Be Persistently Consistent
Throughout these Newsletters the importance of being persistent and consistent is constantly reinforced but why is this so significant when our students live in a world that is full on inconsistencies? The following should provide the answer to this puzzle.
Over the many, many years I worked in schools the one thing I heard teachers and principals say to students in trouble was ‘What did you think was going to happen’? or ‘think about what will happen if you do …? To most of us these are fair questions but for very young students, and a special group of kids asking them to predict what will happen to them is a waste of time. Young children are just learning about what happens when they ‘do’ things. It takes time for them to build-up a repertoire of possible consequences for their actions. Consistency helps them create a solid foundation to make predictions from and develops a sense of self-control when the connection between their actions and what happens is reinforced.
However, there are another group of kids that have no idea that their behaviour is in anyway connected to what happens to them. These are the kids who have been raised in very unpredictable, chaotic families. This most often occurs when one or both care givers are incapable of their own consistent behaviour as a result of some significant mental illness especially if they are psychotic or the use of mind-altering drugs. I will illustrate with the story I was told when I was first intolerant about this phenomenon.
When we think about what will happen when we take an action implies we can anticipate the consequence. Now consider the following scenario; a little eight-year-old girl walks into her mother’s room – the think about action, walking into the room and contemplate the consequences that follow:
- It is 7.00 AM, mum is extremely hungover after being out all night and feeling very sick. The response to the girl’s actions goes something like ‘what are you doing here’, ‘I hate you’, ‘I wish I never had you’, ‘Get out of my sight’ or ‘I wish I was dead’ and lashes out trying to hit her. These are the consequences and they would probably be delivered using more colourful language. This is ‘Mum one’!
- The same action at 12.00 noon mum’s still not good but a bit better. ‘What did you get up to last night’, ‘Why can’t you clean up after yourself, you are a disgrace’, ‘I know you didn’t go to bed when I told you’ or ‘how come your brother didn’t have a shower’. Enter ‘Mum two’!
- Its 2.00 PM and mum is feeling a bit better, especially after having a couple of drinks. ‘What video did you watch last night, was it good’, ‘I saw your friend’s mother and she said you had been playing at her place last week’ and so on. Now we have ‘Mum three’!
- 5.00 PM, mum is planning to go out for another bout of drinking. The girl enters the room and mum is desperate to ease her own conscience. ‘How’s my big girl’, ‘You’re like a sister to me’, I’m so lucky I can trust you to look after your brother, you’re so responsible’, ‘let’s go and get a video for you to watch and I’ll give you money so you can order a pizza’ followed by ‘do you don’t mind if I hop out for a little while to see my friends’. This is ‘Mum 4’ one that offers some positive affection!
- 10.00 PM, mum arrives home drunk with some man in tow, someone the daughter has never seen before. ‘Here’s my little princess’, ‘This is Joe he has a car and will take us out to Water World tomorrow’, ‘I have decided next year I will take you to Disney World in the US’, Why don’t I get you that bike you have always wanted’. Finally, ‘Mum 5!
The thing is, what would be the point in asking this girl what would happen if she walked into her mother’s room; she would have no idea; in the example above, I have given just five possibilities there would most certainly be more, increasing her insecurity. For children raised in such homes the idea they have any control over their life is a fantasy – life happens to them! They are left feeling powerless with an undefined sense of self. This uncertainty is carried into the rest of their life including the classroom.
All kids arrive at school and instinctively work out where they fit. Healthy kids struggle at first but soon learn the ‘rules of behaviour’ and quickly settle in. Children raised with uncertainty do not and their confusion is expressed in the following ways:
- Feeling Less Than – It is inevitable that they see other kids getting on with each other and are secure in their behaviour. However, our kids have no idea what to do and it’s no wonder they feel less than everyone else!
- Vulnerable – Of course, these kids feel threatened when they are uncertain. All their life things have happened to them regardless of what they have done. Why would they expect anything else? So every interaction holds the possibility of at least disappointment.
- Guilty – For all of us the early years are the most significant in forming our sense of self. Those early years are also a time when we are very ego-centric, that is we are the centre of the universe and therefore everything that happens is our fault! When things go wrong it’s because they did the wrong thing and they are therefore guilty! This, of course is a faulty belief.
- Dependent – Understandably, these children become very frightened to make any decision for themselves; why would they? Instead of actively living life they have to wait until things happen to them. So, it makes sense to let others decide what to do and just follow on. This becomes a real problem if they get into ‘friendships’ with anti-social groups which is likely to happen.
- Out of Control – This last trait is linked to their dependence, when they are in a position where they have to make-a-decision, that decision is a wild guess acting with hope but no conviction. No wonder they have no sense of control and this results in feelings of hopelessness and despair.
A major theme of our work is underpinned by the understanding that behaviour, in fact all learning depends on the environment in which the behaviour is formed. It is obvious why these kids raised in unpredictable environments have missed out on that condition that would have developed a strong sense of self. The bad news is that it is extremely difficult to change a person’s sense of self because it is formed early in life and becomes very stable. The good news is that it can be changed. By presenting a very structured persistent and consistent set of behaviours in your classroom eventually these children will develop the courage to believe their behaviour can dictate what happens to them.