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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, July 29 2019

The Tribal Teacher

The focus of our work 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, exclusion or neglect from the only ‘tribe’ they have ever experienced - their family.  Louis Cozolino, the American psychologist has been at the forefront of this approach in assisting children with a history of abuse.  He has provided a detailed review of what he calls the tribal classroom in his book ‘Attachment-Based Teaching - Creating a Tribal Classroom’ (see Newsletter of 1st August 2018 – The Tribal Classroom). 

Unfortunately, or some would declare ‘fortunately’ this approach has morphed into a formal program that has provided a step by step approach to develop creating a ‘tribal classroom’.  We have seen this ‘trademarking’ of many a ‘good idea’ repeated over and over again in behaviour modification programs; take the positive psychology movement that has spawned ‘Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support’ (PBIS), the once valued ‘Reality Therapy/Choice Theory’, ‘Assertive Discipline’; the list goes on.  These are all underpinned by a deal of common sense but as soon as you ‘formalise’ it you lose the ability to cater for the diversity of our children.  

However, the point is, we can help these kids by providing group activities that promote the opportunities for all students to develop secure attachments to the group and from that within the classroom.  The students we focus on will find this difficult at first but by providing a few group-rules their anxiety can be reduced and they can develop what Cololino describes as a social synapse.  The formal program outlines these as:

  • Attentive Listening
  • Showing appreciation of everyone’s contribution
  • Each student having the right to participate, or not
  • There is a sense of mutual respect

In this Newsletter I want to focus on the teacher’s role in this approach.  I am not going to indulge into restating all the great information that is available including the ‘quality teaching’ model – another systematization of common sense but as the ‘parent’ of the tribal class.

At the top of every good parenting inventory is the importance of being a good role model.  Children are so busy watching what you do they can’t hear what you are saying.  They will become the person you are so it is important to ‘be the person’ you want them to be. 

It goes beyond just modelling, as ‘parent’ you are the leader of the group and what the students want more than anything else is a consistent, predictable environment where they can learn, through trial and correction how to successfully navigate through life with a sense of self-control.

There is an age ‘gradient’ in this approach.  When they are very young they are unable to really make meaningful choices, they don’t have enough knowledge and so you have to present them with situational scenarios where they learn the fundamental skills.  This necessitates a more ‘authoritarian’ approach but this must be balanced with complete fairness in a nurturing environment. 

Someone has to be in-charge and that person is you!  As they get older, this authoritarian approach by the teacher changes to become one of a ‘constructionist’ where the responsibility for student behaviour is placed firmly on their shoulders.  In my experience this is a rare achievement, most school leavers still have a fair bit of ‘improving’ to do but by the time they are about to exit school we would hope they are all at least predominantly responsible.

They need to experience the negative consequences when they choose the ‘wrong’ behaviour in an effort to get their needs met but these should be delivered with the emphasis on the behaviour not the child.  In your dealings with the students, at any age the following is a good guide to achieving this:

  • Encouragement should outweigh praise.  The latter can become destructive in their teens.
  • Consequences should always replace punishments.  Punishment never works in the long run (see Newsletter 2nd April 2018 – Consequences – Neither Punishment not Reward) punishment teaches the kids what not to do.  Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving.  The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours.  They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.
  • Co-operation should always dominate obedience, this is age sensitive. For instance, more and more we see young children defying their parents when it comes to them ‘getting their way’.  I watch my grandchildren using a whole range of behaviour to change their parent’s decisions after they have said ‘no’!  There are times when ‘because I said so’ is probably the right thing to do; these children are not able to understand the long-term consequences of eating the junk food they crave!

However, eventually we want our children to be independent, communal obedience is a feature of political dictatorships and social cooperation is the mark of a healthy society. 

Finally, here are some ‘parent tips’ to help you engage with your class:

  • Be involved with their life – find out about their interests, where they have lived, understand their history at an appropriate level.  We don’t have the right to understand the details of their ‘intimate’ life but when the student knows you are interested they are more likely to form the relationship that will help them engage in your lessons.

