In the last Newsletter (Expectations – 18th February 2020) we tried to explain how the process of decision making is linked to the student’s sense of self, the antecedent condition they bring to any situation. In class, we want them to ‘decide’ to learn the contents of the lesson but we understand, especially for those students with a toxic sense of their self that there are a multitude of other concerns in their environment that can attract their attention. These ‘other things’ will inevitably be perceived threats to their social survival.
The process is like this:
- There is a situation with various ‘focal points’, each will bring up memories of past experiences.
- These memories will allow us to predict what will happen now, given these circumstances.
- That expectation will have a strong emotional content. For damaged kids these are typically, frustration, fear or hatred.
- The culmination of this sequence is that they will decide on a path of action, based on past experiences that will reinforce the existing sense of self.
How the child navigates their classroom is through their previous experiences – children learn to ‘know something’ about what will occur and prepare them for what they expect to happen. Damaged kids are more likely to expect the worst, hence the negative feelings like fear, etc. This is where the relationship with the teacher is critical!
There is a ‘popular’ view that we have to get the emotions out of the way so we can learn. Emotions are very important in any lesson. We need to be stressed to behave and behaviour leads to learning. The trick is to be appropriately stressed, not too little or not too much (see ‘The Intricacy of Stress – 19th June 2017) by the situation that leads to what we want them to learn.
The teacher has a professional responsibility to develop a relationship that supports both the significance of the lesson and, more importantly the integrity of the student. This is a relationship that is really a one-way street. The teacher really has to give without any expectation of a return. However, the reality is that you will get so much more back but these rewards are not easily recognised. These kids can change but it takes a lot of time and a lot of the change takes place long after they have left your classroom. We all know that most people had a teacher who really inspired them – the thing is rarely do these teachers know what a wonderful job they did. It’s the same here.
The quality of the relationship with all students starts at the very first meeting – even before a word has been spoken. Your very appearance will affect their opinion on how much of a teacher you are. I’m a great believer that all teachers have a ‘uniform’; it is to be modest, neat, clean and appropriate for the lesson. A mistake many young teachers is to be ‘cool’ and dress to appeal to the kids. This never works – you are their teacher not their best ‘friend’, you have to be their authority. Your room is also central to this ‘first impression’. How it looks reflects how important you think the work carried out in that space is, that is how important is the lesson.
These initial arrangements send a message that the work we will do is important.
As soon as the teacher speaks the personal connection becomes more influential. Trust is vital for any relationship and people will give more credence to non-verbal communication. The break-down of the emotional content of any dialogue is consistently given as:
- 7% is conveyed in the words that are spoken.
- 38% in the tone of the voice
- 55% in the body language, how you hold yourself, your facial expression, etc.
- I’m not sure how these figures have been established but I’m sure they reflect the importance of each element of any personal communication. This means that 93% of the vital emotional content rests with the messenger and not the message!
The interpretation of these perceptions is hard enough for all children but, as usual it is more difficult for those who have a history of abuse. These kids will:
- Minimise or misinterpret any positive message. Because they have been ‘disappointed’ so many times before they have lost trust in those in authority.
- They are hyper-sensitive to negative clues. As mentioned above, damaged kids anticipate the worst and will scrutinise at the presenting environment for any possible threat.
- Commonly developed their sense of self in an abusive situation they have an extreme disability in understanding or ‘reading’ the non-verbal cues. The inconsistency in their parent’s emotional reactions to situations never allowed them to use those emotions to predict what will happen next!
- Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming signal. It is a feature of abused kids to have a high level of emotional reactivity. As children they were not taught to sooth themselves when they were ‘hurt’ and so when they think they might be threatened they become crushed by their emotions.
These un-natural, but understandable responses to your best efforts can be disheartening but you must remember you are dealing with students with a real disability. These kids need the same patient understanding normal infants get when they are learning to walk. When they fall down we understand they are just learning and we encourage them to try again. When these kids appear to reject our efforts understand we will have feelings such as disappointment but don’t be had by those feelings, encourage them to ‘try again’.
So, how you interact with the student will make a big difference in the emotional quality your relationship. Understand that when these students are 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 …’?
A caustic teacher who is examining their work, who may well be trying to challenge the student, could make comments that reinforce their negative opinion of themselves. Don’t make destructive comments 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 is with comments like:
- ‘How can we make this …’?
- ‘What can we do to …’?
- ‘What will it look like if …’?
We understand it takes a lot of time to change the past memories, especially for those kids who have little of no experience of a positive expectation in their life. But, it can be done. By consistently presenting an environment that reflects a consistent, persistent and supportive (there are those words again) environment children can change their expectations of the future and when we achieve that they gain access to their imagination. They become free to choose their way in the world.