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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, May 23 2022

Message to Subscribers

Last week we produced our 200th Newsletter (over 200,000 words) which covers an extensive range of topics focused on helping teachers deal with dysfunctional behaviour.


Throughout the series we have concentrated on minimising the negative consequences of disruptive behaviours on:

  • The offending student’s learning
  • The learning of their classmates
  • The teaching effectiveness of the teacher
  • The mental health of all the above

The techniques have come from over years of dealing with such students and searching for the best approaches both in special settings and mainstream schools. 


Marcia spent 20 years working in schools attached to juvenile detention centres, at Reiby as Assistant Principal for ten years and a further ten at Juniperina Juvenile Justice Centre as Principal.  From there she finished her formal career as Principal of Caringbah Primary School. 


John was the foundation teacher at Smith Street Unit for Emotionally Disturbed students and after two years was promoted to become the foundation Principal at Campbell House Special School for Conduct and/or Oppositional Defiant students.  He served this school for ten years seeing the school grow from catering for 24 students to 84 at the end of his time there.  From Campbell House he moved to Holsworthy High as Principal where he remained for 17 years until retirement.


The formation of Frew Consultancy Group was motivated by our desire to continue to help teachers deal with students with severe behaviours.  The main work has been to produce the free Newsletters for anyone who wants them.  On top of this we have conducted numerous workshops for schools both in Australia and overseas and groups on behaviour management, consulted with schools in their preparation of discipline/welfare policies and mentored individual teachers. We have also presented at conferences as key note speakers and facilitated workshops.  John has written three books that extend the information in the Newsletters.  These are:

  • The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching
  • Insights into the Modern Classroom

Published by Xlibris

  • Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids

Published by Austin Macauley

These are available from on-line stores or from our Group.


We take this week to pause and reflect on that time and ask for your feedback and suggestions on the way forward.  If you have any comments, criticisms or suggestions we would love to hear from you.


Thanks for your on-going support.

Marcia and John


The following is the list of previous Newsletters:


Newsletter 1 – There is more to Bullying Than Meets the Eye

Newsletter 2 – Bullying and Power

Newsletter 3 - Dealing with Difficult Situations

Newsletter 4 - The Troublesome Teens

Newsletter 5 - Challenging Beliefs – Not So Easy

Newsletter 6 - The Great Lie

Newsletter 7 - True Grit

Newsletter 8 – Education the Over-Indulged and Narcistic Child

Newsletter 9 – Routine – Support for Student Expectations

Newsletter 10 - ADHD Is Real but what does it Mean for Teachers

Newsletter 11 - Self-Esteem or Self-Love

Newsletter 12 - The Intricacy of Stress

Newsletter 13 - Teaching our most Difficult Kids

Newsletter 14 - Toxic Shame

Newsletter 15 - Locus of Control

Newsletter 16 – Time Out

Newsletter 17 - Anxiety

Newsletter 18 - Teaching Practical Boundaries

Newsletter 19 - Integration of Dysfunctional Students

Newsletter 20 – Ethical Teaching – Morality in the Classroom

Newsletter 21 - Independent Behaviour Programs

Newsletter 22 - The Passive Aggressive Student

Newsletter 23 - Dealing with Difficult Students

Newsletter 24 – The Impact of Neglect

Newsletter 25 - Vacuous Shame

Newsletter 26 - Characteristics of the Abused Child

Newsletter 27 - The Silver Lining

Newsletter 28 - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse

Newsletter 29 - Effective Behaviour Management

Newsletter 30 - Education for the Future

Newsletter 31 - Common Mistakes Teachers Make

Newsletter 32 – What’s in a Name?

Newsletter 33 – Boredom

Newsletter 34 – Anger Temporary Madness

Newsletter 35 - Educational Myths

Newsletter 36 – Boredom – Mark 2

Newsletter 37 - Creating a Purpose

Newsletter 38 - Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder

Newsletter 39 – Relationships

Newsletter 40 - Emotions Direct Attention

Newsletter 41 - Dopamine

Newsletter 42 – Dopamine for Teachers

Newsletter 43 – Consequences

Newsletter 44 – Consequences not Punishment or Reward

Newsletter 45 – Taming that Difficult Class

Newsletter 46 - A Question of Choice

Newsletter 47 - At the Time – There is No Choice

Newsletter 48 - Planning for a Disaster

Newsletter 49 - A Question about Control in the ‘Structure’

Newsletter 50 – Rejection

Newsletter 51 - Different Expressions from an Abused History

Newsletter 52 - Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking

Newsletter 53 - Dysfunctional Behaviour to Deal with Stress

Newsletter 54 - Attention Seeking

Newsletter 55- Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder

Newsletter 56 - The Tribal Classroom

Newsletter 57 - Theory of Mind

Newsletter 58 – Transference

Newsletter 59 - The Impact of Poverty and Neglect

Newsletter 60 - Accept Lack of Empathy – Just for Now

Newsletter 61 - Let It Go

Newsletter 62 – The Danger of Praise

Newsletter 63 – Areas of Indifference

Newsletter 64 - Getting to the Truth

Newsletter 65 - Resilience

Newsletter 66 - Boundary Considerations

Newsletter 67 – Dissociation

Newsletter 68 – Childhood Trauma

Newsletter 69 – Rituals

Newsletter 70 – Poverty and Student Success

Newsletter 71 - Respecting Other’s Boundaries

Newsletter 72 – Trust – The Glue that Sustains Relationships

Newsletter 73 – Testing Tough Kids

Newsletter 74 - End of Year Recovery

Newsletter 75 - Tips for Emotional Encounters

Newsletter 76 - The Impact of Language on the Behaviour

Newsletter 77 - 100 Ways to Say well Done

Newsletter 78 – Empathy

Newsletter 79 - Creativity

Newsletter 80 - A Timely Reminder

Newsletter 81 - Motivating Students

Newsletter 82 - Converting Teacher’s lessons to Intrinsic Motivation

Newsletter 83 - The Dishonourable Lie

Newsletter 84 – Malevolent - The Condemned Disability

Newsletter 85 – What are the Chances

Newsletter 86 - The impact of Abuse – It Depends how it Happens

Newsletter 87 - Perfectly Imperfect

Newsletter 88 – Addiction – Behaving to Avoid Stress

Newsletter 89 - Faulty Beliefs

Newsletter 90 – Mindfulness

Newsletter 91 - Beliefs

Newsletter 92 - Addiction - It's the Seeking not the Consumption

Newsletter 93 – Debriefing

Newsletter 94 - The Tribal Teacher

Newsletter 95 – Levels

Newsletter 96 - Creating Structure

Newsletter 97 – Student Stress

Newsletter 98 – ‘Do or Not Do’ - Yoda

Newsletter 99 - Looking After Yourself

Newsletter 100 - Recovery Time

Newsletter 101 - Sense of Self

Newsletter 102 - Sense of Self - Part 2

Newsletter 103 – Dreikurs’ Model of Behaviour

Newsletter 104 – Relatedness

Newsletter 105 - Drives and Needs

Newsletter 106 - Secondary Drives

Newsletter 107 - The Social Teacher

Newsletter 108 – Prejudice

Newsletter 109 - Another Year Over

Newsletter 110 - Sense of Self Continued

Newsletter 111 – Special Relationship

Newsletter 112 – Expectations

Newsletter 113 – Supportive Relationships

Newsletter 114 - The Importance of Emotions

Newsletter 115 – Conversations

Newsletter 116 - The Inner Critic

Newsletter 117 - Dealing with the Emotional Stress

Newsletter 118 - Developing Social Skills

Newsletter 119 – Avoiding Cabin Fever

Newsletter 120 - The Hidden Cost of on-Line Learning

Newsletter 121 – Trauma and the Environment

Newsletter 122 – Purpose

Newsletter 123. Toxic Resilience

Newsletter 124. Nature Vs Nurture

Newsletter 125. Structure

Newsletter 126.  Expectations

Newsletter 127. Pedagogy

Newsletter 128.  The Wounded Child

Newsletter 129.  Damage to the Brain

Newsletter 130.  Generating Stress

Newsletter 131.  The Complexity of Stress

Newsletter 132.  Routine

Newsletter 133.  Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse

Newsletter 134. Anxiety

Newsletter 135.  Toxic Shame

Newsletter 136. Dealing with the Exploding Kid

Newsletter 137. The Crisis Response

Newsletter 138. Personal Action in Times of Crisis

Newsletter 139. Making Matters Worse

Newsletter 140. Critical and Creative Thinking

Newsletter 141.  Be Persistently Consistent

Newsletter 142.  Creating a Calm Environment

Newsletter 143. Designing a Correction Plan

Newsletter 144. Dealing with Touching and Restraint

Newsletter 145. Theory of Mind

Newsletter 146. Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult Times

Newsletter 147. Prejudice

Newsletter 148.  Starting Off on the Right Foot

Newsletter 149. Beliefs

Newsletter 150. Structure in a Crisis

Newsletter 151. The ‘Gas-Light’

