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Monday, June 26 2017

Teaching our most Difficult Kids

We have all had a student, or two, or more whose behaviour was so outrageous we questioned why were we teaching?  These kids are the most difficult to connect with and they don’t seem to want to learn and they destroy the learning of their classmates!  But we do carry on because once we get past the frustration we accept that they are that way because others made them that way.  And so they are worth that extra effort but where do we focus that ‘effort’? 

Having spent a good deal of my career teaching in schools specifically set up for these type of children a question that has occupied me is ‘what right do I have to modifying their behaviour’ and when I have resolved this question a second challenge is how do I want them to behave?  I am happy to accept the need for change - for their sake and that of their classmates but the change is in their very sense of self and where does it say this is my job and where are the tools to teach for that change?

I’m a teacher not the child’s parent and I’m not a professional health care worker.  I’m more than happy to step aside and let the parents deal with the behaviours and even more willing to defer to the child psychiatrist or psychologist.  But in those classrooms and in those special settings there is no effective psychological or psychiatric support and the reality is that the parents are so often the creators of the disability and/or are no longer available or willing to help.  So I am left in class to either wipe my hands of the problem or do something to help the student and protect the classroom.

We are ‘teachers’ and we have a calling that brings us to the classroom.  If we thought it was just a job and we were contracted to do our work it would be easy more so now than at any time I can recall.  All we would have to do is teach for the NAPLAN Test!  Fortunately, we teach the whole child and teach them the full set of skills that allow them to successfully function in society. 

To understand what skills I need to teach these children I have distilled the goals I have for all my students into being the best they can be and support others while they are doing the same. 

The question is how do I define a person’s best?  To answer this I turned to the philosophers who have long asked the same question.

In a western tradition any philosophical question will invariably lead us back to the big three, Socrates, Plato and the holy-ghost, Aristotle.  When it came to the question what is it to be an optimal human, Aristotle integrated his colleagues’ work into the study of eudaimonia - a life of excellence, living with ethical wisdom and virtue.  He made the case to achieve a happy life by studying philosophy and having an involvement in the community through political activity. 

In more contemporary times the leaders in this field include Carl Rogers, who describes the characteristics of a fully functional person, Abraham Maslow whose famous pyramid of needs culminates in the self-actualized person and Erich Fromm’s work on personal growth through ‘being’ instead of doing; all these philosophers plus many others have addressed the question I ask of myself. 

Positive Psychology rose from attempts to aggregate and rationalize the factors all these studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction.  Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual.  The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities.  I saw this aggregation as an opportunity to get some clarification about what characteristics would be suitable to develop in these students. 

The American Psychologist Ken Sheldon carried out further analysis on what makes the ‘optimal’ human by examining our evolutionary journey, our personalities and traits, the construction of our identity, social relations and cultural membership.  His categorization, like all works in Positive Psychology has a heavy focus on the future and is particularly focused on goal setting.  They are as follows:

  1. Strive to Balance Basic Needs – This includes autonomy, competence, relatedness, security and self-esteem
  2. Set and Make Efficient Progress Towards Self-Concordant Goals – These goals are those that have an intrinsic quality and support the person’s self-concept reflecting Winnicott’s idea of ‘true self’
  3. Choose Your Goals and Social Roles Wisely - Goals that are driven by or rely on external factors such as fame, popularity or wealth do nothing to contribute to a person’s positive identity.  The goals must advance personal growth and positive relationships at both the intimate and community level
  4. Strive Towards Personal Integration – The goals must be compatible with each other and support our basic needs.  They must also combine with our fundamental personality
  5. Work Towards Modifying Problematic Aspects of Yourself and the World – Have the ability to identify your weaknesses and problems within the world and include these in your goals.  Build on your character strengths and learn to self-evaluate your strategies for change.
  6. Take Responsibility for Goals and Choices – Take an intentional attitude towards life.  Align your desired sense of self with your goals and refer to this affiliation when making important decisions about your future.
  7. Listen to Your Organismic Valuing Process (OVP) and be Prepared to Change if Necessary – The OVP comes from the work of Carl Rogers where the goals are selected based on our sense of self.  We are to take an internalized attitude towards life.  If we do this we increase our trust in our ability to know what is good for us and abandon those that work against our true self.
  8. Transcend Yourself – The more we forget about our selves and give our energy to a valued cause or another person the more human, self actualized we become.

