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Monday, November 29 2021

Supporting a Sense of Self

Throughout all writings about success there always a link to the concept of a robust sense of ‘self’.  This is described in terms like positive self-esteem or self-confidence and there is no doubt that how we feel about our selves really does impact on our performance.  The same relationship holds for our students; if they feel confident they approach their lessons with a positive attitude.  But, what about those students in our classes who suffer low levels of self-esteem, those who have suffered abuse or neglect or those who come into the system with undiagnosed disabilities.  These kids are already at a disadvantage even before they start the lesson!

The emergence of our sense of self occurs in our childhood.  In the first three years there is a massive period of learning through trial and error and, because our cognitive memories do not take shape until the hippocampus becomes active all these memories are emotional.  This explains the degree our sense of self is based on emotions.


At about the time a child reaches the age of eight their sense of self is reasonably stable.  At this time, we ‘know’ who we are and that ‘who’ is the aggregation of the emotional and cognitive memories.  But, as stated earlier this sense is highly skewed to the emotional memories.  It is my understanding that this emotional dominance of our sense of self is the reason cognitive interventions are limited in their success when dealing with those children who have suffered early childhood abuse.


Many, or most of these damaged kids suffer from Toxic Shame, that is they don’t make mistakes, they are mistakes (see Newsletters Toxic Shame – 3rd July 2017 and Faulty Beliefs – 6th November 2019).  The challenge for the teacher is to counter this negative mindset by producing a classroom atmosphere where the lesson is no threat to their sense of ‘self’, eliminating the negative impact of their faulty beliefs!  By consistently presenting an environment that esteems the student their attitude will change but this is not a quick nor easy solution.  Remember, these beliefs have been formed over many years, it may take the same number of years to change them but it is the only a teacher can make this happen.  

For children who have suffered abuse or neglect, the consequence they received for their actions produce levels of fear and anxiety no matter what they tried to do to get their needs met.  Eventually they will either accept their inability to succeed, cease trying and disengage from their world.  This feeling of worthlessness and incompetence underpins that toxic shame.  


All beliefs are just memories that are formed in response to our needs and the environment in which we find ourselves.  The illustration below crudely explains how this process functions.


The student comes into class from home with a certain attitude, they might be feeling great after a big breakfast and positive encouragement from mum or they might be hungry leaving home early so they didn’t get hit by their angry father who was abusing their mum; this is their ‘antecedent condition’ or their contemporary ‘sense of self’.  The situation is the classroom and the lesson and this is where the teacher has some control.  The decision on whether or not to participate depends on how they feel about being in class, do they feel secure and accepted and how the teacher frames the lesson, is it interesting, do they think they can do it!


From then on, the process is much more difficult to influence, the action they choose and how they perform that action.  How the teacher reacts to their effort impacts on the consequence of their actions and that feeds back into their memory, back into their belief system.  Knowing how this process works and using all the teaching skills, this is where you can change their sense of ‘self’!


We need to create an environment around building, or re-building their sense of ‘self’ in stages.  The first stage is to get a predictable connection between the child’s actions and the consequences.  The more we can make this a successful and importantly a pleasurable experience, that ‘experience’ will feedback into the emotional and cognitive memory bank, their sense of self, the second stage!  This takes some creative manipulation of the curriculum and lesson delivery.


There will obviously be times when their actions will be inappropriate and they should get a predictable, negative consequence.  It is at these times the feedback is delivered in a way that addresses the behaviour but respects the child.  If this approach is adopted eventually the child will understand that ‘they made a mistake’ but they re NOT a mistake!


As always, the skills the teacher needs to have, other than their pedagogical knowledge is to be able to:

  • Have a structured and persistent discipline and welfare policy
  • Set understandable expectations for the behaviour and class work
  • Develop strong professional relationships with their students


The following Newsletters have detailed descriptions of these features:

  • Creating Structure - 12th August 2019
  • Structure - 15th June 2020
  • Be Persistently Consistent - 26th October 2020
  • Expectations - 17th February 2020
  • Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking - 25 June 2018
  • Special Relationships - 10th February 2020


The road to recovery is cyclic, as the student experiences success their memories will be changed, their sense of self will change and the student will attempt to take on situations they denied themselves previously.  They will say yes to opportunities and more notably they will say no to those who try to deny them what they need.

