In the previous Newsletters we have discussed the characteristics of a behaviour crisis in the school and how to deal with them. This latest essay focuses on the personal actions that will help the classroom teacher deal with this situation. As acknowledged, these incidents do take a toll on all concerned, the student, the teacher and their classmates but being prepared helps you stay in the present and not make reactive decisions you may later regret. This applies after the peak of the crisis has passed and the child, at least is capable of appreciating the situation.
In the first instance, you need to present your case in an assertive but not aggressive manner. The following will help:
Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
Maintain a steady, positive gaze, present a confident posture
Maintain appropriate eye contact
Stand up straight.
Remain silent after you have delivered the message
Let them know exactly what was going on, be specific about the behaviour and be careful not to personalise your ‘criticism’. It is always the behaviour we disapprove of never the child so be careful not to let any personal anger influence this process.
This is the time when you can rely on the structured, predictable environment we have always emphasised. When you have this in place being able to deliver the known consequence for the behaviour, allows the process to become impersonal and the student learns that they can have some control over what happens to them. This won’t happen quickly but the more you create the structure and the more you consistently apply the consequences, it will empower the student and because you are predictable the student will maintain a healthy relationship with you – they begin to trust you. Never apologise for not getting emotionally involved. This doesn’t mean you become like a robot but your body language should convey your continued respect for the child – they are separate from their behaviour.
When you have delivered your message remain silent to allow them to digest it and make-a-decision about how they will react. Be careful about this, some children are very good at using silences as a weapon forcing the teacher to make decisions for them. This is a particular tactic for kids who have been so disempowered they don’t know they are allowed to decide. This is when you can explain to them it is their decision or if you think they are just avoiding their responsibility tell them you are going on with your ‘work’ and will get back to them when they are ready. When they are ready give them your undivided attention, in fact, always give them your undivided attention. You could say something like “I know you’re really angry now; you need time to settle down” but if you do go on with another activity do so without antagonising them. This is the ‘art’ of behaviour management.
When they are ready to engage with you in an appropriate manner and if they are capable, get them to explain the purpose of their behaviour. This is mostly beyond the capacity of very young kids and in this instance, you can teach them about the purpose of behaviour (all behaviour has a purpose). But, if you can, listen to them carefully, accepting genuine attempts at honesty. Some practitioner’s advice is to empathise with the student. I understand the motivation but find the concept of empathy concerning – it is impossible to really understand what it’s like ‘to walk in these abused/neglected kid’s shoes’, you can’t and if you have a similar history this would be even more dangerous. I prefer having compassion rather than empathy, it is more honest. However, it is an extremely complex subject to articulate but it is a message that comes through with your non- verbal skills. These kids are extremely vigilant and will see through any false efforts to engage with them.
However, we all know that it is more likely to be a time when they will want to deflect the responsibility on to someone else. The next Newsletter will go into more detail how this follow-up process could go wrong.
The use of this information is a great example of our model for effective classroom management, that is the need for structure, expectations and relationships. These are implicit in all our work and have been discussed more specifically in newsletters:
Creating Structure 12th August 2019
Special Relationship 10th September 2020
Expectations 17th February 2020
Finally remember you never, or rarely deal with a crisis in isolation almost always there are spectators, your other students or colleagues who are watching what you do. This is when the maxim ‘what you do is so loud no one can hear what you are saying’ applies. How you deal with the presenting situation will have such an impact on, not only the relationship you have with the offending student it will with all the other students. When they see you following the structure, staying in control of your own emotions you maintain your integrity and become a positive model for other. Your reputation is the currency that embeds you within the school and students will come to your class with a positive expectation about how they will be treated and through this you have won half the battle.
Lifting educational outcomes through early intervention and targeted support.
The following is a submission regarding the proposed new strategy to deal with student behaviour in public schools.
This current proposal is one of successive attempts to deal with severely disruptive student behaviour in schools. Historically all have failed and, despite the best intentions nothing in this new proposal indicates that this undertaking will be any different. The impediment to success has always been the failure to deal with children at the severe end of the behaviour spectrum. Within all previous and projected behaviour strategies there is an implied but mistaken belief that these children have the ability to self-regulate their behaviour. Until it is accepted that these children are as physically and psychologically disabled as those born with or acquired an impairment from an injury, they will not receive the attention they deserve.