Newsletter 152.  Getting to the Truth

Newsletter 153.  Music

Newsletter 154.  Authenticity

Newsletter 155.  Supporting a Sense of Self

Newsletter 156.  Mono-Cultures

Newsletter 157.  Tips for Teaching Teenagers

Newsletter 158.  The Teens – a Time for Specific Change

Newsletter 159.  A Time for Reflection

Newsletter 160. Dealing with the Angry Ant

Newsletter 161. Dealing with Justified Anger

Newsletter 162.  Trauma Informed Teaching

Newsletter 163.  Restorative Justice - Proceed with Care

Newsletter 164.  The pursuit of Purpose

Newsletter 165. Hidden Types of Abuse

Newsletter 166.  Changing Behaviour

Newsletter 167.  Just Say No

Newsletter 168.  Achieving Excellence as a Teacher

Newsletter 169.  Indirect Bullying

Newsletter 170.  The Queen Bee

Newsletter 171.  Girls – They are Different

Newsletter 172.  Rewards and Punishments

Newsletter 173. Competence and Warmth

Newsletter 174. Student Discipline – What About Welfare

Newsletter 175.  Dealing with Students with Severely Dys. Beh’s.

Newsletter 176.  Multi-Tasking

Newsletter 177.  Emerging from Lockdown

Newsletter 178. Dealing with a Crisis

Newsletter 179.  Dealing with Student Anxiety

Newsletter 180.  Oppositional Defiance Disorder

Newsletter 181.  Modern Teenage Challenge

Newsletter 182. Teaching Truth Seeking

Newsletter 183. Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing

Newsletter 184.  Supporting a Sense of Self

Newsletter 185. Am Ignored but Vital Workload

Newsletter 186.  Beware of Despair

Newsletter 187.  Time for revision

Newsletter 188.  Acquisition and Memory of Behaviours 

Newsletter 189.  The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour

Newsletter 190.  Early Childhood Modelling

Newsletter 191. The Importance of Stress

Newsletter 192. Early Childhood Trauma

Newsletter 193.  Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD

Newsletter 194.  Boundaries - The Point of Contact

Newsletter 195. Dysfunctional Boundaries

Newsletter 196.  Identifying Source of Dysfunctional Behaviour

Newsletter 197.  Healthy Boundaries

Newsletter 198.  Stress

Newsletter 199.  Toxic Stress and Trauma

Newsletter 200. Toxic Shame Revision









































































































































































































Posted by: AT 09:43 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 16 2022

Toxic Shame Revision

One of the first Newsletters I wrote for this blog was about toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 Toxic Shame – 3 July 2017).  This is because the effect it has on the formation of our sense of self will influence the behaviour choices of children who suffer early childhood abuse and neglect.  We have addressed the more quantifiable damage can occur when being raised in such a cruel and negligent environment, not the least of which is the permanent brain damage described in our previous Newsletter.  Not to discard how much these injuries directly effects the day-to-day decision making but the emotional quality of shame permeates every decision these children make.


It is worth revisiting how a person’s sense of self, their belief structure is formed by examining the diagram below:

It is obvious that our sense of self, our beliefs are a result of our experience when these were being formed, they are just the memories of events of that time.  The key for the formation of self is always about survival.  The need to connect with others is critical and so any rejection by our community is a threat.  The fact that shame is often defined as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation is a message that what we have done threatens our membership of the group.  So, even though shame is a negative emotion, its origins play a part in our survival as a species.


Because we all make mistakes there are times when our behaviour is spurned.  This is the experience of shame.  It is because we are doing something that does not contribute to the wellbeing of others, what we have done is not acceptable!  This emotional feedback is healthy; hence the term healthy shame and that feedback protects us from behaviours that repel others.  It should also remind us that we are not perfect and should not be so quick to judge others.  There is an axiom I like ‘If we never experience shame we are either divine or totally corrupt’.


The key difference between healthy and toxic shame is in the former, the individual feels embarrassed because they made a mistake.  In the case of toxic shame the kids don’t recognise that they have made a mistake they believe they are the cause of that mistake.  This faulty belief underpins their sense of self and they bring that sense to every situation they encounter including their schoolwork.  


As with all the development of our sense of self, it occurs in childhood.  Toxic shame is put onto these children by others, usually significant others.  They are constantly told they are stupid, useless, are ignored or punished and of course, those who suffer abuse and neglect inevitably develop a sense of toxic shame.


To summarise, these kids experience:

  • Feelings that are not based on reality, they think they are mistakes instead of recognizing they have made a mistake.
  • False messages that create this false sense of self.  They are blamed for things that were out of their control.
  • A reality that is based on another’s opinion, children have to learn how to form an opinion and until they do they believe the outlook of the adults.
  • A chronic, permanent state of rejection from their peers.
  • An exaggeration of their faults, they are quick to take the blame when things go wrong.


The result is these children bring to any situation, as outlined in the first diagram, a sense of self, a set of beliefs that will inevitably:

  • Discount their positives - They don’t listen to compliments, they only hear criticisms
  • Magnify their flaws - They look for confirmation about their faulty beliefs because maybe that’s all they have heard
  • Judge themselves against perfection - If they make a mistake they are a mistake
  • Translate criticism for what they do into what they are - When they do something wrong it’s because they are wrong
  • They read shame into other’s minds - they know that you know they are bad


The result of these faulty beliefs leads to their conviction that:

  • To be good they must be perfect
  • They don’t deserve anything
  • They should never let anyone get to know them, they want to keep their ‘faults’ a secret
  • You shouldn’t have feelings
  • Don’t grow, it’s safe where you are


Their emotional interpretation of their worth is also affected.  They feel:

  • A fake
  • Contemptible
  • Inadequate
  • Inferior
  • Flawed
  • Dirty
  • Damaged


Finally their overwhelmingly, destructive self-talk is something like:

  • ‘You don’t count’
  • ‘You don’t deserve to do what you want to do.
  • ‘What you want isn’t important.  What others want is more important.’
  • ‘Don’t make trouble.  Don’t rock the boat.’
  • ‘It doesn’t really matter.  It’s not important anyway.’
  •  ‘You can’t have what you want, so just go along.’
  •  ‘Just do what’s expected of you.’
  •  ‘Who do you think you are?’
  •  ‘You should’…...’You shouldn’t’……..

There are countless ways these children discount their own worth.


