The particular qualities of early childhood abuse can create high levels of stress that in turn leads to the trauma of shattered expectations, the realisation of our own vulnerability and the capacity of others to commit evil acts. When this happens, infants and preschool-aged kids have not developed the cognitive ability to understand these concepts, but they are traumatized through their separation from security. It is this fear that generates the high levels of stress that fashions the neurological framework of the child.
The intricacy of stress has been described in previous Newsletters but in this work, we are only considering the reaction to very high levels of stress that are the result of the response to the very existence of the child.
The body’s response to threat makes sense when we consider the primary function is to survive, the other drive, to reproduce is not a consideration of the infant. So the response of the brain, the decision-making centre of our bodies, makes optimal decisions for the conditions that we are facing. This flight/fight response is purely instinctive because a young infant is incapable of either flight or fight so the activation of the automatic nervous system would be of little practical use.
The infants do however have the ability to respond in the third of the ‘3F's' (the first two are flight and fight) and that is to freeze. They dissociate. It was a fashion in the past that when children were crying in bed, they were attention seeking and the advice was to ignore them, they would eventually stop. There is some truth in this 'attention seeking' behaviour if the practice has been rewarded, but there are times when the baby is highly stressed, and when they do stop crying they have ‘given-up' on life.
However, when the threat occurs, the brain is awash with a chemical cocktail to prepare a fight/flight response. At the time the incoming stimulus quickly goes through the receptors, through the thalamus, the ‘clearing house’ of the stimulus on to the amygdala. The amygdala perceives the stimulus as representing a real, immediate threat and a sequence of events takes place to prepare the body—first to 'flight,' and if that is not an available option, to 'fight.'
This movement to flight/fight involves a series of synaptic signals that release a cocktail of chemicals that in turn dramatically change the physiological status of the body. This response is known as the general adaptive syndrome. The body is prepared to deal with the identified threat.
It is the importance of the amygdala in this process that results in its ‘abnormal' development. Because the function of the amygdala is important, it becomes more enlarged so it can better deal with future threats. The enhancement of the amygdala along with the resulting propensity to initiate the flight/fight response has a paradoxical effect. When these kids grow-up they become hypersensitive to a stimulus that resembles a threat. As a result, when they are in a situation that may look like a threat their amygdala is activated before they can make a considered judgment about the potential danger.
The second area of brain development that is affected by the conditions of elevated threat is in the ‘higher order' areas of the brain, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes.
In the usual ‘general adaptive syndrome' process, when the threat is over the brain returns to rest. Within the complex chemical activity that achieves this is cortisol that washes across the brain. Unfortunately, if the threat is not ‘turned off' or the process is too frequent the constant presence of cortisol has a corrosive impact on the brain.
The hippocampus is reduced in size by as much as 12% and the frontal lobes as much as 20%. There are other parts of the brain such as the cerebellum that are also damaged, but it is the changes in the hippocampus and frontal lobes that cause trouble for the children in the future. It is in these areas that we develop the ability to make rational decisions and capacity to delay gratification. The hippocampus and the frontal lobes are at the cognitive heart of our success.
So children who have been abused are subjected to real physical brain damage, and that damage is handicapping the very processes that are needed if we are to help them overcome the dysfunctional behaviour that results from their history of abuse. They are more sensitive to stress and therefore more likely to react in their ineffective, habitual manner and are less equipped to make calm decisions required to avoid that dysfunctional habit.
The most significant advantage humans have over other forms of life is our ability to predict what will happen given a certain set of circumstances. So you can see predictability underpins expectations. When we recognise a set of conditions that led to us having a great time we get excited anticipating another positive experience. Conversely another set of conditions may provide us with a warning – we are not going to ‘enjoy’ what we expect next.
When a student enters a room they will be confronted with a set of features that they will interpret and then imagine what to expect. This connection drives the emotional content of their minds and good teachers know how they feel about what you provide is directly related to how they will engage in your lesson. If they expect to be bored they will be set up for boredom there will be no stress that calls for the child’s brain to attend – there is nothing worthwhile here. If they are afraid they will be primed for protection against your lesson and the stress levels will be elevated to a level that excludes cognitive thinking – nothing can be learned effectively.
The successful teachers want what I call a ‘Goldilocks’ brain one that’s not too hot – over stressed and not too cold – under stressed but one stressed just right! The way they will behave in a lesson is quite literally shaped by the way they feel.
Most significantly, both the student and the teacher’s expectation of a lesson depend on the experience of the previous lesson. So it is important that the teacher understands that how they present their lessons sets the expectations of the students now and in the future. We can’t expect the students to come into class just feeling good about your subject just because you like it but we can build up experiences of past ‘feel good’ moments that the kids will bring into the next lesson. It’s like banking, the more you put into building an expectation account the more interest you will get and that’s compound interest.
You have to remember that so much of their expectation is stored in the emotional area of the brain and this is why the relationship between teacher and student is the most significant factor in teachers being able to engage their students. This is particularly true for those ‘difficult students who have a history of failure. The successful teacher will develop a relationship with students and with the teacher’s support slowly change the student’s expectation about your lessons and their ability to learn.
Students with behavioural problems provide the greatest challenge to the teacher’s ability to engage them in learning. It is important to understand these students will minimize or misinterpret any positive stimuli. They either think they are not worthy or don’t trust the teacher’s motives. They are also hypersensitive to negative social cues and they are hyper-vigilant about potential threats. They also fail to understand or read non-verbal cues they don’t easily get what is presented to them and they are highly likely to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any negative, incoming stimulus. All this history of failure means that to create expectations for success in children who have only experienced failure requires patience and quiet determination.
