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Monday, May 25 2020

The Voice

‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is Latin for ‘I think therefore I am’.  This is one of the fundamental truths of philosophy but René Descartes’ purpose was to prove our existence.  This Newsletter takes a more personal interpretation of this saying.  Our behaviour is driven by our memories and this is the thinking that underpins our actions.  For kids who have a bank of memories laid down in abusive, traumatic environments, their thoughts almost guarantee dysfunctional actions.

None of us are impervious to thoughts of failure.  We all suffer those unwanted thoughts that creep into our psyche when things are not going well.  Research has shown that 94% of people experience unwanted thoughts.  In extreme cases these intrusive thoughts are at the heart of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where the fear that something bad may happen stops sufferers from living a fruitful life.

Anxiety is at the heart of these unwanted, intrusive thoughts.  I’ve just returned from golf and standing over a three-foot putt to make a birdy guarantees my negative self-talk was in full swing.  However, my problems pale in significance when you consider the self-talk of those children who have developed early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We have discussed some of the types of thought patterns when we examined the sense of toxic shame that is interrelated with early childhood PTSD (see Newsletters Toxic Shame, 3rd July, 2017 and Vacuous Shame, 18th September 2017).  The belief that they are faulty and not worthy drives their thought patterns and when they face a classroom task those beliefs have them failing before they start.

So, what to do?  If you were a therapist you could take the time to help them learn that these are thoughts, they exist and they are powerful but they are fuelled by the student’s own history.  But, as a teacher you won’t have the time nor the training to undertake such an intervention.  Teachers always have the wellbeing of their students at the forefront and the natural thing to do is support these kids through praise or reassurance.

Both these approaches are at best marginal in helping.  Saying things like ‘you can do it’ reinforces the importance of the task.  Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University came across a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's in 1863 which stated: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."  Wegner conducted a test on his students asking them not to think about a polar bear while undertaking a set task.  He found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not there hence ensuring it is.  Saying to ignore the negative thoughts ensures they will be present.

Another problem with always reassuring those students is that by doing so you are reinforcing their sense of self and providing attention they may enjoy.  You have to remember that they are comfortable with their beliefs, at least they know ‘what will happen.’  Some students embrace their sense of helplessness and become reliant on your reassurance.

Praise is not any more effective.  It may work for children under the age of seven as they take all your comments at face value.  However, by the time they are twelve they interpret your praise as a sign you think they lack the ability to do the work.  By the time they are teenagers they discount praise to such an extent they equate it with criticism (see Newsletter Dangers of Praise 12th September 2018 for discussion on praise).

We are in the business of teaching and correcting mistakes is a key tool in achieving the acquisition of new knowledge.  We have to criticise the mistakes all kids make and this is a challenge when dealing with these kids who not only know they have made a mistake, they think they are a mistake, the hallmark of toxic shame.  No matter what the problem, be it their behaviour or their classwork you can criticise their work without depreciating the student by following these steps:

  • Be specific, explain the situation as you see it; ‘this is what is wrong’.
  • Acknowledge the positive thing that the student has got right.
  • Empathise, tell them it is not easy for anyone especially the first time they try.
  • Remain calm, don’t let them see you are frustrated with their efforts even if you know they haven’t really tried.  These kids don’t fail on purpose, they fail because they expect to!
  • Keep to the task at hand.  If it is a behavioural problem don’t be side-tracked by discussing something else that happened.  Be like a broken record, this is what we have to deal with now.
  • Be specific in what you want from them.  Don’t assume they know what to do even if you have explained it over and over.  Kids get the message at different times so be patient.  Even if they are trying to annoy you remain professional.
  • Explain the outcome that will be achieved if they do as you expect.  For every action there are consequences and they need to be reminded that they are free to do whatever they want but they will not be free of the outcomes.

Working with these kids is the greatest challenge for any teacher and it is easy to let your guard down.  The following are some of the classic mistakes we can make:

  • Ignore the problem, some behaviour management theorists recommend you ignore problems but only if they are not important.  I agree but it is part of the art of teaching and depends on just how good an ‘artist’ you are.  Sometimes ignoring is just a sign you are too tired to do the hard thing. 
  • Send a double message, you say the right things but your body language and tone of voice, the non-verbal cues are sending a different message.
  • Being impatient, don’t hurry through your explanation.  This tells them you don’t care, or think they are a waste of time.  These kids need more time.
  • Talking too much or too little.  Get in and make your message as effective and efficiently as you can.  Kids, everyone gets turned-off when the ‘teacher’ goes on and on.  Give them the Goldilocks instructions, not too short, not too long but just right.
  • Keep your emotions in check, never lose your temper if you lose that you have lost the student.

