Working in the highly stressful conditions of a modern school have been the subject of many of our Newsletters however in recent times I have seen a worrying shift from the high levels of stress working in such a demanding environment to the emergence of a culture of despair amongst teachers and principals. Despair differs from anxiety or worry in that it represents a complete loss of hope that things will recover.
This feeling that things are profoundly wrong is reinforced by the evidence that public schools have been abandoned by our governments both state and federal who continue to differentiate the provision of resources and the work/time demands on employees in the public sector in comparison to the private system. It is as if our employer has abandoned any effort to deal fairly with the issues facing our public schools.
In a renowned speech made by John Ralston Saul in Canada, a jurisdiction much like our own he draws attention to the strength of a democracy being reliant on the strength of its public-school system. The systems built on privilege, like our own where wealthy schools for kids from rich families are based on a philosophy of institutionalised selfishness. In Australia this selfishness is supported by the governments who, unlike other countries provide significant funding of tax-payers’ money rather than have these individual schools being completely self-funded! It is an example of social engineering by the elite class and supported by the government to reinforce privilege; a situation that has historically ended badly!
The perennial inequity has grown from its origin in 1964 when the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies did a deal with the Labor Party’s break-a-way group the Democratic Labour Party to fund catholic schools in return for their support to form a government. Because of the poor state of the existing ‘parish’ catholic schools this was hard for following governments to reverse this support. However, from the late 60’s and beyond, neo-liberal philosophies permeated throughout the western world and Ministries of Education of all persuasions supported non-government schools. The inevitable partition between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ happened when the principles of market-based competition and consumer choice was introduced into the school systems.
The funding for public schools per student is now at a scale that see public school teachers being asked to compete against private teachers while facing a huge disadvantage. For example, funding per student in Victoria is 80% higher ($11,528 per student per year) in the private sector than in public while in NSW it is 60% higher. Comparisons between results in tests such as NAPLAN or Matriculation show no evidence that there are educational values for the increased expenditure. However, teachers in the public system have to work in such disadvantaged condition it’s no wonder they despair!
As we close in on the end of the 2021 school year and look ahead to 2022 one acute issue that will fill the teaching staff with a sense of dejection is the serious staffing shortage they are facing. In NSW, the current circumstances are:
3,000 school teaching vacancies
95% of teachers say that teacher shortage is a significant issue
93% of schools struggle to recruit casuals to fill vacancies
51% of permanent teaching positions are not filled
60% of those teachers employed are teaching outside their area of expertise
Students in Broken Hill are going into 2022’s HSC without having teachers qualified to teach their subject
More than half of the classroom teachers surveyed would not recommend teaching as a career to family members or friends.
85% of respondents said they did not think that the Education Directorate was sufficiently resourced to meet the demands put upon schools
And, if you want any more evidence that teachers are living in despair, 58% of teachers are considering leaving work due to the workload.
The move to privatisation since the 1970’s has been supported by the adoption of a neoliberal approach to management which encourages the use of market forces reflected in the increasing support for choice. Parents have been encouraged to make a choice for their own children and governments have set-up so-called contrivances to base that choice on. These are things like the NAPLAN test and the My School website where comparisons could be made. However, any close examination of this site could only conclude that sending a child to a private school will make no difference in their learning outcomes yet the drift continues to grow.
These changes have been ‘legitimised’ by a tidal wave of specialists who reinforce this reliance on the market-based approach to management. These consultants have concluded that the inclusive systems that prevailed before are no longer viable if we want to move to a competitive system. This movement away from the professional educators that existed in the public service has not been cheap with over $9.3 million being spent on just four companies, KPMG International Limited, Deloittes, Ernst and Young and Price, Waterhouse and Coopers. Their advice is based on the modern management model and pays only marginal lip-service to any educational expertise. The corporate knowledge of those who have served public schools is at most downgraded and the call to ‘get rid of the lifers’, that is remove those with years of experience, echoes throughout the education bureaucracy.
We end 2021 with this inescapable feeling of depression and despondency. There is no real expression coming from any government that would give teachers any hope things will get better. The current Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell, when asked about the teacher’s union’s concerns about staff shortage claimed "The current NSW Teachers Federation campaign is misleading and simply untrue”. She went on to accuse the Teachers Federation of ‘peddling misinformation’. There is an all-too familiar reliance on denying the facts!
I have called this essay ‘Beware of Despondency’ because I understand that the feelings teachers have always enjoyed at this time of year, watching the students move on in their education or finally graduate on to a productive adult life have become much more difficult to recognise. This is particularly so in public schools who have been purposefully and systematically weakened and for what purpose.
I think it was Carl Jung who, when discussing the importance of motivation in behaviour said if the motivation is not clear then look at the outcome and infer back to the motivation. The outcome for public education is that it has become an under-funded, resource poor, residualised system where we have a class-based structure. This is a betrayal of the principles of democracy. Strong public schools are at the heart of all flourishing democratic societies and so I must conclude the motivation of our current system imposed by our elected government is to return to a class-based, ‘me first’ political system. I for one, see the inherent dangers in this with the emergence of class dictatorship.
