In the last Newsletter (see ‘Nature vs Nurture’ – 8th June 2020) I made the point that to assist these children with severe behaviours we needed to create an environment that helped them develop a new set of memories that would drive an alternative way for them to deal with stressful situations. Of the three major components, structure, expectations and lesson content, it is structure that is the most important to be delivered at the beginning of the change process.
For the sake of this essay, structure means the predictable coupling of actions and consequences, that is if I do this, that will happen! Of course, this condition is not realistic, in the real-world if I do this there may be a lot of possible outcomes. The example I use when discussing this with students is as follows. Say I choose to drive home as fast as my car will go and on the other side of the road. There are a lot of imaginable consequences. I could:
- Have a direct crash with an oncoming vehicle
- Force all the approaching cars off the road
- Be killed by losing control and hitting a tree
- Be arrested
- Really enjoy myself and get home early
The thing is, as a mature adult I can imagine these possible outcomes and make a mature decision that is best for me – drive home safely on the right side of the road. All the outcomes above could still happen but compared to the other decision I might make the chances of this are very low. It is this ability to predict future outcomes that empower us to make smart decisions.
These Newsletters have as their focus assisting children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment. The form of abuse can vary. In some cases, the assault on the child is always delivered the same way. It might be dad bashing the child whenever they ‘make a mistake’. The result is the abuse is predictable and the child learns a behaviour that best deals with dad’s abuse, this feeling of having some control is transferred to the classroom and these kids are not usually a major management difficulty. This is not a ‘better’ form of abuse it just has different long-term outcomes for the child.
The children that do cause the most trouble in the classroom are those raised in an abusive and unpredictable environment. This range of possible outcomes is different than the example above. In that case there was a sense of logic between the choice of action and what may happen. For these kids there is no understandable connection between what they do and dad’s, or mum’s response. The chaotic behaviour of the ‘parents’ is a result of parent addiction or mental illness.
Take the example of a young boy being in a fight with a peer and this is reported home. One possible outcome is that dad belts the child for fighting. The next time this happens dad praises the boy for ‘being a chip off the old block’; the next time he takes the child to make peace with his rival, etc. What the father does depends on how the father feels and, although more sophisticated kids can take this into account they can’t in early childhood and so never develop a set of memories that would allow them to predict what might happen the next time they are faced with such a situation.
The use of structure, the close association with actions and consequences when dealing with these dysfunctional kids is to reconstruct the conditions the child should have experienced in early childhood.
New-born children have no capacity to make a choice and are dependent on others to get their needs met. In a healthy environment this is what happens, at first completely and then the babies start on the road to control. Initially, they may learn to cry when they are hungry, they cry and mum feeds them; crying works – the action gets the desired consequence. As they get older this feels a little less structured but good parents and teachers of very young children still consistently control the outcomes which is the predictable environment.
As the children develop they should be encouraged to make decisions about how they should behave but never about an issue that the child does not understand the harmful outcomes of a wrong decision. It is not ‘good parenting’ to ask the child what they would like for dinner and when they say a popular take-a-way which is repeatedly advertised, they do not understand the implications to their health now and in the long-term, so should not be making the decision of what to have for dinner.
The ‘out of control’ students that we are discussing have missed the early years of encountering predictability and so we have to create the conditions to deliver that experience. Teachers sometimes are reluctant to introduce such a tight structure into their classroom because the majority of kids are well beyond this phase of development, they can deal with a degree of freedom to make decisions. However, presenting such a predicable classroom will not hamper any of these advanced kids’ development; knowing what to expect makes everyone feel secure.
For those kids who are ‘out of control’ we need to reconstruct the conditions they should have experienced in early childhood. The more we can couple the consequence to the action the quicker they develop a new set of memories and these can replace those that drive their dysfunctional behaviour. This means in the classroom we need to develop a set of rules that describe the behaviour and what happens if you act that way. These can be desired outcomes, positive reinforcement or just the opposite, negative consequences. In a previous Newsletter (‘Creating Structure’ – 12th August 2019) I have described the process of constructing the type of desired environment.
Choosing behaviour all gets back to applying memories of what happened in the past and imagining what will happen in the future. The purpose of structure is to build a new set of memories that hopefully will eventually replace those feelings of hopelessness these children have because they never developed consistent conditions that allowed them to imagine a future.
A note to the teacher; if you are dealing with a fourteen-year-old child understand you are dealing with fourteen years of memories. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately change, this takes time and when they are really threatened they will have no choice but to revert to their dysfunctional behaviour. But, if you hang in long enough they will eventually understand the link between what they do and what happens to them and if you do this for them you are setting them off to a life with some sense of empowerment.