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Monday, July 01 2019

Addiction - It's the Seeking not the Consumption.

In a recent Newsletter (Addiction 3rd June 2019) I discussed the ‘addictive’ forms of behaviour that teachers deal with, particularly the people addiction.  This newsletter takes a more formal look at addiction and the role it plays in behaviour.

Most work, understandably focuses on fear as being the fundamental source of stress.  This is reasonable as it is the easiest to observe, we have no problem linking traumatic events with elevated levels of stress; fear is still seen as the most significant emotion.  Compounding this is the fact that in animal studies it is relatively straightforward to put a ‘lab rat’ in a situation that evokes panic and study their reactions.

However, the underpinning premise of our model of behaviour is that the task of the young brain is to have us survive.  The drive to protect us from outside threats is only one half of the equation, to survive we need to ‘consume’ things, food, water oxygen, love, etc.  When these are denied to us our anxiety levels quickly elevate and the resulting stress has just as a profound effect on our wellbeing as does the threat of attack.

This is the seeking phase of our strategy to survive.  It is the search for things that maintain a level of satisfaction, that is when we are in homeostatic disequilibrium and we need something to make up the deficit we ‘consume’ and return to equilibrium.  This consumption gives us pleasure.

Just like the protection cycle, this seeking sequence is driven by an an electro/chemical response in this case the chemicals are predominantly dopamine and serotonin. These have two separate functions; the serotonin signals the return to equilibrium with the feeling of pleasure; the dopamine fuels the drive to seek what is required to produce the conditions of satisfaction.  Unlike the fear related chemicals, these substances are sought for the feelings they produce regardless of an individual’s state of physical comfort.  The ‘high’ they produce is the focus of drug addiction.

In the case of satisfaction, the leading drug is in the opioid family, things like opium or heroine.  But, it is in the seeking phase, where dopamine is the driver we find the methamphetamine are used, the ‘speed’ and ‘ice’.

Dopamine is not the reward but creates the desperate longing that doesn’t actually feel good in itself but by focusing the attention on a goal it brings a powerful feeling of purpose to the individual.  It injects them with a level of energy that is intense, they feel alive.  For children with a history of abuse or neglect for them, this feeling of having a purpose is extremely satisfying.  They come to crave that feeling of seeking much more than the satisfaction the seeking is designed to satiate.

This critique of the electro/chemical response illustrates the power of the seeking system and how easy it can become a major factor in the driving of dysfunctional behaviour.  We are concerned with the behaviour in the classroom, the tantrums, the anger, the violence when kids don’t get their way.  It’s prudent to remember that, as with the protective dysfunctional behaviours the tactics they use did work when they were being ‘learned’ but in a different environment they fail to achieve their goal.

The diagram below clarifies how the increase in stress manifests into the outrageous behaviours often witnessed in schools.

 

Although the elevation of stress levels is the same as the response to the fear of the current environment the expression is different.  This may best be demonstrated by a child’s need to be attached.  In the first instance it maybe that the child is rejected by a significant other, perhaps a parent.  Their earliest reaction will be to try behaviours that have worked in the past to be noticed but when these don’t work the resulting psychological pain is immense.  The seeking cycle is when a child selects someone who they want in their ‘world’ and when this other person rejects the child’s advances the dopamine cycle gets ignited and as this grows the behaviour becomes more dysfunctional.

At school the problem surrounding the dysfunctional seeking behaviours can be difficult.  In recent years the emergence of children who have become over-indulged in early childhood (see Newsletter 22nd May 2017 – Education the over-indulged and Narcissistic Child’) has resulted in a growth in this form of dysfunctional expression of behaviour, the spoilt brat’s behaviour.

These children begin with wanting something, perhaps a piece of equipment, to be picked in a team or to belong to a group of friends.  When they are first denied access to what they want they become aroused and the dopamine is released, this feeds their seeking behaviour and unless they get what they want eventually they will ‘lose control’ over their behaviour.

For the teacher, how to deal with this form of student behaviour is the same as other destructive student behaviours.  Keep the classroom calm, teach appropriate boundaries and develop a professional relationship with that student so they get the time to create a sense of self that allows them to survive in their world.  

 

Posted by: AT 07:38 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 24 2019

Beliefs

In our formative years the brain has only one function and that is to initiate behaviours that allow us to survive.  Of course, this fundamental truth can get lost as our interactions with our outside environment get more complex but all behaviour can be traced back to that central truth.  Just how powerful this drive is can be demonstrated every day in emergency wards where people’s brains have shut down every activity but the bare minimum – they are comatose.  This simple fact that would make understanding behaviour reasonably simple but life’s not simple and the rising, tragic levels of suicide provides the exception to the foundational rule; survival is the prime drive for behaviour!  I will argue that individuals select not to survive because of their learned beliefs and these beliefs are more powerful than evidence the evidence from their immediate environment.  (This Newsletter follows that of the 11th June 2019 – Faulty Beliefs).

Despite the anomaly of suicide, the brain’s purpose is to facilitate behaviours that allow us to survive.  The model below helps us understand this process:

 

At the heart of this model is the link between situation, the presenting environment, our actions and the consequences.  That is, we find ourselves in a threatening situation and we act to alleviate the stress caused by that situation.  The resulting outcome is noted and ‘stored’ for future reference, that is it is remembered.  This is the feedback loop in the model above.  Successful responses will be reinforced and be available whenever a similar situation occurs. 

In early childhood these memories are emotional, that is when we find ourselves in a situation similar to a previous threatening one, our emotional memory of that early encounter will evoke a response.  That ‘feeling’ is the first expression of a belief!  Later, when our brain matures we develop cognitive memories that function the same way but put reason to the stress we experience and this motivates us to act.  This is the lower feedback loop in the model.  We build up a sophisticated internal map of our ‘world’ and how the conditions it presents impacts onto our homeostatic state.  These memories inform our decisions on how to act!

Initially, the sequence follows the observation of the threat, that is our senses alert us to the danger, they provide the data that drives the behaviour.  But, one of the things that has allowed us to become the most successful species is our ability to use the memories we have built up to imagine or anticipate impending problems.  These are as fundamental as having been threatened by a crocodile in a stream one day we become extremely cautious when we approach the stream on subsequent days.  That is, we have a belief that there will probably be a crocodile if we go near that stream another day and so when we approach we will be anxious and consequently more cautious even though there is no sensory evidence, no data that indicates the presence of a threatening reptile.

