‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is Latin for ‘I think therefore I am’. This is one of the fundamental truths of philosophy but René Descartes’ purpose was to prove our existence. This Newsletter takes a more personal interpretation of this saying. Our behaviour is driven by our memories and this is the thinking that underpins our actions. For kids who have a bank of memories laid down in abusive, traumatic environments, their thoughts almost guarantee dysfunctional actions.
None of us are impervious to thoughts of failure. We all suffer those unwanted thoughts that creep into our psyche when things are not going well. Research has shown that 94% of people experience unwanted thoughts. In extreme cases these intrusive thoughts are at the heart of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where the fear that something bad may happen stops sufferers from living a fruitful life.
Anxiety is at the heart of these unwanted, intrusive thoughts. I’ve just returned from golf and standing over a three-foot putt to make a birdy guarantees my negative self-talk was in full swing. However, my problems pale in significance when you consider the self-talk of those children who have developed early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
We have discussed some of the types of thought patterns when we examined the sense of toxic shame that is interrelated with early childhood PTSD (see Newsletters Toxic Shame, 3rd July, 2017 and Vacuous Shame, 18th September 2017). The belief that they are faulty and not worthy drives their thought patterns and when they face a classroom task those beliefs have them failing before they start.
So, what to do? If you were a therapist you could take the time to help them learn that these are thoughts, they exist and they are powerful but they are fuelled by the student’s own history. But, as a teacher you won’t have the time nor the training to undertake such an intervention. Teachers always have the wellbeing of their students at the forefront and the natural thing to do is support these kids through praise or reassurance.
Both these approaches are at best marginal in helping. Saying things like ‘you can do it’ reinforces the importance of the task. Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University came across a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's in 1863 which stated: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." Wegner conducted a test on his students asking them not to think about a polar bear while undertaking a set task. He found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not there hence ensuring it is. Saying to ignore the negative thoughts ensures they will be present.
Another problem with always reassuring those students is that by doing so you are reinforcing their sense of self and providing attention they may enjoy. You have to remember that they are comfortable with their beliefs, at least they know ‘what will happen.’ Some students embrace their sense of helplessness and become reliant on your reassurance.
Praise is not any more effective. It may work for children under the age of seven as they take all your comments at face value. However, by the time they are twelve they interpret your praise as a sign you think they lack the ability to do the work. By the time they are teenagers they discount praise to such an extent they equate it with criticism (see Newsletter Dangers of Praise 12th September 2018 for discussion on praise).
We are in the business of teaching and correcting mistakes is a key tool in achieving the acquisition of new knowledge. We have to criticise the mistakes all kids make and this is a challenge when dealing with these kids who not only know they have made a mistake, they think they are a mistake, the hallmark of toxic shame. No matter what the problem, be it their behaviour or their classwork you can criticise their work without depreciating the student by following these steps:
Be specific, explain the situation as you see it; ‘this is what is wrong’.
Acknowledge the positive thing that the student has got right.
Empathise, tell them it is not easy for anyone especially the first time they try.
Remain calm, don’t let them see you are frustrated with their efforts even if you know they haven’t really tried. These kids don’t fail on purpose, they fail because they expect to!
Keep to the task at hand. If it is a behavioural problem don’t be side-tracked by discussing something else that happened. Be like a broken record, this is what we have to deal with now.
Be specific in what you want from them. Don’t assume they know what to do even if you have explained it over and over. Kids get the message at different times so be patient. Even if they are trying to annoy you remain professional.
Explain the outcome that will be achieved if they do as you expect. For every action there are consequences and they need to be reminded that they are free to do whatever they want but they will not be free of the outcomes.
Working with these kids is the greatest challenge for any teacher and it is easy to let your guard down. The following are some of the classic mistakes we can make:
Ignore the problem, some behaviour management theorists recommend you ignore problems but only if they are not important. I agree but it is part of the art of teaching and depends on just how good an ‘artist’ you are. Sometimes ignoring is just a sign you are too tired to do the hard thing.
Send a double message, you say the right things but your body language and tone of voice, the non-verbal cues are sending a different message.
Being impatient, don’t hurry through your explanation. This tells them you don’t care, or think they are a waste of time. These kids need more time.
Talking too much or too little. Get in and make your message as effective and efficiently as you can. Kids, everyone gets turned-off when the ‘teacher’ goes on and on. Give them the Goldilocks instructions, not too short, not too long but just right.
Keep your emotions in check, never lose your temper if you lose that you have lost the student.
I’ve called this Newsletter You’re the Voice after a hit song from John Farnham. In our family there is a division about just how good he is but there are parts of the song that teachers can apply to this problem:
‘We have the chance to turn the pages over’
‘You're the voice, try and understand it’
‘With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better’
You are often these kids’ only chance, you have the power to help so be their voice until they can speak powerfully for themselves.
One of the hardest things to achieve when working with students with dysfunctional behaviour is to instil a sense of purpose that is beyond short term satisfaction. In fact, this is a problem for teachers dealing with all students. Any serious examination of life’s purpose leads to a philosophical exploration into what makes a ‘self’!
In the preparation of my new book, currently in print, I spent a good deal of time examining what characteristics I would like the students to have when they graduated from school. I have posted a section from that work (Changing the Child) in the resource section of our webpage, Frew Consultants Group that will outline the conclusion I came to and what I mean by the following characteristics:
Sense of Self – feeling you are of value
Relatedness – able to navigate in your community
Autonomy – having a sense of competence and the confidence in that ability
Aspirations/Purpose – having something meaningful for which to strive
It is this last point that is the focus of this Newsletter.
