In the previous Newsletters we have discussed the problems students who have suffered abuse and neglect. In fact, the purpose of our work is to not only have teachers understand the origins of dysfunctional behaviour but also how to help change that behaviour. Of course, there is a history of ‘behaviour modification’ programs offered to schools but rarely, if ever do we see any consideration of the ethical question ‘what sort of behaviour’ do we want our children to develop and for what purpose?
The short answer is for them to be empowered, to take personal control and responsibility for their lives. However, for a system-wide approach there is a more ethical consideration, we require a more specified statement such as that found in the second principle of ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Child’. It reads:
The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.
This is a ‘motherhood’ statement, like those that the core of all declarations from bureaucratic organizations. No one should argue with this sentiment but in the most developed societies the abused kids referred to in this work are not enjoying ‘special protection’ etc. So, the teacher is faced with the bigger question - how can we achieve this ideal and what are the qualities we need to develop in order for these children to take their rightful place in society. The hard work is not the statement, it’s how do we teach the kids so as adults they can demand these rights?
In our day-to-day teaching of modern curriculum, the manner in which we can reach the desired education outcomes is relatively easy. If I want the children to learn about solving simultaneous equations I look at the skills required to achieve this, gather the resources supplied by the Department and teach them the skills. Then to confirm I have succeeded I test the students and move on. It’s a shame the Department doesn’t adopt this approach to address the disruptive behaviours that follow damaged kids. In reality, as far as behaviour modification is concerned teachers are being asked to change the very sense of self of another individual, their student and this process raises lots of complex issues.
In the first instance what rights do I have to ‘modify’ any child’s behaviour? I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker, I should not have to consider this question and defer to the child’s parent, psychiatrist or psychologist. However, the reality for so many teachers and students is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability. The other ‘reality’ is for most of these abused students access to a professional health care worker such as a psychiatrist is a dream. So, teachers are forced into confronting the ethical issue and attempt to change their behaviour to empower these damaged students.
Of course, we are teachers and we cannot turn our backs on these kids. So now, the question what ‘educational outcomes’ do I want my ‘behaviour altering activities’ to achieve? This puzzle has occupied my interest for a long time and challenges my philosophy of all education. Sure, I want my students to be the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same but how do I define a person’s best? So, I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.
In a western tradition any philosophical examination will invariably lead us back to the big three Greeks, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle. When it came to this question, what is it to be an optimal human Aristotle integrated his teacher’s work and produced the doctrine of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue. He made the case, to achieve a happy life you had to study philosophy and have an involvement in the community through political activity.
In current times the leaders in this field of philosophy include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through being instead of doing; all these plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself. The various answers will overwhelm any investigation but there have been a few successful attempts to distil these descriptions into manageable forms. These are discussed below.
The first, and currently most popular intervention isPositive Psychology. This evolved from attempts to aggregate and rationalise the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction. Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual. The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities. These various factors were distilled to leave us with the following characteristics of strength:
Wisdom and Knowledge – This includes creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perceptivity and innovation
Courage – Including bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality and zest
Humanity – With love, kindness and social intelligence
Justice – With citizenship, fairness, and leadership
Temperance – The characteristics of humility, forgiveness, mercy, prudence and self-control
Transcendence – The appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope and spirituality
Another well-known effort to rationalise the factors that contribute to a positive life comes from work by the American Psychologist Ken Sheldon. He carried out analysis on what makes an ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership.
Sheldon’s categorisation are as follows:
Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such a fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity. The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs. They must also combine with our fundamental personality
Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals. Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life. Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self. We are to take an internalized attitude towards life. If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about ourselves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self-actualized we become.
There are many other models easily found from a simple search and I have consumed these eventually to arrive at four broad characteristics that will prepare children for acceptance and access to their communities. These are:
There is a well-recognised link between childhood abuse and the consequential physical and psychological injury that occurs. Throughout these Newsletters we have consistently linked this early abuse with its resulting post-traumatic stress with the dysfunctional behaviours displayed in class.
In the general literature and in the education department’s communication regarding child protection the categories are, physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual. However, the difference between psychological abuse and emotional abuse is arbitrary and for this paper we will describe the latter together. I contend there are two additional forms of child abuse that is not recognised by any authority and these also have a long-lasting effect on the child’s development.