I’ve called this Newsletter You’re the Voice after a hit song from John Farnham.  In our family there is a division about just how good he is but there are parts of the song that teachers can apply to this problem:

‘We have the chance to turn the pages over’

‘You're the voice, try and understand it’

‘With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better’


You are often these kids’ only chance, you have the power to help so be their voice until they can speak powerfully for themselves.

Posted by: AT 09:04 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 18 2020


One of the hardest things to achieve when working with students with dysfunctional behaviour is to instil a sense of purpose that is beyond short term satisfaction.  In fact, this is a problem for teachers dealing with all students.  Any serious examination of life’s purpose leads to a philosophical exploration into what makes a ‘self’!

In the preparation of my new book, currently in print, I spent a good deal of time examining what characteristics I would like the students to have when they graduated from school.  I have posted a section from that work (Changing the Child) in the resource section of our webpage, Frew Consultants Group that will outline the conclusion I came to and what I mean by the following characteristics:

  • Sense of Self – feeling you are of value
  • Relatedness – able to navigate in your community
  • Autonomy – having a sense of competence and the confidence in that ability
  • Aspirations/Purpose – having something meaningful for which to strive

It is this last point that is the focus of this Newsletter.

At the fundamental level our purpose is to survive and reproduce, these two drives control all our behaviour (See Newsletter Drives and Needs - 11th November 2019).  When we are threatened or need something in our lives we will become stressed and behave in a way to address the situation.  Of course, the drive to survive and reproduce becomes much more complicated as we negotiate our way around our community but all behaviour can be reduced to these fundamentals.  I have also uploaded a Chapter from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ in the resource section of the web page that provides a comprehensive explanation of our tri-part brain and how this manages various levels of our integration with our communities.

The focus on aspirations, or purpose has a lot to do with the temporal consideration of our behaviour.  When confronted with a stressful situation, if we act ‘in the present’ we are looking at immediate gratification.  However, if we can project into the future and act in a way that delays our instant satisfaction for the sake of an enhanced outcome in the future we may well be better off.  This ability to resist immediate action or to act in a way that eliminates any future outcome is within our ability.  The notion that you can choose to act is vexed and I do not subscribe to the idea of free-will, not in the immediate sense. I believe what we do is determined and is controlled by the memories we have at any given time.  So, if we want to change behaviour we have to change the memories.  The hypothesis that all behaviour is driven by our memories underpins all our work.

This temporal perspective gives some insight into the significance of having a purpose. The USA’s Declaration of Independence looked to articulate the purpose of their Government and that was expressed in the following:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those who know me will not be surprised that I’m no fan of the American system of Government and I feel the last four words of this declaration reveals its very weakness.  Happiness is about living in the present; it’s about getting what you want – now!  This approach ties the individual to external forces.  If happiness is about getting it follows that we are taking from our external world.  That’s fine while it is available but there are at least two problems.  The first is that, if we rely on the external world to provide our happiness we are at the mercy of things, and relationships that are beyond our control and control is critical for our self-esteem.

The second is more specific to the children we focus on.  Their external world has provided abuse and neglect leaving them with behaviours that encourage further rejection when they try to integrate at school.  If we want to help them we need to provide them with the tools to get a purpose that does not rely instantly on others but act in a way that will provide internal satisfaction in the future; we have to give them a future oriented meaning for their behaviour - meaningfulness.

Meaningfulness is all about looking to the future, delaying gratification for future reward.  It is a path that often forces the student to forgo happiness to pursue their future goals.  This can increase the probability of challenges and setbacks that increase their level of stress.  Living a meaningful life is not easy.

To cultivate this quality in children who have been raised in an environment that has almost completely destroyed any hope for the future is extremely challenging.  It is human nature that our expectations of our future are based on the experience of our past.  The past for these kids has provided little or no real occasions of things that have made them satisfied.

As happiness relies on ‘getting’ things or friendships, meaningfulness requires the student to ‘give’ to the outside world.  It comes from contributing to others, helping others which means forgoing your own ‘happiness’.

So, how do we develop purpose in our students, especially those who have never had hope about the future?  As I said at the beginning, this is one of the hardest qualities to instil in a dysfunctional child.

The first thing is to teach the importance of contributing to the external world be that in learning how to share, to work in charitable activities, to participate with others in a way that teaches the community set of values.  So many of our Newsletters have dealt with the structure, particularly the moral value of the environment but it is important to provide this milieu so the students can move from that foundation into the future.  This is the environment in which they will develop new memories that change their sense of self.

