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Tuesday, September 26 2017

Characteristics of the Abused Child

When we think about children who come from abusive families we generally think about those kids with severe behaviours.  These kids are easy to recognize, their behaviour is ‘out of control’, they don’t seem to be able to take charge of their behaviour and are difficult to manage in class.

Teachers who have worked with these kids understand that behind the overt image of being just bad or rebellious is a child who feels extremely vulnerable and dependent on others to ‘look after’ him/her.  It’s just that they don’t know how to protect themselves.  Although they are difficult they are the easiest to identify and attract or more accurately demand the bulk of resources.

There are two more groups of children who are the victims of abuse but do not present as the ‘classic’ abuse victim.  The first of these are a set of kids whose perpetrator has been consistent in the way they abuse their victims.  These children will often present as very much in control and not reliant on anyone else.  They can be seen as a bit arrogant, that they feel better than others and present as being ‘perfect’.

The difference in the groups is that in the first instance the child has lived in an unpredictable environment, usually associated with parents who either suffer from a major addiction or debilitating mental illness. This means the consequences for their behaviour is never predictable.  If, for instance they get into a fight with a neighborhood friend they may receive a thrashing from the parent.  Another time they will be congratulated for ‘standing up for themselves’.  Another time they will be sent to their room.  The point is they never know what they will get from an action they choose.  Hence, their belief systems dictates their behaviour, not good enough, no control, bad and useless.

The second group suffer but in the totally opposite way.  They always know what will happen and so they do learn a set of behaviours that protect them.  They know if dad comes home drunk and they make a noise they will be punished, not sometimes but always.  It doesn’t take long for these kids to know what to do to survive.  This level of self-control carries over into the classroom and like at home they do not draw attention to themselves.

This is not to say the abuse they suffer is not as damaging, all abuse is damaging and will have the same devastating impact on their sense of self.  Because they have to be ‘good or perfect’ they have to be independent they can never take the risk to step out of their cocoon of safety.  They know how to please others but have no idea how to please themselves.

Because of this they can go through school pleasing the teachers, their classmates and these kids never draw attention to themselves.  Unlike the ‘classic’ child of abuse whose problems are there for all to see this second group will have their breakdowns much later in life when they realize they have been locked into a pattern of behaviour that has robbed them of their life.

The last group of abused kids who fly under the radar are the girls.  I believe that more girls are abused than boys yet in all formal settings for students with severe behaviours the boys far outnumber the girls.  Look at suspension rates, look at special placements, look at the detention facilities.  The male representation is overwhelming.

So why, if abuse is at the core of poor behaviour do girls not at least equal the boys in representation?   The short answer is that males act out; the boy will aggressively either destroy the classroom environment with their ‘out of control’ behaviour or actively seek approval or the opportunity to ‘please’.  The girls don’t.

The easy answer is that culturally girls have been conditioned to swallow their pain, to do as they are told.  This is true but there is a more evolutionary reason.  In ‘primitive times’ after humans had generally got control of the other animals the main threat to the tribe was anther tribe.  When conflict broke out between the tribes, the males did the fighting and they killed as many of the men as they could and took the women and children as trophies.  So to survive, for men it was to fight or flee while woman and children had the best chance of survival if they complied.

So at school we see the majority of girls who have a history of abuse just sitting in class ‘doing as they’re told’ with no idea they could participate in the lesson let alone life.

When we hear about dealing with kids from abused backgrounds we are only focusing on to the first, ‘acting out group’; those other kids who do not draw attention to themselves also miss out on their chance because they don’t ask for help.

Just because these kids do not make us uncomfortable or demand our attention through their dysfunctional behaviour doesn’t mean their lives have not been destroyed by the actions of their perpetrators, they have.  It is up to us to provide assistance for these kids and until we do we are only partially addressing the results of childhood abuse. 

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Monday, September 18 2017

Vacuous Shame

In a recent Newsletter (3rd July 2017) I addressed the issue of toxic shame.  I pointed out a sense of shame is underpinned by the pain that is associated with social rejection.  In healthy individuals rejection is always linked to their behaviour.  That is when they act in a way that goes against their ethical status they will feel they have betrayed themselves but any repercussions from their community is linked to their behaviour not their sense of themselves.  Hence this ‘rejection’ is referred to as healthy shame, shame about what we did.