Before discussing these hidden assaults on children a quick summary of the acknowledged forms of abuse is presented below.
This is the use of intentional force against a child’s body or an unwanted invasion of their physical space. It can be:
In historical terms hitting a child has been an acceptable form of discipline and we still hear ignorant teachers lamenting the fact that corporal punishment has disappeared in contemporary societies. It remains the point that hitting is abuse and the only lesson learned by the child is if you want to get someone to do what you require it is appropriate to hit him or her to achieve this outcome.
This is a form of abuse where the child’s psychological boundaries are violated. This can take the form of non-accidental verbal or symbolic actions that are likely to result in significant psychological or emotional harm. Forms of emotional abuse are:
Attacking the worth of the child by rejecting them, terrorising or isolating them.
Telling the child that they are stupid, un-loveable or unwanted.
Being overly harsh in criticising the child.
Punishing the child when they become emotional – don’t be a baby, etc. or when they show no emotion when it would be appropriate to do so.
When the love of a parent is conditional on their behaviour (I will love you if …)
This form of abuse is considered, by some to be more damaging as there is no ‘evidence’ it happened and abusers do not see the damage done. This is particularly so if the perpetrator is an addict or has a mental illness. They don’t see the bruises.
This abuse is when an adult or older adolescent uses the child for their sexual gratification or for financial profit of the person committing the act. This can include:
Unwanted touching or penetration of the sexual organs.
Adults exposing their own genitals to a child.
Exposure to inappropriate sexual experiences or information (i.e. Pornography).
Sexual abuse is a silent destroyer of too many young children in our society especially with the easy availability of pornography on the Internet.
Now we come to the hidden forms of abuse. These rarely get coverage in the general literature but are equally as likely to expose the child to toxic levels of stress. These are:
One type of spiritual abuse that occurs is when the parents put themselves above the child. The child must ‘worship’ the parent. A contrary form of spiritual abuse occurs when the parents put the child above themselves. The child becomes the focus of their devotion, they can do no wrong. These children never learn to take responsibility. In the first instance the parent knows best and you just do as you’re told. In the latter form the parent will not see any faults in the child’s behaviour and so they never get the natural consequences when they make a wrong choice.
This form of abuse is becoming more and more prevalent in modern society, many parents are loathed to correct their children’s inappropriate behaviour possibly through advice about ‘killing their spirit’. Perhaps, it is the idea that kids must ‘find their own way’. Despite the reason, the lack of teaching children ethical principles has resulted in a loss of once valued traditional forms of etiquette and communal responsibility.
About one percent of the general population have been so affected by this child-centred attention they meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, that is they display at least five of the following nine traits:
Has grandiose sense of self-importance.
Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
Believes he/she is special and unique.
Requires excessive admiration.
Has strong sense of entitlement.
Is interpersonally exploitative.
Lacks empathy, is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her.
Shows arrogance, haughty behaviours and attitudes.
The second form of spiritual abuse occurs when ‘religions’ teach that God will punish sinners and all are condemned unless they conform to some dogma. People who work with children brought up in some cults attest to the damage done through this form of abuse but it would be a brave politician who would underline the damage done when adherence to the word of any god is criticized.
Thisoccurs when a child is placed in a situation where they are asked to perform a task they are developmentally incapable of successfully achieving. An example is when a child is given a glass of milk to drink before they have developed the motor skills required for this task. When they fail they are either labelled as useless by the parent or confirm to themselves the belief that they are at fault because they failed.
Education departments are loathed to acknowledge this type of abuse but it happens all the time, whenever a student is asked do an exam on work they have never been shown or are just incapable of doing they are being abused!
Intellectual abuse also occurs when a significant other compares one child’s performance against another child implying one is better than the other. Education departments never like to rank their students, do they? This would be abusive.
Followers of my writing understand the four characteristics I believe should be nurtured in our children. These are a healthy sense of self, the ability to relate to others appropriately, develop a sense of autonomy and finally to have a purpose in life. In this Newsletter I want to discuss the subtlety of purpose especially for the kids whose history leads them to believe their life has no purpose (see Newsletter Creating Purpose - 12 February 2018)!
