In the last Newsletter (Expectations – 18th February 2020) we tried to explain how the process of decision making is linked to the student’s sense of self, the antecedent condition they bring to any situation. In class, we want them to ‘decide’ to learn the contents of the lesson but we understand, especially for those students with a toxic sense of their self that there are a multitude of other concerns in their environment that can attract their attention. These ‘other things’ will inevitably be perceived threats to their social survival.
The process is like this:
There is a situation with various ‘focal points’, each will bring up memories of past experiences.
These memories will allow us to predict what will happen now, given these circumstances.
That expectation will have a strong emotional content. For damaged kids these are typically, frustration, fear or hatred.
The culmination of this sequence is that they will decide on a path of action, based on past experiences that will reinforce the existing sense of self.
How the child navigates their classroom is through their previous experiences – children learn to ‘know something’ about what will occur and prepare them for what they expect to happen. Damaged kids are more likely to expect the worst, hence the negative feelings like fear, etc. This is where the relationship with the teacher is critical!
There is a ‘popular’ view that we have to get the emotions out of the way so we can learn. Emotions are very important in any lesson. We need to be stressed to behave and behaviour leads to learning. The trick is to be appropriately stressed, not too little or not too much (see ‘The Intricacy of Stress – 19th June 2017) by the situation that leads to what we want them to learn.
The teacher has a professional responsibility to develop a relationship that supports both the significance of the lesson and, more importantly the integrity of the student. This is a relationship that is really a one-way street. The teacher really has to give without any expectation of a return. However, the reality is that you will get so much more back but these rewards are not easily recognised. These kids can change but it takes a lot of time and a lot of the change takes place long after they have left your classroom. We all know that most people had a teacher who really inspired them – the thing is rarely do these teachers know what a wonderful job they did. It’s the same here.
The quality of the relationship with all students starts at the very first meeting – even before a word has been spoken. Your very appearance will affect their opinion on how much of a teacher you are. I’m a great believer that all teachers have a ‘uniform’; it is to be modest, neat, clean and appropriate for the lesson. A mistake many young teachers is to be ‘cool’ and dress to appeal to the kids. This never works – you are their teacher not their best ‘friend’, you have to be their authority. Your room is also central to this ‘first impression’. How it looks reflects how important you think the work carried out in that space is, that is how important is the lesson.
These initial arrangements send a message that the work we will do is important.
As soon as the teacher speaks the personal connection becomes more influential. Trust is vital for any relationship and people will give more credence to non-verbal communication. The break-down of the emotional content of any dialogue is consistently given as:
7% is conveyed in the words that are spoken.
38% in the tone of the voice
55% in the body language, how you hold yourself, your facial expression, etc.
I’m not sure how these figures have been established but I’m sure they reflect the importance of each element of any personal communication. This means that 93% of the vital emotional content rests with the messenger and not the message!
The interpretation of these perceptions is hard enough for all children but, as usual it is more difficult for those who have a history of abuse. These kids will:
Minimise or misinterpret any positive message. Because they have been ‘disappointed’ so many times before they have lost trust in those in authority.
They are hyper-sensitive to negative clues. As mentioned above, damaged kids anticipate the worst and will scrutinise at the presenting environment for any possible threat.
Commonly developed their sense of self in an abusive situation they have an extreme disability in understanding or ‘reading’ the non-verbal cues. The inconsistency in their parent’s emotional reactions to situations never allowed them to use those emotions to predict what will happen next!
Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming signal. It is a feature of abused kids to have a high level of emotional reactivity. As children they were not taught to sooth themselves when they were ‘hurt’ and so when they think they might be threatened they become crushed by their emotions.
These un-natural, but understandable responses to your best efforts can be disheartening but you must remember you are dealing with students with a real disability. These kids need the same patient understanding normal infants get when they are learning to walk. When they fall down we understand they are just learning and we encourage them to try again. When these kids appear to reject our efforts understand we will have feelings such as disappointment but don’t be had by those feelings, encourage them to ‘try again’.
So, how you interact with the student will make a big difference in the emotional quality your relationship. Understand that when these students are faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
‘I can’t do this …’?
‘Everyone else will laugh at my ….’?
‘I hate …’?
A caustic teacher who is examining their work, who may well be trying to challenge the student, could make comments that reinforce their negative opinion of themselves. Don’t make destructive comments like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best work’?
‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:
‘How can we make this …’?
‘What can we do to …’?
‘What will it look like if …’?
We understand it takes a lot of time to change the past memories, especially for those kids who have little of no experience of a positive expectation in their life. But, it can be done. By consistently presenting an environment that reflects a consistent, persistent and supportive (there are those words again) environment children can change their expectations of the future and when we achieve that they gain access to their imagination. They become free to choose their way in the world.
