Sense of Self
Welcome back, this blog started at the beginning of 2017 discussing Bullying which was at the centre of the media’s attention to schools and since then over 100 Newsletters have followed. In the break I went back and looked at this work and was pleased with the number of topics we covered. May I suggest you have a look and please share this resource with any of your colleagues; it’s free and we do it because through our careers, both Marcia and I understood the problems children with severe behaviours pose for teachers, especially in those ‘tough’ schools. We also understand that both pre-training and on-the-job development rarely, if ever addresses this issue. So, welcome to the New Year.
At the beginning of this year we have found ourselves reviewing this work we do addressing the problems children with severely dysfunctional behaviours present to the school - not to mention the destruction that behaviour brings to their own lives. We have spent years thinking and working on this conundrum and, not to dismiss the extreme complexity to do with any discussion regarding behaviour over the next few Newsletters, we want to share with you our underpinning philosophy.
The first premise for our speculations is that we are biological, that is we are living organisms made of cells that interact to support our life. The fundamental defining conclusion is that these cells form specific genes that drive our evolution. It is our genes that determine our humanity, plant genes determine the flowers and so on. Further, to maintain our life, we transform energy into behaviour which allows us to survive and reproduce, to maintain the condition known as homeostasis in the environment in which we exist. We do this based on what we have learned through experience and these memories define our self! So we become a catalogue of memories of how to act to address deficits in our survival in our environment.
In previous Newsletters (Sense of Self, 16th September 2019 and Sense of Self - Part 2, 23rd September 2019) We discussed the progressive process of the development of our sense of self and how it impacts on our behavioural decision-making, these are worth revisiting. This Newsletter emphasises the importance of the child’s relationships in determining that sense of self. One thing is certain – our sense of self is our brain in action; it is the interface of our complex outer world with the developing, complex state of our inner world. This inner world consists of memories, of those we inherit, those we develop unconsciously and those we learn.
Remember, the fundamental drives, to survive and reproduce lie beneath the concept of homeostasis, that is the compulsion to behave in a way that addresses any situation that creates the stress that comes from the discord between our necessities and their availability in our presenting environment. At the primary, physical level, if we hold our breath for too long we experience an overwhelming desire to breathe. However, most ‘learning’ on how to behave, especially in the social realm is taught to us in the early years and that is predominantly by our primary care giver, usually mum.
Throughout these Newsletters and in our books the early establishment of behaviours that are ‘designed’ to deal with our social world have emphasised the fact that behaviours are learned to deal with the presenting environment. For kids raised in abusive and/or neglectful conditions the lessons learned will be their best chance to survive in that environment regrettably they will not be appropriate in a more functional setting. Therefore, in order to deal with situations that place them in a state of disequilibrium in the contemporary environment they are placed in a complex situation, facing conflicting messages from our ‘memory’ in order to make sense of the outer world.
Unlike the majority of students raised in a functioning home, who arrive at a point where the lessons they have learned makes them feel free to make choices on how to behave in order to get their needs met at school. For these damaged kids, their inability to identify any behaviour to make sense of and deal with a perceived threat from the external world of the classroom leaves them immobilised. The resulting distress is a form of ‘madness’, a psychological pain and/or confusion that they cannot easily sooth and so they act in ways that they use to alleviate this pain. These are their out of control behaviours we observe in class.
We all see the world as an ordered integration between our self and the external world. We move around the possible connections depending on the reality of both self and our external world (see below) in any set of conditions. For a given situation there will be times when any permutation is ‘healthy’, you may be happy and the other will be happy or it may be appropriate for you to be sad because of the circumstances in the other world. It is healthy to experience the appropriate emotional state for the situation in which you may find yourself; this is normal.
However, for a child who has predominantly suffered the negative experiences of early childhood abuse and/or neglect, these healthy interactions are unavailable. Their toxic sense of self (See Newsletter Toxic Shame, 7th March 2017) will dismiss the sense of happy self/world.
Instead of a real sense of who they are, and for that matter really, who is the other person they construct a ‘self’ that cannot be maintained and becomes disordered. This disordered self oscillates between an idealized world and a punishing one.
In these simple models a child can potentially experience six different senses of self but only one at a time. If they see themselves as ‘good self’ then they could make a judgement about the ‘other’ as being good or bad. Tragically these damaged kids have had a life where they never experienced a sense of autonomy and whether they felt good or bad depended on the behaviour of the ‘other’, life is done to them! This results in a rigid, inhibited personality that struggles to behave appropriately in any situation.
The task of developing a normal, healthy sense of self for these kids is extremely difficult even if they could access effective psychological support. However, you – the teacher can help these children develop their sense of control over their behaviour which will lead to the emergence of a healthier sense of self. And, unsurprisingly this is through providing a supportive, stable and persistent structure in the classroom where they learn the connection between their actions in the classroom environment and what happens to them.
However, just providing this structure is not enough. Remember, the development of a sense of self occurs in the early years and the characteristic of that sense is determined by the interaction between the child and the primary care-giver at that time. The real quality of that relationship determines the effectiveness of the structure. These severely damaged children require the same personal support while they learn to manage the new environment and the teacher needs to provide that support. This responsibility is never articulated in any ‘job description’ but if you want to make a difference you need to concentrate on the maintenance of a healthy relationship even when their behaviour challenges you personally.
So, once again it is the structure, the persistent and consistent consequences along with a compassionate relationship that will best help these needy kids and what a surprise it is these are the same elements that provide the best learning environment for all kids. We understand that this is extremely challenging but we can assure you that there is nothing more gratifying then seeing these kids succeed!