Throughout these Newsletters the importance of being persistent and consistent is constantly reinforced but why is this so significant when our students live in a world that is full on inconsistencies? The following should provide the answer to this puzzle.
Over the many, many years I worked in schools the one thing I heard teachers and principals say to students in trouble was ‘What did you think was going to happen’? or ‘think about what will happen if you do …? To most of us these are fair questions but for very young students, and a special group of kids asking them to predict what will happen to them is a waste of time. Young children are just learning about what happens when they ‘do’ things. It takes time for them to build-up a repertoire of possible consequences for their actions. Consistency helps them create a solid foundation to make predictions from and develops a sense of self-control when the connection between their actions and what happens is reinforced.
However, there are another group of kids that have no idea that their behaviour is in anyway connected to what happens to them. These are the kids who have been raised in very unpredictable, chaotic families. This most often occurs when one or both care givers are incapable of their own consistent behaviour as a result of some significant mental illness especially if they are psychotic or the use of mind-altering drugs. I will illustrate with the story I was told when I was first intolerant about this phenomenon.
When we think about what will happen when we take an action implies we can anticipate the consequence. Now consider the following scenario; a little eight-year-old girl walks into her mother’s room – the think about action, walking into the room and contemplate the consequences that follow:
It is 7.00 AM, mum is extremely hungover after being out all night and feeling very sick. The response to the girl’s actions goes something like ‘what are you doing here’, ‘I hate you’, ‘I wish I never had you’, ‘Get out of my sight’ or ‘I wish I was dead’ and lashes out trying to hit her. These are the consequences and they would probably be delivered using more colourful language. This is ‘Mum one’!
The same action at 12.00 noon mum’s still not good but a bit better. ‘What did you get up to last night’, ‘Why can’t you clean up after yourself, you are a disgrace’, ‘I know you didn’t go to bed when I told you’ or ‘how come your brother didn’t have a shower’. Enter ‘Mum two’!
Its 2.00 PM and mum is feeling a bit better, especially after having a couple of drinks. ‘What video did you watch last night, was it good’, ‘I saw your friend’s mother and she said you had been playing at her place last week’ and so on. Now we have ‘Mum three’!
5.00 PM, mum is planning to go out for another bout of drinking. The girl enters the room and mum is desperate to ease her own conscience. ‘How’s my big girl’, ‘You’re like a sister to me’, I’m so lucky I can trust you to look after your brother, you’re so responsible’, ‘let’s go and get a video for you to watch and I’ll give you money so you can order a pizza’ followed by ‘do you don’t mind if I hop out for a little while to see my friends’. This is ‘Mum 4’ one that offers some positive affection!
10.00 PM, mum arrives home drunk with some man in tow, someone the daughter has never seen before. ‘Here’s my little princess’, ‘This is Joe he has a car and will take us out to Water World tomorrow’, ‘I have decided next year I will take you to Disney World in the US’, Why don’t I get you that bike you have always wanted’. Finally, ‘Mum 5!
The thing is, what would be the point in asking this girl what would happen if she walked into her mother’s room; she would have no idea; in the example above, I have given just five possibilities there would most certainly be more, increasing her insecurity. For children raised in such homes the idea they have any control over their life is a fantasy – life happens to them! They are left feeling powerless with an undefined sense of self. This uncertainty is carried into the rest of their life including the classroom.
All kids arrive at school and instinctively work out where they fit. Healthy kids struggle at first but soon learn the ‘rules of behaviour’ and quickly settle in. Children raised with uncertainty do not and their confusion is expressed in the following ways:
Feeling Less Than – It is inevitable that they see other kids getting on with each other and are secure in their behaviour. However, our kids have no idea what to do and it’s no wonder they feel less than everyone else!
Vulnerable – Of course, these kids feel threatened when they are uncertain. All their life things have happened to them regardless of what they have done. Why would they expect anything else? So every interaction holds the possibility of at least disappointment.
Guilty – For all of us the early years are the most significant in forming our sense of self. Those early years are also a time when we are very ego-centric, that is we are the centre of the universe and therefore everything that happens is our fault! When things go wrong it’s because they did the wrong thing and they are therefore guilty! This, of course is a faulty belief.
Dependent – Understandably, these children become very frightened to make any decision for themselves; why would they? Instead of actively living life they have to wait until things happen to them. So, it makes sense to let others decide what to do and just follow on. This becomes a real problem if they get into ‘friendships’ with anti-social groups which is likely to happen.
Out of Control – This last trait is linked to their dependence, when they are in a position where they have to make-a-decision, that decision is a wild guess acting with hope but no conviction. No wonder they have no sense of control and this results in feelings of hopelessness and despair.