These children suffer from a range of mental health and social issues that are beyond the capacity of a teacher to manage. A significant number have diagnosed illness including autism but the vast majority of those who ‘act out’ in class will attract the finding of conduct disorder or oppositional defiance; which is the consequence of early childhood abuse and/or neglect. The impact of these physical insults on the structural development of their brain is well documented with significant reductions in neurologic size in crucial areas. These include the cerebellum, amygdala, hippocampus and frontal lobes. This interferes with their ability to modulate their moods and make calm decisions.
The following features should be considered:
It is estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD resulting from childhood trauma and in some areas, the proportion can be up to 26%.
Students suffering other mental illnesses have behaviours that contribute significantly to this problem.
The distribution of the students who present the associated behaviours is irregular but closely related to socioeconomic conditions in the community.
Interventions based on cognitive approaches are marginally successful. A more appropriate approach is the provision of highly structured environments with an elevated level of personal support (healthy relationships).
Consequences do not need to be severe but they do need to be consistent and persistent to allow the students to regain a sense of personal control.
Successful interventions to assist students who exhibit these severe behaviours are never short term. Change is difficult and time consuming but it can be achieved.
The community, represented by the department should understand that these behaviours are a result of abuse and/or neglect that has been inflicted on them when they were defenceless. There is a moral and ethical imperative to really address this problem.
At the heart of this policy is the desire to provide equity for all students in the schools. It has been identified by leading educator Professor John Hattie that the absence of students with severe behaviours and the climate of the classroom are the second and third leading cause of improved learning outcomes; the first the student’s ability to self-evaluate. This means that the presence of these students put all other students at a disadvantage and this must also be considered a failure to provide equity. That is, students in a class where one or more of these students attend are at a disadvantage to those who are in classes without such students.
Research conducted on the impact distractions can have on intellectual performance ranges from 13 – 14 IQ points based on the Raven’s Scale. This research considered economic scarcity nonetheless the distraction caused by the presence of threatening classmates would in all probability increase this loss. The impact of such an intellectual performance deficit would take a student with a superior IQ to perform at an average level and those with an average level to achieve at a borderline deficit level. This finding explains Hattie’s conclusions.
The statement “Under the new policy framework, teachers and school staff will be required to consider the impact of a student’s disability and uphold the student’s right to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students” covers the equity considerations of the disabled child. However, and this is an area the department could find themselves vulnerable to litigation, any child who is in a classroom where there is a child with severe behaviours is, based on Hattie’s work and common understanding not able to get the same educational opportunity as students who are in classrooms without behaviour problems. Equity is for every student.
This does not mean the focus is off these disruptive students, as stated above they have a real disability and should be provided with the same support as is provided for all disabilities. A student who has a profound physical disability is provided with all the support they need. This allocation of support should be commensurate for students with severe behaviours.
The emphasis on the use of suspension as a method to manage severe behaviour is also predictable and destined to only exacerbate the problem for schools unless there are some real changes to the training and resources available to implement an alternate negative consequence for severe behaviours.
Schools do not suspend as a first and only resort. In a previous submission made, on behalf of the Secondary Principals Association it was concluded that it takes on average 3.2 hours to complete the suspension cycle. It was also determined that actual suspensions only made 14% of all behaviour management work carried out by a senior executive in a secondary school. Based on suspension details from one district, the then Western District would require 124.7 hours per week just to deal with student welfare issues. This equates to more than three executives doing a 40-hour week just addressing this problem. With the acknowledged substantial increase in the workload in recent years it is clear no school can provide adequate support for behaviour issues and suspension is the only alternative.
Any attempt to reduce the availability of what is effectively the only consequence schools can deliver for physical and psychologically dangerous behaviours will be met with resentment by schools and teaching staff who are already working in an environment consistently described as fulfilling unmanageable demands.
There is no doubt that this process is undertaken will ethical and compassionate intentions and it is in the last two targets real change to the management of student behaviour could be achieved.
2. ‘Building capacity across the workforce through embedded and continuing professional
There needs to be a thorough review of training for behaviour management of teachers. The current reliance on ‘professional programs’ such as those based on the positive behaviour movement who, by their own admission does not deal with these severe behaviours is destined to fail. Also, the emergence of ‘trauma-informed’ approaches that are appearing in the literature are also inadequate. This is a welcome development however; any examination of these programs reveals not much that can be applied by the classroom teacher but is more relevant to improving therapeutic interventions by mental health professionals. Any ‘intervention’ must be one that a teacher can employ and if unable the disabled child should be given specialist support that allows them to function and their class mates continue their learning un-interrupted.