A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction. If you examine people who you would consider successful and content you would see individuals involved in a range of endeavours. These activities extend from working in large corporations, making million dollar deals to those who have dedicated their life to a political ideal. Others have devoted their life to a particular sport or recreation and others who work with charities helping those less fortunate than their self. The list is endless but there is a commonality and that is they have an intrinsic motivation that drives their behaviour. These successful people have aligned their life’s purpose with their distinct sense of who they are.
In the best of situations, we can work in jobs that are directly related to our intrinsic goals. For the children coming from a disadvantaged base it is unlikely that they will have in the first instance the ability to work in an area that captures their imagination.
This is the problem; how do you get these children who think they are worthless to even attempt to plan for such a future. This can be achieved by not only using short term goals to engage them, in the first instance and to encourage them to always strive for excellence in the tasks you set them.
One problem that must be addressed is that in the early stages of change there is a significant amount of negativity that is part of their sense of shame. These children have a default position of failure and we are asking them to attempt something that they may well find very threatening. This can be overcome providing them with the key pillars of any successful classroom, structure, expectations and healthy relationships – no surprises here!
A technique to help students engage with learning, I learned from a colleague and friend Randall Clinch provides a useful description of our approach to classwork. His approach divides the motives for undertaking effort into four categories. In the first instance Randall spoke of a negative cycle that could be initiated when undertaking a challenge. These are the negative traps we can fall into if we do not approach work with the best of motives:
Excitement – This is the feeling of excitement when we choose not to attend to our work. Instead of attending school we may decide to truant and that can be accompanied with a sense of excitement. There is a sense of danger the first time we take such a risk. But excitement is a short-term feeling feedback that you are doing ‘the wrong thing’ and can help motivate you not to truant.
However, the more you truant the less excitement is experienced and the easier it is to ‘do the wrong thing’.
Hardness – This is a feeling we experience when we have to do something we are made to do, something we don't want to do or something we think we can't do. This is prevalent in all classrooms where teachers insist on the students doing their work. It can also be a problem when we start a new job. Everyone experiences some apprehension when they are placed in an unfamiliar setting.
Guilt – Guilt is closely associated with shame so there is no surprise that these children can be victims of this emotion. We feel guilt when we know the work we have done is not our best effort. If the task we have been set is not engaging then it is tempting to just put in a minimal effort. What our students need to know is that most jobs are boring especially at the start. Some jobs, such as production line work will be boring and it is hard to remain enthusiastic about it.
Frustration – This is the final trap we can fall into if we fail to take a positive attitude into our work. Frustration comes after we complete a task and as we look back we recognize that our actions have not met our expectations. The task is finished and we have to submit something that will produce a sense of shame. The redeeming factor, if there is such a thing is this is healthy shame.
The alternate to these negative outcomes from not putting in our best effort are given below.
Excitement – This is the feeling that comes from the expectation of an activity that holds an element of fear. For a pleasing life we need a bit of excitement. It is important on a personal level and explains the popularity of ‘dangerous’ carnival rides such as the roller coaster. And it’s no surprise teenagers are particularly attracted to ‘excitement’ but of all the motivators the satisfaction excitement provides is very short lived. The ‘excitement’ of an activity soon abates and we require either other activities or we need to take even more risks.
Excitement is no motivator for long term success in work.
Enjoyment – This is the ideal motivator for any vocation. Going to work to do something you enjoy makes life easy. It is the ideal way to earn your income. But as I have pointed out the number of people who have the privilege of working at what they love is small and usually for those who have had an equally privileged developmental childhood.
Reward – This is working ‘for the money’. There is nothing wrong for doing this as long as it is in a way that doesn’t clash with your deep sense of worth. It may be possible to make a great deal of money selling scam products, the market place is full of such schemes. Unless your intrinsic sense of ethics and personal qualities gives you to believe that taking advantage of other’s gullibility is part of life’s competition, working in such occupations will clash with your intrinsic drives.
However honest work will provide support for your sense of self and the resources to support your real goals.
