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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, September 16 2019

Sense of Self

Much is written about the importance of our sense of self, previously we discussed the concept of a toxic sense of self (see Toxic Shame 7 March 2017).  This is the sense children who are raised in an abusive or neglectful environment believe about themselves.  They believe that it is they who are ‘wrong’, that they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.

Because our sense of self is the greatest regulator of success, that is, how we perceive ourselves will determine what we will do, much of our work is focused on changing this faulty self-belief.  The only way we can achieve this is by re-producing the mechanism that created the false sense of self.  This is the real work of the teacher, to produce an environment that provides the conditions that develop the memories that produces a positive sense of self in the students.

The illustration below crudely explains this process.

I used the term ‘crudely’ as the process of matching behaviour with desired consequences and subsequently producing the neurological structure to reproduce these behaviours is extremely complex.  However, this description will help explain the formation of our sense of self which really only consists of memories.  Of these it is the kind of emotional memories formed in early childhood that dominate this personal sense.

The process follows this sequence, initially we have a drive that is linked to a state of homeostatic disequilibrium, that is we feel disturbed and feel impelled to change this situation. In the first instances we try an ‘action’ and evaluate the outcome relative to the need, that is the consequence.  In the model it is from the situation that moves to the action (at this initial stage the decision is not used) that results in a consequence. If this works and we regain a sense of calm, when the same situation occurs the process to regain a sense of calm will again be activated.  If the same action gets the same desired result this is strengthened and as the process is repeated eventually this will be the behaviour learned to deal with this situation.

In the mean-time every time we run through this sequence we are provided with feedback (see the broken lines from consequence to ‘memories’) and this feedback constructs a bank of emotional and cognitive memories.  This memory bank is our sense of self.  The formation of this sense of self produces the section in the model to include decision-making.

The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood.  In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional.  This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions.

Eventually the child’s hippocampus, the more cognitive section of the limbic system becomes active and the memories developed here are also included in the decision making.  These memories have an impression that is attached to some ‘reason’ the connection between action and consequence was established.  This contrasts to the emotional memories that are powerful but with no conscious ability to make that action/consequence link.

At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable.  At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories.  But, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to the emotional memories.  It is my understanding that this emotional dominance of our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.

For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produced levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met.  Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed, cease trying and disengage from their world.  This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins that toxic shame.   

The final broken lines in the model illustrates the compounding issue of the toxic sense of self.  It establishes that our memories, our sense of self is with us all the time.  In the model this is the antecedent condition we bring to any new situation that will influence our approach even before we get to the decision-making stage.  How this manifests, in class is that these students refuse to even to contemplate engaging in behaviours to get their needs met because any such action will displease others and they will re-experience their ‘abuse’.  They just don’t get involved and this disengagement is common in our classrooms!

To be successful a therapeutic intervention needs to encourage the retrieving of a positive sense of self.  This requires an examination of their internal world, to recognize and acknowledge the myriad of faulty feelings and beliefs.  This necessitates access to a qualified mental health professional.  However, as teachers we are faced with a significant number of these children on a daily basis and we are not qualified to deal with them in such a manner.  So, what can we do?

Referring back to the model, we need to manipulate that sense of self environment re-building it in stages.  The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences.  The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage!  This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.

There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence.  It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child.  If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they re NOT a mistake!

Another important contribution for these children is to teach them how the brain operates and how all behaviour has a purpose, it is designed to get something.  Part of this training is to discuss the fact that any behaviour can have a range of consequences.  The sign of maturity, what we want them to achieve is that you must choose the behaviour that is most likely to get the consequence you want but, if this doesn’t happen this time it is still the behaviour they should choose.  It is the one that has the best chance of success, it’s their ‘best bet’!

It is also important to understand that if you choose a behaviour that may have one possible negative consequence that you don’t want then you can’t do that behaviour.  If the chances are slim and you take a chance and that disastrous consequence does follow then you must take responsibility and not blame others.

The road to recovery is cyclic, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously.  They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


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.

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