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Tuesday, August 28 2018

Accept Their Lack of Empathy - Just For Now

At some time in your training you have been in a discussion about morality and how it can be threatened by reality.  The exercise is more likely than not about the run-a-way trolley car where you have to make a decision, do you let five individuals die or will you act by pulling a switch that changes the lane but by doing this you deliberately kill one person to save the five?

The most common response reflects a utilitarian view of the world.  The loss of one life is better than that of five but is that a moral stance, are you interfering with destiny?  Does being faced with such a choice involve a moral obligation?

The recent movie ‘The Eye in the Sky’ is a Hollywood version of this dilemma; do we kill a few for the sake of the many?  How you answer might well be prompted by how attached you are emotionally to the participants.

The stark confrontation of this conflict was brought home in the movie Sophie’s Choice where a mother was forced to choose one child to live or both would die.  This is an impossible dilemma.

The exercise not only makes us think about the difficulty of living a moral existence it also shines a light on the participant’s compassion and empathy.

Scientists have made interesting findings while studying how the brain responds to these moral judgments.  Neuroscientists have highlighted the role of the prefrontal cortex and area of the brain that deals with generating social emotions.  It is the emotional function of the dilemma that makes us agonize over choice when the situation is personalized.  This is the power of the choice Sophie had to make.

These findings have been confirmed through replication and further study including considering the influence of elevated stress and different types of brain damage.  In fact, the people with damage in this region due to stroke or other causes experienced severely diminished empathy, compassion and sense of guilt.

So what is the relevance of this information in informing practice for dealing with kids who have been abused or severely neglected?  A major consequence of the early childhood abuse/neglect is the real damage to the brain in particular the prefrontal lobes.  These are reduced in size by up to 20% and the neural density is significantly reduced.  These children are for all intents and purposes brain damaged.

When undertaking the task of dealing with these children many teachers try to evoke some sense of shame for behaviours they have done that hurts others.  This may well be an appropriate approach when dealing with healthy kids but for these kids (along with those on the Asperger’s spectrum) it has little impact.  Judgments made are driven by the utilitarian approach but because they have no emotional attachment to others the so-called utilitarian approach is self-centered.  They are only concerned about how they fair.

The easy answer is this apparent selfish approach is malicious and they in turn deserve no compassion from you the teacher.  But this would be wrong; this is one of the things that makes dealing with these very difficult kids so hard.  It’s not their fault they were made this way by their abusers when they were infants.  They need even more compassion.

So what to do?  The first thing to do when dealing with these kids is to put in place a very structured environment that has a clear relationship between the child’s actions and the consequences that follow.  Because they are so egocentric they will soon learn to act in a way that is best for them.  Your structure needs to provide for this close link.  And the consequences are not only negative but just as importantly positive outcomes for functional behaviour.

Behind all your work is the principle of parenting the child in a way that will allow them to develop a new set of psychological traits and so given time with structure along with positive relationships and expectation they can develop compassion and empathy and the satisfaction it will bring to their life.  Your work in this field is so important!


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Monday, August 20 2018

The Impact of Poverty and Neglect


Childhood abuse is a broad ranging term that covers attacks on the child’s sense of security; it should also cover the neglect of that child. 

The balance all species is driven to maintain is their sense of safety, well-being and security, when we achieve this we are said to be in equilibrium, stress free.  There are two pathways to achieving this homeostatic equilibrium; our sense of security.  These are:

  • Our ability to protect ourselves from boundary violations; and
  • Our capacity to seek out resources from the environment. 

It is when we are unable to protect ourselves we suffer abuse of some kind.  Also when we are unable to acquire the elements we need from our environment we are in a state of neglect.  Children who experience either abuse or neglect suffer elevated levels of stress and have a range of chemical actions washing across their central nervous system that will result in real brain damage.

Early work in this field has revealed damage to the frontal lobes and the hippocampus as was clearly demonstrated through investigation in the tragedy of the Romanian orphans.  Further work has shown the cerebellum is also reduced in size.  These wounds have a direct impact on the child’s ability to function in society, to regulate their emotions as well as their ability to learn and make memories.

