Sense of Self Part 2
We have said in an earlier Newsletter, the children we focus on in our work are those who have a toxic sense of shame and this ‘sense’ drives their behaviour. They believe:
- They don’t make mistakes; they are mistakes
- They are incapable of achieving anything
- They are bad - worthless and not fit to have a meaningful relationship with any person.
The worst advice you could give these kids is to be yourself! You have to remember that as a small child these kids have been abused by the very people they should have been able to rely on to teach them how to become an independent adult.
When we witness the ‘out of control behaviour’ that causes so much trouble we need to remember that at the time they really didn’t have any control. They are acting in a way that was taught to them. Their chaotic behaviour is because their parents never provided a consistency that allowed them to develop a set of behaviours that would help them get their needs met.
However, some kids have been abused in a constant manner and they have developed behaviours that protect their self. They will appear to be good or perfect and they work hard to maintain that image but like their out of control abused colleagues their sense of self will be just as negative, just as toxic. These students are harder to identify and often go through school without really achieving anything more than surviving.
The task for the teacher is to be ‘a good parent’ for these kids. You can’t change them but you can provide the support a small child would receive while they re-learn or re-develop an authentic sense of their self.
Take for example their inability to regulate emotions, a hallmark of traumatized kids. When a little child gets upset, say skinned their knee mum or dad would hold them, make soothing noises and reassure them that would be okay. When a 14-year-old PTSD kid gets hurt the teacher needs to treat them like a baby, not on a sarcastic way but to verbally soothe them, validate their pain and reassure them they will be alright. After a period of time, a significant period of time they will have learned the strategies we all use to regulate our emotions and consequently our behaviour.
We also have to deal with their view of being ‘faulty’. As mentioned above these kids believe they don’t make a mistake they are a mistake and so we have to deal with this defective belief. Teach them that nobody is perfect. In fact, an adage I used with students I worked with was they are perfectly imperfect. That is, all humans make mistakes. I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – perfectly imperfect.
How you interact with the student will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
- ‘I can’t do this …’?
- ‘Everyone else will laugh at my …’?
- ‘I hate …’?
At these times they are articulating their sense of failed-self.
At times of ‘failure’ the destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that reinforce their opinion of themselves. Terms like:
- ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
- ‘Is this your best work’?
- ‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child when they have failed is with comments like:
- ‘How can we make this …’?
- ‘What can we do to…’?
- ‘What will it look like if …’?
You will inevitably be faced with resistance. Remember you are asking the children to make what they see as a very threatening change. They know their current environment and have learned to live in it. You are asking them to let go of those behaviours and that threatens them. Don’t fight their obstruction. If you correct them straight away you have conflict so in the first instance go with them. The best way these kids know how to cope is to be provocative so start with where they are at the time. Use statements like:
- ‘You hate being pushed around, don’t you?’
- ‘You’d rather talk to your friends than listen to me’
- ‘You’d like to be playing with your computer’
If delivered in a genuine sense, these statements can transform a determination to be uncooperative into a feeling of being understood and so you have the chance to change the resistance into productive engagement.
Their negativity, their practise of saying no to any suggestion can be replaced with an unavoidable yes if you anticipate what they will say. For example, if you place the child in a seating plan you know they will complain and refuse but if you say something like ‘I suppose you’d rather be sitting with Sam’ they will agree. Then, if you’re lucky you can explain why you are moving them and how they can earn the trust to ‘sit with Sam’.
Another goal of your work is to reconnect these kids with their ‘community’ be that their neighbourhood, their class or their school. They have a strong need to belong. If appropriate, engaging the parents could also be beneficial but you need to be careful.
Taking care is especially important when dealing with the parents of older adolescent kids. It is a natural progression for all teenagers to grow away from their parents. For these kids the separation might be their key to the freedom of being their real-self.
This sense of belonging can be realized with smartly planned group work that has as its outcome really cooperative learning. When doing this, inventive teachers organize the make-up of the groups while they appear to be ‘random’. This avoids any chance of the particular student, or the others to feel they are ‘different’.
Also, it is really rewarding if you get these kids to do charity work, especially in a group. The group approach helps overcome the initial fear of failure they will almost inevitably experience. These kids, like all kids get a great sense of self-worth when they help those less fortunate.
Hopefully after a significant period of time the seeds of positivity will emerge and the teacher should do as much as they can to cultivate this positivity through the lessons they give.