In our review of the previous Newsletters we have tried to underline how the development of a child with severe behaviours is linked to the environment in which they were raised. Understanding the cause of their dysfunctional behaviour will inform the approach we take to help teachers manage and in some cases modify that behaviour. It is important to note that our model does not apply to those children who have genetic disabilities or psychotic illness, as the cause of their behaviour is not developmental. However, it is my experience that the adoption of the interventions we advocate when dealing with these children will be an effective non-medical intervention. All our interventions rely on the provision of an environment that is predictable, consistent and persistent and that provides an environment of safety for both the teacher and student.
Our work is underpinned by two fundamental beliefs:
- Our brain exists to support our life by directing our physical actions in response to threats or opportunities in our environment
- The choice of that action depends on our memory of what worked before to best satisfy our needs
When you consider the demands on our body to continually support life and the complexity of the brain, these factors seem inadequate. However, these underlying principles drive a really complex narrative which will be the theme of these latest Newsletters.
In the last Newsletter we examined the brain and how any conditions in the environment could activate activity to drive behaviour. In this essay we examine the formation of our sense of self that defines our identity and our temperament, this is our consciousness and how we behave in any given situation this will be based on the nature of our ‘self’.
Just how much of our self is determined by our genetics or how we are fostered is the age-old question, is it nature or nurture. There is no doubt our genes do play a part in our character, things like temperament but it is generally accepted that the quality of our family of origin is the main predictor of our personality. In any case, we have little chance to alter our genetic profile (excluding the phenomena of epigenetics) so we need to concentrate on how the quality of their nurturing impacts their future behaviour. So, the ‘sense of self’ is developed in an environment and the characteristics of that environment will play a significant role in the manner in which each individual behaves when they are confronted with similar environmental features.
Those students with dysfunctional behaviours have evolved their responses to various circumstances as a result of the ‘lessons’ they received from their family of origin. This is why mental illnesses such as Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorders are considered developmental, these are learned. The following describes the process of constructing our sense of self!
The schematic shown below illustrates the process by which memories of behaviours, the basis of our sense of self is acquired. This occurs in stages:
- In the first instance we find our self, our sense of self in a situation. If that situation does not threaten our sense of equilibrium then nothing happens. However, if the conditions in the environment impacts on our equilibrium than we have to act to alleviate the stress that is a consequence of this imbalance.
- We have to decide what to do and this will require us to reflect on our memories to decide what we consider the optimal action we should take. These memories are of previous events that have the same or similar threats or promises. This process happens instantaneously condemning these children to those behaviours learned in a dysfunctional home.
- When we act there will be a consequence. The consequence might be that the actions solved the imbalance and we return to equilibrium. This outcome is fed back into our memory and the behaviour is reinforced. If the action does not deal with the problem and the discomfort remains, that outcome is also fed back into our memories and sense of uncertainty changes our memories. We will try a different action until the situation is resolved or we moved on without a resolution.
- Every time this sequence is executed our sense of self is changed and we return to the problem in the environment differently.
You will notice that there are two types of memories on the schematic; emotional and cognitive. There is a significant difference between these which will be addressed later when we examine consciousness in more detail.
Memories begin simply, young children first learn rudimentary behaviours. When they are hungry they need mum to feed them so they learn to cry and (hopefully) when she does a lesson is learned. This link between crying and getting fed becomes a fundamental memory which will modify as the child learns more sophisticated behaviours. The initial memory is not forgotten but becomes much more complex. There is an attachment that coincides with the provision of those things we need, those who support us through these years when we can’t fend for ourselves. For now, we will concentrate on the acquisition of behaviours but it is in these early years children form attachments to caregivers and the security of those attachments will be discussed in a later Newsletter.
These complex memories form a series of schemas across our brain and each will display many of the characteristics of a fractal as seen below. Unlike a fractal they are not an identical repeat of the first pattern but each a slight modification of that first memory.
Within each schema of behaviours associated with the primary memory there will be a leading behavioural candidate for any situation that threatens our equilibrium. This preferred behaviour will have achieved dominance because it has been used successfully the most times. This reflects one of the principles of behaviour development, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. This is not to exclude change. Remember, if the behaviour doesn’t address the disequilibrium then you try different things and your memories change. Nothing is stable!
Life is extremely complex and there are many schemas across the brain in the form of hubs. Recent research has identified 180 separate hubs, specialist fractals of memory and each is connected via axonal pathways. The ability to consider solutions from more than one schema but sampling from other hubs we can create alternate solutions or even unique ones. This blending of memories becomes most effective when our prefrontal lobes mature. This is where our working memory is co-ordinated and that ‘co-ordination’ is the analysis of our connectome!
This ability to combine multiple clues associated with the incoming stimulus from the external world, allows us to combine multidimensional stimulus into a single perception. We then assess the potential effectiveness of any behaviour that we might choose to address that external environment. This connection, our connectome holds all our memories, it is our ‘self’.
From the information above it is obvious that the greatest predictor of a child’s success is the family characteristics in which they are raised. Of course, the child had no choice about where and to whom they were born and this makes a mockery of concepts like meritocracy. And, it must be remembered the concept of guilt becomes much more complicated. What we do know is that those children we focus on come to school with dysfunctional behaviours that they have acquired and it is our task to help them develop alternate ways of behaving, for their sake and the sake of their classmates. Their history does not have to be their destiny and we have the privilege of supporting that change!