Satisfaction – This is the best type of work. This is when you work in such a way as to improve your own talents and experiences in a way that will increase the professional skills you possess. Along with improvement of your ‘self’, there is a great deal of fulfilment in undertaking work that improves the lives of others. This can be providing things like new roads, fixing cars, working in the service industry and making someone’s experience special because you treated them well.
The fact remains that school work is often threatening for these kids but it can be very boring for all kids. Unless we make a concerted effort the easy path is into those outlined in the negative outcomes. It takes a special quality to naturally have enthusiasm for the mundane. However, this doesn’t mean you have to be downhearted about the work you have to do. The four positive approaches can help anyone to remain actively engaged in any task.
Restorative justice is an approach for dealing with the damage sustained by individuals and/or society as a result of offending behaviour. It became popular in the late 1990’s and subsequently developed into an accepted technique to patch up the relationship between the victims and offenders of crimes. By 2006 a range of authorities used this approach as part of their procedures in dealing with ‘crime’ including police, judges, politicians and victim support groups. The practice of restorative justice eventually found its way into schools and in some cases, it became so important it underpinned their discipline policies. I understand the attraction of this approach, in theory everyone thrives but there are times when this is really inappropriate and damaging especially to the victim.
Restorative justice is a procedure where all stakeholders affected by an injustice together confront the situation and have the opportunity to clarify what happened, how it affected them and how to repair the relationships. This process has been commercialised by a number of organisations and they present their structured approach to this process. What they have in common is that a meeting is organised by a facilitator between the victim and the offender with the aim of having the perpetrator listen to the victim’s statement so they accept the impact of their behaviour and empathise with the victim.
The facilitator would guide the meeting following a process based on similar questions as those below:
Who has been hurt?
What are their needs?
Whose obligations are these?
What are the causes?
Who has a stake in the situation?
What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right?
The offender has to learn about the harm they have caused to their victim, making it hard for them to justify their behavior.
It offers a chance to discuss moral development to offenders who may have had little of it in their life.
Offenders are more likely to view their punishment as legitimate.
An extension of this approach occurs when the perpetrators explain what motivated their behaviour, what they wanted to achieve. This allows the perpetrator to give their side of the story. The programs tend to avoid shaming and stigmatizing the offender however, for the children we focus on, this public exposure to their inappropriate behaviour reinforces their sense of worthlessness. Their personal experience of toxic shame; that they haven’t done something bad to others but they are bad for others.
This leads to the first of my concerns, understanding the power of the victim! Experienced teachers who have worked with severely dysfunctional children will have witnessed the power of being a victim. These kids will consciously or even unconsciously ‘annoy’ a fellow student who has little control over their behaviours. They can be barefaced in their attempt to get the ‘perpetrator’ to lash-out at them, it’s as easy as insulting their mother! When the perpetrator attacks the ‘victim’ he or she runs to the authority for protection. Less subtle ways use behaviours described as passive-aggressive where the victim continually ‘annoys’ the perpetrator by just being ‘around’ until they get sick of them and they ‘attack’ them.
The diagram below illustrates this connection.
This becomes a cycle: when the victim informs the facilitator, this is an act of aggression against the aggressor because they expect the aggressor will be punished. If the facilitator is not mindful of the manipulation taking place, they will punish the aggressor who has now taken on the role of victim. This use of victim power is not likely to be revealed in any restorative justice approach. It requires the expertise of the facilitator, it is unlikely any student with a history of abuse or neglect would have the insight to point this out.
A second concern is an inequity of the relative personal power of the aggressor and victim. Some students develop disorders that attract the diagnosis of narcissism, sociopathy or even psychopathy. These students care little about the feelings of their victims and in fact they enjoy seeing them suffer. This presents a huge problem for meetings facilitated using a restorative justice approach. You can rest assured that both the victim and perpetrator know where each stands; the victim understands they are no match for the perpetrator and the latter will even enjoy playing with the facilitator. I have seen these people in action, to the uninformed facilitator the perpetrator will admit to all their wrong-doings, they are only too willing to apologize to the victim. Both the perpetrator and the victim know that if the victim doesn’t declare satisfaction with the process and ‘forgive’ the perpetrator once the process is over they will be dealt with! In these cases, the facilitator will report an ‘excellent outcome’ where punishment was avoided!
