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Monday, May 30 2022

Survival Tips for Casual Teachers

In recent years Departments of Education have deliberately moved to ‘casualise’ their work force.  Despite this policy being one of the root causes of the current staffing crisis, casual teaching will remain a feature of our system.  This type of work is challenging particularly if you are employed on a day by day basis.  However, it is always a testing time on the first day you are appointed to any school.  You arrive with little ‘corporate knowledge’ of how the school operates, its structures and expectations and as a new arrival you will be tested by the students to see if you can handle them.  The following advice may help casuals survive the introduction into what I consider the best job in the world.


Arrival – First Day

This is when you will make your first impression on the principal, the staff and most importantly the students.  As you may only be there for a day you don’t have the luxury of building a meaningful relationship so, especially in the classroom you must get off to a good start.  The kids, like everyone will formulate an opinion of you in the first 20 seconds of your arrival.  This is what is known as the primacy effect which will influence every subsequent interaction.   The following points will help:

  • Be punctual – I understand that sometimes you will be called in at the last moment and you must deal with this.  However, when possible arrive early; this will impress the person in charge of employing the casuals and give you time to familiarise yourself with the surroundings.


  •  Acquaint yourself with the school management structure:
    • Have the staff member that is your immediate supervisor identified and introduce yourself to them
    • Be briefed on the behaviour management policy of the school
    • Be informed about procedural matters such as evacuations
    • Receive your teaching allocation for the day so you can quickly familiarise yourself with the assigned curriculum – in most cases you should be provided with the lessons you are expected to teach.  However, in some cases this will not be provided and so you will need to have a set of interesting, educational lessons you can give to engage the class.
    • You may need to get work-sheets organised and the photocopying procedures will be different in each school.
    • Roll-marking procedures, you will probably be given a roll-call class.  Most schools have on-line marking but in some cases the old hand roll marking might still be used and so you will need to know where to collect them, how to mark them and where they are sent for collating. 
    • You will most likely be given a playground duty so find out when and where you are assigned
    • Get a plan of the layout of the school and the location of the staffroom with which you will be assigned.


  • Dress Professionally – as mentioned above you only get one chance to make a first impression and the way you are dressed will go a long way towards establishing that impression.  Most educational departments have a dress code which is supported by the teaching unions.  They understand that the way you dress influences the way students and the school community will respect you.


The style may vary depending on the circumstances of any particular school and also the climate in which the school is situated.  In general, for a classroom teacher a normally smart business level of clean and tidy presentable attire will be sufficient.  Remember, this is a school and modesty is paramount.


  • Bring Your Own ‘Supplies’ – you should not be expected to provide the equipment to deliver any lesson but you may not have easy access to things like marker pens, some schools have IPADs for roll-marking and you may need to use a smart phone.  You should bring any resources you will need for times you have to improvise because you have not been left prepared lessons.


Also make sure you bring your own coffee mug, coffee and food.  Most schools have a canteen but some smaller ones don’t so you will need to sustain yourself. 


Also most staffrooms will have spare coffee cups and will share coffee but I think every teacher has been in a staffroom where, if you pick up the wrong cup there will be a ‘problem’, likewise you’ll be taking a risk if you help yourself to any coffee or tea supply!  Better to look after yourself.



The Classroom

Being a first time casual you will not have the luxury of knowing the dynamics of the classroom and the things you would have normally in place will not be there.  Things like seating plans, students with extra needs or the time periods for work to be completed.  These are things you have to ‘wing’ in the first instance.  What you can anticipate is that you will be ‘tested’ by the students.


As with the whole school, the first impression you make is critical.  I assume you have dressed professionally and this impression can be enhanced by being first to the classroom.  One of my mentors (not that he knew he was – I just watched him because he was so good) was always the first to the classroom.  The message is that you want to be there with the kids.  I know in some schools students line-up before they enter but I would suggest you let them in as they come.  This gives you the chance to greet them personally as they arrive.  Introduce yourself, ask them their name and smile!


Get straight into business, whatever the lesson is you have to deliver start by giving the students clear, direct instructions.  In the early stages don’t give a choice, say what you want and move to the next instruction; if you pause too long they have a chance to get off-task.  However, I do understand that you probably have to go back to the initial instruction but they will be aware that you mean business as far as the learning goes.


