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FREW Consultants Group        
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
Tuesday, April 26 2022

Healthy Boundaries

In the three previous Newsletters we examined the relational difficulties that occur when our boundaries are violated or we do not possess effective, healthy boundaries.  As we develop through childhood we established the boundaries that are the physical and psychological space between you and the outside world.  They define where you start in relation to all others and how that any intrusion across our boundaries triggers an emotional response.  It is wise to remember that any time your physical and/or psychological boundaries are entered you will have a stress response.  The effect the contact has on you depends on your current set of beliefs and emotional memories about the nature of that contact and how it matches with your sense of self. 


As explained previously (see Newsletter 194. - ‘Boundaries - The Point of Contact’ - March 21 2022) the importance of a healthy boundary is relative to the closeness of the relationship.



In the diagram above there is a decreasing intensity of the effect a boundary violation has on the individual.  It is easy to see that the relationship between yourself and an intimate other will generate much more stress than between you and a stranger.  This is not always a negative experience, when you share cherished moments with a loved one this ‘stressful’ experience is pleasing.  Because of the potential tension relationships at this level can generate, the benefit of honesty is crucial in maintaining trust. 


Simply put, boundaries are controlling what is OK and what is not OK for you in any given situation.  When we let people get away with what’s not OK it is natural to resent them.  However, this assumes the other understands what you require when in fact they might be doing the best they can, this is the mature nature of having healthy boundaries.  If we assume they are doing their best it allows you to stay in the relationship but you must act to ensure it becomes on your terms.  In broad terms you have to:

  • Provide an explanation – you need to convey the situation as you see it, how you want it to be and be specific.
  • Acknowledge your Feelings – own your feelings and take responsibility for them but let them know that you have them.
  • Articulate your Needs – say what you want.  Be selective, realistic and be prepared to negotiate in the knowledge that both parties have equal rights in a relationship.
  • Recognise Potential Consequences – Outline how things will be if there are changes or if they stay as they are.


A practical script to help you in this type of negotiation is to say the following:

  •  “When you …” – describe exactly what is upsetting you
  • “I feel …” – let them know that this is having an emotional impact on you
  • “Because …” – tell them why you are upset

This approach lets you communicate all aspects of how, what and why the situation impacts on you.  When they are aware of this they can choose whether or not they wish to remain in a relationship with you but it will be on your terms. There is no guarantee that this will work but if not then you should re-evaluate the value you have in the relationship.


 Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation where this approach is ineffective or with strangers when stronger techniques are required.  In these cases use:

  • “If you …” – clearly identify what it is they are doing
  • “I will …” – explain what you will do in response to such action.  This is where you let them know what the consequences may be remembering never make a threat you can’t carry out!


Having healthy boundaries is really taking responsibility for your life.  However, this is a continuous task as while ever you are in the company of others your boundaries will necessarily over-lap.  As mentioned, when this happens your will feel a change in your emotions and if this signifies you are under threat you need to identify what is happening and what you need to do to protect yourself.  The following steps will help:

  • Stay Calm – you will have feelings but don’t let those feelings control your behaviour
  • Ask yourself, what is Really Happening – sometimes, especially with dysfunctional students the driving force behind the behaviour is not clear and in most cases their anger will not be directed at you
  • Who is Responsible?
    • Me         -           You must take action to address problem
    • Not Me      -       You can’t ignore the situation but must take action to get the result you want in the future
  • Review the outcomes, after you have taken these steps and things have changed for the better then the action has been a success.   If not you should revisit the steps and try another approach.  If the situation cannot be resolved then you should end that relationship!

At this stage of establishing healthy boundaries you will be in a period of negotiation with others.  At this time you need to:

  • Establish Expectations: - What are the areas of agreement and real differences
  • Check your Intentions: - Is what you want fair for all, be aware of others’ feelings
  • Consider Your Options: - Investigate the full range of options considering short and long-term consequences
  • Suggested Options: - After discussion put forward your proposal
  • Evaluate: - After trial evaluate and revisit procedure if needed and be persistent in putting your view


The illustration below summarises practical boundaries which in reality defines a functional adult who:

  • Accepts responsibility for their actions
  • Protects themselves from abuse
  • Gets their needs met in a just manner


Boundaries for Teachers

The discussion above is really based on relationships between individuals with equal status, this is not the case with teachers and students.  This equity is not to be confused with equal importance, everyone deserves to be treated equally but children are ‘works in progress’ and they are developing their boundaries.  It is the teacher’s role to demonstrate effective boundaries and provide opportunities for students to develop their own.


