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Monday, September 24 2018

Getting to the Truth

One of the time-consuming things teachers face is trying to get to the truth of student disputes.  Despite the protests of many parents who insist ‘their child would not lie’ it is a fact of life that kids will lie on occasion especially if they are trying to avoid trouble!  This is an unpleasant job but it is an inevitability for those running a classroom or school.

I came across an article in Scientific American by Roni Jacobson ‘How to Extract a Confession … Ethically’ and it referenced the process used by President Obama’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG).  In the wake of the unethical interrogation techniques used in the Abu Ghraib prison during the second Gulf War, there was a demand for guidelines that authorities could use when interviewing ‘suspects.’  The process described in the HIG report meets the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association. 

There are times when you will need to get to the truth to:

·         Teach the student that has made a mistake that there will be consequences eventually

·         Protect the student (or teacher) who is the victim of the lie

·         Demonstrate fairness in the school setting

Also, remember there are some students who will immediately ‘spill their guts' and they are not the problem.  This technique is for students who are practiced in avoiding facing the consequences of their inappropriate behavior.

The following are the steps developed to get to the truth of the matter in a practical and still ethical way:

1.     Build Rapport

Think about the ‘good cop – bad cop’ scenario and then eliminate the bad cop.  Develop an empathetic approach to the student you are questioning.  You want to build an atmosphere of cooperating as you approach the problem. Forming such a relationship is the critical step, not only to get to the truth but because you are genuinely concerned for the student, relationships can survive even after you get a confession.  The action and the child are separated.

2.     Fill in the Blank

Don’t just ask direct questions straight from the start but begin by telling what you know about the situation in a manner that suggests you already know what happened.  As you go on the guilty student will start to add details or correct part of your story without realizing they are doing so.  Don’t go ‘in for the kill’ when this starts to happen – you are building a case, be patient.  Research conducted in 2014 indicated that people who are interrogated using this method tended to underestimate how much they were telling the interrogator.

3.     Surprise Them

The students who know they are under suspicion often practice their answers ahead of time.  In the age of mobile phones, I have seen texts between students where stories are ‘coordinated.'  Under the pressure of the interview they try to keep the story intact while they struggle to remain calm and relaxed.  If you ask them something unexpected, something out of the blue about the incident they often slip-up while they try to fit the new facts into their fabricated story.

4.     Ask Them to Tell the Story Backwards

It might appear counter-intuitive, but students who are telling the truth will add more details as the retell their story.  Those students who lie will stick rigidly to their tale being careful not to make changes.  Inconsistency is part of how memory works.  This technique exploits the difficulty liars have reconstructing their story from the back to the front.  Again the HIG investigation found that liars produced twice as many details when telling their story in reverse order often contradicting their original story.

5.     Withhold Evidence Until the Crucial Moment

A study showed that when people were confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing early in the interviewing process, they either clammed up or became hostile.  After a period of time, when you have established the ‘right’ conditions, that is they think they are safe the release of evidence will often be accepted because they give up trying to sustain the lie.

Finally, this is just a technique to get to the truth; it is not a set of tools to BEAT the student.  When it works beware, you might be tempted to take pride in how ‘clever’ you are.  It is never a competition, finding the truth is just to help all the students!


Posted by: AT 10:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 17 2018

Areas of Indifference

Teachers are often faced with a class that is ‘out of control’ and we previously have discussed (Taming that Difficult Class April 2018) the advantage of taking an inventory of all the ‘things that are wrong’ and dividing them up into manageable chunks.  The crafty understanding behind this approach is the handling of the students’ stress levels, their level of arousal that any change to existing behaviour involves.

The graph below illustrates the process involved.  When the teacher changes the behavioural environment in such a way that the student’s behaviour attracts a negative consequence that student will be thrown into a state of disequilibrium and experience the stress that comes from that disorder.  However, if the consequences are not overwhelming and delivered in a way that respects the child and focuses on the behaviour, that stress will soon subside and the student will return to a state of calm even though they have accepted a ‘new environment’ as being normal.

So if the teacher has followed the advice of examining all the problems and choosing one to attack it is important that the targeted behaviour is not extremely threatening.  From this it is obvious that the taming of a dysfunctional classroom is a process over time that involves a change in the structured environment that occurs during that period of time.  You never ask for big changes and you move the behaviour in a non-threatening manner.  The harder you push the more stressed they will be and the more they will resist.

This model exploits the process used by negotiators who work to resolve conflict between two parties.  In any dispute there are some areas that both can agree are not that important and are willing to sacrifice to facilitate a settlement.  These are referred as areas of indifference.  Once they give them up they no longer become in dispute.  By slowly moving both parties through these areas they eventually identify the core problems and the energy can be focused on a possible solution.

As teacher we are not negotiating the right for all students to be taught in a calm, supportive environment and so we focus on moving the students to our desired position through a series of their points of indifference.  Each stage refers to a ‘rule’ you have negotiated using the process discussed.  This is important because you can refer to that rule when delivering the consequence while pointing out the student’s ownership of that consequence.  This allows the relationship to remain in place over the long term.

