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.
These Newsletters concentrate on the lessons from neuroscience for describing student’s dysfunctional behaviour. However, there is value in re-visiting some of the old models that pioneered analysis of behaviour. This essay focuses on the work of Rudolf Dreikurs, the Austrian psychiatrist who worked in the United States. He followed the models developed by Alfred Addler who believed that the development of personality was underpinned by of the feeling of inferiority in relation to others. Dreikurs claimed that every child’s action was grounded in the idea that they were seeking their place in the group. Success in belonging developed well-adjusted children however, the experience of rejection could cultivate faulty behaviours that could drive the ‘others’ further away.
When the application of this approach is focused on the classroom the key to dealing with these behaviours is to re-establish the connection with the students. This is the work of the teacher who, in Dreikurs’ theory will be successful if they understand how each child acts to get the attention they desire.
He describes four categories, attention seeking, power, revenge and inadequacy or withdrawal. There have been some interpretations of this work that suggest the student goes from attention seeking through to power to demand attention and if all these fail they withdraw. This may be the case, they may be discrete behaviours or, as I would contend all behaviour is unique and the model ‘chunks’ behaviours for convenience. Whatever the situation the model does provide a fresh insight that will increase each teacher’s arsenals of techniques to deal with misbehaviour.
As stated above, the underpinning concept for the model is the drive is the need to get recognition from the teacher within the group. Their behaviour is the response/reaction to the success of their actions; rejection produces an intensification of their actions. This increase in the effort to get attention would explain the escalation from attention seeking to power.
Attention Seeking – acting to draw attention to themselves
Behaviours – Behaving in an annoying manner to get attention. Things like tapping their fingers, swinging on their chairs, late for class and a host of other creative behaviours.
Effect on Teacher – They will certainly ‘get your attention’ but for all the wrong reasons. You will become irritated and annoyed and the intensity can challenge your confidence. Your impulse will be to fulfil their wish and ‘give them attention’. You can find yourself yelling, nagging. Pleading or even doing things for them.
Child’s Response – They may stop the inappropriate behaviour for a while and go back to it when you think you have ‘won’ or they might find substitute behaviour to continue the attack.
Strategy – You may ignore the behaviour if it is not too intense but this rarely works for a real attention seeker. You can use low level interventions like standing in close proximity, use non-verbal cues or a single direct instruction however, eventually use the structure you have initiated in the class (see Newsletter – Creating Structure 12th August 2019). The secret is to give them attention for appropriate behaviour – catch them doing the ‘right thing’.
Power – They demand your attention by behaving in a manner that challenges you to ignore them.
Behaviours – They become non-compliant, provocative and defiant. They happily engage you in an argument or threaten you with their non-verbal communication. They may throw things around the room or attack other students.
Effect on Teacher – You will feel threatened, challenged and be tempted to engage them in a power struggle, after all you are the teacher. You will be thinking things like ‘you can’t get away with that’ or ‘I’ll make you comply’. Inexperienced or unassertive teachers may feel inadequate in dealing with these kids and kick them out of class.
Child’s Response – If you do challenge them they may intensify their behaviour they may enjoy the realisation they have got your attention. Even if they do comply, this is more likely for younger students, they will remain defiant often using passive aggressive behaviours to continue the ‘struggle’.
Strategy – Refuse to get trapped into any power struggle, acknowledge at least to yourself that you can’t make anyone do anything, you can just provide the consequences for the decision they will make. So, have your structured consequences and deliver them in a calm manner. However, you need to complement this approach with an effort to build a relationship. After they have calmed down you can, privately ask them what they want from you. Suggest a time and place to do this and give them the respect of listening carefully to what they have to say. Work out a plan with the student and follow through with that plan.
Revenge – These kids have moved beyond expecting attention, their motivation is to punish those who ignore them. Even though they want to ‘hurt’ others their actions are a really a sense of projecting their pain onto something else. I suspect this is the cause of a lot of apparent senseless vandalism.
Behaviours – They are sullen, vicious towards others and will use violence. They scratch cars and destroy the property of others without a sense of guilt. The target is often the school occasionally resulting the fires. They don’t care that no one knows who was responsible just that someone got hurt!
Effect on Teacher – They feel deeply hurt and outraged. The revengeful actions leave the staff disgusted and, if they know who was responsible a deep dislike is developed; how could they do this to us? The teachers naturally want to retaliate, get even!
Child’s Response – They will either escalate their behaviour or choose another ‘weapon’. They continue damage property to hurt others.
Strategy – If you know who it is, the key is to hang in with them longer than they expect. Somehow show them that they are worth your efforts. Sometimes you don’t know who it is but this underlines the importance of having this tenacity for every child. Never retaliate but deliver the consequences without showing your own feelings. This is the time to remember all kids are worth the effort. If appropriate acknowledge that they are hurting.
