Skip to main content
FREW Consultants Group        
Tuesday, February 28 2023

Stress = Life

In the latest Newsletters we have focused on the emergence of our consciousness facilitated by the mechanism of our neural environment.  Through the decisions on how we live our self emerges.  At the very basic level we are our decisions on how we have maintained our self in the environment in which we find ourselves and that determines our behaviour.  This includes the behaviour of those students who are severely disrupting our classrooms!


We behave to survive (and reproduce) and we survive in a specific set of conditions allowing us to maintain our body in a steady, nurturing state of internal biological, physical, social and intellectual equilibrium; a condition described previously, in homeostatic equilibrium. 


Because the immediate environment is changing constantly we are continually needing to adjust to maintain this condition.  At a physical level, we are relentlessly adjusting our blood pressure, core temperature and levels of glucose.  If you want to experience the power of this drive for equilibrium just hold your breath for as long as you can.  Without training, after 30 seconds your full attention will be on that next breath!


That example was describing our physical state, in consequent Newsletters we will discuss other conditions we need to sustain with that of social equilibrium, a significant factor in the development of the dysfunctional behaviours in which we are interested.


 In summary, the brain continuously monitors the internal homeostatic status in relation to the external conditions of the environment.  When we are out of balance, in disequilibrium we become stressed at levels ranging from mild curiosity to extreme terror.  It is the energy this instability generates, the stress that fuels the brain and onto the body to make the adjustments required to change that relationship.


The process is to synchronise the external world with our internal state of equilibrium

We gain ‘intelligence’ through our senses, the receptors like smell, sight, sound, etc. and this lets us know how those conditions will impact on our equilibrium.  If the situation supports the current status we are secure, stress free.  However, if there is a disparity stress will be generated, the level of which depends on the threat to our survival!


Our individual evolution of our sense of self is the result of our learning how to maintain equilibrium and this process is fuelled by this stress.  The following is very simplistic description of what happens.


In these times of threat, the incoming stimulus that identifies that danger progresses quickly from the receptors to the limbic system—in particular, the amygdala.  If the amygdala perceives the stimulus as representing a real, immediate threat, a sequence of events takes place to prepare the body—first to flight, and if that is not an available option, to fight or freeze. This involves a series of synaptic signals that release a cocktail of chemicals that in turn dramatically change the physiological status of the body.  


The signals sent out are in the form of chemical and electrical change initiated in the brain. Chemically, this is an endogenous stress response of neuro-hormones—such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin, oxytocin, and endogenous opioids—that surge through the body, priming its defences. These chemicals flood the brain, including the cerebral cortex and such subcortical areas as the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, thalamus, and locus coeruleus. The most damaging change is the marked increase of cortisol, a condition that becomes significant and will be discussed in subsequent Newsletters.


The release of these naturally occurring chemicals is supposed to place the child in a state of preparedness to deal with perceived danger. When the danger has passed, the body returns to normal; the threat is over.


The level of stress and/or the persistence and consistency of the situation will determine the strength of the memory.  You can see we are building the model of behaviour and the conditions in which these behaviours are adopted.  This level is of particular importance both in the formation of powerful memories when the stress response is highly elevated.  In the next Newsletter we will examine the implications of such extreme events which include brain damage.


 At the other end of the stress spectrum is situations that hardly evoke any stress.  This is not significant in the formation of our ‘self’ but extremely important for teachers who are trying to engage students in material in which they have little interest.


These stressful events have at their core the desire to behave in a way that will return us to equilibrium.  They fire a set of neurons that initiate that behaviour and when repeated enough they create a memory!  It becomes obvious that throughout early childhood we build an arrangement of memories of actions that support our survival in the environment in which we find ourselves.


So, it is that we first construct our self, particularly our social self and consequently use that sense to continue to navigate our way through our environment.  This is significant – when the environment remains predictable the behaviour is functional; when the contemporary environment is incompatible with that in which our self was formed the behaviours that are mobilized are most likely to be ineffective!


The purpose of this Newsletter is to begin to build an understanding of the importance of stress, in understanding of why the students behave differently in the face of diverse situations and why it is important for the teacher to control the emotional environment in their classroom to activate the behaviours they want and to avoid initiating those behaviours that will disrupt the lesson.  Remember, you can never make any student do what you want them to do.  You can only create the environment in which the behaviour, the lesson you want them to learn is the behaviour that reinforces their sense of security!


