In the late Twentieth Century American Psychologist Albert Ellis became frustrated with the lack of consideration given to the emotional side of psycho-therapy. This was in reply to the stimulus – response approach that had become popular in the late sixties when leaders in psychology, like Skinner adopted a rationalist approach to behaviour. Their ideas were underpinned by the belief ‘if it can’t be measured it is not worth considering’. Ellis accepted the importance of feelings in driving behaviour and so founder what was called Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy.
He reduced the complexity of behaviour to the following:
It is in the ‘Beliefs’ where ‘rational’ behaviours become ‘irrational’. Those who have been following my work will see that this sequence forms part of my schematic representation of the processes of behaviour management as shown below.
My model is more complex but it does incorporate both emotional and cognitive memories but as consistently pointed out in my work the emotional memories are far stronger when we are considering behaviours that are triggered by stressful events, that is when we are being ‘threatened’.
A significant element in the dysfunctional behaviours displayed by students who have very disruptive actions is that of Toxic Shame often referred to in this blog (Toxic Shame - 7th March 2017) and this ‘shame’ is established in early childhood in an abusive or neglectful environment and is predominantly retained in the emotional memories and so these beliefs are the principal driving factor in decision-making when under stress.
At the heart of Toxic Shame is the feeling that you are a ‘mistake’, not that you have made a mistake. It’s a feeling that:
- Is not based on reality
- Is a false message that creates a false sense of self
- Is put on us by others
- That is a chronic, permanent state
- Exaggerates our faults.
Ellis produced a list of faulty beliefs that described how this feeling of shame is expressed in the life of a casualty of childhood abuse. These are:
- I must be loved or approved of by every significant person in my life or I will be a worthless person
- I must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
- When people act unfairly or badly they should be severely punished.
- It is terrible and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them.
- Human unhappiness is caused by external events and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances
- I must feel anxious if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome and keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurrence.
- It is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
- I should be dependent on someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely.
- I should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
- The world should provide me with what I want and when it doesn’t it’s a terrible place and I can’t stand it.
- My past is the most important part of my life and it dictates how I live.
It is easy to understand why people with dysfunctional behaviours hold the acceptance that how life treats them is, and has to be dependent on others. You can see it in all the points outlined above and that’s because when their sense of self was being formed, in early childhood they had no self-control. So why should they now?
It helps to understand the thought process used by these people but more importantly how do we help them? Of course, long-term mental health intervention for each individual would be ideal but as teachers, we are neither qualified nor would we have the time for such an intervention. And, unfortunately the chances of the vast majority of our students who come to us with such beliefs the chances of them getting access to such a service in miniscule.
However, what can be done is to create an environment that has a highly structured connection between what is done and what happens. If a child does ‘X’ they will get ‘Y’ as much as possible and when the consequence is being delivered it is always attached to the action and never to the person. As they become aware of the connection between what they do and what happens they start to take responsibility for their behaviour and eventually for their life. Of course, it is impossible to get a 100% connection between actions and consequences but for these kids, the more often you can reinforce the link the better their chances of taking responsibility for their life and that is the best learning outcome any teacher could hope for.