A major theme of our work is underpinned by the understanding that behaviour, in fact all learning depends on the environment in which the behaviour is formed. It is obvious why these kids raised in unpredictable environments have missed out on that condition that would have developed a strong sense of self. The bad news is that it is extremely difficult to change a person’s sense of self because it is formed early in life and becomes very stable. The good news is that it can be changed. By presenting a very structured persistent and consistent set of behaviours in your classroom eventually these children will develop the courage to believe their behaviour can dictate what happens to them.
The current obsession with teaching basic skills continues to take centre stage with politicians and media commentators on education. This focus is reflected in the curriculum students are presented in the classroom. The latest research into the workings of the brain, exposes the damage that comes with this approach. It is obvious that by reducing the curriculum there is a reduction of the creative power of a child’s working memory and consequent decline in their ability to think critically. Instead of reducing the content of our curriculum the more diverse our lessons are and the more varied our delivery of those lessons the better equipped our students will be to succeed in these complex times.
The brain is complex, perhaps the most complicated object in the universe and for years we have tried to understand how it works. How do we think, act, feel – if it is not the brain than what is it that drives these experiences? This essay aims to move this quest a bit further along the road introducing the idea that the cerebellum may is becoming recognised as the engine room of all cognitive processes.
The cerebellum is often referred to as the ‘little brain’ in fact its name comes from the Latin for that same description. The title was really obvious as it looks like the whole brain with two hemispheres that sit each side of a central line. This structure sits on top of the brain stem and behind the mid brain. The cerebellum takes only 10% of the brain’s volume but it contains half the brain’s neurons.
Early observations made the link between the cerebellum and a person’s motor skills and balance. Like all early neurological studies on behaviour, conclusions about the purpose of brain regions were inferred by the loss of functions after there was an injury to a specific part of the brain. As far as the cerebellum is concerned, assaults on it resulted in changes to the motor functions and/or balance of the individual and for years this was considered its total function to ensure stability in space. This drive to reconcile the balance of the body relative to the outer environment has been referred to as the cerebellum constant.
More and more the cerebellum is becoming recognised as the controlling mechanism of all behaviour. It has two modes of management, the first is to hold the model of how things should be; based on the individual’s history both genetic and environmental. The second is to scrutinise incoming stimulation from the internal and external situations against the expected conditions. If there is a match nothing happens however, when there is a mismatch the cerebellum initiates a ‘behaviour’ that has in the past worked best to return to the balance between the anticipated and observed stimulus.
This anticipatory system is automatic, that is the response to the misalliance between observed and expected conditions is a feed- forward process, it is immediate; there is no conscious or unconscious evaluation of the situation prior to making a response. This is easy to comprehend when thinking about balance or motor skills but the feed-forward characteristic of the cerebellum’s action has profound implications when thinking about children whose behaviour we want to change. At the time of exposure to a stressful situation when there is an imbalance in the cerebellum, the child has no choice about how they react, the feed forward characteristic of this process determines their action.
Although, from my studies there is no articulated description of how the outcome of any adjustment made during an ‘event’ leads to a change in the cerebellum’s anticipation when those same set of conditions re-occur; however, there must be a change because we can and do change our behaviour in response to situations over time. The strong links across the whole brain from the cerebellum, particularly to the cerebrum where memories are located compels the conclusion that it is the change of memories that inform the re-set of the cerebellum after any event.
The illustration below describes the process the cerebellum goes through in any situation. We perceive any conditions through our receptors and when confronted the cerebellum compares the circumstances we perceive with that which we expected. If there is a clash the cerebellum immediately feeds forward an action. This is automatic and not based on any ‘reasoning’ at the time the event occurs. The mind evaluates what happened after the action and creates memories that are fed back into the cerebellum to modify the expectation. The strength of this process is the same as any memory formation. It is relative to the emotional level and/or the consistency of the action - consequence connection.
This instant response has always been attributed to the amygdala however, I contend that the ‘feed-forward’ process is directed at the amygdala which in turn produces the fight/flight/ freeze reaction we observe in times of extreme stress.
The brain’s only power is to initiate movement through the excitation of an electro/chemical action. When dealing with actual body movement this has a well-known connection with the cerebellum; messages are sent out to adjust our body in space. However, this ‘initiation’ also occurs for all the brain’s activities and although there may not be any physical movement it is the cerebellum that initiates the electro/chemical transmission to all parts of the brain resulting in the establishment of a physical event, and emotion or a memory. All of these allow for an examination of the situation away from the cerebellum.
