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Monday, June 25 2018

Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking

A relationship between a teacher and their student is generally accepted as being the critical factor in the successful engagement of the child in learning.  Just how these relationships evolve will give teachers a clue to developing and maintaining this most important dynamic in the classroom.

How or the type of relationship reflects the environment in which the child is raised.  Remember it is the environment that builds or changes the neurologic structure of the brain.  If the first experiences are good then there is a flow on effect that allows future bonds to be easily made.  Of course the converse is true and the severe dysfunctional kids we are focusing on will have a reduced ability to form healthy relationships.

The emergence of a relationship for a child occurs from the very first interaction with their caregiver usually their mum.  Evidence that they are seeking a connection comes almost at birth evidenced by, from the very beginning mothers and others can get a baby to smile and ‘giggle’ by their attention.  In fact from a very early age, if you poke your tongue out at an infant they are very likely to return the gesture.  Now the tongue is a complex muscle and not easily controlled however this reflected behaviour is attributed to our mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons were first observed at the University of Parma in Italy where a team of researchers, Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi were trying to map the neurological pathways of a chimp performing a motor action.  The experiment was in a break but the chimp was still wired to the recording device.  One of the experimenters picked up a piece fruit and the part of the chimp’s brain associated with movement lit up despite the monkey remaining still.  Subsequent work has shown these mirror neurons exist in humans as well.

The crucial thing about these neurons is they send messages without any cognitive assistance; that is they convey massages without words.  These are the non-verbal communications that supply the emotional content of the relationship.  They help us understand the others’ emotions and they also communicate intentions.  In one famous experiment the subjects were faced with a dinner table.  In one sequence the subjects were exposed to a table that is ready for dinner to start.  In the second condition the table looked as if it was ready to be cleaned up.  Although the items were identical different parts of the brain were in use.  This indicated that the subjects had anticipated what comes next.

One of the findings around these studies is that children who suffer Autism or Asperger’s have fewer mirror neurons than the average child.  This may account for these children’s struggle to accurately read the feelings or intentions of others.  Of course this is only a small part of this very complex disease but may go some way to explaining their difficulty in successfully integrating in a big classroom.  

As far as the emotional message is concerned the exchange from one person to others is contagious.  Everyone knows if one person yawns it is very likely his or her companions will join in.  The same with laughter or sadness they are infectious.  Emotions such as Guilt, shame disgust, pride, etc. are all communicated through this system of mirror neurons  

It is important for teachers to remember the students get 93% of the emotional content of any message through your facial expression, tone of voice and posture.  These messages will be automatic and unconscious because they are communicated through the mirror neurons.

Because of this the authenticity of insincere messages are very hard to fake.  Paul Ekman the famous psychologist from the University of California studied facial expressions and concluded that there are 90 different facial muscles that can produce 10,000 different facial expressions.  These give us information about our intentions.  They fill in the gap between what we say and what we mean.

As pointed out earlier students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships.  The style of relationship formed reflects the environment it is experienced in and if they haven’t been exposed to nurturing relationships they will find accepting positive relationships difficult later in life.  These students:

  • Minimise or misinterpret positive stimuli
  • Are hypersensitivity to negative social cues
  • Find it extremely difficult to understand or read non-verbal cues
  • Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus.

These students are at a disadvantage, they think everyone is against them and they even suspect or misconstrue the intentions of the most positive teacher.  But this is just another example of the chance we have to have a positive impact on the behaviours of these most needy kids. 

We have to remember that the brain is a work in progress and they can change.  However, to make that change in these most difficult/damaged students will take a great deal of effort.  But they can be taught how to create relationships.  This involves the teaching of social and emotional skills to change the structure of the brain and constant repetition strengthens these changes.  This is part of the interventions to assist the children suffering Autism or Asperger’s.

We have to remember these children are not their traits; they are not locked into a genetic destiny.  They have the ability to change and you can effect this change through your treatment of these most needy children.

