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Monday, October 31 2022

Emotional Stupidity

Back in the mid 90’s I was working as principal of a school for students with severe behaviours, in fact they had to have the diagnosis of conduct disorder or oppositional defiance to be enrolled.  It was in this time Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book ‘Emotional Intelligence – Why it Matters More than IQ’ came out.  Unless you read the book you would get the superficial message of the book was something like ‘trust your instincts when in a difficult situation’.  I will give a brief formal description of emotional intelligence below but I really think the underpinning message is trust your emotions!


Almost every day I witnessed the emotional turmoil students in my care have them make the types of behaviour decisions that ruined their time in mainstream school.  At that time I felt someone needed to write another book with a title like “Emotional Stupidity – Why IQ is not a Consideration’.  I still think there is a call for such a book.


So, what is emotional intelligence?  The most common definitions can be summed up by Wikipedia as being ‘the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions’.   This ability is referring to the management of both your own emotions and those of others.  The elements that define emotional intelligence are:

  • Self-awareness – understanding how your behaviour impacts on others
  • Self-regulation – having strong boundaries that allow you to stay relatively calm
  • Motivation – having the drive to solve conflicts
  • Empathy – understanding and having compassion for the other(s) circumstances
  • Social skills – being able to engage with others in a positive way


My problem with the concept of emotional intelligence is that it makes the unrealistic assumption that we all have a strong positive sense of self.  The evidence for the existence of emotional intelligence is the correlation between characteristics of successful people and the elements outlined above.  I would argue that the characteristics of successful people depend on the environmental conditions of early childhood.  This is no form of intelligence it is just the luck of the draw.


Children who have been abused and/or neglected in early childhood develop a sense of self that reflects their environment.  The emotional elements of these kids is the mirror opposite of those that define emotional intelligence:

  • Lack of any self-awareness – Any self-awareness these children have is that they are worthless.  They experience what I describe as toxic shame (see Newsletter 114 - ‘Toxic Shame’ - 03 July 2017); they don’t think they make mistakes they believe they are a mistake!
  • Inability to self-regulate – In functioning families, when a small child hurts themselves, physically or emotionally they are soothed, held and reassured.  This external regulation is learned and these kids learn to regulate themselves.  On the other hand in an abusive family, when the child is hurt they are at best ignored but all to often told to ‘grow up’ or ‘stop that crying’ or ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’!  When you see these kids in your classroom you will notice how they take so much more time to settle after they have been provoked!
  • Un-motivated – Because of their toxic sense of self they have learned not to try; why would they?  Since early childhood they have had the belief of being unworthy and this has been reinforced by their significant adults so why try.  Further, the behaviours they do seek to do are those that will protect them from further pain.  They believe they do not deserve nor do they think they have the ability to succeed.
  • No ability to empathise – The fifteen criteria that define Conduct Disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) almost all describe the behaviour of someone who has no empathy.  These characteristics are:
    • Aggressive behaviour toward others and animals
    • Frequent physical altercations with others
    • Use of a weapon to harm others
    • Deliberately physically cruel to other people
    • Deliberately physically cruel to animals
    • Involvement in confrontational economic order crime- e.g., mugging
    • Has perpetrated a forcible sex act on another
    • Property destruction by arson
    • Property destruction by other means
    • Has engaged in non-confrontational economic order crime- e.g., breaking and entering
    • Has engaged in non-confrontational retail theft, e.g., shoplifting
    • Disregarded parent's curfew prior to age 13
    • Has run away from home at least two times
    • Has been truant before age 13

In summary the DSM – 5 concludes with the following qualifier ‘Limited prosocial emotions, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, callousness, unconcerned about performance, shallow or deficient affect’


Teaching those students who have missed out on a nurturing childhood is difficult.  We have to understand that the significance of the emotional content of any decision-making increases proportionately to the level of stress experienced.  The following diagram shown below illustrates this phenomena.  This was first published by Bruce Perry well known expert on the effect of early childhood trauma.  This shows that as the student becomes more aroused their mental state moves from being able to consider abstract choices for their behaviour on to being completely overwhelmed and being unable to do anything other than behave in the manner they acquired in early childhood. 