To summarize the previous work, toxic shame is the belief that children and adults have about their sense of self and how that impacts on their lives.  They don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.  When they do something wrong its because they are wrong.  This is in opposition to healthy shame where you are ashamed of the mistake but retain your positive sense of self.

I have always felt this model failed to describe a final type of shame or in fact the lack of any sense of shame.  This sense of or lack of shame is closely associated with the over-indulged and narcissistic child I discussed in a previous newsletter (23rd May 2017).  However, I believe there is a slight difference in this lack of shame, which I have called vacuous shame and narcissism.  In the latter case the child has a feeling of entitlement or superiority over others in their community while vacuous shame is a case where the child has not been taught to socially share with others.

Another quality of vacuous shame is that it is not a sense experienced by the person in regards to their behaviour but it is others who project shame onto their behaviour.  The impact of the inappropriate behaviour that is experienced by others is closely tied to manners.

‘Manners’ is behaving in a way we expect is appropriate for a given social situation and this expectation is governed by social norms.  For example if we are going into a room and I get to the door first I expect that I will hold the door open for you.  However, if I just opened the door and walked straight in and worse let it slam in your face I would predict you to consider my behaviour the height of bad manners and that I was quite shameless.  How we go through a door has a cultural expectancy and when we fail to abide by that we offend our culture.

I have chosen the term vacuous adopting the definition of that word as showing lack of thought or content because people have to know the expectations of our culture before they really can be considered offensive.  I believe in today’s world children are taught a different set of norms and expectations than has been the case for their parents.  In modern, western society we have adopted a model for our community that is based on competition.  We see this in the work place, in schools and particularly in our popular media. 

The way to succeed is to win, to get there first.  To not win makes you feel like a failure or a point of ridicule.  Look at the type of humour that drives the modern ‘sit coms’ on TV.  The classic scenario is that the child is smarter than the mother, the mother is smarter than the father and the dog is smarter than everyone.  We are expected to laugh at the mistakes made by the very people who should be teaching us manners.

Before the ‘60’s manners were taught in schools as were their close partner proverbs.  The proverbs gave reason for social behaviour and underpinned the behaviour that enriched life for everyone, good manners.  Proverbs were even used in IQ tests.  Undoubtedly, the principal proverb, one that supports all successful societies and religions is ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – the golden rule. 

This is in opposition to the maxim for the competitive world ‘do unto others before they do it to you’.  Manners, and proverbs are of little value to the competitive world in themselves but they are so important in social cohesion, a quality that is lacking in our modern society.

So let’s finish with that term vacuous shame.  When I see a young person push in on an elderly citizen I see that as being shameful but does that young person understand the impact of their behaviour?  They can’t know this; they can’t experience shame unless they have been taught it.  And it is obvious for too many of our students the lessons of manners is not being taught in the home, in the media nor other social institutions so the real shame of their behaviour must lie with those who have failed to teach them. 

‘Manners’ is no part of modern school curriculum, after all we are competitive but unless we do teach manners we are the ones who should feel the shame.

Finally two quotes that should be considered:

Quote 1:         

‘Children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in the place of exercise.  Children are now tyrants, not servants of their households.  They no longer rise when elders enter the room.  They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up the dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannize their teachers’.                  Socrates

 Quote 2:      

 ‘I am not a cranky old man’             Frew

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Tuesday, September 12 2017

The Impact of Neglect

Neglect, if not an overt kind of abuse, is a close cousin, it’s a passive form of abuse.  Neglect is the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs.  As pointed out in other essays, the child builds a neural scaffold in response to the impact stimulus.  It is how that 'stimulus' effects the child's homeostatic status.   For example, when a stimulus enters the brain, through the receptor (say the eye) and is then via the thalamus distributed across the brain it will be assessed according to how that event impacts on their safety and comfort.

The human infant is born with the least instinctive neurological scaffold, and so the vast majority of neural pathways are constructed to suit the environment that the child finds itself.  