The danger of using restorative justice practices for disputes between individuals is fraught with danger. Of course, there are cases where the approach will benefit all involved but this is not as likely when you are dealing with students whose dysfunctional behaviour caused the dispute. These very damaged kids do not have the personal qualities developed to undertake what is a relatively sophisticated process. This is why our approach of providing structure, expectations within a caring and supportive environment is important. Eventually these kids will start to develop the qualities of trust and a healthy sense of their own worth. If this can be achieved then these students could benefit from restorative justice but we would hope that by then there would be no need of this approach!
In recent years it has become widely accepted that trauma can have devastating consequences on the mental health and performance of individuals. Much of our work at Frew Consults Group is underpinned by our understanding of the effects of early childhood trauma and we are finding an increasing number of professional development programs offered to schools that market themselves as being ‘trauma informed’. It needs to be acknowledged that there is a potential danger of those delivering these programs. Trauma, and the resulting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very complex mental health injury and it is critical that those delivering these courses and the teachers that participate do not over-step their professional responsibilities and to exacerbate the psychological injury already suffered by these children.
Trauma occurs when events challenge the very foundations of our expected survival. We all function with the expectation that we will endure and this gives us the confidence to plan and act within our community. However, there can be times when these expectations are shattered through the experience of:
Unexpected life-threatening events such as car accidents, earthquakes, severe illness, the death of a loved one, anything that threatens your stable view of the world.
You come face to face with human vulnerability, you witness the injury to another person that demonstrates the fragility of life, in an instant the world changes through events that are out of your control.
You come face to face with the capacity for others to preform what can only be called evil in the world. History is littered with such events, take a tour of any of the more than 1,000 Nazi prison camps created in the period between 1933 to 1945 or visit the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia. Just visiting such places fills or at least should fill one with an overwhelming sadness. You can only imagine being an inmate of such a facility.
The damage done by any such traumatic event is the result of the chronic level of stress that is experienced, it is so powerful it overwhelms a person’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved. This inability to defend one’s self against these threats means that the individual is unable to discharge the energy that the fight/flight/freeze response has generated. This leaves the individual is a state of constant readiness with their brains awash with a chemical cocktail including adrenaline, catecholamines and especially norepinephrine. Amongst these chemicals is cortisol which is linked to the healthy discharge of the energy but if this does not occur than the constant presence of cortisol has an erosive effect of the very structure of the brain.
This inability to defend themselves means they are constantly ready for action. They exist in a state of neuromuscular readiness, primed for action; tapped in a highly aroused state. This situation results in the following experiences:
Intrusive Thoughts - the individual may experience vivid flashbacks of the events, suffer nightmares or develop false memories to protect themselves from the truth of their experience.
Avoidance – People will consciously or even unconsciously avoid situations that are associated with the traumatic event or even just avoid any stressful situation as they don’t trust their ability to cope.
Hyperarousal – these victims are always ‘ready’ they are constantly scanning the environment for potential threats.
This very brief description of trauma is simplistic, the intricacy of this psychological injury is overwhelming. In practice trauma is described in three ways:
Acute – this is often associated with a single event such as a car crash or witnessing a serious accident. This type of trauma can usually be successfully treated by a qualified mental health expert.
Chronic – this is linked to multiple, long-term and/or prolonged exposure to traumatic events. Things like domestic violence, bullying, serving in war zones or working in frontline services like police, ambulance personnel and even teaching in a dysfunctional school. Chronic trauma is much more difficult to treat.
Complex – This is particularly relevant to our work because it describes multiple exposure to traumatic events and can be coupled with childhood neglect. These are the conditions for the children that are the focus of our work. They are by far the most difficult and dealing directly with the child’s trauma must remain with the health professionals.
There is real structural damage to these children’s brains. Such alterations are:
The amygdala which is that part of the brain that initiates the fight/flight/freeze reaction to stress is increased in size making the child more predisposed to being set off by imaginary threats
The hippocampus, that part of the brain associated with memory formation and therefore learning. This is reported to have a 12% reduction in size
The prefrontal lobes, the executive part of the brain where our working memory functions are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.
The cerebellum, which is critical for the interpretation of the environment’s potential threat is reduced in size
There is a reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum which hinders the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres
The result is a real and permanent intellectual disability.