So what do we need to do? The following points will help:
Students decide how important the lesson is from how professional the teacher presents themselves. You need to look like a teacher – have your ‘teacher’s uniform on’, look like you love your work and most of all look like you are happy in their company.
Students register the importance of the lesson by the interest the teacher displays. How could we expect the students to be enthusiastic about maths if the teacher is blasé about solving simultaneous equations? Emotions are contagious and so is curiosity!
Messages about the effectiveness of the lesson come from the state of the room and the presentation of the lesson content. The recent discovery of Mirror Neurons (the subject of an essay on the Web Page) highlighted the importance of this point. A neuroscientist Iacoboni had volunteers watch films of people reaching for various objects in a tea time setting (teapot, cup, jug, plate of pastries, napkins) in different contexts. In every instance when the subjects saw the person in the scene reach for a cup, a basic set of ‘reaching’ neurons fired in the subjects. But different additional sets of mirror neurons would fire depending on what expected action was suggested by the setting. In one case the setting was neat and orderly as if the meal was about to be enjoyed. The player was about to drink some tea and one form of additional neurons fired. The other setting was cluttered as if the meal had been finished and the cup was ready to be cleaned up and there was a different set of neurons activated. The brain knew what was coming next! If the student comes into a room that is organised for learning their learning neurons will light up. If the room is untidy and dirty another set will fire.
There is a popular view amongst some educators that we need to get emotions out of the way so we can teach the kids but good teachers know that emotions are not add-ons that interfere with cognition. They are a fundamental element of why thinking and learning happens and emotions fire expectations. Through the child’s experience they learn to ‘know something’ that is about to happen so let’s make that quality learning!
In the last few Newsletters we have discussed the impact on cognitive development from neglect and abuse. Also discussed is the understanding that stress levels are the response to our homeostatic imbalance, that is how our need for physical, emotional and intellectual gratification is being met. When we are out of ‘balance’ stress is directed to those parts of the brain that control behaviours that allow us to act to regain equilibrium. This process is either acquired through our genes or learned by interacting with the presenting environment to satisfy our needs.
This fundamental feature is understood by all who deal with performance, it is our motivation. We need to generate a sense of having a deficit to generate a performance. Just watch every advertisement on TV; I want to be happy, people with the latest (insert anything here) are happy therefore to be happy I will buy it!
Like most activities in our culture the leading proponents of motivation are in the field of sport. Think about the popular motivational coach, seen in many of the movies and series depicting sport where the coach appeals to each player so they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and win. These are not real, but today’s coach understands getting the right level of arousal is important to get the best out of each athlete. It is in the field of sports psychology I first came across the following diagram:
For the hypothetical sportsperson ‘S’ the graph shows that if they are aroused to the level S1 they will perform below their best, that is they can’t be bothered. The same applies to S3 when they are so stressed they are unable to focus and they also fail to excel. To get the best performance they have to be roused to that ‘right’ amount – S2.
The same applies for teaching. If we examine a student ‘S’ then if we can’t engage them (S1) they will not perform, we all understand this and engagement has always been an important consideration in any teacher training package. However, the other extreme, if we over arouse them (S3) they cannot excel. We need to get the ‘sweet spot’ in our lessons. This is where we have to understand the complexity of stress management.
The first complication is that this graph is different for each individual. One size does not fit all and coaches and teachers who pitch their ‘message’ at some imagined individual are only inspiring one person and that imagined person will reflect their own sense of what is important. I understand that there is a need to address the team or class as a group and have a group goal but this is not a time for individual arousal.
The second, more complicated consideration is about those kids who have been subjected to neglect or abuse. Apart from the condition explained above these kids come to class already disengaged (S1) or over stimulated (S3) before we even start the lesson. You see the model outlined above assumes that the lesson or game is the only thing that occupies their mind, that the child has satisfied all their other needs.
The schematic model of the tri-part brain above shows the parts of the brain that deal with various needs. The brain stem and mid brain house most to the behaviours that address our physical needs. The limbic system concentrates on the social emotional world and it is the cortical system, the cerebrum and frontal lobes we need to have aroused to get the students to best learn their academic lessons. We know that children subjected to neglect and abuse spend all their time trying to survive and belong, they ‘live’ in the lower parts of their brain rarely accessing that area teachers need to engage.
Even for those kids who have had the advantage of an optimal childhood, loving, responsible parents who appropriately provide for their needs, this is difficult. Childhood and adolescence is a time when we are learning the skills of socialisation and a threat to be excluded from the groups will captivate the child’s attention much easier than learning to multiply fractions. Like-wise, a young teen who has developed a crush on a fellow student will be much more interested in paying attention to that ‘problem’ than understanding Hamlet (perhaps it is the time for Romeo and Juliet).
However, for the students we are trying to help the potential distractions away from the tertiary functions of their brain are immense. Many of these kids live in a constant state of hypervigilance against being abused, they are already over stressed as far as classroom matters are concerned. At the other end, those kids who have been neglected not only have never learned the value of new information the neurological tools that would make learning a relatively successful event have been lost.
Teachers are constantly under valued by society for a few reasons. The first is everyone went to school and spent many years being exposed to what they think is teaching and so feel they could easily do that. Another activity that devalues the complexity of teaching is that we often get to coach junior teams. These are kids who want to learn and are already motivated.