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Wednesday, November 24 2021

Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing – Behaviour Management


For as long as there have been classrooms one of the significant problems teachers have faced has been the management of students’ disruptive behaviours.  Throughout my over 40 years working in NSW Public schools, I have seen a procession of interventions that range from physical punishment to making everyone feel good about themselves!  Since the mid-eighties there have been a succession of commercial programs trying to cash in on the problem filling the void left by education bureaucrats and academics.  The Education Department has never taken a real interest in this problem leaving it in the ‘too hard’ basket with not much more than platitudes and unrealistic suspension policies.    


The latest proposed ‘student welfare policy’ does little more than making schools more responsible to solve the problem without any effective non-commercial training and support.  It is time teachers were provided with an accessible, substantiated and effective approach to behaviour management that is part of their training.  Instead they rely on those commercial programs that are expensive both on school revenue and teacher’s time!


The history of ‘off-the-shelf’ programs includes the classics like Reality Therapy which morphed into Choice Theory, Assertive Discipline, Restorative Justice, Social-Emotional Learning, Positive Psychology in the form of PBIS and PBL4 and the latest silver bullet Trauma Informed Practice.  All have provided useful approaches, the problem is, because they are the property of a private enterprise they need to limit their tactics to make their programs unique.  Generally, they insist on in-house training, provide workbooks, recording scaffolds and incident records which increase the workload of the teacher and the school.  Of course, training, recording are important but can be done much more efficiently than is required and schools already have the facilities to do this.


I would like to comment on the current front-runners in the choice most schools are acquiring those based on Positive Psychology and more recently Trauma Informed Practice.


Positive Psychology came from attempts to aggregate and rationalise the factors of studies identified as leading to a life of satisfaction.  Using empirical data Positive Psychology studied how our activities impacted on our lives at all levels, physical, psycho/social or intellectual.  The common conclusion in the field is that to experience the ‘good life’ you must be engaged in meaningful activities.  This research underpinned the programs developed from that data.  In the current form, that was purchased by the department this approach produces a considerable amount of unnecessary administrative work.  I personally have a few of issues, these being:

  • Although the focus on feeling positive is attractive it is not a real reflection of human nature.  There are many times it is appropriate to feel sad, it is part of a grieving process but more importantly it is fitting that everyone should feel a sense of shame when they ‘do the wrong thing’.  This is what I refer to as healthy shame as opposed to toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame – 18 August 2020).
  • Children who suffer from early childhood trauma and neglect require a good deal of healing before the principles of positive psychology even make sense and in their literature they acknowledge this approach is not effective for extremely disturbed children.
  • Any success relies on full school training and commitment and even if you achieve this at the end of every year there will be a change in staff and this requires additional commitment including the full training of the new teachers.


The positive psychology approach has been practiced in schools for a significant amount of time and I would argue that unlike the impact on workload, any influence on the general behaviour of students has not been significant.


The trauma informed approach does attempt to address the problems children with early childhood repeated abuse and neglect bring to the classroom.  A prominent program is the Berry Street Education Model and like all other models it provides a commercial package which requires teachers to complete their program.


A problem with dealing with these children with recurring early childhood abuse and neglect, the basis of complex trauma is that any attempt at a therapeutic approach by non-qualified mental health professionals is extremely dangerous and could exacerbate their emotional status.  I understand this approach has gained attention since my retirement I have only a superficial understanding of the course content and this appears to be well considered.  Of course, those who follow these Newsletters and understand my line of attack there seems to be a great congruence between both approaches.


The strategies of their approach are:

  • Expect unexpected responses
  • Employ thoughtful interactions
  • Be specific about relationship building
  • Promote predictability and consistency
  • Teach strategies to "change the channel"
  • Give supportive feedback to reduce negative thinking
  • Create islands of competence


My concern is that there needs to be a strong focus on the boundary limits between the lived history of the student and the presenting environment in order to avoid activating past experiences.  Teachers need to be very sure of where their professional responsibility ends and the work of qualified mental health practitioners begins.  In my experience it is too easy and tempting for teachers with the noblest intentions to feel ‘qualified’ to cross that line.


Successful teachers have always been Bower Birds when it comes to their work.  They collect resources from where ever they can to supplement their lessons.  They should be the same about behaviour management, all the programs have something very valuable to add to any teacher’s repertoire when dealing with a disruptive child.  However, all the effectual advice should be free and offered in a straightforward manner. 


This has been the purpose of our Group.  Our three books and the over 180 free Newsletters present advice to help teachers particularly those dealing with very difficult students.  The outline of our work is caught in our description of a complete learning environment as shown below.  All the parts of the model are important but the most important is the relationships between the student, the teachers, the school and the community.