Students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships.They will:
Minimize or misinterpret any positive stimuli – they don’t trust compliments
Are hypersensitive to negative social cues – they expect the worst
Find it extremely difficult to understand or read the non-verbal cues of others
Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus
Compounding these problems is the damage done by persistent neglect in early childhood. The brain is developed though its response to incoming stimulus. The most graphic example of the need for a stimulus at the time the brain is acquiring a proficiency is for sight. If a child, born with cataracts does not have them removed within the first year, the lack of incoming light to the brain is not present and so the child does not learn to see. If the cataracts are removed at a later time, it will be too late because the neural material in the pertinent part of the brain has been removed, pruned to improve the efficiency of the brain. This phenomena takes place for all learning tasks. It is particularly important in the formation of attachments and the lack of appropriate stimulus; a mother’s appropriate attention leads to problems associated with connection.
An extreme example of the real damage that occurs to children who suffer from early childhood complex trauma is illustrated by the comparative MRI’s of two children, one from a healthy environment and the other from a child rescued from the infamous Romanian orphanages founded under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980’s.
You can see not only the significant reduction in size of the orphan but also there is an increase representation of the black areas which illustrate areas of their brain damage.
It is the complexity of the damage done to children that makes treatment extremely multifaceted and challenges the most qualified of the medical profession. The skills needed are well beyond the qualifications and experience of the best teachers. This is why any training under the guise of ‘trauma informed’ must emphasis that trying to directly assist any child suffering from PTSD is potentially damaging. The only approach, as is always the focus of our work is to provide an environment that is:
Structured - so the student can begin to trust their ability to predict what will happen
Predictable – The students know what to expect when they choose to behave in a certain way or safely anticipate the behaviour of others
Built on Healthy Relationships – the relationship between the teacher and student is the most important feature of any education setting that has children who have been exposed to complex trauma.
By providing such an environment you allow the child to begin to trust themselves to take control of their lives.
In the last Newsletter, ‘Dealing with the Angry Ant’ (4 May 2021) we discussed that anger when justified was an appropriate emotion. For the damaged kids we focus on, all too often use the energy the anger generates for behaviours that do not address their grievance but lead to unwanted consequences that will see them punished. The legitimate sense of ‘unfairness’ they experience only reinforces their sense of hopelessness. One of the most difficult but valuable skills you can teach these students is to address injustice with honest assertiveness.
Teaching how to appropriately assert their rights can be achieved through direct instruction, that is you run lessons on assertive behaviour but, in most mainstream classes only one or two students in the class might need to learn these skills. The best way, as is the case with teaching most social skills is through modelling the behaviours you want the students to adopt and taking advantage of those inevitable ‘teaching moments’ to reinforce the skills you want them to develop. Intervening when the situation appears and then explaining what is happening and what should happen not only instructs the student who needs to learn assertiveness but also reinforces the sense of fairness you expect in your class. This gives rise to a sense of community within your students as outlined in The Tribal Classroom (01 August 2018).
As pointed out modelling is the best way to teach social responsibility and outstanding teachers do this through:
Respond to kids with unconditional respect.
Always respond to a child in and adult manner
Listen unconditionally to what is said.
Make sure you always:
Let them tell their story without interruption.
Take their complaint seriously.
Validate their emotions without conceding the legitimacy of their complaint.
Let them know you are listening in a non-aggressive manner.
Don’t take their anger personally.
Make sure you really understand the issue. Summarise the main points as you see them and repeat them back to them.
Seek clarification if needed.
If possible, reach an agreed understanding of the dispute.
A mistake made by some teachers, especially those in their early years of their careers is to try to be liked by everyone; this is a sign of mediocrity. This is most demonstrated in the way you actually listen to the students, particularly when they are emotional. The following points build a framework for ensure this does not happen:
Respect – Do not make your support conditional, that is don’t say things like:
‘If you do what I want I will be fair to you!’
‘If you don’t, I will reprimand you!’
Unfortunately, about 90% of teachers operate in this fashion. This approach is taken by those teachers who use a ‘buddy’ approach to their work, the kids behave because they want your attention and the child must compromise his or her own needs to placate the teacher.
