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Monday, June 24 2019

Beliefs

In our formative years the brain has only one function and that is to initiate behaviours that allow us to survive.  Of course, this fundamental truth can get lost as our interactions with our outside environment get more complex but all behaviour can be traced back to that central truth.  Just how powerful this drive is can be demonstrated every day in emergency wards where people’s brains have shut down every activity but the bare minimum – they are comatose.  This simple fact that would make understanding behaviour reasonably simple but life’s not simple and the rising, tragic levels of suicide provides the exception to the foundational rule; survival is the prime drive for behaviour!  I will argue that individuals select not to survive because of their learned beliefs and these beliefs are more powerful than evidence the evidence from their immediate environment.  (This Newsletter follows that of the 11th June 2019 – Faulty Beliefs).

Despite the anomaly of suicide, the brain’s purpose is to facilitate behaviours that allow us to survive.  The model below helps us understand this process:

 

At the heart of this model is the link between situation, the presenting environment, our actions and the consequences.  That is, we find ourselves in a threatening situation and we act to alleviate the stress caused by that situation.  The resulting outcome is noted and ‘stored’ for future reference, that is it is remembered.  This is the feedback loop in the model above.  Successful responses will be reinforced and be available whenever a similar situation occurs. 

In early childhood these memories are emotional, that is when we find ourselves in a situation similar to a previous threatening one, our emotional memory of that early encounter will evoke a response.  That ‘feeling’ is the first expression of a belief!  Later, when our brain matures we develop cognitive memories that function the same way but put reason to the stress we experience and this motivates us to act.  This is the lower feedback loop in the model.  We build up a sophisticated internal map of our ‘world’ and how the conditions it presents impacts onto our homeostatic state.  These memories inform our decisions on how to act!

Initially, the sequence follows the observation of the threat, that is our senses alert us to the danger, they provide the data that drives the behaviour.  But, one of the things that has allowed us to become the most successful species is our ability to use the memories we have built up to imagine or anticipate impending problems.  These are as fundamental as having been threatened by a crocodile in a stream one day we become extremely cautious when we approach the stream on subsequent days.  That is, we have a belief that there will probably be a crocodile if we go near that stream another day and so when we approach we will be anxious and consequently more cautious even though there is no sensory evidence, no data that indicates the presence of a threatening reptile.

The internal map of memories, beliefs allow us to ‘know’ things that are not relative to the data in our immediate circumstance.  The authority of our belief systems is such that we can navigate our way around the world.  If we were limited to act just on the explicit evidence we would be stuck in space.  As I write this I have a belief that my car is in the driveway yet I have absolutely no direct data to confirm this, I just ‘know it’, beliefs are powerful tools.  In fact, I could not even find my driveway except through clumsy and time-consuming trial and error if I didn’t ‘know’ where to turn as I go through the house!

So, we have two systems that regulate our behaviour.  The first is incoming data – things like a car speeding towards us in a threatening manner, we will ‘decide’ to jump out of the way.  The second is to always look both ways before we go onto the street because we believe it is possible that a car might threaten our safety even though we can’t know if a car is there without checking the data.  The belief produces behaviours that ensure our safety even though there is no immediate evidence.  We become careful!

The two systems that are equally important, serve the same purpose but are different.  Our senses provide the data to perceive our immediate world.  Our beliefs, our memories let us understand our world outside the confines of our perceptions and provides reasons for choosing protective behaviours.  These operate independently and the brain only cares about how helpful either system is for its survival.

In the model, the feedback from the memories to the ‘antecedent conditions’ reveals the impact our ‘beliefs’ have on the way we view our environment.  That is when we are confronted with any situation our perception of the incoming stimulus is influenced by previous experience.  For most, this has given us a huge advantage in successfully managing our lives but, there is a malicious disadvantage for those whose memories are of abuse or neglect.

The students at the heart of these Newsletters invariably suffer from Toxic Shame (see Newsletter – 3rd July 2017) which results in a set of beliefs that are relevant to the abusive/neglectful environment in which they were developed.  It takes some effort to understand how such a destructive set of beliefs could emerge in a child but if we put ourselves in their position we would see that these beliefs gave them the best chance of survival.  Even the idea that they are worthless can reflect any circumstance where they felt worthwhile.  Feeling valued could initiate a sense that you should ‘fight back’, defend yourself but for a child with an abusive parent any such sign of assertiveness would be crushed.  It is safer to believe that defective image.