Inadequacy or Withdrawal – At this stage they have given-up trying to get attention. However, they have not ‘given-up’ the need for attention. They still want to be accepted so don’t give up on them.
Behaviours – They appear not to care about their work or what happens to them. Punishment is never a productive response especially for these kids (see Newsletters ‘Consequences’ 36th March 2018 and ‘Consequences Neither Punishment nor Reward’ 4th April 2018). Older students truant a lot even staying away from school completely.
Effect on Teacher – You feel inadequate because you can’t seem to reach them. You may even start to agree with them almost confirming they are hopeless. There is the temptation to ‘over-help’ them even doing the work for them. Or, you come to expect they will do nothing and leave them to waste away.
Child’s Response – Its hard to see any escalation in their behaviour. They continue to withdraw or at best pretend to ‘have a go’.
Strategy – Never give up on these kids, don’t criticise, don’t pity them. They are a real challenge but can be retrieved. Try to find some interest, some strength they may have and exploit this as a way into their world. Set tasks around this ‘interest’ and break the work down into manageable, errorless tasks and celebrate any milestone you can achieve. Encourage, encourage, encourage!
Dreikurs’ model provides an alternate way to observe behaviour however, following these Newsletters and other resources we provide, you will conclude that every behaviour is unique, driven by distinctive needs and developmental histories. The strategic advice given above, complies with all our advice and that can be expressed as:
Predictable and consistent structure
The key is to have effective, positive relations will all your students even those that challenge you every day. They are worth it!
We have said in an earlier Newsletter, the children we focus on in our work are those who have a toxic sense of shame and this ‘sense’ drives their behaviour. They believe:
They don’t make mistakes; they are mistakes
They are incapable of achieving anything
They are bad - worthless and not fit to have a meaningful relationship with any person.
The worst advice you could give these kids is to be yourself! You have to remember that as a small child these kids have been abused by the very people they should have been able to rely on to teach them how to become an independent adult.
When we witness the ‘out of control behaviour’ that causes so much trouble we need to remember that at the time they really didn’t have any control. They are acting in a way that was taught to them. Their chaotic behaviour is because their parents never provided a consistency that allowed them to develop a set of behaviours that would help them get their needs met.
However, some kids have been abused in a constant manner and they have developed behaviours that protect their self. They will appear to be good or perfect and they work hard to maintain that image but like their out of control abused colleagues their sense of self will be just as negative, just as toxic. These students are harder to identify and often go through school without really achieving anything more than surviving.
The task for the teacher is to be ‘a good parent’ for these kids. You can’t change them but you can provide the support a small child would receive while they re-learn or re-develop an authentic sense of their self.
Take for example their inability to regulate emotions, a hallmark of traumatized kids. When a little child gets upset, say skinned their knee mum or dad would hold them, make soothing noises and reassure them that would be okay. When a 14-year-old PTSD kid gets hurt the teacher needs to treat them like a baby, not on a sarcastic way but to verbally soothe them, validate their pain and reassure them they will be alright. After a period of time, a significant period of time they will have learned the strategies we all use to regulate our emotions and consequently our behaviour.
We also have to deal with their view of being ‘faulty’. As mentioned above these kids believe they don’t make a mistake they are a mistake and so we have to deal with this defective belief. Teach them that nobody is perfect. In fact, an adage I used with students I worked with was they are perfectly imperfect. That is, all humans make mistakes. I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – perfectly imperfect.
How you interact with the student will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is 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 …’?
At these times they are articulating their sense of failed-self.
At times of ‘failure’ the destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that reinforce their opinion of themselves. Terms 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 when they have failed is with comments like:
‘How can we make this …’?
‘What can we do to…’?
‘What will it look like if …’?
You will inevitably be faced with resistance. Remember you are asking the children to make what they see as a very threatening change. They know their current environment and have learned to live in it. You are asking them to let go of those behaviours and that threatens them. Don’t fight their obstruction. If you correct them straight away you have conflict so in the first instance go with them. The best way these kids know how to cope is to be provocative so start with where they are at the time. Use statements like:
‘You hate being pushed around, don’t you?’
‘You’d rather talk to your friends than listen to me’
‘You’d like to be playing with your computer’
If delivered in a genuine sense, these statements can transform a determination to be uncooperative into a feeling of being understood and so you have the chance to change the resistance into productive engagement.
Their negativity, their practise of saying no to any suggestion can be replaced with an unavoidable yes if you anticipate what they will say. For example, if you place the child in a seating plan you know they will complain and refuse but if you say something like ‘I suppose you’d rather be sitting with Sam’ they will agree. Then, if you’re lucky you can explain why you are moving them and how they can earn the trust to ‘sit with Sam’.