This outcome will only be avoided by the actions of our teachers in our public schools and so I would urge those of you who are feeling that legitimate despair to turn that despair into energy to resist this unfair and dangerous situation!
Tomorrow teachers in NSW will take industrial action airing many grievances but critically the unreasonable workload imposed by an ill-informed Government and bureaucracy. However, one aspect of this workload that is critical for all students and teachers is the management of disruptive behaviours. Not only is the amount of work generated significant, but it is also disproportionately distributed across the socio-economic division, concentrated in public schools and geographically diverged.
The evidence for the unsustained workload is verified in the ‘Understanding Work in Schools 2018 Report’ carried out by the NSW Teachers Federation. This concluded that full-time employed classroom and special teachers work an average of 55 hours per week, made up of more than 43 hours in school and 11 hours per week at home. This result is supported with research from the University of Sydney which confirmed teachers in New South Wales were working an average of 54 hours a week and principals 62 hours.
Tactics designed to reduce the workload focuses on the reduction of administrative work and unrealistic demands on accreditation however these strategies, along with a succession of ‘improvement’ plans fails to address what continues to be the elephant in any classroom and that is the effect dysfunctional students have on children’s learning.
There is ample evidence that students with extreme behaviours have a very significant influence in learning outcomes. John Hattie has identified the presence of dysfunctional students and the environment in the classroom accounts for two of the top three impediments to learning. There is an obvious close relationship between classroom environment and the presence of these students and combined they would constitute the leading cause of student failure in our system. In any case, collectively or alone these factors have been identified as more significant than the quality of the teacher, yet the focus on learning improvement is completely focused on the latter element. In personal communication with Professor Hattie, the question was asked why he dropped these findings from subsequent reports and he advised that the result of his work was being used to exclude these children.
In no way am I advocating the removal of these students from the classroom but I am promoting the removal of these behaviours. As with all our work the maxim ‘100% acceptance of the child with 100% rejection of the distractive behaviour’.
The work I present below was carried out about 2015 and will use the most available data of that time. I see no evidence that things have improved since that time and would suspect the drift to the private sector would have exacerbated the problem. The data used comes from Long Term Suspension rates up to the Year 2011.
As there was no available known records of the individual incidents nor data refined to individual schools I was compelled us to use Long Term Suspension (LTS) numbers as a means of inferring the whereabouts of these students and their numbers. The table below shows the growth of LTS in NSW Public Schools per 100 students.
Long Suspension Rate 1997-2010 % of Enrolment
The graphical representation below clearly reveals the consistent growth of these proportions. The rate has more than tripled since 1998.
This statewide representation does not show the variability across the state at the Regional or District level. The next table shows the rate for each Region in 2011 numbers and the range for Districts within each Region.
The Average per Region along with the Range between Districts within each Region
LTS per 100 (%)
Lowest District Rate
Highest District Rate
Hunter Central Coast
Illawarra and South East
South Western Sydney
To establish a reliable quantitative measuring tool that would calculate the hours required to address the student welfare demands for different schools, principals were surveyed to estimate the hours taken to deal with a suspension and the percentage of time dealing with suspensions relative to other welfare issues.
From the results an index was calculated using the relationship between long, and short-term suspensions for my school, Holsworthy High based on the following computation:
To deal with the average suspension takes 3.2 hours (results from survey)
For 115 (the total number for Holsworthy High of suspensions) this equates to 368 hours per year.
Work on suspensions is only 14% of the total time spent on behaviour management by senior executive of a school (results from survey) the hours become 2,628 for the year or 65.7 per week for a forty-week school year.
If this is divided equally between the three senior executives, each spends 21.9 hours each week dealing with behaviour issues.
If this work were applied to one deputy and principal the time would become 32.9 hours each.
Students spend only 30 hours each week at school (discounting after school detention) all three are spending over half our pupil time dealing with behaviour management issues. For two senior executives this becomes all of their time.
The figures cited above reflect the impact on actual educational practices at the senior executive level at Holsworthy High. Of course, these figures represent what would be the optimal allocation of resources and this would be impossible considering the multitude of other demands on the time of the senior executive. As a result the issue is never properly addressed.
It would be fair to assume that a proportionate amount of time would be taken away from other educational tasks for all teachers and this is also not feasible.
The results above show the average across the state but as mentioned the workload is not equally distributed across the state and the table below shows the average rate for each Region and the hours of work, based on the index found by considering the number of LTS for the year and the subsequent derived number of hours for discipline and welfare we arrive at an index of 22.8. If you apply this to the number of LTS at a school you will calculate the hours per week spent on student welfare and discipline. The table below provides these hours for the highest and lowest time demands, reflecting the highest and lowest numbers reported above for the districts within each Region
From these observations it is seen that one District in Western Region would require 132.2 hours per week just to deal with student welfare issues. This equates to more than three executive doing a 40-hour week just addressing this problem. Contrast this to 6.84 hours of work demands for one senior executive in one district in North Sydney. The implications for the attention that can be focused on other mandated duties are obvious.