At school these children experience a positive environment where the senses, the data is or should be non-threatening and supportive.  If you take the example of the crocodile in the river, the calm supportive environment may well be present but these kids know the possibility ‘of a croc lying in wait if the drop their guard’.  The presence of a reassuring setting should make the child suppose things are safe and they can act in an appropriate way to get their needs met.  But, of course they don’t!  These kids remain suspicious, there may well be a croc lurking below the surface.  Teachers get frustrated when they provide all the support for these children but their behaviour doesn’t easily change!

The answer is in the fact that these beliefs developed over a period of time and they drove the behaviour that was the most likely to ensure security.  That is the situation, the pattern of environmental factors was not the exclusive one but the most likely.  The brain learned to dismiss those that did not fit that arrangement.

When the child who has developed a strong belief about their sense of self has that challenged, is presented with an alternate supportive set of data, this dissimilar event on its own will not over-ride the beliefs.  This may be a ‘one-off’ occurrence and we can still remember what could be coming next!  Deep held beliefs are hard to change even in the face of over whelming evidence.

Take the argument about evolution and the conflict it has with those who believe in intelligent design, the Bible.  These people cling to a very strong commitment to that story and any counter claim, evolution is denied despite all the evidence put to them.  To accept they were wrong is a perceived, direct threat to their survival.  Even a small concession would unravel the whole system and so they will defend even the most bizarre claims with what others would find preposterous.  It is tempting to dismiss these people but if you understand they really have this belief system you realize they are not stupid.

The same goes for our kids.  Too often I see well-meaning teachers take these kids on an excursion, say to an adventure style park where they successfully experience abseiling, rock climbing, etc.  This, one-off adventure will not change their beliefs, it is just that a ‘one off set of data’ is no match for their beliefs.  One problem is these adventure programs are run by non-school staff and they see the excitement of each group of students as they go through their courses and they think they are successful.  But the kids return to school and not much has changed for these kids.   Unfortunately, the teachers ‘see’ the kids cope with the challenges they face on these courses but get discourage when the kids, despite this evidence don’t change!

Beliefs can be changed but be prepared for a long process that must include an environment that consistently provides the ‘proper, positive data’ and a messenger that is acceptable.  There is no surprise in the appreciation of the importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher.  This is at the heart of all learning!

Although the data may ‘shout’ at the student, if it threatens them they will shout back.  There is absolutely no value in confronting these students when they are under threat.  The teacher must patiently wait for the right time and quietly offer an alternate view of the situation and their safety.  Remember, the feeling of being under threat will be expressed in the emotional memories.  If the child feels threatened enough their protective behaviours will emerge and they will go into a state of flight or fight.  The teacher must remain calm and remain present!

To change beliefs takes a skilled teacher with a well set-up classroom and one who is prepared to chip away at the student’s faulty beliefs.  They have to be the right person with the right data at the right time!  And they need to be very patient.  It is hard to turn these kids around but it will be the most rewarding teaching you will ever do! 

Posted by: AT 11:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 17 2019

Mindfulness

 

The one of the continuing themes of these blogs is the importance of stress control.  This is particularly critical for children raised in chaotic, abusive environments.  By remaining calm they have a much better chance of making good decisions.  In previous Newsletters (Teaching Practical Boundaries 21st July 2017 and Boundary Considerations 22nd October 2018) I have discussed the value of boundaries and how to engage them.  This is relevant for teachers as well as students.  One of the central elements in making good decisions is the ability to remain calm.

Very briefly, boundaries should be applied when we begin to feel stressed, it protects us from reactive thinking.  As soon as we sense that feeling of unease, the application of your boundary protects you, that is allows you to stay calm, to relax.  It is well understood that this composure plays a significant role in this process.  However, when anything is unearthed to assist people negotiate their way through difficult times it is only a matter of time before this ability is high-jacked and morphed into a self-help industry; the ‘next big thing’ to solve all society’s ills.  If you extend the efforts to remain calm you inevitably arrive in the area of meditation and this is proving to be ‘the next big thing’.   

This latest and most powerful expression of this new panacea for our behavioural problems is the Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction program (MBSR); a systematized approach to meditation.  This practice has really come out of the work of Richard Davidson who studied with Buddhist meditation practitioners.  It has long been understood that the constant exposure to high levels of stress create changes in the brain’s structure.  Things like an expanded and more sensitive amygdala, a reduction in the hippocampus, the prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, all of which hinder the individual’s capacity to use their cognitive ability to address the problems that cause the stress.  There was an almost opposite impact on the brains of individuals who practiced meditation.  In these monks, the amygdala was reduced making them more resilient to stress.  The increased size of the frontal lobes and hippocampus enhanced the cognitive capacity of the brain.

