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:
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:
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
I am responsible if anything goes wrong. It’s my fault.
I must always ‘measure up’. Things are either good or bad. These students feel immoral if they just have a good time.
These students feel they can never compare to successful people
When they see others succeed they feel they have failed
I can only feel like I’m improving if others approve of my actions
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!
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!
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.
In the last Newsletter we discussed the features of stress which results from an imbalance between our needs and the availability of conditions within our environment to get those needs satisfied. This is the mission of all biological creatures, to live in a safe and secure environment, we are no different. However, if we experience a life-threatening situation and we are unable to defend ourselves the extreme levels of stress generated are not launched, the body is captured in a fight/flight readiness with the accompanying physiological changes. This inability to discharge these energies to act means we remain in a state of ‘readiness’. This is the embodiment of trauma.
In its pure state the essence of trauma can be summarized as follows:
The stability of life based on a steady expectation of what will happen has been shattered
The victim has come face to face with their own vulnerability in the natural world; they can die or become extremely injured
The victim has come face to face with the capacity for evil in human nature, their trust in the goodness of others is shattered
Childhood trauma, usually understood to be from birth to age six has a distinct set of features that have a profound impact on a child. In these years the child has not developed the behaviours to protect themselves by fighting, hardly an option or fleeing and so they are much more vulnerable (they can freeze, that is, dissociate which will be discussed later). The importance of their carer becomes another factor in the severity of childhood trauma.
In one instance it may be that the parent whose own survival is threatened becomes unavailable to protect the child and so they feel abandoned. For example a child witnessing an assault on say their mother will become extremely traumatised as she is their connection to survival. Contrary to this tragic experience is when the malevolent acts of abuse unloaded onto the child by that caregiver or authority figure. The very person they rely on to survive is trying to ‘kill’ them. It is unwise to compare any psychological experiences but we can’t help thinking this latter practice is the most-evil form of abuse!
The results of prolonged stress are most tragic if the threats are present under the following conditions:
Caused by human actions directed at the child
Continually repeated, the abuse never seems to cease
Unpredictable, there is no warning the attack is coming
Multifaceted, the same technique of delivering the threat is not repeated
Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty
And to re-emphasise the final and perhaps the most menacing feature of a child’s trauma is when their primary caretaker is responsible for it.
Another feature of childhood trauma is that it takes place at a time when the development of both the physiology of the brain and the belief systems are at their most emergent. The significance of this has been detailed in a previous Newsletter (The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour -Monday, February 14, 2022). At this time we outlined the physical damage persistent and chronic stress does to the brain but because these are so profound they will be reproduced below.
• The Amygdala, which is sensitive to fear is increased in size which makes the child very anxious.
• The hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.
• Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface. It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.
• Cerebellum which is the area of the brain that evaluates the potential of danger or opportunity in the environment in relation to needs is reduced in size becoming more inefficient.
• Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum, that is the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres is compromised.
It needs to be remembered that this is real physical damage to a child’s brain that results more often than not from the actions of a malevolent adult at a time when they are incapable of any defence against such abuse!
In the classroom you don’t get to see this damage but you will have to deal with the behaviours that are underpinned by it. The major responses to all trauma, including children are as follows:
Vivid flashbacks of events
Conscious or subconscious avoidance of situations that produce associated stress
Enduring vigilance for, and sensitivity to, environmental ‘threats’
A more detailed description of the behavioural consequences of these responses are dealt with in detail in Chapter 3 of our book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ which is reproduced in the Resource Section of our Web Page Frew Consultants Group.
The responses described above are broad descriptions of the impact early childhood trauma has on a victim. How these characteristics are expressed is very individualised but the table below provides a useful summary of the expressions of early childhood PTSD.