One re-occurring theme in these Newsletters is the importance to consider the processes of the brain – after all, if it’s not the brain that controls behaviour than what is it? Just how difficult your work is when dealing with kids becomes clear when you appreciate the complexity of that vital organ. Attempts to describe this complexity have resulted in some interesting ‘statistics’, the inverted commas indicate my scepticism but it is believed that the human brain has between 80 and 86 billion neurons almost half in the cerebellum. To remind you of how many that is: a million seconds is equal to more than 11 days; a billion is the equivalent of 32 years; 86 billion takes 2,752 years, that’s a lot of seconds.
Now add to that the fact that each of those neurons has 1,000 potential connections, that is the neural networks that control our cognition have 1,000 different possible ways to connect to the next neuron and this goes on through a colossal number of possible connections to compose a thought! The reality is that the number of possible neural arrangements in any brain is infinite and just to make it a bit more challenging it constantly changes.
Tim Wilson, in his book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ contends that our cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute while the unconscious mind will check out 12 million sensory inputs for threats or opportunities in that same time. Unbelievable, but you would have all experienced a time when you perhaps ducked to avoid an incoming ‘missile’ like a stray ball and you did this without any conscious effort. You did move because of the effort of your unconscious mind.
How is this enormous complexity relevant to expectations? In our model of the process of learning and behaviour (see below) the attention the students bring to the classroom exists at the junction between the antecedent condition and the situation.
The model shows only one ‘situation’ but we know that the child, and the teacher has a potentially 40 ‘identified’ situations and so many more unrecognisable. That is, what the student will make a decision about, how to act in that instance of a lesson depends on what they require for homeostatic equilibrium, that is what is concerning them at that moment and what they see as helpful in that environment. 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 is associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs.
Children, from abusive backgrounds certainly have learned to be hyper-sensitive to potential dangers and whenever they feel threatened in class they will act to deal with that threat. I looked back over the past Newsletters for some background references for you but I came to the realisation that this concept is one of the significant elements that is at the heart of all our work. Kids who have lived through frightful situations will have a predisposition to see the potential danger in any situation and so they are unable to see that moment of time as an opportunity to learn.
There are two things that help that situation. The first is to deal with the antecedent condition and this is the student’s sense of self. Students with a sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017) will always see any lesson as a threat. Remember, they see themselves as being a mistake and therefore any actions they take will be mistaken. They fail before they start!
Recent newsletters have discussed the sense of self (16th and 23rd September 2019 and 3rd February 2020) and the ambition for the teacher is to develop a sense of self-worth and capability. If they learn to see the lesson not as a threat but as an opportunity they will make the decision to act in a way to get the consequence of learning the lesson; that is, they will have a path through the learning process.
The second problem is the how the environment is perceived. This is where the learning environment is critical. This ‘lesson preparation’ is our bread and butter, we need to:
Understand the specific & explicit goals of our lesson
Students know what the purpose of the lesson is
Have lessons targeted at their ability
Communication through various mediums (white board/smart board etc.)
Work areas and materials organised
Pace the Lesson
Time for students to guide their own learning
Early finishers tasks…
However, for these damaged kids, and I contend for all kids we need to go beyond this ‘text book’ approach. None of these factors address the problem of the student’s expectations. None of these factors alleviate their fear of failure. The real ‘preparation’ for teaching these kids is in the formation of a strong, professional relationship (see Relationships 10th February 2020) that will enable the development of their independent, empowered sense of self.
In the model presented above it is the feedback loops that will change the student’s sense of themselves, that is the antecedent conditions they bring to school. Just as children in functioning families required emotional support while they learned their value, these children, even though they may be objectional teenagers with highly tuned oppositional defiance, they also require that same support. As professional teachers you are obliged to provide that support and meeting that obligation will be one of the most rewarding professional experiences you will enjoy in your career!
In our last Newsletter we discussed how important relationships are when correcting student’s behaviour. This applies to all students but especially to those whose conduct is particularly challenging. When we think about relationships we generally consider a transactional connection between individuals, transactional because we expect to contribute to that association as much as we anticipate it being a source to address our needs.
However, relationships between the teacher and student does not have a ‘transactional’ component, it is a one-way process. In general, teachers harmonize with parents providing the age-appropriate support for each child. A healthy parent provides support for the child as they learn to behave in a way that allows them to eventually learn to get their needs met in their environment. In early childhood the parent does almost everything for the child, as the child masters a behaviour they move on to a more sophisticated behaviour. Eventually, in the teenage years the child will demand independence from the parent and if that process has been successful this will be a smooth transition. Those of you who have had teens will definitely understand that the kids think they are ready for the world long before you do but things generally work out.
