One of the hardest things to achieve when working with students with dysfunctional behaviour is to instil a sense of purpose that is beyond short term satisfaction. In fact, this is a problem for teachers dealing with all students. Any serious examination of life’s purpose leads to a philosophical exploration into what makes a ‘self’!
In the preparation of my new book, currently in print, I spent a good deal of time examining what characteristics I would like the students to have when they graduated from school. I have posted a section from that work (Changing the Child) in the resource section of our webpage, Frew Consultants Group that will outline the conclusion I came to and what I mean by the following characteristics:
- Sense of Self – feeling you are of value
- Relatedness – able to navigate in your community
- Autonomy – having a sense of competence and the confidence in that ability
- Aspirations/Purpose – having something meaningful for which to strive
It is this last point that is the focus of this Newsletter.
At the fundamental level our purpose is to survive and reproduce, these two drives control all our behaviour (See Newsletter Drives and Needs - 11th November 2019). When we are threatened or need something in our lives we will become stressed and behave in a way to address the situation. Of course, the drive to survive and reproduce becomes much more complicated as we negotiate our way around our community but all behaviour can be reduced to these fundamentals. I have also uploaded a Chapter from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ in the resource section of the web page that provides a comprehensive explanation of our tri-part brain and how this manages various levels of our integration with our communities.
The focus on aspirations, or purpose has a lot to do with the temporal consideration of our behaviour. When confronted with a stressful situation, if we act ‘in the present’ we are looking at immediate gratification. However, if we can project into the future and act in a way that delays our instant satisfaction for the sake of an enhanced outcome in the future we may well be better off. This ability to resist immediate action or to act in a way that eliminates any future outcome is within our ability. The notion that you can choose to act is vexed and I do not subscribe to the idea of free-will, not in the immediate sense. I believe what we do is determined and is controlled by the memories we have at any given time. So, if we want to change behaviour we have to change the memories. The hypothesis that all behaviour is driven by our memories underpins all our work.
This temporal perspective gives some insight into the significance of having a purpose. The USA’s Declaration of Independence looked to articulate the purpose of their Government and that was expressed in the following:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Those who know me will not be surprised that I’m no fan of the American system of Government and I feel the last four words of this declaration reveals its very weakness. Happiness is about living in the present; it’s about getting what you want – now! This approach ties the individual to external forces. If happiness is about getting it follows that we are taking from our external world. That’s fine while it is available but there are at least two problems. The first is that, if we rely on the external world to provide our happiness we are at the mercy of things, and relationships that are beyond our control and control is critical for our self-esteem.
The second is more specific to the children we focus on. Their external world has provided abuse and neglect leaving them with behaviours that encourage further rejection when they try to integrate at school. If we want to help them we need to provide them with the tools to get a purpose that does not rely instantly on others but act in a way that will provide internal satisfaction in the future; we have to give them a future oriented meaning for their behaviour - meaningfulness.
Meaningfulness is all about looking to the future, delaying gratification for future reward. It is a path that often forces the student to forgo happiness to pursue their future goals. This can increase the probability of challenges and setbacks that increase their level of stress. Living a meaningful life is not easy.
To cultivate this quality in children who have been raised in an environment that has almost completely destroyed any hope for the future is extremely challenging. It is human nature that our expectations of our future are based on the experience of our past. The past for these kids has provided little or no real occasions of things that have made them satisfied.
As happiness relies on ‘getting’ things or friendships, meaningfulness requires the student to ‘give’ to the outside world. It comes from contributing to others, helping others which means forgoing your own ‘happiness’.
So, how do we develop purpose in our students, especially those who have never had hope about the future? As I said at the beginning, this is one of the hardest qualities to instil in a dysfunctional child.
The first thing is to teach the importance of contributing to the external world be that in learning how to share, to work in charitable activities, to participate with others in a way that teaches the community set of values. So many of our Newsletters have dealt with the structure, particularly the moral value of the environment but it is important to provide this milieu so the students can move from that foundation into the future. This is the environment in which they will develop new memories that change their sense of self.
For purpose we need to not only focus on the environment in the classroom but also the work we ask each child to do; this is where goal setting is valuable. When a child reaches a goal, it provides them with an intrinsic reward which is really a new memory associated with a pleasant emotion. At first these are short-term goals; abused kids don’t have the luxury of delayed gratification and they won’t stay engaged. If they are working on a longer project, because the class is more advanced, then set a long-term goal and break it down into bite sized short term goals that allow you to manufacture their intrinsic reward. Setting goals is an excellent way of encouraging these kids as long as they are attainable. If they are too hard they will give-up and you will be reinforcing their negative sense of self.
Finally, expose them to as many different experiences as you can. We want these kids to have a meaningful life but it is not our job to tell them what to pursue, what becomes their purpose. Give them choice and trust them, eventually to make a meaningful choice!
In my career I often heard parents lament, I just want my child to be happy. I understand that but the pursuit of happiness is full of risks. The reliance on ‘others’ inevitably leads to disappointment. As a teacher it is important that you want your students to live a life with meaning!