Davidson’s work was subjected to some criticism but subsequent studies have confirmed his findings.  In recent years Jon Kabat-Zinn has systematized the approach with his trade mark MBSR where through his organisation the eight-week program is disseminated across the globe; being used in schools, the military, corporations, etc. and is so programmed the Buddhist teacher Miles Neale refers to it as McMindfulness.

MBSR is just the latest addition of a whole industry of happiness.  It has become a $40 Billion industry with over 60,000 books on the subject being offered by Amazon alone.  Every year we have a ‘Happiness Conference’ where for a substantial amount of money you can learn how to fix your world.

If you sense a bit of cynicism here you would be right.  I have no trouble with meditation and you know I endorse teaching these kids to relax.  If nothing else I firmly believe the control of stress, the elimination of it is at the heart of all behaviour management programs and teaching practices.  But there is a difference between staying calm while you examine ‘what is really going on’ in your environment and focusing so hard on controlling your internal world discounting what is going on in your external world to cause your stress.  If you are about to be abused it is of little value to slip into deep meditation. 

What underpins MBSR is that any stress you experience comes from inside you and it is your responsibility to deal with it and if you don’t it will only be a result of your poor choices.  This is a cruel message to give to kids who have been raised in an abusive/neglectful family.  It is obviously unkind to tell them that all they have to do is meditate to be fulfilled in such an environment, their fear and resultant stress may well be keeping them alive but the more damaging element is by telling them it is ‘really their fault’ if they don’t take control of their life reinforces their sense of toxic shame – they know they are faulty!

But I digress, as stated above the ability to stay calm is fundamental to having good boundaries and using meditation will help these students experience some degree of remediation of their cognitive structures.  However, we should never lose sight of their suffering and should work towards changing their environment as much as, if not more than changing their response to it.

For students with backgrounds of abuse and neglect the process for relaxation is very threatening. To relax, you need to focus on your internal world, limiting your attention on the stimulus that flows in from the external world.  A feature of these students is that they are always scanning their outer zone looking for potential dangers.  This hypervigilance, a trademark of PTSD has been crucial to ensure their survival.  Now we are going to ask them to take the focus away from the very practice that aided that existence and to go inside their minds.

A complication is that when we get these students to focus on their internal world we are asking them to attend to their sense of self and for most it is to examine their toxic shame.  As we have discussed earlier, this toxic shame reinforces their sense of being a failure.  This self-reflection seems hardly a practice that will help them develop a new approach to their behaviour but it is a crucial part of their recovery.

Finally, the process of meditation becomes even more difficult when you attempt to conduct relaxation sessions in a group setting, especially if that group consists of students with similar histories.  In my experience, you need to limit the opportunity for each student to communicate with others.  To teach meditation in such an environment you need to be aware that all the class will be anxious when they are asked to sacrifice their protective hypervigilance and to avoid this they will attempt to sabotage the teacher’s efforts.  This is a real difficulty that can be overcome.

In my last school for these kids I used to teach them a bit of meditation (I have uploaded an essay on meditation with a script for meditation that you could use).  These were very ‘tough’ kids and I would often have as many as thirty at a time.  Before we commenced the meditation, I explained what the process involved, what happened during the process and how that would benefit them.  Of course, this information was included during their lessons in how the brain works, part of their recovery curriculum.

I found a few rules help conduct the meditation lessons.  I allowed them to lie on their stomachs with their face down.  I also was aware that some would try to break the desired atmosphere by making a noise, coughing, sighing and even the occasional noisy ‘expression of wind’.  I understood the calm environment threatened them and if they replaced this with behaviour that upset the class they would feel more comfortable.  This was common when students first came into the program.

The process was that I would read a script, the same every morning and if a student acted in a way that would upset the process they were quietly removed from the room.  When I had completed the script, those students who participated moved onto the next activity.  The students, who were removed were then returned to the class to have the script read to them again. 

At this time, I would tell them that I could not make them relax, I explained that I understood they felt threatened but I insisted that they should not spoil the process for others.  Eventually the students would sit through a complete ‘reading’ and then they could return to their class.  I was surprised that after a time, students asked for the relaxation activity.