With all the damages described above it is no wonder children with toxic shame develop the following personality types:

  • Guilt Spreaders
    • The shame equation is that one mistake confirms that I am bad
    • I made a mistake therefore I am one.  One small act condemns me to be totally wrong
  • Overly Responsible
    • I am responsible if anything goes wrong. It’s my fault.
  • Obsessive Moralisers
    • I must always ‘measure up’.  Things are either good or bad.  These students feel immoral if they just have a good time.
  • Compulsive Comparers
    • These students feel they can never compare to successful people
    • When they see others succeed they feel they have failed
  • Approval Addicts
    • I can only feel like I’m improving if others approve of my actions
  • Never Deserving
    • I cannot enjoy the gifts of life because I did not earn them


Toxic shame is an insidious emotion that influences all aspects of an abused child’s approach to life.  It will strongly influence whether they choose to actively participate in their community and nourish their sense of success or give up because they expect to fail.  In every case they can’t accept that they are entitled to survive and thrive in the world.  This faulty belief is what all effective teachers challenge everyday in their classrooms through, powerful, positive relationships, structured authentic consequences and well-defined expectation.  The use of this approach will eventually allow these children to understand that behaviour has authentic consequences regardless of who they think they are!

Posted by: AT 07:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 09 2022

Toxic Stress and Trauma

In the previous Newsletter (Stress – 2 May 2022) we discussed the effect stress has on students.  In this essay we concentrated on the emotional arousal that occurs in our day to day interaction with our environment in our efforts to survive.  In most cases this process of constant, homeostatic adjustment back to equilibrium is healthy.  However, researchers studying stress in children have proposed three separate responses to stress that have different outcomes, positive, tolerable and toxic.  The process described in the last Newsletter describes the characteristics of positive stress which operates to maintain the body in a healthy state.


However, too many children are exposed to threats that result in levels of stress that challenge their ability to ‘survive’.  These are the times when they become so frightened the effect on their physical organisation is to prepare them for a fight/flight response.  This 'readiness’ is achieved by the elevation of their heart rate, the secretion of hormones including adrenaline and noradrenaline along with other reactions such as the dilation of the pupils in their eyes.  One of the release hormones is cortisol which operates to assist in the restoration of the brain’s neurological status after the stress has been removed; this is the return to equilibrium.  Paradoxically, if the stressful situation is not resolved the continual secretion of cortisol has an erosive impact on the brain as we will discuss later.


Tolerable stress refers to levels of elevated stress that trigger an intense response but these are either resolved with the support of a parent or carer or they are only present for a short time.  Toxic stress is experienced if the conditions that activated are not quickly resolved and the intense stress continue for long periods of time, weeks, months or even years. 


The experience of these toxic conditions at an age when children are just learning how to behave in their environment is untimely as they have yet to develop any personal defence strategies and must rely on the support of their parents, or adult carers to assist in their return to equilibrium.  As will be shown this support is not always available.


The results of this intense or chronic stress is the over development of those regions of the brain that are involved in the fight/flight - fear response.  The constant firing of the neural pathways associated with fear are strengthened while the potential, positive alternate pathways are pruned, that is, the neural material is removed making the fear response more efficient.  This results in an exaggerated ability to detect any possible threat, they become hyper-vigilant in any social environment. 


The flip-side of this predisposition is the reduction in the child’s neural pathways that recognise more nurturing characteristics, they become inept at recognising kindness and compassion.  Unless aware of this incapacity teachers can become discouraged when their attempts to cultivate a positive relationship seem to be snubbed.  This is not the child’s rejection of their efforts it is their inability to recognise and respond appropriately.


In physiological terms the stress response follows the pattern illustrated below.  The stimulus enters through the cerebellum where it is identified as an immediate threat.  From there it goes to the thalamus, instantly on to the amygdala which initiates the fear response.  This continual stimulation means the amygdala becomes enlarged which in turn makes it acutely aware of potential threat.  At these times the information does not get to the hippocampus and on to the frontal lobes blocking the information from the conscious mind.  Because of this any thoughtful response is not available, it is almost impossible to ‘will away’ heightened emotions once they are present.


Continued exposure of children to these conditions of elevated stress leads to early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This is because their very foundations of expected survival are challenged.  


Traumatised people portray ‘snapshots’ of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat.  This inability to return to a state of calm means they are unable to discharge the energies associate with the preparation to defend themselves.  They remain in a state of readiness, fixated in an aroused state with the accompanying cortisol.


Although PTSD in children is usually associated with abuse it is worth noting that even if they live in a positive environment they can also become traumatised.  Generally they function with the expectation that they will comfortably survive and this gives them the confidence to plan and act.  However, there can be times when these expectations are shattered through the experience of:

  • Unexpected life-threatening events such as car accidents, earthquakes, severe illness, the death of a loved one, anything that threatens their stable view of the world. 
  • They come face to face with human vulnerability, they witness the injury to another person that demonstrates the fragility of life and in an instant the world changes through events that are out of their control.
  • They come face to face with the capacity for others to preform what can only be called evil in the world. 

One can only imagine the huge number of cases of early childhood PTSD that is currently being produced in Ukraine. 


The result of continuous, early childhood PTSD is a permanent change to the brain’s structure which results in an intellectual disability.  The following changes have been observed:

  • Amygdala is increased in size – this makes the child more attuned to potential threats and an exaggerated response to any actual threat.
  • Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this decreases the ability to create memories and to liaise with the frontal lobes where cognitive decisions can be made.
  • Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.  This is damage to what is called the executive of the brain and the level of damage here leads to major cognitive dysfunction.
  • Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is the ‘relay station’ between the external environment and our expectations.  A decreased efficiency in this process should mean a reduction in the accuracy of this process.
  • Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum. This reduces the coordinated response from both hemispheres.


The illustration below is of an extremely neglected and damaged three year-old-child.

The overall reduction in size is distressing and the damaged areas, the darkened parts throughout the cross section represent lesions and scar tissues.


Early childhood PTSD is predominantly the result of childhood abuse and the heart-breaking fact is that in most cases the perpetrators are primary care-givers.  What makes this upsetting is that these cognitive injuries are permanent.  This means a child born with a neurotypical brain is subjected to behaviours that produce these injuries as a consequence of an adult’s cruel behaviour.  This appalling situation is exacerbated by the fact that children being wholly egocentric think it is their fault they are treated this way.  They develop what I describe as toxic shame which I will address in the next Newsletter.


It is so hard for so many of the dysfunctional students that are the focus of our work.  They have been abused with resulting permanent brain damage through no fault of their own.  Their efforts to survive have seen them develop behaviours that some adults find repulsive.  This plus their ingrained sense of worthlessness, their toxic shame has left them with no expectation to succeed or be accepted into normal society and so they act to fulfil their destiny.


In our competitive society welded to the hypocrisy of meritocracy these children are blamed for their failures when in reality we should be blamed for letting this happen!  The best they can hope for is to be in the classroom of a teacher who understands this and will hang-in with them longer that they expect!   

Posted by: AT 06:57 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 02 2022


In the previous four Newsletters we have discussed boundaries in detail with the fundamental appreciation that it is the interface between our ‘self’ and the external world.  This may appear to be a relatively straight forward concept but a closer look reveals the need to define what consists of our ‘self’ and that requires a more complex analysis. 


At the fundamental level our boundaries indicate the interface between our internal and external world.  For my work our external world consists of all things beyond our brain’s receptors.  In a relatively simple way it defines the physical and social environment in which we find ourselves, the availability of resources and social interactions.  It is a bit more entangled when we consider that part of the environment is our body.  The central nervous system really is an extension of the brain but for my purposes I am interested in incoming information about things like our oxygen levels, our temperature etc. that will initiate behaviour and so I include those messages from our body.


Our physical self includes things like the maintenance of blood pressure, sugar levels, the rate of our heart-beat, etc.  The maintenance of these biological factors are reflexive, laid down because of our genetic scaffold, they make us human.  However, the social and intellectual features of our ‘self’ which give us that sense of who we are, are learned and the motivation of that learning is to support our survival in the presenting environment.   