Posted by: AT 01:40 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 18 2018

Different Expressions from an Abused History

In these Newsletters we have asserted that the majority of dysfunctional behaviours kids display in schools have their origins in early childhood abuse and/or neglect.  The following describes ways children, particularly but not exclusively boys have learned to respond differently when exposed to threat. I say boys because they are more likely to externalize their behaviour.  Another strong response to abuse is to dissociate and eventually withdraw form any meaningful involvement in life and this has a particular gender bias.  Girls are more likely to internalise and ‘dissociate’ in response to abuse.  Dissociation will be discussed in a later Newsletter.

Abuse comes in various forms but it helps to discuss the nature of abuse on a continuum from a highly anticipated manner to a totally unpredictable kind.  For example, let’s say a father always treats their children the same cruel way and so the children learn to expect what will happen given a certain set of circumstances.  At the other end of the scale is a father who is erratic and completely unpredictable in the way he responds to that same set of circumstances.  This latter style of behaviour is a common state for addicts or the seriously mentally ill and so their children have no idea what to expect, they can’t predict and subsequently fail to learn how to behave.

Therefore the hypothesis is that the developed sense of self and the resulting boundary issues reflects the environment in which it is formed.  Fundamentally, boundaries are what healthy people use to protect their core sense of self from external influence.  In this essay we will contrast those children who have no opportunity to develop functional boundaries with those who are raised in an abusive but predictable environment.  The children will either have no protection; an exposed core to the influence of others or build walls of protection and no one gets in!  Either experience results in dysfunctional behaviour and teachers should be conscious of this difference when dealing with them.

The illustration below describes these differences in terms that reflect the characteristics of children’s personality.  These traits are just to facilitate the conversation.  Of course human habits vary from individual to individual and so these personality features exist on a continuum but it is easier to discuss the extremes.

The model refers to the child’s core, their sense of security within the external environment.  At the left we describe a child with an exposed core.  These are the children raised in a chaotic environment.  They are subjected to arbitrary consequences for specific behaviours.  For example, say a boy gets into a fight and the father finds out.  On one occasion he is praised for standing up for himself, ‘a chip off the old block’ but if he gets into another fight he might be severely punished even getting hit so he ‘knows how the other kid feels’ or maybe taken to the other child’s home where the father could make him apologise or want to fight the other kid’s father.  This boy will have no way of predicting what will happen if he gets into a fight.  Therefore, he will have no sense of control.

At the other end, the walled core, are the children who have been treated in an abusive manner but always in the same way. In the example this father might praise the son for ‘being a man’, ‘standing up for himself’ or being told about all the success and prestige the father got from ‘winning’ all his fights.  The kid knows how to behave to get his father’s approval or avoid his wrath.  ‘Encouraging’ the boy to fight is abusive and will impair his ability to form healthy relationships outside the home.  The son develops a ‘sense of control’ but only in the family.

The kids with exposed cores are easy to identify at school.  They will cause the most trouble in class and destroy your lessons.  However, the kids who have built walls of behaviour to survive in their home build a sense of not being vulnerable.  They feel they are in control, good or perfect but this belief is false.  The thing is they only feel comfortable when they think they are living up to these unrealistic descriptions.  To maintain this illusion they cannot consider any other possibility.  These kids are harder to recognize and are not an obvious problem unless someone threatens their self-belief.  When this happens they will put up this illusionary wall and refuse to change.

We need these kids to take control of their lives but on the walled end of our model interpret control as being on everything.  Obviously, those out of control kids have no idea there is any chance of control of anything.  The truth is we can, at best control our behaviour and appreciate we can’t make anyone else do what we want them to do.  Understanding this is perhaps the most liberating bit of information a teacher can get.  All you can do is provide the environment that is most likely to present the conditions that suit the other person and then they choose the action you want.

So what to do for these abused children.  The message is the same as always.  Provide the structured, consistent environment so the ‘out of control’ kids can build a sense of predictability and those kids behind the walls are shown there is an alternate set of outcomes for their behaviour and that they can begin to trust an alternate way of behaving that might allow them to better function in the school community.