The internal map of memories, beliefs allow us to ‘know’ things that are not relative to the data in our immediate circumstance.  The authority of our belief systems is such that we can navigate our way around the world.  If we were limited to act just on the explicit evidence we would be stuck in space.  As I write this I have a belief that my car is in the driveway yet I have absolutely no direct data to confirm this, I just ‘know it’, beliefs are powerful tools.  In fact, I could not even find my driveway except through clumsy and time-consuming trial and error if I didn’t ‘know’ where to turn as I go through the house!

So, we have two systems that regulate our behaviour.  The first is incoming data – things like a car speeding towards us in a threatening manner, we will ‘decide’ to jump out of the way.  The second is to always look both ways before we go onto the street because we believe it is possible that a car might threaten our safety even though we can’t know if a car is there without checking the data.  The belief produces behaviours that ensure our safety even though there is no immediate evidence.  We become careful!

The two systems that are equally important, serve the same purpose but are different.  Our senses provide the data to perceive our immediate world.  Our beliefs, our memories let us understand our world outside the confines of our perceptions and provides reasons for choosing protective behaviours.  These operate independently and the brain only cares about how helpful either system is for its survival.

In the model, the feedback from the memories to the ‘antecedent conditions’ reveals the impact our ‘beliefs’ have on the way we view our environment.  That is when we are confronted with any situation our perception of the incoming stimulus is influenced by previous experience.  For most, this has given us a huge advantage in successfully managing our lives but, there is a malicious disadvantage for those whose memories are of abuse or neglect.

The students at the heart of these Newsletters invariably suffer from Toxic Shame (see Newsletter – 3rd July 2017) which results in a set of beliefs that are relevant to the abusive/neglectful environment in which they were developed.  It takes some effort to understand how such a destructive set of beliefs could emerge in a child but if we put ourselves in their position we would see that these beliefs gave them the best chance of survival.  Even the idea that they are worthless can reflect any circumstance where they felt worthwhile.  Feeling valued could initiate a sense that you should ‘fight back’, defend yourself but for a child with an abusive parent any such sign of assertiveness would be crushed.  It is safer to believe that defective image.

At school these children experience a positive environment where the senses, the data is or should be non-threatening and supportive.  If you take the example of the crocodile in the river, the calm supportive environment may well be present but these kids know the possibility ‘of a croc lying in wait if the drop their guard’.  The presence of a reassuring setting should make the child suppose things are safe and they can act in an appropriate way to get their needs met.  But, of course they don’t!  These kids remain suspicious, there may well be a croc lurking below the surface.  Teachers get frustrated when they provide all the support for these children but their behaviour doesn’t easily change!

The answer is in the fact that these beliefs developed over a period of time and they drove the behaviour that was the most likely to ensure security.  That is the situation, the pattern of environmental factors was not the exclusive one but the most likely.  The brain learned to dismiss those that did not fit that arrangement.

When the child who has developed a strong belief about their sense of self has that challenged, is presented with an alternate supportive set of data, this dissimilar event on its own will not over-ride the beliefs.  This may be a ‘one-off’ occurrence and we can still remember what could be coming next!  Deep held beliefs are hard to change even in the face of over whelming evidence.

Take the argument about evolution and the conflict it has with those who believe in intelligent design, the Bible.  These people cling to a very strong commitment to that story and any counter claim, evolution is denied despite all the evidence put to them.  To accept they were wrong is a perceived, direct threat to their survival.  Even a small concession would unravel the whole system and so they will defend even the most bizarre claims with what others would find preposterous.  It is tempting to dismiss these people but if you understand they really have this belief system you realize they are not stupid.

The same goes for our kids.  Too often I see well-meaning teachers take these kids on an excursion, say to an adventure style park where they successfully experience abseiling, rock climbing, etc.  This, one-off adventure will not change their beliefs, it is just that a ‘one off set of data’ is no match for their beliefs.  One problem is these adventure programs are run by non-school staff and they see the excitement of each group of students as they go through their courses and they think they are successful.  But the kids return to school and not much has changed for these kids.   Unfortunately, the teachers ‘see’ the kids cope with the challenges they face on these courses but get discourage when the kids, despite this evidence don’t change!

Beliefs can be changed but be prepared for a long process that must include an environment that consistently provides the ‘proper, positive data’ and a messenger that is acceptable.  There is no surprise in the appreciation of the importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher.  This is at the heart of all learning!

Although the data may ‘shout’ at the student, if it threatens them they will shout back.  There is absolutely no value in confronting these students when they are under threat.  The teacher must patiently wait for the right time and quietly offer an alternate view of the situation and their safety.  Remember, the feeling of being under threat will be expressed in the emotional memories.  If the child feels threatened enough their protective behaviours will emerge and they will go into a state of flight or fight.  The teacher must remain calm and remain present!

To change beliefs takes a skilled teacher with a well set-up classroom and one who is prepared to chip away at the student’s faulty beliefs.  They have to be the right person with the right data at the right time!  And they need to be very patient.  It is hard to turn these kids around but it will be the most rewarding teaching you will ever do! 

Posted by: AT 11:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 17 2019

Mindfulness

 

The one of the continuing themes of these blogs is the importance of stress control.  This is particularly critical for children raised in chaotic, abusive environments.  By remaining calm they have a much better chance of making good decisions.  In previous Newsletters (Teaching Practical Boundaries 21st July 2017 and Boundary Considerations 22nd October 2018) I have discussed the value of boundaries and how to engage them.  This is relevant for teachers as well as students.  One of the central elements in making good decisions is the ability to remain calm.

Very briefly, boundaries should be applied when we begin to feel stressed, it protects us from reactive thinking.  As soon as we sense that feeling of unease, the application of your boundary protects you, that is allows you to stay calm, to relax.  It is well understood that this composure plays a significant role in this process.  However, when anything is unearthed to assist people negotiate their way through difficult times it is only a matter of time before this ability is high-jacked and morphed into a self-help industry; the ‘next big thing’ to solve all society’s ills.  If you extend the efforts to remain calm you inevitably arrive in the area of meditation and this is proving to be ‘the next big thing’.   