The real professional teacher takes on those kids who:
Don’t want to learn
Can’t see the purpose of learning
Believe they can’t learn
Spend their waking moments trying to survive and belong
Have physical disabilities either genetic or those resulting from brain damage resulting from neglect and/or abuse
I’m sure there are other difficulties we face as teachers, but these are real challenges that are for all practical purposes ignored by our critics.
In our work we provide advice to address these issues but predominantly we believe it is the teacher’s ability to provide an environment that minimises the lower cognitive distractions allowing these children to gain access to their academic brain. This is achieved through presenting an environment that is structured, predictable; the kids know what to expect and there are strong relationships across the classroom.
Our work is focussed on helping those children who are failing at school because of their behaviour. In the last Newsletters we scrutinised abuse and neglect (see BLOG page www.frewconsultantsgroup.com.au) and how these alter developing brains. It is the changes to the neural pathways and the early lessons learned or more likely not learned, that are behind much of this disruptive behaviour we see as children get older. In this Newsletter we will examine the source of the damage directly related to abuse causing excessive stress.
To really understand stress, we need to examine its purpose. This takes us back to first principles of biology. All living organisms are driven to survive and reproduce. This was first articulated by Richard Dawkins in his seminal work, The Selfish Gene. When there is a ‘threat’ to these base drives, all organisms act to eliminate that threat and all actions, even those of plants are initiated through some neural action. To avoid making this an enormous essay I will confine my comments to our species and even that is complex.
There is an optimum set of conditions that supports our survival and when we have achieved these conditions we are completely safe. We can be considered to be in equilibrium. However, when we are not in equilibrium, that is, the conditions are not right, things are out of balance, we are then in a state of disequilibrium; somehow, the conditions in the external world are such that they no longer support us or threaten our safety. This creates stress, the drive to change our situation and return to stability. This is a continuous process, we never remain in complete balance, for example, we constantly require oxygen to live and we can only collect this is short breaths. If you have any doubts about the strength of the drive to survive hold your breath for three minutes and just see how powerful the drive to get that oxygen becomes, nothing else matters.
It is relatively straightforward to accept this drive in the physical world; the biological set points are constant and the processes to make the required physical adjustment to return to that point after deviation is predictable and the ‘behaviour’ to adjust becomes relatively unconscious. Psychosocial drives are a little more confusing, humans need to be accepted by others to survive and reproduce. Although not as immediately dramatic this need for acceptance is just as powerful and more significant when discussing behaviour in a group setting such as a classroom.
The final drive is the need to know things. This is our tertiary drive, the one we need to learn new things, the one teachers rely on to motivate their students.
The following model categorizes needs into three sets; primary, secondary and tertiary and connects them to the three levels of the brain as outline in McLean’s tri-part brain, the physiological world connected to the brain stem and mid brain, social/emotional drives associated with the limbic system and the cerebrum and frontal lobes dealing with tertiary drives, our intellectual efforts. These are described in a previous Newsletter but are reiterated below:
Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain
This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis. Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back in balance. This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.
The ‘lessons’ accumulated in this part of the brain begin to form from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy. We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs. A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.
Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System
This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs. The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation. This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.
The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded. In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.
Despite some significant exception, for all intents and purposes it is the dysfunctional attempts to satisfy these needs that create the problems in dealing with student behaviour. Thinking back to the types of problems faced by teachers, it is the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong and the social behaviours of these children.
Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes
This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species. It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy.
This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom. Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed. Unlike the lower levels, where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to force the students to learn. The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.
There is still a great deal of mystery about stress just what is it and how is it physically generated. More recent works are suggesting the cerebellum is critical in assessing the homeostatic status of each person in the presenting environment. Whatever the process, it is clear that we need stress to behave. It is the level of stress that is critical, not enough and there is little action, too much and we can’t function.
In the next Newsletter we will discuss stress in these terms leading to the key thesis of my work. It is the teacher’s control of the environment and therefore the level of stress that is the key, not only to successfully managing children with extremely dysfunctional behaviours but also getting the best learning outcomes for all students.
In the last Newsletter I discussed the various forms of abuse and neglect. In this essay I will discuss how these duel forms of maltreatment impact on the neural formation of the brain and how that shapes the child’s academic and behavioural performance.
In recent years there has been an acceptance that the resulting cognitive alteration resulting from abuse and neglect constitutes a real physical disability however, there has not yet been a community appetite to eliminate the cause of these preventable brain injuries and the rate of both abuse and neglect continue to rise in our society.
The following is an examination of those impairments. To summarize, the cognitive damage comes from:
Broad scale reduction in the neural density caused by the lack of appropriate stimulation at the pertinent times and the corresponding excess pruning. This is a direct result of neglect; these children do not receive the stimulus required to construct the necessary neural pathways at the time conditions are optimal for that to happen. When those windows of opportunity pass the brain removes unused material to increase efficiency. These cannot be replaced and their elimination makes later attempts to learn those behaviours much more difficult.
There is a loss of neural material in the very part of the brain that creates memories, the hippocampus; this reduced in size by up to 10% becoming less effective. It is the hippocampus that not only initiates the formation of memories it also selects what to remember and then coordinates them across the cerebrum and to the frontal lobe. This is critical because it is the coordination of various memories that support high order thinking.
The lack of neural density is more prominent in the frontal lobes estimate at being as much a 20% thus reducing its effectiveness. The frontal lobes are considered to be the executive heart of our critical analysis and long-term decision making.