I’m aware that this is a fairly complex explanation of the process but the real difficulty in understanding this most intricate organ is overwhelming. The message for educators is that in order to function a child has to build-up a bank of memories that can be contrasted to the incoming stimulus. Of these, the most significant is the memories of social interactions which is the philosophy behind our model of creating an educational environment. These social often emotional memories are laid down in a family context and when this is less than ‘ideal’ it becomes the school’s task to do this.
However, the undertaking of a school should not be to reconstruct a child’s bank of social memories but rather create a set of memories that allow the child to access when faced with more complex, cognitive challenges. Their success in doing this is directly linked to the abundance stored in the cerebral cortex. It is obvious, that if we want our students to become creative and critical in their life it is important that we expose them to as wide a variety of experiences and subsequent memories as we can.
Of course, numeracy and literacy are important but think about how many of the memories acquired in these lessons are accessed in later life when you think about how you, as an adult navigate your work and life. If schools are to prepare children to actively participate in and contribute to their community the more diverse the educational experiences we provide for them the more beneficial their contribution will be.
In the last Newsletter I dealt with how you can take effective, personal action when dealing with children, and others for that matter in times of crisis. Unfortunately, in these critical times, when emotions are high mistakes are too easily made. For kids with a history of abuse/neglect their fragile sense of self and their hypervigilance for threats in their environment means any mistake you make really will have a substantial impact on your relationship, damaging your most valued asset.
We will examine potential mistakes, by the teacher, then the students’ attempts to manipulate the teacher and finally blunders during communication between both parties.
Mistakes by the Teacher
Many of these described mistakes are the opposite of what was outlined in the previous Newsletter but they are worth discussing in this format. These are:
Ignoring Conflict – It is not unusual to read advice on behaviour management to ignore the behaviour. And, I agree there are times to do this but only when the ‘mistakes’ are a function of the student’s development, it may be inappropriate but not expected by students of that age. However, it would be rare for ignoring conflict in your classroom. Too often, teachers are so tired, unprepared or so overwhelmed they choose to ignore the behaviour for some ‘short term’ peace. This of course, never happens.
React Before Thinking – Making decisions, on the run is a dangerous practice. You have to accept that in these times emotions will be running high and we know there is an inverse relationship between emotional elevation and rational thinking. Have a plan before you get into conflict resolution.
Making Stupid Threats – Never threaten a consequence you can’t deliver. I remember listening to an excellent teacher dealing with an aggressive, conduct disordered child who was dangling his leg out the classroom window. What I heard was ‘if you put your leg out the window one more time I will break it!’ Now, the bone in the leg is very difficult to break without using extreme force so that was not likely to be a consequence the teacher could deliver and, as the principal supervising this teacher I could only imagine the paper-work that would have followed if he was successful! I use this humorous but real example to illustrate how silly threats can be – you must understand you can’t make anyone do anything. All you can do is provide the consequences and allow them to make the decision and you can’t deliver consequences that are unethical or illegal.
Pulling Rank – a common mistake is making a statement like you will do that because I’m the teacher, reminding the student who has the most ‘position power’. However, position power is never a match for personal power. All it takes is a child to say something like ‘make me’ and you are in deep trouble. In my career I have been confronted with just such a scenario; even when I pointed out the consequence the child would challenge my ability to deliver the consequence. However, I had a sequential plan that was known to me and delivered in steps to the child in question. The last step was always to call the police which I had to do on many occasions. In fact, because I had always followed through my plan when I got to this stage other students would tell the student in question ‘he will do it’. That endorsement more often than not brought closure to the conflict.
Talking too Much/Little – You only have a small window to make your point. Say what you need to say stop and listen to the child. The more you talk the less they listen however you need to make sure they know exactly what will happen. It is a time when you can use the well-known conflict resolution technique:
When you …. Say swear at me
I feel … really hurt
Because … I don’t deserve to be talked to that way
However, this approach may be effective dealing with appropriately functioning kids but in times of crisis I would use:
If you … say throw that chair
I will … suspend you
This process would need to be repeated with differing scenarios as the conflict moves to a crisis.
Offering Time-Out from an Unattractive Environment – Time-out (see Newsletter - Time Out 17th July 2017) is only effective if the classroom is attractive to the student. This should not be an issue, children love to belong where they are valued. Unfortunately, too often I have seen students sent out of the classroom to stand next to the door. Before long others have manipulated the teacher to send them out as well and soon there is a ‘party’ going on in the corridor. Time-out is an effective consequence but only if it is well organised and I urge you to visit the Newsletter about this topic.