This examination probably hasn’t helped, it has been a hard journey but I have some conclusions I would share. 

The purpose of your teaching is really to empower your students to value their worth in society, take control of their future and become a real part of their community.  This is not in any curriculum or text and there is only one way to teach character and that is through the organization of your classroom and you model the traits you wish to see in your students.  That’s why real teaching is hard and why teachers matter!

Posted by: AT 11:12 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 19 2017

The Intricacy of Stress 

Back in 1967, when I was just thinking about becoming a teacher a best seller by Peter Hanson swept the world.  This book, ‘The Joy of Stress’ made a case against the emerging understanding of the dangers of stress.  Early work into trauma described the response high levels of stress had on the body’s physiology in response to a physical threat.   Further work on the systems of the brain revealed the same response: the initiation of a whole range of chemical reactions, an endogenous, stress response of neuro-hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, the list goes on, can be triggered by our mind.  The expert advice was to avoid stress; Hanson’s book told us to embrace it.  So who is right?  Well both are.

Much of the work our Consultancy Group is involved with is intimately tied to the impact of stress on students and teachers.  As teachers we understand we need to engage our students but in schools there is often too much pressure: student behaviour, Department demands, irate parents.  It is obvious we need stress but not too much!

In the most general, clinical terms stress is the state of our emotional anxiety that is the result of threat to our survival.  When everything is going well and there is no anxiety we are in a position called homeostatic equilibrium.  We have a sort of point, or more realistically a series of optimal security positions for our body and our mind.  Things like blood pressure, temperature, secure relationships, etc. all have a position that is optimal for safety and security.  When we are under threat we move into a state of disequilibrium and that chemical reaction described above washes across the brain and activates a series of physiological changes.

There are three critical parts of the brain that best illustrate how this happens.  These are the hippocampus - critical to memory formations, the frontal lobes – where the brain collects, integrates and makes decision, the executive ‘controlling’ area of our behaviour and the amygdala the seat of feelings and arbitrator of threat.  All are required for learning and all ‘powered’ by stress.  There is a complexity in the effect this reaction will have on these three parts.

Too much stress will create an over reaction in the amygdala reinforcing the level of fear that will remain with the child, they become more easily frightened, more ‘efficient’ at recognizing threatening situations.  To compound this deterioration in resilience the child learns to be less able to identify when they feel safe.

The plasticity of the frontal lobes and the hippocampus is the ability to create new pathways, to learn.  The increase in the levels of chemicals particularly cortisol hamper this development significantly reducing the brain’s ability to make memories and access the frontal lobes so future planning can take place.

So in a sense the amygdala becomes more able to detect a good survival outcome but the cost is the changes in the more cognitive parts of the mind.

So how do we manage stress in the classroom?  Obviously, with stress levels we are referring to student engagement.  When I looked this term up in the Glossary of Education Reform, I found that “student engagement” refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education’.  What an example of ‘educational speak’, a committee based statement that covers every possible measure.  But, within this wordy platitude is a crucial fact – it is stress that - ‘extends the level of motivation’ however the question is how much stress?

Sports coaches have long understood the importance of arousal in getting their athletes to perform at their optimal ability.  The ‘Inverted U’ graph below illustrates the point in regards to outgoing performance, no arousal no performance – over arousal no performance but the right amount of arousal we get optimal performance.  This model holds for learning but because the level of stress for learning has to be the ‘goldilocks level’ not to hot - not too cold – just right.

If the level of engagement is too low there will be very little neural stimulation and so very little neuronal excitation. The hippocampus and frontal lobes will suffer a loss in their plasticity and if continuous will have a reduction in size.  The contemporaneous lesson will not be learned and the potential for future learning will be reduced. If the stress levels are too high the amygdala will be highly agitated not supporting the hippocampus or frontal lobes and it will become more sensitive to future experiences, easier to trigger the stress response.