The distribution of the problem is not homogeneous but the support services offered such as counselling services are broadly based on enrolment numbers not need.
These results were provided directly to the Minister at the time and to other professional bodies with no response and no change to the approach to dealing with dysfunctional behaviours.
The presence of children with severe behaviours has always been a major impediment to the learning outcomes of our children and the issues to be highlighted will continue this lack of acknowledgement. I despair as I see the continued drift or should I say torrent away from public schools as the parents’ solution to the problem. This is exacerbated with the current political appetite to disregard the lowest levels of our society and finance those from the privileged strata.
Throughout all writings about success there always a link to the concept of a robust sense of ‘self’. This is described in terms like positive self-esteem or self-confidence and there is no doubt that how we feel about our selves really does impact on our performance. The same relationship holds for our students; if they feel confident they approach their lessons with a positive attitude. But, what about those students in our classes who suffer low levels of self-esteem, those who have suffered abuse or neglect or those who come into the system with undiagnosed disabilities. These kids are already at a disadvantage even before they start the lesson!
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.
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.
Many, or most of these damaged kids suffer from Toxic Shame, that is they don’t make mistakes, they are mistakes (see Newsletters Toxic Shame – 3rd July 2017 and Faulty Beliefs – 6th November 2019). The challenge for the teacher is to counter this negative mindset by producing a classroom atmosphere where the lesson is no threat to their sense of ‘self’, eliminating the negative impact of their faulty beliefs! By consistently presenting an environment that esteems the student their attitude will change but this is not a quick nor easy solution. Remember, these beliefs have been formed over many years, it may take the same number of years to change them but it is the only a teacher can make this happen.
For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produce 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.
All beliefs are just memories that are formed in response to our needs and the environment in which we find ourselves. The illustration below crudely explains how this process functions.
The student comes into class from home with a certain attitude, they might be feeling great after a big breakfast and positive encouragement from mum or they might be hungry leaving home early so they didn’t get hit by their angry father who was abusing their mum; this is their ‘antecedent condition’ or their contemporary ‘sense of self’. The situation is the classroom and the lesson and this is where the teacher has some control. The decision on whether or not to participate depends on how they feel about being in class, do they feel secure and accepted and how the teacher frames the lesson, is it interesting, do they think they can do it!
From then on, the process is much more difficult to influence, the action they choose and how they perform that action. How the teacher reacts to their effort impacts on the consequence of their actions and that feeds back into their memory, back into their belief system. Knowing how this process works and using all the teaching skills, this is where you can change their sense of ‘self’!
We need to create an environment around building, or re-building their sense of ‘self’ 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!
As always, the skills the teacher needs to have, other than their pedagogical knowledge is to be able to:
Have a structured and persistent discipline and welfare policy
Set understandable expectations for the behaviour and class work
Develop strong professional relationships with their students
The following Newsletters have detailed descriptions of these features:
Creating Structure - 12th August 2019
Structure - 15th June 2020
Be Persistently Consistent - 26th October 2020
Expectations - 17th February 2020
Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking - 25 June 2018
Special Relationships - 10th February 2020
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.
Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing – Behaviour Management
For as long as there have been classrooms one of the significant problems teachers have faced has been the management of students’ disruptive behaviours. Throughout my over 40 years working in NSW Public schools, I have seen a procession of interventions that range from physical punishment to making everyone feel good about themselves! Since the mid-eighties there have been a succession of commercial programs trying to cash in on the problem filling the void left by education bureaucrats and academics. The Education Department has never taken a real interest in this problem leaving it in the ‘too hard’ basket with not much more than platitudes and unrealistic suspension policies.
The latest proposed ‘student welfare policy’ does little more than making schools more responsible to solve the problem without any effective non-commercial training and support. It is time teachers were provided with an accessible, substantiated and effective approach to behaviour management that is part of their training. Instead they rely on those commercial programs that are expensive both on school revenue and teacher’s time!
The history of ‘off-the-shelf’ programs includes the classics like Reality Therapy which morphed into Choice Theory, Assertive Discipline, Restorative Justice, Social-Emotional Learning, Positive Psychology in the form of PBIS and PBL4 and the latest silver bullet Trauma Informed Practice. All have provided useful approaches, the problem is, because they are the property of a private enterprise they need to limit their tactics to make their programs unique. Generally, they insist on in-house training, provide workbooks, recording scaffolds and incident records which increase the workload of the teacher and the school. Of course, training, recording are important but can be done much more efficiently than is required and schools already have the facilities to do this.
I would like to comment on the current front-runners in the choice most schools are acquiring those based on Positive Psychology and more recently Trauma Informed Practice.