Posted by: AT 09:08 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 20 2023

Myaline - Why Behaviour Modification is so Hard


Every thought, belief, movement or feeling is the result of a precisely tuned electric signal travelling through a chain of neurons, a circuit of nerve fibres.  In fact our sense of self and all the actions we make based on that belief system is really just the result of electric impulses sent along a particular neural circuit!  This has often been explained by means of an analogy with an electric circuit used in our daily life.  The thing is, in the electric circuit of a motor, if the wires are allowed to touch each other the motor would fail, it would burn out.  Hence the use of insulation that covers each circuit and isolates it from adjoining ones.  The same sort of thing happens in our neural circuitry.  In the brain we have a cellular insulator that wraps itself around the circuits, myaline!

Myaline is a lipid-rich or fatty content material that forms an insulating cover or sheath around nerve axons, the nervous system’s ‘wires’.  Unlike the plastic coverings of an electrical circuit that encases the entire wire, myaline sheaths the nerves in segments with short gaps in between.  This insulation increases the speed and accuracy of the electric impulses that activate the desired behaviour.

The construction of a neural circuit is the result of the desire to change our position in the environment, to maintain homeostasis!  For example, when an infant wants to walk there is an accumulation of skills starting from the parent supporting them to standing, overcoming the challenges of unsupported balance, the coordinated movement of the legs until walking becomes an unconscious skill.  Through every stage of this process the brain has, through trial and error found the best connection to achieve the desired result.  By repeatedly using this preferred circuitry the network is formed – hence the famous neuroscience maxim ‘neurons that fired together are wired together.

The formation of the neural circuit triggers the myaline response.  The more we use it the more myaline protects it and the more efficient it becomes!

This process remains throughout life but decreases as we age.  At about 50-year-old the proficiency is reduced but there is evidence that if you keep learning, keep active in a way the requires the use of myaline the decrease can be slowed remarkably!  But, it is undeniable this process of construction of neural pathways is at its peak in early childhood! 

In childhood the myaline arrives in a series of waves, some determined by genes and others by activity.  I speculate that the so-called ‘windows of opportunity’ are governed by our genes.  Significantly, when these periods of myaline excess that facilitates the acquisition of new behaviours are over, not only is the myaline reduced but regrettably the neurons that would have been used are washed out of the system for the sake of ‘efficiency’.

The most dramatic illustration of this process is the period of development of sight.  The brain prepares for the construction of the visual circuitry early in childhood.  The child learns to understand sight by linking the visual stimulus with a representation of objects.  What is revealing is that in rare cases where the child is born with cataracts they do not have access to this visual stimulus and unless the cataracts are not removed by about eight months, that child will never be able to effectively interpret their visual world.

These periods are critical and for the social development of the child the drive to belong is such a window.  This is a period in early childhood when infants develop an attachment to others, in the first instance with their primary caregiver.  The quality of the relationship between the parent or caregiver and the child will determine the sense of self the child will have and the behaviours that sense drives.  When this period is over children who do not receive healthy interactions, those subjected to early childhood abuse and neglect will have the same impediment for future change as those children who were born with cataracts.

It is important to understand that myaline wraps it doesn’t unwrap and so these early childhood circuits remain throughout life, once you insulate a habit it can’t be uninsulated.  This is why changing the behaviour of children who have developed highly dysfunctional behaviours is extremely difficult.  You can’t remove the behaviour which in many cases is automatic so the best chance is to build an alternate circuit!

Building a circuit to trigger an alternative response to a situation that creates a condition of homeostatic disequilibrium is extremely difficult.  Considering that the experience of disequilibrium initiates a stress response which then drives the learned behaviour that allows the individual to return to a state of equilibrium must have been successful in the conditions in which it was formed, change is difficult. 

The initial task is to overcome that stress.  This will be the focus of our upcoming Newsletters – it is critical.  In the mean time we remain focused on the characteristics of myaline in this process.

To build an alternate behaviour that responds to a stressful situation requires the same conditions that were lived through at the time the original circuit was established.  A behaviour was trialled (in this case not the existing one) and was successful.  This success needs to be repeated continuously until the brain identifies it as one that requires myelination.  This repetition needs to continue until the new circuit is fully shielded.  At this time you have a choice in how to respond to a difficult situation! 

To promote myaline growth requires the firing of the circuit, the student must take the action that will lead to the desired outcome.  It does not respond to lectures, best wishes or some expert explanation, it is only in the doing that this works!

As the teacher, it is you who must provide these conditions and they are what we continue to advocate.  Provide consistent and persistent consequences for behaviour in a calm environment.  It is the consistency and persistency that allows the myelination and the calmness that diminishes the power of the previous response!

Working with these children is very difficult and you must understand the building of a new behaviour will not take place in the same conditions as the existing one.  There will not be the same abundance of myaline and a significant number of neurons that could have been used have been pruned for the sake if efficiency.

Next time you are in a staff meeting discussing the behaviour of the children remember the ability to change behaviour reduces as we age and this might help you deal with the frustration created by those who resist change – we are all our brains.  Fortunately our brains are magnificent!