At the fundamental level our purpose is to survive and reproduce, these two drives control all our behaviour (See Newsletter Drives and Needs - 11th November 2019). When we are threatened or need something in our lives we will become stressed and behave in a way to address the situation. Of course, the drive to survive and reproduce becomes much more complicated as we negotiate our way around our community but all behaviour can be reduced to these fundamentals. I have also uploaded a Chapter from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ in the resource section of the web page that provides a comprehensive explanation of our tri-part brain and how this manages various levels of our integration with our communities.
The focus on aspirations, or purpose has a lot to do with the temporal consideration of our behaviour. When confronted with a stressful situation, if we act ‘in the present’ we are looking at immediate gratification. However, if we can project into the future and act in a way that delays our instant satisfaction for the sake of an enhanced outcome in the future we may well be better off. This ability to resist immediate action or to act in a way that eliminates any future outcome is within our ability. The notion that you can choose to act is vexed and I do not subscribe to the idea of free-will, not in the immediate sense. I believe what we do is determined and is controlled by the memories we have at any given time. So, if we want to change behaviour we have to change the memories. The hypothesis that all behaviour is driven by our memories underpins all our work.
This temporal perspective gives some insight into the significance of having a purpose. The USA’s Declaration of Independence looked to articulate the purpose of their Government and that was expressed in the following:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Those who know me will not be surprised that I’m no fan of the American system of Government and I feel the last four words of this declaration reveals its very weakness. Happiness is about living in the present; it’s about getting what you want – now! This approach ties the individual to external forces. If happiness is about getting it follows that we are taking from our external world. That’s fine while it is available but there are at least two problems. The first is that, if we rely on the external world to provide our happiness we are at the mercy of things, and relationships that are beyond our control and control is critical for our self-esteem.
The second is more specific to the children we focus on. Their external world has provided abuse and neglect leaving them with behaviours that encourage further rejection when they try to integrate at school. If we want to help them we need to provide them with the tools to get a purpose that does not rely instantly on others but act in a way that will provide internal satisfaction in the future; we have to give them a future oriented meaning for their behaviour - meaningfulness.
Meaningfulness is all about looking to the future, delaying gratification for future reward. It is a path that often forces the student to forgo happiness to pursue their future goals. This can increase the probability of challenges and setbacks that increase their level of stress. Living a meaningful life is not easy.
To cultivate this quality in children who have been raised in an environment that has almost completely destroyed any hope for the future is extremely challenging. It is human nature that our expectations of our future are based on the experience of our past. The past for these kids has provided little or no real occasions of things that have made them satisfied.
As happiness relies on ‘getting’ things or friendships, meaningfulness requires the student to ‘give’ to the outside world. It comes from contributing to others, helping others which means forgoing your own ‘happiness’.
So, how do we develop purpose in our students, especially those who have never had hope about the future? As I said at the beginning, this is one of the hardest qualities to instil in a dysfunctional child.
The first thing is to teach the importance of contributing to the external world be that in learning how to share, to work in charitable activities, to participate with others in a way that teaches the community set of values. So many of our Newsletters have dealt with the structure, particularly the moral value of the environment but it is important to provide this milieu so the students can move from that foundation into the future. This is the environment in which they will develop new memories that change their sense of self.
For purpose we need to not only focus on the environment in the classroom but also the work we ask each child to do; this is where goal setting is valuable. When a child reaches a goal, it provides them with an intrinsic reward which is really a new memory associated with a pleasant emotion. At first these are short-term goals; abused kids don’t have the luxury of delayed gratification and they won’t stay engaged. If they are working on a longer project, because the class is more advanced, then set a long-term goal and break it down into bite sized short term goals that allow you to manufacture their intrinsic reward. Setting goals is an excellent way of encouraging these kids as long as they are attainable. If they are too hard they will give-up and you will be reinforcing their negative sense of self.
Finally, expose them to as many different experiences as you can. We want these kids to have a meaningful life but it is not our job to tell them what to pursue, what becomes their purpose. Give them choice and trust them, eventually to make a meaningful choice!
In my career I often heard parents lament, I just want my child to be happy. I understand that but the pursuit of happiness is full of risks. The reliance on ‘others’ inevitably leads to disappointment. As a teacher it is important that you want your students to live a life with meaning!
Throughout these Newsletters we have consistently maintained the premise that the majority of children who display dysfunctional behaviour at school have a history of abuse and/or neglect that is the cause of their problematic conduct (we have excluded those children whose behaviour is driven by a physical anomaly such as developmental delay, psychosis or autism). Although we understand there is a real difference between the consequence of abuse and the resulting trauma (see Newsletter - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse – 11/06’2017) and neglect (see Newsletter - The Impact of Neglect 09/12/2017) the merger of both has often occurred for convenience and is the reflection of the reality some children experience.
This combination has long been accepted and as early as 1995 psychologists formalised the impact of both neglect and abuse through the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) index. This index categorise sufferers based on the number of the following childhood experiences:
mental illness of a household member
problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member
illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member
divorce or separation of a parent
domestic violence towards a parent
In the US over half of all children had suffered at least one of these events.
However, just because there is a strong propensity for these children to experience both abuse and neglect the approach to healing these kids is complex, requires very specialist training and is not nor should be the task of the classroom teacher. However, we contend that for the classroom teacher the practice we outline is the same regardless of the complexity of the child’s history.