We have always advocated a pro-active approach to behaviour management and the following tips will help you take charge before you have to recapture the class:

  • Move about the class
  • Model the behaviour you expect
  • Explain tasks
  • Always be polite and friendly
  • Be accepting of all students
  • Interested
  • Be firm but friendly
  • Speak in a calm even tone
  • Refer to class rules and consequences if these are known


However, you will be challenged and will need to provide some discipline.  When this is called for you will be delivering a message with some emotional content for the targeted students.  Remember it is estimated that 93% of the emotional content is conveyed through non-verbal means, body language, facial expression and the tone of your voice.  The most effective discipline is delivered this way.  To do this you must:

  • Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
  • Maintain a steady, positive gaze           
  • Speak clearly
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact – be careful you don’t turn eye-contact into glaring at the students
  • Stand up straight
  • Address the behaviour without threatening the individual – we always accept the child and reject the behaviour
  • Never apologise for not getting emotionally involved
  • Remain silent after you deliver your message
  • Allow them time to digest the message
  • Give them time to make a decision.


The following diagram explains the gradient on which each strategy should be used from the subtle least invasive at the bottom to the most invasive which should rarely be used at the top:

As a new casual you will not have had the time to set-up in-class time out consequences and so when the inevitable time arrives when a student or a group of students have gone too far they will need to be removed from the class.  This requires some advanced planning.  As mentioned above, whenever possible you should have met your immediate supervisor and at this time you should ask about the discipline policy but more importantly how you can remove very disruptive students.


More often than not you will be asked to send a note with them or a ‘trusted’ classmate explaining what has occurred so have the means to do this.  Some casuals are reluctant to do this because they fear they will be harshly judged and will not be invited back.  However, this approach indicates a level of professionalism which should impress the permanent staff.


Finally, stay positive, remember that:

  • Challenging behaviour is just that – challenging
  • Remind yourself you are a professional adult often dealing with needy children
  • Dealing with the problems one child presents skills you for future behaviour issues, this increases your ‘expertise’


If you treat these opportunities to do casual work as an opportunity to develop your teaching skills and you become identified as a reliable and effective teacher you will not remain a casual for long.

Posted by: AT 11:27 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 23 2022

Message to Subscribers

Last week we produced our 200th Newsletter (over 200,000 words) which covers an extensive range of topics focused on helping teachers deal with dysfunctional behaviour.


Throughout the series we have concentrated on minimising the negative consequences of disruptive behaviours on:

  • The offending student’s learning
  • The learning of their classmates
  • The teaching effectiveness of the teacher
  • The mental health of all the above

The techniques have come from over years of dealing with such students and searching for the best approaches both in special settings and mainstream schools. 


Marcia spent 20 years working in schools attached to juvenile detention centres, at Reiby as Assistant Principal for ten years and a further ten at Juniperina Juvenile Justice Centre as Principal.  From there she finished her formal career as Principal of Caringbah Primary School. 


John was the foundation teacher at Smith Street Unit for Emotionally Disturbed students and after two years was promoted to become the foundation Principal at Campbell House Special School for Conduct and/or Oppositional Defiant students.  He served this school for ten years seeing the school grow from catering for 24 students to 84 at the end of his time there.  From Campbell House he moved to Holsworthy High as Principal where he remained for 17 years until retirement.


The formation of Frew Consultancy Group was motivated by our desire to continue to help teachers deal with students with severe behaviours.  The main work has been to produce the free Newsletters for anyone who wants them.  On top of this we have conducted numerous workshops for schools both in Australia and overseas and groups on behaviour management, consulted with schools in their preparation of discipline/welfare policies and mentored individual teachers. We have also presented at conferences as key note speakers and facilitated workshops.  John has written three books that extend the information in the Newsletters.  These are:

  • The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching
  • Insights into the Modern Classroom

Published by Xlibris

  • Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids

Published by Austin Macauley

These are available from on-line stores or from our Group.


We take this week to pause and reflect on that time and ask for your feedback and suggestions on the way forward.  If you have any comments, criticisms or suggestions we would love to hear from you.


Thanks for your on-going support.