This latest and most powerful expression of this new panacea for our behavioural problems is the Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction program (MBSR); a systematized approach to meditation.  This practice has really come out of the work of Richard Davidson who studied with Buddhist meditation practitioners.  It has long been understood that the constant exposure to high levels of stress create changes in the brain’s structure.  Things like an expanded and more sensitive amygdala, a reduction in the hippocampus, the prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, all of which hinder the individual’s capacity to use their cognitive ability to address the problems that cause the stress.  There was an almost opposite impact on the brains of individuals who practiced meditation.  In these monks, the amygdala was reduced making them more resilient to stress.  The increased size of the frontal lobes and hippocampus enhanced the cognitive capacity of the brain.

Davidson’s work was subjected to some criticism but subsequent studies have confirmed his findings.  In recent years Jon Kabat-Zinn has systematized the approach with his trade mark MBSR where through his organisation the eight-week program is disseminated across the globe; being used in schools, the military, corporations, etc. and is so programmed the Buddhist teacher Miles Neale refers to it as McMindfulness.

MBSR is just the latest addition of a whole industry of happiness.  It has become a $40 Billion industry with over 60,000 books on the subject being offered by Amazon alone.  Every year we have a ‘Happiness Conference’ where for a substantial amount of money you can learn how to fix your world.

If you sense a bit of cynicism here you would be right.  I have no trouble with meditation and you know I endorse teaching these kids to relax.  If nothing else I firmly believe the control of stress, the elimination of it is at the heart of all behaviour management programs and teaching practices.  But there is a difference between staying calm while you examine ‘what is really going on’ in your environment and focusing so hard on controlling your internal world discounting what is going on in your external world to cause your stress.  If you are about to be abused it is of little value to slip into deep meditation. 

What underpins MBSR is that any stress you experience comes from inside you and it is your responsibility to deal with it and if you don’t it will only be a result of your poor choices.  This is a cruel message to give to kids who have been raised in an abusive/neglectful family.  It is obviously unkind to tell them that all they have to do is meditate to be fulfilled in such an environment, their fear and resultant stress may well be keeping them alive but the more damaging element is by telling them it is ‘really their fault’ if they don’t take control of their life reinforces their sense of toxic shame – they know they are faulty!

But I digress, as stated above the ability to stay calm is fundamental to having good boundaries and using meditation will help these students experience some degree of remediation of their cognitive structures.  However, we should never lose sight of their suffering and should work towards changing their environment as much as, if not more than changing their response to it.

For students with backgrounds of abuse and neglect the process for relaxation is very threatening. To relax, you need to focus on your internal world, limiting your attention on the stimulus that flows in from the external world.  A feature of these students is that they are always scanning their outer zone looking for potential dangers.  This hypervigilance, a trademark of PTSD has been crucial to ensure their survival.  Now we are going to ask them to take the focus away from the very practice that aided that existence and to go inside their minds.

A complication is that when we get these students to focus on their internal world we are asking them to attend to their sense of self and for most it is to examine their toxic shame.  As we have discussed earlier, this toxic shame reinforces their sense of being a failure.  This self-reflection seems hardly a practice that will help them develop a new approach to their behaviour but it is a crucial part of their recovery.

Finally, the process of meditation becomes even more difficult when you attempt to conduct relaxation sessions in a group setting, especially if that group consists of students with similar histories.  In my experience, you need to limit the opportunity for each student to communicate with others.  To teach meditation in such an environment you need to be aware that all the class will be anxious when they are asked to sacrifice their protective hypervigilance and to avoid this they will attempt to sabotage the teacher’s efforts.  This is a real difficulty that can be overcome.

In my last school for these kids I used to teach them a bit of meditation (I have uploaded an essay on meditation with a script for meditation that you could use).  These were very ‘tough’ kids and I would often have as many as thirty at a time.  Before we commenced the meditation, I explained what the process involved, what happened during the process and how that would benefit them.  Of course, this information was included during their lessons in how the brain works, part of their recovery curriculum.

I found a few rules help conduct the meditation lessons.  I allowed them to lie on their stomachs with their face down.  I also was aware that some would try to break the desired atmosphere by making a noise, coughing, sighing and even the occasional noisy ‘expression of wind’.  I understood the calm environment threatened them and if they replaced this with behaviour that upset the class they would feel more comfortable.  This was common when students first came into the program.

The process was that I would read a script, the same every morning and if a student acted in a way that would upset the process they were quietly removed from the room.  When I had completed the script, those students who participated moved onto the next activity.  The students, who were removed were then returned to the class to have the script read to them again. 

At this time, I would tell them that I could not make them relax, I explained that I understood they felt threatened but I insisted that they should not spoil the process for others.  Eventually the students would sit through a complete ‘reading’ and then they could return to their class.  I was surprised that after a time, students asked for the relaxation activity.

Working with these kids will provide you with lots of life lessons not the least of which is there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve human suffering, theirs or yours, but as long as you keep learning and moving forward you and your students will move towards that state of authenticity and peace.

Posted by: AT 11:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, June 11 2019

Faulty Beliefs

In the late Twentieth Century American Psychologist Albert Ellis became frustrated with the lack of consideration given to the emotional side of psycho-therapy.  This was in reply to the stimulus – response approach that had become popular in the late sixties when leaders in psychology, like Skinner adopted a rationalist approach to behaviour.  Their ideas were underpinned by the belief ‘if it can’t be measured it is not worth considering’.  Ellis accepted the importance of feelings in driving behaviour and so founder what was called Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy. 

He reduced the complexity of behaviour to the following:

It is in the ‘Beliefs’ where ‘rational’ behaviours become ‘irrational’.  Those who have been following my work will see that this sequence forms part of my schematic representation of the processes of behaviour management as shown below.

My model is more complex but it does incorporate both emotional and cognitive memories but as consistently pointed out in my work the emotional memories are far stronger when we are considering behaviours that are triggered by stressful events, that is when we are being ‘threatened’.

A significant element in the dysfunctional behaviours displayed by students who have very disruptive actions is that of Toxic Shame often referred to in this blog (Toxic Shame - 7th March 2017) and this ‘shame’ is established in early childhood in an abusive or neglectful environment and is predominantly retained in the emotional memories and so these beliefs are the principal driving factor in decision-making when under stress.