There is a further complication and that is the ‘Inverted U’ curve is individualized, that is in a class of thirty there will be thirty different levels of arousal for the teacher’s attempts to engage the class.  What is an optimal level for one student will fail to arouse one student yet overwhelm another.  The art for the teacher is to individualise this ‘level of arousal’.

Good teachers are mobile in the classroom they get about and this is the time to personalise engagement.  To support each kid’s engagement you need to get to know all you can about the student’s personality and environment.  Taking a real interest in the student not only builds that crucial relationship it provides you with information that allows you to create the right amount of challenge for each student.

As I said earlier, our Group is very involved in dealing with stress particularly those students who have a history of child abuse and resultant trauma.  Acquiring the skill of applying just the right amount of challenge will allow you to bring out the best in all your students.

Posted by: AT 12:28 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 12 2017

Self-Esteem or Self-love

Since the early sixties, the time of ‘flower-power’ and the ‘love generation’ phrases like ‘developing self-esteem’ have been in the forefront of education discussions.  It was the time when we put away the rod and, while not spoiling the child we understood the benefits of a child having a healthy sense of themselves.  During my early years of teaching we were conscious of building each child’s self-esteem.  This goal is still prevalent although different phrases come into and out of fashion.  Now the most important trait we should develop is resilience.  I would argue that whatever the current phrase is at the heart of all this is the importance of nurturing self-esteem or resilience in our children.  However, I would like to place my version of this need to enhance the lives of our children by describing what I call self-love.

Scott Peck, a well-know psychiatrist from the United States relates some research undertaken when he was working with the US Defense Forces.  The military hierarchy wanted to understand why some recruits quickly advanced through the ranks to become officers well before their expected time so that they could improve their training.  And so they selected the top twenty officers and subjected them to a battery of tests.

One of the tests required these young recruits to list the four most important things in their life.  Remarkably they all agreed on the single most important thing in their life and that was their-self.  Items two, three and four varied usually citing career, family, children etc. but they all placed them-selves as the most important.

Years later Peck found himself working in the prison system with the most hardened of criminals.  He had the opportunity to run the same test with these inmates.  Unlike the successful population, there was no clear pattern of what they thought was important to them but the one thing that most identifies within the first four was their self-image.  The prisoners were conscious of the importance of what others thought of them, what their reputation was like.

The difference is stark.  It seems that successful people are driven by internal motives, what is good for them while unsuccessful ones are concerned by external factors like what will people think about them.  This difference explains their behaviour.  Ineffective people seek their happiness from external sources; a new car, a big house, people who love them and if they can’t get these things legitimately they take them in the belief they will be happy.  A quick analysis of any crime will conclude that the perpetrator took something or someone against the other’s will for their own benefit.

Before I make the case for encouraging teachers to foster self-love in their students I will clarify one thing.  Self-love is not about self-obsession the driving force of narcissism.  In a previous Newsletter I discussed the modern phenomena of over-indulged children and you often hear others making comments like ‘he/she loves his or her-self’.  This is not what I describe as self-love.  Self-love is the virtue of compassion, kindness and affection towards one’s self.

I advocate for the necessity to ‘teach’ the property of self-love to our students.  But this cannot be done through ‘direct-instruction’; formal lessons will have limited impact on a child’s sense of self but we can provide the conditions where self-love can emerge from the conditions in our classrooms.  This is achieved by the school and all the staff modeling the following values and while supporting practices that will lead to the students developing these standards.  The school should also abstain from the practices that undermine self-love.

So to the values we should live by:

1. Live Consciously

At the core of self-love is the acceptance of your-self.We have to acknowledge differences to others we have both externally, in our physical world and understand our internal feelings and beliefs are ours.It is our right to keep these to ourselves or share them.This belief includes the acceptance of our values and our right to defend these or modify them if we choose.

Most importantly we consider our-self to be equal to others in our right for dignity and respect.We do not consider that right to worthiness to be better than or worse than any others, we are all worthy.However, we do accept that others may have more talent or prestige in some areas that we will acknowledge without jealousy.

