I’ve chosen the title Dysfunctional Boundaries because it is the disorganized quality of some individual’s boundaries that leads to their inability to authentically engage with their community. This is at the heart of our students and our own dysfunctional behaviour. It is no surprise that the formation of protective boundaries occurs in early childhood when we are ‘taught’ to protect our ‘self’. The functionality of a student’s boundaries reflects the environment in which they were formed. Of course, we can put into place physical boundaries where necessary but it is how the dysfunctional boundaries affect teachers in the classroom that is the focus of this Newsletter.
Our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group and this starts to be formed from the moment of birth. How our family of origin treats us dictates the nature of any protection offered by our boundaries. Children raised in functional caring families, at the appropriate age learn the practical, consequential behaviours in response to dealing with a threat or the denial of something desired. Eventually these allow them to:
- Think well of themselves
- Trust others
- Regulate their emotions
- Maintain positive expectations
- Utilize their intellect
- Have a sense of autonomy
However, the majority of children in our classrooms who present as disruptive are rarely raised in such families (see Newsletter 189 - The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour - 14 February, 2022). These students have been reared experiencing three types of parenting, neglect, poor modelling of behaviour and abuse. Of these three, poor modelling and neglect are not as vulnerable to environmental factors. This is not to discount the cognitive damage but this impairment is less significant at the boundary but more in the impaired belief systems that drive their behaviour. Abuse creates the stress reactions at the boundary. The strength of the stress experienced at the time of the presenting violating event replicates the characteristics of the initial abuse. Teachers need to understand that what they may feel is a gross over-reaction by a student to a classroom situation is most likely a reflection of their formative response in similar situations.
Children who are abused not only suffer a range of types of abuse but also the consistency, or not of that abuse. By examining the constancy of the type of abuse will describe the extremes of the reactions to abuse in regards to the form of boundary protection they develop. The extremes are a child who is repeatedly abused the same way in familiar circumstances contrasted with the child who is subjected to abuse in different forms at unpredictable times.
Children who are systematically abused in the same manner learn levels of protection to survive the attack. Take a couple of examples, as a football coach I have seen, predominantly fathers expect their child to place themselves in physical danger say by tackling a bigger, stronger opponent. When the child ‘misses’ a tackle the father heaps verbal abuse on them and then rejects them after the game; this is abuse. In these instances the child who has no desire to play this game will soon learn that the physical risk is less damaging than the rejection. They learn to behave in a way that ‘protects’ them from abuse.
Another more dramatic form of self-protection during assaults is when a child is subjected to sexual abuse from a father, uncle or other type of powerful adult. The abuse is most often followed by a threat, the threat is the child will be punished if they tell anyone. The child is made to believe they were responsible for the abuse, that they caused the defilement, they experience profound shame and because they fear rejection they conceal the desecration. In these cases the ‘protection’ is to dissociate and so when the perpetrator revisits the victim the child will protect themselves by dissociating. This works in a short-term dysfunctional manner.
In the case of consistent abuse the child learns a behaviour that is solely designed to ‘deny’ the abuse by presenting as not being ‘hurt’ by the abuse. I will describe this as building walls to keep the abuse out. These walls can be presenting as funny, angry, disinterested, the list of avoidance behaviours goes on. The thing is these actions never reflect their true stressful feelings.
The unfortunate consequence of locking off the outside world is that the child cuts off any chance to get their own needs met. The illustration below described these walls.
The other type of abuse is the inconsistent, unpredictable type. In the family of origin most often this type of abuse occurs when the caregivers are either addicts or suffer some psychotic illness. In both cases the abuse will be related to the psychological state of the abuser and that is erratic. Unlike the children who are consistently abused these children have no way of anticipating when and how the abuse will materialise and so they can’t establish any defence and become erratic themselves. They are vulnerable to abuse from any source as illustrated below.
The following illustration shows the difference between those children with no learned ‘protection’, those with an exposed core and those who have developed ‘walls’ of behaviour to protect themselves. The differences are explained in reference to five qualities of self-esteem.
Those with no protection are the children it is so easy to identify as being damaged. They see themselves as not only being out of control but also not worth caring about. They are vulnerable, bad and rebellious, dependent on others and of course unable to behave appropriately. Conversely, those who have learned to hide their real feelings believe they must appear to be totally in control, they are good students, invulnerable and independent. These students have learned to hide their real feelings from their immediate families so concealing them in the classroom is no challenge.
It is the second group that I worry about the most as they are difficult to identify and are more often female. I recall a family I dealt with when principal of a school for Conduct Disordered and Oppositional Defiant students. This family came to the school from Cambodia where they had suffered during the reign of Pol Pot. The boy was clearly acting out, reflecting the characteristics of the exposed core. I had reason to meet with the boy’s father and because he could not speak English he brought his daughter to translate. She appeared to be a ‘straight A’ student, polite, well-spoken and articulate the very model of a pupil with a strong wall of protection. I checked with the school and they agreed with my assessment, she was a ‘star’ student. I have no real evidence that I’m right but that girl suffered at least as much trauma as her brother and I suspect, like all females probably more. There is no way she will get any special care from the school, all their support resources are focused on the acting out behaviours. Yet like all those kids living behind walls help should have been provided.
As I have outlined before, there is a growing number of teaching tuitions on dealing with trauma usually described as Trauma Informed Practice. Our opinion on these is best explained in our previous Newsletter 193 (Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD, 13 March 2022). To recap teachers are not mental health professionals nor do they have the time to address these students’ considerable disabilities while teaching in a classroom. This is exactly why we take the approach we do and that is endeavoring to control the amount of stress provoking incidents in the classroom. This is why the calm, safe, predictable and consistent environment managed by a teacher with a genuine warmth towards the children is the best we can do for both the out-of-controlled student and those hiding their pain.
Understanding the damage suffered by these kids and the difficulty of dealing with their protective behaviours in a classroom presents a huge challenge which is not acknowledged by the bureaucracy nor the academic world. But it is a real problem faced by teachers every day. Despite the difficulty these kids present the teacher must not:
- Give up because the repetitive dysfunctional behaviours continue without apparent change, these kids are never a ‘quick fix’
- Become discouraged because students will block approaches. For them to trust others is too risky therefore they avoid relationships. The trick is to hang in longer than they expect you to.
We often hear the characteristic of empathy being a prerequisite for being a ‘good teacher’. I understand the intention behind this belief but I prefer the quality of compassion. Empathy infers you ‘know how they feel’ but it is impossible for anyone to know how it feels to be abused as a child. Even if you have had that experience you can’t know how another feels but you must know it is an horrific form of abuse put on a child when they are unable to defend themselves. These kids are not bad they are injured so never give up on them even if it means they need to be referred to a more suitable environment.