At the heart of Toxic Shame is the feeling that you are a ‘mistake’, not that you have made a mistake.  It’s a feeling that:  

  • Is not based on reality
  • Is a false message that creates a false sense of self
  • Is put on us by others
  • That is a chronic, permanent state
  • Exaggerates our faults.

Ellis produced a list of faulty beliefs that described how this feeling of shame is expressed in the life of a casualty of childhood abuse.  These are:

  • I must be loved or approved of by every significant person in my life or I will be a worthless person
  • I must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
  • When people act unfairly or badly they should be severely punished.
  • It is terrible and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them.
  • Human unhappiness is caused by external events and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances
  • I must feel anxious if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome and keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurrence.
  • It is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
  • I should be dependent on someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely.
  • I should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
  • The world should provide me with what I want and when it doesn’t it’s a terrible place and I can’t stand it.
  • My past is the most important part of my life and it dictates how I live.

It is easy to understand why people with dysfunctional behaviours hold the acceptance that how life treats them is, and has to be dependent on others. You can see it in all the points outlined above and that’s because when their sense of self was being formed, in early childhood they had no self-control.  So why should they now?

It helps to understand the thought process used by these people but more importantly how do we help them?  Of course, long-term mental health intervention for each individual would be ideal but as teachers, we are neither qualified nor would we have the time for such an intervention.  And, unfortunately the chances of the vast majority of our students who come to us with such beliefs the chances of them getting access to such a service in miniscule.

However, what can be done is to create an environment that has a highly structured connection between what is done and what happens.  If a child does ‘X’ they will get ‘Y’ as much as possible and when the consequence is being delivered it is always attached to the action and never to the person.  As they become aware of the connection between what they do and what happens they start to take responsibility for their behaviour and eventually for their life.  Of course, it is impossible to get a 100% connection between actions and consequences but for these kids, the more often you can reinforce the link the better their chances of taking responsibility for their life and that is the best learning outcome any teacher could hope for.

Posted by: AT 12:31 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 03 2019

Addiction - Behaving to Avoid Stress

Throughout these Newsletters the consistent premise has rightly been that the effective management of stress underpins all successful behaviour management programs.  That is, for a teacher to present an effective learning environment it needs to minimize those conditions that threaten the safety of all members of the classroom.

Of course, there will inevitably be situations that disturb this desired state of calmness and when this happens we will act to alleviate that stress.  In a perfect world we would have learned to take actions to relieve that tension but there will always be circumstances that are beyond our current competence and it is under these circumstances that we have a choice, we either learn how to deal with this new situation, the ‘adult’ response or we act just to get rid of the stress.  This short-term reaction is at the heart of addiction and that addiction includes the compulsion to act in inappropriate ways.

There are three ways addictions are manifested; through the use of substances that alter the impact of the emotion, the use of activities to distract thoughts from the problem and the third is focused on stress that has its source in personal interaction; this I call ‘people addiction’.

The use of substances is long been used to alter emotions.  When anyone mentions addiction the first thing most people think of is the classic drug addict and I would argue that at the heart of the reason these chronic addicts are around is their early childhood abuse.  I have worked with children who are suffering from such addiction and they will invariably tell you that the first time they got high/drunk/bombed-out was the first time they felt good about themselves.  Never be under the illusion drugs don’t work but the problem is that like all addictions the more you use them the more the need for the effect and eventually the need for the drug becomes the primary problem for the user.

The second type is activities addiction.  This is where the person becomes so focused on a task or hobby they can’t think about anything else.  You can see this with over-the-top sports fans who live every moment for the team.  Or with kids, when a new craze sweeps the country you see those who become obsessed with it.  While ever I am fully engaged I will not have to feel the emotions from my ‘shame’.

You see activities addiction in the work place.  Years ago, when I was formulating these ideas I discussed them with a colleague.  He stopped me and said – you are describing me.  I had suspected he was somewhat engaged in such addictive behaviours as he was having difficulties in his life but was enjoying success at work.  When I started to expand my thoughts he cheerfully told me it was alright, he had just enrolled to study for his doctorate.  He achieved his doctorate but lost his family.

The catch with activities addiction is summed up by those who become workaholics.  The extra output they achieve because of the hours and the intensity they put in to their work results in their promotion.  Soon they are in positions where the workload becomes the problem, like the substance they need more and eventually they break down.

The last type of addiction is what I refer to as people addiction.  In reality, this is most likely the reflection of how the children learned to survive in the abusive relationships in which they were raised.  As with other addictions these behaviours are the result of previous experiences of success in alleviating unhealthy levels of stress.  This ‘people addiction’ is the product of behaviours that worked directly on the stressor, the ‘abusive other’.

The first type of people addiction is that of overt control.  The tactic is to stress the other person much more than they stress you.  In a sense, you abuse them straight back and in such a way they will stop their behaviour. This can be done through all types of aggression ranging from physical attack, making fun of the other person, discounting their worth, any form of attack on their physical or psychological safety.

People will take this form of defense when they hold a position they perceive as being superior to the other person.  This could result in overt behaviour against a younger sibling, a different gender, usually female or someone you perceive to be in a ‘lower’ social ‘class’. 

Overt action can make the original aggressor stop but this does not provide protection from future attacks and as with all addictive strategies, there is a long-term cost.  The aggressive behaviour pushes others away and so the danger is you become distant from others.  Those who use overt control limit their opportunity to have productive relationships; they become isolated, frustrated and bitter.

 The reverse approach is that of covert control.  This strategy consists of being so nice and cooperative towards others they will have no reason to attack you.  A common phrase used by those who adopt the covert position is ‘I don’t care – whatever you want to do’.  These children are nice to be around because they are sensitive to your needs and do whatever they can to make sure you get them met.  They avoid unpleasant situations at all costs.

They take up this position for the same reasons as those who take up the overt position, because they consider themselves less than the offending other.  The problem is their own needs are never met and resentment and anger will build-up but remain internalized.  This adds to their feelings of worthlessness.

The final position is that of resistance, the students choose to ignore the source of the attack by not getting involved with any of the other students or activities.  They rebel against any organised activities and are absent a lot.  They will avoid anything that has the potential to cause stress.

The cost of opting out of interactions with others is the loss of opportunity to get any needs met.  These students become isolated and marginalized.