Marcia and John


The following is the list of previous Newsletters:


Newsletter 1 – There is more to Bullying Than Meets the Eye

Newsletter 2 – Bullying and Power

Newsletter 3 - Dealing with Difficult Situations

Newsletter 4 - The Troublesome Teens

Newsletter 5 - Challenging Beliefs – Not So Easy

Newsletter 6 - The Great Lie

Newsletter 7 - True Grit

Newsletter 8 – Education the Over-Indulged and Narcistic Child

Newsletter 9 – Routine – Support for Student Expectations

Newsletter 10 - ADHD Is Real but what does it Mean for Teachers

Newsletter 11 - Self-Esteem or Self-Love

Newsletter 12 - The Intricacy of Stress

Newsletter 13 - Teaching our most Difficult Kids

Newsletter 14 - Toxic Shame

Newsletter 15 - Locus of Control

Newsletter 16 – Time Out

Newsletter 17 - Anxiety

Newsletter 18 - Teaching Practical Boundaries

Newsletter 19 - Integration of Dysfunctional Students

Newsletter 20 – Ethical Teaching – Morality in the Classroom

Newsletter 21 - Independent Behaviour Programs

Newsletter 22 - The Passive Aggressive Student

Newsletter 23 - Dealing with Difficult Students

Newsletter 24 – The Impact of Neglect

Newsletter 25 - Vacuous Shame

Newsletter 26 - Characteristics of the Abused Child

Newsletter 27 - The Silver Lining

Newsletter 28 - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse

Newsletter 29 - Effective Behaviour Management

Newsletter 30 - Education for the Future

Newsletter 31 - Common Mistakes Teachers Make

Newsletter 32 – What’s in a Name?

Newsletter 33 – Boredom

Newsletter 34 – Anger Temporary Madness

Newsletter 35 - Educational Myths

Newsletter 36 – Boredom – Mark 2

Newsletter 37 - Creating a Purpose

Newsletter 38 - Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder

Newsletter 39 – Relationships

Newsletter 40 - Emotions Direct Attention

Newsletter 41 - Dopamine

Newsletter 42 – Dopamine for Teachers

Newsletter 43 – Consequences

Newsletter 44 – Consequences not Punishment or Reward

Newsletter 45 – Taming that Difficult Class

Newsletter 46 - A Question of Choice

Newsletter 47 - At the Time – There is No Choice

Newsletter 48 - Planning for a Disaster

Newsletter 49 - A Question about Control in the ‘Structure’