From the time we are born we build up a complex web of memories that, in the first instance allow us to survive in the particular set of conditions in which we find ourselves.   Through the process of trial, error and correction we build a set of memories which allow us to anticipate what will happen when we act in a particular way in response to a particular set of environmental conditions that threaten our ‘survival’.  The goal for behaviour and learning is always to act to return to a state of homeostatic equilibrium; that is when all our needs are satisfied. Stress is the messenger that informs our homeostatic status – in equilibrium, no stress; in disequilibrium, stress!


The level of stress experienced occurs along a continuum of an autonomic arousal ranging from coma, unconsciousness to full-blown panic attack.  It is an electro/chemical response that prepares the body to act to regain a state of equilibrium whether that be a defence against perceived threat or a motivation to acquire something to sustain our survival.  It must be remembered that although the brain sustains us its only activity is to initiate movement be that the movement of a limb or instigating an electro-chemical signal that produces changes in the composition of our biological mix.  In cases of extreme threat an immediate ‘flight/fight response will occur to get the body into a state of readiness through the stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system.  This stimulates the adrenal glands releasing catecholamines particularly the adrenaline and noradrenaline.  This results in an increase in our heart-rate, blood pressure, breathing rate etc. 


As all environments constantly change we are continuously adjusting to new conditions in order to maintain equilibrium.  It becomes obvious that we do need an amount of stress to thrive and this applies to the classroom. 


The presence of stress does great things for your learning and memory.  At the fundamental level stress:

    • Increases heart rate
    • Loosens up blood vessels in critical parts of the brain
    • Delivers more oxygen and glucose to the brain
    • Your brain starts working better
    • Neurons become more excitable in the hippocampus

These and other reactions support the learning of new memories.  Teachers need to produce a level of stress that is not directly focused on the maintenance of immediate survival but enough to initiate a level of curiosity in the students about things they don’t understand.


There is an ideal level of stress that produces optimal learning.  The illustration below describes an inverted ‘U’ curve was first recognised by sports scientists who searched for the conditions of optimal athletic performance.  As can be seen, the horizontal axis indicates the level of arousal while the vertical axis describes the level of performance.  If the individual is under-stressed then the performance level is less than desirable however there is an optimum level where the performance is at its maximum.  Regrettably, if the level of stress continues to increase past that optimal level then the elevated anxiety will impair the performance. 



Unfortunately, this graph is highly individualised, that is it characterises one child.  Every child will have a different relationship to stress, some students are anxious and may quickly become over-aroused while others need to be stirred from their comfort zone!  The teacher needs to establish each child’s level of resilience and take a personalised approach to their motivation.


This ‘optimal’ level can be considered as positive stress, the conditions that support the formation of short-term memories and consequently our long-term memories which become the representation of our ‘self’.


This optimum or positive stress has the following benefits:

  • Increases the efficiency of our immune system
  • Increases our ability to form memories
  • Enhances the quality of our decision making
  • Improves our ability to concentrate
  • Enriches our level of emotional intelligence

These are all conditions we want our students to have when they are in our classrooms.


In our training we have always emphasised the importance of engagement and that is really encouraging the student to become stressed enough to take advantage of the conditions that come with positive stress.  The problem is, as stated above all our students come with a different emotional temperament and an approach that motivates a highly resilient student might frighten a student who suffers from anxiety.  This is the expertise professional teachers possess and this is not appreciated by those outside the system.


However, stress in the right amount is critical for a healthy and rewarding life, too much stress can have a devastating impact on individuals especially if it occurs in early childhood and that will be the subject of our next Newsletter.

Posted by: AT 11:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, April 26 2022

Healthy Boundaries

In the three previous Newsletters we examined the relational difficulties that occur when our boundaries are violated or we do not possess effective, healthy boundaries.  As we develop through childhood we established the boundaries that are the physical and psychological space between you and the outside world.  They define where you start in relation to all others and how that any intrusion across our boundaries triggers an emotional response.  It is wise to remember that any time your physical and/or psychological boundaries are entered you will have a stress response.  The effect the contact has on you depends on your current set of beliefs and emotional memories about the nature of that contact and how it matches with your sense of self. 


As explained previously (see Newsletter 194. - ‘Boundaries - The Point of Contact’ - March 21 2022) the importance of a healthy boundary is relative to the closeness of the relationship.



In the diagram above there is a decreasing intensity of the effect a boundary violation has on the individual.  It is easy to see that the relationship between yourself and an intimate other will generate much more stress than between you and a stranger.  This is not always a negative experience, when you share cherished moments with a loved one this ‘stressful’ experience is pleasing.  Because of the potential tension relationships at this level can generate, the benefit of honesty is crucial in maintaining trust. 


Simply put, boundaries are controlling what is OK and what is not OK for you in any given situation.  When we let people get away with what’s not OK it is natural to resent them.  However, this assumes the other understands what you require when in fact they might be doing the best they can, this is the mature nature of having healthy boundaries.  If we assume they are doing their best it allows you to stay in the relationship but you must act to ensure it becomes on your terms.  In broad terms you have to:

  • Provide an explanation – you need to convey the situation as you see it, how you want it to be and be specific.
  • Acknowledge your Feelings – own your feelings and take responsibility for them but let them know that you have them.
  • Articulate your Needs – say what you want.  Be selective, realistic and be prepared to negotiate in the knowledge that both parties have equal rights in a relationship.
  • Recognise Potential Consequences – Outline how things will be if there are changes or if they stay as they are.


A practical script to help you in this type of negotiation is to say the following:

  •  “When you …” – describe exactly what is upsetting you
  • “I feel …” – let them know that this is having an emotional impact on you
  • “Because …” – tell them why you are upset

This approach lets you communicate all aspects of how, what and why the situation impacts on you.  When they are aware of this they can choose whether or not they wish to remain in a relationship with you but it will be on your terms. There is no guarantee that this will work but if not then you should re-evaluate the value you have in the relationship.


 Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where this approach is ineffective or with strangers when stronger techniques are required.  In these cases use:

  • “If you …” – clearly identify what it is they are doing
  • “I will …” – explain what you will do in response to such action.  This is where you let them know what the consequences may be remembering never make a threat you can’t carry out!


Having healthy boundaries is really taking responsibility for your life.  However, this is a continuous task as while ever you are in the company of others your boundaries will necessarily over-lap.  As mentioned, when this happens your will feel a change in your emotions and if this signifies you are under threat you need to identify what is happening and what you need to do to protect yourself.  The following steps will help:

  • Stay Calm – you will have feelings but don’t let those feelings control your behaviour
  • Ask yourself, what is Really Happening – sometimes, especially with dysfunctional students the driving force behind the behaviour is not clear and in most cases their anger will not be directed at you
  • Who is Responsible?
    • Me         -           You must take action to address problem
    • Not Me      -       You can’t ignore the situation but must take action to get the result you want in the future
  • Review the outcomes, after you have taken these steps and things have changed for the better then the action has been a success.   If not you should revisit the steps and try another approach.  If the situation cannot be resolved then you should end that relationship!

At this stage of establishing healthy boundaries you will be in a period of negotiation with others.  At this time you need to:

  • Establish Expectations: - What are the areas of agreement and real differences
  • Check your Intentions: - Is what you want fair for all, be aware of others’ feelings
  • Consider Your Options: - Investigate the full range of options considering short and long-term consequences
  • Suggested Options: - After discussion put forward your proposal
  • Evaluate: - After trial evaluate and revisit procedure if needed and be persistent in putting your view


The illustration below summarises practical boundaries which in reality defines a functional adult who:

  • Accepts responsibility for their actions
  • Protects themselves from abuse
  • Gets their needs met in a just manner


Boundaries for Teachers

The discussion above is really based on relationships between individuals with equal status, this is not the case with teachers and students.  This equity is not to be confused with equal importance, everyone deserves to be treated equally but children are ‘works in progress’ and they are developing their boundaries.  It is the teacher’s role to demonstrate effective boundaries and provide opportunities for students to develop their own.