Recent work done by John Gabrieli, of MIT and Silvia Bunge, of Berkley have shown that even growing up in a poor family can leave its mark on the development of the brain.  Gabrieli and Bunge have demonstrated that the neocortex is thinner in laboratory animals that have been neglected as opposed to those who have not.  Such an experiment with children would be out of the question and unethical but the use of a control group with animals allows for confirmation.  However, studies of children who do live in poverty shows the same effect.

In reality scientists are showing these anatomical differences tied to poverty, neglect and abuse are having a great effect on the child’s ability to learn and develop functional behaviours.  Importantly the earlier positive interventions can be made, the more able the extent of the damage can be reduced.  One successful positive intervention included exposure to a rich and varied environment in which to develop.

In Australia the gap between the haves and have-nots is increasing and the numbers living in real poverty are growing; it is particularly evident in the aboriginal community. There seems to be neither little nor no appetite for political intervention to address this problem nor any real plan to provide the necessary rich environments so it will be left to schools and private providers to fill in the gap.

Dealing with children who suffer from abuse or neglect is a difficult task.  Ideally these children should have access to individualized long-term psychological support but the negative correlation between support and poverty is undisputed.  The availability of such support in the wealthy suburbs of the cities compared to the economic swamplands is in stark contrast. 

What we do have available for these kids are schools and community programs.  These need to be staffed by well trained personnel who understand the need for safe, secure and rich environments and the ability to manage these kids as they develop more functional behaviours.  The task is to provide the training in both the impact of early childhood abuse and/or neglect and the provision of procedures to facilitate healing these children.

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Tuesday, August 14 2018


One of the dangers of working with very needy students is the danger of them projecting their feelings about important relationships on to the teacher.  This projection of a ‘quality’ on to another is a crude definition of ‘transference’.  The student projects their existing, or desired beliefs and feelings relative to a previous relationship on to the teacher. 

Some students who have generally been starved of the healthy, supportive childhood will see the teacher as a support and an object of attraction.  This substitution can be a positive thing in the short term.  It allows a relationship to develop.  However, if the teacher ‘reminds’ the child of an abusive past they will project this negativity on to the teacher and the teacher is seen as ‘the enemy’ and an object of rejection. 

We all know how important relationships are and the phenomena of transference makes clear how the quality of that relationship impacts on the children.

Another danger is that some teachers project their own, unresolved issues on to the students.  A teacher who suffered neglect in their own childhood is vulnerable to look at a similar student through their own emotional attitudes.  This is known as counter transference.

Transference is a difficult issue for teachers.  For the struggling child the fact that they project such qualities on a functional adult may well support that child at the beginning of their recovery.  However, the teacher must be really awake to the dangers of blurring the boundaries with these children.  They must maintain a professional ‘distance’ from the child. 

The following outlines the way counter transference can arise:

  • Either consciously or unconsciously the teacher will be affected if the student projects attraction or rejection on to the teacher.  It will cloud their judgment.
  • The teacher’s personal history will blur their understanding of the student’s behaviour.  The student may represent an unresolved issue such as an inability to deal with aggression and the emotional memory of their personal hurt will affect their reasoning.
  • They will have a predisposition towards a range of students based on whether they are attracted to them or repelled by their presence.  This will result in an inability to maintain a sense of objectivity both positively or negatively.  Furthermore, they will be deterred from engaging with those students whose traits expose their own histories.

