Patience Required for Real Change
In the last Newsletter that dealt with anxiety we concluded as we often do, the importance of the environment when dealing with students with severe behaviours. Compassionately delivering a persistent, consistent and structured approach to discipline and welfare is the only way non-mental health professionals can help these damaged kids but it is not easy and it takes a good deal of time; therefore patience is required!
It takes time because it requires a change in the beliefs of these children. We first addressed the importance of beliefs way back at the beginning of this blog (see Newsletter 5. – Beliefs – 2 May 2017 and Newsletter 89 - Faulty beliefs – 11 June 2019). They are important because beliefs generate our behaviour. For those damaged kids raised in dysfunctional, abusive and/or neglectful families this task becomes even more challenging. The reasons are complex and I will explain them in a broad and sequential sense.
The purpose of the brain is to allow us to survive in the environment in which we find ourselves. We do this by either acting in a way that protects us from threats or acquiring things that nourish us. Therefore, for every challenging situation we face we have a simple choice about how to act. This will be based on whether this is a threat to my survival or an opportunity to enhance my life. This is the elementary task of the brain and the foundation and characteristics of our ‘beliefs’!
The creation of our beliefs begins at birth. More than any other species human babies are unable to look after their self. They rely on the actions of their primary care-givers and have no choice but to adopt the behaviours that complement the support that is provided. They learn how to act though modelling their carer’s behaviour or by altering their behaviour so that carer will provide them with what they need to survive in a homeostatic manner. These lessons are remembered and become their beliefs, the idea they deliberately make a
‘choice’ about their behaviour is almost meaningless.
The series of illustrations below show how memories are formed and how those memories become our ‘self’, an amalgamation of our beliefs. Either as an infant or an adult the process is the same:
- In the first instance they are in a situation that threatens their security and they act. Through trial and error, they discover whether each action provides a consequence that either improves the situation or makes things worse.
- Over a series of attempts the successful behaviour becomes progressively more powerful, not only having more neural connections but having these connections insulated with a covering of myaline to make them more permanent, they become automatic! At this point our memory is formed which allows us to now choose the behaviour that best worked before when confronted by the same or very similar situations.
- The final illustration shows how we ‘decide’ to act when confronted with a threatening situation. The stimulus from the threat provides the ‘situation’ and by referencing both our emotional and cognitive memories we act. This is our beliefs in action!
Through early childhood we develop a whole system of memories, schemas across the brain that allow us to identify our ‘self’ in our environment. They become the cornerstone of the predictive function of the brain for a given set of circumstances.
We develop an established set of behaviours we expect to work. In other Newsletters (See 125 – Expectations – 17th February 2020) we discussed the process outlined above and how this provided an expectation of how we could navigate the environment.
The expectation is the imagined consequence for a situation based on past experience.
This is where the difficulty is in addressing children with severe behaviours exists. Although it is a complex situation the following relatively simplistic explanation will help.
In any environment an individual will have a multitude of incoming stimulus; estimates vary from 80,000 to one million. It is in the brain the decision is made about which of these we will attend and this will be those who have the potential to threaten us or provide the ‘resources’ to enhance our life. Toby Wise of the University of London points out that people prioritize their attention when determining safety or danger in a busy setting, such as crossing a road. This suggests that people pay more attention to things they have learned associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs. This doesn’t mean the brain isn’t aware of the total environment but because of our beliefs it has predicted where the attention should be focused.
A significant subdivision of the brain, the reticular activity system – a network of neurons located at the top of the brain stem filters information from the external and internal environment and projects these onto the cerebellum for evaluation. Repetitive, meaningless stimuli are ignored while those learned, conditions that effect our wellbeing memories - our beliefs, are considered. The very structure of our brain subconsciously even unconsciously reinforces the importance of our beliefs.
A quick aside, the reticular activity system often referred to as the RAS is promoted as a means of changing behaviour including engaging disconnected students by presenting learning material in a novel way to stimulate interest. Whether this is a valid technique or another fad is beyond this essay but I suspect this would not work with highly damaged students as it requires the student to be in a calm condition.
This is why real patience is required. Students whose severe dysfunctional behaviour have a belief system that has worked for them in the dysfunctional environment in which they were formed. They have these beliefs because they kept them alive; they are their life support. Unfortunately, the behaviours driven by them do not work in a functioning environment like the classroom. Secondly, these beliefs are overwhelmingly formed in early childhood and they are particularly hard to change, they are considered as non-plastic because of the strength of the neural pathway and the efficiency of the myalinated sheaths that protect them. These students have to overcome powerful forces to make necessary changes in their behaviour.
The only way you can change these established beliefs is to engage the process that first formed the memories of the connection between actions and consequences and only when the brain is calm enough to behave in a way that is contrary to their instincts. And, it will only be after you establish new beliefs that the reticular activity system will change its focus and admit positive stimulus.
Changing beliefs in a classroom is predominantly training in relationships and satisfying responses to situations; it is social skills training. A pioneer 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. His techniques are still effective today.
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.
Working with these most difficult kids is extremely difficult and you will need lots of patience and resilience, remember their personal, dysfunctional temperament was put on them by others when they had no defence. If you hang in with them they can learn to take control of their life and function in the classroom and society. When you succeed appreciate what a significant piece of work you have achieved, an outcome that out-weighs any NAPLAN result!