For purpose we need to not only focus on the environment in the classroom but also the work we ask each child to do; this is where goal setting is valuable.  When a child reaches a goal, it provides them with an intrinsic reward which is really a new memory associated with a pleasant emotion.  At first these are short-term goals; abused kids don’t have the luxury of delayed gratification and they won’t stay engaged.  If they are working on a longer project, because the class is more advanced, then set a long-term goal and break it down into bite sized short term goals that allow you to manufacture their intrinsic reward.  Setting goals is an excellent way of encouraging these kids as long as they are attainable.  If they are too hard they will give-up and you will be reinforcing their negative sense of self.

Finally, expose them to as many different experiences as you can.  We want these kids to have a meaningful life but it is not our job to tell them what to pursue, what becomes their purpose.  Give them choice and trust them, eventually to make a meaningful choice!

In my career I often heard parents lament, I just want my child to be happy.  I understand that but the pursuit of happiness is full of risks.  The reliance on ‘others’ inevitably leads to disappointment.  As a teacher it is important that you want your students to live a life with meaning!

Posted by: AT 11:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 11 2020

Trauma and the Environment

Throughout these Newsletters we have consistently maintained the premise that the majority of children who display dysfunctional behaviour at school have a history of abuse and/or neglect that is the cause of their problematic conduct (we have excluded those children whose behaviour is driven by a physical anomaly such as developmental delay, psychosis or autism).  Although we understand there is a real difference between the consequence of abuse and the resulting trauma (see Newsletter - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse – 11/06’2017) and neglect (see Newsletter - The Impact of Neglect 09/12/2017) the merger of both has often occurred for convenience and is the reflection of the reality some children experience.

This combination has long been accepted and as early as 1995 psychologists formalised the impact of both neglect and abuse through the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) index.  This index categorise sufferers based on the number of the following childhood experiences:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • mental illness of a household member
  • problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member
  • illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member
  • divorce or separation of a parent
  • domestic violence towards a parent

In the US over half of all children had suffered at least one of these events.

However, just because there is a strong propensity for these children to experience both abuse and neglect the approach to healing these kids is complex, requires very specialist training and is not nor should be the task of the classroom teacher.  However, we contend that for the classroom teacher the practice we outline is the same regardless of the complexity of the child’s history.

Since the time early childhood trauma and neglect was properly accepted as a significant cause of behavioural dysfunction there was a spate of training programs that advertised themselves under the heading of ‘trauma informed practice’.  From these, teachers were instructed to change their teaching, regarding their behaviour management practices to cater for these kids.  This was setting an impossible task for the teacher and providing no real help for the student.

For the teacher, there is at least two problems; the first I have alluded to above.  Teachers are not mental health professionals and are not equipped to deal with the specifics of the cause of the behaviour.  To modify your behaviour management practices and cater for the individual requires you to really understand the cause of the behaviour and the best way to address that cause.  For a therapist in a one-hour face to face consultation it is hard enough, to think you can do this in a classroom with 30 other kids is farcical. 

The second problem is that by making allowances for abnormal behaviour does not provide the student with the experience of ‘normal’.   

The complexity of dealing with this problem is not surprising, each kid comes with 80 billion neurons that are shaped by unique experiences.  In the broadest possible manner, we can put these kids’ inappropriate development into the following categories:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Development (PTSD) – here the child experiences an assault on their physical or psychological sense of self that evokes a stress response that is beyond their ability to cope (see reference above).  This damages the ability to deal with situations that repeat the conditions of the original abuse, or circumstances that resemble those conditions.  When the environmental conditions change the intense reaction steadily returns to normal.  These kids are often engaged at school.
  • Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD – this is the result of frequent and sustained abuse.  The abusive incidents occur at such a frequency and without warning the child finds it difficult the address any stressful situation.  They have missed those periods of normalcy, peaceful times when they could have learned some coping mechanisms for those day to day disturbances.  So, when they confront the minor stressors found in in any classroom, the traumatic memories evoked are beyond their ability to cope.
  • Deprivation/Neglect – These children have not had the exposure of experiences that allow the child to develop a rich variety of encounters that build their memories.  As teachers we understand the importance of kids being exposed to a lot of different environmental events to build a rich palate of memories.  For these kids not only do they miss out on any variety they fail to be exposed to the most necessary, fundamental experiences:  
    • Affection, this is the key to developing strong attachment and a positive sense of self.
    • Attention is required for a child to get their needs met.  When they are hungry they cry and get fed.  Of course, these strategies change as they get older but the thing is the child gets a sense of control.
    • Structure is crucial for a child to get a sense of safety.  It gives the child the ability to predict what will happen in a given situation.  After relationships, the provision of a structured classroom is crucial for all students to learn.
    • Guidance or lack of appropriate guidance never allows the students to be taught how to operate in social settings.  Little kids regard their parents as being the gold standard for behaviour.  They have nothing to compare with in their formative years.  More often than not these kids have no social skills and so they are unlikeable.