How often have I helped a relationship with a ‘troubled’ student just by finding out which sporting team or ‘rock star’ he/she follows.  When I know this, I take every opportunity to ‘bump into them’ in the playground an engage in some good-fun banter.

  • Always get to the classroom before the students and as they arrive greet them with their name and, if appropriate give them a ‘high five’, ‘fist pump’ or just shake hands; do this with a smile.  This is one of the most powerful things you can do, it sends the message that you want to be there.  Contrast this with the effect teachers, who arrive late and then criticise the students for not ‘waiting quietly in line’!  What message is that behaviour sending to the class?
  • Tell them things about your life.  Some teachers balk at this; I suspect they feel their life is none of the student’s business.  On an intimate scale they are right, your personal life is your business but if you accept the importance of a relationship you have to participate.  Telling them stories about your childhood, as lame as these may feel to you is very powerful.  It humanises you.
  • Finish the lesson with a story – in primary schools this can be a serial, despite the benefits of engaging them in literacy the ‘right’ story teaches them about life and at least you send them home looking forward to the next day!  It is hypothesised that this is a primitive need, a throw-back to the times when tribes finished their days sitting around a campfire exchanging stories.

This Newsletter has focused on a teacher’s approach to the tribal classroom and is not to be considered part of the extensive literature being bombarded into schools and an ever-increasing rate.  I believe that relationships are at the core of all successful educational experiences.  Further, they exist in the lower areas of our brain, the limbic system and as such are much more difficult to access and to change. 

This modern approach to teacher training focuses on cognitive contributions which are quick and easy to implement for educated adults (teachers) but:

  • They are not appropriate for the young developing mind which requires ‘lessons’ for their emotional and social education
  • These cognitive lessons ‘disappear’ when the students’ stress levels are raised and they start behaving based on their emotional and social beliefs.

When all is said and done the teacher/student relationship is the most important feature of quality education and that boils down to how each participant feel about each other.

Posted by: AT 11:12 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 22 2019

Debriefing

Teaching very difficult students is extremely stressful.  Although there will be incidents that are exceedingly traumatic, it is the day to day grind of working with these kids and that build-up of stress that will destroy your health.  At these times you will build-up an excess of physical and emotional energy.  Unless you do discharge this energy, it remains ‘locked’ in your physiology.  Debriefing is the process of discharging that energy, especially the emotional element.

Much of the literature on debriefing refers to the process of providing a service for those who have been exposed to a traumatic event.  This Newsletter is more about you having the means to deal with your own emotional load within a school or other specialist setting.  For ‘extreme’ traumatic events you need specialist support to deal with the victims.

On an individual level, the self-delivered debriefing process is very much following the steps outlined above in the recovery section.  These are the physical, emotional and behavioural activities itemised in this section.  This ‘self-help’ is predominantly the use of physical practices such as going to a gym, jogging, swimming anything that gets you to use up that energy that had been activated at the time you were stressed. 

One technique I have used that is effective to immediately release the physical excess present after a very stressful incident is to go to a private place in the school, with a towel and out of the sight of others, twist the towel as hard as I could, I would talk to it, get all my frustrations out on that piece of material.  The feeling of release was significant. 

I have seen others use the action of punching a special bag or other inert object to achieve this result.  There are mixed opinions about using this approach.  There is some evidence it doesn’t relieve the emotional component caused by the aggravation, the participants remain angry towards the object of their frustration. 

There is also the idea that punching, as a solution for a problem could be generalised.  Punching another may have a short-term pay-off but there is a chance that the practice of punching an inert bag could unconsciously evolve into punching the object that caused the stress!  Some would argue that it is the repetitive movement of the punching that reproduces a type of soothing, this repetition has seen in the rhythmic technique in swimming also seen as a productive approach to elevated stress levels.

The self-help approach may not be as effective in dealing with the psychological load as would working with others.  It may well be that you can get support from a colleague when you are under elevated stress levels.  This could be a friend or co-worker who you trust.  It is best, but not vital if this support person works in the same field.  They will understand the problems you face and their validation carries a lot of weight.  You both know what is really going on.