Since the time early childhood trauma and neglect was properly accepted as a significant cause of behavioural dysfunction there was a spate of training programs that advertised themselves under the heading of ‘trauma informed practice’. From these, teachers were instructed to change their teaching, regarding their behaviour management practices to cater for these kids. This was setting an impossible task for the teacher and providing no real help for the student.
For the teacher, there is at least two problems; the first I have alluded to above. Teachers are not mental health professionals and are not equipped to deal with the specifics of the cause of the behaviour. To modify your behaviour management practices and cater for the individual requires you to really understand the cause of the behaviour and the best way to address that cause. For a therapist in a one-hour face to face consultation it is hard enough, to think you can do this in a classroom with 30 other kids is farcical.
The second problem is that by making allowances for abnormal behaviour does not provide the student with the experience of ‘normal’.
The complexity of dealing with this problem is not surprising, each kid comes with 80 billion neurons that are shaped by unique experiences. In the broadest possible manner, we can put these kids’ inappropriate development into the following categories:
Post-Traumatic Stress Development (PTSD) – here the child experiences an assault on their physical or psychological sense of self that evokes a stress response that is beyond their ability to cope (see reference above). This damages the ability to deal with situations that repeat the conditions of the original abuse, or circumstances that resemble those conditions. When the environmental conditions change the intense reaction steadily returns to normal. These kids are often engaged at school.
Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD – this is the result of frequent and sustained abuse. The abusive incidents occur at such a frequency and without warning the child finds it difficult the address any stressful situation. They have missed those periods of normalcy, peaceful times when they could have learned some coping mechanisms for those day to day disturbances. So, when they confront the minor stressors found in in any classroom, the traumatic memories evoked are beyond their ability to cope.
Deprivation/Neglect – These children have not had the exposure of experiences that allow the child to develop a rich variety of encounters that build their memories. As teachers we understand the importance of kids being exposed to a lot of different environmental events to build a rich palate of memories. For these kids not only do they miss out on any variety they fail to be exposed to the most necessary, fundamental experiences:
Affection, this is the key to developing strong attachment and a positive sense of self.
Attention is required for a child to get their needs met. When they are hungry they cry and get fed. Of course, these strategies change as they get older but the thing is the child gets a sense of control.
Structure is crucial for a child to get a sense of safety. It gives the child the ability to predict what will happen in a given situation. After relationships, the provision of a structured classroom is crucial for all students to learn.
Guidance or lack of appropriate guidance never allows the students to be taught how to operate in social settings. Little kids regard their parents as being the gold standard for behaviour. They have nothing to compare with in their formative years. More often than not these kids have no social skills and so they are unlikeable.
However, as teachers you are left to deal with these very needy kids without the resources you require. We need to take our lead from the mental health experts and for any therapist dealing with these individuals the first thing they do is try to emotionally stabilise them before they can work on their problems. Our task is to provide an environment that allows them to ‘stabilise’, this is at the core of our work. The teacher’s essential task is to present a learning environment that has defined structure, clear expectations and supportive relationships. These conditions must be in place before meaningful school work can be achieved.
There is no dispute that in our schools, prejudice exists but it should not be tolerated. However, it is hard to achieve a state where all kids feel equal. More importantly, because teachers are more mature, educated and developed, the propensity for us to unconsciously act with prejudice is elevated.
This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.
The basic characterisation of prejudice is our judgemental attitude to others based on their ‘group’. Usually, it is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider inferior to our values. There is the reverse situation where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us. The significance of this propensity to compare has its beginnings in evolution.
Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain. This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning. This coincided with the time we became a social species a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups bonded.
This advantage continued but a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other tribes. This became a matter of us being safe in the in-group and others in the out-group were dangerous. As this was a matter of survival we learned to quickly identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’
The resulting cognitive alterations, situated in the brain’s emerging limbic system allowed us to survive and thrive because of this co-operation with others. The ability to identify with our group not only depended on our compliance to the social norms but we quickly obtained the ability to critically examine others’ behaviours and reject any differences. The mechanics of this perceived animosity began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat.
Research has shown that when people think in a prejudice manner the amygdala lights-up, that is, it is activated. This reaction was first observed when white men in the US were shown pictures of other faces. Their amygdala was more active when shown pictures of black, Afro-Americans indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response. However, the same anxious response has occurred when shown faces of other races, aggressive women or opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think is ‘other’.
The broad result is that we view others as being different and in fact we believe those ‘others’ to be homogeneous, to be ‘all the same’! For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals. However, if you see a white man of a similar age and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’! We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction.
This marked the emergence of self-consciousness, that is we became aware that we were an individual separate from but belonging to others. We also became selfish, understandable in survival. Within the group it payed-off to share, we won together. But with those groups that were not part of us it was a benefit to denigrate them; these outsiders represented a threat.
This prejudice has an impact on health. Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress. The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging.
So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps it was in the first instance but this is not the case now. The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.
On an individual basis the brain develops over time. The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth. This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment. It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not respond to differences in race, gender or class. In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends. Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.
However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured, dropped this inclination towards social diversity. This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens. It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also drives this need to discriminate in a micro sense. This meant to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of the out-group.
This is the period of the evolving teenage brain. From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations. You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you. The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way. However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley, at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger. The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us. This means prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!