Another goal of your work is to reconnect these kids with their ‘community’ be that their neighbourhood, their class or their school. They have a strong need to belong. If appropriate, engaging the parents could also be beneficial but you need to be careful.
Taking care is especially important when dealing with the parents of older adolescent kids. It is a natural progression for all teenagers to grow away from their parents. For these kids the separation might be their key to the freedom of being their real-self.
This sense of belonging can be realized with smartly planned group work that has as its outcome really cooperative learning. When doing this, inventive teachers organize the make-up of the groups while they appear to be ‘random’. This avoids any chance of the particular student, or the others to feel they are ‘different’.
Also, it is really rewarding if you get these kids to do charity work, especially in a group. The group approach helps overcome the initial fear of failure they will almost inevitably experience. These kids, like all kids get a great sense of self-worth when they help those less fortunate.
Hopefully after a significant period of time the seeds of positivity will emerge and the teacher should do as much as they can to cultivate this positivity through the lessons they give.
Much is written about the importance of our sense of self, previously we discussed the concept of a toxic sense of self (see Toxic Shame 7 March 2017). This is the sense children who are raised in an abusive or neglectful environment believe about themselves. They believe that it is they who are ‘wrong’, that they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.
Because our sense of self is the greatest regulator of success, that is, how we perceive ourselves will determine what we will do, much of our work is focused on changing this faulty self-belief. The only way we can achieve this is by re-producing the mechanism that created the false sense of self. This is the real work of the teacher, to produce an environment that provides the conditions that develop the memories that produces a positive sense of self in the students.
The illustration below crudely explains this process.
I used the term ‘crudely’ as the process of matching behaviour with desired consequences and subsequently producing the neurological structure to reproduce these behaviours is extremely complex. However, this description will help explain the formation of our sense of self which really only consists of memories. Of these it is the kind of emotional memories formed in early childhood that dominate this personal sense.
The process follows this sequence, initially we have a drive that is linked to a state of homeostatic disequilibrium, that is we feel disturbed and feel impelled to change this situation. In the first instances we try an ‘action’ and evaluate the outcome relative to the need, that is the consequence. In the model it is from the situation that moves to the action (at this initial stage the decision is not used) that results in a consequence. If this works and we regain a sense of calm, when the same situation occurs the process to regain a sense of calm will again be activated. If the same action gets the same desired result this is strengthened and as the process is repeated eventually this will be the behaviour learned to deal with this situation.
In the mean-time every time we run through this sequence we are provided with feedback (see the broken lines from consequence to ‘memories’) and this feedback constructs a bank of emotional and cognitive memories. This memory bank is our sense of self. The formation of this sense of self produces the section in the model to include decision-making.
The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood. In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional. This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions.
Eventually the child’s hippocampus, the more cognitive section of the limbic system becomes active and the memories developed here are also included in the decision making. These memories have an impression that is attached to some ‘reason’ the connection between action and consequence was established. This contrasts to the emotional memories that are powerful but with no conscious ability to make that action/consequence link.
At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable. At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories. But, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to the emotional memories. It is my understanding that this emotional dominance of our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produced levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met. Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed, cease trying and disengage from their world. This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins that toxic shame.
The final broken lines in the model illustrates the compounding issue of the toxic sense of self. It establishes that our memories, our sense of self is with us all the time. In the model this is the antecedent condition we bring to any new situation that will influence our approach even before we get to the decision-making stage. How this manifests, in class is that these students refuse to even to contemplate engaging in behaviours to get their needs met because any such action will displease others and they will re-experience their ‘abuse’. They just don’t get involved and this disengagement is common in our classrooms!
To be successful a therapeutic intervention needs to encourage the retrieving of a positive sense of self. This requires an examination of their internal world, to recognize and acknowledge the myriad of faulty feelings and beliefs. This necessitates access to a qualified mental health professional. However, as teachers we are faced with a significant number of these children on a daily basis and we are not qualified to deal with them in such a manner. So, what can we do?
Referring back to the model, we need to manipulate that sense of self environment re-building it in stages. The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences. The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage! This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.
There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence. It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child. If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they re NOT a mistake!
Another important contribution for these children is to teach them how the brain operates and how all behaviour has a purpose, it is designed to get something. Part of this training is to discuss the fact that any behaviour can have a range of consequences. The sign of maturity, what we want them to achieve is that you must choose the behaviour that is most likely to get the consequence you want but, if this doesn’t happen this time it is still the behaviour they should choose. It is the one that has the best chance of success, it’s their ‘best bet’!
It is also important to understand that if you choose a behaviour that may have one possible negative consequence that you don’t want then you can’t do that behaviour. If the chances are slim and you take a chance and that disastrous consequence does follow then you must take responsibility and not blame others.
The road to recovery is cyclic, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously. They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.