Newsletter 50 – Rejection

Newsletter 51 - Different Expressions from an Abused History

Newsletter 52 - Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking

Newsletter 53 - Dysfunctional Behaviour to Deal with Stress

Newsletter 54 - Attention Seeking

Newsletter 55- Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder

Newsletter 56 - The Tribal Classroom

Newsletter 57 - Theory of Mind

Newsletter 58 – Transference

Newsletter 59 - The Impact of Poverty and Neglect

Newsletter 60 - Accept Lack of Empathy – Just for Now

Newsletter 61 - Let It Go

Newsletter 62 – The Danger of Praise

Newsletter 63 – Areas of Indifference

Newsletter 64 - Getting to the Truth

Newsletter 65 - Resilience

Newsletter 66 - Boundary Considerations

Newsletter 67 – Dissociation

Newsletter 68 – Childhood Trauma

Newsletter 69 – Rituals

Newsletter 70 – Poverty and Student Success

Newsletter 71 - Respecting Other’s Boundaries

Newsletter 72 – Trust – The Glue that Sustains Relationships

Newsletter 73 – Testing Tough Kids

Newsletter 74 - End of Year Recovery

Newsletter 75 - Tips for Emotional Encounters

Newsletter 76 - The Impact of Language on the Behaviour

Newsletter 77 - 100 Ways to Say well Done

Newsletter 78 – Empathy

Newsletter 79 - Creativity

Newsletter 80 - A Timely Reminder

Newsletter 81 - Motivating Students

Newsletter 82 - Converting Teacher’s lessons to Intrinsic Motivation

Newsletter 83 - The Dishonourable Lie

Newsletter 84 – Malevolent - The Condemned Disability

Newsletter 85 – What are the Chances

Newsletter 86 - The impact of Abuse – It Depends how it Happens

Newsletter 87 - Perfectly Imperfect

Newsletter 88 – Addiction – Behaving to Avoid Stress

Newsletter 89 - Faulty Beliefs

Newsletter 90 – Mindfulness

Newsletter 91 - Beliefs

Newsletter 92 - Addiction - It's the Seeking not the Consumption

Newsletter 93 – Debriefing

Newsletter 94 - The Tribal Teacher

Newsletter 95 – Levels

Newsletter 96 - Creating Structure

Newsletter 97 – Student Stress

Newsletter 98 – ‘Do or Not Do’ - Yoda

Newsletter 99 - Looking After Yourself

Newsletter 100 - Recovery Time

Newsletter 101 - Sense of Self

Newsletter 102 - Sense of Self - Part 2

Newsletter 103 – Dreikurs’ Model of Behaviour

Newsletter 104 – Relatedness

Newsletter 105 - Drives and Needs

Newsletter 106 - Secondary Drives

Newsletter 107 - The Social Teacher

Newsletter 108 – Prejudice

Newsletter 109 - Another Year Over

Newsletter 110 - Sense of Self Continued

Newsletter 111 – Special Relationship

Newsletter 112 – Expectations

Newsletter 113 – Supportive Relationships

Newsletter 114 - The Importance of Emotions

Newsletter 115 – Conversations

Newsletter 116 - The Inner Critic

Newsletter 117 - Dealing with the Emotional Stress

Newsletter 118 - Developing Social Skills

Newsletter 119 – Avoiding Cabin Fever

Newsletter 120 - The Hidden Cost of on-Line Learning

Newsletter 121 – Trauma and the Environment

Newsletter 122 – Purpose

Newsletter 123. Toxic Resilience

Newsletter 124. Nature Vs Nurture

Newsletter 125. Structure

Newsletter 126.  Expectations

Newsletter 127. Pedagogy

Newsletter 128.  The Wounded Child

Newsletter 129.  Damage to the Brain

Newsletter 130.  Generating Stress

Newsletter 131.  The Complexity of Stress

Newsletter 132.  Routine

Newsletter 133.  Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse

Newsletter 134. Anxiety

Newsletter 135.  Toxic Shame

Newsletter 136. Dealing with the Exploding Kid

Newsletter 137. The Crisis Response

Newsletter 138. Personal Action in Times of Crisis

Newsletter 139. Making Matters Worse

Newsletter 140. Critical and Creative Thinking

Newsletter 141.  Be Persistently Consistent

Newsletter 142.  Creating a Calm Environment

Newsletter 143. Designing a Correction Plan

Newsletter 144. Dealing with Touching and Restraint

Newsletter 145. Theory of Mind

Newsletter 146. Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult Times

Newsletter 147. Prejudice

Newsletter 148.  Starting Off on the Right Foot

Newsletter 149. Beliefs

Newsletter 150. Structure in a Crisis

Newsletter 151. The ‘Gas-Light’

Newsletter 152.  Getting to the Truth

Newsletter 153.  Music

Newsletter 154.  Authenticity

Newsletter 155.  Supporting a Sense of Self

Newsletter 156.  Mono-Cultures

Newsletter 157.  Tips for Teaching Teenagers

Newsletter 158.  The Teens – a Time for Specific Change

Newsletter 159.  A Time for Reflection

Newsletter 160. Dealing with the Angry Ant

Newsletter 161. Dealing with Justified Anger

Newsletter 162.  Trauma Informed Teaching

Newsletter 163.  Restorative Justice - Proceed with Care

Newsletter 164.  The pursuit of Purpose

Newsletter 165. Hidden Types of Abuse

Newsletter 166.  Changing Behaviour

Newsletter 167.  Just Say No

Newsletter 168.  Achieving Excellence as a Teacher

Newsletter 169.  Indirect Bullying

Newsletter 170.  The Queen Bee

Newsletter 171.  Girls – They are Different

Newsletter 172.  Rewards and Punishments

Newsletter 173. Competence and Warmth

Newsletter 174. Student Discipline – What About Welfare

Newsletter 175.  Dealing with Students with Severely Dys. Beh’s.