The good news is we can unlearn prejudice. We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:
Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm
Developing quota for positions of power. There have been attempts to do this and with great success. France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal. A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved. There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!
The real driving factor for change is role models. This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics. Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape. In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol. Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.
In his last years playing football Adam Goodes was, in every game he played booed whenever he got the ball. Some commentators said this was not racism, it was just that the crowd didn’t like the way he played and that other aboriginal players were not booed. A common reason given was that he ‘called out’ a young girl who described him as an ape. The next day Goodes explained he did not blame the girl and she needed to be supported. He called out the behaviour she had ‘learned’ from an adult. Despite this the apologists kept referring this as him attacking the girl!
I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point, Adam Goodes made the mistake of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out! The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!
Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter? Well we focus on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment. The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families. They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream.
However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances. Exploited on the basis of their life long rejection. They are finally convinced they now have the security of belonging. To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group. They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees. They finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them. All too often this was their school!
If we want to really support these kids all Australians should look at how their own values are reflected in the schools they support. Elite private schools, religious and public selective schools all reinforce social prejudice. They view the public, comprehensive school that serves the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior. This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament, sadly both major parties must take responsibility for this.
As teachers, we have to check our own preferences in where we want to work being sure that a desire to teach in these needed schools does not expose your own belief that some kids are ‘better than’ and it follows, others are not.
Concerns over the forced on-line development in the education of our school students has focused on many of the obvious issues such as the availability of efficient connectivity, the disparity across the socio-economic divide regarding the suitability of devices and data access in some areas. Of course, there is the issue regarding the discrepancies that will result from the inequality regarding university entry. These are real issues however, there is a more urgent and pressing dilemma that I have yet to see identified. That is the delivery of on-line lessons for the youngest of our student population such as kindergarten.
I concede that today’s generation will continue to develop in an on-line world and will progress behaviours that allow their applicable needs to be satiated in that environment but, this can only occur after they have developed a robust sense of self. Your sense of self matures in the early years of one’s life and is the child’s emerging repertoire of behaviours to satisfy physical and more significantly social needs. These occur at the interface between the child and their significant other, in the first instance their primary care giver.
In a perfect world the child tries different actions to get what they want. Things such as crying when they are hungry work and in attentive families and those care-givers will, over time provide them with alternate behaviours like ‘asking’ for what they want. We enjoy watching children learning to walk and most kids get positive reinforcement during the clumsy period prior to mastery. This reinforcement is conveyed through the emotional content of the encouragement as the infant is in the very early stages of cognitive development.
Socially, the first of these needs, to belong is tied-up in the attachment of the child first to the primary care-giver and later to the extended family. As they age the numbers of human interactions that become part of the child’s behaviour extends. From about age three the drive extends from attachment, the more intimate sense of belonging on to that of affiliation, the ability to behave in such a way as to get their needs met from their peers. The maturation of these behaviours continues throughout life but the decisive repertoire will be locked-in by about age seven. To achieve full relational development, children need to be in a physical environment where they continue to refine behaviours through trial and error. How effective their behavioural attempts are is assessed through the emotional acceptance from the target of their behaviour.
Even in a ‘perfect world’ infants need continued and expanded social interaction in a physically intimate environment, such as the classroom and playground. This is not available on-line.
Seemingly, this is a minor problem for many children however the isolation is devastating for children with social disabilities and those who live in abusive or neglectful homes! Our focus has been on helping teachers support these children who have developed behaviours that are functional in their own defective environment but clash with the character of their school. For these kids, going to school not only provides protection from the abuse it also exposes them to an alternate social setting, one that more closely reflects that of the general community.
These children who have suffered early childhood abuse and/or neglect are already disadvantaged and, unlike those who are raised in functional families who will only suffer the loss of personal interaction during the early years at school, require many more years in a predictable, consistent and caring school environment. They not only need to learn new behaviours they have to, in a sense unlearn those entrenched behaviours they acquired to survive during their early years.
If on-line learning continues for a significant length of time, the five-year-old missing out on Kindergarten will have a much more significant impact on their long-term learning than the current senior students who have already acquired their fundamental social skills.
During this stage of the COVIT-19 pandemic we have been forced out of the natural pattern of our normal life. The need to socially isolate is important and we all have to play our part if we are to get back to the things we love especially teaching the kids at your school. We are at the relative beginning of the lockdown and during the ‘holidays’ you may be feeling just a bit inconvenienced however, the experts are telling us this will go on for at least two weeks and may continue for months.
In anticipation of the worst scenario and given that, at this time we are still reasonably resilient it is time to get prepared so we get out at the other end intact.
If you don’t already you may start to experience restlessness and irritability. Little things become major issues especially in relationships. Things your spouse or the kids have always done that just annoy you can become appalling. The increase in your stress levels and the probability of considerable conflict are serious concerns for your mental health. Research has shown that having negative emotions increases the likelihood of getting a respiratory illness by 2.9 times. The evidence from China shows a three-times increase in domestic violence. This is not likely to happen but lessons from other times of crisis and the current over-seas experience should make us be prepared for the dangers. Don’t forget the video of the people fighting over toilet paper!
You may experience some of the common effects of isolation which are:
Sadness or depression
Lack of patience
Changes in weight
Inability to cope with stress
There are some actions we can take to get through this very difficult time. These are:
1.Have a Routine
Plan your day, what time you get up, meal times, work times and some time for fun. Structure gives us predictability and a sense of safety that makes us calm.