Our group has never charged for Newsletters and the resources we make available and nor should they be so.  Successfully dealing with kids with dysfunctional behaviour is an on-going challenge and being locked into a prescribed program fails to accommodate new approaches.

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Sunday, November 14 2021

Teaching Truth Seeking

The current malaise that is sweeping the democratic societies is the question of truth, if we want future generations to understand truth or more precisely lying, schools must be part of the student’s education.  In 2008 the governments of Australia combined to determine the goals for children’s education; the result is known as the Melbourne Declaration.  This has become a foundational reference for all decisions regarding what subjects should be taught that directly affect children’s learning.  This Declaration includes Goal 2 which affirms that ‘all young Australians become active and informed citizens’ and to achieve this, schools need to teach them how to ‘act with moral integrity’ and be ‘committed to national values of democracy, equity and justice, and participate in Australia’s civic life’.  This statement articulates that our current form of government is a democracy and that democracy depends on moral integrity.

Teachers who undertake the task of delivering these declared goals would find it hard to unearth any political scholar who would pretend that any existing democracy could provide real evidence that they model ‘moral integrity’.  Our Australian Government has become a consummate example of how truth and politics are almost mutually exclusive.  In our current political conversations, lies have come to dominant in all forms of political management. 

In the USA, the country that continues to assert their leadership of exemplary democracy their ex-president has according to the Washington Post been detailed as telling 30,537 lies during his time in office.  Of these the biggest lie was that their last election was rigged and this has been continued without any evidence to support such a claim.  Closer to Home our own PM, Scott Morrison is described as a liar at an ever-increasing rate.  The news outlet Crickey has documented 16 lies and falsehoods.

The art of lying for political purpose is the skill professional ‘spinners’ bring to both major parties.  Both Labor and Liberal employ spin doctors who are generally graduands of the advertisement industry.  Their expertise is to modify the existing state of affairs in such a way as to appeal to the majority of the electorate.  This can be done by shining the most positive light on the government’s planned agenda, if this doesn’t work the message can then be bent, introducing terms like alternate facts and to support this they let slip information that encourages conspiracy theories and finally they just tell lies.  These steps have become the accepted form of political manipulation. 

The other technique is to refer to highly trained experts who monopolise the business of presenting the ‘truth’.  According to the latest Wikipedia entry there are 45 active Think Tanks that are funded to promote particular versions of the truth.  They serve particular vested interests and in 2019, the last available data there were 11,894 registered lobbyists who have close access to all politicians all of whom represent either one of the think tanks or a particular enterprise.

 The result of this manipulation of the truth means we are at the stage where what is the truth is at least confusing.  We are at the stage where the general population almost expects politics to be corrupt and their politicians to be liars and of current evidence our leaders are living down to those expectations.

The question for teachers is how do we teach our students to understand the current conditions in our political landscape and for them to ‘to act with moral integrity’?  If, we are implying that a healthy democracy depends on moral integrity, we need to teach our students about lying and truth and this is not a simple task.

I have addressed the issue of student’s lying at school in an essay found in my book ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom’, Chapter 12 – ‘Children of the Lie’ which I will post in the resources page of Frew Consultants Group.  However this essay deals more with how we teach our students to be truthful rather than how to expose lies others tell.   To achieve this first we must examine what lying involves.

Lying as an art of deception, is not unique to humans. It is a practice that is used throughout the natural world and has evolved because it gives an advantage to an individual.  The basic premise of evolution is that an unusual characteristic of a particular plant or animal, which made it either more equipped to survive or more attractive for breeding, ensured that this characteristic was passed down from generation to generation.  For example, some plants have learned to deceive particular insects by giving off the odour of the female insect’s pheromones. The scent attracts the males who are trying to identify potential mates. Through this deception, this lie, the plant gets to distribute its pollen on the desperate male, who will deliver it on to the next receptive plant. The lie the plant tells ensures the species survives.  

For us humans, when it comes to attracting a partner, deception is the name of the game. Much of human activity, particularly during the breeding age, is dedicated to making us attractive partners. Look at the world of fashion, make-up, plastic surgery, membership at the gym, etc. Is this not evidence of our willingness to deceive to attract a mate?