Their emotional state overpowers any cognitive consideration which is only really available when the child is in a state of calm; a condition rarely experienced for these children.

This inability to control the emotional side of their ‘intelligence’ is the reason the myriad of cognitive interventions that have been introduced in our schools to deal with dysfunctional behaviour fail.  This is not emotional ‘stupidity’ on their part it is more like an emotional disability.

By understanding this you will appreciate the approach we advocate when supporting these kids in our classrooms.  We need to provide a calm, inclusive learning environment that has well defined structure, understood expectations and carried out with strong positive relationships at least between the teacher and the student!

Posted by: AT 06:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 24 2022

Why Changing Behaviour is so Difficult

There is so much evidence that explains why it is so hard to change people’s beliefs.  We have discussed this in Newsletter 149 (Beliefs 01 February, 2021) where we examined how our drive to survive in our environment created banks of both emotional and cognitive memories which form our sense of self or our beliefs.  The conditions that fashioned our beliefs will be the conditions we seek out when our self is threatened.  This is critical for teachers to understand when they are dealing with students dysfunctional behaviour.  This is because the behaviours they are using are ones they learned to get their needs met in the environment in which they were raised.  The conflict is the result of the child learning to behave in a dysfunctional environment and applying those behaviours in a functional one.   


In this essay we will look at the interaction between the power of these memories and the neurological structure created in their formation.  The combination of these features will influence the child’s analysis of the external environment restricting the level of access to all available information that could inform alternate decision making.


We have already discussed the physical damage that can result from being raised in an abusive or neglectful environment (see -Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse - 10 August 2020, The Impact form Neglect - 12 September 2017 and Damage to the Brain - 13 July 2020).  This damage, put on them by adults has already placed these children at a significant disadvantage but to compound this handicap is their ability to see alternate opportunities in the environment is limited.


This limitation is understandable, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia has made the following broad observations:

  • The cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute
  • The unconscious mind sorts through 12 million sensory inputs per minute
  • The unconscious mind checks for threat and/or opportunity

Of course these numbers are estimates but they make the point.  We are exposed to an extreme amount of stimulus all the time we are awake and it is impossible to focus on it all.  I suspect the idea that we can process 40 pieces per minute is a guestimate however those 40 would be characteristics on the environment that have the potential to either threaten our survival or provide nourishment to maintain us, this is the unconscious checking that Wilson identifies (the brain will instantly observe unexpected threats that are beyond our expectation; for example if you are crossing the road and a runaway truck is heading for you will take immediate action to avoid the collision).


As stated in the opening paragraph, the conditions that fashioned our beliefs are those that gave us the best chance to maintain homeostatic equilibrium, to survive.  Not only will these be the conditions we seek out the neurological process will involve the same circuits and these are the ones that are the most dominant.  The brain is wired to attend to those things that have supported them in the past.  In a sense the neural networks originally are to optimise our survival and these are the ones we focus on; the brain chooses what to attend to.


There are at least two functions of the brain that increase the efficiency of our perception.  The first is held in a neural network that is located in the brain stem and projects onto the hypothalamus which by releasing targeted hormones keeps the body in a stable state or homeostatic equilibrium.   The second is the cerebellum which continually monitors the relationship between our homeostatic state, the external environment which includes our body and the behaviours that maintain equilibrium. 


One of the principal functions of the cerebellum is to make instant adjustments to our behaviour to maintain equilibrium.  The first investigations into the cerebellum was in its importance to balance.  Most early research into the brain was carried out by observing changes to behaviour when part of the brain was damaged.  The most obvious impact of a damaged cerebellum is a lack of balance and motor skills.  For years it was believed that this was its primary, almost exclusive function.  Later research has revealed a much more complex array of behaviour regulations are controlled by the cerebellum.