You have to remember that you are the teacher and there is a real power imbalance. You:

  • Have a position of power in the classroom, you have the authority to make decisions
  • Are an adult with a tertiary education and the status that goes with this

This is the time for authenticity, it is not a time to ignore those things for which we are responsible or to disregard the moral and aesthetic irritations that come with dealing with the truth because we find doing this uncomfortable. It is a time to model responsibility no matter how difficult that may be because that’s how the students will learn.


As the leader in the classroom you need to establish the quality of its environment, that is you need to establish what are the professional needs within the setting considering:

  • The teaching requirements; you need to present the assigned curriculum at the appropriate level for all students
  • Ensure there is an opportunity for all members of the class to get their physical and psychological needs met
  • The physical and psychological protection of all class members including yourself
  • Demonstrate and even teach appropriate assertiveness and functional boundaries


You need to understand that effective boundaries support all healthy relationships and relationships underpin all successful teaching and learning environments!



Posted by: AT 06:54 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 04 2022

Identifying Source of Dysfunctional Behaviour

In the last newsletters we discussed stress and how the student’s dysfunctional behaviour is a result of their inability to protect themselves.  What we must never forget is that their dysfunctional behaviour produces a stress response for all other members of the classroom, it sets off a chain reaction if you like and that includes the teachers.  To be an effective teacher in a class that contains one or more of these student you need to be able to protect yourself from such outbursts and stay in control of your emotions.  A key to maintaining control is to understand the intention of their behaviours.  In the next Newsletter I will discuss practical techniques for erecting effective boundaries and one of the initial steps is to identify what is really happening. In this Newsletter we will describe how dysfunctional students behave in ways to confront teachers who have stressed them.


Remember all behaviours are designed to have the individual return to homeostatic equilibrium, that is to regain a sense of calm.  It is the stress of being in disequilibrium that is the driving force of behaviour and stress is a result of our inability to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium in the presenting environment.  We behave to protect ourselves from the subsequent painful feelings and when we learn a behaviour that is successful we will repeat it when confronted by similar conditions. Eventually this becomes our habitual response to any perceived attack. The illustration below shows this drive as behaving to protect ourselves, from painful feelings and/or rejection. 



As the illustration above indicates, if we get a behaviour that removes the pain then we will always go back to that behaviour, this is the driving force of all addictions.   There are three types of addiction:


Substance Addiction – this is considered the classic addiction, we have all seen those disturbing images of some emaciated teenager, homeless on the streets.  These exist and are a tragedy, but substance addiction includes all forms of consumptions be they prescribed medication, food, caffeine or the deadly anorexia, the refusal to eat.


Activities Addiction – This is when we have discovered that while we are working, following a football team, making toy soldiers, getting involved with the latest craze - whatever you do that distracts you from the cause of the stress.  Of course none of these behaviours are a problem, they bring colour to our lives, it is a problem when the activity is used to avoid confronting the problem. 


People Addiction – most causes of stress in a group setting is through the challenging interaction between members, it is the behaviour of an ‘other’, or ‘others’ that create the disequilibrium.  The resulting stress is the main driver for the dysfunctional behaviours’ teachers are confronted with while managing their classroom.  The illustration below describes People Addiction and the types of behaviours associated with each style of protection.

When you are being stressed by another person’s behaviour you can either take action and try to control them, make them change their behaviour or in some way resist their impact on you by ignoring them.


This illustration provides a rough sketch of how these three strategies appear to the person being manipulated.  The style they adopt depends on how they think their personal position of power compares to their victim.  For children this belief of superiority or inferiority can be influenced by their family and depends on their position in the family, that is if they are the older sibling they are more likely to be overtly controlling while subsequent children learn they are at a physical and developmental disadvantage and find a covert approach more successful.


Children learn through modelling and if they watch their parents or relatives assume a position of superiority, an upper-class posture over others in the community they will do the same. 


Finally, gender has an influence with males being more likely to take an aggressive stance while females tend to use covert tactics.  The overt type of control is easiest to observe but is not necessarily the most effective and a student may adopt different positions depending on who they are dealing with.  A more detailed description is given below.


  • Overt Control – as can be seen in the illustration the behaviours are designed to intimidate the other person.  Their belief is if you stress me I will stress you more until you stop.  This is an addictive behaviour and as with all addictions as the effectiveness of this tactic declines, the intensity of the behaviour has to increase.  And like all behaviours the more you push people away the less opportunity you have to make connections.  These children are being trapped behind these protective walls of behaviour.


  • Covert Control – this is basically an inverse of the overt position.  In this case the student has the belief that they will be so nice the other will not stress them.  They forgo their needs by acting in a way that doesn’t upset the other person.  These kids become the puppets of other students and the more they employ this tactic the more they will have to give up on themselves.  I have seen students take the blame for behaviour others have done.  For the teacher, covert control is a behaviour that is not easily recognised and these children suffer in silence when trying to get their needs met.


  • Resistance – these students do not engage in any activity thus avoiding any contact with any potential confrontation.  They refuse to participate in class activities and in group work they are very passive.  They will take any opportunity to absent themselves from class, late back from recess and lunch, asking to go to the toilet or just not attending. 


Remember, this model of behaviour describes the walls discussed in the previous Newsletter (Newsletter 195 - Dysfunctional Boundaries 29 March 2022).  The problem with using this approach is that although these tactics do work in the short term albeit they most often require increased intensity to remain effective, these behaviours do not allow the individual to get their own needs met.


This approach to protecting ourselves does not disappear when we become adult.  In any large organisation such as a school you can witness the same tactics being used by the staff members.  The illustration below is a modified version of the one applied to students.


In the children’s case their inability to get their needs met in an appropriate manner impacted on their development.  When a teacher uses the same protective approach in the classroom, that is when they are stressed by their workload, student behaviour, or relational problems their behaviour not only locks them behind these walls of protection their inappropriate interaction with the students will have a knock-on effect:

  • Overt Control Teacher – using the aggressive attacks on the student is probably the most observed dysfunctional approach used by teachers to protect themselves.  This is not surprising as this is the preferred behaviour for controlling those to whom they think are superior.  By being critical, shaming, yelling etc. you can stop the child from stressing you but that child will no longer be ready to learn.  They are being abused and will be busy protecting themselves.


  • Covert Control Teacher – instead of dealing with the stressors that occur in any classroom these teachers will behave in a way that avoids confrontation.  These teachers are ‘nice’, let the kids ‘express’ themselves.  The problem is these teachers do not impose boundaries around their pupils, they do not teach responsibility.  They turn a blind-eye to inappropriate behaviour instead of imposing consequences.  If a student is late in submitting their homework there is no consequence.  The student in this class are not being equipped for the real world and the teacher is denying themselves from becoming an effective teacher.


  • Resistive Teacher – most schools will have one or more of these teachers.  When the day-to-day stresses become too much they ‘drop-out’ of any meaningful participation.  They are often absent from school.  When forced to engage in staff activities say reviewing some school policy they do not participate and if forced they will speak against any need to change.  In fact, I had a classic resistor on my last school staff and when we had a meeting in the library he could always be seen ‘looking’ through some book he picked off the shelf.  Because these teachers rebel against the school their students are denied full access to the efforts of the whole school to assist in their learning.  While they might feel they are protecting themselves these teachers deny themselves the joy of being fully involved in their classroom.


This model provides a broad summary of the types of behaviours they see in their classroom but more importantly the driving force behind these behaviours.  When confronted with student’s dysfunctional behaviours that disturb the quality of your teaching and the other students learning you have a choice as shown below:

This Newsletter has focused on identifying those behaviours that are designed to protect yourself.  These will work in the short term and as noted these tactics keep you in your comfort zone.  The levels of stress remain tied to that particular situation and continual use of the same tactic becomes addictive.