In his article ‘Natural Born Liars,’ published in Scientific American Mind, David Livingstone Smith cites research that has shown that, as in nature, the best liars have a competitive edge in the mating game. It is evident that there is a high and significant correlation between social popularity and the ability to deceive. The most popular adolescents are those who lie best.

In fact, statistics taken in the United States show the following:

  • 98% of students believe ‘honesty is the best policy’ lie.
  • One in every four students believes it is OK to lie.
  • 84% believe you need to lie to get ahead.
  • 80% in a high-achieving school believed it was OK to cheat on exams.

These are US statistics. Arguably, there would be a similar finding in Australia. Perhaps a test of our own honesty would be how we respond to the same enquiry.

Scott Peck, the American psychiatrist and philosopher, describes three types of lies. These are white lies, black lies, and evil lies.

White lies are those we tell to protect or avoid embarrassment for others. ‘Do these slacks make my bottom look big?’ asks the wife. To tell the truth may be a dangerous tactic, so the husband replies, ‘Of course not,’ (thinking, why do you always blame the slacks?). So we accept the white lie; we don’t want to crush someone’s esteem with the truth.

Black lies are those you tell to avoid the consequences of your actions.  It is the use of these black lies that is the major concern for schools.  Children have learned to use the famous Bart Simpson defence: ‘You didn’t see me, and you can’t prove it. I didn’t do it!’ Even adults use a version of this. When people are pulled up by the police, the common wisdom, cultivated from legal advice, is to deny and keep denying until either the police give up or start to doubt their own perception.

The use of these black lies is more likely to be developed in families and schools where punishments are too harsh.  At lots of meetings I have heard parents boast about how hard they are on their kids to make sure that they don’t lie. What they don’t understand is that for the children of these unforgiving parents the truth is a poor option. Rather than developing honesty, they force the child to tell a lie.   This is where one of our slogans is applicable – ‘100% rejection of inappropriate behaviour and 100% acceptance of the child’.

Finally Peck describes the evil lie. According to him, such a lie may be truly believed by the person who tells it. That is, he or she considers this account of a situation to be accurate, to be the truth, despite evidence to the contrary.  This is the most difficult to deal with and when confronted with these liars it is important you have all the facts because you won’t be able to convince the child but you will have to justify your actions to your supervisor and perhaps the student’s parents.  Truth is an account of perception, and so for these people, the evil lie is the truth.

So how do you teach kids to be honest? There are four steps:

  1. Expect honesty from them all the time. Spell it out. ‘At this school we respect and expect honesty. This is the way we are.’
  2. Make it easy for the child to tell the truth. Acknowledge that they, like all of us, make mistakes. They have made a mistake— they are not a mistake.
  3. When they tell the truth, celebrate the fact that they have shown their true character and it is good. Give them plenty of credit.
  4. Model the truth. This is the key to developing the truth in your kids. It’s hard to do, but then again, most worthwhile things are hard.

Time is running out for the children who live in an age when lying is modelled throughout our political system. Through self-deception, the lies we as a nation and a world have told and have been told, coupled with the inability of our leaders to be honest, has provided a toxic legacy for these students to deal with.

Posted by: AT 10:11 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 08 2021

Modern teenage Challenge

In previous Newsletters (see Newsletter 157 - Tips for Teaching Teenagers - 04/19 2021 and Newsletter 158 - The Teens - a Time for Specific Change - 04/26/2021) we discussed the changes to the structure of the brain and many of the implications that followed.  This essay we recap some of this information but will focus on the social adjustments and their impact on behaviours especially those from an abusive or neglectful environment.


In 2007 Deborah Yurgelun-Todd published a paper, ‘Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence’.  The paper demonstrated the changes in the brain that occur about age 11; this is also the time for the onset of puberty.  Although they occur together and have an impact on the child they are not the same thing.


As far as the brain changes, adolescence marks the final development of the brain.  It is at this time the prefrontal lobes mature and the child has full access to the cognitive process referred to as working memory.  Up until this time children are learning how they fit into the world and how to communicate with their immediate environment.  They are creating their sense of self through the acquisition of memories, referred to as auto-biological.  These are located across the cortex in hubs of specific modes of patterns of thoughts or behaviours.  These are referred to as schemas (memories) and allow us to understand the world through a network of abstract neural structures.