The use of your own intimate partner, wife, parent or even one of your children is not so clear cut.  To provide an effective environment for a victim the support person must remain partially detached from the concerns raised in this issue.  It is hard for your intimate other not to feel an emotional connection, it is the nature of the relationship!  However, they will be your greatest support and not sharing is shutting them out, this is not advisable for a meaningful relationship. 

This is a real difficult issue; the best debriefing really is from someone who can remain detached from your emotions but compassionate about how you would feel because they really understand what it is like to be in that situation.

Therefore, try to develop a network of supporters who you can use and who will use you when they are needed.  Personal contact is preferable but the use of technology such as Skype is a good substitute.  Avoid social media, the things you say at this time will be sensitive and not for public consumption or for your record!

The last thing I will mention is debriefing for those establishments that deal with difficult kids as a group.  These are vital in maintaining a healthy team culture, they allow the psychological wounds that occur throughout each day but these sessions are not for those occasional times when the level of personal damage is significant, either for the students or a staff member.  This is the cool down time, the time for the physical body to recover is complete.

In the work place there will be times when the outburst has created issues that challenge the practices of the organisation.  These may involve the potential of future discipline action or legal concerns.  This does not imply there is no need for debriefing but at these times the management should provide professional, independent counselling.  However, for the day to day situations a less formal, but no less important debriefing practice there is a benefit of having the ‘team’ debrief itself!

There are some rules to be followed if you are setting-up a formal debriefing session at the end of each working shift.  These are fairly obvious:

  • Begin Simply – Even if you know there has been a fairly difficult situation the staff has dealt with don’t go straight into discussing that.  By generally discussing the day that issue will emerge when the ‘time is right’.  This relies on a level of trust that must exist!  In fact, without trust debriefing can become an additional stressor!
  • Equal Rights – Although we don’t have equal rights in our places of work we do have equity at a personal level.  No one individual’s needs are more important than any others.   Debriefing is not about allocating blame or setting future agendas it is solely about dealing with the emotional discomfort of the day.
  • There are no ‘power plays’ – We will never repair everyone’s emotional state if there is an obvious difference in how each member of the team is valued; any imbalance of power will not allow long term issues to be addressed effectively.
  • No Secrets – Too often people fail to tell exactly how they feel.  On the one hand it may be because they don’t trust everyone at the meeting or they may feel that others can’t handle their feelings.  Often the stress is because there has been a conflict between staff members.  It is these that must be addressed; if not they can destroy the whole program.  There are no records of these meetings and any comments are to stay within the group.  If, as a result of the discussion the group agree that some things need to change then everyone is involved in the decision and those outside of the team should not be privy to the discussions that led to that policy change.
  • The Environment – Conduct the debriefing in a pleasant environment.  Make sure everyone is comfortable and there are no distractions.  Avoid everyone having a cup of coffee or tea as enjoyable as that may seem, debriefing is a formal part of the day.
  • Punctuality – always start and finish at a set time.  On most days you will feel the atmosphere lighten and, in my experience, when the debriefing is accomplished the groups will soon be laughing about the day.  Be aware that in all stressful occupations the humour has a very dark quality; this should be expected and although may sometime appear to be disrespectful, you have to remember these are the people who front up every day and do there best for the kids.  Their actions define the respect they have for the students! 

If, on the other hand the mood within debriefing remains tense still finish at the designated time.  The issue will still need to be addressed but by waiting for the next opportunity allows time for all to reflect on the situation.  The main thing is not to carry on discussions with colleagues about the issue outside the confines of the debriefing process.  To do so would be very destructive.

Debriefing is an important practice to maintain the health of any organisation that deals with highly demanding work.  In a perfect world this would be a formal part of every working day however, in today’s busy world there seems to be no time for taking care of others.  This is a travesty, taking time to debrief is the best long-term investment any organisation can make!

Posted by: AT 07:57 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 01 2019

Addiction - It's the Seeking not the Consumption.