There is an increase in the size of the amygdala because of the amount of ‘use’ it gets in the early years. The amygdala is critical in first initiating high levels of stress and then protective behaviours. This increase results in the children being hypersensitive to any potential threat. These children find trust difficult making the establishment of teacher student relationships much more difficult.
There is a decrease in the size of the cerebellum, an area of the brain that has long been associated with our motor skills but in recent years it is emerging as a most important component of all cognitive activities.
Finally, the size of the corpus collosum is reduced in size which hinders the coordination between the hemispheres of the brain.
If this physical damage to a child’s brain came from another source than early childhood abuse perpetrated by adults the public outcry would be deafening however this mutilation imposed on innocent children continues to be tolerated.
The illustration below is quite well known and is the product of MRI examinations of a ‘normal’ child, referred to as neuro-typical and that of a child who was raise in the notorious Romanian orphanages. Not only is the reduced size startling but the increase occurrence of the dark shadows in the Romanian child indicates the death of neural material. The discovery of these children shocked the world and the follow-up research on potential rehabilitation is depressing; these kids are damaged for life. Unfortunately, in today’s society, too many kids are raised in conditions that have the same cognitive impact, authorities ignore this but teachers are left to deal with these disabilities that are a result of that abuse and neglect.
I have always held learning is memory and hi-order thinking, the goal of education is the coordination and application of memories; that is our ability to gain and integrate pieces of evidence into an existing scheme of information, our memories to address a problem is our working memory. The very definition of learning is the establishment and modification of this process.
Children who have suffered early childhood abuse and neglect have a real disadvantage both in the deficit in the memories stored across the cerebrum and the lack of neuron material in the frontal lobes to integrate what is available. This is the real ‘physical’ disability that affects their learning but that cognitive incapacity is not obvious, they look the same as all the other kids. For example, if a child who is blind trips over a chair and makes a noise they are forgiven and encouraged to try again. If a child, with the disabilities outlined here picks up a chair and throws it out the window they are punished and rejected by everyone. In a sense they are abused again!
It is little wonder these children do not succeed, not only at school but also in the community. They have trouble interpreting all exchanges with the outside world. Their apparent naivety or defiance is often a lack of comprehension. Teachers can misinterpret this as insubordination when really it is their disability that determines their behaviour.
A further physical issue involving the frontal lobe is its interaction with the limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Amongst the functions of the amygdala is the regulation of emotions. As mentioned above, we have seen in an abusive environment the amygdala becomes more powerful which means it is much more sensitive to stimulus that may represent a potential threat. Because of this over-active response to stress these kids will over-react when they even think they are being ‘attacked’. They have an underdeveloped ability to critically assess the risk of any stressful situation.
To make matters worse, in normal development the frontal lobes reach a stage of development where they assume the role of arbitrating the emotional content of the environment. This means that, with the exception of real and imminent danger children get a bit of time to assess the situation before deciding about their actions. This short period of time is at the heart of most cognitive interventions that deal with behaviour modification. One particular program best illustrates the futility of this ‘thinking’ approach. Stop – Think – Do is, or was a program popular in schools. It ‘teaches’ children to stop before they react to a challenging situation and then think about what would be the best response.
Kids with this type of brain injury can’t ‘stop’ they are too finely tuned and immediately react to any perceived threat. It is obvious that the combination of a damaged frontal lobe coupled with a very powerful amygdala means cognition, carefully assessing what to do is a tactic that is just not available. These kids will do what they have always done. The chance of any cognitive intervention being of much use for these children when they are threatened is extremely unlikely. As a result, in the classroom they are highly reactive and to further complicate matters when they are super-aroused plus they will take a much longer time to recover their self-control.
Teachers and school counselors often see this as the student not applying the ‘lessons’ they have patiently taught them, like Stop – Think – Do and give up. They see the kids as not bothering to apply the ‘perfectly logical practice’ that just makes sense. They don’t see that these children at the time of arousal do not have access to ‘perfectly logical practice’; what they have is a brain that is super alert to danger.
The condition of these children’s cognitive must be considered when thinking about the behaviour of these children and what we can do to help; teachers have no other option. These essays will not only describe the process that results in this damage but will provide strategies that will help them optimize their own learning and minimize the impact their behaviour has on others.
Early childhood abuse is the most significant cause of dysfunctional behaviour in schools and society. It is important that teachers and all sectors of the education community understand what constitutes abuse and its prevalence in society. This Newsletter addresses this issue.
In 1962 there was a ground-breaking publication that identified the damage and impact of early childhood abuse and neglect on their subsequent behaviour. This initiated the understanding of the link between the treatment of children in their early years and their later sense of self and ability to relate to others. Led by the psychiatrist C. Henry Kempe the paper “The Battered Child-Syndrome” identified the trauma associated with abuse and subsequent cognitive alteration. This opened a flood of research into this topic and today most developmental psychiatric illnesses have their foundations in early childhood experiences. These disorders do not include those abnormal behaviours that are the result of a physical defect, things like psychosis, autism and development delay.
This is the first in a series of Newsletters that deal with abuse and neglect and the impact these, often comorbid actions have on the child. This article will deal with a description of abuse and neglect and their prevalence in the western world.
We describe abuse as any action that invalidates a person’s worth. It is an assault on a person’s physical or psychological self. These attacks can range in intensity from mild irritation up to being perceived as life-threatening. It is at the intense level the damage is done to the developing brain. In the general literature there are three categories on abuse as mentioned. These are:
This is the use of intentional force against a child’s body or an unwanted invasion of their physical space. It can be:
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 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.