The same transition is observed in our school yard. Kindergarten kids need a lot of personal support as they learn. The teacher provides plenty of encouragement as they face new challenges. As they develop, that control is gradually passed back to the child and by the time they graduate from school, if we have been successful the students are independent learners.
This is all well and good however, for the kids that come from abusive families that ordered progress does not exist. From the previous Newsletter and one on relatedness (21st October 2019) we have discussed the problems for those kids when they are in a ‘school environment’ that clashes with the one in which they developed their behaviour. They have to start again – in regards to behaving, they become as needy as any infant. This will require the teacher to ‘parent’ a child that although physically may appear to be close to maturity will be undeveloped in their behaviour. This demands a special quality in the teacher, to treat a threatening, abusive teenager like a treasured infant is a challenge and that is what I want to discuss in this essay.
I believe that humility, on the part of the teacher is the distinctive quality of the relationship that best describes what is required to support these kids, and in fact all kids. We have time and again pointed out that consistent, structured consequences for behaviour is the key to making a change and we have also reinforced the reality that this process takes a lot of time. To hang in with these kids takes a lot of inner strength but this is not to be confused with self-confidence. Humility is a quiet confidence in your ability as well as an acceptance that you don’t know everything.
This adoption of humility is covertly at odds with the current mentality of modern management practices which regrettably dominates teacher training. Let us explain, the focus on T&D in NSW at least is on the development of leadership skills. I’m on record as saying that leadership is a quality that emerges to address the problems of the environment in which it exists; it has a ‘bottom-up’ quality. To train novice teachers for leadership roles requires a ‘top-down’ approach where proficiency comes not from experience but from ‘a book’. My concern is that when you successfully learn the lessons from theory you are captivated by its narrative. The belief you are now qualified is reinforced by your supervisors which develops a misplaced degree of self- confidence.
In our system this self-confidence is regarded as a desirable characteristic and an asset when seeking employment or promotion. The competitive nature of the organisation requires teachers to sell themselves through resumes or interviews. The result is that we can easily believe we have the characteristics outlined in our training and revealed in any application. We feel like we are experts and we become susceptible to what is known as the Dunning-Krüger paradox, that is we falsely assess our performance. The work that underpins this paradox has shown that poor performers in a task over estimate their ability, that is over confidence correlates with under achievement. Meanwhile, those who have a degree of self-doubt about how they perform achieve much more than others. This is particularly so when dealing in a social enterprise like teaching.
Humility is underpinned by this modesty about your abilities but also your real sense of worth as a person. There is a reassurance when you accept that you have flaws but also gifts to share. Humility is the opposite to toxic shame where, if you make a mistake it’s because you are a mistake. With humility when you make a mistake that’s OK you can learn from it and move on. This allows you to be grounded in reality, valued as a human and able to provide a model for the students you teach. Humility is its own reward.
Your humility will be a gift for your colleagues and importantly, those you teach. If we rely on the external validation of our abilities, the T&D courses and the creation of our resumes, if challenged we are compelled to defend ourselves. To admit that we are unsure is to reject the process that produced our self-confidence. To retain our sense of expertise we must reject any idea of failure. One of the problems is that those who defend their behaviour in the face of evidence that confirms an error lose their credibility while those who publicly question their actions endear themselves to their contemporaries.
Humility is essential to having a healthy relationship with all students but none more than those damaged kids we are focused on. It allows us to really engage with them when things are difficult. Because we are unsure we are more willing to listen to them, how often do we feel the need to butt into their conversation to tell them what to do. When we really listen to them we may find some new information that will help us both deal with the situation but more importantly when we really listen we are confirming their value to us.
When they see us admit we are unsure, that we will seek help we are letting them know that we are not perfect and that’s alright, and they get permission to make mistakes without being a mistake – never under estimate the power of this.
To paraphrase Saint Vincent de Paul, wanton self-confidence is nothing but a lie while humility is truth. For kids who have a history of abuse, an adult who embodies truth provides that parent that was missing in their early years of development.
Welcome back, this blog started at the beginning of 2017 discussing Bullying which was at the centre of the media’s attention to schools and since then over 100 Newsletters have followed. In the break I went back and looked at this work and was pleased with the number of topics we covered. May I suggest you have a look and please share this resource with any of your colleagues; it’s free and we do it because through our careers, both Marcia and I understood the problems children with severe behaviours pose for teachers, especially in those ‘tough’ schools. We also understand that both pre-training and on-the-job development rarely, if ever addresses this issue. So, welcome to the New Year.