For the purpose of this essay it is how the cerebellum handles the interface of the external world and our memories, our beliefs that is pertinent to how the brain’s structure helps reinforce existing beliefs.  If you take the example of balance it is easy to see how this happens.  Those of you who have observed a child learning to walk will have watched that child, through trial and error mastering that skill.  Once they become skilled at walking they don’t have to think about it, it is an intrinsic, subconscious memory and if they trip they immediately adjust their body to regain their balance.  The immediacy of the reaction is because the cerebellum bi-passes any reference to the memory bank, it ‘knows’ what to do and sends out instant instructions.  This is known as the ‘feed forward’ feature of the cerebellum.


This feed forward feature makes for an efficiency when there is no clash between the environment and the individual’s beliefs however, when there is a clash and the environment threatens the individual’s beliefs thereby increasing their stress levels, they will invariably act according to those beliefs rather than the evidence presented by the environment.  As I stated in a previous Newsletter (No. 214. Changing Students' Beliefs – 27 September, 2022); “the issue is that our beliefs are formed in one reality and when we are faced with another it is challenged.  When you consider that our beliefs are about actions that help us survive and if we are threatened in the contemporary situation the anxiety that is generated will have us apply those beliefs on which we have relied”.


Much has been written about confirmation bias and what has been discussed above explains this phenomena.  In the majority of cases this relance on beliefs makes life much easier.  If I ask you to tell me where your car is right now you could with a high degree of certainty and in the vast majority of cases you would be right but unless you can see your car, you have evidence that it is there!


Obviously, for the students we are concerned with their belief systems, although functional in the environment in which they were raised is likely to be dysfunctional in a well-run classroom.  Our goal for these kids is to help them become functional in the classroom which means we have to change their beliefs and that is extremely difficult to achieve.  You have to build a new set of memories and that can only happen if you over-ride the existing ones and this can only happen over time, in a supportive relationship and in a consistent and persistent environment!

Posted by: AT 08:25 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 17 2022

The Problem of Dealing with Autistic and Neuro-Diverse Students

Our focus has always been on helping teachers deal with students with severe dysfunctional behaviours.  It is our strong belief that all these students with such behaviours act in such ways because of no fault of their own.  The vast majority are the victims of:

  • Parenting that has been abusive, or neglectful which results in profound damage to the brain
  • Inappropriate modelling, where children learn to behave in a fashion that works in a dysfunctional household however, when they use those behaviours in a school, presumably functional classroom that behaviour is unacceptable.
  • Atypical neural construction of the brain.  These are the psychotic, schizophrenic, autistic, etc. children who do not interpret the environment as the rest of us.


In all cases it has not been the child’s fault, their behaviours have been put on them either by a fault in nature or the intent of their early childhood carers. However, most of our work is based on the parenting, either the abuse and/or neglect or the inappropriate modelling.  In these cases there can be a notion that the students have a rough recognition of the external environment similar to what we would interpret.  Of course the attention to detail and the responses will be shaped by their belief systems which are at odds with our own (assuming we are ‘functional’).


Dealing with the last group of children is not so straightforward, for instance psychosis is a term used to describe when people lose some contact with reality. Common symptoms of psychosis are hearing voices or having strong beliefs that are not shared by people within your community.  Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communication.  The problem for the non-specialist teachers who have to deal with these children in a mainstream classroom is they have no way of anticipating the reactions to given situations.  I fully accept there are many excellent specialist teachers and programs that can make a significant difference but I have yet to see any evidence where these programs are successfully used for integration for students at the severe end of their disorder.


I recently came across an article by Alexandria Robers from the University of Minnesota who addresses this problem for the autistic student.  In the article ‘Radical Behaviourism’ often referred to as applied behaviour analysis (ABA) which is a popular but controversial approach for working with autistic children.  In general, the principles behind ABA are:

  • Behaviours are affected by their environment.
  • Behaviours can be strengthened or weakened by its consequences.
  • Behaviour changes are more effective with positive instead of negative consequences.