There are other forms of abuse that do not get the coverage in most literature but are equally likely to expose the child to toxic levels of stress. These are:
Intellectual Abuse – 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.
Intellectual abuse also occurs when a significant other compares one child’s performance against another child implying one is better than the other.
Spiritual Abuse – 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.
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.
This is a complex type of abuse. It occurs not when the individual is the target of the assault but is a witness. It is an issue for all those who work in highly stressful vocations such as police, reporters and even teachers who work in very difficult communities. However, for the purposes of linking abuse with subsequent behavioural difficulties I will limit the description to incidents that occur to children. This happens predominantly on families that experience domestic violence. This is particularly challenging for children who watch their mother being beaten by a partner. In a subsequent Newsletter I will describe the acquisition of trauma but for now it is enough that the child is forced to watch what is in reality their source of life be threatened. The fear is overwhelming and equal, if not more damaging than a direct attack on their person.
Neglect, if not an overt form of abuse it is a close cousin, it is a passive form of abuse. It is the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs. As mentioned earlier, this neglect in a developing child will fail to construct the neural pathways that have been developmentally expected. When these genetic windows for development stages like attachment are activated, and there is no stimulation then the neurons will be pruned and the opportunity to meet the developmental threshold is lost. Forms of neglect are:
Physical – failure to provide for physical needs such as food.
Medical – not providing medical care when the child is sick or needs dental work.
Emotional – lack of nurture, encouragement, love and support.
Educational – lack of providing educational resources and ensuring regular participation in schooling.
Abandonment – leaving the child alone for long periods of time without any support.
There are countless studies into the frequency of child abuse and these are frightening and are most likely under reported. The general view is that from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD. This means that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students to suffer this syndrome. Although PTSD occurs in every socioeconomic level of society it is not equally distributed across the landscape and resource poor suburbs are reported to have levels of up to 23%. So, in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD.
Magnitude of Childhood PTSD
When first described Dr. Kempe estimated the occurrence at 6 per 1,000 children or 0.6% of the population experienced early childhood abuse. However modern studies estimate between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD.
These numbers vary across each countries’ economic landscape and across nations. One can only imagine the level of PTSD amongst the children in the war-torn nations in the world. The financial cost to conduct a war fails to comprehend the potential future intellectual benefits we could enjoy if these children were allowed to develop their minds to their true potential. War is societal abuse on children and is sanctioned by political leaders.
In the US the Child Protection agencies get around three million reports each year. This involves 5.5 million children. Of the reported cases, there is proof of abuse in about 30%. From these cases, we have an idea how often different types of abuse occur:
18% physical abuse
10% sexual abuse
7% psychological (mental) abuse
However, girls are more likely to be abused then boys because girls are more likely to internalize their feelings while the boys that attract the most attention because they act out their pain therefore being recognised as being damaged.
Studies show that about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD.
The next Newsletter will describe the impact abuse and neglect have on the structure of the brain.
At the beginning of these last three essays I promised to discuss the significance of the way we conduct our classroom to ensure we could get the best learning outcomes. We have discussed structure and expectation and now I will address what I described as ‘lesson content’ which I often refer to as the pedagogy of the lesson. I have to make a clear distinction between what I mean as the pedagogy and what is generally accepted in the education community.
The common belief is that pedagogy is the study of how knowledge and skills are communicated between the teacher and the student. This is a huge area of study and is well covered and understood in any teaching course and rightly so; it is extremely important. The difference between what is understood and what I want to add to the discussion is that like most theoretical approaches the approach is top-down, that is it is up to the teacher to put the knowledge and skills ‘into the student’. I will argue that it is the teacher’s role to present the topic to be studied so it is available to the student which would literally be exactly the same process but it is also the responsibility of the teacher to produce an environment where that student can focus on the lesson.
Learning, be it knowledge or skills is the acquisition of memories and the ability to manipulate those memories to address presenting challenges. Learning is not a top-down process it is bottom-up under the ‘control’ of the student. The key consideration is what does the student want to or need to learn rather than what we want them to learn!
In a previous Newsletter (see Motivation Students – What Drives Them’ – 03/14/2019) I discuss my model of human needs and the following are the major points:
The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied. When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance. Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens. If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on to either cool or heat the environment as required. In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.
The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:
Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically comfortable. If we are too cold we will seek to warm ourselves.
Secondary Drives - our need for emotional stability is controlled in the limbic system. This is predominantly focused on our social acceptance.
Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes. This is where we satisfy our curiosity.
The point is the teaching goals are focused on the tertiary part of the child’s brain but access here is only achievable if the child’s social and physical needs are satisfied.
Throughout these essays there is a theme that understands that children with severe behaviours are subjected to stress in the classroom because their expectations learned in a dysfunctional home clash with that of the school. These issues have been well canvassed but there is more to consider for all kids when ensuring their primary and secondary drives are satisfied. Kids are not little adults and they need to develop skills that will allow them to ‘survive’ in their community and eventually reproduce. The following is an illustration from Andrew Fuller that explains the different developmental stages.
What is well known is, in the early years the brain sets itself up to learn new skills. It does this by providing an excess of the material myaline that consolidates memories by creating a sheath around newly formed neural pathways to consolidate that pathway (memory) and make it more efficient.