And of course you must maintain respectful relationships with these students.  Remember their behaviours have been ‘put on them’ by dysfunctional adults and while they are behaving the way they do they are doing the best they can.  It will take your best effort to make a difference for these kids but that’s why you're a teacher.

Posted by: AT 12:44 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 11 2018


A successful trait that has evolved in our species is that we have learned to take the advantage of living in groups.  It is ‘the group’ that provides us with an advantage in survival through things like shared meals and shelter and has presented us a range of potential partners so we can reproduce.  The development of our sense of belonging comes through the process of attachment.

Attachment is a process that begins at birth and evolves from the formation of intimate relationships with our primary carer, usually mum and on through to our attempts to join in with our peers from preschool through our schooling years.  It is well understood that healthy attachment is essential for physical and social wellbeing.

However, it is when our attempts to attach with others are declined, our wellbeing is threatened.  In recent years since the advent of brain imaging techniques it has been shown that rejection activates the same brain regions as a physical injury.  It is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that becomes active when people are experiencing physical pain and the same area is initiated when we experience social pain.  Research into this process has shown that the use of pain relief medication can assist people to deal with social rejection just as it does with physical pain relief.

It follows that rejection experienced by our students has an adverse impact on their psychological wellbeing.  Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania State University has shown that children who are rejected display one or more of the following behaviour patterns:

  • Low rates of pro-social behavior, e.g. taking turns, sharing
  • High rates of aggressive or disruptive behavior
  • High rates of inattentive, immature, or impulsive behavior
  • High rates of social anxiety

These rejected children suffer internalizing problems that lead to depression and social anxiety and of course these psychological impediments will have a negative effect on their learning.  Their obvious social clumsiness leads them to be the target of teasing and bullying which exacerbates their isolation.

The leader of this victimization from the social group that produces the rejection is usually that member with the most ‘social power’.  These are often those with the most confidence, physical prowess or social status.   The archetypical, main bully, in the popular media is the star footballer or for the girls the ‘queen bee’.  They are so threatening there is obvious pressure on the others in the group to ‘go along with the bullying’ because if they refuse they risk being ostracized as well.

Some children with long-term rejection will eventually deal with their pain by acting out, externalizing their problems.  This lashing out can be directed at them selves with the tragic extreme of suicide or in a few but significant cases it can be outward displays of violence towards others.

In an analysis of 15 school shootings in the United States between 1995 and 2001 found that peer rejection was present in all but two of the cases that is in almost 90% of the cases.  These perpetrators had suffered both acute and chronic rejection being bullied, ostracized and had been unable to form a relationship with a romantic partner.  Of course in these extreme cases there would be other pathological symptoms like extreme depression but it could be argued that these negative traits were a result of the rejection.  The question is could these children’s violence been avoided if they had experienced some form of acceptance?  This is the tragedy of the lack of genuine psychological support provided for children who are easily identified as being in need.

The pain of rejection is not limited to children; adults who have taken place in experiments including the famous ‘cyber ball trial’ have shown similar feelings of ‘pain’ if they feel excluded.  This experiment takes many forms but fundamentally involves three participants, only one that is truly involved.  In a simple form each member of the group pass a Frisbee between each other with a generally fair amount of sharing.  After a period of time the two confederates, those ‘members’ who are really part of the experiment reduce the number of passes to the research subject and eventually leave them out all together.  The subjects consistently report the feelings associated with rejection.  This feeling has been confirmed by playing a similar game in a functioning MRI.  When the subject is rejected the parts of the brain associated with physical pain light up.

So what to do for those students in your class you know are suffering from rejection?  In a perfect world we could send them to the school counsellor where they could be treated professionally but we know that this is not always, if ever available and so it is left to the teacher to at least try to minimize this.