Schools including their teachers need training in how to manipulate the learning environment to minimise conditions that trigger out of control behaviour by these vulnerable students. This requires an understanding of providing structure and expectations in a setting built on professional, supportive student-teacher- school relationships. This is appropriate work for teachers; any intervention above this level moves into the domain of health professionals and teaching staff have no business in this area.
3. ‘Commissioning behaviour services to deliver improved outcomes’
From the statements made for proposed future directions it would seem that there is a push to outsource solutions to the problem of severe behaviour management. There are two issues about this approach:
There is a history of investigations into this problem both in NSW, throughout the country and across the world. Another expert enquiry would do little more than delay the inevitability of having to do something about this problem.
The idea schools can use the services of other government agencies has been advocated since the early 1990’s when terms like ‘seamless integration’ were used. This approach has never worked not the least because all public services do not have the flexibility to facilitate such an integration.
The use of ‘private providers’ is fraught with danger; invariably marketed behaviour management programs have a ‘one size fits all’ approach and to expect the same service to be successful across the vast diversity that is NSW schools is senseless. based on the lack of success in other privatised organisations this approach is not an option if real change is to be made.
The school, and by extension the department owns the problem and is obliged to provide the solution. The real remedy is to prioritise the problem at the school level by providing the training, resources and support that is demanded by their disability. These could/should include:
Advanced training in classroom management and the design of appropriate learning environments
Specialist staff to provide ‘in school time out’ on a case-by case basis
Access to mental health providers
Acknowledgement of the special skill set within the quality teacher’s standards
Special settings for students whose behaviour is extreme and where staff receive advanced training and professional mental health support to deal with these students
There is no doubt that the problems created by students with severe behaviours is amongst the greatest impediments to learning outcomes and there is no disputing that public schools have a disproportionate number of these students and they are not equally distributed across socio-economic regions. Therefore, it is accepted that public schools have to deal with the problem caused by these students and that is the loss of learning both their own and their classmates not to mention the psychological and sometimes physical abuse of other students and staff members.
Dealing with this problem is not only a health and safety issue it is a profound ethical issue that the members of this enquiry must face. It should not a problem that is ‘glossed over’ again.
In the last Newsletter we discussed the ‘exploding kid’ and how to deal with the outbreak. In this Newsletter we examine the evolution of a crisis and steps to take to deal with each step. The illustration below attempts to map the progression however, the time line can vary quite a bit. In some instances, a few children will take a while to get to the crisis level yet other kids, or other situations may see the escalation from calmness to a situation of being ‘out of control’ almost be instantaneous.
As can be seen, the entry into the crisis is fairly linear as is the road to recovery however, the crisis is not always even but can be a series of ups and downs. Each is unique but each represents a student ‘out of control’. The teacher has to deal with all the conditions of this cycle.
It is important, especially when working in a highly volatile classroom to have a ‘management plan’ in place before an event takes place. This essay will help you formulate that plan.
Even though it is not always obvious to the teacher there will be something that ‘triggers’ the cycle and increases the stress levels in the child. As we know this moves the child’s cognitive process into a defensive mode and they revert to what they are comfortable with. The process of concrete thinking relates to previous experiences that the current situation reminds them of, for example, it may be that the protagonist reminds them of someone who has abused them in some way.
The student may become emotional, they can be restless or argumentative. Their body language indicates heightened levels of stress, tense muscles, tight fists etc.
By knowing possible triggers for a student may enable you to remove them or reduce their occurrence
It is possible to stop the escalation into crisis mode, this can be done by:
Early reassurance or distraction to prevent escalation
Acknowledge the child’s feelings and ask what’s wrong “I can see you’re angry, what’s up?”
Listen and let them get it off their chest
Discuss solutions where possible
Be supportive, calm and friendly
Respect their personal space
Encourage them saying you know they’ll do the right thing even though they’re upset. “You were angry but I can see you’re working hard at calming yourself ….. Good for you!”