The following situations are a strong signal that the teacher is transferring their own unresolved issues onto their students.  These indicators are:

  • Having a need for the student to be dependent on them, they fulfill the teacher’s needs.
  • They need to be liked by the students.  This threatens their ability to deliver inappropriate consequences for misbehavior.
  • Wanting to feel like the expert in front of the students.  They can devalue their colleagues and the students.
  • They need to exert inappropriate control over the student.  This will hamper the student’s independence development.
  • Show too much interest in the student’s personal life.  This is crossing professional boundaries.
  • Being aggressive and confrontational with students or reacting negatively to students who are assertive or aggressive.
  • Being uncomfortable with certain types of emotions such as anger or tenderness.  They suppress these if students display them.
  • Over-identifying with students who have problems that reflect their own.  They ‘know how they feel’ and become too close.
  • Support some student’s defiance against authority.  This is particularly a problem for younger teachers.
  • Idealizing students and investing their own perhaps unfulfilled goals in the student.

Patterns to Watch Out For

  • Dreading or eagerly anticipating a certain class
  • Favoring one class over the other, better preparation, quicker marking of papers, etc.
  • Thinking excessively about students outside work hours.  These can involve sexual attraction.
  • Not being consistent dealing with students in behaviour management.
  • Being too bored to put in an effort in teaching a student or class or being angry for no specific reason.
  • Overly impressed with students or classes.  This may reflect unfulfilled ambitions.  Things like a frustrated musician being unduly impressed by a student with musical talent.
  • Being hurt by student’s criticism.  This brings up past issues of being subjected to anger.
  • Rescuing students by doing their work for them or ignoring their lack of compliance in assessment tasks.

Healthy teachers understand their own flaws and adjust their understanding about the management of situations they face.  Their actions/reactions are appropriate to the immediate problem they face and not just a product of the history of their internalized world.  

The key to dealing with the potential of transference affecting your work is to have very clear professional boundaries and clarify these boundaries with the students.

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Tuesday, August 07 2018

Theory of Mind

We continually reinforce the importance of the relationship built with the students, particularly those with dysfunctional behaviours.  These relationships are very much based on an emotional connection and rely on how we feel/think about the child, how they must be feeling and thinking as we interact.  This ability to ‘put your self into their shoes’ is explained by what is known as Theory of Mind.  Individual development of Theory of Mind begins when a child first develops a sense of separation from their primary care giver, a sense that they are a distinct identity. 

Up until about age three children feel they are part of a combined consciousness, they think that whatever they know everyone else knows, that all minds are in a sense connected.  They slowly come to terms with the fact that only they know what they are feeling, thinking, what are their desires, etc.; others can’t possibly ‘know’.  Ultimately they realize their thoughts are their own and there is an advantage if they can deduce what the other is thinking.

This ability to recognize the mental state of the other and therefore predict what will happen next becomes more sophisticated over time.  Just watch how older children manipulate their juniors and how parents and teachers do the same.  This ability to anticipate what the other is thinking is a skill in which successful adults, including teachers excel.  But thinking you know what another is thinking remains a ‘guess’ and for teachers of children with a toxic sense of shame, an incorrect ‘guess’ can have devastating outcomes.

There has been a lot of research into this ‘mind reading’ with varying results.  Initially mirror neurons (see an essay on this topic in the resources page) were seen as underpinning this ability.  Mirror neurons are activated in your mind when you see another person performing an action.  How they are activated depends on the anticipated purpose of that action.  Therefore our own brains anticipate, predict what the other is going to do next.  In recent times the importance of these neurons in predicting other’s behaviour has been questioned but remains a possible explanation. 

Rebecca Saxe, in her popular TED Talk claims to have located the part of the brain, the right temporopartietal junction, and area just behind the right ear that specializes in thinking about both our sense of self and thinking about others’ thoughts.  She has demonstrated this through manipulation of the magnetic field in this area and through the traditional study of people with injuries in this area and the impact these have on their functioning.  Like mirror neurons this gives a clue but not a definitive explanation.

It seems both accounts explain the intent of the behaviour but we really can’t know what another is really thinking; it is impossible.  There is as much chance of  ‘knowing’ how another thinks or feels as there is in answering Thomas Nagel’s famous question ‘what is it like to be a bat’?  We can have no idea, bats navigate with sound, they can fly; this statement demonstrates just how impossible that would be.  So why does this strong belief we know what others are thinking, this belief that underpins our ability to empathise, to have compassion, to care about others holds us together as a community?  The answer is in predicting behaviour in particular situations.