So, what to do?  Dealing with situations that threaten your composure requires you to control the impact of these ‘attacks’ and to achieve this you need to develop strong boundaries (see Newsletters - ‘Teaching Practical Boundaries’ 31st July 2017 and ‘Dealing with Difficult Kids’ 4th September 2017).  Successful management of all stressful circumstances relies on the honest response to the questions that underpin all responsible behaviour.  These are:

  • What is really going on?
  • Who is responsible?
    • If its my actions then take responsibility and change that behaviour
    • If it’s the ‘others’ behaviour then understand you can’t make them do anything and you must behave in a way that has the best chance of getting your needs met in the long term
  • Let go of this relationship?

Understanding how to produce effective boundaries distinguishes adults from children, despite their real age and teachers rely on this ability to survive in the most difficult of classes. 

Posted by: AT 01:52 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 27 2019

Perfectly Imperfect

This is a follow-up Newsletter from ‘The Impact of Abuse’ where I described the different outcomes of unpredictable or predictable abuse.  This article expands on the characteristics of those children who lived in a family where the destructive treatment was always the same.  As pointed out the people from this background felt they had to be better than, invulnerable, good/perfect, independent and totally in control.  In fact, they had to be ‘perfect’ or others would discover just how damaged they were.

Elene Aguiliar, the author of many books on coaching recently wrote about understanding perfectionism.  Despite not linking this need for perfection to an abusive childhood much of what she says helps us understand these children.  She recognizes that at the heart of perfectionism is a belief that, in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best all the time. Our very worth as a human being is tied to our perfection.

This belief has its core in toxic shame (see Newsletter 7th March 2017), the view that if I make a mistake I am a mistake and so to have any sense of worth I have to be mistake free! 

It is prudent to remind ourselves we are dealing with children with a damaged sense of self.  We all know, or should know perfection is unattainable but the striving to achieve perfection is at the heart of all real success.  We don’t want these children to stop trying but we want them to understand the reality of any situation in which they find themselves. 

When talking to students I used to tell them all that I am a perfect human.  Having engaged their cynical attention, they obviously knew how flawed I am.  I went on to explain that no human is perfect, I’m not perfect so I must be a perfect human!  By repeating this catch phrase, it became part of our shorthand communication and understanding that these kids rely on external validation, when they had made a mistake I could remind them that they are perfect.  This is possible when you have developed a genuine relationship with the child, you can correct the work without having them link this with their sense of self.

We all have a real tendency to see ourselves as being imperfect and that is how it should be; this allows us to have humility and compassion, we know we have flaws but still have a sense of worth.  We also can observe the faults of others without dismissing their importance.   The thing is, these kids not only see their acceptance being tied to being faultless they see others as perfect.  They will accept their validation or rejection without question, they have no autonomy.

To change this sense of toxic shame is a long-term project.  This belief is linked into the child’s emotional memory and any cognitive discussion will have limited success.  The secret is to set-up the lessons in such a way that the expectations are realistic, that is the child can achieve the goals at least 70% of the time.  It is a mistake to make the work too easy, kids can see through this but having a success rate that is significant will encourage real participation.

When giving feedback be careful of how you assess their work.  As children mature they need less praise and in fact teenagers are likely to reject those who praise them (see Newsletter Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward, 4th February 2018).  Make your comments about the work and their effort if appropriate, never say well done when you and the student know there has been little effort. 

You need to understand that when presented with new work these children will already be experiencing negative thoughts like:

I can’t do this ….

Everyone will laugh at my ….

I hate ….

They are already set-up for failure.

Too often I have seen teachers, who have little understanding of these dynamics make comments about the resulting poor efforts by the children saying things like:

What do you think you are doing ….?

Is this the best you can do……?

Why did you do that?

Comments like these reinforce the child’s self-perceptions and destroy any chance of developing a working relationship.  At best, the child will agree with the teacher, of course I can’t do this, at worst they will really resent that teacher.

As pointed out above, keep the feedback focused on the work.  When presented with their work acknowledge what has been done and suggest improvement using statements akin to:

How can we make this ….?

What can we do to ….?

What will it look like if ….?

Using this approach is conveying the message that you believe they can see a better way to do things, at least you are being inclusive and that is a sign of acceptance despite their lack of ‘perfection!

As the teacher you have to be aware of the emotional state they come to each task; their natural reaction is to resist ‘having a go’.  Don’t confront this but acknowledge it with the following type of statements:

You hate being told to do this work.

I understand you would much rather be outside.

I get you don’t like doing this type of work.

They still have to do the work, they are students and you have to teach curriculum but by telling them you know they don’t want to, gives them the message you care about them and appreciate the extra effort they have to make.  You can transform a determination to not even try into a feeling of at least being understood.

This Newsletter started addressing the problems those students raised with persistent patterns of abuse and their faulty belief that they have to be ‘perfect’.  The suggestions outlined will support a teacher’s efforts to develop an authentic sense of self in these students.  The same approach will work just as well for those students who think they are totally ‘imperfect’ and failures.  It is all about validating their humanity.

Posted by: AT 11:09 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 20 2019

The Impact of Abuse - it depends on how it happens

All abuse is damaging and will lead to life-long dysfunction unless the resultant impairment is addressed.  However, there is difference that will influence the way the dysfunction is expressed; it depends on how the abuse is executed.  For some kids, each episode of abuse will be the same, for others the form of abuse is varied, almost random and for some it is some mixture of the both. 

To understand how the difference caused by the manner in which the abuse is delivered, we need to examine the real behaviour variation as seen at the boundary between the child and others; that is, how the child deals with stressful interactions will reflect the manner in which they were abused.

When a child is raised in an environment where the abuse is predictable, that is there is a repetitive pattern, the child can develop behaviours that address this abuse in an attempt to minimise the impact.  For example, one type of subtle, consistent abuse I have seen during my time as a football coach has been the unreasonable sporting demands of a parent on their child.  For example, a small, immature for their age child has every right to feel scared of the physical contact expected in the sport and when he hesitates or ‘misses a tackle’ the father verbally abuses him in front of his peers.   

The thing is there is a persistent pattern to the abuse and so the child can learn a behaviour that either avoids the abuse or minimises the damage.  In the example of the football parent, I see children throw themselves into positions where they are certain to be hurt.  However, the physical pain is preferred over the abuse and rejection of the father.  