Infants & Lower Primary
Upper Primary & Secondary
Feel helpless and uncertain
Fear being separated from parent/caregiver
Cry and/or scream a lot
Eat poorly and lose weight
Return to bedwetting
Return to using baby talk
Develop new fears
Recreate the trauma through play
Are not developing to the next growth stage
Have a change in behaviour
Ask questions about death
Become anxious and fearful
Worry about their own or others’ safety
Become clingy with a teacher or a parent
Feel guilt or shame
Tell others about the traumatic event again and again
Become upset if they get a bump or bruise
Have hard time concentrating
Have fear the event will happen again
Have difficulties sleeping
Show changes in school performance
Become easily startled
Feel depressed and alone
Discuss the traumatic events in detail
Develop eating disorders and self-harming behaviours such as cutting
Start using or abusing alcohol or drugs
Become sexually active
Feel like they’re going crazy
Feel different from everyone else
Take too many risks
Have sleep disturbances
Don’t want to go to places that remind them of the event
Say they have no feeling about the event
Show changes in behaviour
Source: The Centre for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Interventions
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences
Northwestern University - Chicago
In the next Newsletter we will discuss early childhood trauma and how it effects the child’s sense of self, how they come to the class in a sense already failing and following this will be the implications for the teacher.
However, more than anything the teacher will have to overcome some personal difficulties when dealing with these children. It is important that the teacher:
Does not become critical and/or controlling
Understands the difficulty the student is experiencing.
Is not to be drawn into the role – ‘playing the part’ of who the student wants them to be.
Remain involved, listening and persist with the child.
Students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships. Addressing this is the key to dealing with these kids but it is only one part of our approach which requires structure and expectations to support these relationships.
In this series of Newsletters we are examining the impact the early childhood environment has on the expression of behaviour in later life. We do this with an emphasis on those factors that contribute to the development of displayed dysfunctional behaviours. In the last Newsletter we discussed the impact neglect has on a child’s future disruptive actions. In this we move on to the second cause of the destructive, dysfunctional conduct that interfere with the teaching and learning in our classrooms – the modelling of behaviour.
Our species has an extraordinary ability to imitate the behaviour of others. This has allowed us to learn new behaviours just through watching others display particular actions. This capacity is well known in all areas of teaching and particularly in coaching sport. Demonstrations enhance the speed in which students or players learn to perform new skills.
What is really significant is that there is a considerable amount of imitation that takes place in the early years of development. The celebrated child psychologist Jean Piaget observed the ability of infants to mimic the behaviours they observed in their caregivers. This early work has been extended but not disputed by Andy Meltzoff author of ‘How Babies Think: the Science if Childhood’ (published by Weidenfielf & Nicholson – 1999). He first observed what is a frequently sighted example of this when he described a new-born baby’s ability to poke out their tongue in response to their caregiver poking out their tongue, a demonstration of how infants were able to imitate behaviour only a few hours after their birth. This is an example of the actions of mirror neurons!
Mirror neurons were first observed at the University of Parma in 1996 when a group of neuroscientists were busily mapping the neural pathways associated with hand movement in Macaque monkeys. The team of Rizzolatta, Gallese, and Fogassi uncovered what is potentially the most significant neurological component in human behaviour for our understanding of learning.
The discovery was made by accident. The breakthrough came when Fogassi returned to the laboratory and casually picked up a raisin from an experimental bowl. A Macaque monkey, who was still wired to electrodes used in the planned experiment was observing Fogassi and as he lifted his hand, the neural activity being tracked in the monkey’s brain displayed the same neural activity as if the monkey itself was reaching for the raisin, yet the monkey had not moved.
After replicating the experiment several times, the researchers realized that something new and significant had accidentally been uncovered. As a result of the series of papers following this discovery, the active neurons became known as mirror neurons. Subsequent research is progressively validating the significance of motor neurons, and they are shown to be present in most primates. In humans, they are particularly abundant and complicated.
More supporting evidence of the significance of mirror neurons emerged when Gallese and Rizzolatte found that when people listen to sentences describing actions, the same motor neurons fire as would have had the subject performed the action themselves or witnessed it being performed. The cells responded to an abstract representation that described a visual or visceral state. This infers that watching others as well as listening to them influences the creation and the alteration of memories.
The existence of mirror neurons can explain:
How we learn through mimicry, this is the heart of this essay.