Newsletter 176.  Multi-Tasking

Newsletter 177.  Emerging from Lockdown

Newsletter 178. Dealing with a Crisis

Newsletter 179.  Dealing with Student Anxiety

Newsletter 180.  Oppositional Defiance Disorder

Newsletter 181.  Modern Teenage Challenge

Newsletter 182. Teaching Truth Seeking

Newsletter 183. Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing

Newsletter 184.  Supporting a Sense of Self

Newsletter 185. Am Ignored but Vital Workload

Newsletter 186.  Beware of Despair

Newsletter 187.  Time for revision

Newsletter 188.  Acquisition and Memory of Behaviours 

Newsletter 189.  The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour

Newsletter 190.  Early Childhood Modelling

Newsletter 191. The Importance of Stress

Newsletter 192. Early Childhood Trauma

Newsletter 193.  Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD

Newsletter 194.  Boundaries - The Point of Contact

Newsletter 195. Dysfunctional Boundaries

Newsletter 196.  Identifying Source of Dysfunctional Behaviour

Newsletter 197.  Healthy Boundaries

Newsletter 198.  Stress

Newsletter 199.  Toxic Stress and Trauma

Newsletter 200. Toxic Shame Revision









































































































































































































Posted by: AT 09:43 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 16 2022

Toxic Shame Revision

One of the first Newsletters I wrote for this blog was about toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 Toxic Shame – 3 July 2017).  This is because the effect it has on the formation of our sense of self will influence the behaviour choices of children who suffer early childhood abuse and neglect.  We have addressed the more quantifiable damage can occur when being raised in such a cruel and negligent environment, not the least of which is the permanent brain damage described in our previous Newsletter.  Not to discard how much these injuries directly effects the day-to-day decision making but the emotional quality of shame permeates every decision these children make.


It is worth revisiting how a person’s sense of self, their belief structure is formed by examining the diagram below:

It is obvious that our sense of self, our beliefs are a result of our experience when these were being formed, they are just the memories of events of that time.  The key for the formation of self is always about survival.  The need to connect with others is critical and so any rejection by our community is a threat.  The fact that shame is often defined as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation is a message that what we have done threatens our membership of the group.  So, even though shame is a negative emotion, its origins play a part in our survival as a species.


Because we all make mistakes there are times when our behaviour is spurned.  This is the experience of shame.  It is because we are doing something that does not contribute to the wellbeing of others, what we have done is not acceptable!  This emotional feedback is healthy; hence the term healthy shame and that feedback protects us from behaviours that repel others.  It should also remind us that we are not perfect and should not be so quick to judge others.  There is an axiom I like ‘If we never experience shame we are either divine or totally corrupt’.


The key difference between healthy and toxic shame is in the former, the individual feels embarrassed because they made a mistake.  In the case of toxic shame the kids don’t recognise that they have made a mistake they believe they are the cause of that mistake.  This faulty belief underpins their sense of self and they bring that sense to every situation they encounter including their schoolwork.  


As with all the development of our sense of self, it occurs in childhood.  Toxic shame is put onto these children by others, usually significant others.  They are constantly told they are stupid, useless, are ignored or punished and of course, those who suffer abuse and neglect inevitably develop a sense of toxic shame.


To summarise, these kids experience:

  • Feelings that are not based on reality, they think they are mistakes instead of recognizing they have made a mistake.
  • False messages that create this false sense of self.  They are blamed for things that were out of their control.
  • A reality that is based on another’s opinion, children have to learn how to form an opinion and until they do they believe the outlook of the adults.
  • A chronic, permanent state of rejection from their peers.
  • An exaggeration of their faults, they are quick to take the blame when things go wrong.


The result is these children bring to any situation, as outlined in the first diagram, a sense of self, a set of beliefs that will inevitably:

  • Discount their positives - They don’t listen to compliments, they only hear criticisms
  • Magnify their flaws - They look for confirmation about their faulty beliefs because maybe that’s all they have heard
  • Judge themselves against perfection - If they make a mistake they are a mistake
  • Translate criticism for what they do into what they are - When they do something wrong it’s because they are wrong
  • They read shame into other’s minds - they know that you know they are bad


The result of these faulty beliefs leads to their conviction that:

  • To be good they must be perfect
  • They don’t deserve anything
  • They should never let anyone get to know them, they want to keep their ‘faults’ a secret
  • You shouldn’t have feelings
  • Don’t grow, it’s safe where you are