This process of creating and consolidating memories continues throughout life. What is particularly important for the teacher is the formation of peer relations and self-esteem critical for the development of the child’s sense of self. For most kids this is a process that occurs consistently both at home and at school but for some, those raised in dysfunctional homes there is a conflict. This is where the teacher is required to address this disparity.
Successful teachers, particularly in primary schools, the age these skills are under construction almost reproduce a sense of family in their classrooms (see Newsletter - The Tribal Classroom’ – 08/10/2018) where social skills are part of the hidden pedagogy! Professor Bill Mulforde of the University of Tasmania has shown that “some of those other outcomes of schooling, such as socialisation, are in fact better predictors of later life chances such as employment, salary and so on, than literacy, numeracy and exam results”.
Recent studies have shown that about age eleven this same excess myelination is present in the prefrontal lobes. This is the time our ‘teenage brain’ begins to mature. This is the part of the brain that is required to succeed in academic pursuits. Again, the teacher needs to deliver the content of each lesson understanding that there is a need to progressively make the coursework self-directed so they graduate as independent learners.
What I have not discussed and really what is never overtly recognised is the arrival of each child’s sexuality. The PDHPE syllabus does address sexuality but apart from a period when some schools adopted the Safe Schools initiative that supported the diversity of sexual expression, those kids with more complex needs are ignored. Like most, I have no advice about this problem other than to understand it exists and is significant for all children and be aware that solving simultaneous equations is hardly going be more interesting than a first infatuation!
This essay doesn’t really give ‘rules’ on what to do. Somehow good teachers get these issues and we get through these stages of development however, for those kids who have been raised in difficult homes the teacher has to be doubly aware that their growth from learning the rules of being human, mastering communication skills and successful socialisation on to becoming a productive, reproductive adult is a difficult task! This is why structure, expectation and of course strong relationships are indispensable.
In the last Newsletter we discussed the importance of structure as part of this expanded examination of the characteristics of an effective classroom learning environment. The underpinning concept that defines structure is that there is a realistic connection between actions and the consequences of that action. This assumes there is a recognised framework in which this process operates. This is where expectations are important; what we expect to happen depends on the customs of the environment in which the action is taken.
Perhaps the foundational assertion of our work in regards to children who are raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that the behaviours they learned to make the most of their opportunities to get their needs met or more likely to minimise the damage inflict upon them by their abuser. They had learned what to expect in a given situation. The importance of this work is to teach these children to predict what will happen in this new environment. Of course, this is not the case for those children raised in chaotic, unpredictable families who come to our schools with no expectations at all. For those kids who have been raised in an environment where they had no idea what would happen to them we need to provide the link between what they do and what happens next.
Until the child experiences the new set of consequences their existence can only be a speculation; an imagined world if you like. The following diagram illustrates this process.
This is the connection between what is the remembered experiences and what could be the imagined result of their actions. In this process the emotional content is significant in any decision made and is expressed as a form of stress. Having built up our behavioural repertoire through remembering the outcomes of previous experiences each ‘situation’ will generate a level of stress depending on how damaging was that incident. If left unchecked when these children are faced with a situation that has the memory of a negative outcome the student descends on a negative emotional cycle that may start with frustration and if not resolved generate a level of fear about any future event with the same beliefs. The power of these emotions excludes the child from even imagining a different outcome. If this is attached in any way to the school, the work or interpersonal relationships they will eventually hate going to school; unable to imagine any other outcome but failure.
Unfortunately, we see too many of our kids, particularly when they are in upper primary of secondary completely disengaged from school.
The task for the teacher is to build-up an alternate bank of memories that will allow the child to choose an imagined experience as the result of their actions. This process takes time, time older students with severely damaging behaviours do not have a lot of. This underlines the importance of the need for predictable and consistent delivery of consequences discussed in the last Newsletter. However, there are other ways to teach these kids the ‘rules’ of their contemporary environment. One method which came into fashion was the teaching of social skills. The leader in this field was Arnold Goldstein the professor of Psychology and Education at Syracuse University. He introduced a method of social skills training in 1973 to deal with juveniles in detention.
He overtly taught the children in his charge how to act in a manner that would be acceptable within the cultural environment that is for us, the school. This was done through the following processes:
Modelling – the children are shown examples of how to behave in a given situation where previously they have failed to get what they want. The model needs to be someone who the students respect.
Role-Playing – The students are given scenarios to investigate through acting out how they should behave. This process can be threatening at first but will become a powerful tool in changing behaviour. Remember, the brain, where memories are formed and stored after a while will form the memories from the role play as an alternative choice for the student. The scenarios, at first are provided by the teacher, later can be from a random list or when engaged at the request of the participants.
Performance Feedback – This initially is provided by the facilitator but as the students engage they can all contribute. Approval is the best type of reinforcement and as the skills become more accepted there will be an intrinsic reward that follows. They will start to enjoy the process of rehearsal and the rewards that go with that. The satisfaction comes when they take these new skills and use them successfully in their day to day experiences.
Finally, the way the teacher corrects the dysfunctional behaviour is significant. When the student acts in an inappropriate way it is very important that the feedback is exclusively about the behaviour and nothing to do with the student. We have all witness teachers who, through lack of training or sheer frustration make comments like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best you can do’?
‘Why did you do that’?
These comments put the blame on the student. Instead they should say things like:
How can we make this ‘…’?
‘What can we do this ‘…’?
‘What will it look like if ‘…’?
By using language that projects into the future with an improved outcome the student is more likely to be able to imagine a better future.