How we develop empathy, there is an inverse relationship between the display of dysfunctional behaviours of damaged children, particularly those who attract the diagnosis of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional, Defiant Disorder.
Acquisition of physical skills, as mentioned above in regards to coaching sport.
Language – the early effort to speak are manifested in the child’s attempts to reproduce the sound of the language prior to any attempt to communicate content.
We have to keep in mind that our brain’s primary purpose is to allow us to predict what will happen when we are confronted with a threatening or potentially supportive situation in the environment. In early childhood we are building the store of memories that we will refer to later in life; mirror neurons accommodate this predictive requirement.
In 2005, Iacoboni described two types of motor neurons: ones that respond to observed actions and ones that fire in response to the perceived purpose of that action. Iacoboni had volunteers watch films of people reaching for various objects in a dinner setting (teapot, cup, jug, plate of pastries, napkins) in different contexts. In every instance a basic set of neurons associated with the reaching for the setting fired, but different additional sets of mirror neurons would also fire depending on what expected action was suggested by the setting. For example, neatly set tables prepared for tea versus a setting that looked as though tea had been finished had disparate results. In the first instance, as the observer expected the person to pick up a teacup to drink, one set of neurons fired. However, if the viewer expected the hand to pick up a cup to clean it, another set fired. The interpreted purpose came from the arrangement of the objects, so consequent responses were different. It has also been recognised that children acquire this ability to predict outcomes by their observations of their caregiver’s actions; this is another benefit of imitating them.
Studies have revealed that parent-child interactions have shown that parents instinctively reflect their children’s actions, emotions and facial expressions back to them even before they are not yet able to imitate. This is a type of reinforcement of a connection between actions and the observed outcomes, if the infant smiles that smile will be reflected back.
From the above observations it becomes obvious that the behaviour of a child that sits in your classroom is a reflection of the home in which they were raised. A child’s parents is the greatest predictor of success or failure. This is because they:
Imitate the behaviour of their parents. If the parent is forbidding, gloomy, threatening then the child will develop these traits.
When the child displays the behaviour practiced in the home they will be reinforced.
In a sense a child being raised in these conditions learns to behave in ways that are functional in their early childhood, dysfunctional environment, that is the parent’s behaviour is offending to conventional social norms and when the child adopts these behaviours for other situations, such as in the classroom these behaviours will be dysfunctional!
There is a caveat to this model and that is about children raised by parents whose behaviour is chaotic, extremely unpredictable. In these environments there is no consistent model to imitate and so there is no template for their behaviour. This is a common problem for children raised by caregivers who are addicted, especially to mind-altering drugs. These kids are also most likely to display dysfunctional behaviours but for different but connected reasons. These impediments to the development of successful students will be discussed in a later Newsletter.
In the words of James Baldwin the American author and activist “children have never been good at listening to their elders but they never fail to imitate them”.
There is no doubt that early childhood, usually defined as the first three years are critical in the development of a child’s self-perception which in turn drives their behaviour. These years are important for many reasons not the least because up until age three children would not survive without the support of their caregiver. Of course, very few, if any get to enjoy a perfect childhood but for the vast majority of our students it is more than adequate.
The human brain does not burst into existence in a finished state it grows and evolves for at least 27 years but most intensely in early childhood. The two illustrations below demonstrate this progression.
The first illustration shows the emergence of the functionality of the various areas of the brain shown by the changing deep blue and purple colouring. You can see the frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until the late teens and into the twenties. These ‘blue areas’ also represent the activity of thinking which necessitates the use of memory.
The second diagram illustrates this progression up until they graduate from school. In each period there are what is referred to as ‘windows of opportunity’ times when the brain is prepared to ‘learn’ new skills by providing an abundant supply of myaline used to reinforce the memories that drive the appropriate perception. An example that is usually given for this phenomena is the acquisition of sight. Like all memories it is the pairing of a stimulus with an interpretation of that stimulus that creates a memory. For sight, the eyes project the various wave lengths of light on to the retina which, through the excitement of nerves called rods and cones sends a signal into the visual cortex of the brain for interpretation. These interpretations become our memories of objects still and in motion.