Personally Attacking the Student – This is a critical mistake, things like ‘you’re just like your brother’, ‘why did I think someone like you could act appropriately’, you (put any ethnicity in here) are all the same’ the list goes on. Not only do you alienate the student involved the other kids will observe this and lose respect for you. Always, always it is the behaviour we reject, never the child.
Not Modelling what you Expect – This is a case where the faulty message ‘do as I say not as I do’ is on display. Your integrity is an invaluable asset but is only maintained if you are consistent in acting the way you expect your students to act. If you’re always late for class it would be immoral to punish a child who is late for class.
Manipulation by the Student
The following are some examples of how students try to deflect their responsibility for their behaviour. These include:
Plead and Deal – This is where the student tries to get the teacher to ‘let them off’. They make promises like, ‘I’ll never do this again’, ‘If you let me off this time I’ll clean-up the room’ or dangerously ‘If you suspend me my father will bash me’. This last one is very difficult and how you respond is very age-dependent. It may well be the truth that the child will be hit if they are suspended and this does place the teacher in a difficult position. I suspect very young children would not say this unless it was true and then the teacher has a moral and legal responsibility to report this to the authorities. Older children can use this plead to avoid responsibility even if it’s not true you will have the same responsibilities. I would take the following steps:
I would ask if this has happened before – if yes then I report the abuse if no I tell them that their parent is not allowed to hit them and if they do they must tell me – then I would report
I would also contact the parent and inform them of what their child has said, explaining that I think they are just trying to get out of trouble but reminding them of the law and my responsibilities
I understand this is very precarious situation so I would also inform my superior officer to get my approach approved and recorded
This is a difficult situation.
Deflecting – This is when the child brings up past events saying why you didn’t punish someone else in the past for what they consider the same behaviour ‘Why didn’t you send Jane out when she did this’, you always pick on me’, ‘It’s because I’m black, a Muslim’, ‘You don’t do this to girls’, the list is only limited by their imagination. And be aware these students are really good at finding those things you care about and using them against you; ‘you never pick on the kids in the choir’.
This is not the time to defend yourself, that’s what they want. Once you engage in a discussion arguing your impartiality you have lost, if you start they won’t finish until you concede; this is when you use the ‘broken record’ approach. For the younger readers when old records were scratched the needle would often become stuck on one groove and so the contents of that groove would be repeated over and over again until someone turned it off. Use this ‘broken record’ approach by dealing with each deflection with something like ‘I’m not interested in that now – you have to leave the room’. Eventually they should stop and, if you think it is worthwhile you may explain to them why you acted that way at a later time but not when you are delivering the consequence.
Use the Crowd – Some students are very popular in the classroom or have a powerful group of peers and they can join in pressuring the teacher. This can be very confronting especially to inexperienced or timid teachers. This can be as simple as their ‘friends’ arguing on their behalf or creating other levels of disturbance that you have to stop dealing with this issue to address what they are doing. You must keep all the students safe and you may have to pay close attention to what is happening but immediately that issue is resolved you return to the original matter.
Problems created by both parties
These last ‘mistakes can be made by either the teacher or the student. They are:
Poor Timing – this is when there is a dispute but the aggressive contender starts an argument when the other is distracted. Not only will they catch the other ‘off-guard’ the ‘other’ will be focused on something else and might dismiss the issue. The result is there is no conclusion to the dispute.
Sand Bagging – this is very similar to deflecting but it is not really referring to how the teacher dealt with other students it is bringing up other problems not relevant to current situation. This is another time the ‘broken record’ approach can be used but it is unlikely the student will have that skill.
Blaming – saying ‘you’re the one who is wrong. I didn’t do it’ best sums up this approach. It is hard to argue with this because it is so unreasonable and you find yourself defending your actions and not dealing with the issue at hand.
Leaving – this is when one of the contenders just ups and leaves the discussion. This way they avoid any confrontation and therefore there is no conclusion. This approach does not resolve the situation and it must be dealt with eventually. Teachers who do this can be guaranteed the issue will happen again so it is best to deal with it at the time. If the student ‘walks away’ then the teacher should not ‘resume normal duties’ until the issue is resolved.
Loss of Temper – when you lose your temper you lose self-control and become disempowered. If the teacher does this they lose more than control of the current situation they lose the respect of the other students. If it is the student then don’t continue until they have regained some self-control.
Avoiding Responsibility – I saw Bart Simpson use this in an episode of the Simpsons and I refer to it as the Bart technique, ‘You didn’t see me, you can’t prove it, I didn’t do it.’ Just remember it is not a court of law so the teacher can provide a consequence when they are confident they are in the right. It is very much more difficult for the student but in a good school each student should have a teacher who can advocate for them.