Posted by: AT 07:18 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, February 15 2023

Evolution of the Brain


As indicated in the previous Newsletter the ‘learned’ behaviours commence at the time the child is born.  During this early stage of development, the volume of synaptic connectivity is at its peak.  This is the formation of  neural pathways that initiate a behavioural response to a particular set of homeostatic conditions.  This ‘construction’ is not instantaneous but, through trial and error the actions that get the best response are repeated and by continual repetition of this association between stimulus, discomfort, action and consequential relief, a circuit is born.  


These attempts to adjust their current physiological state continue until there is some success.  Then through repetition the strength of these successful connections increases until they become dominant and are myalinated to become fixed in the structure of the brain.  This myelination or ‘insulation’ is supported by glial cells; a type of supportive product that does not conduct electric impulses.  There is no definitive appreciation for the function of these cells but I suspect they perform some supportive function in the brain.  Nature rarely retains useless materials in such abundance.


This crude description of what happens is at its peak in early childhood.  90% of the brain’s development occurs in the first five years.  This is a time when there is an oversupply of neurological materials available to support the learning of new actions.  Importantly there are crucial periods, windows of opportunity when the presence of the required material to build synaptic connection, and retention is increased providing optimum conditions for the construction of particular networks. 


The development of sight provides a great illustration of the need for stimulus at the time the brain is geared for the acquisition of a new skill.  If a child is born with cataracts on their eyes and those cataracts are not removed by about ten months that child will be functionally blind.  Even if the cataracts are removed after the critical period and the stimulus is available, the rich neural environment that was there has been removed.  This is an example of the ‘use it or lose it’ maxim and a further example of the loss of plasticity in the lower levels of the brain over time.


Those neurons that are not used wither through disuse and eventually are discarded, a process called pruning where the unused neuron cells are removed to make the newly formed connection still more efficient.  The effect of this pruning is that in the first three years a child has over 1,000 trillion potential neural connections but the time they reach adolescence this is halved to 500 trillion a number that remains fairly stable for the rest of their  life. 


Early childhood is a time of great plasticity, a time when new circuits are easily formed and retained.  However, once these new circuits are formed and myalinated this plasticity decreases, the newly formed neural pathway are ‘’locked in’.  The result is that these behaviours are difficult to change in the future, the required cells have been pruned and the existing behaviours are extremely durable.


This lack of future plasticity explains why the learning that takes place in early childhood is difficult to modify.  When you consider that they are permanent this is only an advantage if they have been learned in a functioning environment. However, if the behaviours are learned in a dysfunctional environment these will clash in a functional classroom. This is the fundamental reason cognitive interventions to change the disruptive behaviour of children raised in abusive and neglectful environments are ineffective.


Learning continues throughout our lifetime but decreases as we age and our brain development reflects that reduction.  The brain develops in two ways, from the bottom up, that is behaviours in the midbrain and limbic system, which are predominantly social skills and from the back to the front!  The back to front evolution reflects the emergence of our intellectual brain, that part we want to access in our lessons.  The illustration shows this development.


This progression to adulthood is said to be completed around the age of 28 for males and earlier for females, I will leave that inference without comment!  This is when the frontal lobes are developed.


This progressive characteristic is important for our expectations of behaviour for children of different ages.  It has been described as the first ten years we become people, with the skills of communication, survival and affiliation and the next we become reproductive people where we must learn a new form of intimate attachment.  This reflects Dawkin’s hypothesis we are driven to survive and reproduce!


Our focus is on those children whose behaviour clashes with that required in a functioning classroom.  It must be remembered that even though all children will be developing behaviours those children who have not learned the previous functioning skill set will require extra support.   When the teacher understands this it helps inform their approach to how they teach their academic programs.  Students who are having difficulty learning to relate socially, that is those who are highly disruptive are not going to improve their NAPLAN results until they improve their affiliation skills!


The next illustration shows these phases of development.

In summary, as we move towards maturity we develop in a three staged, hierarchical fashion that reflects our triune brain with:

  1. Development of the physical self, our reflexive responses in the brain stem and midbrain that cater for changes in our physical homeostatic status.
  2. The emergence of our objective self in our limbic system where we experience the external world as objects and others.  We learn to socialise!
  3. The final development is in our cerebral cortex, our intellectual brain which allows us to ponder situations that are not easily resolved. 


It is the last part of the brain we want in the classroom however this will not be available unless the lower functions are in homeostatic equilibrium.  This is why the management of disruptive behaviours is the most important skill a teacher should have.  A fact that is ignored by academics and bureaucrats!