Teachers who face-up every day to students with such challenging behaviours are also subjected to the challenges of expectations. Over the many years I worked with these difficult kids I rarely, if ever was given the type of encouragement I would give to the students. Children, the authorities identify as bad are generally placed in programs that attempt to make them invisible. The teachers, who work with these kids experience this same insignificance. This is not fair, I contend these teachers should get the most attention for the difficult work they do but, working with these kids any notion that life is fair is soon discarded. Like the kids, you have to cling to the fact that these kids can take control of their actions and when they do they get the real intrinsic reward that drives their behaviour. You also have to look for that same intrinsic behaviour when you see your students taking control of their life. There can be no better reward!
In the last Newsletter (see ‘Nature vs Nurture’ – 8th June 2020) I made the point that to assist these children with severe behaviours we needed to create an environment that helped them develop a new set of memories that would drive an alternative way for them to deal with stressful situations. Of the three major components, structure, expectations and lesson content, it is structure that is the most important to be delivered at the beginning of the change process.
For the sake of this essay, structure means the predictable coupling of actions and consequences, that is if I do this, that will happen! Of course, this condition is not realistic, in the real-world if I do this there may be a lot of possible outcomes. The example I use when discussing this with students is as follows. Say I choose to drive home as fast as my car will go and on the other side of the road. There are a lot of imaginable consequences. I could:
Have a direct crash with an oncoming vehicle
Force all the approaching cars off the road
Be killed by losing control and hitting a tree
Really enjoy myself and get home early
The thing is, as a mature adult I can imagine these possible outcomes and make a mature decision that is best for me – drive home safely on the right side of the road. All the outcomes above could still happen but compared to the other decision I might make the chances of this are very low. It is this ability to predict future outcomes that empower us to make smart decisions.
These Newsletters have as their focus assisting children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment. The form of abuse can vary. In some cases, the assault on the child is always delivered the same way. It might be dad bashing the child whenever they ‘make a mistake’. The result is the abuse is predictable and the child learns a behaviour that best deals with dad’s abuse, this feeling of having some control is transferred to the classroom and these kids are not usually a major management difficulty. This is not a ‘better’ form of abuse it just has different long-term outcomes for the child.
The children that do cause the most trouble in the classroom are those raised in an abusive and unpredictable environment. This range of possible outcomes is different than the example above. In that case there was a sense of logic between the choice of action and what may happen. For these kids there is no understandable connection between what they do and dad’s, or mum’s response. The chaotic behaviour of the ‘parents’ is a result of parent addiction or mental illness.
Take the example of a young boy being in a fight with a peer and this is reported home. One possible outcome is that dad belts the child for fighting. The next time this happens dad praises the boy for ‘being a chip off the old block’; the next time he takes the child to make peace with his rival, etc. What the father does depends on how the father feels and, although more sophisticated kids can take this into account they can’t in early childhood and so never develop a set of memories that would allow them to predict what might happen the next time they are faced with such a situation.
The use of structure, the close association with actions and consequences when dealing with these dysfunctional kids is to reconstruct the conditions the child should have experienced in early childhood.
New-born children have no capacity to make a choice and are dependent on others to get their needs met. In a healthy environment this is what happens, at first completely and then the babies start on the road to control. Initially, they may learn to cry when they are hungry, they cry and mum feeds them; crying works – the action gets the desired consequence. As they get older this feels a little less structured but good parents and teachers of very young children still consistently control the outcomes which is the predictable environment.
As the children develop they should be encouraged to make decisions about how they should behave but never about an issue that the child does not understand the harmful outcomes of a wrong decision. It is not ‘good parenting’ to ask the child what they would like for dinner and when they say a popular take-a-way which is repeatedly advertised, they do not understand the implications to their health now and in the long-term, so should not be making the decision of what to have for dinner.
The ‘out of control’ students that we are discussing have missed the early years of encountering predictability and so we have to create the conditions to deliver that experience. Teachers sometimes are reluctant to introduce such a tight structure into their classroom because the majority of kids are well beyond this phase of development, they can deal with a degree of freedom to make decisions. However, presenting such a predicable classroom will not hamper any of these advanced kids’ development; knowing what to expect makes everyone feel secure.
For those kids who are ‘out of control’ we need to reconstruct the conditions they should have experienced in early childhood. The more we can couple the consequence to the action the quicker they develop a new set of memories and these can replace those that drive their dysfunctional behaviour. This means in the classroom we need to develop a set of rules that describe the behaviour and what happens if you act that way. These can be desired outcomes, positive reinforcement or just the opposite, negative consequences. In a previous Newsletter (‘Creating Structure’ – 12th August 2019) I have described the process of constructing the type of desired environment.
Choosing behaviour all gets back to applying memories of what happened in the past and imagining what will happen in the future. The purpose of structure is to build a new set of memories that hopefully will eventually replace those feelings of hopelessness these children have because they never developed consistent conditions that allowed them to imagine a future.
A note to the teacher; if you are dealing with a fourteen-year-old child understand you are dealing with fourteen years of memories. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately change, this takes time and when they are really threatened they will have no choice but to revert to their dysfunctional behaviour. But, if you hang in long enough they will eventually understand the link between what they do and what happens to them and if you do this for them you are setting them off to a life with some sense of empowerment.
Historically we have argued about the strongest influences on our levels of achievement as to whether it is our genetic make-up, (our nature) or our experiences (our nurture). This has consistently shifted towards nurture as being the dominant feature. What is important for us teachers to remember is that it is in this field we operate.