In contrast to this patterned abuse is the abuse that is unpredictable, that is there is no clues in the child’s environment that allows them to anticipate their parent’s actions and make an adjustment to their behaviour to avoid, or minimise the resultant ill-treatment.  This sort of environment is most common in families where substance addiction or psychotic mental illness is prevalent.  How the parent treats the child is linked to how they feel and how they feel is dependent on what part of the addiction/psychotic cycle the parent is on.

This inability to predict what will happen develops a sense of hopelessness in these children, that they have no control over their life and so their behaviour becomes erratic with no apparent purpose especially in times of stress.

The difference between these two extremes of response to abuse can be illustrated by examining how they relate to the following characteristics:        

 

The children from unpredictable environments feel:

  • Less Than – These kids, through their sense of worthlessness and shame never feel they are really entitled to have their fair share of life.  When they are rejected, or by-passed, their response is not to stand up for their rights but say what they think ‘it doesn’t matter’ because they think they don’t matter.
  • Vulnerable – They are unprotected from unwanted boundary intrusion, at any level as well as lacking the ability to get their own needs met through establishing healthy relationships.
  • Bad/Rebellious – Remember it is their sense of self that shapes their reality and because they have felt their abuse was because they deserved it, they were bad and so they feel this way.  Then, in some act of defiance they confirm this opinion by their actions.  It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘so you think I’m bad well I’ll just show you how bad I am’!
  • Dependent – Because they have no sense of competency, no belief they can do anything properly, because of their toxic shame, kids with no protection of their ‘core’ depend on others to make decisions for them.  It is an extreme example of them having an ineffective boundary.
  • Out of Control – This is the result of the inconsistent life they have lived.  How could they have a sense of control when the have never experienced consistent consequences for their actions.  When they make decisions, they have no prior knowledge about what will happen and so they make their ‘best guess’.  In lots of cases these kids watch what their friends do, unfortunately the only kids that hang around them are those who exploit them and have the same deficiency in decision making for the same reason.

These ‘out of control’ kids are easy to recognise, in fact they demand our attention.  Their behaviour destroys the environment for others as well as themselves.  The kids without boundaries, or extremely soft boundaries will act impulsively and with dysfunctional behaviours, learned in their dysfunctional homes. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have been abused in a more consistent manner.  They display the following characteristics:

  • Better Than – Because they had to be just what their parent wanted them to be even if this was not to complain, getting the decision on how to act was important, it had to be ‘just right’.  They effect this need to be right, or more probably the danger of getting things wrong made it important for these kids project a successful image.
  • Invulnerable – The inflexible boundaries function to stop others from ‘getting in’, that is finding out how they really feel.  Regrettably, this emphasis on preventing authentic contact with others limits opportunities to get their own needs met.  This being locked in makes them appear and feel invulnerable but the cost is isolation.
  • Good/Perfect – Much the same as ‘Better Than’ this characteristic is also a result of the earlier need to make no ‘mistakes’ when dealing with their abuser.  Part of the features of an abused child is hypervigilance and so these kids are well aware of how to avoid behaving in a way that will give the other person an excuse to punish them.
  • Independent – Because of the walls, the rigid boundaries they have built around them, they really don’t feel they have access to the support of others.  There was no ‘help’ when they were young and abused and so they never risked depending on another person.
  • Total Control – It is no surprise that these kids don’t take risks, it is too dangerous if you make a mistake and so they take control of their life.  The tragedy is that the behaviours they use to ‘control’ their environment are the ones that deny opportunities to satisfy their own needs. 

It would be a mistake to think abused kids will be exclusively down one side or the other.  There is a tendency but you need to think of this as a matrix where a child could be a mix across five continuums.  For example, a child might have the following profile:

 

For the child who fits this profile you could expect to be a bully.  Even though we can make a judgement about these kid’s behaviour remember, this is not we think about them but how they think of their self.  Bullies, unless corrected during their childhood remain bullies all their life.  This profile, with the ‘Dependence’ and ‘Out of Control’ could portray the profile of members of extreme groups such as the white supremacist or out-law bikers.

The characteristics described above are, of course a crude attempt to have something to hang our discussion on when describing these children’s sense of self which in turn defines their reality.  It is never as simple as these five and of course every individual varies. 

It is tempting to conclude that the middle ground is where a healthy individual’s sense of self should be.  It seems right that:

  • No one is less or better than anyone else, we are unique, have our own DNA and experiences and so comparisons are a waste of time.
  • Should we never make ourselves vulnerable to others?  Many be in intimate relationships we may need to trust another to expose ourselves.  But the cost of being hurt is great.  If we are invulnerable then we miss out on the intimacy that requires trust.  So, again the ‘middle ground’ is a tempting rationality.
  • No one is good or perfect just as no one is bad or rebellious, we can all do bad things or good things but we are not our actions even though others will define us by those actions.
  • We are social beings and so we do depend on others to get our needs met; society is set-up to share.  Therefore, we can’t survive if we are totally independent.
  • It is tempting to commend a totally in control position.  This work has always had the aim of teaching these kids to control their behaviour.  But, that is to the extent that they are coming from a position where they don’t understand they can control their life.  If and when they do develop a functional suite of behaviours then it is time to expand their knowledge and to do so they need to try new things, they need to take risks, they need to let go of their control.

The truth is there is no proper position of the characteristic continuums presented but for every situation there will be a ‘best spot’ from which you can act.  Sometimes it is suitable to be independent and others dependent when to take that position or the infinite variations between these extremes depends of the situation you are in.  The question ‘what is really going on’ is the key and is the key to setting functional boundaries.

Posted by: AT 12:44 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 13 2019

 

What's the Chances?

At the centre of good classroom management is a structured discipline and welfare policy that provides known consequences for actions.  The secret is to make the child understand the connection between what they do and what happens as a result of that action.  Of course a 100% connection is not a reflection of the real world.  There are many consequences that can be linked back to any action.  For example if I speed on my way to work I could get to work early, enjoy the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, have an accident, kill a pedestrian, there are a lot of possibilities that can follow my action.  So why is the tight link between the child’s actions and the consequences you deliver so important?

