One re-occurring theme in these Newsletters is the importance to consider the processes of the brain – after all, if it’s not the brain that controls behaviour than what is it? Just how difficult your work is when dealing with kids becomes clear when you appreciate the complexity of that vital organ. Attempts to describe this complexity have resulted in some interesting ‘statistics’, the inverted commas indicate my scepticism but it is believed that the human brain has between 80 and 86 billion neurons almost half in the cerebellum. To remind you of how many that is: a million seconds is equal to more than 11 days; a billion is the equivalent of 32 years; 86 billion takes 2,752 years, that’s a lot of seconds.
Now add to that the fact that each of those neurons has 1,000 potential connections, that is the neural networks that control our cognition have 1,000 different possible ways to connect to the next neuron and this goes on through a colossal number of possible connections to compose a thought! The reality is that the number of possible neural arrangements in any brain is infinite and just to make it a bit more challenging it constantly changes.
Tim Wilson, in his book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ contends that our cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute while the unconscious mind will check out 12 million sensory inputs for threats or opportunities in that same time. Unbelievable, but you would have all experienced a time when you perhaps ducked to avoid an incoming ‘missile’ like a stray ball and you did this without any conscious effort. You did move because of the effort of your unconscious mind.
How is this enormous complexity relevant to expectations? In our model of the process of learning and behaviour (see below) the attention the students bring to the classroom exists at the junction between the antecedent condition and the situation.
The model shows only one ‘situation’ but we know that the child, and the teacher has a potentially 40 ‘identified’ situations and so many more unrecognisable. That is, what the student will make a decision about, how to act in that instance of a lesson depends on what they require for homeostatic equilibrium, that is what is concerning them at that moment and what they see as helpful in that environment. Toby Wise of the University of London points out that people prioritize their attention when determining safety or danger in a busy setting, such as crossing a road. This suggests that people pay more attention to things they have learned is associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs.
Children, from abusive backgrounds certainly have learned to be hyper-sensitive to potential dangers and whenever they feel threatened in class they will act to deal with that threat. I looked back over the past Newsletters for some background references for you but I came to the realisation that this concept is one of the significant elements that is at the heart of all our work. Kids who have lived through frightful situations will have a predisposition to see the potential danger in any situation and so they are unable to see that moment of time as an opportunity to learn.
There are two things that help that situation. The first is to deal with the antecedent condition and this is the student’s sense of self. Students with a sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017) will always see any lesson as a threat. Remember, they see themselves as being a mistake and therefore any actions they take will be mistaken. They fail before they start!
Recent newsletters have discussed the sense of self (16th and 23rd September 2019 and 3rd February 2020) and the ambition for the teacher is to develop a sense of self-worth and capability. If they learn to see the lesson not as a threat but as an opportunity they will make the decision to act in a way to get the consequence of learning the lesson; that is, they will have a path through the learning process.
The second problem is the how the environment is perceived. This is where the learning environment is critical. This ‘lesson preparation’ is our bread and butter, we need to:
- Understand the specific & explicit goals of our lesson
- Students know what the purpose of the lesson is
- Have lessons targeted at their ability
- Communication through various mediums (white board/smart board etc.)
- Handouts ready
- Work areas and materials organised
- Pace the Lesson
- Time for students to guide their own learning
- Transitions ready
- Early finishers tasks…
However, for these damaged kids, and I contend for all kids we need to go beyond this ‘text book’ approach. None of these factors address the problem of the student’s expectations. None of these factors alleviate their fear of failure. The real ‘preparation’ for teaching these kids is in the formation of a strong, professional relationship (see Relationships 10th February 2020) that will enable the development of their independent, empowered sense of self.
In the model presented above it is the feedback loops that will change the student’s sense of themselves, that is the antecedent conditions they bring to school. Just as children in functioning families required emotional support while they learned their value, these children, even though they may be objectional teenagers with highly tuned oppositional defiance, they also require that same support. As professional teachers you are obliged to provide that support and meeting that obligation will be one of the most rewarding professional experiences you will enjoy in your career!