At the beginning of this year we have found ourselves reviewing this work we do addressing the problems children with severely dysfunctional behaviours present to the school - not to mention the destruction that behaviour brings to their own lives. We have spent years thinking and working on this conundrum and, not to dismiss the extreme complexity to do with any discussion regarding behaviour over the next few Newsletters, we want to share with you our underpinning philosophy.
The first premise for our speculations is that we are biological, that is we are living organisms made of cells that interact to support our life. The fundamental defining conclusion is that these cells form specific genes that drive our evolution. It is our genes that determine our humanity, plant genes determine the flowers and so on. Further, to maintain our life, we transform energy into behaviour which allows us to survive and reproduce, to maintain the condition known as homeostasis in the environment in which we exist. We do this based on what we have learned through experience and these memories define our self! So we become a catalogue of memories of how to act to address deficits in our survival in our environment.
In previous Newsletters (Sense of Self, 16th September 2019 and Sense of Self - Part 2, 23rd September 2019) We discussed the progressive process of the development of our sense of self and how it impacts on our behavioural decision-making, these are worth revisiting. This Newsletter emphasises the importance of the child’s relationships in determining that sense of self. One thing is certain – our sense of self is our brain in action; it is the interface of our complex outer world with the developing, complex state of our inner world. This inner world consists of memories, of those we inherit, those we develop unconsciously and those we learn.
Remember, the fundamental drives, to survive and reproduce lie beneath the concept of homeostasis, that is the compulsion to behave in a way that addresses any situation that creates the stress that comes from the discord between our necessities and their availability in our presenting environment. At the primary, physical level, if we hold our breath for too long we experience an overwhelming desire to breathe. However, most ‘learning’ on how to behave, especially in the social realm is taught to us in the early years and that is predominantly by our primary care giver, usually mum.
Throughout these Newsletters and in our books the early establishment of behaviours that are ‘designed’ to deal with our social world have emphasised the fact that behaviours are learned to deal with the presenting environment. For kids raised in abusive and/or neglectful conditions the lessons learned will be their best chance to survive in that environment regrettably they will not be appropriate in a more functional setting. Therefore, in order to deal with situations that place them in a state of disequilibrium in the contemporary environment they are placed in a complex situation, facing conflicting messages from our ‘memory’ in order to make sense of the outer world.
Unlike the majority of students raised in a functioning home, who arrive at a point where the lessons they have learned makes them feel free to make choices on how to behave in order to get their needs met at school. For these damaged kids, their inability to identify any behaviour to make sense of and deal with a perceived threat from the external world of the classroom leaves them immobilised. The resulting distress is a form of ‘madness’, a psychological pain and/or confusion that they cannot easily sooth and so they act in ways that they use to alleviate this pain. These are their out of control behaviours we observe in class.
We all see the world as an ordered integration between our self and the external world. We move around the possible connections depending on the reality of both self and our external world (see below) in any set of conditions. For a given situation there will be times when any permutation is ‘healthy’, you may be happy and the other will be happy or it may be appropriate for you to be sad because of the circumstances in the other world. It is healthy to experience the appropriate emotional state for the situation in which you may find yourself; this is normal.
However, for a child who has predominantly suffered the negative experiences of early childhood abuse and/or neglect, these healthy interactions are unavailable. Their toxic sense of self (See Newsletter Toxic Shame, 7th March 2017) will dismiss the sense of happy self/world.
Instead of a real sense of who they are, and for that matter really, who is the other person they construct a ‘self’ that cannot be maintained and becomes disordered. This disordered self oscillates between an idealized world and a punishing one.
In these simple models a child can potentially experience six different senses of self but only one at a time. If they see themselves as ‘good self’ then they could make a judgement about the ‘other’ as being good or bad. Tragically these damaged kids have had a life where they never experienced a sense of autonomy and whether they felt good or bad depended on the behaviour of the ‘other’, life is done to them! This results in a rigid, inhibited personality that struggles to behave appropriately in any situation.
The task of developing a normal, healthy sense of self for these kids is extremely difficult even if they could access effective psychological support. However, you – the teacher can help these children develop their sense of control over their behaviour which will lead to the emergence of a healthier sense of self. And, unsurprisingly this is through providing a supportive, stable and persistent structure in the classroom where they learn the connection between their actions in the classroom environment and what happens to them.