At the time of conception, a child is subject to a given genetic blue print that determines its physical self; their hair colour, how high they grow, etc. I must point out that these pre-set specifications are not all definitive, for instance the height of a child will vary depending on their diet, etc., but in very recent times the discovery of the process of epigenetics shows that we continually alter our genes. This is the gene’s response to their environment but of course that is part of their nurture! For the sake of this essay the child’s genetics determines their capacity including their cognitive potential.
As educators we are most interested in the brain and how best to interact with it to maximise the student’s learning. Despite the Pollyanna view of many education leaders in that if we try hard enough for long enough we can all succeed, the myth of meritocracy prevails. In reality children are born with a normal distribution of all features including their potential ‘learning achievement’. This capacity to learn is reflected in the efficiency they can establish memories and their exposure to experiences! That is, the child perceives a situation, tries an action and if that works ‘remember’ to do that next time the situation occurs. When the child is motivated for whatever reason, the neurons in the brain try different combinations to generate the desired action that will result in satisfaction. Eventually they come across one sequence that succeeds, this success motivates them to try again. If this next attempt is also successful the pathway becomes stronger eventually being myalinated, coated with a sheath for efficiency and is stored as long-term memory – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’! Nature is not a form of egalitarianism; some kids form these memories after a few exposures while others require a multitude of repetitions to make the connection!
If you have taught mathematics you will have experienced this difference. Some kids only have to be told once how to do a computation and they get it and remember it. Sadly, I have experienced those beautiful kids who try, and try to learn for example, how to multiply fractions and by the end of the lesson they ‘get it’ but tomorrow, when they return to class ‘it’ has gone – much more work is needed for this to become a long-term memory. This variation in the ability to form memories is expressed as a normal distribution when aggregated across the total population; most in the middle and fewer as we move away from the average. Where any child finds themselves on this curve has nothing to do with their worth or character it is just their genetic inheritance. So, if they are on the extreme they will have very different abilities through no fault of their own.
But nurture is different in the sense that, unlike genetics the characteristics of the environment in which a child is raised is imposed on them. They had no choice about who would be their primary ‘carer’. Throughout these Newsletters we have discussed the importance of the developmental environment in the formation of behaviours (See Newsletters – ‘The Impact of Poverty and Neglect’ – 20th August, 2018 and ‘Poverty and Student Success’ - 19th November 2018). We have focused on children who are raised in chaotic, unpredictable homes where the connection between what they try today that works will work when repeated because the parent’s response is different there is no consistent firing of networks to allow memories to develop.
For this discussion we need to focus not on this deficit but describing the type of environment that will provide the best opportunity for the students to build a rich and varied neural architecture. In the next few newsletters I will discuss these features in detail but for now they are:
Structure – all kids need to know what will happen when they act, this is how they construct their memories
Expectation – everyone needs to know what behaviours will create what outcomes. This is like structure but is a shared quality between teacher and student. We need to know what works to solve problems.
Lesson Content – I have proposed that in the first instance the ability to quickly create memories is a significant indicator of academic success. The next characteristic is the assortment of those memories. The richer and secure an environment is, the more memories are developed. The more stored memories you have, the better equipped you are to solve new problems.
It is important to keep in mind student achievement is directly linked to:
Their genetic make-up
Their developmental environment
When considering issues around education I find a pictorial approach helps me think and draw conclusions, they are sort of thought experiments. Below The following diagram I devised to illustrate the significance of these factors. It is not critical to examine this for the points I want to make but I suspect some will find it helpful.
I have used an arbitrary measure for achievement (Units of Achievement) which allows for comparison. I have chosen four students, S1, S2, S3 and S4 and they fall on either, extreme end of the curve. In this set-up we have two born with very poor neural efficiency (S1 and S2) and they find memory formation extremely difficult. S3 and S4 have been born with the natural ability to quickly form and retain memories.
We now take these students and raise them in environments that reflect the conditions at either end of the curve, one end extremely neglectful with no experiences that would at least stimulate the formation of memories. At the other end these children are raised in a warm and secure family with a rich and varied set of experiences, they have plenty to form memories about. To mix the starting points I have exposed S2 and S3 to the neglectful environment and S1 and S4 to the fertile environment.
Taking a scale of 100 Units of achievement for both nature and nurture in a perfect world a child could achieve 200 units. For the illustration I have given them a position 5 Units inside the maximum, so for nature:
S1 and S2 get 5
S3 and S4 get 95
S2 and S3 get 5
S1 and S4 get 95
When you aggregate their scores:
S1, 5 + 95 = 100
S2, 5 + 5 = 10
S3, 95 + 5 = 10
S4, 95 + 95 = 180
It can be seen that there is a potential difference of 160 units of achievement for students, born with very poor cognitive abilities and raised in a very neglectful environment, to those who have been gifted with cognitive potential and raised in a highly supportive and fertile environment.
The point we have to keep in mind is that no matter how a child is born it is their community, their family and school that makes a difference and it can be a big difference. None of these fictitious students had a choice in how they were born and what they were born into and their achievements at school are out of their control. However, how the influence of the environment which impacts on the child’s achievements is the responsibility of our whole community.
It would be nice if governments recognised this reality and provided real support through pre-school, school and up to universities but we know how far this is from the reality schools face today. So, again the task of helping those kids falls to the schools and for those with disabilities, linked to their nature it will be our public schools that bear the load. I know we always rise to the occasion with the assets we have but just think how much more we could do if we were properly resourced?
Not doing so leads to a massive loss in human potential!
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.