The thing is the development of any pathway relies on the presence of a stimulus.  That is, no stimulus no pathway.   Therefore, we can consider neglect as being the lack of stimulation that is required to meet the child’s physical, social and intellectual needs. 

A dramatic example of just how important the stimulus is when a child is born with cataracts on their eyes it is in a sense blind to any visual stimulus.  If the cataracts are not removed before about eight months, the child will never be able to see properly despite having the potential for full development of that property.  They need the stimulus at that time of their life to develop that neurological ability.

The thing is the brain has periods where development is expected.  These are genetic windows for the production of competencies like sight, attachment, movement, etc.   If there is no stimulus to activate the neurons to create the pathways not only will the opportunity be lost but the very neurons that are present to form the paths will be ‘pruned,' that is removed from the neurological material to make the brain more efficient.  There is no way yet known to replace them. 

Forms of neglect are:

  • Physical – failure to provide for physical needs such as food.
  • Medical – not providing medical care when the child is sick or needs dental work.
  • Emotional – lack of nurture, encouragement, love and support.
  • Educational – lack of providing educational resources and ensuring regular participation in schooling.
  • Abandonment – leaving the child alone for long periods of time without any support.

The most infamous example of the impact of neglect has on the development of the brain, and subsequent behaviours comes from the children in Romanian orphanages who were found after the fall of the Communist government in 1989.  These children had reduced volume in their hippocampus, frontal lobes and cerebellums. The illustration below is perhaps the most famous picture of the real impact of neglect.  It represents a cross section of the brain of a Romanian orphan, on the right and that of a 'normal' child of the same age.

When you are working with students who have suffered from such neglect, and there are too many for us not to believe they are in every school, particularly in schools that serve low socioeconomic areas you will be required to have the patience with these kids who ‘just don't get it.'  They don't straight away but persevere with kindness and one day they just might ‘get it' and that will be because you understood and cared.

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Monday, September 04 2017

Dealing with Difficult Students

Kids will muck-up, it’s what they do.  Children are works in progress and the part of their brain that is most required to modulate their behaviour is not fully developed until the mid twenties and it will come as no surprise boys mature later than girls (I will ignore the inevitable smart comments LADIES!).  So dealing with misbehaviour is at the core of our professional practices.  This Newsletter gives you some clues on how to deal with these ‘difficult kids’.

When you find yourself in a confrontation it is important to maintain your integrity.  This is where the structure you create in the classroom is vital.  If the child is violating the expectation of behaviour your actions are seen as imposing that expectation not your expectation.  The difference is subtle but essential in the maintenance of a good relationship.

You need to develop strong personal boundaries.  This self-control will allow you to present your case in an assertive but non-threatening manner:

  • Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
  • Maintain a steady, positive gaze
  • Speak clearly
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact
  • Stand up straight
  • Address the behaviour without threatening the individual
  • Never apologise for not getting emotionally involved with them
  • Remain silent after you deliver your message
    • Allow them time to digest the message
    • Give them time to make a decision.

When you have done this it is important that you reassure their acceptance as a member of the class.  Remember it is the behaviour we don’t want, not the child.  Address the student is the following manner:

  • Be concerned about them “I know your really angry now.  You need time to settle down”
  • Go on with another activity without antagonising them
  • Get them to explain the purpose of their inappropriate behaviour
  • Let them know that you understand why they are behaving that way
  • When they are acting appropriately really listen to them
  • Give them a choice of actions but not the choice of consequences that accompany each action

There will be times when you will be required to be critical of the students.  The delivery of criticism is never easy but when it is necessary criticise the behaviour not the person.  Take the following steps:

  • Be specific
  • Acknowledge the positives
  • Empathise
  • Keep calm
  • Keep to the point
  • Focus on the behaviour
  • Don’t stereo-type or use labels

Finally, procrastination is death when it comes to classroom management.  There is a reason you always hear in regards to discipline – be consistent and persistent – this provides the environment where we can all get on with our learning.


Note:  I have attached another essay that examines the problems schools encounter when they have to deal with students with extremely dysfunctional behaviours.

Posted by: AT 11:48 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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