However, just providing this structure is not enough. Remember, the development of a sense of self occurs in the early years and the characteristic of that sense is determined by the interaction between the child and the primary care-giver at that time. The real quality of that relationship determines the effectiveness of the structure. These severely damaged children require the same personal support while they learn to manage the new environment and the teacher needs to provide that support. This responsibility is never articulated in any ‘job description’ but if you want to make a difference you need to concentrate on the maintenance of a healthy relationship even when their behaviour challenges you personally.
So, once again it is the structure, the persistent and consistent consequences along with a compassionate relationship that will best help these needy kids and what a surprise it is these are the same elements that provide the best learning environment for all kids. We understand that this is extremely challenging but we can assure you that there is nothing more gratifying then seeing these kids succeed!
The focus of our work is to help teachers and schools deal with students who disrupt lessons. For as long as I can remember this has always been the number one issue identified in surveys about teacher concerns. However, recently the unreasonable non-educational work load placed on teachers has become equally stressful. This doesn’t mean the problem of students with dysfunctional behaviour is no longer a problem, it is just that the increased work load has added to the pressure felt by teachers.
It would be fair to say that there is little acknowledgement of the problem created by these students despite the overwhelming evidence that their presence has a significant effect on the teacher’s ability to deliver quality lessons and the classmates of these children ability to learn.
Addressing this problem is at the heart of all our work and to date we have provided over 100 Newsletters that point out the causes of these poor behaviours and describe techniques to help, not only the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom but also assist these students develop new ways to get their needs met.
Recently, the latest PISA results were released and like clock-work the politicians and shock jocks were on the band wagon criticising teachers and pontificating their solution to this ‘failing’ – predictably BACK TO BASICS! I have always been critical of this test and our local NAPLAN equivalent. There are lots of reasons these tests are flawed. NAPLAN, for instance is supposed to be a ‘snap shot’ look at the student’s progress without any special preparation. Anyone who thinks those conditions hold today is naïve. Some schools spend much of their time preparing for the test and concerned parents send their children to ‘special’ tutoring to ensure they ‘pass’. There are many other ways to manipulate these figures.
However, Trevor Cobbold, the National Convenor of Save our Schools has examined the latest findings by the OECD about the results and I will quote extensively from his analysis of the apparent failing of our kids. It is evident our students do not try in the test because they have become disenchanted with our school system! Trevor highlights three main causes.
“First, the high and differing proportions of students not fully trying across countries has explosive implications for the reliability of international comparisons based on PISA and that country rankings cannot be trusted. A research study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research last year shows that even with modest but differing proportions of students between countries not fully trying can cause large changes in PISA rankings.
Second, other new data released by the OECD shows a large increase between 2003 and 2018 in the proportion of students in Australia who are dissatisfied with school. This may have led to increasing proportions not fully trying and therefore may be a factor behind Australia’s declining results.
Third, high proportions of students not trying on PISA may also explain, at least in part, the contradiction between Australia’s declining PISA results (for mostly Year 10 students) and improving Year 12 results. PISA has no consequences for students – they don’t even get their own results – so many might not be bothered to fully try. In contrast, Year 12 results matter for future careers and life changes so there is a greater incentive to try hard. The significant improvements in Year 12 results are an indication of an improving education system, not a deteriorating one”.
This increase in Year 12 is encouraging but for our students it is meaningless because by the time they reach 17 years old, if not before poorly behaving students are out of the system. However, it does recognise that teachers are doing their job and instead of being criticised they should be supported to deal with the problems in the lower Years where these behaviour problems exist.
As I pointed out above, dealing with students with severe behaviours is at the heart of our work. It would be encouraging if Universities really dealt with this issue and prepared their trainee teachers in techniques to deal with dysfunctional behaviour. Looking through the courses offered by Universities and talking with new graduates it is evident that they are ill-prepared to take on a tough class.
As 2019 comes to an end it’s time to reflect on the year that was. From our position the year had mixed results. The amount of work we have done in schools and elsewhere has slowly increased and we have plans to build-up that support in 2020. As mentioned the number of Newsletters has passed the 100 mark and I have completed my next book, ‘Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ and it has been picked up by an international publishing company based in London and New York thus providing us with another way to provide support.
Since ‘retirement’ we are one step more displaced from the work place and so not as aware of emerging issues. We would encourage you to let us know what you think of our efforts and provide us with specific problems we can address. You can contact us through the web page, send a text or ring.
Finally, this is the last of the Newsletters for 2019, another year over. Marcia and I would like to thank you for not only hanging in with those difficult students who really deserved to be helped and for supporting us. It is the hardest of work sometimes but I know and you should know you can make a life altering transformation for some kids. You may never know but I assure you that if you approach these kids with respect and a clear purpose you will be the difference.
Take time to relax, recharge your batteries and get ready for another challenging year.