This diagram illustrates the step process in making change in the classroom.

Finally be aware that your behaviour towards the students as they move through this process is important.  When they inevitably complain about the new situation you should pay them the courtesy of actively listening to them making sure your non-verbal communication, body language, facial expression and tone of voice is not confrontational. 

If you do follow this process of structured management there will come a time when the students will accept that you do have control and that is for their benefit.  You have created a new environment and they have learned a new set of behaviours to achieve a state of equilibrium.

Posted by: AT 12:52 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, September 12 2018

The Dangers Of Praise

‘Good girl/boy’ or ‘you are such a clever little boy/girl’ etc. are everyday comments I hear when around teachers and parents when they are talking to their kids.  It wasn’t always like that.  I hate to put on my ‘in my day’ hat but before the 1960’s the custom was children are seen and not heard, children developed their position in the community by their actions and by watching adults.  So what happened?

The reason given for this change is that at the beginning of the space race the United States felt humiliated by the success of the USSR.  This failure created a lot of retrospection and review amongst a range of their systems including their education practices.  Coincidentally a book “Psychology of Self Esteem’ by Nathaniel Branden, the founder of the self-esteem movement came out and this caused a ‘positive praise’ movement that is alive and well to this very day.

No longer were children just a part of the family unit, ‘good parenting’ made them the focal centre of the family.  Educators were taught that praise was a valued tool to raise the educational outcomes.  I remember in my early years in ‘special education’ my American peers were expected to provide four positive comments to the class, morsels of praise for each negative statement.  I must say that in my classes for students with severe behaviours, even the most ‘inventive’ teacher would have trouble adhering to this requirement without resorting to ridiculous incidents.

Granted the development of a strong sense of an authentic self is critical for all children but the term self-esteem is confusing and clouds that concept.  An authentic sense of self is a truthful understanding of your character and abilities.  This allows for self-criticism and improvement.  The term self-esteem suggests that what is important is to value what you are.  The difference is subtle but important.  The latter view, the importance of the self is defensive, the popular book ‘I'm OK – You're OK’ by Thomas Harris (1969) is based on the idea that whatever you do you are ‘alright’. 

The former is more like taking the view that ‘I’m imperfect and that is not OK; I have work to do’.  This approach allows you to understand that you are not perfect, you make mistakes but because you are a good person you will work to improve.  This is a better approach to achieving authenticity.

Enough of this philosophy the question is what is wrong with praising our students?  Well it depends on how, when and for what you praise them.  Lets start with the two lesser issues around praise; the when and how to commend. 

Young children below the age of about seven will take what an adult says on face value.  If you say to them ‘great job’ or ‘what a clever girl’ they take that on face value, they believe you.  Soon they mature and become more critical of others’ judgments; teenagers are very suspicious of praise.  They understand the truth; that praise is a form of manipulation and for it to have any validity it must be earned.  There is an inverse relationship between age and the effectiveness of praise. 

For the older kids an effective approach is the ‘second hand’ method.  You can do this by saying to a student or a class that Ms. Smith told me you did some great work in her art class.  I would of course follow that with some friendly humour like ‘she must have got her class mixed up’ to avoid their potential embarrassment.  This second-handedness allows the kids to be a step away and the fact Ms. Smith told someone else about you indicates she really must have been impressed.  Another way to provide this second hand praise is to tell another staff member about how much you value the class in a situation where they can overhear you.

Finally, in the ‘how’ category, when you praise a student leave out the ‘I’ in your message; don’t say I am proud of you.  For some kids, especially those who have attachment issues linking the value of their work to your acceptance can be threatening.  You're their teacher, personal acceptance is a given.  Instead link the praise to their work.  “You did a great job’ or ‘Just look how good you set out your title page’.  The praise should reflect what they did and this will lead to intrinsic motivation.

The real issue around praise is the ‘what’.  There are two types of praise personal and process.

Personal Praise

This is when you praise the child for what they are.  Things like, you’re very clever, you are a natural, you find this work very easy, etc.  There is plenty of evidence that this has a negative affect.  Children praised for ‘what they are’ will lack motivation and lose interest in the tasks and have their grades actually fall.  Most dangerous is to tell them they are very clever. 

Psychologist Carol Dweck gave a group of students a relatively easy ‘IQ Test.’ The test was done individually, that is, only the examiner and the student were present. For half the group, the examiner commented, ‘You must be clever.’ The other half was told, ‘You must have really worked hard.’

After a period of time the students were re-gathered for a second test. They were offered a choice of tests. One test was similar to the first test. The other was described as more difficult, but they were told they would learn a lot. Ninety percent of the students who were given the message about making an effort chose to do the more difficult test. The majority of the ‘clever’ kids took the easy option.