However, if the child does not receive this stimulation before about eight months old, they will never properly interpret sight. This is because for efficiency, once this critical time has past the brain flushes away the unused myaline and more tragically removes the inactive neurons. This phenomena of memory acquisition is similar for all memories and the danger of inaccurate interpretation or lack of stimulation is at the core of dysfunctional behaviours due to early childhood abuse or neglect.
In broad terms there are three types of parenting that lead to children having dysfunctional behaviours. These are:
·Neglect – the absence of appropriate stimulation for the establishment of memories that define a child’s sense of self which in turn drives behaviour. The unused neurons are removed from the brain in the quest for efficiency, they can’t be re-established.
·Poor Modelling – a child learns to behave in ways that are functional in dysfunctional environments, that is the parent’s behaviour is offending to conventional social norms and the child adopts these behaviours.
·Childhood Abuse – this is often seen as the major cause of dysfunctional behaviour and there is every reason to believe this is true. The severe levels of stress generated in those times of abuse do real, physical and emotional damage to the child.
Of course, there are other more obscure causes such as one-off traumatic events or illness that can interrupt a child’s ‘normal’ development. However, too many children get a combination of all three of these destructive ingredients. A detailed discussion of each will take place in the following Newsletters but in this edition we will examine neglect.
Nothing is straight forward and neglect has a series of impacts on the behavioural development. Not the least is the impact on the formation of their sense of self resulting from interference with a child’s sense of attachment. As pointed out above, a child needs a caregiver to survive for at least the first three years. We are hard-wired to form these attachments in early childhood and how this happens will shape the brain.
Children will make an unconscious judgement about the security of that relationship with the caregiver between the seventh and eleventh month. Security is the key, if the child can rely on the caregiver to always (well nearly always) meet their needs then the child will develop a secure attachment. The certainty of outcomes allows the child to build a confident, optimistic sense of self, they are confirmed as being important.
In some cases the attention from the parent is inconsistent, sometimes their parents will pay attention other times they will be ignored. This triggers a fear that they will be abandoned. This is referred to as anxious attachment and children with this profile are often very needy and become clingy to their parents.
Some parents are not responsive to their child, they are emotionally unavailable. These parents are dismissive to the needs of the child. Children raised in this environment learn not to expect a sensitive response to their needs when stressed and so they develop a lack of trust. This is referred to as avoidant attachment.
The final type is referred to as disorganised attachment because the environment they are raised in is chaotic and unpredictable. The child craves attention but it steers clear of the parent because they fear what will eventuate. The secure, predictable home life they crave just doesn’t exist.
The graph above indicates the impact each style of attachment has on a child’s anxiety and how they will avoid relying on adults. Only children with secure attachment find the creation of relationships with others, especially their teachers, rewarding. The significance of attachment is important and these descriptions provide only a rudimentary outline of this process.
Early in this work we discussed the windows of opportunity where the brain is primed for new learning but if the required stimulus is not forth-coming the myaline and the neurons are pruned from the brain. This is particularly important for attachment because, if in the time ‘allocated’ to hard wire the ability to attach securely, the appropriate stimulus was not present it becomes almost impossible to create them later in life. This has significant implications in forming secure adult relationships.
This pruning will take place for all the required learning in the first three years which is the time a child really develops their sense of self. The real tragedy is the amount of neural material that can be reformed or removed. For example:
•The Amygdala, which is sensitive to fear is increased in size which makes the child very anxious.
•Hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.
•Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface. It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.
•Cerebellum which is the area of the brain that evaluates the potential of danger or opportunity in the environment in relation to needs is reduced in size becoming more inefficient.
•Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum, that is the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres is compromised.
It is important to note that neglect is not the only cause of these injuries, extreme levels of stress associated with abuse also significantly contributes to the alterations of the neural landscape. This situation will be discussed in a later Newsletter and it is frequently the case, abuse and neglect work in tandem for too many of these children. In any case these injuries result in permanent, intellectualdisability.
An extreme example of the damage to the brain is shown in the now imfamous MRI image of children raised in the hell holes which were the orphanages in Romania under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. Too many children were condemned to lie in their cots without ever being attended to beyond their basic needs.