The controversy comes because many see this approach as a form of classical and/or operant conditioning where the stimulus-response is used to modify behaviour through reward or punishment or as we prefer to refer to as consequences.


I have no real issue with the use of consequences but there is a point of difference between what the critics of ABA, Robers and ourselves. 

The critics see consequences through the eyes of B. F. Skinner and his colleagues where behaviours are forced onto students without any consideration to emotions and beliefs.  This implies that the students are powerless, they have no choice.  I would contend that none of us have a ‘choice’ in our early childhood when we are unable to make a choice and our suite of feelings and beliefs are being formulated; this is the construction of our sense of self!  In fact, in later years those feelings and beliefs dictate our behaviour when confronted with situations that are the same or similar to those when our sense of self is formed.  Our behaviour is determined, there is no choice at the moment.  I will expand this concept later in the essay.


Robers takes an interesting view on the point of consideration of the consequences.  She argues that the conventional view about the effectiveness of consequences on shaping behaviour is that it is an action based on the antecedent conditions, that when we are faced with a set of circumstances, we will act to protect ourselves from the consequence or to seek /obtain that consequence.  Her view, I suspect influenced by her work with autistic students is that all behaviours are chosen specifically to get the consequence the student wants.


She presents a model she refers to as SEAT:

  • S – the student is seeking sensory input and for the autistic child this may be a repetitive movement
  • E – this is to escape, to avoid different situations they do not enjoy
  • A – This attention seeking behaviour, these are efforts to engage with others.
  • T – This is the seeking of tangibles, access to activities in which they want to participate.

I really have a problem seeing any point to this approach, the thesis is that the behaviour is designed to get a consequence but surely that consequence is to satisfy a need which is the antecedent condition!


I indicated above I would revisit the notion of determinism the contrary view of free-will.  I suspect that those critics of ABA who lament the child’s lack of choice assumes they have free will.  I would contend that they don’t and nor does any other child at the time they are confronted with a situation; but determinism is not inevitability.


Those who have followed us know our model, the establishment of a positive relationship and the construction of clear expectation and a structured environment.  Our view is that our sense of self, our feelings and beliefs that drive our behaviour have been formed in a specific environment.  If these behaviours are dysfunctional for anyone then we need to change the environment, have alternate clear expectations and persistent and consistent consequences for behaviours that are driven by needs so the children can learn other ways to behave.


Our model is straight forward, we understand that all behaviour is driven by deficits in our security, our homeostasis.  We all learn how to satisfy those needs in the environment in which we live.  If the environment is dysfunctional the behaviour will mirror that dysfunctionality.  To change a child’s dysfunctionality we must change the environment.  This sounds simple but it is not so easy for the following reasons: 

  • The children described at the beginning of this essay participate in our schools at a huge disadvantage through no fault of their own.
  • Teachers are ill-equipped to deal with these kids in a classroom where 29 other students are entitled to the teacher’s attention.
  • There is an absence of mental health professionals to assist these kids at school.
  • There is little recognition and even less attention paid to the issue of dysfunctional behaviour in schools by governments and their bureaucratic staff.


However, despite the difficulty, you the teacher may be the only chance these kids have, and you will make a difference.  Robers refers to her 4C’s control, consequences, consistency and compassion and I can’t disagree with these!

Posted by: AT 08:02 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 10 2022


Stress can be seen as the energy that drives changes in our behaviour that are motivated by our drive to reach a position of security in the world.  This condition is referred to as homeostatic equilibrium where all our needs are being met.  Whenever our needs are not being satisfied we are in disequilibrium and this will trigger a change in our physiology that will drive our behaviour in a way that will return us to a homeostatic condition.


The manifestation of stress is in the form of an endogenous range of electro/chemical reactions, that is an internally induced response that floods the brain with a complex cocktail of chemicals that prepares the body’s defence against whatever threat has been identified.  Among the chemicals are epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin and oxytocin but most critical are cortisol and dopamine.  These chemicals get the body into a state of readiness.