2. Responsibility

We live in a community that lives by certain social rules and we understand we accept this.We will not profit at the expense of others and claim no special rights or privileges.If we disagree with others we will address the issue with dignity and with compassion towards others however we will not be exploited.We have the right to be received with respect as well as the responsibility to practice that respect to others.We can resist manipulation and collaborate only when it is appropriate and desirable.

We don’t fret agonize over past event nor are we overly concerned about possible future happening.We focus on what is our task now and complete that with a view for future rewards.That is we have the capacity to delay gratification.

3. Self-Efficacy

Finally we have self-respect, confident in the way we live our lives.We know we are worthy of love and friendship and we can expect to achieve success and happiness in our lives.

We know we can learn new skills and make appropriate choices and we are assured in our judgment and confident in our capacity to solve problems.


Some schools equate making their students feel good with building their self-esteem.  It is obvious that providing the conditions that develop self-love are far from ‘making the kids feel happy’, these qualities are tough to live by and hard to maintain and just maybe self-love comes from us providing tough-love for all our kids.

Posted by: AT 12:01 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Sunday, June 04 2017

ADHD is Real but What Does this Mean for Teachers?                          

Over the years teachers have been suspicious of the diagnosis Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  It seemed that every child who presented with behavioural problems came with, or soon obtained that special diagnosis.  I believe a reason for this is that some parents use the diagnosis as a justification for their child’s misbehaviour and a reason to abdicate their permission for schools to deliver consequences.

The diagnosis requires the display of a range of behaviours that could be categorized as having problems of paying attention or difficulty in controlling behaviour.  Studies of the brain structure of those with ADHD also show a reduction in the neural density of the left side of their frontal lobe and a reduced number of neurons in the posterior parietal cortex.

The behaviours displayed are exactly the same as those for children who have suffered early childhood abuse and/or neglect (PTSD) and the abnormal brain structures are also present in children who suffer from PTSD.

Another commonality is that the presence of both disabilities is much more common in boys than in girls.

The use of medication varies between the two with stimulants such as Ritalin seeming to be the most prescribed for ADHD.  The object is that the stimulant will support the frontal lobe increasing the child’s ability to focus.  In the case of PTSD there is some use of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRI’s for adults and some trials being undertaken for children.  This has the goal of calming the child, making them less hyper-vigilant or dissociative.

The bottom line is that both do exist and even if ADHD is over diagnosed and PTSD is under diagnosed this is irrelevant for teachers.  Teachers deal with the behaviours presented in the class.  What is effective for ADHD is effective for PTSD, is effective for a whole range of ‘disorders’ including ‘puberty’ because the teacher’s approach is to provide the environment in which these students operate.

The environment is the classroom and as you know or will come to understand, my view of what makes a ‘quality’-learning environment is much more than the criteria set out in the National Standards. 

Of course the pedagogy and the presentation of content is vital and should be at the forefront of preparation but for these disadvantaged kids the social and psychological elements in the classroom must be in place before they will get to any lesson content.  These are:

  1. Relationships – Just how they are accepted, how they feel they ‘fit in’ is vital and because their behaviours are frustrating and sometimes repulsive it takes a special teacher to provide that sense of belonging.
  2. Expectations – Any insecurity about what might happen will quickly distract these children.  Those with ADHD will soon look for something to occupy their attention, those with PTSD will begin to focus on perceived threats or escape routes just in case they are attacked.

Structure – Structure is much like expectations but expectations is about what may happen in the future Structure is about knowing what will happen when you have done something.  These students feel disempowered, they don’t have a sense of control over their life but if we provide this connection between what they do and what happens to them, they will slowly gain the sense that they do have some control, they become empowered.

The real reward for teachers that provide an environment that supports these dysfunctional students is that the approach that works for them is the gold standard for all students.

Posted by: AT 10:58 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Saturday, June 03 2017

Routine – Support for Student Expectations

30 May 2017

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!

Posted by: AT 10:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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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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