The objective of these Newsletters focuses on those students whose behaviour is severely dysfunctional however, the techniques we present will support all students.  Our premise regarding those with severe behaviours has been that for the vast majority of the kids their problems can be traced back to an abusive/neglectful childhood. 

In previous newsletters we have discussed how memories are formed and that those memories direct our behaviour.  As a child we have a need and we try an action.  If that satisfies the need we ‘remember’ it and when the need returns and we try the same action that memory gets stronger until it becomes our habit.  If the action doesn’t get a result memories are not formed.  This is at the heart of some of the behaviours we have discussed elsewhere, if throwing a tantrum worked once then I will try that again and if it continues to be effective that will become the habitual behaviour.  As we know that’s fine until you try to get that need met in a different environment.  Kids from these environments had a sense of control in their formative years but the tools they learned to get that control were specific to an environment that clashed with the one considered to be ‘normal’ such as the classroom.

For children who live with addicted parents or those with severe mental illness there is a lack of any predictability in their life.  Addicts and those with unstable perception do not provide an expected connection between the consequences they deliver for a child’s action and so the child can’t effectively learn how to behave. 

For example, if the son of an alcoholic gets into a fight and his father finds out the reaction from the father could be:

  • A belting for hurting the other boy
  • Getting a great deal of approval for being tough
  • Ignored
  • Being taken down to the other kids house to apologize.

The list goes on but in reality these and many other consequences the father dreams up are delivered depending on the ever-changing mood and perception of the father.  The result is the child has no idea that what he does influences what happens to him.

The children from families appear ‘out of control’, dependent, vulnerable and just ‘bad’ but this is because they have no sense of control yet they still have the needs they try to satisfy.

How we can help these kids develop a sense of control is by attaching a most predictable consequence for their actions.  Developing the link between actions and consequences is where the rules come into play.  For example if they talk inappropriately in class they get the same consequence, or maybe a sequential set of consequences they expect.  This is why the mantra of being consistent and persistent in your delivery of consequences is critical if you want them to develop that sense of control.  If they get this sense of control in your classroom there is a chance they will develop the confidence to use that capacity into the world.

The other thing you can teach them is that life is not really that predictable.  Take the example of me speeding while driving to work; some of the possible outcomes I could get are getting to work early, enjoying the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, having an accident or kill a pedestrian.  Only two of those consequences are in any way beneficial for me.  They are getting to work and being thrilled by my speeding but I certainly don’t want the remaining three consequences.  Of course the probability of these things happening varies.  I suspect that the chances of killing someone is not very high and I’m most likely not going to be caught BUT if I do speed I must accept that every one of those possible consequences could occur and that they would be my responsibility.

So, we teach the kids, yes there are probabilities and more likely than not you will get away with acting in an inappropriate manner but eventually that consequences you did not want will come up.  As I said to the kids, ‘well your number has come up, you knew that could happen so accept it is your responsibility’.  If you never want to have a particular consequence never do the action that can extract that outcome.

Linking actions to consequences is the greatest empowerment you can give to these damaged kids.  Not only will it make their position in life more powerful it provides you with a ready-made language to manage your classroom.

Posted by: AT 08:20 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 01 2019

Malevolent Development - The Condemned Disability

Dealing with disability has become a major focus for our governments in recent years.  The recent Royal Commission into disability has shone the spotlight onto the difficulties facing those with a disability.  At the school level, teachers have constantly advocated for governments to provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of these children.  I’m confident that we continually promote this cause because we want all our students, including those with an inability to:

  • achieve their authentic sense of value,
  • exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities,
  • access all opportunities that are available to others

In our schools we capture a full range of disabilities under the following categories:

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Behaviour
  • Intellectual
  • Mental Health
  • Autism

Our schools are tasked with providing them support to take their place with all students and so we provide the things needed to achieve this goal.  This might be relatively simple to identify for those obvious deficits such as vision, sensory or physical but how to address behaviour, mental health or autism becomes a more difficult task.  Leaving autism aside, this is a very specific disorder, I would contend that behaviour and the vast majority of mental health issues share a historically mutual experience and that is early childhood abuse and/or neglect.

To be deemed as disabled, the impairment or condition experienced by a child must impact on their daily activities, communication and/or mobility.  These incapacities can be a result of:

  • DNA Malfunction – these are the disabilities that result from an abnormal interpretation of our genetic code that misdirects our foetal development.  These cover a range of disabilities including vision, hearing and other physical impediments and mental health issues that our students are born with.
  • Accidental Trauma – The range of barriers faced are almost the same as those above but the difficulties are a result of an accident, a fall, a car accident, any event that interferes with the ‘normal’ functioning of the child.
  • Early Childhood Abuse or Neglect – This covers those disabilities that, like Point 2 describe an intrusion into the ‘normal’ functioning but these impediments are the result of deliberate assaults or neglect of on a normal child.

The undeniable fact is that the children who are causing the vast majority of seriously disruptive behaviours in our schools have suffered from early childhood abuse and/or neglect.  This has resulted in these children not only suffering the normal reactions to trauma, their continual exposure to this environment results in specific brain damage that effects their ability to choose appropriate behaviours.  This paper seeks to draw attention to this problem but the overwhelming message is that these children have:

  • Become disabled completely at the hands of adults whose behaviour has caused this damage
  • Developed ‘presenting behaviours’ which although often quite repulsive are not of their choosing, they are doing the best they can
  • Presented the greatest challenge for teachers to deal with these children without appropriate acknowledgement or supporting resources from educational institutions

The investigation by the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has unearthed an appalling level of abuse and shone a light onto the long-term damage inflicted on the victims of these crimes. However, that Commission has unearthed just one area of child abuse, it did not include the full range of horrific abusive acts of abuse and neglect that occurs outside of institutional settings, that is in the child’s home and local community.

A sense of the extent of this level of abuse and neglect is shown in the Australian Institute of Family Studies statistics where the number of notifications for abuse or neglect rose from 48,420 (2011 – 12) up to 60, 989 (2015 – 16).   These notifications consisted of:

  • 45% Emotional Abuse
  • 25% Neglect
  • 18% Physical Abuse
  • 12% Sexual Abuse

These statistics do not include intellectual or spiritual abuse.