In a recent Newsletter (Addiction 3rd June 2019) I discussed the ‘addictive’ forms of behaviour that teachers deal with, particularly the people addiction.  This newsletter takes a more formal look at addiction and the role it plays in behaviour.

Most work, understandably focuses on fear as being the fundamental source of stress.  This is reasonable as it is the easiest to observe, we have no problem linking traumatic events with elevated levels of stress; fear is still seen as the most significant emotion.  Compounding this is the fact that in animal studies it is relatively straightforward to put a ‘lab rat’ in a situation that evokes panic and study their reactions.

However, the underpinning premise of our model of behaviour is that the task of the young brain is to have us survive.  The drive to protect us from outside threats is only one half of the equation, to survive we need to ‘consume’ things, food, water oxygen, love, etc.  When these are denied to us our anxiety levels quickly elevate and the resulting stress has just as a profound effect on our wellbeing as does the threat of attack.

This is the seeking phase of our strategy to survive.  It is the search for things that maintain a level of satisfaction, that is when we are in homeostatic disequilibrium and we need something to make up the deficit we ‘consume’ and return to equilibrium.  This consumption gives us pleasure.

Just like the protection cycle, this seeking sequence is driven by an an electro/chemical response in this case the chemicals are predominantly dopamine and serotonin. These have two separate functions; the serotonin signals the return to equilibrium with the feeling of pleasure; the dopamine fuels the drive to seek what is required to produce the conditions of satisfaction.  Unlike the fear related chemicals, these substances are sought for the feelings they produce regardless of an individual’s state of physical comfort.  The ‘high’ they produce is the focus of drug addiction.

In the case of satisfaction, the leading drug is in the opioid family, things like opium or heroine.  But, it is in the seeking phase, where dopamine is the driver we find the methamphetamine are used, the ‘speed’ and ‘ice’.

Dopamine is not the reward but creates the desperate longing that doesn’t actually feel good in itself but by focusing the attention on a goal it brings a powerful feeling of purpose to the individual.  It injects them with a level of energy that is intense, they feel alive.  For children with a history of abuse or neglect for them, this feeling of having a purpose is extremely satisfying.  They come to crave that feeling of seeking much more than the satisfaction the seeking is designed to satiate.

This critique of the electro/chemical response illustrates the power of the seeking system and how easy it can become a major factor in the driving of dysfunctional behaviour.  We are concerned with the behaviour in the classroom, the tantrums, the anger, the violence when kids don’t get their way.  It’s prudent to remember that, as with the protective dysfunctional behaviours the tactics they use did work when they were being ‘learned’ but in a different environment they fail to achieve their goal.

The diagram below clarifies how the increase in stress manifests into the outrageous behaviours often witnessed in schools.

 

Although the elevation of stress levels is the same as the response to the fear of the current environment the expression is different.  This may best be demonstrated by a child’s need to be attached.  In the first instance it maybe that the child is rejected by a significant other, perhaps a parent.  Their earliest reaction will be to try behaviours that have worked in the past to be noticed but when these don’t work the resulting psychological pain is immense.  The seeking cycle is when a child selects someone who they want in their ‘world’ and when this other person rejects the child’s advances the dopamine cycle gets ignited and as this grows the behaviour becomes more dysfunctional.

At school the problem surrounding the dysfunctional seeking behaviours can be difficult.  In recent years the emergence of children who have become over-indulged in early childhood (see Newsletter 22nd May 2017 – Education the over-indulged and Narcissistic Child’) has resulted in a growth in this form of dysfunctional expression of behaviour, the spoilt brat’s behaviour.

These children begin with wanting something, perhaps a piece of equipment, to be picked in a team or to belong to a group of friends.  When they are first denied access to what they want they become aroused and the dopamine is released, this feeds their seeking behaviour and unless they get what they want eventually they will ‘lose control’ over their behaviour.

For the teacher, how to deal with this form of student behaviour is the same as other destructive student behaviours.  Keep the classroom calm, teach appropriate boundaries and develop a professional relationship with that student so they get the time to create a sense of self that allows them to survive in their world.  

 

Posted by: AT 07:38 pm   |  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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