Positive Psychology came from attempts to aggregate and rationalise the factors of 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. This research underpinned the programs developed from that data. In the current form, that was purchased by the department this approach produces a considerable amount of unnecessary administrative work. I personally have a few of issues, these being:
Although the focus on feeling positive is attractive it is not a real reflection of human nature. There are many times it is appropriate to feel sad, it is part of a grieving process but more importantly it is fitting that everyone should feel a sense of shame when they ‘do the wrong thing’. This is what I refer to as healthy shame as opposed to toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame – 18 August 2020).
Children who suffer from early childhood trauma and neglect require a good deal of healing before the principles of positive psychology even make sense and in their literature they acknowledge this approach is not effective for extremely disturbed children.
Any success relies on full school training and commitment and even if you achieve this at the end of every year there will be a change in staff and this requires additional commitment including the full training of the new teachers.
The positive psychology approach has been practiced in schools for a significant amount of time and I would argue that unlike the impact on workload, any influence on the general behaviour of students has not been significant.
The trauma informed approach does attempt to address the problems children with early childhood repeated abuse and neglect bring to the classroom. A prominent program is the Berry Street Education Model and like all other models it provides a commercial package which requires teachers to complete their program.
A problem with dealing with these children with recurring early childhood abuse and neglect, the basis of complex trauma is that any attempt at a therapeutic approach by non-qualified mental health professionals is extremely dangerous and could exacerbate their emotional status. I understand this approach has gained attention since my retirement I have only a superficial understanding of the course content and this appears to be well considered. Of course, those who follow these Newsletters and understand my line of attack there seems to be a great congruence between both approaches.
The strategies of their approach are:
Expect unexpected responses
Employ thoughtful interactions
Be specific about relationship building
Promote predictability and consistency
Teach strategies to "change the channel"
Give supportive feedback to reduce negative thinking
Create islands of competence
My concern is that there needs to be a strong focus on the boundary limits between the lived history of the student and the presenting environment in order to avoid activating past experiences. Teachers need to be very sure of where their professional responsibility ends and the work of qualified mental health practitioners begins. In my experience it is too easy and tempting for teachers with the noblest intentions to feel ‘qualified’ to cross that line.
Successful teachers have always been Bower Birds when it comes to their work. They collect resources from where ever they can to supplement their lessons. They should be the same about behaviour management, all the programs have something very valuable to add to any teacher’s repertoire when dealing with a disruptive child. However, all the effectual advice should be free and offered in a straightforward manner.
This has been the purpose of our Group. Our three books and the over 180 free Newsletters present advice to help teachers particularly those dealing with very difficult students. The outline of our work is caught in our description of a complete learning environment as shown below. All the parts of the model are important but the most important is the relationships between the student, the teachers, the school and the community.
Our group has never charged for Newsletters and the resources we make available and nor should they be so. Successfully dealing with kids with dysfunctional behaviour is an on-going challenge and being locked into a prescribed program fails to accommodate new approaches.
The current malaise that is sweeping the democratic societies is the question of truth, if we want future generations to understand truth or more precisely lying, schools must be part of the student’s education. In 2008 the governments of Australia combined to determine the goals for children’s education; the result is known as the Melbourne Declaration. This has become a foundational reference for all decisions regarding what subjects should be taught that directly affect children’s learning. This Declaration includes Goal 2 which affirms that ‘all young Australians become active and informed citizens’ and to achieve this, schools need to teach them how to ‘act with moral integrity’ and be ‘committed to national values of democracy, equity and justice, and participate in Australia’s civic life’. This statement articulates that our current form of government is a democracy and that democracy depends on moral integrity.
Teachers who undertake the task of delivering these declared goals would find it hard to unearth any political scholar who would pretend that any existing democracy could provide real evidence that they model ‘moral integrity’. Our Australian Government has become a consummate example of how truth and politics are almost mutually exclusive. In our current political conversations, lies have come to dominant in all forms of political management.
In the USA, the country that continues to assert their leadership of exemplary democracy their ex-president has according to the Washington Post been detailed as telling 30,537 lies during his time in office. Of these the biggest lie was that their last election was rigged and this has been continued without any evidence to support such a claim. Closer to Home our own PM, Scott Morrison is described as a liar at an ever-increasing rate. The news outlet Crickey has documented 16 lies and falsehoods.
The art of lying for political purpose is the skill professional ‘spinners’ bring to both major parties. Both Labor and Liberal employ spin doctors who are generally graduands of the advertisement industry. Their expertise is to modify the existing state of affairs in such a way as to appeal to the majority of the electorate. This can be done by shining the most positive light on the government’s planned agenda, if this doesn’t work the message can then be bent, introducing terms like alternate facts and to support this they let slip information that encourages conspiracy theories and finally they just tell lies. These steps have become the accepted form of political manipulation.
The other technique is to refer to highly trained experts who monopolise the business of presenting the ‘truth’. According to the latest Wikipedia entry there are 45 active Think Tanks that are funded to promote particular versions of the truth. They serve particular vested interests and in 2019, the last available data there were 11,894 registered lobbyists who have close access to all politicians all of whom represent either one of the think tanks or a particular enterprise.