Working with these kids will provide you with lots of life lessons not the least of which is there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve human suffering, theirs or yours, but as long as you keep learning and moving forward you and your students will move towards that state of authenticity and peace.

Posted by: AT 11:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, June 11 2019

Faulty Beliefs

In the late Twentieth Century American Psychologist Albert Ellis became frustrated with the lack of consideration given to the emotional side of psycho-therapy.  This was in reply to the stimulus – response approach that had become popular in the late sixties when leaders in psychology, like Skinner adopted a rationalist approach to behaviour.  Their ideas were underpinned by the belief ‘if it can’t be measured it is not worth considering’.  Ellis accepted the importance of feelings in driving behaviour and so founder what was called Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy. 

He reduced the complexity of behaviour to the following:

It is in the ‘Beliefs’ where ‘rational’ behaviours become ‘irrational’.  Those who have been following my work will see that this sequence forms part of my schematic representation of the processes of behaviour management as shown below.

My model is more complex but it does incorporate both emotional and cognitive memories but as consistently pointed out in my work the emotional memories are far stronger when we are considering behaviours that are triggered by stressful events, that is when we are being ‘threatened’.

A significant element in the dysfunctional behaviours displayed by students who have very disruptive actions is that of Toxic Shame often referred to in this blog (Toxic Shame - 7th March 2017) and this ‘shame’ is established in early childhood in an abusive or neglectful environment and is predominantly retained in the emotional memories and so these beliefs are the principal driving factor in decision-making when under stress.

At the heart of Toxic Shame is the feeling that you are a ‘mistake’, not that you have made a mistake.  It’s a feeling that:  

  • Is not based on reality
  • Is a false message that creates a false sense of self
  • Is put on us by others
  • That is a chronic, permanent state
  • Exaggerates our faults.

Ellis produced a list of faulty beliefs that described how this feeling of shame is expressed in the life of a casualty of childhood abuse.  These are:

  • I must be loved or approved of by every significant person in my life or I will be a worthless person
  • I must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
  • When people act unfairly or badly they should be severely punished.
  • It is terrible and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them.
  • Human unhappiness is caused by external events and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances
  • I must feel anxious if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome and keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurrence.
  • It is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
  • I should be dependent on someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely.
  • I should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
  • The world should provide me with what I want and when it doesn’t it’s a terrible place and I can’t stand it.
  • My past is the most important part of my life and it dictates how I live.

It is easy to understand why people with dysfunctional behaviours hold the acceptance that how life treats them is, and has to be dependent on others. You can see it in all the points outlined above and that’s because when their sense of self was being formed, in early childhood they had no self-control.  So why should they now?

It helps to understand the thought process used by these people but more importantly how do we help them?  Of course, long-term mental health intervention for each individual would be ideal but as teachers, we are neither qualified nor would we have the time for such an intervention.  And, unfortunately the chances of the vast majority of our students who come to us with such beliefs the chances of them getting access to such a service in miniscule.

However, what can be done is to create an environment that has a highly structured connection between what is done and what happens.  If a child does ‘X’ they will get ‘Y’ as much as possible and when the consequence is being delivered it is always attached to the action and never to the person.  As they become aware of the connection between what they do and what happens they start to take responsibility for their behaviour and eventually for their life.  Of course, it is impossible to get a 100% connection between actions and consequences but for these kids, the more often you can reinforce the link the better their chances of taking responsibility for their life and that is the best learning outcome any teacher could hope for.

Posted by: AT 12:31 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 03 2019

Addiction - Behaving to Avoid Stress

Throughout these Newsletters the consistent premise has rightly been that the effective management of stress underpins all successful behaviour management programs.  That is, for a teacher to present an effective learning environment it needs to minimize those conditions that threaten the safety of all members of the classroom.

Of course, there will inevitably be situations that disturb this desired state of calmness and when this happens we will act to alleviate that stress.  In a perfect world we would have learned to take actions to relieve that tension but there will always be circumstances that are beyond our current competence and it is under these circumstances that we have a choice, we either learn how to deal with this new situation, the ‘adult’ response or we act just to get rid of the stress.  This short-term reaction is at the heart of addiction and that addiction includes the compulsion to act in inappropriate ways.

There are three ways addictions are manifested; through the use of substances that alter the impact of the emotion, the use of activities to distract thoughts from the problem and the third is focused on stress that has its source in personal interaction; this I call ‘people addiction’.