Alternatively you can learn to deal with these disturbing behaviours in a manner that not only deals with the presenting situation the solutions will provide a response that, if confronted again by the same situation you will not be disturbed, you will know how to deal with it and get your needs met. 


At the heart of the acting to learn approach is the development of healthy boundaries that protect you while allowing you to get your needs met in your environment.

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Monday, March 28 2022

Dysfunctional Boundaries

I’ve chosen the title Dysfunctional Boundaries because it is the disorganized quality of some individual’s boundaries that leads to their inability to authentically engage with their community.  This is at the heart of our students and our own dysfunctional behaviour.   It is no surprise that the formation of protective boundaries occurs in early childhood when we are ‘taught’ to protect our ‘self’.  The functionality of a student’s boundaries reflects the environment in which they were formed.  Of course, we can put into place physical boundaries where necessary but it is how the dysfunctional boundaries affect teachers in the classroom that is the focus of this Newsletter. 


Our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group and this starts to be formed from the moment of birth.  How our family of origin treats us dictates the nature of any protection offered by our boundaries.  Children raised in functional caring families, at the appropriate age learn the practical, consequential behaviours in response to dealing with a threat or the denial of something desired.  Eventually these allow them to:

  • Think well of themselves
  • Trust others
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Maintain positive expectations
  • Utilize their intellect
  • Have a sense of autonomy


However, the majority of children in our classrooms who present as disruptive are rarely raised in such families (see Newsletter 189 - The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour -   14  February, 2022).  These students have been reared experiencing three types of parenting, neglect, poor modelling of behaviour and abuse.  Of these three, poor modelling and neglect are not as vulnerable to environmental factors.  This is not to discount the cognitive damage but this impairment is less significant at the boundary but more in the impaired belief systems that drive their behaviour.  Abuse creates the stress reactions at the boundary.  The strength of the stress experienced at the time of the presenting violating event replicates the characteristics of the initial abuse.  Teachers need to understand that what they may feel is a gross over-reaction by a student to a classroom situation is most likely a reflection of their formative response in similar situations.


Children who are abused not only suffer a range of types of abuse but also the consistency, or not of that abuse.  By examining the constancy of the type of abuse will describe the extremes of the reactions to abuse in regards to the form of boundary protection they develop.  The extremes are a child who is repeatedly abused the same way in familiar circumstances contrasted with the child who is subjected to abuse in different forms at unpredictable times.


Children who are systematically abused in the same manner learn levels of protection to survive the attack.  Take a couple of examples, as a football coach I have seen, predominantly fathers expect their child to place themselves in physical danger say by tackling a bigger, stronger opponent.  When the child ‘misses’ a tackle the father heaps verbal abuse on them and then rejects them after the game; this is abuse.  In these instances the child who has no desire to play this game will soon learn that the physical risk is less damaging than the rejection.  They learn to behave in a way that ‘protects’ them from abuse.


Another more dramatic form of self-protection during assaults is when a child is subjected to sexual abuse from a father, uncle or other type of powerful adult.  The abuse is most often followed by a threat, the threat is the child will be punished if they tell anyone.  The child is made to believe they were responsible for the abuse, that they caused the defilement, they experience profound shame and because they fear rejection they conceal the desecration.  In these cases the ‘protection’ is to dissociate and so when the perpetrator revisits the victim the child will protect themselves by dissociating.  This works in a short-term dysfunctional manner.


In the case of consistent abuse the child learns a behaviour that is solely designed to ‘deny’ the abuse by presenting as not being ‘hurt’ by the abuse.  I will describe this as building walls to keep the abuse out.  These walls can be presenting as funny, angry, disinterested, the list of avoidance behaviours goes on.   The thing is these actions never reflect their true stressful feelings.


The unfortunate consequence of locking off the outside world is that the child cuts off any chance to get their own needs met.  The illustration below described these walls.

The other type of abuse is the inconsistent, unpredictable type.  In the family of origin  most often this type of abuse occurs when the caregivers are either addicts or suffer some psychotic illness.  In both cases the abuse will be related to the psychological state of the abuser and that is erratic.  Unlike the children who are consistently abused these children have no way of anticipating when and how the abuse will materialise and so they can’t establish any defence and become erratic themselves.  They are vulnerable to abuse from any source as illustrated below.


The following illustration shows the difference between those children with no learned ‘protection’, those with an exposed core and those who have developed ‘walls’ of behaviour to protect themselves.  The differences are explained in reference to five qualities of self-esteem.


Those with no protection are the children it is so easy to identify as being damaged.  They see themselves as not only being out of control but also not worth caring about.  They are vulnerable, bad and rebellious, dependent on others and of course unable to behave appropriately.  Conversely, those who have learned to hide their real feelings believe they must appear to be totally in control, they are good students, invulnerable and independent.  These students have learned to hide their real feelings from their immediate families so concealing them in the classroom is no challenge.


It is the second group that I worry about the most as they are difficult to identify and are more often female.  I recall a family I dealt with when principal of a school for Conduct Disordered and Oppositional Defiant students.  This family came to the school from Cambodia where they had suffered during the reign of Pol Pot.  The boy was clearly acting out, reflecting the characteristics of the exposed core.  I had reason to meet with the boy’s father and because he could not speak English he brought his daughter to translate.  She appeared to be a ‘straight A’ student, polite, well-spoken and articulate the very model of a pupil with a strong wall of protection.  I checked with the school and they agreed with my assessment, she was a ‘star’ student.  I have no real evidence that I’m right but that girl suffered at least as much trauma as her brother and I suspect, like all females probably more.  There is no way she will get any special care from the school, all their support resources are focused on the acting out behaviours.  Yet like all those kids living behind walls help should have been provided.


As I have outlined before, there is a growing number of teaching tuitions on dealing with trauma usually described as Trauma Informed Practice.  Our opinion on these is best explained in our previous Newsletter 193 (Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD, 13 March 2022).  To recap teachers are not mental health professionals nor do they have the time to address these students’ considerable disabilities while teaching in a classroom.  This is exactly why we take the approach we do and that is endeavoring to control the amount of stress provoking incidents in the classroom.  This is why the calm, safe, predictable and consistent environment managed by a teacher with a genuine warmth towards the children is the best we can do for both the out-of-controlled student and those hiding their pain.


Understanding the damage suffered by these kids and the difficulty of dealing with their protective behaviours in a classroom presents a huge challenge which is not acknowledged by the bureaucracy nor the academic world.  But it is a real problem faced by teachers every day.  Despite the difficulty these kids present the teacher must not:

  • Give up because the repetitive dysfunctional behaviours continue without apparent change, these kids are never a ‘quick fix’
  • Become discouraged because students will block approaches.  For them to trust others is too risky therefore they avoid relationships.  The trick is to hang in longer than they expect you to.


We often hear the characteristic of empathy being a prerequisite for being a ‘good teacher’.  I understand the intention behind this belief but I prefer the quality of compassion.  Empathy infers you ‘know how they feel’ but it is impossible for anyone to know how it feels to be abused as a child.  Even if you have had that experience you can’t know how another feels but you must know it is an horrific form of abuse put on a child when they are unable to defend themselves.   These kids are not bad they are injured so never give up on them even if it means they need to be referred to a more suitable environment.

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Monday, March 21 2022

Boundaries - The Point of Contact

In the previous Newsletters we discussed the impact stress has on our ability to ‘control’ our behaviour.  As explained, stress occurs when the conditions of the outside world threaten our survival either from attack or the denial of needed resources; the level of threat determines the level of stress!  This ‘point of contact’ occurs in the cerebellum where the perceptions of the environment, arriving via the purkinje cells are compared to learned effects assembled in our memory and communicated by the granular cells (see The Importance of Stress - Tuesday, March 1, 2022 for more details).  This is the biology of our boundaries, the space between our physical and psychological sense and the outside world.  Our boundaries define where we begin in relation to all others.