2. Don’t surf Television, social media or the net
Don’t just grab the remote and channel surf – it’s a sure way to compound your feeling of isolation and hopelessness. Use your Television and social media in a positive and constructive way. For example, plan an event such as watching a movie or a series, tell the other people in your house and invite them to join you. Maybe an introduction to the movie, like - why you chose it, who directed it what else have they done etc. A little research and some background to your shows will add value to the activity and enhance the viewing experience for yourself and others.
Plan your entertainment (reading, listening, viewing, streaming, etc.). Investing more in the process gives us more back by adding meaning to the things we do. Sometimes we need more than cotton wool for the brain.
Remember - the Television doesn’t have to be on. When the show is over, turn the Television off, turn it back on when there is something you know you want to watch.
3. Set Goals
Set out to achieve something each day. If you just lie about binging on TV shows the feeling of powerlessness is reinforced but when you achieve your goal, and it doesn’t have to be too challenging you get a feeling of achievement, you feel worthwhile.
4. Create ‘Zones’ in the House
Some will be working from home so have a designated place for work to be done. It could be the place the whole family uses, the kids for their school work if appropriate. Have other places for hobbies, socialising. The thing is when you move from one place to the other the change of location gives a small sense of being able to ‘move about’ something that has been taken from us.
The least you should do is get outside and if possible, go for a walk maintaining social distancing - if you have stairs even walking up and down those for a few minutes will help. If you have a sport or hobby take this time to work on your ‘skills’. Make this part of your routine. There are plenty of sites on the internet for appropriate exercises I found 522,000,000 results in 0.69 seconds when I typed in ‘exercise for golfers’ – the same numbers are there for most activities!
6.Use your Brain
It is easy to become passive consumers and pass the time on mindless past times. I am not suggesting that you don’t watch TV or participate in some video games but you do need to use your brain. Paradoxically you will become more mentally tired from not using your brain and invigorated when you do. Finish a cross word, read a book, write to friends, organise your photos, start-up a new hobby - there are plenty of things that will keep you occupied.
7. Look After Your Diet
With so much time on your hands and with the temptation of a quick snack it is easy to over indulge. Increased food consumption is a danger but with the extra time it is an opportunity to think about planning a better diet. Good health is linked to good eating habits and now might be a time to make that change.
Take control of your alcohol consumption, most of us enjoy a beer, a good wine or the occasional spirit but like food, with the increase in anxiety caused by the current situation and the amount of time you could have a drink it is too easy to take refuge in the bottle.
8. Maintain Your Relationships
Just as loved ones can annoy you the can make you feel special. Part of your daily plan should be to talk with the others in the house, your spouse and your kids. Talk about things you did in the past, holidays, any moments that were special to you (turn the TV off and put the phones away).
Have a ‘Formal Friday’ when you get dressed up and have a good meal, a favourite beverage with music in the back ground, it’s your night out for the week.
Don’t forget to stay in touch with friends and family while isolated. Make this part of your daily structure and plan to ring at least two people a day. It’s not a bad idea to ring someone you have not called for a while. It will give you a chance to catch-up and them a nice surprise.
9. Limit your exposure to news
Limit your daily news to two reliable, accurate sources only, access them twice a day and don’t google your day away going down various rabbit holes that will take you nowhere that you will gain personal growth understanding satisfaction or inner peace.
For some this period of time with the uncertainty and financial hardship may require special help. Never be afraid to reach out to professionals, your GP or go to any of the on-line services like Beyond Blue, Mental Health Australia Mental health Support Services, Lifeline or the many others available on line.
In the previous Newsletters (see Conversations - 10th March 2020 and The Inner Critic - 17th March 2020) we focused on helping those students with dysfunctional behaviours regain a positive sense of self about themselves. These ‘improvements’ are only effective if they can blend with their outer world. No one is an island, we live in a community and we need that community to get our social needs at least met. Happiness or as I would say homeostatic equilibrium is highly correlated with having close, personal relationships – the powerful need to belong.
As always, children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect miss out on developing the skills that support the development of such relationships. The thing is, the behaviours they develop to protect themselves drive others away or in a closed community like a classroom and they become ostracised.
Ostracism comes from a practice in ancient Greek culture when those who ‘displeased’ the community were sent away for 10 years as punishment. Today, we still see it as a form of punishment, ‘Time Out’ is a useful practice in schools where students are excluded for a period of time because their behaviour was not acceptable (see Time Out – 17th July 2017). It is rightly seen as a more humane negative consequence than alternatives, historically corporal punishment.
However, ostracism can be an extreme form of cruelty. We have all seen children excluded often because they don’t ‘meet the standards’ of the dominant group. The classic example is the ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena where a group of girls reject an individual. Boys, all kids suffer from being ‘left out’ of a team, an activity even a birthday party. Teachers understand the power of eye contact, children who are distressed because someone ‘looked at them’ or the subtler weapon of ‘refusing to make eye contact’.
It seems the most damaging times for this to occur is about age eight to nine when kids have not yet learned how to protect themselves, not learned discretion and from thirteen to fourteen years when developing kids place a high value in belonging to a group.
Most usually it is the children who have not learned the social skills required to belong that are the target of social rejection and these are the very kids we are focussed on. The girls are most likely to be frozen out of the group, the classic Queen Bee behaviour but they will do anything to be accepted back. The boys, on the other hand are more likely to react in violent ways. The extreme examples are seen too often with the tragic school shootings.