The use of substances is long been used to alter emotions.  When anyone mentions addiction the first thing most people think of is the classic drug addict and I would argue that at the heart of the reason these chronic addicts are around is their early childhood abuse.  I have worked with children who are suffering from such addiction and they will invariably tell you that the first time they got high/drunk/bombed-out was the first time they felt good about themselves.  Never be under the illusion drugs don’t work but the problem is that like all addictions the more you use them the more the need for the effect and eventually the need for the drug becomes the primary problem for the user.

The second type is activities addiction.  This is where the person becomes so focused on a task or hobby they can’t think about anything else.  You can see this with over-the-top sports fans who live every moment for the team.  Or with kids, when a new craze sweeps the country you see those who become obsessed with it.  While ever I am fully engaged I will not have to feel the emotions from my ‘shame’.

You see activities addiction in the work place.  Years ago, when I was formulating these ideas I discussed them with a colleague.  He stopped me and said – you are describing me.  I had suspected he was somewhat engaged in such addictive behaviours as he was having difficulties in his life but was enjoying success at work.  When I started to expand my thoughts he cheerfully told me it was alright, he had just enrolled to study for his doctorate.  He achieved his doctorate but lost his family.

The catch with activities addiction is summed up by those who become workaholics.  The extra output they achieve because of the hours and the intensity they put in to their work results in their promotion.  Soon they are in positions where the workload becomes the problem, like the substance they need more and eventually they break down.

The last type of addiction is what I refer to as people addiction.  In reality, this is most likely the reflection of how the children learned to survive in the abusive relationships in which they were raised.  As with other addictions these behaviours are the result of previous experiences of success in alleviating unhealthy levels of stress.  This ‘people addiction’ is the product of behaviours that worked directly on the stressor, the ‘abusive other’.

The first type of people addiction is that of overt control.  The tactic is to stress the other person much more than they stress you.  In a sense, you abuse them straight back and in such a way they will stop their behaviour. This can be done through all types of aggression ranging from physical attack, making fun of the other person, discounting their worth, any form of attack on their physical or psychological safety.

People will take this form of defense when they hold a position they perceive as being superior to the other person.  This could result in overt behaviour against a younger sibling, a different gender, usually female or someone you perceive to be in a ‘lower’ social ‘class’. 

Overt action can make the original aggressor stop but this does not provide protection from future attacks and as with all addictive strategies, there is a long-term cost.  The aggressive behaviour pushes others away and so the danger is you become distant from others.  Those who use overt control limit their opportunity to have productive relationships; they become isolated, frustrated and bitter.

 The reverse approach is that of covert control.  This strategy consists of being so nice and cooperative towards others they will have no reason to attack you.  A common phrase used by those who adopt the covert position is ‘I don’t care – whatever you want to do’.  These children are nice to be around because they are sensitive to your needs and do whatever they can to make sure you get them met.  They avoid unpleasant situations at all costs.

They take up this position for the same reasons as those who take up the overt position, because they consider themselves less than the offending other.  The problem is their own needs are never met and resentment and anger will build-up but remain internalized.  This adds to their feelings of worthlessness.

The final position is that of resistance, the students choose to ignore the source of the attack by not getting involved with any of the other students or activities.  They rebel against any organised activities and are absent a lot.  They will avoid anything that has the potential to cause stress.

The cost of opting out of interactions with others is the loss of opportunity to get any needs met.  These students become isolated and marginalized.

So, what to do?  Dealing with situations that threaten your composure requires you to control the impact of these ‘attacks’ and to achieve this you need to develop strong boundaries (see Newsletters - ‘Teaching Practical Boundaries’ 31st July 2017 and ‘Dealing with Difficult Kids’ 4th September 2017).  Successful management of all stressful circumstances relies on the honest response to the questions that underpin all responsible behaviour.  These are:

  • What is really going on?
  • Who is responsible?
    • If its my actions then take responsibility and change that behaviour
    • If it’s the ‘others’ behaviour then understand you can’t make them do anything and you must behave in a way that has the best chance of getting your needs met in the long term
  • Let go of this relationship?

Understanding how to produce effective boundaries distinguishes adults from children, despite their real age and teachers rely on this ability to survive in the most difficult of classes. 

Posted by: AT 01:52 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

PRINCIPALS

John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance


ABN 64 372 518 772

ABOUT

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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