The one ability we do have is that of pattern recognition.  This is the foundation of our sense of self and how we fit in our environment.  We learn about life through repetitive actions and consequences; that is we learn the pattern of behaviours in particular circumstances.  And this seems to be effective in helping us negotiate with others.   After all, these others come with an almost identical genetic profile and have the same process of developing their ‘sense’ in a ‘human’ environment.  We don’t develop a bat sense in a bat environment!

It is an examination of this last point that explains the risk of believing you can read others’ minds.  Throughout the work of our consultancy we have focused on the dysfunctional behaviour of children who cause us difficulties in the classroom.  In the overwhelming majority of cases these kids not only have been raised in ‘dysfunctional’ environments, the result of their early abuse and/or neglect has left them with substantial brain damage in the parts of the brain that control behaviour. 

The impact ‘cerebral difference’ has on our sense or the sense of others, is described by Jane Joseph, who examined the brain of an elite climber, Alex Honnold.  Honnald is famous for climbing the sheer faces of steep mountains and cliffs without any safety equipment; any mistake would be his last.  What Joseph wanted to know was their any difference in the climber’s perception of fear.  She did this by placing Hannald in a fMIR machine and examining his response to very emotive and disturbing photographs that in a normal population light up the amygdala, the seat of our emotions especially fear in our brain. When examined Hannald displayed no increase in activity in this area.  It is obvious that the performance of his brain was markedly different to the normal person in a fear evoking situation and any prediction others made about how he would feel when threatened would almost certainly be wrong.

Amy Dowel from the Australian National University, who studied psychopaths, provides collaborating evidence for the particular difference in response to emotional conditions.  The psychopaths had little trouble passing a test that is based on recognising the faces of happy, sad, angry, etc. individuals and their results in these areas were the same as the general population.  But when the picture required the identification of someone who was ‘upset’ the psychopaths could not recognize this.  The capacity to recognize distress in others was a particular blind spot in their ability to predict what was going on.  This explains how psychopaths can be charming and engaging on most levels yet can treat others appallingly with no concept of their feelings.

Research into the area of ‘mind reading’ is becoming better at predicting other’s potential behaviour thanks to bigger data sets and more powerful computing techniques.  In the area of suicide prevention the results are well above that of chance and in fact Facebook have installed a function that will alert users if they are presenting a pattern of ‘behaviours’ that indicate a risk of self-harm or suicide.

But the dependence on reading the other’s mind remains a problem for all of us but particularly for those working with damaged kids.  We know these kids have damaged brains and as for their amygdala’s they have the opposite response to threat as that of Hannalds.  These kids have enlarged amygdala’s and are overly activated when confronted with threatening situations.  Their responses will be different from the climber’s and more importantly, for the sake of prediction the general population.

On top of this, the historical patterns the teacher relies on to predict what these children are thinking will be completely different than the patterns on which these children base their predictions.  You can’t know what they are thinking.  That is, you see the world through your history and they see it through a different history, they are not the same and so guessing ‘what comes next’ will not be the same.

So what to do?  Well in the first instance interact with these kids in a compassionate way basing your responses or reaction on the behaviour they present not the behaviour you predict.  This may cause some problems initially, when you want to intervene early and avoid problems but the more you delay your responses the more you can discover their particular patterns and start to understand why they behave in a certain way.   Teachers have to reject certain dysfunctional behaviours but by doing so you teach them about your world and they can learn new patterns of behaviour.  Understanding that you can’t really understand where their behaviour is coming from helps you remain compassionate about the child in the face of outlandish behaviour and supports the important relationship.

Understanding the problems that come with really knowing what students are thinking underscores the importance of structure in the classroom.  The more structured the actions and consequences are, the faster the students will understand how their behaviour is connected to what happens to them.  That is, they will develop a new set of expectations about their life and how they can take control.