To address this situation, we need to reverse the problem of being ignored and we do this by the use of effective social skills. That is, behaviours that we use to effectively communicate with others to get our needs met in a socially acceptable manner. These behaviours are either verbal and/or non-verbal that reach out in a manner that results in a mutually beneficial interaction.
The non-verbal expression is important, especially if you are meeting for the first time. In reality we all do make initial judgements about ‘strangers’ long before they open their mouth. Foremost is how interesting they appear, their clothes, how they stand and if they are projecting a sense of friendship towards us, that is, are they smiling, making appropriate eye contact? Of course, what will ‘make them interesting’ is how much they are either like us or appear to like us. The value of any ‘relationship’ is how much they support our needs.
The value of the actual communication that takes place also depends on how we see the person contributing to us. The content of the conversation needs to have a cultural match. By this I mean if I’m trying to belong to a group of basketball fans I really will be more successful if I tap into their interest. I probably would strike out if I started to discuss the implications of the Reserve Banks latest interest rate cuts or vice-versa. Not only should we express opinions perhaps more importantly we need to listen to what is said.
How do we teach these skills to our troubled, excluded kids? Like most things we have communicated in these latest Newsletters we need to become the substitute parent, create the environment that allows these important skills to develop. The following steps will help:
1. Identify the Problem
There will be plenty of times, those teaching moments when you witness your students failing to effectively relate to their peers. It is appropriate to stop what you are doing to take advantage of this moment and explain to the class what is really happening. Point out how important belonging is to everyone in the class, what didn’t work and importantly what would. This is a time when you can ‘cash-in’ on the relationship you have built up. All the kids, especially the one who has made the social blunder can feel threatened.
2. Set Goals
There are countless ways in which social faux pas occur. These can generally be described as ‘bad manners’; things like grabbing something without asking, talking over the top of others, etc. An effective goal that addresses a lot of social incompetence is to identify and teach good manners.
First you have to teach what is socially effective manners. Remember, these kids learned the behaviours they are displaying in an environment where they worked. Some families sit around the dining room at meal time and if they want the salt they are taught to ask for it with a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’. Other kids, most likely the ones we are concerned with may well eat in front of the television, take-a-way and have no need to ask, they learn if you want something you take it without asking just like mum and dad. So, you have to teach manners!
Then you have to practice. Initially you can teach the skills directly through role play activities. Social skills training is usually a ‘teaching moment’ activity, that is you take the opportunity to engage in a quick lesson before moving back to the lesson plan for the day. However, some tough classes need a more formal approach. I have used pre-set scenarios to initiate role play between two, or sometimes more and have the rest of the class evaluate the participants effectiveness in solving the social problem. For example, the card might read “Jack has just taken your coloured pens without asking and you need them. He is refusing to give them back”. Two students would randomly select a role, either Jack or the other and act out that scene. They would be evaluated, the class suggest alternate approaches and redo the scene, you can even change the participants and continue until everyone thinks the problem is solves to a satisfactory level.
3.With younger students I have even run a ‘Behaviour Lotto’ when students get points every time they identify ‘correct’ behaviour. Points also go to the student who has displayed that behaviour. Whatever source you use, be sure to reinforce the positive behaviour.
Finally, as always model what you want. These dysfunctional kids learned their inappropriate behaviour from their role models. Make sure you are the role model for the behaviours that will allow them to successfully belong with their peers!
This Newsletter is a break from the recent theme that we have been following. This is because in the current climate with the development of COVID-19, schools have become a very difficult place to be. It is important to remember sustained elevated stress is a problem to our physical and psychological health.
We are very much at risk of being overcome by hysteria. Bad news travels fast and too many people are very willing to circulate false or sensational messages through social media. Children are particularly susceptible to this problem.
This is not to suggest COVID-19 is psychological, it is most definitely not and there is real need to be anxious. The thing is not to let your anxiety morph into fear and impair your ability to make good decisions.
The very definition of mass hysteria is a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behaviour or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness; that is, they are unable to make logical conclusions. With the confused information distributed by the government, some states closing schools, others not but telling parents to keep their kids home. This along with the saturated news coverage and the access to unreliable social media posts, the potential for hysteria to emerge is real.
So, what to do? Stress is a reaction to internal or external threats (see Newsletters ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017 and ‘Anxiety’ – 24th July 2017 for a detailed description) and this is what drives behaviour. It is a critical factor that is often not understood and that is when you are stressed you will make behavioural decisions from the part of your brain that is connected to the threat. In this case it will be the emotional brain and in adults this part of the ‘thinking process’ is hardly cognitive. We cling to hope and in our emotional/social brain we go to the immediate community for help. This is a time when we need to go to the experts for assistance.
Dealing with stress is extremely difficult when you are under attack and today you’re being threatened by a disease, a loss of so much social support and really being told to work in what others are calling a dangerous environment. The advice to ‘just stay calm’ underrates the immense pressure you are being asked to work in.
Throughout our work we have talked about stress and the need for our difficult kids to control this. Now it’s time for us all to apply those techniques to this situation. This is by applying boundaries between yourself and the presenting problem (see Newsletter ‘Boundary Considerations’ – 31st July 2017). The steps are:
1. Stay Calm
I know this is difficult but it is very important. Take a few deep breaths, count to ten or even repeat this deep breathing for a minute. You can take the edge off your anxiety if you do this.
2. Ask the Questions
What is Really Happening?