Remind them of expected school rules
Direct them to an activity to engage their thoughts or discharge energy build-up e.g. school work, carrying things for you
Don’t personally react in the early stages to minor challenges:
Don’t stand too close or touch them
Model non-hostile body language, hands off hips, fists unclenched, no finger wagging
Remind them of previous success they have had in gaining self-control; acknowledge their strong emotions but show confidence
Consider physical activity e.g. a supervised run
If this fails you move into the crisis phase where the child is ‘out of control’. As can be seen in the illustration this is not necessarily a straight path to a climax, although it may be but can oscillate within the bounds of lack of control. The child may:
Although it is a time where the teacher has little control over the child’s behaviour they have to ensure their own behaviour does not exacerbate the situation. They should intervene:
Using a firm, low voice, use their name and give a short clear instruction and repeat it several times if needed (broken record). Keep tone and volume of voice consistent
Realize there are times they may need to stand back and let a tantrum run its course. It may be necessary to remove other students/audience
Don’t attempt to intervene in a playground fight without back-up. Say STOP and send for help
After outburst get child to time-out ASAP
Be aware of your own reactions, take some slow deep breaths.
Eventually the crisis will pass.
The last stage is recovery when the child, and teacher move back to homeostatic equilibrium when:
The student’s body chemistry is returning to normal
With the battle over the muscles become progressively more relaxed
Ritual behaviours become less frequent
It is important to note that the student is not yet at baseline and is vulnerable to re-escalation
Child should be in a quiet place with no audience
Allow calming down time for the child and for yourself and show concern and support. Understand that the child will be experiencing:
A level of exertion required during the crisis phase now exacts its toll
They may go through a stage of emotional withdrawal, crying, exhaustion, fatigue, depression, muscles relax and they may slump forward
They may be thirsty, hungry or need to urinate
Child may feel remorse/regret and worry about consequences
Although tempting, do not show any hostility towards the child, don’t lecture or reprimand. It is just as important not to ‘forgive’ the behaviour but maintain what should be a constant in any teacher/student relationship you retain your respect for that child. After all, they are doing the best they can.
There is a time to debrief the incident with the child, only when they have recovered and there has been a significant time gap so they can examine the whole cycle focussing on empowering the child to de-escalate before they get out of control. You can do this by:
Use open ended questions with a long wait time and LISTEN. You don’t need to fill the silences
Discuss with the child what they could do differently next time. Let the ideas come from the child … don’t give them the answers
Have the child be specific about what they will do next time, telling you how that will look and sound. This helps them move towards change and growth and avoids ‘parrot responses’
Be sure you don’t reward the student for the outburst by giving too much attention like providing a special activity or rewards, that would only reinforce the behaviour.
Now is the time to talk about what happened but not why. Stick with what you saw and heard and focus on how the child calmed down … what was helpful?
Help them make-a-plan!
Finally look after yourself. This can be done by:
Writing a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up. This can be quite cathartic! Date and sign it.
Revisiting your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments.
No taking the event personally. These children have complex problems and you are not a therapist.
Look after yourself at home as well, you can exercise, do relaxation exercises, listen to music or whatever you find enjoyable.
At the core of our work is the idea that stress is the determining feature of behaviour. In previous essays we have explained that when our homeostatic equilibrium, our sense of calm and security is threatened we become stressed and then we act to deal with that stress; we choose our actions from the memories of what worked before. However, there are situations that are so threatening the stress overwhelms the usual process and we lose control of our behaviour.
The following diagram illustrates the changes in which we use our brain to deal with increasing levels of stress.
This complex diagram outlines the process of the brain ‘gating down’ the rational thought process as stress levels rise. When we are calm we can access the neo and sub cortex and we can make considered decisions, this is the part of the brain we want in our classrooms. But, as we become more aroused our decisions are more ‘emotional’ and their rationality deteriorates until we just respond in a reflexive manner.
There is a gender difference that develops as the stress levels rise, although this difference is not exclusive; males externalise their distress and while females internalise their disturbance. It would be easy to explain this difference citing the cultural environment in which children have traditionally been raised and I believe this is a contributing factor. However, an alternate explanation has been offered. In the early stages of human evolution, the time when humanoids organised into groups to increase their chances of survival and reproduction a primary threat to safety was a deadly clash with another tribe.