Their emotional interpretation of their worth is also affected.  They feel:

  • A fake
  • Contemptible
  • Inadequate
  • Inferior
  • Flawed
  • Dirty
  • Damaged


Finally their overwhelmingly, destructive self-talk is something like:

  • ‘You don’t count’
  • ‘You don’t deserve to do what you want to do.
  • ‘What you want isn’t important.  What others want is more important.’
  • ‘Don’t make trouble.  Don’t rock the boat.’
  • ‘It doesn’t really matter.  It’s not important anyway.’
  •  ‘You can’t have what you want, so just go along.’
  •  ‘Just do what’s expected of you.’
  •  ‘Who do you think you are?’
  •  ‘You should’…...’You shouldn’t’……..

There are countless ways these children discount their own worth.


With all the damages described above it is no wonder children with toxic shame develop the following personality types:

  • Guilt Spreaders
    • The shame equation is that one mistake confirms that I am bad
    • I made a mistake therefore I am one.  One small act condemns me to be totally wrong
  • Overly Responsible
    • I am responsible if anything goes wrong. It’s my fault.
  • Obsessive Moralisers
    • I must always ‘measure up’.  Things are either good or bad.  These students feel immoral if they just have a good time.
  • Compulsive Comparers
    • These students feel they can never compare to successful people
    • When they see others succeed they feel they have failed
  • Approval Addicts
    • I can only feel like I’m improving if others approve of my actions
  • Never Deserving
    • I cannot enjoy the gifts of life because I did not earn them


Toxic shame is an insidious emotion that influences all aspects of an abused child’s approach to life.  It will strongly influence whether they choose to actively participate in their community and nourish their sense of success or give up because they expect to fail.  In every case they can’t accept that they are entitled to survive and thrive in the world.  This faulty belief is what all effective teachers challenge everyday in their classrooms through, powerful, positive relationships, structured authentic consequences and well-defined expectation.  The use of this approach will eventually allow these children to understand that behaviour has authentic consequences regardless of who they think they are!

Posted by: AT 07:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 09 2022

Toxic Stress and Trauma

In the previous Newsletter (Stress – 2 May 2022) we discussed the effect stress has on students.  In this essay we concentrated on the emotional arousal that occurs in our day to day interaction with our environment in our efforts to survive.  In most cases this process of constant, homeostatic adjustment back to equilibrium is healthy.  However, researchers studying stress in children have proposed three separate responses to stress that have different outcomes, positive, tolerable and toxic.  The process described in the last Newsletter describes the characteristics of positive stress which operates to maintain the body in a healthy state.


However, too many children are exposed to threats that result in levels of stress that challenge their ability to ‘survive’.  These are the times when they become so frightened the effect on their physical organisation is to prepare them for a fight/flight response.  This 'readiness’ is achieved by the elevation of their heart rate, the secretion of hormones including adrenaline and noradrenaline along with other reactions such as the dilation of the pupils in their eyes.  One of the release hormones is cortisol which operates to assist in the restoration of the brain’s neurological status after the stress has been removed; this is the return to equilibrium.  Paradoxically, if the stressful situation is not resolved the continual secretion of cortisol has an erosive impact on the brain as we will discuss later.


Tolerable stress refers to levels of elevated stress that trigger an intense response but these are either resolved with the support of a parent or carer or they are only present for a short time.  Toxic stress is experienced if the conditions that activated are not quickly resolved and the intense stress continue for long periods of time, weeks, months or even years. 


The experience of these toxic conditions at an age when children are just learning how to behave in their environment is untimely as they have yet to develop any personal defence strategies and must rely on the support of their parents, or adult carers to assist in their return to equilibrium.  As will be shown this support is not always available.


The results of this intense or chronic stress is the over development of those regions of the brain that are involved in the fight/flight - fear response.  The constant firing of the neural pathways associated with fear are strengthened while the potential, positive alternate pathways are pruned, that is, the neural material is removed making the fear response more efficient.  This results in an exaggerated ability to detect any possible threat, they become hyper-vigilant in any social environment. 