In this instance we are being threatened by an epidemic that has real potential to alter our lives; realistically it already has. But, we must keep this in perspective. The Corona Virus-19 is one of a series of Corona Viruses. So far most will have slight symptoms and those who get ill will survive. The most at risk are the elderly and those who are immunocompromised; that is are having treatment for aides, cancer or other medical condition.
Who is Responsible?
Really at this stage it is pointless to blame anyone however, when we get through this it is prudent we assess the performance of those who have been in charge of the community response.
What Do I Want to Happen in the Long-Term?
This is the critical question and I’m sure we would all like things to return to normal. Maybe that will never happen, maybe this will make us re-think our selfish attitudes and become a more compassionate society. However, the immediate task is to follow the advice from the experts. This is available from reliable sources and remember whenever you start to feel overwhelmed apply these boundary questions to remain calm and logical – it’s our best chance.
Marcia and I wish you all the best in these uncertain times. Look after yourself and as always be the person you want your kids to become.
"I think I can. I--think--I--can. I ---think--I—can” are the famous words from the American fairy tale The Little Engine that Could. This is the well-known story that encourages the values of optimism and hard work and in 2007 it was voted into one of the top 100 books for children by the American National Education Association. Of course, I am a fan of positivity and effort but only if it is authentic. The reason I cite this work is to illustrate the influence of the thoughts, the words have on the outcome; the little engine succeeds in the end.
This Newsletter follows the previous one (See Conversations 10th March 2020) and continues to examine the power of words!
Just what is self-talk or our inner voice? It is what we experience when we are thinking, that verbal dialogue when we are conscious of our thoughts. In its developed form it takes place as a dialogue between two or more assessments of a situation. In our model it is the process of making-a-decision on how to act to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium, to feel satisfied and safe. The words we use reflect the internal state of our memories about this or similar situations, they are learned. However, our ability to ‘try out’ different scenarios to solve a problem in our heads depends on what we have accumulated from our existing environment.
Since the advent of modern functional imaging of our brains we have been able to take a closer look at the process. For the most part the same parts of the brain are activated when you are having a conversation with another person as happens when you are engaging in self-talk. The areas of the brain are Broca’s area with the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus but the internal dialogue activates more neural areas. This reflects the two conditions; when talking to another we primarily act on our perception from the outer world while during self-talk our perceptions are internally generated and are less prescriptive, that is we are exposed to a range of options.
Like all behaviours and the memories that underpin them, self-talk is a learned practice. From as early as the 1920’s Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky recognised this internal, private voice and hypothesised that this private speech developed out of the child’s social dialogue with parents or primary caregivers. Recently it has been established that the internal dialogue becomes dominant at about age four, almost coincidently with the emergence of the child’s theory of mind and sense of separation; that is, they are aware they are unattached from others and their thoughts are private. In a sense this is the beginning of Freud’s Super Ego the critical, moralising self that judges us relative to cultural expectation.
During these Newsletters we have discussed the type of development young children who are raised in abusive/neglectful environments experience. This is summed-up in the type of dialogue used by those who suffer Toxic Shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017). The narratives they learned, ‘you’re useless’ – ‘you are hopeless’ – ‘don’t do that’ – ‘you can’t do that’ become the storyline of their internal voice. Changing this, to become like the Little Engine is difficult because, paradoxically there is a soothing quality to these messages. The child is at least familiar with these words and has some knowledge of how to deal with them albeit this acceptance impedes efforts to make a change for these kids. This is at the heart of the struggle in helping to make a change.
So, what to do?
As becomes evident in this work, teachers have to present an environment that allows the children to develop behaviours that suit that environment and let go of those evolved during their dysfunctional past. In this case we have to provide the storyline we want them to adopt. When talking to them replace their shame-based comments self-talk with more appropriate remarks, instead of their ‘I’m useless’ say ‘I know this is hard but you can do this’.
Never be afraid to teach children about how their thought processes work – this will empower them, and as an aside it is important you understand your own potential inner critic. We live in a ‘thou shall not’ type of world and working with these kids is hard enough without the burden of your own destructive self-talk! So, teach them:
They have the power to manage their own thoughts
They can treat the internal critic as a competitor to be ignored or overcome – answer back with a positive, counter assertion
Take a reality check, just what is the internal voice telling you. You can’t change if you don’t know from what
Recognise where these thoughts come from, they are memories of past experiences that do not have to be repeated
Have a goal, if we want to replace the negative past we have to have an imagined future. Setting goals gives our behaviour a purpose and shapes our new self-talk
Finally, and most importantly when you script a positive self-narrative never refer to yourself in the first person, never ‘I’ or ‘Me’ but speak of he, she or use your name. A great illustration of this occurred when Le Bron James, the famous basketball player was contemplating a change of teams on 2010. He was quoted as saying “one thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision, I wanted to do the best for what Le Bron James wanted to do and make Le Bron James happy”; this is not a sign of egotism but of taking the emotion out of the decision. We are all very good at giving others calm good advice. It is time to do the same for yourself.
Self- talk can be a destructive force in all our lives but the kids we focus on, those very difficult ones really suffer from a constant, internal critic that is the voice of their past memories and emotions that in turn, drive their dysfunctional behaviour. By providing them with an alternate narrative and reinforcing this by teaching them how to use another supportive dialogue you can help them regain control over their behaviour.