The result of such clashes was the killing of the adult males and the capture of females and children, this practise was still present in the war in Kosovo in 1998-99; at this time Serbia forces executed many Albanian men while seizing the woman and children. In these circumstances the best chance of survival for men is to fight or flee, outward actions while for woman and children it is to comply. Another characteristic that supports this reasoning is that, if you examine the suspension rates of children, an indicator of acting-out dysfunctional behaviour the rates that boys are suspended jumps dramatically when they pass into puberty, that is they adopt adult male behaviours.
To return to the theme of this essay, when you are confronting a child that is out of control you have to understand they are incapable of engaging in any rational thought so, it is pointless talking to them. However, they are very able to hurt themselves or others so you have to intervene.
Most importantly you have to have a pre-arranged plan of what to do when this situation inevitably arises. This plan’s foremost purpose is to protect the welfare and safety of all involved. This is why structure is so important – there is no doubt that you will be unable to remain calm in such a threatening situation that is, you will lose a significant capacity for rational thought yourself and so, having a structured set of steps you have to follow, that have been prepared in calm conditions will make sure you take the right steps.
The use of boundaries will help handle the crisis. Understand you will be threatened and make sure you keep your boundaries intact, this will help you stay in charge of the situations (see Boundary Considerations - 22nd October 2018 and Respecting Other’s Boundaries – 26th November 2018). You can effectively harness the power of boundaries by moving close enough to the child in question so you get their attention but not close enough to threaten them.
Now you have their attention don’t attempt to reason with them, there is no point but, in a firm, low voice, give them a short, clear instruction. When you have done this disengage from them don’t give them the opportunity to engage you. The thing is in most cases the child will accept a direction that gives them a way out of their predicament. At some level your authority will still have some influence.
This approach will not work in all cases, some children who have had a traumatic childhood will not be able to take advantage of your proposal. When facing an ongoing crisis, it is the teacher’s responsibility to:
Protect themselves – if something happens to them and they are unable to continue to function they are of no use.
Protect all other students and staff - it is often a good move to take all others out of the classroom or near vicinity for their safety and to remove the perceived threat the student might experience by their presence.
Protect the child as much as you can from being harmed, either physically or psychologically.
Protect the property.
In extreme cases the police may need to be called.
When the crisis is over you will experience an amount of pent-up emotions. It is natural to harbour aggressive, negative feelings towards the offending student and the unfairness of being placed in such a challenging situation. You may experience resentment, anger and fear because you have been psychologically and perhaps physically assaulted. This will pass; to facilitate your return to your equilibrium the following will help:
Be aware of your feelings
Don’t take it personally. The child has complex problems - it’s not about you
Debrief – Discuss the event with an appropriate colleague
Write a report stating who, when, where, what happened, injuries, follow-up ASAP. This can be quite cathartic! Date and sign it
Revisit your crisis plan with a support person and make any necessary adjustments
Look after yourself at home too - exercise, relaxation, music etc.
Dealing with children is not easy and it takes a special teacher who can turn-up day after day to work in such a volatile environment. It is important that you understand how to do this. Following News Letters will expand your knowledge in dealing with these explosive students.
The core quality that determines a secure sense of self is a personal acceptance within our community. This sense of self commences at birth and the first significant ‘community’ is his or her parents. When a child experiences nothing but affection and positive attention during these early years they will feel as if they are the centre of the universe and that’s how it should be. But at about age one, when they can move about they start to develop their independence. At the same time they start to move independently and being curious can get themselves into some dangerous situations. When this happens, they are told no for the first time! Often the message will be delivered in a sharp, attention grabbing outburst. There is nothing wrong with this action; the parents just want to keep their child safe but the child will be rejected for the first time!
The sudden attention-grabbing effect is necessary to stop the child, to get them to stop what they are doing - to ‘freeze’. In reality they do this and for the first time they experience ‘rejection’. Of course, the parents were doing the right thing, keeping their child safe but the child’s sense of rejection is real and all rejection is at the heart of shame.
The child will continue to explore the world and they will continue to make mistakes. The parents will continue to ‘stop’ them and show them the ‘right’ way to behave. These mistakes expose the child’s incompetence and they will be embarrassed by what they have done. This feeling of rejection of the inappropriate behaviour we call healthy shame. The point is that this rejection is of inappropriate behaviour; it is not the rejection of the person.