Playing the Martyr – mostly, like all these are most often used by students but this is more common with teachers. They become ‘hopeless’ claiming they can’t do what is required. In some cases, particularly with students they will threaten suicide (this threat should never be dismissed but is the subject of a future Newsletter). Teachers will rarely use this technique with students but it is not unusual to do this when dealing with a supervising staff member. Instead of dealing with the situation they want the other to take responsibility.
This is an exhaustive list of common mistakes. It doesn’t take much insight to see that each one is exclusive and both teachers and students will form numerous versions of each identified scam. All of these can be avoided by using the script outlined in in the Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries (31st July 2017) and this is:
‘What is really happening’? This is often not the obvious event
‘Who is responsible’?
If ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take-action to address the cause of the stress
If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
‘What is causing the attack’?
What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?
Never, when possible leave a dispute unresolved; having some unresolved problem will destroy any attempts to create a working relationship in your classroom.
This document provides further comments regarding the new Student Behaviour Strategy. This is a result of being exposed to the ‘Telethon Kids Institute’s Strengthening school and system capacity to implement effective interventions to support student behaviour and wellbeing in NSW public schools: An evidence review’ which it is assumed underpinned the proposed Behaviour Strategy. (Even the title of this review is problematic and would suggest it has been written by a committee.)
I would like to make the following observations that may assist your review of the feedback you have sought.
This report is quite extensive and a very thorough synopsis of what evidence is currently available. As stated it is created “from three sources of evidence: 1) NSW educators’ current practice, capacity and context perspectives and experiences (focus group and interview consultations); 2) Existing international and national policy and practice (Think Tank with experts); and 3) Robust peer-reviewed published evidence describing student behaviour interventions and system-level implementation supports (review of empirical literature).” However, my comment is that, although very concise it produces no new evidence that has not been available in the numerous reports that have preceded it. Further, it is so densely presented it is useless for the average classroom teacher or for that matter school executive considering the well documented evidence of a work-force in crisis over the vocational demands they face. As a retired principal and long-time researcher of student behaviour I found it to be challenging despite my interest and lack of relative time demands.
I will make my criticisms is general terms.
Evidence Based Practice
Most research into behaviour management is carried out on a case-based manner, that is, the context is between individual students and the teacher. Classrooms are not equipped to implement most findings as the teacher is:
Not properly trained to do this
Responsible for up to 29 other students who are entitled to their attention
Tasked with delivering a set curriculum programmed to be provided in the time allocated
Evidence based practice is a well-worn cliché that appears in a succession of documents and of course should be the foundations of all practice. However, when you examine closely the ‘evidence’ it becomes more obscure. The reasons for this are:
Most evidence is a result of self-reporting, by the student or teacher and this is particularly problematic.
Observational evidence is also uncertain as findings are often limited to the ‘check-sheet’ provided
I have rarely, if ever seen a study that has a hypothesis and therefore a null hypothesis where results are compared to a control group.
The use of Expert Advisory Groups and the Think Tank participants is a problem. Not that they are not all eminently qualified for their professional work, that work is not in the classroom dealing with one or more severely disruptive students while trying to fulfil their professional ‘teaching’ duties; this results in a top-down attitude which disempowers teachers. This perceived lack of relevance on the teachers’ behalf diminishes any enthusiasm for the adoption of the program.
Use of commercial programs is also of limited value. There has been a succession of these programs the latest being based on positive psychology. All of these are of some use but:
They fail to deal with students with severe behaviours; the PBL resource acknowledges this limitation. But it is these very dysfunctional students who are beyond the skill set these programs are providing teachers
Schools who adopt these programs require a substantial investment of time to develop their practice
Staff transfers quickly dilute the whole-school approach unless the training is an annual event
Finally, trauma informed practice is another well-worn cliché but this has more dangerous implications. Of course, it is important that teachers understand the problems students who have suffered trauma face. However, the diagnosis of trauma covers a wide range of disorders and it is really the role of mental health professionals to deal with these issues. It is extremely dangerous for non-professionals to embark on any therapeutic interventions both for the child and the teacher. Instead of being encouraged teachers should be warned about the dangers of embarking on such activities.
My belief is that it is the teacher’s task to provide an environment that minimises the triggers that would initiate a ‘traumatic response’. This is achieved by providing structure and strong expectations delivered through a professional supportive relationship between the teacher and the students. This is where teacher training should be focused.
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.