We have determined in the previous Newsletter that as the level of stress increases your ability to control your actions decreases.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the way to control your behaviour is to control the stress which is generated in the cerebellum.  In regard to classroom management the level of stress experienced by the students will determine the level of cognitive control, the potential learning that is available to all members of the class.  This is the biological explanation of why calm classrooms have always been recognised as being the most effective.


From the above, it becomes clear that boundaries are the place teachers should concentrate to control their own levels of stress and to limit the opportunities for students to violate each other’s boundaries.  Within the classroom boundaries are the point of contact between everyone.  When any of these ‘relationships’ become threatening there will be an increase in the levels of stress, boundaries are being violated. 


So just what are boundary violations?  These can be both physical, external and psychological, internal described below.


External Boundary Violations

These are the assaults on our physical sense of safety and include:

  • Standing too close, or any type of touching without permission.  This includes being hit, sexually violated or even tickled against your will.
  • Others violating your rights to privacy.  For example, someone going through your bags or wallets, eavesdropping on your conversations, looking at the data on your smart phone
  • Others exposing you to risk (i.e. Exposing you to their illness, they smoke in a no smoking area, not isolating when infectious, driving too fast for your comfort)


Internal Boundary Violations

These are the attacks on our psychological wellbeing.  Examples of these include:

  • Being yelled or screamed at
  • Someone lying to you or breaking a commitment they made
  • Calling you names
  • Patronising or telling you what you should do without being asked
  • Being sarcastic
  • Shaming you or your community
  • Rejection from the group


Any interaction that creates stress is a boundary violation.


What is important to the strength of any boundary violation is the closeness of the relationship.  In the illustration below you can see how this operates.



There is a gradient of potential stress from a high propensity to be aroused through the interaction with intimate others.  That is the closer the relationship the more potential for elevated levels of stress and the more need for honest communication. 


The most important yet the most difficult is the relationship you have with your ‘self’, Level 1 on the diagram.  This is critical for teachers to ‘get right’ when they question their own practices.


In a later essay we will deal with the need for honest reflection on your own behaviour in any stressful situation.  The reason self-evaluation is difficult is because your sense of self is really an amalgamation of your beliefs, in a sense you are trying to evaluate your performance using the same set of personal values that led to the behaviour.  Also, we can only interpret the behaviour of others when we reach the stage of development identified as acquiring a ‘theory of mind’, that is when children become aware that others are separate form ourselves.  But, just as we have difficulty in evaluating our own behaviour our evaluation of others is created by projecting those values on the ‘other’ and using these as the ‘reference point’ for our decision.


Another important fact is that we are hard wired to evaluate the external environment, this is how we predict the potential action of others in our group.  As Louis Cozolino in his excellent book ‘The Social Neuroscience of Education (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2013) points out, if we put a person in a brain scanner and ask them to analyse the behaviour of others, all sorts of neural networks become activated.  However, if we ask that same person in the same scanner to analyse their own behaviour there is much less activity.  Analysing others is most often reflexive and automatic while self-awareness requires concentration, effort and runs the risk of triggering anxiety.

We progress through the descending threats to our boundaries with Level 2 being the most important relationship.  For a child this begins with the primary caregiver exclusively up until birth and most likely from then on.  In the early years any boundary violation of an infant is most probably involving the parent and this contributes to the destructive nature of the early abuse.  As we get older we expand our circle of relationships increasing the potential to have our boundaries violated but reducing the intensity of a lot of these violations.  For example if your very best friend criticises say your hair that would be more stressful than if a stranger said something about your hair.  In the first instance you would be really hurt but the same comments from a stranger might just mildly annoy you.


In the classroom the relationship between the teacher and the students should be, and most usually is very strong particularly relative to the stage being taught.  Most parents have experienced that time when their five-year-old corrects you because their primary source of information, the truth is their teacher!  By the end of their schooling the relationship is still important but not nearly as powerful.  This is why teachers must present themselves and the classroom as being non-abusive but rather safe, calm, consistent and predictable and where they are all highly esteemed.


Unfortunately, too many children come to school with highly damaged boundaries or no ability to construct a boundary, this is the subject of our next Newsletter.  Providing the environment that supports the development of healthy boundaries can be achieved is one way we can assist those damaged children to get some sense of their ability to control their own behaviours and that is all any of us can do!

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Sunday, March 13 2022

Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD

In the previous Newsletters we discussed stress and early childhood trauma, in this essay we will link these issues to help teachers cope with these students in class.  To do this it is important to appreciate that teachers have to deal with the results of the disabilities generate in their classroom.  Even if only one student is suffering from the effects of early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the potential impact their behaviour can generate on the other students is significant. 

Over the years there have been a succession of intervention programs that have been designed to help teachers deal with the dysfunctional behaviours experienced when these damaged students attend the classroom.  All of these have some value and experienced teachers learn to take a pragmatic approach when applying the tactics described.  The latest of these types of approaches come under a methodology described as ‘trauma informed’.  The Department of Education, NSW has an excellent publication called ‘Trauma-informed practice in schools: An explainer’ which provides a thorough description of both the causes and approaches teachers can take to deal with the resulting disordered behaviours.  However, and this is where our approach differs significantly from other programs, the cognitive damage that drives these dysfunctional behaviours resides within the student’s brain, ingrained in their cerebral belief systems.  To change these structures requires a significant intervention over a substantial period of time by a highly trained mental health worker.  This is not practical nor ethically acceptable for teachers who have to deal with these students for relatively short periods of time in a setting that has to cater for the needs of up to twenty-nine other students.   

[A Note:  Our approach is to help teachers control what they can, the external environment of the classroom in a way that minimises the impact of excessive stress on the behaviour of students and the teacher.  This philosophy will lie behind all our future work.]

Add to this is the geographical disproportionate rates of lost learning this disability afflicts on our society.  It is generally estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD resulting from childhood trauma and in some low socio-economic areas, the proportion can be up to 26%.  This means that in a class of thirty students a teacher may have between zero students with these behaviour problems or up to eight who are suffering from PTSD.  Not only will these disabled students’ behaviour impede their classmates’ learning but they will also have a cumulative effect on each other.  This distribution becomes more concentrated when you consider the number of students who attend private schools that do not enrol students with disrupting behaviours so the ratios would be higher than those estimated above in certain areas.


Another issue is predominantly these behaviours are carried out by boys, approximately 80% of referrals to special settings and suspension data along with proportion of adults in incarceration supports this tendency; males act out and females internalise.  

There is a real difference of expression between the genders which appears when the students begin to be emotionally aroused.  The boys resist the threatening characteristics of the environment while the girls become compliant.  The simple answer to conclude that these behaviours are cultural and historical, females have learned to stay quiet about how they feel and suffer in silence while the boys fight back.  However, there is an alternative explanation of these disproportionate numbers.  This is based on the work of the anthropologist Louis Leakey who concluded that once humans became the apex species the main threat to survival was attacks from another tribe.  In the event of such battles, males had a greater chance of survival if they act-out, fought the invaders or ran to safety; that is they took action.  Such a response was not as effective for females and children.  They were more likely to survive if they surrendered or dissociated; they would be taken as trophies, it was a preferred action to survive (for a more detailed discussion about Dissociation see Newsletter 67 – Dissociation - 29 October 2018).

The graph below illustrates the impact that increased levels of stress has on the behaviour of students.


This particular graph is based on the work of Bruce Perry well known psychiatrist who has been at the forefront of research into the impact of abuse on the cognitive development of children.  It can be seen that as the level of stress increases (the ‘X’ axis) the mental state (the ‘Y’ axis) ‘escalates’ from being able to think in an abstract manner, the style of engagement we want in our classroom up until the boys are ‘out of control’ and the girls are suffering a mini psychotic episode, a condition where nothing is learned.