As an adult we should experience shame whenever we act in a way that is not true to our character and when we fail to do this we become embarrassed. Because the shame is about what we have done, that feeling is healthy. Healthy shame protects us both from the exclusion from our group and helps us understand the frailties of others.
Kids don’t get the difference between the action and the performer and so functioning parents have to make sure the mistaken behaviour is separated from the value of the child. Soon the child will understand that difference and grow up capable of experiencing healthy shame.
However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. When their child makes a mistake they are often physically punished and/or verbally abused for that mistake, it’s the child’s fault. And all too often the parents expect them to complete a task that is beyond their capabilities. At a sporting event you see kids being scorned because they did not win. When they inevitably fail they are subjected to abuse and rejection.
Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they do not come up to scratch the only conclusion is they are stupid, weak and useless just like dad said they were. This is the core of toxic shame, they have not made a mistake; they are the mistake.
Students with toxic shame take this debilitating belief into school. At any level learning consists of trial and error and so it is at school, there will be the inevitable errors. To healthy kids a mistake informs them that this is not the right way to solve a problem. For the child with toxic shame the mistake is confirmation that they are not the right person to be in the class. These students fear the inevitable negative evaluation about their work and the resulting stress suffered will make any real learning impossible. The inevitable failure reinforces their sense of shame, this toxic shame.
How you interact with the student, who suffers toxic shame will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
‘I can’t do this ……’?
‘Everyone else will laugh at my ……’?
‘I hate this ……’?
The destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that only reinforce their toxic opinion of themselves. These teachers use terms like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best work’?
‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:
‘How can we make this ….’?
‘What can we do to ……?
‘What will it look like if ……’?
Remember you are asking the children to try and that for them is very threatening but if you take a work in progress and use terms like those above you have not rejected their efforts and you have indicated to them that they can continue to improve. It takes a lot of small steps to complete any journey so be patient, they can overcome their most faulty of beliefs.
I used to say to students I worked with they are perfect. Of course, that got their attention but I explained that it is humans make mistakes. I’m human so I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – I’m perfectly imperfect, so are they and so are you.
Teachers have always had to deal with anxious children from the first day at kindergarten to the last day of their tertiary entry examination and the years in between. At a basic level anxiety is another expression of fear and the two are products of stress. No surprise here and in other Newsletters (particularly the 19th June 2017) this is discussed in detail. To recap stress in itself is not a bad thing, we need a level of stress to engage in the world but too much stress or distress will hinder performance especially in the classroom.
Anxiety is that lingering apprehension or almost chronic sense of worry about particular things or even life in general. Professionals would diagnose someone as having clinical, generalized anxiety if they displayed three or more of the following over a six-month period:
In general, anxiety is described in three ways:
Panic Attacks – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go. These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion. However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment. It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents.
Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time. They are children who will avoid what we may consider mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt a task.
The prevalence of anxiety at a clinical level is about 14.5% or one in seven Australians and in the majority of cases it starts in childhood. As with all things there is a coming together of genetics and environmental conditions that lead to anxiety but as always teachers can only impact on the environment in an attempt to limit the levels of anxiety in their classroom.
So, what to do? If you really have concerns about the level of anxiety of a student in your class then you must refer them to the school counsellor and/or tell the parents about your concerns. The latter is not as easy because this is news for whatever reason they don’t want to hear.
However, for the day to day running of the class, when you think a child is really anxious to the level you have concerns encourage them to talk about it. The following questions will assist both you and the child:
Tell me about how it feels being anxious?
What is making you anxious?
What do you fear will happen?
What does it stop you from doing?
A technique that can be effective is for the teacher to establish a procedure where they can give the child some space to calm down. This is a type of ‘time out’. In fact, you can empower the child to control his or her access to time out through some non-verbal cue. For example, the child could move an object on their desk that signals to the teacher that they are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety. The teacher would then ask that child to go and get something from say the principal or the office. Of course, the principal and the office would be aware of the purpose of the visit and provide that time out while the child remains in supervision. Just the provision of this retreat can be enough to alleviate the threat of anxiety and give the child a sense of control over their fears.
However, dealing with anxiety like all classroom activities is best served when the relationships between the teacher and the students along with the students’ relationships with each other are strong and positive. This, along with a calm and a really predictive environment will help minimize the impact anxiety will have in your classroom.
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.
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.