What this tells us is that if you praise kids for their intelligence, the following occurs:

  • They don’t make any effort; they expect things to come easily to them.
  • They are afraid to take risks, feeling it is better to be safe and look good.
  • If and when they fail it is final; their failure is evidence that they are not as smart as you told them. More importantly, there is a faulty belief that there is nothing they can do about intelligence. The quantity is given; they can’t get more, and there is nothing they can do to control this failure. They have no useful response to failure.

Process Praise

This is to praise them for their effort.  Be specific about what you are praising them for; describe the detail of what was good about what they did.  Dweck’s work is at the frontier of the ‘effort’ movement that now dominates the current theory of student motivation.  We are to praise them for their effort!  There are problems with the ‘effort’ movement for instance some start to believe that ‘failure’ is only because you didn’t make enough effort but more of that in another Newsletter.

The students who have been praised for their effort are more likely to see failure as a result of not making enough effort. This gives them something to work on to change the result. This approach allows the students to take control, and they are more likely to maximize their learning in areas that capture their interest.

I can’t imagine teaching without praising the students.  We become teachers because we love kids and the joy of seeing them grow into successful, independent young adults.  This is our job!

Posted by: AT 12:07 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, September 04 2018

Let It Go

If you have young children or, as in my case grand children, recently you may well have been terrorised by the title song from Disney’s blockbuster film Frozen.  It was the most requested karaoke song in 2014 and is a tune loved by children all over the world. What made Frozen the number one animated film of all time and why do kids love its pivotal song ‘Let It Go’ so much?  Two psychologists decided to find out. Their verdict: the song recognises our desire to be happy and free.

But why are the words ‘let it go’ so important if we want to be happy and free? The fact is, if you look at the opposite of the positive emotions like happiness and freedom you arrive at feelings like anger, sorrow, hatred and fear.  While ever you hold onto these types of emotions you are locked into a negative spiral that keeps you their prisoner.

For all of us a great portion of our happiness is tied up in our relations with others.  We love being with those we care for, our friends and family and while these relationships are running smoothly, life will be OK.

So how is it with the students you teach.  Unlike family and friends the relationship is not so easily formed and is often one sided especially for those kids with abusive backgrounds.  These damaged kids find it very difficult to establish the kind of relationships that leave them happy and content.  More importantly for teachers, often their behaviours are so repulsive they sabotage any attempt you may have of forming a positive relationship.

In a recent research paper from the Monash University it was found that teachers, particularly those who handle the discipline side of our work are eight times more likely to be abused, psychologically and six times more likely to be physically attacked then the general public.  It is part of our professional duty to deliver consequences for dysfunctional behaviours and we have to learn to deal with the abuse that often follows.

It is not unusual for these most difficult kids to abuse their teacher, most often verbally but in too many cases they physically attack the teacher.  We understand that these severe behaviours have their origin in their past and even though it is an extremely difficult thing to do, we must separate the behaviour from the child.

The alternative is to not ‘forgive’ the child and let the incident dominate the future relationships.  This is holding a grudge and a grudge is the feeling of anger and resentment and drives the desire to ‘get even’.

We are human so think about the last time you were wronged, did you hold a grudge and if so was it a feeling of carrying extra weight? We often talk about ‘carrying’ a grudge like we’ve got a heavy load.

In an experiment the psychologist asked participants to remember when they’d experienced conflict. One group were asked to recall a situation that ended in forgiveness, while the other group were asked to remember a situation where they did not forgive the offender.   All participants were then asked to jump five times as high as they could.

Participants in the ‘forgiving’ group jumped the highest, while the ‘grudge holding’ group jumped almost one-third lower (on average) than the forgivers.  So there it is; carrying a grudge really does weigh you down.  Forgiveness can lighten the burden so let revenge go.

It is most important that teachers let go of this extra burden in their life.  Letting go is not easy, it may well be the most difficult thing you can do but it is imperative if you want to retain your mental health.  There are some things that you can do.  These include:

  • Debriefing – After any situation that you are ‘attacked’ you need to go over the circumstances around the issue.  It is best to do this with a trusted and informed colleague who understands your work.  The use of your family should only be as a last resort as it will cloud the boundaries of your home and your place of work.
  • Boundaries – We have spoken about boundaries elsewhere but briefly they protect you from abuse you don’t deserve, inform you of your contribution to any incident and let you plan how you will deal with the problem if it happens again.  The fundamental questions are:
    • What is really happening?
    • Who’s responsible?
      • If it’s me then I have to take action
      • If it’s the student I have to take action – this doesn’t seem fair but you are the professional and you must understand your health is your responsibility. Don’t hold a grudge!
  • Decide what you want in the future and take action to make that happen.         

The final step is to let go.  Generally it just requires you to forgive the student and start each new day afresh but in some cases no matter what efforts you put in nothing changes and you continue to be abused.  If things are like this ‘letting go’ may mean someone leaves the relationship!

Posted by: AT 09:09 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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