The flip-side of this predisposition is the reduction in the child’s neural pathways that recognise more nurturing characteristics, they become inept at recognising kindness and compassion.  Unless aware of this incapacity teachers can become discouraged when their attempts to cultivate a positive relationship seem to be snubbed.  This is not the child’s rejection of their efforts it is their inability to recognise and respond appropriately.


In physiological terms the stress response follows the pattern illustrated below.  The stimulus enters through the cerebellum where it is identified as an immediate threat.  From there it goes to the thalamus, instantly on to the amygdala which initiates the fear response.  This continual stimulation means the amygdala becomes enlarged which in turn makes it acutely aware of potential threat.  At these times the information does not get to the hippocampus and on to the frontal lobes blocking the information from the conscious mind.  Because of this any thoughtful response is not available, it is almost impossible to ‘will away’ heightened emotions once they are present.


Continued exposure of children to these conditions of elevated stress leads to early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  This is because their very foundations of expected survival are challenged.  


Traumatised people portray ‘snapshots’ of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat.  This inability to return to a state of calm means they are unable to discharge the energies associate with the preparation to defend themselves.  They remain in a state of readiness, fixated in an aroused state with the accompanying cortisol.


Although PTSD in children is usually associated with abuse it is worth noting that even if they live in a positive environment they can also become traumatised.  Generally they function with the expectation that they will comfortably survive and this gives them the confidence to plan and act.  However, there can be times when these expectations are shattered through the experience of:

  • Unexpected life-threatening events such as car accidents, earthquakes, severe illness, the death of a loved one, anything that threatens their stable view of the world. 
  • They come face to face with human vulnerability, they witness the injury to another person that demonstrates the fragility of life and in an instant the world changes through events that are out of their control.
  • They come face to face with the capacity for others to preform what can only be called evil in the world. 

One can only imagine the huge number of cases of early childhood PTSD that is currently being produced in Ukraine. 


The result of continuous, early childhood PTSD is a permanent change to the brain’s structure which results in an intellectual disability.  The following changes have been observed:

  • Amygdala is increased in size – this makes the child more attuned to potential threats and an exaggerated response to any actual threat.
  • Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this decreases the ability to create memories and to liaise with the frontal lobes where cognitive decisions can be made.
  • Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface.  This is damage to what is called the executive of the brain and the level of damage here leads to major cognitive dysfunction.
  • Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is the ‘relay station’ between the external environment and our expectations.  A decreased efficiency in this process should mean a reduction in the accuracy of this process.
  • Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum. This reduces the coordinated response from both hemispheres.


The illustration below is of an extremely neglected and damaged three year-old-child.

The overall reduction in size is distressing and the damaged areas, the darkened parts throughout the cross section represent lesions and scar tissues.


Early childhood PTSD is predominantly the result of childhood abuse and the heart-breaking fact is that in most cases the perpetrators are primary care-givers.  What makes this upsetting is that these cognitive injuries are permanent.  This means a child born with a neurotypical brain is subjected to behaviours that produce these injuries as a consequence of an adult’s cruel behaviour.  This appalling situation is exacerbated by the fact that children being wholly egocentric think it is their fault they are treated this way.  They develop what I describe as toxic shame which I will address in the next Newsletter.


It is so hard for so many of the dysfunctional students that are the focus of our work.  They have been abused with resulting permanent brain damage through no fault of their own.  Their efforts to survive have seen them develop behaviours that some adults find repulsive.  This plus their ingrained sense of worthlessness, their toxic shame has left them with no expectation to succeed or be accepted into normal society and so they act to fulfil their destiny.


In our competitive society welded to the hypocrisy of meritocracy these children are blamed for their failures when in reality we should be blamed for letting this happen!  The best they can hope for is to be in the classroom of a teacher who understands this and will hang-in with them longer that they expect!   

Posted by: AT 06:57 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 02 2022


In the previous four Newsletters we have discussed boundaries in detail with the fundamental appreciation that it is the interface between our ‘self’ and the external world.  This may appear to be a relatively straight forward concept but a closer look reveals the need to define what consists of our ‘self’ and that requires a more complex analysis. 