However, as teachers you are left to deal with these very needy kids without the resources you require.  We need to take our lead from the mental health experts and for any therapist dealing with these individuals the first thing they do is try to emotionally stabilise them before they can work on their problems.  Our task is to provide an environment that allows them to ‘stabilise’, this is at the core of our work.  The teacher’s essential task is to present a learning environment that has defined structure, clear expectations and supportive relationships.  These conditions must be in place before meaningful school work can be achieved.

Posted by: AT 09:27 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 04 2020


There is no dispute that in our schools, prejudice exists but it should not be tolerated.  However, it is hard to achieve a state where all kids feel equal.  More importantly, because teachers are more mature, educated and developed, the propensity for us to unconsciously act with prejudice is elevated.  

This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.

The basic characterisation of prejudice is our judgemental attitude to others based on their ‘group’.  Usually, it is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider inferior to our values.  There is the reverse situation where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us.  The significance of this propensity to compare has its beginnings in evolution.  

Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain.  This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning.  This coincided with the time we became a social species a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups bonded.  

This advantage continued but a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other tribes.  This became a matter of us being safe in the in-group and others in the out-group were dangerous.  As this was a matter of survival we learned to quickly identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’

The resulting cognitive alterations, situated in the brain’s emerging limbic system allowed us to survive and thrive because of this co-operation with others.  The ability to identify with our group not only depended on our compliance to the social norms but we quickly obtained the ability to critically examine others’ behaviours and reject any differences.  The mechanics of this perceived animosity began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat.  

Research has shown that when people think in a prejudice manner the amygdala lights-up, that is, it is activated.  This reaction was first observed when white men in the US were shown pictures of other faces.  Their amygdala was more active when shown pictures of black, Afro-Americans indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response.  However, the same anxious response has occurred when shown faces of other races, aggressive women or opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think is ‘other’.  

The broad result is that we view others as being different and in fact we believe those ‘others’ to be homogeneous, to be ‘all the same’!  For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals.  However, if you see a white man of a similar age and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’!  We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction. 

This marked the emergence of self-consciousness, that is we became aware that we were an individual separate from but belonging to others.  We also became selfish, understandable in survival.  Within the group it payed-off to share, we won together.  But with those groups that were not part of us it was a benefit to denigrate them; these outsiders represented a threat.

This prejudice has an impact on health.  Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress.  The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging.

So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps it was in the first instance but this is not the case now.  The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.

On an individual basis the brain develops over time.  The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth.  This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment.  It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not respond to differences in race, gender or class.  In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends.  Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.

However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured, dropped this inclination towards social diversity.  This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens.  It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also drives this need to discriminate in a micro sense.  This meant to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of the out-group.  

This is the period of the evolving teenage brain.  From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations.  You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you.  The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way.  However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley, at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger.  The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us.  This means prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!

The good news is we can unlearn prejudice.  We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:

  • Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
  • Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
  • Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm

Developing quota for positions of power.  There have been attempts to do this and with great success.  France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal.  A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved.  There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!

The real driving factor for change is role models.  This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics.  Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape.  In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol.  Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.

In his last years playing football Adam Goodes was, in every game he played booed whenever he got the ball.  Some commentators said this was not racism, it was just that the crowd didn’t like the way he played and that other aboriginal players were not booed. A common reason given was that he ‘called out’ a young girl who described him as an ape.  The next day Goodes explained he did not blame the girl and she needed to be supported.  He called out the behaviour she had ‘learned’ from an adult. Despite this the apologists kept referring this as him attacking the girl!  

I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point, Adam Goodes made the mistake of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out!  The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!

Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter?  Well we focus on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment.  The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families.  They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream.  

However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances.  Exploited on the basis of their life long rejection.  They are finally convinced they now have the security of belonging.  To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group.  They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees.  They finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them.  All too often this was their school!  

If we want to really support these kids all Australians should look at how their own values are reflected in the schools they support.  Elite private schools, religious and public selective schools all reinforce social prejudice.  They view the public, comprehensive school that serves the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior.  This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament, sadly both major parties must take responsibility for this. 

As teachers, we have to check our own preferences in where we want to work being sure that a desire to teach in these needed schools does not expose your own belief that some kids are ‘better than’ and it follows, others are not.

Posted by: AT 08:53 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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