Another mistake, teachers make is to constantly try to find fault with what the child is reporting. They determine what is the difference between what they are saying and what you think is going on so they can mount an argument that satisfies their version of the disputed situation. Nothing new is learned if you take this approach.
Be empathetic by:
Listening to the student with a view of seeing the situation through their eyes.
Combine how they see the situation along with how we see the situation to create a new, shared belief about what was really going on.
This approach is often called serial processing, we begin to learn new things – we change our belief schemas and the teacher and child can change their opinion of each other! When we do this new respect and trust can be accomplished.
An opportunity to teach appropriate assertiveness regularly occurs in your day-to-day teaching. Take the following example. A particular child is always late for class and this is a situation that should make you angry. You could yell at them, punish them or use the boundary questions outlined in the previous Newsletter you can deal with your justified anger, in front of the class the following way:
Explanation – Convey the situation as you see it and be specific. Point out to the child that because they are late the rest of the class must wait while you go over the initial instructions of the work, that is unfair.
Feelings – Let the child know how you feel and take responsibility for these emotions. When you are late, I get frustrated because you inconvenience me and your classmates but importantly you are missing out on sharing the lesson with all of us. This last part is to build their feeling of belonging to the group.
Needs – Say what you want. Be selective, realistic and be prepared to negotiate but come to a plan everyone understands and agrees with. For really oppositional kids to admit they agree is too hard so accept their acknowledgement that they understand.
Consequences – Outline how things will be if there are changes or if they stay as they are. This is when you outline the positive and negative consequences for that behaviour if it continues.
When you start to introduce this assertive approach, the following script will help until you integrate the steps outlined above. In the first instance you say the following to the particular student:
“When you …”
“I feel …”
With more difficult students a more direct approach may be needed:
“If you …”
“I will …”
Appreciating the protective qualities of strong boundaries and the constructive way to assert your rights is really the best lesson you can give any student particularly those whose early learning may have damaged any sense of worth they might have had. These steps are the underpinning of any proper behaviour when dealing with other members of any community!
An issue that frequently co-exists with the dysfunctional behaviour displayed by the children who have suffered from childhood trauma and/or neglect is their inability to express anger in an appropriate manner. Anger is just an emotional state like happiness, sadness, disgust, etc. that is a result of the child’s interaction with the circumstances in which they find themselves. It should be a healthy reaction to a clash between what they want to happen and when that doesn’t happen. Unlike feelings of fear and anxiety, anger has the potential to lead to destructive behaviour especially in the children on which we focus. Everyone needs to be taught to deal with anger, there are times when it provides the energy to address unfair treatment towards you, it primes you to assert your rights in the group.
Like all emotions, anger is initiated by the clash between the child’s internal expectation and their observations of the situation in which they find themselves. For those children, who have developed a healthy sense of self, the anger in most cases is justified, that is they should be angry because they are being, in a sense violated. Things such as someone cheating on them, making fun of them or they are being betrayed by someone they trust. These kids have a better chance of dealing with anger in a functional way because they have a healthy and valued sense of their ‘self’.
However, the students who struggle to control their anger, those we focus on do not have the same healthy sense of their ‘self’. In an early Newsletter (Toxic Shame – 3 July 2017) we discussed how these children developed a detrimental sense of their worth. This sense of toxic shame is incredibly significant as their internal expectations are of their sense of worthlessness, they don’t make mistakes they are mistakes’ sums up their sense of who they are and what they deserve. When they are faced with situations as outlined above, cheated on, ridiculed or being betrayed their initial emotional response is shame, frustration and this proceeds on to anger but instead of analysing the source of their anger they blame themselves, their anger is self-destructive.
There is, as with all dysfunctional behaviours related to kids who suffered early childhood trauma, a difference between the response of the boys and the girls. Although it is not exclusively the case in general girls internalise their emotions while the boys act out. This difference can be seen in the proportions of males incarcerated compared to females. This does not mean the girls don’t experience anger, for the same reasons but they are more likely to deny they are angry, they pretend the confrontations do not matter, they are not offended. Their response is something like ‘I don’t care’ or ‘I didn’t want that anyway’. It is easy to overlook the girls because they don’t really upset anyone else but they do deserve to be taught how to deal with anger! Boys, on the other hand act out either to ‘punish’ the person who precipitated the anger or ‘self-destruct’ by hitting walls or destroying property.