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 develop behaviours that kept the groups bonded.
This advantage continued but a new threat 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 been shown when 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.
This is the third in this series of Newsletters on the needs and drives of students and how this relates to their learning. By now you should be conscious of the destructive power of rejection which is particularly potent for developing children. This is when they are forming their sense of self.
Your acceptance is also critical when it comes to learning new work. We all find it stressful when we are confronted with problems for which we have no answer. Kids find this as well, especially those who have no self-confidence. When they will feel supported they are more likely to approach that new work.
The illustration above shows the connection. If there is no relationship between the teacher and the student the student must face the lesson alone with only their existing memories to help them. As this is a stressful situation the child is doubly disadvantaged because the increased emotional arousal makes cognitive thinking all the more difficult. This is a dysfunctional situation.
However, if the teacher and the student have a supportive relationship then the student goes to the new work supported and importantly feeling protected and safe. These are the conditions for future learning.
For children with a healthy sense of self, this connection is important especially in the early years. If you have children, you probably got sick of hearing just how much Ms Smith knows more than you. Infants need to have that strong bond.
As they mature and develop their own sense of self the relationship becomes progressively less important and by the time they reach their senior years and into tertiary studies the teacher’s ability to facilitate the information to be learnt is more important than the relationship. The graphic above illustrates this point.
In the primary school the relationship needs to be strong as indicated by the line between the teacher and student. In secondary the relationship becomes a little less important and the need to connect socially with their peers becomes more important (see Newsletters Tribal Teacher, 29 July 2019 and Tribal Classroom, 1 August 2018). The teacher needs to expand the feeling of connectedness beyond being more directly involved with the student. By the time students reach their senior secondary years and into their post school learning even this relational situation becomes less important. They are more focused on the establishment of intimate relationship and in most cases, if the go to university they may well be in a class on over 100 students and never talk to their teachers, in fact I believe most don’t even attend and watch an online versions of the lecture.
However, for those children who have been raised to develop a toxic sense of their ‘self’ the strength of the relationship remains essential throughout their schooling.
Almost without exception, when you ask any of your friends they will have had at least one teacher that they really connected with, that inspired them. Conversely, if you think about your own schooling there will be teachers who made no connection and even made you loath their lessons. For me, it was Smithy (real name) who inspired me and an un-mentionable maths teacher who is at the heart of my fear of mathematics!
You have to understand that every day you can be either of those teachers depending on how you relate to them. If you are reading this, I’m pretty sure I know what type you are but it is worth reminding ourselves that this is a profession and you are obliged to build a positive relationship with all your students particularly those whose behaviour towards you initiates a natural repugnance. These are the children, and by now we know why they behave that way that need you to accept them. Ironically, although they are hard to like, they remain suspicious of any attempt they perceive to be kindness, if you hang in with a genuine effort they are the ones who crave attention the most and the ones who thrive when someone believes in them.
You need to be that teacher who, to paraphrase Barack Obama has got the heart, the empathy, to recognise what it’s like to be a young teenage mum, have been traumatised in early childhood, to have seen parents fight, part or die. You will have all these kids and more in your class and you have the most precious gift, you can be that teacher who allows them to move into a healthy life. What a privilege.
In the previous Newsletter I outlined the concept that underpins all behaviour, the drive to survive and reproduce. Of these the most important for teachers is the part connected with the limbic system and they are particularly concerned with the formation of relationships; these are our ‘social behaviours’. The importance of this is directly linked to the foundational concepts. Once we began to live in groups our very survival, not to mention our opportunities to reproduce relied on our being accepted.
The contrary position to acceptance is rejection and for humans, rejection is as life threatening as being attacked by an outside force. In recent studies it has been demonstrated that the same areas of the brain are engaged when we are rejected as do when we are being attacked. A further demonstration of the power of rejection is the concept of suicide. To take one’s own life flies in the face of our premise that all behaviour is to survive; how could we deliberately kill the very thing that carries our genes?
The answer is that the psychological pain to live in the face of rejection seems to be so overwhelming the individual chooses to end that pain and achieves this by ending their life. Suicide provides a significant example of the power of drives to get us back to a state of homeostatic equilibrium.
The process of developing behaviours that support our membership into our group starts from birth; the child’s successful bonding with the mother is critical for long-term psychological health. The sensitive period is identified from six months to three years but I would argue it starts at conception and the object of attachment is clarified through the early childhood experiences.
Attachment is a well-researched topic for child development but for the sake of this work we take the position that when attachment is secure, that is the child has positively bonded with at least the primary caregiver and feels psychologically and physically safe in their care they are in equilibrium.