There are thought to be 180 such hubs across the brain and they all fall into one of the following genres:

  • Self – this is the knowledge of our lives, what we think about ourselves and our position in our external environment.  Things like, I’m a good runner, I’m shy, I don’t have many friends, etc.
  • Personal – this is what we think of other individuals.   This includes things like my mother is kind, Charlie my friend is a good singer, things that you have categorised about other individuals.
  • Social – this moves out from the personal and includes collective memories.  The supporters of a rival football team are rude, scientists are nerds, golf is only for old men.  This type of schema leads to prejudice within and across communities.
  • Events – these are patterns of behaviour, that is if we observe X than we expect Y to follow.  When I change gears, I use the clutch to disengage the motor then shift the gear stick and reengage the clutch and I should accelerate.


Until the prefrontal lobes are fully developed the information that resides in these schemas is fairly discrete, that is they almost stand alone.  This explains the response you will get if you ask a child to tell you about themselves.  They find it hard to give you much of a story.  However, with the development of the prefrontal lobes these hubs are connected through what is a series of connections, called connectomes and these memories are shared.  it is at this stage of their development that they really start to think for themselves.  If you ask a teenager to tell you about themselves the response is different and, in some cases you will be sorry you asked!


This is the time when the child begins their transition to full independence but this is still a period of development.  The prefrontal lobe has the following tasks which are the definition of working memory:

•    Controls how we are interacting with our environment
•    Manages how we make judgments about what occurs in our daily activities 
•    Directs our emotional response 
•    Organises our expressive language. Assigns meaning to the words we choose 
•    Involves word associations 
•    Controls memory for habits and motor activities 

If the first stage of a child’s development is to become a functioning human than the next stage is to become a productive, reproductive person.  Concurrent to the change in the brain’s structure is the transformation of the child’s body that marks the onset of puberty.  This is when the child’s body matures to allow for reproduction.  This is an awkward time for adolescent kids as they begin to experience powerful, new drives and emotional feelings driven by changes in the levels of hormone.  There are two types of these hormones that can be generalised by adrenaline and cortisol to support actions that are designed to protect themselves and dopamine and serotonin that energises the drive to seek out what they want from their environment.


As mentioned before, this is the time for the child to assert their independence but this is not so much finding autonomy but a change from depending on their family of origin to creating their own ‘family’.  This journey ‘ends’ with the adoption of a life partner but begins with the need to belong to a group they call their own!


This is a difficult time for all teenagers.  As there is a behavioural price to belong to a group and the ability to ‘pay’ that cost depends on the social skills they acquired as children.  Most kids have been taught how to behave in a way that allows them to be accepted as themselves without really changing their basic sense of their self.  They form new friendships usually based on mutual interests such as sport, dancing, surfing or for some ‘nerds’ school work (teachers love the nerds).


However, incorporating the theme of our work too many come to this phase of their life without those functional skills that allow the relatively smooth transition.  For these kids the mutual skills will compel these kids to join up with others who share the same problems.  This is so easy to see in the beginning of any secondary school year, those kids who need the most support are drawn together and the synergy of this alliance only makes things harder for teachers to deal with these students. 


This formation of new friendships coincides with the emergence of the working memory and the drive to belong may drive kids to make decisions that are not properly evaluated.  This explains the impulsivity that is a hallmark of this period of their lives.  For damaged kids this is a particularly risky time.  To belong to their particular cohort, they will find the pressures to engage in dangerous physical and social activities in an effort to prove their worth to the group irresistible.  One of the common dangers is the experimentation with drugs and sexual activities that may have life-long consequences.


All teenagers are tempted to experiment with illicit drugs and according to the Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug survey of 2017, 17% of children between the age of 12 years and 17 years had tried cannabis.  In other surveys from the United States 39.5% of high school students reported to be sexually active.  These are dangerous times for all teenagers but for those with a damaged sense of self it is a critical time in their life.


Schools and teachers are not trained nor equipped to address these problems despite the continual call by politicians and society in general for schools to deal with them.  However, we will have these kids in our schools and understanding that all teens are striving for independence it is prudent that we provide them with the opportunities to self-direct some of their learning as they mature.  We actually do this quite well with most Year 12 students having a deal of independence and teachers move from directing the learning to facilitating it.


The second thing is to teach the students about their emerging sexuality and this we also do well however, the attack on the Safe Schools Program in recent years was a retrograde step. 


The real challenge is to provide an alternate way for our damaged kids to safely belong with an appropriate set of friends and this is what all our work is about.  As always, if we present a predictable, structured environment where expectations are well known and valued and all students are respected, healthy relationships will develop and we can all get through these difficult years.

Posted by: AT 05:47 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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