode. The clinical description of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a single person who experiences himself/herself as having separate parts of the mind that function with some autonomy. It manifests as a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings and actions.
As stated above almost exclusively these people have documented histories of repeated, overwhelming and often life threatening trauma during sensitive developmental stages of childhood. At the time of the abuse when the child is faced with this overwhelming trauma and there is no physical escape, they go away ‘in their head’. This is a highly creative method of survival allowing them to endure in apparent hopeless situations. If the trauma is repeated eventually this develops as an automatic response to situations which have similar environmental characteristics, despite not being life threatening. That is if the stimulus presented has strong ‘reminder’ qualities of the original traumatic event(s) the child will dissociate.
How does this disability appear in the classroom? It does and is a real interference to the potential learning outcomes for these students. The problem for teachers is that these, mostly girls are quiet and compliant and pose no obvious challenge. The student’s ‘invisibility’ is intensified in classrooms where there is a core of students with acting out, dysfunctional behaviours. Teachers are so occupied controlling the obvious problems these girls are left to suffer in silence.
However, schools have a duty to support these students so they will learn. The following approach will at least create the conditions that allow the students to operate in an environment that will improve the student’s personal control. These include:
- Creating a structured environment where the students learn to predict the consequences of their behaviour thus allowing them to regain a sense of control in their life
- Developing a place that is safe and secure for the students
- Developing strong boundaries for the students so that they can protect themselves against stimuli that has the same characteristics as the early abuse but not the same ‘real threat’
- Presenting a program where the students get their needs met
- Developing a cognitive framework for the students so that they can sort out how they think and feel, undoing damaging ‘self concepts’ and learning about what is ‘normal’
- Hold the students responsible for their behaviour
The dissociated student presents a real challenge but along with the steps outlined above it is powerful to point out to the student that they have the right to participate and to get their needs met.