Just as a post-script, it probably is unhealthy for any of us to have a 100% positive spin on life. We are human, we have limits and we certainly make mistakes. I can say ‘I think I can ... I know I can … ’ about lots of things that are well beyond my abilities. This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human and that’s good enough for me and should be for everyone else. But, I should know that I deserve to have every opportunity in this life and so do our kids!
In the previous Newsletter (see ‘The Importance of Emotions’ 3rd March 2020) we discussed not only the importance of the emotional condition of the student in the lesson but also the difficulty the teacher has in determining that state. To avoid misinterpreting how the child is feeling and the problems that can cause, we turned to conversation to clarify the real emotional situation. However, like all things about educating those difficult, damaged students it in very likely these kids struggle to make meaningful conversations.
It was first acknowledged as early as 1995 that children from low socioeconomic areas were behind in their language skills. Claudia Wallis in her article ‘Talking with—Not Just to—Kids Powers How They Learn Language’ (Scientific American Mind May/June 2019) points out that these kids are likely to hear 30 million less words than their peers from wealthier groups. This figure is an average, of course there are wealthy families that don’t talk that much and the converse is true but it holds as an average.
I have no problem hypothesising that children from abusive and particularly neglectful families will have an even greater disparity. The well documented effect abuse and neglect has on over all brain development will exacerbate this problem.
John Gabriel of the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology has confirmed the early hypothesis but has realised that it is not just the number of words they hear, the quantity but the way in which they hear them, the context. That is, it is hearing the words in conversation that is the factor and the better the quality of that conversation the better the development of the child’s conversational skills. In fact, it has been calculated that every additional conversation increases the child’s verbal ability.
In a future Newsletter I will discuss the importance of self-talk in self-managing behaviour. It is widely accepted that we think in word, that is we talk to ourselves about the situation we experience. Of course, it is not that simple we experience emotions, especially things that frighten us without a dialogue. One view is that the words follow the feelings another view is the two are linked and, as we will explore, self-talk can influence emotions. Either way, kids with traumatic backgrounds are disadvantaged. First, they will have a limited vocabulary which will restrict the breath of their thinking, therefore their behavioural options. Secondly, the emotions they mainly experience will be of anxiety and fear. Therefore, we should do everything we can do to increase their conversational skills. After all self-talk is a conversation with someone who should be your best friend – yourself and so the richer we can make this the better will be our relationship with ourselves, our sense of self!!
We need to be a bit more specific when describing conversation, it needs to be a real exchange, not the teacher ‘talking’ to the student but what is described as conversational twinning or duets. This back-and-forward exchange means the student has to understand what the conversation is about, that is really comprehend what was said and then respond appropriately. For abused kids this is definitely not likely to be an easy task. They rarely participate in family conversations and are less likely to be expected to have an opinion. So, how do we develop this critical skill, for these kids in a busy classroom?
There is a wealth of excellent information on teaching conversation available on the web and teachers, especially in primary school are well trained in this practice, so the following comments, although appropriate for all students are really aimed at our special kids.
If you work in a school that has some of these students, and that most likely means all of you reading this, it is important to create a planned part of your day that provides an opportunity to develop conversation. This can be group discussions, circle activities where you create a continuous conversation one sentence per person around the circle or one on one conversations about topics you introduce. You can design spaces, say in a library that encourage children to talk together or ask open ended questions that challenge children to go deeper as they express ideas.
Be aware of the character of your students, some will love to dominate any conversation, they love the sound of their own voice. These kids can severely intimidate kids who lack the confidence to join in, they are afraid of being exposed. Don’t force the issue, if you push them to participate their anxiety will increase and the conversation will be lost. Of course, some kids are generally quiet and are happy to listen.
There are plenty of strategies, things like working in pairs, having circle discussion moving around with each child contributing to build a conversation, this encourages them to listen. As pointed out above a conversation requires the participant to understand what was said before constructing a suitable reply. Dominant members of the circle are prone to just wait for the other to stop talking so they can have their say. Teachers should be aware of this, in the unequal authority between teacher and student it is easy for the teacher to ‘know what should be done’! This is disastrous but I know I am often guilty of this very thing. If you have to, teach listening skills!
The next thing is to decide on what topics to teach. This is up to the imagination and creativity of the teacher, there is no real limit. But, it is not always easy to get the right topic at the right time. You can have the same amount of success if you have a ‘Topics Jar’ which is full of issues that will start conversations. You can just pick one out and have that as the topic of the day!
However, with our focus on helping those students with severe behaviours it is advantageous to discuss topics that will help them come to terms with their circumstances and discover new ways to approach their schooling. A couple of suggestions are:
What are some of the things you feel grateful for today?
What do you have but don’t need but are happy you have?
What are some things you have that are easy to complain about but are glad you have for rainy days?
What do you get to do that other children can’t do?
Did you have a chance to be kind today?
How do you think other people feel when you are kind to them?
Who gets teased at school and why?
How do you think the kids doing the teasing feel about themselves?
Does anyone ever try to stop teasing?
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
What feeling is the most uncomfortable – embarrassment – anger – fear – or something else?
What are some things you could tell yourself when your brain tells you things that are too negative to be true?
How will you face your fears?
Helping kids whose behaviour is driven from a history of abuse and/or neglect is a principled profession but it comes with an extremely challenging responsibility. However, at the heart of all their behaviours is an emotion that drives their behaviour. Helping them comprehend what is going on for them in the presenting environment requires them to think and they need the words to make that process meaningful. By improving their ability to have a productive dialogue with others strengthens their ability to talk to themselves!
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.