It really is worth the effort to try to teach these kids how to deal with anger, first by reassuring them that anger is a healthy emotion that is informing them that something is wrong! The best way is to teach them boundaries! (see Teaching Practical Boundaries – 31 July, 2017 and Boundary Considerations – 22 October, 2018)!
It is worth revising the steps in setting boundaries and connecting these to outbursts of anger. The steps are:
Stay Calm – you know your boundaries are being traversed because your emotions change, in this case you feel the frustration growing to anger. If possible, this is the time to take charge of the emotions (see Mindfulness - June 17 2019 for tips on how to control these strong feelings)!
Ask the questions
‘What is really happening’?
‘Who is responsible’?
If the answer is me – then I have to change what I’m doing
If the answer is not me – then I have to work out what I want to happen and act to make that happen
The second step – ‘what is really happening’ is a time you can teach the students about their faulty beliefs, that is how their perception is affected because of their expectations. These faulty expectations come from their toxic shame base. Even though there are huge variations on this process the major ones are:
Over-Generalisation – this is where some small part of the interaction is hurtful or unfair and so the whole situation is contaminated.
Magnification – this is much like the previous point but the reactive anger grows until it is way out of proportion to the real situation.
Mind Reading – This is really the student’s expectation in action, the situation isn’t defective they are. They know things will be painful and so they are primed to react in a negative manner.
This is when you can teach the student how to identify the type of anger they are experiencing.
The next step, ‘who is responsible’ provides the opportunity to identify if the anger is justified or not. Life is not fair, for all of us but for these kids it has been blatantly unfair. The hard part of this step is to convince them that sometimes their anger reflects the very random nature of life. Kids get caught in the rain, they get in the canteen line that is slower than all the others, they stub their toe just before a game of soccer, this is a time when anger is an inappropriate exaggeration of the natural feelings of disappointment. The answer to the question is no one is responsible for the situation but you are responsible for the anger. Therefore, if that is the case then you need to teach the child to be more rational about life expectations.
However, as stated anger is a healthy emotion so it follows it is justified and someone else is responsible. Typical situations that provoke justified anger are things like someone cheats on you, they may steal your turn, spoil your work or tell lies about what you have done. Other personal attacks are when others exclude you for no reason or make fun of you or you are betrayed by someone you trusted. The answer in these cases is others are responsible.
The problem here is the kids expect that by pointing out the validation of your anger is enough to solve the problem. However, in the real world those others who deliberately hurt others are rarely going to accept that responsibility. This is the time you need to get the student to identify what they want to happen in the future and what they need to do to achieve that goal.
After this process has been completed and the situation is unresolved then it is time to revisit the process and if things can’t be resolve then ‘let it go’. This step is a mature approach but it doesn’t come with the passing of years, it is learned wisdom and if it’s learned it should be taught! The next Newsletter will focus on the development of assertive behaviour and much of what to do when wronged is down to the child’s self-confidence. The serenity pray, used by recovering addicts to deal with their sense of powerlessness is equally relevant to the process of dealing with anger. Grant me the serenity:
When Marcia and I retired from teaching over four years ago we still had the passion for education and a predilection for providing support for those children whose behaviour was so dysfunctional it inhibited not only their learning outcomes it also stifled the learning of their classmates. Our special interest in focusing on this specific feature of the characteristics that must be considered in any classroom has its geneses in our years working is special education settings that catered for these disruptive kids.
When faced with a cohort of students where the vast majority are classified as conduct disordered or at least oppositional defiant it made sense to look for the cause of their self-destructive behaviours; it soon becomes obvious they really don’t want to be in the situation they find themselves in, they want to be what we would call ‘normal’. We soon realised that almost without exception these children suffered from early childhood abuse and/or cruel neglect.
With that, as our motivation we started this journey over four years ago offering resources, training and development and a regular free Newsletter, at last count we are at Number 158! We have also written books specifically aimed at supporting this work. The first ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ and ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom – the Getting of Wisdom for Teachers’. We are pleased to announce the publication of the third in this series ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ shown below.