Of these children a significant number will go on to develop early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) especially those who are subjected to:

  • Frequent episodes of abuse that never seems to cease
  • Unpredictable episodes of abuse, there is no warning the attack is coming
  • Multifaceted abuse, not the same technique of delivering the threat.
  • Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty

Although a strict definition of trauma is illusive all definitions have these same contents:

  • It is a psycho/emotional response to an event or experiences that is deeply disturbing or distressing
  • It generates an overwhelming amount of stress that exceed an individual’s ability to cope or integrate emotions involved with that event
  • Causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes the ability to experience a full range of emotions

Any trauma will result in a skewing of our perception to our environment.  These are:

  • Intrusive and distressing thoughts about the event, flashbacks and/or nightmares
  • Active avoidance of people or places that are reminders of the trauma, withdrawal, dissociation and emotional numbness
  • Hyper-vigilance, insomnia, agitation and anger outbursts

Children who suffer from PTSD carry these common reactions to trauma.  On top of these, they also have exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves and they are reluctant to participate in positive activities.  However, it is the continuous elevated levels of stress and the resulting range of chemical actions washing across their central nervous system that will result in real brain damage.

Early work in this field has revealed damage to the frontal lobes and the hippocampus as was clearly demonstrated. This was through investigation in the tragedy of the Romanian orphans, for neglect and serial killers for early childhood abuse.  More recent work has shown that the:

  • Amygdala is increased in size – this makes the victims hypersensitive to perceived threat
  • Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this translates into a debility in forming memories
  • Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is the ‘functional’ area of the brain where complex, considered decisions are made.
  • Cerebellum is reduced in size – contemporary research is revealing the predictive facility of the cerebellum.  This influences the prediction of potential outcomes for behaviours

These represent real physical damage to the child’s brain and this will have a direct impact on their cognitive abilities.  They are less likely to be successful in an academic world.  However, on top of this impediment the damage to these areas of the brain have a direct link to their behaviour. Here in lies the problem; the many behavioural expressions of these disabilities are such they threaten the safety and security of the other students and the teacher. 

The following developmental disorders have abuse/neglect at their core:

  • Attention Deficit
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiance
  • Dissociation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

The majority of the entrenched behaviours associated with these mental illnesses result in socially inept behaviours.  They range from dissociation where the child appears to be disengaged and non-threatening to the other extreme, characterized in Conduct Disorder where children display cruel behaviours such as, hitting others, teasing bullying and eventually involved in antisocial activities such as theft and vandalism. 

These repellent behaviours offend well-meaning people, including teachers.  The result is these children whose disability should engender an empathetic response more often than not are rejected by their peers and community.  This rejection compounds their sense of worthlessness and inhibits any motivation to change.

Complementing these behaviours that are directly linked to the brain damage is the reality that even if these children want to take responsibility for meeting their needs they are ill-equipped to do so.  The problem is the behaviours they ‘learned’ in their family of origin is functional in that family.   For example, a small child might want to get their mother’s attention, they will, like the rest of us try different behaviours until we get one that works.  By experimenting with different behaviours they eventually discover that yelling and screaming loud enough will finally force her to pay attention.   Even though the attention she gives the child is hardly nurturing it will work.  By repeating this process, they learned that to get attention is to scream and yell!

So, when the child is at school and wants the teacher’s attention they do what they have always done – scream and yell!  Of course, this will still get attention but in the classroom, there are better ways to get attention but these kids need to learn how to do this.  For the teacher, the screaming and yelling will make the student unattractive but for the experienced teacher this behaviour gives a clue to the problems the student and subsequently the teacher faces.

Again, it is not the fault of the student, it is the fault of their childhood.

We must keep in mind these hardened behaviours have been developed as a result of the conduct of the adults and environment in which they developed.  They are the fault of the adults who shaped that environment not the child but it will be their presenting behaviour of that child that will influence their acceptance by others.

Appropriate teaching responses to Managing behaviour in the classroom involves:

  • Understanding the importance of a predictable, stable learning environment
  • Understanding the effects of early childhood trauma on behaviour and emotions
  • Understanding dysfunctional behaviour and emotions learned in early childhood will emerge in stressful situations
  • Understanding students need to operate in a state of calm to learn
  • Being able to identify and respond to dysfunctional behaviours and emotions

Finally, like all disabilities, schools need resources to allow these students to take their rightful place in society.  In our schools all disabilities are underfunded but this particular disability is extremely neglected for the following reasons:

  • These children do not attract the empathetic support enjoyed by other disabilities.  There are no real observable problems, they look healthy and they can behave ‘if they want to’ and so it is easy to think it is their fault.
  • These children quite often pose a threat to the security and peaceful workings of the classroom.  Other students are really disadvantaged to have these kids in class without support.
  • Teacher training is totally inadequate in preparing teachers for dealing with these children.
  • There is a lack of provision of specialist settings for these students and there is no professional development for the staff that work in these settings.

This paper is called ‘Malevolent Development - The Condemned Disability’ because the fact that children are treated in such a way requires a certain malicious attitude on the part of the people who commit these atrocities.  It is also a condemnation on our broader society that we allow this damage to continue at increasing rates. 

Schools are constantly being asked to deal with the problems of society and for these children the school is their only chance.  It is up to that broader society to provide the resources for them to do this valuable work.

 

Posted by: AT 11:19 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 25 2019

The Dishonourable Lie

How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing.  This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties.  This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning. 

As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be.  So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.

The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN.  Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers.  Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.

Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity. 

There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!

The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’!  This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years.  Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.  This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.

Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever.  However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed.  This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence.  More success with more effort, sounds familiar!

Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies.  In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach.  To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!

The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field.  How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy!  Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field.  The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm.  Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school!  Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.

The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success.  Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests.  A few points:

  • Naplan is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test.  This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
  • The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools.  This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population.  Hardly a significant sample!

The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding.  I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.

However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’!  If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed!  If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.

And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying!  Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life!  The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!

Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage.  Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn.  So far - no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.

The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception.  A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements.  Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate.  At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking.  The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves.  In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’.  In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.

Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self - but how?  The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher.  This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do.  As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!

Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents.  We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment.  It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other.  Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently.  You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background. 

In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life.  This what good teachers do!

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PRINCIPALS

John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance


ABN 64 372 518 772

ABOUT

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.

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