The classic fight/flight response is a neural phenomenon that has obvious survival advantages.  The speed in which this process is initiated allows us to dodge an oncoming car, catching our balance when we trip before we are even conscious that we are under threat.  These are times when ‘thinking about a behaviour’ could produce a life-threatening situation. 


There are times when we activate this fight/flight response to instigate a positive experience. We seek this ‘positive’ stress by engaging in activities like riding a roller coaster or skydiving.  These events are intense but short lived and homeostatic equilibrium is soon restored and we feel good, especially as they occur in a non-threatening situation.


Another situation where stress is of value is when we want optimal performance from our bodies.  By getting our stress elevated, the endogenous changes prime the body for action.  This elevation of arousal is common in sporting endeavours to get the athletes ready to go ‘into battle’.  It is also important in learning as the raised neuron excitement facilitates new synaptic connections and new potential learning. The secret is to get the optimal level of arousal and this differs between individuals.  The following diagram, referred to as the ‘inverted U curve’ was first used by sports psychologists but is relevant to all behaviours.


There are times when we are faced with threatening, chaotic conditions that are out of our control or on occasions when we are isolated without any support.  At these times, we will experience a full-blown stressful response.  How these situations impact on children depends on the estimated nature and magnitude of the threat, their existing resilience and the protection the environment provides.


From the diagram above it becomes obvious that the level of stress will determine the quality of the performance.  At school this can be directly related to learning.  Teachers understand that they have to engage their students.  Rarely do we think about this process as being about the child’s survival but it is.  Successful learning satisfies our need to understand the environment, by doing so we become more attractive to others in our community, learning gives us a competitive advantage.


However, when we are dealing with the students that suffer from a history of abuse and neglect we are more often dealing with the ends of the inverted U curve; particularly the high-end side where stress is overwhelming the student.  I will deal with these extremes relative to those students on which we focus.

  1. Under Aroused – students who have a history of failure based on their belief that they just not good enough will be reluctant to even try.  They will not be aroused by any lesson that will result in them being judged.  In other Newsletters we have described these kids as being resistors, that is they don’t engage therefore they won’t be rejected!


  1. Highly Aroused – this is when our anxiety is such that we are unable to consider the task in front of us.  The high levels of stress may not be directly related to the task in hand and the student may try to complete the work.  However, at the first set-back the doubts and faulty beliefs ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I can’t do anything’ etc. will increase the level of anxiety.  This may be followed by other students answering the question or the teacher trying to challenge them.  It’s not long before their brain has gated down to be working on the level learned in early childhood.  The diagram below illustrates this phenomena.

It can be seen that the only place where the student can apply their cognitive brain to the lesson is when they are calm.


So how do we manage stress in the classroom?  Obviously, it is dealing with the levels of stress students experience.  When I looked up the term ‘student engagement’ in the Glossary of Education Reform, I found that it refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education’.  What an example of ‘educational speak’, a committee-based statement that covers every possible measure.  But, within this wordy platitude is a crucial fact – it is stress that - ‘extends the level of motivation’!  The question is how does a teacher decide how much stress to put on their students and more importantly each student has a very different tolerance to stress.


Teaching is hard and teaching students who:

  • don’t think they can learn,
  • don’t want to learn,
  • see school as a threat to their sense of self and,
  • can’t see the reason for learning

are the most demanding!  Teaching students who come to school with the opposite view reduces the task to providing pedagogy and little more.


Students with mental health issues that are the result of early childhood abuse and neglect are the most difficult to have in your classroom.  Their disruptive behaviour can destroy the best planned lesson however, as we have shown it is the level of stress they experience that sets off their behaviour, for better or worse.  The fundamental skill required by a successful teacher is to control the general level of stress in the classroom and then motivate their students at a personal level.  It is the creation of the emotional environment that is critical in providing an education for all the students!

Posted by: AT 11:29 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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