It can be seen just how much damage has occurred and follow-up studies has shown that this disability continues. The difference is, the younger the child was when adopted the better chance they had of partially overcoming this permanent damage.
This neglect is not always deliberate as was the Romanian experience. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, in their extraordinary book ‘The Boy who Thought He was a Dog’ (Publish by Basic Books – 2006) describes the child of an intellectually delayed mother who could not cope with the demands of a new born baby would leave it alone in its cot all day while she travelled around the city. This child lacked any ability to connect with others and became a sociopath, if not a psychopath. Perry describes the factors that created what became a vicious killer and how this young teen could not comprehend why everyone was upset. I highly recommend this and any other work done by Bruce Perry, he is a leader in this field.
These are extreme examples but the damage is on a sliding scale and teachers should be aware that some of the students who you find difficult to engage with are that way because of what happened to them when they were babies. Its not their fault and it is our responsibility to help them overcome their cognitive injuries.
In our review of the previous Newsletters we have tried to underline how the development of a child with severe behaviours is linked to the environment in which they were raised. Understanding the cause of their dysfunctional behaviour will inform the approach we take to help teachers manage and in some cases modify that behaviour. It is important to note that our model does not apply to those children who have genetic disabilities or psychotic illness, as the cause of their behaviour is not developmental. However, it is my experience that the adoption of the interventions we advocate when dealing with these children will be an effective non-medical intervention. All our interventions rely on the provision of an environment that is predictable, consistent and persistent and that provides an environment of safety for both the teacher and student.
Our work is underpinned by two fundamental beliefs:
Our brain exists to support our life by directing our physical actions in response to threats or opportunities in our environment
The choice of that action depends on our memory of what worked before to best satisfy our needs
When you consider the demands on our body to continually support life and the complexity of the brain, these factors seem inadequate. However, these underlying principles drive a really complex narrative which will be the theme of these latest Newsletters.
In the last Newsletter we examined the brain and how any conditions in the environment could activate activity to drive behaviour. In this essay we examine the formation of our sense of self that defines our identity and our temperament, this is our consciousness and how we behave in any given situation this will be based on the nature of our ‘self’.
Just how much of our self is determined by our genetics or how we are fostered is the age-old question, is it nature or nurture. There is no doubt our genes do play a part in our character, things like temperament but it is generally accepted that the quality of our family of origin is the main predictor of our personality. In any case, we have little chance to alter our genetic profile (excluding the phenomena of epigenetics) so we need to concentrate on how the quality of their nurturing impacts their future behaviour. So, the ‘sense of self’ is developed in an environment and the characteristics of that environment will play a significant role in the manner in which each individual behaves when they are confronted with similar environmental features.
Those students with dysfunctional behaviours have evolved their responses to various circumstances as a result of the ‘lessons’ they received from their family of origin. This is why mental illnesses such as Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiance Disorders are considered developmental, these are learned. The following describes the process of constructing our sense of self!
The schematic shown below illustrates the process by which memories of behaviours, the basis of our sense of self is acquired. This occurs in stages:
In the first instance we find our self, our sense of self in a situation. If that situation does not threaten our sense of equilibrium then nothing happens. However, if the conditions in the environment impacts on our equilibrium than we have to act to alleviate the stress that is a consequence of this imbalance.
We have to decide what to do and this will require us to reflect on our memories to decide what we consider the optimal action we should take. These memories are of previous events that have the same or similar threats or promises. This process happens instantaneously condemning these children to those behaviours learned in a dysfunctional home.
When we act there will be a consequence. The consequence might be that the actions solved the imbalance and we return to equilibrium. This outcome is fed back into our memory and the behaviour is reinforced. If the action does not deal with the problem and the discomfort remains, that outcome is also fed back into our memories and sense of uncertainty changes our memories. We will try a different action until the situation is resolved or we moved on without a resolution.
Every time this sequence is executed our sense of self is changed and we return to the problem in the environment differently.