However, some children are not provided with such a safe environment and experience some uncertainty about the availability of the primary caregiver. There are many models that describe these less than protected connections - these include insecure or anxious attachment. Despite the physical ‘closeness’ these inadequate efforts of parenting will have a significant impact on the creation of the child’s belief systems.
Humans are herd animals and rely on other members of the community to improve their chances of survival and eventually reproduction. As with attachment this connectedness is critical for ensuing survival. So how we learn to acquire these skills happens in our childhood. When we ‘grow-up’ we will experience the intensity of feelings we experienced as a child when things go wrong, these are emotional memories. If we are abandoned we become extremely stressed and we will evoke the behaviours learned as a child.
The intensity of the connectedness an individual has with another varies. The caregiver has the closest connection and this means the caregiver can provide the highest amount of support. This also means that withdrawal of the support will expose the individual to feelings of abandonment producing a large amount of stress. This intimate, powerful attachment does not remain exclusively with the parent. Eventually the drive to reproduce will see a replacement primary partner. This significant relationship has the potential to meet the person’s drives but there is a significant risk of distress if this relationship fails.
Eventually the child will need a sense of belonging to more than their immediate family and this reaching out is the first step to a graduated association with the world. The next stage of development in relational skills is called affiliation which happens first with extended family, say siblings and cousins and on to kids at pre-school and school. The friendships develop with children having ‘best friends’ that may last for a life time but more usually last until a new ‘best friend’ arrives. The child has to learn the rules of these relationships with parents or teachers initially showing them the first steps and then these ‘rules’ are learned through play.
One of the regrettable phenomena of modern life is the intensification of organised play. Kids are taught how to do things ‘properly’ and adults adjudicate play. Kids miss the opportunity to learn the real rules of association. These are complex social interactions, behaviours we must master if we are to successfully integrate with the world. We need to not only deal with close friends but we also have to associate with others on a continuum that ends with strangers. We learn these skills by trial and error not just by parental instruction – parents only have their set of rules, these may or may not match those of the rest of their community.
The need to integrate ourselves with others on an increasing level of intimacy provides us with a good deal of feedback on our sense of ourselves. The ability of a person to move between various members of the community in a confident and comfortable manner indicates a strong sense of self-worth. People who have difficulty dealing with others will find the stress that comes from their inability to integrate in a satisfactory manner very troubling.
In contemporary education systems there has been a move away from disorganised play and a rejection of significant social content in curriculum. The growing focus on the ‘basics’ reduces the opportunity for those children who were raised in families whose behaviours led to mainstream rejection to learn to re-attach with their peers.
This is the start of a series of Newsletters that focus on how children who have experienced abusive and/or neglectful childhoods, those children who are the focus of our work develop dysfunctional behaviours. Recently we examined our sense of self in two Newsletters. This prompted the impetus to go back to discuss basic human needs and drives. This examination will take the form of a series of essays that build towards a finished model.
Let’s start with the fundamental drives for all species, the drive to keep our particular gene profile alive. This is based on the work of Richard Dawkins who expanded Darwin’s model of survival of the fittest. Dawkins postulated that in its basic form, our bodies are just vehicles to maintain the survival of our particular genome. This was the foundation of our drive to survive, keep supporting our genes and to reproduce, ensuring that if, and when we die our genes will have been passed on to another host!
The fundamental purpose for our existence is to survive and reproduce! Of course, it is not that simple. All of us are driven to behave in lots of unique and complex ways however, if you look at any behaviour, the result of being ‘driven’ it can be traced back to these two instincts. Of course, the drive to reproduce becomes more significant as we reach maturity. It is not a real issue for primary aged students but does become a consideration for the secondary system, not only the curriculum but teacher awareness of the emergent attentiveness to the business of reproduction!
When we feel completely safe and secure we experience a level of calm that allows us to access the top levels of our brain. This is the position of homeostatic equilibrium. However, when we are not ‘safe and secure’ we experience a level of stress and that stress provides the drive to behave, to act in a way that will bring us back into equilibrium.
In the late 1960’s a psychologist named McLean introduced the concept of our brain that described it as having three distinct levels that were linked to our evolutionary journey. He called this the tri-part brain with the following stages:
Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain
This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis. Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back to homeostasis. This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.
Remember times when you had run ‘out of breath’, maybe under the water for too long recall how desperate you become to get some oxygen into your lungs. This desperation is the stress that fuels the behavioural drive.
The ‘lessons’ assembled in this part of the brain begin to happen from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy. We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs. A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.
This is referred to as the reptilian brain because this most reptiles failed to develop beyond that point. They do not have any social organisation and the times they do group together is because that environment supplies their physical needs such as food, water or the opportunity to reproduce.
Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System
This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs. The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation. This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.
The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded. In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.
The lessons learned here are almost but not quite as inflexible as those in the brain stem/midbrain but because they were predominantly learned in early childhood they are very hard to change and for our dysfunctional kids changes here are at the heart of providing success at school and beyond.
Despite some significant exception for all intents and purposes it is in this area of our brain problems of relating occur for the children we deal with. Thinking back over the more than 100 Newsletters most problems faced by teachers and/or dysfunctional students occur because of the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong in one environment and those to survive in the environment of the early childhood.
Schematic Representation of the Brain
Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes
This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species. It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy. We can modify the genes of plants to get more and improved plants, we have industrialised the capture of fish and so on. All these come from our intellectual brain.
Unfortunately, this has also allowed us to build weapons, dare I say it of ‘mass destruction’, exploited and polluted the planet’s resources to an extent that survival of our species is threatened.
This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom. Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed and unlike the lower levels where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to get the students to want to learn. The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.
In the next Newsletter(s) we will discuss models of needs and drives but this essay explains the underpinning of all behaviours and that is to survive and reproduce. I accept that some, if not all readers will disagree with my fundamental model but I argue that there are such a range of these models, the most influential being Maslow’s is because they are examining the secondary expression of the underpinning position of being in homeostatic disequilibrium.
The successful integration into a community at any level is crucial for mental health of everyone. For the kids with PTSD, relationships are matters that are fraught with difficulties. The development of techniques to establish significant connections with others, at all levels takes place in early childhood. The different types of relationships are established in a sequential order. That is from the exclusive attachment to their mother up to the affiliation with peers.
The most powerful adult relationship is that to an intimate other. Part of fulfilling the evolutionary demand to reproduce in our society is most often with a significant partner. The power of this type of relationship is made obvious by the initial intensity of the establishment of a loving relationship and the emotional pain when that love ends. This is the last type of connection developed in our species and it is a strong echo of the first intimate relationship with the significant care-giver at birth.
The structure of this intimate connection is first established at birth when the child attaches to the parent. At this time the child is totally reliant on their carer(s) for all their needs, their very survival depends on an adult taking care of them. Attachment theory is a major field of psychology and beyond the scope of this essay but it gives a great illustration of this process. Secure attachment occurs when the care-givers meet the needs of the infant. Not only are the physical needs met so are the social and emotional ones satisfied.
Within the description of the course of development there is a consistent correlation between early childhood abuse and neglect and disordered attachment. And the children with severe behaviours are invariably those with insecure attachment.
It is obvious that if you leave a child alone to fend for themselves, they will die. So, the dysfunctional children who have made it to your classroom have had some support in these early years but not enough. The example of an extreme form of neglect is illustrated with children who were in the found in the orphanages of the Eastern European countries at the end of the Cold War, particularly one in Romania. At one level they were fed and clothed but had little, or no emotional/social bonding or mental stimulation. They just lay in their cots all day. The outcomes are horrific.
The kids causing trouble in our schools may not be so damaged however there are plenty of individual kids have suffered a range of abuse. These kids will not have a secure attachment to their primary parent and as this early failure is the template for future relationships. The difficulty continues throughout development.
When they get to school they should be on the way to developing the next level of relationships and that is the ability to affiliate with other children. In an ideal situation this occurs in preschools or supervised play where the carer givers teach skills like sharing and cooperation.
As said, kids who are unable to form primary attachments are already at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing these affiliations and they are very likely to have parents who do not teach them how to appropriately respond to the inevitable conflict between kids or they don’t even provide the opportunity to learn.
To address this relational deficit in a classroom is an enormous challenge for the teacher but one that must be faced. The outcome we want for these kids is to be a valued part of their community so the task is to make them a valued part of your class.
The first skill is for them to recognise the social norms of mainstream society that should be reflected in the classroom. Initially this is achieved by teaching social skills through classroom discussions on topics about sharing and relationships that have struggled. Stories about fictional kids who are experiencing difficulties in their life, say the break-up of their parent’s marriage are a great class discussion.
Providing negative consequences to the students when they break the social expectations is an appropriate response but only if there is an accompanying explanation about why the actions were inappropriate. Early on this might seem to be a waste of time. As pointed out before, these kids will have little empathy in the first instance but by teaching them not only what is not appropriate but also why it is inappropriate you are front-loading the brain with connections that may bear fruit in the future.
As the development of the child’s sense of self is enhanced through smart cooperative learning and volunteering class activities these programs work well in developing the ability to form healthy attachments.
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.