The result of this manipulation of the truth means we are at the stage where what is the truth is at least confusing. We are at the stage where the general population almost expects politics to be corrupt and their politicians to be liars and of current evidence our leaders are living down to those expectations.
The question for teachers is how do we teach our students to understand the current conditions in our political landscape and for them to ‘to act with moral integrity’? If, we are implying that a healthy democracy depends on moral integrity, we need to teach our students about lying and truth and this is not a simple task.
I have addressed the issue of student’s lying at school in an essay found in my book ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom’, Chapter 12 – ‘Children of the Lie’ which I will post in the resources page of Frew Consultants Group. However this essay deals more with how we teach our students to be truthful rather than how to expose lies others tell. To achieve this first we must examine what lying involves.
Lying as an art of deception, is not unique to humans. It is a practice that is used throughout the natural world and has evolved because it gives an advantage to an individual. The basic premise of evolution is that an unusual characteristic of a particular plant or animal, which made it either more equipped to survive or more attractive for breeding, ensured that this characteristic was passed down from generation to generation. For example, some plants have learned to deceive particular insects by giving off the odour of the female insect’s pheromones. The scent attracts the males who are trying to identify potential mates. Through this deception, this lie, the plant gets to distribute its pollen on the desperate male, who will deliver it on to the next receptive plant. The lie the plant tells ensures the species survives.
For us humans, when it comes to attracting a partner, deception is the name of the game. Much of human activity, particularly during the breeding age, is dedicated to making us attractive partners. Look at the world of fashion, make-up, plastic surgery, membership at the gym, etc. Is this not evidence of our willingness to deceive to attract a mate?
In his article ‘Natural Born Liars,’ published in Scientific American Mind, David Livingstone Smith cites research that has shown that, as in nature, the best liars have a competitive edge in the mating game. It is evident that there is a high and significant correlation between social popularity and the ability to deceive. The most popular adolescents are those who lie best.
In fact, statistics taken in the United States show the following:
98% of students believe ‘honesty is the best policy’ lie.
One in every four students believes it is OK to lie.
84% believe you need to lie to get ahead.
80% in a high-achieving school believed it was OK to cheat on exams.
These are US statistics. Arguably, there would be a similar finding in Australia. Perhaps a test of our own honesty would be how we respond to the same enquiry.
Scott Peck, the American psychiatrist and philosopher, describes three types of lies. These are white lies, black lies, and evil lies.
White lies are those we tell to protect or avoid embarrassment for others. ‘Do these slacks make my bottom look big?’ asks the wife. To tell the truth may be a dangerous tactic, so the husband replies, ‘Of course not,’ (thinking, why do you always blame the slacks?). So we accept the white lie; we don’t want to crush someone’s esteem with the truth.
Black lies are those you tell to avoid the consequences of your actions. It is the use of these black lies that is the major concern for schools. Children have learned to use the famous Bart Simpson defence: ‘You didn’t see me, and you can’t prove it. I didn’t do it!’ Even adults use a version of this. When people are pulled up by the police, the common wisdom, cultivated from legal advice, is to deny and keep denying until either the police give up or start to doubt their own perception.
The use of these black lies is more likely to be developed in families and schools where punishments are too harsh. At lots of meetings I have heard parents boast about how hard they are on their kids to make sure that they don’t lie. What they don’t understand is that for the children of these unforgiving parents the truth is a poor option. Rather than developing honesty, they force the child to tell a lie. This is where one of our slogans is applicable – ‘100% rejection of inappropriate behaviour and 100% acceptance of the child’.
Finally Peck describes the evil lie. According to him, such a lie may be truly believed by the person who tells it. That is, he or she considers this account of a situation to be accurate, to be the truth, despite evidence to the contrary. This is the most difficult to deal with and when confronted with these liars it is important you have all the facts because you won’t be able to convince the child but you will have to justify your actions to your supervisor and perhaps the student’s parents. Truth is an account of perception, and so for these people, the evil lie is the truth.
So how do you teach kids to be honest? There are four steps:
Expect honesty from them all the time. Spell it out. ‘At this school we respect and expect honesty. This is the way we are.’
Make it easy for the child to tell the truth. Acknowledge that they, like all of us, make mistakes. They have made a mistake— they are not a mistake.
When they tell the truth, celebrate the fact that they have shown their true character and it is good. Give them plenty of credit.
Model the truth. This is the key to developing the truth in your kids. It’s hard to do, but then again, most worthwhile things are hard.
Time is running out for the children who live in an age when lying is modelled throughout our political system. Through self-deception, the lies we as a nation and a world have told and have been told, coupled with the inability of our leaders to be honest, has provided a toxic legacy for these students to deal with.
In previous Newsletters (see Newsletter 157 - Tips for Teaching Teenagers - 04/19 2021 and Newsletter 158 - The Teens - a Time for Specific Change - 04/26/2021) we discussed the changes to the structure of the brain and many of the implications that followed. This essay we recap some of this information but will focus on the social adjustments and their impact on behaviours especially those from an abusive or neglectful environment.