Posted by: AT 10:21 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 06 2023

Introduction to the Brain

Our brain is at the heart of all our being.  Everything we perceive, think about and the way we act is controlled by the brain.  As the Noble Prize-winning neuroscientist, Eric Kandel declared ‘if it’s not the brain then what is it’?  It is through the brain we interpret the world and our self within that world. 


Simplistically, we have a body that needs to survive in the environment in which it resides.  Another way of understanding what the brain Is all about is articulated in Richard Dawkin’s thesis ‘The Selfish Gene’.  That we exist to sustain a genetic code and our bodies only exist to support that gene.  When our bodies cease to function, the genes have expected us to reproduce to provide another host.  The conclusion is we exist to live and reproduce.  During these Newsletters I will not place much emphasis on our need to reproduce but those who have dealt with adolescents understand this is a complex area for teens to navigate!


So, if the purpose of our existence is to survive and reproduce why is the understanding of behaviour so difficult?  It is the complexity, both of the individual and their brain, the environment in which they developed and the conditions they face in their contemporary world which creates this complexity.


In our known universe, there is nothing more complicated than the brain.  This small organ contains 86 billion neurons which have the potential to create 500 trillion connections which can process 70,000 thoughts each day.  It weighs about 1,200 grams, about 2% of the body weight.  It generates 23 watts of power, enough to power a light bulb and makes up a quarter of our total energy budget.  I hope that when you think about why your students act the way they do you consider the complexity that drives their behaviour!  However, much is known about how the brain operates and this will help you understand, in broad terms why kids choose to act the way they do.


 Each brain evolves throughout the life of each individual.  Human brains follow an inherited genetic scaffold for the first 38 weeks of gestation prior to birth.  Although during this time the environment within the womb can effect the development of the brain the main focus of this period is on developing those reflexive behaviours that maintain our physical wellbeing.  Things like breathing, heart-beat, blood clotting, all these physical adjustments we make every moment of every day.  At the time of birth another process dominates the developmental journey.  This is when we start to ‘learn’ how to behave to survive in an increasingly more complex manner. 


Because the process of why we behave the way we do is circular, how to best describe it is awkward.  I’ll start with the principle of homeostasis.


In all biology, being in homeostasis is being in a steady state of physical existence.  For humans it is when our body is in its ideal condition. Things like blood pressure, oxygen supply, body temperature in fact every organ in out body is sustained in an optimal condition; it is in homeostatic equilibrium.  


To maintain this ‘equilibrium’ requires us to interact with the external environment.  For example, if we are exhausting our oxygen supply we fall into a state of homeostatic disequilibrium.  This creates a drive to rectify this deficiency by accessing the supply of oxygen from the environment; we breathe and return to equilibrium.  This drive is manifested as stress which will be a subject we will examine in detail at a later date it is important to understand that homeostasis in not limited to our physical world exclusively. 


Our access to the external world to gain what we require very often requires we interact with others which generates a social equilibrium or we have to think about a solution which involves an intellectual search!  These three parts of our existence, our body, the need to interact with others to get our needs met and the access to memories to either recall previously successful behaviours or to contemplate novel solutions to problems are catered for in the three levels of our brain!


Our brain, a cross section of which is shown below is often referred to as being tri-part or triune with the three levels being both evolutionary for our species and for each individual.  As a species humans reached the top of the evolutionary tree by exploiting the benefits of living in social groups and using our cognitive ability to make tools to enhance our efficiency on meeting our needs.


The three areas are described below at a very simplistic level:

  • The brain stem and mid brain which generally controls the behaviours that allow us to maintain of physical presence in the world.  Things like breathing, blood flow, balance, motor skills are maintained in response to deficits or threats. 
  • Limbic System, this section of the brain which sits above the mid brain controls our social interactions.  It facilitates memories of previous experiences which can be retrieved when needed as well as controls our emotional response to the situations in which we find ourselves.  Two major components are the amygdala, which controls our responses particularly when under threat and the hippocampus which facilitates the storage of our memories. 
  • Cerebral Cortex, this is the last part of the brain to mature in our species and in each individual.  The cerebral cortex resides above the brain and not only stores our memories it also facilitates our decision making.  It consists of four lobes: 
  1. Frontal which controls consciousness, communication, memory, attention and is referred to as the executive of the brain.
  2. Parietal which processes sensory information it receives for our receptors, things like touch, taste, and temperature.
  3. Temporal which is associated with processing our auditory information.  
  4. Occipital which as the name suggests is involved in the visual processing of our world.


This essay may not be relative to improving our classroom management but understanding how the student’s behaviour is driven will help you understand why they act the way they do.  In the next Newsletter we will discuss how the evolution of an individual’s brain is influenced by the environment in which it exists.

Posted by: AT 08:41 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Latest Posts


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.

Create a Website Australia | DIY Website Builder