In the last Newsletter we discussed the importance of structure as part of this expanded examination of the characteristics of an effective classroom learning environment. The underpinning concept that defines structure is that there is a realistic connection between actions and the consequences of that action. This assumes there is a recognised framework in which this process operates. This is where expectations are important; what we expect to happen depends on the customs of the environment in which the action is taken.
Perhaps the foundational assertion of our work in regards to children who are raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that the behaviours they learned to make the most of their opportunities to get their needs met or more likely to minimise the damage inflict upon them by their abuser. They had learned what to expect in a given situation. The importance of this work is to teach these children to predict what will happen in this new environment. Of course, this is not the case for those children raised in chaotic, unpredictable families who come to our schools with no expectations at all. For those kids who have been raised in an environment where they had no idea what would happen to them we need to provide the link between what they do and what happens next.
Until the child experiences the new set of consequences their existence can only be a speculation; an imagined world if you like. The following diagram illustrates this process.
This is the connection between what is the remembered experiences and what could be the imagined result of their actions. In this process the emotional content is significant in any decision made and is expressed as a form of stress. Having built up our behavioural repertoire through remembering the outcomes of previous experiences each ‘situation’ will generate a level of stress depending on how damaging was that incident. If left unchecked when these children are faced with a situation that has the memory of a negative outcome the student descends on a negative emotional cycle that may start with frustration and if not resolved generate a level of fear about any future event with the same beliefs. The power of these emotions excludes the child from even imagining a different outcome. If this is attached in any way to the school, the work or interpersonal relationships they will eventually hate going to school; unable to imagine any other outcome but failure.
Unfortunately, we see too many of our kids, particularly when they are in upper primary of secondary completely disengaged from school.
The task for the teacher is to build-up an alternate bank of memories that will allow the child to choose an imagined experience as the result of their actions. This process takes time, time older students with severely damaging behaviours do not have a lot of. This underlines the importance of the need for predictable and consistent delivery of consequences discussed in the last Newsletter. However, there are other ways to teach these kids the ‘rules’ of their contemporary environment. One method which came into fashion was the teaching of social skills. The leader in this field was Arnold Goldstein the professor of Psychology and Education at Syracuse University. He introduced a method of social skills training in 1973 to deal with juveniles in detention.
He overtly taught the children in his charge how to act in a manner that would be acceptable within the cultural environment that is for us, the school. This was done through the following processes:
- Modelling – the children are shown examples of how to behave in a given situation where previously they have failed to get what they want. The model needs to be someone who the students respect.
- Role-Playing – The students are given scenarios to investigate through acting out how they should behave. This process can be threatening at first but will become a powerful tool in changing behaviour. Remember, the brain, where memories are formed and stored after a while will form the memories from the role play as an alternative choice for the student. The scenarios, at first are provided by the teacher, later can be from a random list or when engaged at the request of the participants.
- Performance Feedback – This initially is provided by the facilitator but as the students engage they can all contribute. Approval is the best type of reinforcement and as the skills become more accepted there will be an intrinsic reward that follows. They will start to enjoy the process of rehearsal and the rewards that go with that. The satisfaction comes when they take these new skills and use them successfully in their day to day experiences.
Finally, the way the teacher corrects the dysfunctional behaviour is significant. When the student acts in an inappropriate way it is very important that the feedback is exclusively about the behaviour and nothing to do with the student. We have all witness teachers who, through lack of training or sheer frustration make comments like:
- ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
- ‘Is this your best you can do’?
- ‘Why did you do that’?
These comments put the blame on the student. Instead they should say things like:
- How can we make this ‘…’?
- ‘What can we do this ‘…’?
- ‘What will it look like if ‘…’?
By using language that projects into the future with an improved outcome the student is more likely to be able to imagine a better future.
Teachers who face-up every day to students with such challenging behaviours are also subjected to the challenges of expectations. Over the many years I worked with these difficult kids I rarely, if ever was given the type of encouragement I would give to the students. Children, the authorities identify as bad are generally placed in programs that attempt to make them invisible. The teachers, who work with these kids experience this same insignificance. This is not fair, I contend these teachers should get the most attention for the difficult work they do but, working with these kids any notion that life is fair is soon discarded. Like the kids, you have to cling to the fact that these kids can take control of their actions and when they do they get the real intrinsic reward that drives their behaviour. You also have to look for that same intrinsic behaviour when you see your students taking control of their life. There can be no better reward!