Supporting a Sense of Self
Whenever people talk about the qualities of successful people they always cite a healthy sense of ‘self’. This is described in terms like positive self-esteem or self-confidence and there is no doubt that how we feel about our selves really does impact on our performance. The same relationship holds for our students; if they feel confident they approach their lessons with a positive attitude. But, what about those students in our classes who suffer low levels of self-esteem, those who has suffered abuse or neglect or those who come into the system with undiagnosed disabilities. These kids are already at a disadvantage even before they start the lesson!
The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood. In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional. This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions; we ‘feel’ confident.
At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable. At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories. However, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to our emotional sense. It is my understanding that this emotional dominance over our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produce levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met. Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed or cease trying and disengage from their world. This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins what I refer to as toxic shame.
Many, or most of these damaged kids suffer from this toxic shame, that is they expect to fail, they don’t make mistakes, they believe they are mistakes (see Newsletters Toxic Shame – 3rd July 2017 and Faulty Beliefs – 6th November 2019). The challenge for the teacher is to refute this negative mindset by producing a classroom atmosphere where the lesson is no threat to their sense of ‘self’, eliminating the negative impact of their faulty beliefs! By consistently presenting an environment that esteems the student their attitude will change but this is not a quick nor easy solution. Remember, these beliefs have been formed over many years so it may take many years to make a change. The teacher has an opportunity to make this happen.
All beliefs are just memories that are formed in response to our needs and the environment in which we find ourselves. The illustration below crudely explains how this process functions.
The student comes into class from home with a certain attitude, they might be feeling great after a big breakfast and positive encouragement from mum or they might be hungry leaving home early so they didn’t get hit by their angry father who was abusing their mother; this is how they come to the class, their ‘antecedent condition’. The situation is the classroom and the lesson and this is where the teacher has some control. The decision on whether or not to participate depends on how they feel about being in class, do they feel secure and accepted and how the teacher frames the lesson, is it interesting, do they think they can do it!
From then on, the process is much more difficult for the teacher to influence. The student will decide on the action they take and the efforts they make to complete the task. The quality of the results of their work may vary but how the teacher reacts to their effort provides the affective consequence of their actions and that feeds back into their memory, especially their emotional memory! Knowing how this process works and using all your teaching skills you can build a positive sense about their efforts. This acceptance of their attempts can change their sense of ‘self’!
We need to create an environment around building, or re-building their sense of ‘self’ in stages. The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences. The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage! This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.
There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence. It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child. If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they’re NOT a mistake!
As always, the skills the teacher needs to have, other that their pedagogical knowledge is to be able to:
- Have a structured and persistent discipline and welfare policy
- Set understandable expectations for the behaviour and class work
- Develop strong professional relationships with their students
The following Newsletters have detailed descriptions of these features:
- Creating Structure - 12 August 2019
- Structure - 15 June 2020
- Be Persistently Consistent - 26 October 2020
- Expectations - 17 February 2020
- Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking - 25 June 2018
- Special Relationships - 10 February 2020
The road to recovery is incremental, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously. They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.