Posted by: AT 10:25 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, August 01 2018

The Tribal Classroom

In a recent Newsletter we discussed how important a relationship is to enhance the learning for students in our class.  This importance lies in the reality that we have evolved to live in groups to share resources rather than in isolation where we would have to fend for ourselves.  That means our individual success depends on how we fit into that group, how socially aware we are.  This is not the case for all creatures, reptiles and some mammals do live in isolation but for the higher forms of mammals belonging to a group is critical for success. 

It follows that the strength of our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group.  Children who do develop this sense of belonging are categorized as being able to:  

  • Think well of themselves
  • Trust others
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Maintain positive expectations
  • Utilize their intellect

They learned these skills through their association with a healthy group, from their family and their school. 

However, our interest is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours.  These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self or exclusion, neglect from the only company they experience.

In light of this it is informative to examine how we developed the reliance on the group.  In the first stage of evolution there was little development of social groupings and the subsequent social brain.  This ‘social brain’ coincided with the growth of the limbic system, that place where our emotions and sense of connectedness resides.  About 100,000 years ago humans moved into tribes and the social development began. 

The benefits of this tribal life went beyond the provision of food, shelter and security it extended to more time for ‘child care’ meaning there was more time for the development of our physical and cognitive skills.  Along with this was the development of language, from grunts, to words, from grooming to non-verbal communication.  This drive to communicate coupled with more security and better nutrition provided the conditions for the expansion of our brains.  

The size of these groups has been shown to be between 50 and 75.  This number is still a likely size of other primates who live in groups.  These seem to be the numbers where strong bonds and attachments are formed.  The cohesion found is supported by a sense of sharing and fairness.  We trust things will be fair and we can rely on our group for support when we are struggling.

In contemporary times the tribe has been replaced by the big cities.  Now in those cities we live not in discrete groups of about 75 we live with millions of strangers, our contribution to this metropolis often lacks satisfaction, being detached from the feedback your support is providing.  We have become very individualised moving away from the supportive benefits of the tribe.

Successful arrangement of these large cities relies on some form of hierarchical authority that needs to dominate the organization.  Those in ‘authority’ enjoy their own sense of power and the rewards that come with ‘individual success’ but they are not attached to those who serve them.  Likewise workers in large industrial organisations have no contact with those who consume their production. 

This loss of an encompassing tribal sized community has forced people to look for alternate ways to belong.  This means we look to ‘belong’ to a football team, a political party, or a religion, something that we can identify with.  This gives us something to defend but the support back from these communities is questionable.  These types of communities have invariably become another version of industrialisation.  Football teams have moved from being a ‘district team’ to a ‘franchise’ that really belongs to their owner not the fans.  They are businesses where power and authority rest with those who compete for the leadership position.

There is no doubt that this marginalization of the group for the development of large industrial organization has led to an increase in our consumption of materials and benefits in services but at what cost.

However, what has been observed in this industrial age that the best outcomes are achieved when tasks are carried out by subset, tribe-like groups within the larger organisation.  Success depends on tasks being designed to be completed by a special section, armies divide into units, police have squads, etc. there is an understanding of the benefit of ownership. This advantage comes from the social interaction of the group.  

Schools have by design understood this process and have organized their children into classes.  There have been attempts to ignore this process, we have had accelerated progression and vertical streaming but approaches satisfy the rationality of cognitive learning in fact they exemplify this approach but they have failed.  Learning is about the development of the brain and the best conditions for neural plasticity for children, the creation of autobiographical memories the substance of all curriculum is in the tribal group.

As teachers it is relatively easy in primary school to create your class as a tribe.  It is not as easy in the secondary years but it’s not as important but can still be done.  The trick is to develop an identity for the class, create a culture that the kids want to belong to.  Handle disputes as you would in a large family emphasizing the responsibility each class member has to the whole.

Creating this tribal class will not only benefit the students’ social learning it will provide the environment that will enhance their academic achievement.

Posted by: AT 12:11 am   |  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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