In 2007 Deborah Yurgelun-Todd published a paper, ‘Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence’. The paper demonstrated the changes in the brain that occur about age 11; this is also the time for the onset of puberty. Although they occur together and have an impact on the child they are not the same thing.
As far as the brain changes, adolescence marks the final development of the brain. It is at this time the prefrontal lobes mature and the child has full access to the cognitive process referred to as working memory. Up until this time children are learning how they fit into the world and how to communicate with their immediate environment. They are creating their sense of self through the acquisition of memories, referred to as auto-biological. These are located across the cortex in hubs of specific modes of patterns of thoughts or behaviours. These are referred to as schemas (memories) and allow us to understand the world through a network of abstract neural structures.
There are thought to be 180 such hubs across the brain and they all fall into one of the following genres:
Self – this is the knowledge of our lives, what we think about ourselves and our position in our external environment. Things like, I’m a good runner, I’m shy, I don’t have many friends, etc.
Personal – this is what we think of other individuals. This includes things like my mother is kind, Charlie my friend is a good singer, things that you have categorised about other individuals.
Social – this moves out from the personal and includes collective memories. The supporters of a rival football team are rude, scientists are nerds, golf is only for old men. This type of schema leads to prejudice within and across communities.
Events – these are patterns of behaviour, that is if we observe X than we expect Y to follow. When I change gears, I use the clutch to disengage the motor then shift the gear stick and reengage the clutch and I should accelerate.
Until the prefrontal lobes are fully developed the information that resides in these schemas is fairly discrete, that is they almost stand alone. This explains the response you will get if you ask a child to tell you about themselves. They find it hard to give you much of a story. However, with the development of the prefrontal lobes these hubs are connected through what is a series of connections, called connectomes and these memories are shared. it is at this stage of their development that they really start to think for themselves. If you ask a teenager to tell you about themselves the response is different and, in some cases you will be sorry you asked!
This is the time when the child begins their transition to full independence but this is still a period of development. The prefrontal lobe has the following tasks which are the definition of working memory:
• Controls how we are interacting with our environment
• Manages how we make judgments about what occurs in our daily activities
• Directs our emotional response
• Organises our expressive language. Assigns meaning to the words we choose
• Involves word associations
• Controls memory for habits and motor activities
If the first stage of a child’s development is to become a functioning human than the next stage is to become a productive, reproductive person. Concurrent to the change in the brain’s structure is the transformation of the child’s body that marks the onset of puberty. This is when the child’s body matures to allow for reproduction. This is an awkward time for adolescent kids as they begin to experience powerful, new drives and emotional feelings driven by changes in the levels of hormone. There are two types of these hormones that can be generalised by adrenaline and cortisol to support actions that are designed to protect themselves and dopamine and serotonin that energises the drive to seek out what they want from their environment.
As mentioned before, this is the time for the child to assert their independence but this is not so much finding autonomy but a change from depending on their family of origin to creating their own ‘family’. This journey ‘ends’ with the adoption of a life partner but begins with the need to belong to a group they call their own!
This is a difficult time for all teenagers. As there is a behavioural price to belong to a group and the ability to ‘pay’ that cost depends on the social skills they acquired as children. Most kids have been taught how to behave in a way that allows them to be accepted as themselves without really changing their basic sense of their self. They form new friendships usually based on mutual interests such as sport, dancing, surfing or for some ‘nerds’ school work (teachers love the nerds).
However, incorporating the theme of our work too many come to this phase of their life without those functional skills that allow the relatively smooth transition. For these kids the mutual skills will compel these kids to join up with others who share the same problems. This is so easy to see in the beginning of any secondary school year, those kids who need the most support are drawn together and the synergy of this alliance only makes things harder for teachers to deal with these students.
This formation of new friendships coincides with the emergence of the working memory and the drive to belong may drive kids to make decisions that are not properly evaluated. This explains the impulsivity that is a hallmark of this period of their lives. For damaged kids this is a particularly risky time. To belong to their particular cohort, they will find the pressures to engage in dangerous physical and social activities in an effort to prove their worth to the group irresistible. One of the common dangers is the experimentation with drugs and sexual activities that may have life-long consequences.
All teenagers are tempted to experiment with illicit drugs and according to the Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug survey of 2017, 17% of children between the age of 12 years and 17 years had tried cannabis. In other surveys from the United States 39.5% of high school students reported to be sexually active. These are dangerous times for all teenagers but for those with a damaged sense of self it is a critical time in their life.
Schools and teachers are not trained nor equipped to address these problems despite the continual call by politicians and society in general for schools to deal with them. However, we will have these kids in our schools and understanding that all teens are striving for independence it is prudent that we provide them with the opportunities to self-direct some of their learning as they mature. We actually do this quite well with most Year 12 students having a deal of independence and teachers move from directing the learning to facilitating it.