One of the easiest things you can do is manipulate the combinations of students for group work making sure you place that student away from the perpetrators and with empathetic classmates.  Teachers already construct groups to achieve the best learning outcomes and so to incorporate the goal of reducing the ostracism is appropriate.  In any case I would never allow the students to pick their working partners for any project work, apart from this being a chance to academically strengthen all students it will avoid that most tragic happening I see in schools and on sports teams.  When picking teams the process is usually the choice of the best player and down until we get to the last chosen and that is a public display of their lack of value to the group!

You can also weave social skills training into your lessons and even manipulate public speaking exercises that focus on the problems of isolation in general allowing the students to apply this to their life.  Make sure that your classroom is inclusive and everyone is of equal value.

Posted by: AT 12:37 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 04 2018

A Question about Controlling the ‘Structure’

In recent Newsletters I have outlined techniques to develop structure in the classroom and have advocated a method of ‘rule making’ that assumes the students are capable of making ‘appropriate’ choices.  There is no fundamental problem with this approach however it is important to keep in mind that children are works in progress and we assume they understand what we would consider appropriate.

Until relatively recently it was believed that the brain was fully developed by the time a child turned seven.  Since the advent of more sophisticated instruments to examine the brain this assumption has been dismissed and it is well established that the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties.  This development is not straightforward; there are periods, ‘windows of time’ when the brain prepares itself for the acquisition of new ‘behaviours’ such a sight, personal attachment and all the skills that make us human.  At these times the child experiences the particular properties of the environment and learns how to behave in a way that allows them to function in that environment.  At the risk of getting ‘off subject’ it is this learning how to behave relative to the environment that is critical to the long-term functionality of that behaviour.  In other words if the behaviour, say attachment is developed in a dysfunctional setting, perhaps the mother or father is over anxious, disorganized or suffers from an addiction the behaviours learned by the child at the time will create unhealthy behaviours in a future, functional environment.

The brain matures in two ways, from the bottom up and from the back to the front of the structure.  The latter development is through the cerebral cortex where the skills of sight, sound, language, etc. are acquired and situated.  The last stage of this development is in the frontal cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex. 

The bottom up development goes from the brain stem, up through the midbrain on to the limbic system and finally the cortex.  This is not to say all these parts of the brain are not being used until they are ‘turned on’ of course they are but they are not sculptured, not exquisitely structured until the correct neurological conditions are in place, that is abundant myaline to reinforce developed neural pathways and effective pruning of unused neurons at the end of that process.

And so it’s the prefrontal lobes that are the last to be developed and this task is not complete until the mid to late twenties.

In 2004 developmental psychologist Slywester described the early development into two ten-year cycles.  In both cases the first four years were characterized by an awkward period of learning followed by the gradual mastery and confidence. 

During the first ten-year cycle children learn to be ‘human’, to move, communicate and master fundamental living skills.  The second ten-year period they focus on becoming productive, reproductive adults.  They explore emotional commitment, sexual expression and a ‘vocational’ interest.  They learn these skills through testing behaviours in their environment.

The repercussion for the teacher, and for parents is how much choice about what consequences are appropriate for behaviours when we include the students in the construction of their classroom structure.  In crude terms the amount of appropriate responsibility is related to their age, their stage of development.  The graph below gives a simplistic illustration of how much freedom of choice is appropriate at a given stage of development.

It can be seen that very young children are dependent and it is the carer’s duty to tell them what to do.  I often despair when I hear parents ask a six year old what would they like for dinner.  Children are incapable of making appropriate decisions about the food that is good for their long-term health just as they are ill prepared for deciding what time to go to bed. 

As they get older the issues that you can introduce choice must be those that do not have a direct bearing on their physical or emotional development.  As you introduce them to limited control this must be linked to the consequences and their responsibility for those consequences.  This is the balancing act all caregivers must satisfy, that is when ever possible you should only allow the child to make choices when the worst case scenario is tolerable for the child.

And so it is in the classroom.  As a teacher there are times when you impose conditions that you know are right for their current level of development.  You need to know when they can, and should take responsibility and only when they are able to make those decisions.  This is true for lessons and for the setting of behaviour standards.

Posted by: AT 11:25 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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