If you examine this graph you can see how the stress controls the area of the brain we access to survive.  This represents a fear response, the fight/flight/freeze explains the protective behaviours likely to be observed.  There is a similar impact on behaviour when students’ stress levels are elevated because they can’t get their needs met.  Of course, this model reflects the propensity of genders, there are plenty of students who will react contrary to this portrayal, the girls will act out and the boys internalise.


In the illustration below it can be seen that at any given level the teacher believes they are ‘engaging’, that is they are influencing their level of arousal, the student reaction will vary.  This is another version of the importance of the inverted ‘U’ curve discussed in a previous Newsletter (The Importance of Stress - Tuesday March 1 2022).  The difference is that in what appears to be an unacceptable level of classroom arousal will terrify Student 1 while hardly disturbing Student 3 who finds the chaotic lesson reflects their childhood environment.  In a sense they are happier when things appear to be out of control.



Another extremely important consideration is the impact increased stress has on decision making.  Many of the behaviour management programs offered to schools are based on the use of some type of cognitive intervention.  The classic is the once popular ‘Stop -Think – Do’ program created by Lindy Petersen an Australian clinical psychologist specialising in behaviour management of students.  The approach is to teach the students to stop before they react to a situation and then think about the consequences of their automatic behaviour and compare this to a more functioning response and then do what is best!   This makes sense to everyone and when it is discussed in the school counsellor’s office the projected long-term outcomes will be appear to be excellent.  But, back in the classroom, when the student is confronted and they become highly aroused this idea of delaying any attempt to protect themselves is ineffectual.  The table below illustrates the impact stress has on our cognitive functions including our consideration of long-term outcomes.

It can be seen that as the level of threat increases the reference to future consequences becomes increasingly less considered.


It is obvious that the levels of stress initiate descending levels of our cognitive functions and in the case of the students with extreme disordered behaviours we work with, any elevated stressful environmental conditions will access entrenched belief systems that drive their reactions.  The most effective and attractive approach would be to change these belief systems however this process is extraordinarily difficult for a practicing mental health worker dealing with the student in a one-to-one environment over an extended period of time.  Such an approach is not available to a teacher who is not a trained mental health worker, does not have the luxury of dealing with the student individually over a period of time.  Our only chance to improve the learning outcomes of all our students is to focus on the other side of the ‘equation’ and that is to control the level of stress in the classroom.

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Monday, March 07 2022

Early Childhood Trauma

In the last Newsletter we discussed the features of stress which results from an imbalance between our needs and the availability of conditions within our environment to get those needs satisfied.  This is the mission of all biological creatures, to live in a safe and secure environment, we are no different.  However, if we experience a life-threatening situation and we are unable to defend ourselves the extreme levels of stress generated are not launched, the body is captured in a fight/flight readiness with the accompanying physiological changes.  This inability to discharge these energies to act means we remain in a state of ‘readiness’.  This is the embodiment of trauma.


In its pure state the essence of trauma can be summarized as follows:

  • The stability of life based on a steady expectation of what will happen has been shattered
  • The victim has come face to face with their own vulnerability in the natural world; they can die or become extremely injured
  • The victim has come face to face with the capacity for evil in human nature, their trust in the goodness of others is shattered


Childhood trauma, usually understood to be from birth to age six has a distinct set of features that have a profound impact on a child.  In these years the child has not developed the behaviours to protect themselves by fighting, hardly an option or fleeing and so they are much more vulnerable (they can freeze, that is, dissociate which will be discussed later).  The importance of their carer becomes another factor in the severity of childhood trauma. 


In one instance it may be that the parent whose own survival is threatened becomes unavailable to protect the child and so they feel abandoned.  For example a child witnessing an assault on say their mother will become extremely traumatised as she is their connection to survival.  Contrary to this tragic experience is when the malevolent acts of abuse unloaded onto the child by that caregiver or authority figure.  The very person they rely on to survive is trying to ‘kill’ them.  It is unwise to compare any psychological experiences but we can’t help thinking this latter practice is the most-evil form of abuse!


The results of prolonged stress are most tragic if the threats are present under the following conditions:

  • Caused by human actions directed at the child
  • Continually repeated, the abuse never seems to cease
  • Unpredictable, there is no warning the attack is coming
  • Multifaceted, the same technique of delivering the threat is not repeated
  • Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty

 And to re-emphasise the final and perhaps the most menacing feature of a child’s trauma is when their primary caretaker is responsible for it. 


Another feature of childhood trauma is that it takes place at a time when the development of both the physiology of the brain and the belief systems are at their most emergent.  The significance of this has been detailed in a previous Newsletter (The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour - Monday, February 14, 2022).  At this time we outlined the physical damage persistent and chronic stress does to the brain but because these are so profound they will be reproduced below.

•    The Amygdala, which is sensitive to fear is increased in size which makes the child very anxious.

•    The hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.

•    Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.  It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.

•    Cerebellum which is the area of the brain that evaluates the potential of danger or opportunity in the environment in relation to needs is reduced in size becoming more inefficient.

•    Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum, that is the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres is compromised. 

It needs to be remembered that this is real physical damage to a child’s brain that results more often than not from the actions of a malevolent adult at a time when they are incapable of any defence against such abuse!


In the classroom you don’t get to see this damage but you will have to deal with the behaviours that are underpinned by it.  The major responses to all trauma, including children are as follows:

  • Intrusion:
    • Vivid flashbacks of events
    • False memories
    • Nightmares
  • Avoidance
    • Conscious or subconscious avoidance of situations that produce associated stress
  • Hyperarousal
    • Enduring vigilance for, and sensitivity to, environmental ‘threats’


A more detailed description of the behavioural consequences of these responses are dealt with in detail in Chapter 3 of our book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ which is reproduced in the Resource Section of our Web Page Frew Consultants Group. 


The responses described above are broad descriptions of the impact early childhood trauma has on a victim.  How these characteristics are expressed is very individualised but the table below provides a useful summary of the expressions of early childhood PTSD.



Infants & Lower Primary

Upper Primary & Secondary

  • Feel helpless and uncertain
  • Fear being separated from parent/caregiver
  • Cry and/or scream a lot
  • Eat poorly and lose weight
  • Return to bedwetting
  • Return to using baby talk
  • Develop new fears
  • Have nightmares
  • Recreate the trauma through play
  • Are not developing to the next growth stage
  • Have a change in behaviour
  • Ask questions about death


  • Become anxious and fearful
  • Worry about their own or others’ safety
  • Become clingy with a teacher or a parent
  • Feel guilt or shame
  • Tell others about the traumatic event again and again
  • Become upset if they get a bump or bruise
  • Have hard time concentrating
  • Experience numbness
  • Have fear the event will happen again
  • Have difficulties sleeping
  • Show changes in school performance
  • Become easily startled
  • Feel depressed and alone
  • Discuss the traumatic events in detail
  • Develop eating disorders and self-harming behaviours such as cutting
  • Start using or abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Become sexually active
  • Feel like they’re going crazy
  • Feel different from everyone else
  • Take too many risks
  • Have sleep disturbances
  • Don’t want to go to places that remind them of the event
  • Say they have no feeling about the event
  • Show changes in behaviour

Source:  The Centre for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Interventions

                  Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences

                  Northwestern University - Chicago


In the next Newsletter we will discuss early childhood trauma and how it effects the child’s sense of self, how they come to the class in a sense already failing and following this will be the implications for the teacher.


However, more than anything the teacher will have to overcome some personal difficulties when dealing with these children.  It is important that the teacher: 

  • Does not become critical and/or controlling
  • Understands the difficulty the student is experiencing.
  • Is not to be drawn into the role – ‘playing the part’ of who the student wants them to be.
  • Remain involved, listening and persist with the child.


Students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships.  Addressing this is the key to dealing with these kids but it is only one part of our approach which requires structure and expectations to support these relationships.

Posted by: AT 07:56 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email


John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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