The second thing is to teach the students about their emerging sexuality and this we also do well however, the attack on the Safe Schools Program in recent years was a retrograde step.
The real challenge is to provide an alternate way for our damaged kids to safely belong with an appropriate set of friends and this is what all our work is about. As always, if we present a predictable, structured environment where expectations are well known and valued and all students are respected, healthy relationships will develop and we can all get through these difficult years.
Every teacher has experienced that student who just refuses to follow your instructions. They are defiant, disobedient and, if challenged will escalate the conflict even in the face of extreme consequences. These kids attract the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists criteria for diagnosing ODD. These include emotional and behavioural symptoms that last at least six months. Of course, this is not for a teacher to diagnose but it’s helpful to know the obvious symptoms.
Angry and irritable mood:
Often and easily loses temper
Is frequently touchy and easily annoyed by others
Is often angry and resentful
Argumentative and defiant behaviour:
Often argues with adults or people in authority
Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules
Often deliberately annoys or upsets people
Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehaviour
Is often spiteful or vindictive
Has shown spiteful or vindictive behaviour at least twice in the past six months
The severity of the effect of this disability is variable ranging from:
Mild - Symptoms occur only in one setting, such as only at home, school, work or with peers.
Moderate - Some symptoms occur in at least two settings.
Severe - Some symptoms occur in three or more settings.
For some children, symptoms may first be seen only at home, but in time extend to other settings, such as school and with friends. However, by the age of eight years the disorder is well established being more common in boys than girls. Girls do become more defiant coinciding with the onset of puberty. Another factor that may influence the apparent difference between the genders is that boys act out their resentment and are generally more aggressive while girls will internalise and appear to be more compliant.
The causes of ODD are predictable and as with most developmental disorders they come from a chaotic or dysfunctional childhood. Typically their home-life is hectic and unpredictable resulting in at least an insecure attachment to their parents. These behaviours may have started as a way of getting attention and this was reinforced by the parent; defiance worked!
It’s hard to say exactly why children develop ODD. It’s probably not because of any one thing. But there are some risk factors that have been identified that are linked to the development of ODD. These are:
temperament – some children are born with an easy-going nature and conform to rules however, ODD kids resist from the start of their development
low academic performance at school – for example, if children have learning difficulties they will resist new lessons
poor social skills, poor problem-solving skills and memory problems
parenting and family factors – for example, inconsistent and harsh discipline, and a lot of family stress
school environmental factors – for example, schools with severe punishment or unclear rules, expectations and consequences
community factors – for example, negative influences from peers, neighbourhood violence and a lack of positive things to do with free time.
Children with ODD often have comorbid difficulties most prevalent being attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with 65% of ADHD attracting the ODD diagnosis. There is some suspicion that the defiance is a result of the child’s ADHD leading to them missing instruction and appearing to be defiant. Other combined disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, anxiety and mood disorders or language impairment.
Never underestimate the power of this disability; when faced with a direct conflict between following the teacher’s instruction or maintaining their defiance the latter will prevail because following the teacher’s instruction would represent a loss of their sense of having power over their ‘self’. In most cases this can be avoided by giving the child a choice in the way they perceive the consequences you present. Say they are refusing to start to write in a lesson, you might say ‘do you want to do that with your blue or black pen – it’s your choice’. The tag, ‘it’s your choice’ is the critical feature of the dialogue you have with ODD students. Giving them that choice allows them to preserve a sense that they are in control.
I remember one particular child, call him Mark, in a special setting who was directed to get on a train at the end of the school day, just to go home and avoid causing trouble on the station. He was told that if he didn’t get on he would be expelled. You have to understand Mark was an extremely dysfunctional student who had passed the school leaving age and had received multiple long-term suspensions. At our school the students were taught about behaviour and they all knew about ODD. I said to Mark ‘what if I had told you not to get on the train’ what would you have done. He knew he would have got on the train but even knowing this he still refused and was expelled. I have often thought about my behaviour in this situation and if I knew then the lessons in this Newsletter I hope I would have acted differently.
As you can see dealing with these oppositional children is a real challenge. And in such a case as Mark’s it would have been better not to get in such a situation however, there was a lot of other things going on in this case. But there are some things that will help you deal with these students. These are:
Understand the causes of ODD, the lack of positive attention and identifying ways to increase the opportunities to provide positive feedback
Modelling emotional control - ODD kids invariably have poor emotional regulation so it is important that you remain calm
Give short instructions with limited choice (i.e. ‘Would you like to play in the sand or have something to eat?)
It often works to give two similar choices with a time frame, such as “I’ll give you a minute to choose to write with the blue pencil or the red pencil” If there is no choice made after your time limit, the teacher makes the choice of something quite different such as, completing a different aspect of the task not using pencils.
Avoid negative consequences – this is difficult for older kids but for pre-schools emphasis on positive reinforcement on positive behaviours.
Emphasise the child’s importance by doing things they like with them – pay them real attention.
