‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is Latin for ‘I think therefore I am’. This is one of the fundamental truths of philosophy but René Descartes’ purpose was to prove our existence. This Newsletter takes a more personal interpretation of this saying. Our behaviour is driven by our memories and this is the thinking that underpins our actions. For kids who have a bank of memories laid down in abusive, traumatic environments, their thoughts almost guarantee dysfunctional actions.
None of us are impervious to thoughts of failure. We all suffer those unwanted thoughts that creep into our psyche when things are not going well. Research has shown that 94% of people experience unwanted thoughts. In extreme cases these intrusive thoughts are at the heart of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where the fear that something bad may happen stops sufferers from living a fruitful life.
Anxiety is at the heart of these unwanted, intrusive thoughts. I’ve just returned from golf and standing over a three-foot putt to make a birdy guarantees my negative self-talk was in full swing. However, my problems pale in significance when you consider the self-talk of those children who have developed early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
We have discussed some of the types of thought patterns when we examined the sense of toxic shame that is interrelated with early childhood PTSD (see Newsletters Toxic Shame, 3rd July, 2017 and Vacuous Shame, 18th September 2017). The belief that they are faulty and not worthy drives their thought patterns and when they face a classroom task those beliefs have them failing before they start.
So, what to do? If you were a therapist you could take the time to help them learn that these are thoughts, they exist and they are powerful but they are fuelled by the student’s own history. But, as a teacher you won’t have the time nor the training to undertake such an intervention. Teachers always have the wellbeing of their students at the forefront and the natural thing to do is support these kids through praise or reassurance.
Both these approaches are at best marginal in helping. Saying things like ‘you can do it’ reinforces the importance of the task. Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University came across a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's in 1863 which stated: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." Wegner conducted a test on his students asking them not to think about a polar bear while undertaking a set task. He found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not there hence ensuring it is. Saying to ignore the negative thoughts ensures they will be present.
Another problem with always reassuring those students is that by doing so you are reinforcing their sense of self and providing attention they may enjoy. You have to remember that they are comfortable with their beliefs, at least they know ‘what will happen.’ Some students embrace their sense of helplessness and become reliant on your reassurance.
Praise is not any more effective. It may work for children under the age of seven as they take all your comments at face value. However, by the time they are twelve they interpret your praise as a sign you think they lack the ability to do the work. By the time they are teenagers they discount praise to such an extent they equate it with criticism (see Newsletter Dangers of Praise 12th September 2018 for discussion on praise).
We are in the business of teaching and correcting mistakes is a key tool in achieving the acquisition of new knowledge. We have to criticise the mistakes all kids make and this is a challenge when dealing with these kids who not only know they have made a mistake, they think they are a mistake, the hallmark of toxic shame. No matter what the problem, be it their behaviour or their classwork you can criticise their work without depreciating the student by following these steps:
- Be specific, explain the situation as you see it; ‘this is what is wrong’.
- Acknowledge the positive thing that the student has got right.
- Empathise, tell them it is not easy for anyone especially the first time they try.
- Remain calm, don’t let them see you are frustrated with their efforts even if you know they haven’t really tried. These kids don’t fail on purpose, they fail because they expect to!
- Keep to the task at hand. If it is a behavioural problem don’t be side-tracked by discussing something else that happened. Be like a broken record, this is what we have to deal with now.
- Be specific in what you want from them. Don’t assume they know what to do even if you have explained it over and over. Kids get the message at different times so be patient. Even if they are trying to annoy you remain professional.
- Explain the outcome that will be achieved if they do as you expect. For every action there are consequences and they need to be reminded that they are free to do whatever they want but they will not be free of the outcomes.
Working with these kids is the greatest challenge for any teacher and it is easy to let your guard down. The following are some of the classic mistakes we can make:
- Ignore the problem, some behaviour management theorists recommend you ignore problems but only if they are not important. I agree but it is part of the art of teaching and depends on just how good an ‘artist’ you are. Sometimes ignoring is just a sign you are too tired to do the hard thing.
- Send a double message, you say the right things but your body language and tone of voice, the non-verbal cues are sending a different message.
- Being impatient, don’t hurry through your explanation. This tells them you don’t care, or think they are a waste of time. These kids need more time.
- Talking too much or too little. Get in and make your message as effective and efficiently as you can. Kids, everyone gets turned-off when the ‘teacher’ goes on and on. Give them the Goldilocks instructions, not too short, not too long but just right.
- Keep your emotions in check, never lose your temper if you lose that you have lost the student.
I’ve called this Newsletter You’re the Voice after a hit song from John Farnham. In our family there is a division about just how good he is but there are parts of the song that teachers can apply to this problem:
‘We have the chance to turn the pages over’
‘You're the voice, try and understand it’
‘With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better’
You are often these kids’ only chance, you have the power to help so be their voice until they can speak powerfully for themselves.