You will notice that there are two types of memories on the schematic; emotional and cognitive. There is a significant difference between these which will be addressed later when we examine consciousness in more detail.
Memories begin simply, young children first learn rudimentary behaviours. When they are hungry they need mum to feed them so they learn to cry and (hopefully) when she does a lesson is learned. This link between crying and getting fed becomes a fundamental memory which will modify as the child learns more sophisticated behaviours. The initial memory is not forgotten but becomes much more complex. There is an attachment that coincides with the provision of those things we need, those who support us through these years when we can’t fend for ourselves. For now, we will concentrate on the acquisition of behaviours but it is in these early years children form attachments to caregivers and the security of those attachments will be discussed in a later Newsletter.
These complex memories form a series of schemas across our brain and each will display many of the characteristics of a fractal as seen below. Unlike a fractal they are not an identical repeat of the first pattern but each a slight modification of that first memory.
Within each schema of behaviours associated with the primary memory there will be a leading behavioural candidate for any situation that threatens our equilibrium. This preferred behaviour will have achieved dominance because it has been used successfully the most times. This reflects one of the principles of behaviour development, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. This is not to exclude change. Remember, if the behaviour doesn’t address the disequilibrium then you try different things and your memories change. Nothing is stable!
Life is extremely complex and there are many schemas across the brain in the form of hubs. Recent research has identified 180 separate hubs, specialist fractals of memory and each is connected via axonal pathways. The ability to consider solutions from more than one schema but sampling from other hubs we can create alternate solutions or even unique ones. This blending of memories becomes most effective when our prefrontal lobes mature. This is where our working memory is co-ordinated and that ‘co-ordination’ is the analysis of our connectome!
This ability to combine multiple clues associated with the incoming stimulus from the external world, allows us to combine multidimensional stimulus into a single perception. We then assess the potential effectiveness of any behaviour that we might choose to address that external environment. This connection, our connectome holds all our memories, it is our ‘self’.
From the information above it is obvious that the greatest predictor of a child’s success is the family characteristics in which they are raised. Of course, the child had no choice about where and to whom they were born and this makes a mockery of concepts like meritocracy. And, it must be remembered the concept of guilt becomes much more complicated. What we do know is that those children we focus on come to school with dysfunctional behaviours that they have acquired and it is our task to help them develop alternate ways of behaving, for their sake and the sake of their classmates. Their history does not have to be their destiny and we have the privilege of supporting that change!
Welcome back to our Newsletters for 2022. It has been a long journey from our first offering in March of 2017 up until the end of last year, December 2021. In that time we have published 186 free editions. A lot has changed over these years, some dramatic and sequential such as the impact of COVID and others gradual and progressive like the emergence of the punitive demand for accountability. The first exacerbation, the pandemic is a problem shared across the community including the unfair increase in teachers’ workload that is a burden placed on a single part of our community; the teachers. So, we go into a new year with teachers being subjected to even more pressure without any significant increase in assistance.
One major demand on teachers that was there before the pandemic and has been there since the beginning of organised education is the management of classroom behaviour. Helping teachers address this issue has underpinned all of our work and it will continue to be that way. I believe it is time we reflected on the work we have done, revisit crucial issues and create, if you like a second edition of many of the significant subjects integrating new material. In this essay we will examine the benefits of having a calm and safe classroom.
The brain is at the heart of all behaviour, if not the brain than what? Our approach accepts the thesis proposed by Richard Dawkins in his seminal work the Selfish Gene and that is our fundamental drive in life is to survive and reproduce. To survive requires an optimal set of environmental conditions that support life. These conditions allow us to maintain our body in a steady state of internal biological, physical, social and intellectual equilibrium a condition referred to as homeostasis. When the perceived conditions of the external environment will not satisfy our needs we are in a state of disequilibrium. When we are in this state our cognitive energy focuses on behaving in a way to return to equilibrium.
We have what is referred to as a triune brain, that is three levels that have developed sequentially over time. The first is the brain stem and mid brain, often referred to as the reptilian brain. This is the area that deals with our biological and physical demands. Things like heart-beat, blood pressure, balance and other body motions (see illustration below).