We have established that the children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment have verified brain damage and the theme of our work is to provide rehabilitation through changing their Renvironment. Predominantly this is focused on schools but these principled interventions work even better if they are applied around the clock which can occur in special settings such as juvenile detention centres.
However, one of the frustrations for teachers or supervisors is the length of time it takes for any real change to occur. There are two things to consider about this; the first is the extended time interval required for real neurological change to be entrenched that drive new behaviours, the second is the difficulty in changing deep held beliefs. The focus of this Newsletter is on the first of these problems, the impediment of time!
Changing the neurological organisation of the brain in any permanent sense requires the extinguishing of the existing circuits and the construction of a replacement path. This is known as plasticity. This plasticity varies throughout the brain, from the brain stem, through the limbic system and on to the cerebrum. Behaviours learned in the brain stem are extremely non-plastic, that is they are very hard to change. This makes sense as those behaviours are designed to support our physical wellbeing, such as breathing, blood pressure, balance, etc. that are vital for our survival and this resistance to change protects us.
Those social/emotional lessons that are stored in the limbic system are also hard to change. This is where our affective memories are stored and these are the organisation of our sense of self. We develop our sense of self in the early years and the behaviours that accompany this have been learned because they have provided the ‘best way’ to survive in the environment in which they are learned. It is in this area our beliefs are maintained and, although arguably easier to change than those maintaining our physical security, they are also ‘hard-wired’ making change a time-consuming event.
The importance of both the physical and socio-emotional functions are important to our survival and so it makes sense to protect them from change; this is why they are so locked into the brain circuitry.
The part of the brain that remains relatively plastic, that is reasonably easy to change is the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, mostly in the frontal area associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving. Those other areas of the cerebrum are associated with the development of fundamental skills that complement our survival mechanisms, things such as vision, speech, etc. are also developed in the early years and most likely share the non-plasticity of the lower levels of the brain. These are:
Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing
Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech
There is not the behavioural need to change these although there is a case for mediation for students who did not receive the appropriate level of stimulation in the developing years.
Although I have seen no research that would describe the level of plasticity in these areas a clue to the difficulty is in the problems faced by children who have been born with cataracts that have not been removed before about eight months. Up until this time the conditions in the occipital lobe are extremely plastic, this is referred to as its ‘window of opportunity’ when the brain’s neurons are surrounded with supporting materials, principally myeline the material that sustains and enhances the circuit. After that time has passed the myeline that has not been used along with the unemployed neurons are removed in a process called pruning. This makes the circuit even more efficient and long-lasting it also makes the behaviour controlled by the neural path non-plastic.
The difficulty faced by many teachers who work with these children is that their day to day teaching focuses on those frontal areas, associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving, the stuff of the curriculum. We see how relatively quickly children can learn new material. We are also exposed to a range of intervention programs, almost exclusively based in the cognitive behaviour therapy model to help children deal with their dysfunctional behaviour. We make the mistake of assuming the pace children learn say history or mathematics should be the same pace they learn to change their behaviour!
The real rate of change that can be expected from the deep-seated brain damage from abuse or neglect is best understood when it is compared to brain damage that is a result of a physical trauma, say a motor vehicle accident. People and families that work with such casualties expect the road to recovery to be slow and very difficult for the patient. Although this process can be frustrating usually the victim and their support are very committed to make the effort to get better, or to recover as much functionality as they can.
Rehabilitation is basically placing the patient in an environment that will stimulate the behaviour that is required to function in that environment. For example, if the individual needs to learn to walk again they will work through a process where the legs are exposed to conditions that demand a ‘walking’ response that will encourage new pathways to form. This can take months even years to recover even if only partially. The thing is the community knows the ethics of providing this support and the economic value of the intervention. The thing is, these victims did not deliberately choose to have their disability and their prospects of having a ‘successful’ life is hindered by their injury.
It takes a rare individual to take the same view of a teenager whose dysfunctional behaviour is expressed in a violent outburst in their classroom or sits in the back of the classroom completely disengaged in learning. It takes an even exceptional political/bureaucratic system that would provide the same level of support for this victim of an acquired brain injury. It is easy to feel compassion for the victim of a motor vehicle accident who may well have lost their ability to dampen their behaviour, become compulsive. It is much harder to have that same compassion for a ‘compulsive’ child when we have no evidence of the ‘accident’ they suffered by being born into the wrong family!
The thing is, these kids can be helped, we have the same ethical responsibility to take up this challenge. Despite the obvious decency of taking on the task there is a measured economic advantage for the community if we do. There is the access to such an amount of untapped human resources and the reduction in the financial burden of providing institutional interventions, such as detentions centres, courts, etc. that attempt to control these behaviours.
For teachers, there needs to be proper training in the techniques of providing the correct therapeutic environment and the encouragement to ‘stay the distance’ through the long period of recovery. It will be worth it!
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.