Finally – look after yourself. These kids consume a lot of the staff’s energy so make sure the organisation provides opportunities to withdraw from highly charged situations and have access to debriefing.
As schools return to full time attendance teachers should be aware that the prevalence of anxiety amongst their students will be elevated. We have dealt with anxiety previously (see Newsletter – Anxiety – 24 July 2017) however in this essay the focus will be on the effect anxiety has on the level of concentration.
Anxiety is that lingering apprehension or almost chronic sense of worry about particular things or even life in general. Professionals would diagnose someone as having clinical, generalized anxiety if they displayed three or more of the following over a six-month period:
In general, anxiety is described in three ways; panic attacks, social anxiety and generalised anxiety. We will focus on concentration which will be the product of their generalised anxiety.
In a recent article in the Conversation, 18 October, 2021 Elizabeth J Edwards from the University of Queensland reported that one in seven Australians are currently experiencing anxiety. The prevalence of anxiety among children is 6.1% of girls and 7.6% of boys. These statistics were before the COVID pandemic and if research reported in the Journal of Medical Association can be applied to our population then it has doubled.
Throughout these essays the impact of stress on our cognitive functions is at the heart of our approach to improving the learning outcomes (see Newsletters - Generating Stress – 20 July 2020 and The Complexity of Stress - 27 July 2020). It must be remembered that stress is just a response to our personal level of homeostatic equilibrium, that is how our needs are being met. In our everyday life we experience a continuous variation in these levels of stress depending on how our needs are satisfied by our immediate environment.
We have already pointed out that we need children to be suitably stressed to be motivated learn, and that there is an optimum level of anxiety that will have the child perform to their potential. Too little stress, they will not engage, too much and they will not take advantage of their cognitive resources (see The Complexity of Stress - referenced above). This is the focus of this essay. As you move along the level of arousal you go from low levels of anxiety up to extreme levels which result in trauma. The results of these levels of arousal come from the work of Bruce Perry, a professor of psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago are summarised in the graph below.
This graph shows how as we increase the level of arousal different parts of the brain dominate the thinking process and result in the behaviours associated with these processes. This is not to say no learning takes place when we are in an elevated condition. We use all our brain all the time it’s just a matter of where it is focused.
The following diagram shows how the capacity for high order thinking, the process of academic learning is influenced on our levels of stress and these levels are controlled by our security in our immediate environment.
The table below presents and excellent summary of the impact of stress on our ability to participate in meaningful education. Examining the bottom row shows as we increase of level of anxiety we move from being calm through the various stages of arousal to the level of terror. The next two rows above this show the impact on our cognitive organisation with the focus moving away from the neocortex, the part of the brain used for working memory, to lower parts of the brain. Eventually this means predominately using the autonomic section of the brain where all responses are reflexive.
The top row is important because to be truly motivated to learn we have to delay the gratification of that knowledge into the future. This really only occurs when we are calm and have access to these areas of the brain that create such memories, the limbic system and the neocortex.
This Newsletter puts reason to what we know to be true, school-based learning takes place when each child is calm and relaxed. This is why the management of classroom dysfunctional behaviours is so important. Whenever such behaviours exist the learning capacity is reduced proportionately to the level of stress that behaviour produces in the offending student, their classmates and the teacher.
Throughout these essays the focus has been on providing an environment that allows the students to focus on their schoolwork in a calm and secure manner. However, I am certain that any teacher who works in difficult communities will be confronted by the uncontrollable child who at times will behave in a way that is temporarily ‘out of control’. These are periods where the focus is on managing the immediate crisis. Without preparation when such an explosion happens what you do will depend on what you have planned to do before-hand. At the time of the crisis everyone, including your own’s stress levels will be so elevated it is difficult to make considered actions.
The following provides a scaffold to create a framework that will support your actions while experiencing such a crisis.
Of course, being forewarned is a benefit and the first thing to do is to identify any potential student who is likely to explode uncontrollably. Apart from preschool, and in some cases kindergarten all kids come to a new school year with a record. Teachers are entitled to be warned about those very difficult kids and if possible, have some prior knowledge about any potential problems with their behaviour. However, if you are not forewarned you will soon observe an explosion and after two or three such events you should start to collate that information for yourself. What you need to record is:
Previous episodes of persistent outbursts of severe behaviours. When these occur ask yourself:
Where these flare-ups are likely to happen: in the classroom, in a particular subject, moving between periods; knowing this will allow you to address that environment.
When do they happen: after a change of routine, when left alone, when they are with another particular student, in a crowd or when isolated.
The frequency these outbursts occur
The antecedent conditions of the environment, are they agitated when they arrive at school, maybe they have had a ‘custodial’ visit from a separated parent
Warning behaviours, do you see them becoming agitated
From this data you can build a picture of the conditions that you need to design and alter the classroom setting in a way that makes the uncontrollable, manageable.
Despite your best efforts there will be times when you are confronted with such an outburst and these events follow a particular pattern as shown below.