At the fundamental level our boundaries indicate the interface between our internal and external world.  For my work our external world consists of all things beyond our brain’s receptors.  In a relatively simple way it defines the physical and social environment in which we find ourselves, the availability of resources and social interactions.  It is a bit more entangled when we consider that part of the environment is our body.  The central nervous system really is an extension of the brain but for my purposes I am interested in incoming information about things like our oxygen levels, our temperature etc. that will initiate behaviour and so I include those messages from our body.


Our physical self includes things like the maintenance of blood pressure, sugar levels, the rate of our heart-beat, etc.  The maintenance of these biological factors are reflexive, laid down because of our genetic scaffold, they make us human.  However, the social and intellectual features of our ‘self’ which give us that sense of who we are, are learned and the motivation of that learning is to support our survival in the presenting environment.   


From the time we are born we build up a complex web of memories that, in the first instance allow us to survive in the particular set of conditions in which we find ourselves.   Through the process of trial, error and correction we build a set of memories which allow us to anticipate what will happen when we act in a particular way in response to a particular set of environmental conditions that threaten our ‘survival’.  The goal for behaviour and learning is always to act to return to a state of homeostatic equilibrium; that is when all our needs are satisfied. Stress is the messenger that informs our homeostatic status – in equilibrium, no stress; in disequilibrium, stress!


The level of stress experienced occurs along a continuum of an autonomic arousal ranging from coma, unconsciousness to full-blown panic attack.  It is an electro/chemical response that prepares the body to act to regain a state of equilibrium whether that be a defence against perceived threat or a motivation to acquire something to sustain our survival.  It must be remembered that although the brain sustains us its only activity is to initiate movement be that the movement of a limb or instigating an electro-chemical signal that produces changes in the composition of our biological mix.  In cases of extreme threat an immediate ‘flight/fight response will occur to get the body into a state of readiness through the stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system.  This stimulates the adrenal glands releasing catecholamines particularly the adrenaline and noradrenaline.  This results in an increase in our heart-rate, blood pressure, breathing rate etc. 


As all environments constantly change we are continuously adjusting to new conditions in order to maintain equilibrium.  It becomes obvious that we do need an amount of stress to thrive and this applies to the classroom. 


The presence of stress does great things for your learning and memory.  At the fundamental level stress:

    • Increases heart rate
    • Loosens up blood vessels in critical parts of the brain
    • Delivers more oxygen and glucose to the brain
    • Your brain starts working better
    • Neurons become more excitable in the hippocampus

These and other reactions support the learning of new memories.  Teachers need to produce a level of stress that is not directly focused on the maintenance of immediate survival but enough to initiate a level of curiosity in the students about things they don’t understand.


There is an ideal level of stress that produces optimal learning.  The illustration below describes an inverted ‘U’ curve was first recognised by sports scientists who searched for the conditions of optimal athletic performance.  As can be seen, the horizontal axis indicates the level of arousal while the vertical axis describes the level of performance.  If the individual is under-stressed then the performance level is less than desirable however there is an optimum level where the performance is at its maximum.  Regrettably, if the level of stress continues to increase past that optimal level then the elevated anxiety will impair the performance. 



Unfortunately, this graph is highly individualised, that is it characterises one child.  Every child will have a different relationship to stress, some students are anxious and may quickly become over-aroused while others need to be stirred from their comfort zone!  The teacher needs to establish each child’s level of resilience and take a personalised approach to their motivation.


This ‘optimal’ level can be considered as positive stress, the conditions that support the formation of short-term memories and consequently our long-term memories which become the representation of our ‘self’.


This optimum or positive stress has the following benefits:

  • Increases the efficiency of our immune system
  • Increases our ability to form memories
  • Enhances the quality of our decision making
  • Improves our ability to concentrate
  • Enriches our level of emotional intelligence

These are all conditions we want our students to have when they are in our classrooms.


In our training we have always emphasised the importance of engagement and that is really encouraging the student to become stressed enough to take advantage of the conditions that come with positive stress.  The problem is, as stated above all our students come with a different emotional temperament and an approach that motivates a highly resilient student might frighten a student who suffers from anxiety.  This is the expertise professional teachers possess and this is not appreciated by those outside the system.


However, stress in the right amount is critical for a healthy and rewarding life, too much stress can have a devastating impact on individuals especially if it occurs in early childhood and that will be the subject of our next Newsletter.

Posted by: AT 11:40 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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