You have to remember that you are the teacher and there is a real power imbalance. You:

  • Have a position of power in the classroom, you have the authority to make decisions
  • Are an adult with a tertiary education and the status that goes with this

This is the time for authenticity, it is not a time to ignore those things for which we are responsible or to disregard the moral and aesthetic irritations that come with dealing with the truth because we find doing this uncomfortable. It is a time to model responsibility no matter how difficult that may be because that’s how the students will learn.


As the leader in the classroom you need to establish the quality of its environment, that is you need to establish what are the professional needs within the setting considering:

  • The teaching requirements; you need to present the assigned curriculum at the appropriate level for all students
  • Ensure there is an opportunity for all members of the class to get their physical and psychological needs met
  • The physical and psychological protection of all class members including yourself
  • Demonstrate and even teach appropriate assertiveness and functional boundaries


You need to understand that effective boundaries support all healthy relationships and relationships underpin all successful teaching and learning environments!



Posted by: AT 06:54 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 28 2022

Dysfunctional Boundaries

I’ve chosen the title Dysfunctional Boundaries because it is the disorganized quality of some individual’s boundaries that leads to their inability to authentically engage with their community.  This is at the heart of our students and our own dysfunctional behaviour.   It is no surprise that the formation of protective boundaries occurs in early childhood when we are ‘taught’ to protect our ‘self’.  The functionality of a student’s boundaries reflects the environment in which they were formed.  Of course, we can put into place physical boundaries where necessary but it is how the dysfunctional boundaries affect teachers in the classroom that is the focus of this Newsletter. 


Our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group and this starts to be formed from the moment of birth.  How our family of origin treats us dictates the nature of any protection offered by our boundaries.  Children raised in functional caring families, at the appropriate age learn the practical, consequential behaviours in response to dealing with a threat or the denial of something desired.  Eventually these allow them to:

  • Think well of themselves
  • Trust others
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Maintain positive expectations
  • Utilize their intellect
  • Have a sense of autonomy


However, the majority of children in our classrooms who present as disruptive are rarely raised in such families (see Newsletter 189 - The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour -   14  February, 2022).  These students have been reared experiencing three types of parenting, neglect, poor modelling of behaviour and abuse.  Of these three, poor modelling and neglect are not as vulnerable to environmental factors.  This is not to discount the cognitive damage but this impairment is less significant at the boundary but more in the impaired belief systems that drive their behaviour.  Abuse creates the stress reactions at the boundary.  The strength of the stress experienced at the time of the presenting violating event replicates the characteristics of the initial abuse.  Teachers need to understand that what they may feel is a gross over-reaction by a student to a classroom situation is most likely a reflection of their formative response in similar situations.


Children who are abused not only suffer a range of types of abuse but also the consistency, or not of that abuse.  By examining the constancy of the type of abuse will describe the extremes of the reactions to abuse in regards to the form of boundary protection they develop.  The extremes are a child who is repeatedly abused the same way in familiar circumstances contrasted with the child who is subjected to abuse in different forms at unpredictable times.


Children who are systematically abused in the same manner learn levels of protection to survive the attack.  Take a couple of examples, as a football coach I have seen, predominantly fathers expect their child to place themselves in physical danger say by tackling a bigger, stronger opponent.  When the child ‘misses’ a tackle the father heaps verbal abuse on them and then rejects them after the game; this is abuse.  In these instances the child who has no desire to play this game will soon learn that the physical risk is less damaging than the rejection.  They learn to behave in a way that ‘protects’ them from abuse.


Another more dramatic form of self-protection during assaults is when a child is subjected to sexual abuse from a father, uncle or other type of powerful adult.  The abuse is most often followed by a threat, the threat is the child will be punished if they tell anyone.  The child is made to believe they were responsible for the abuse, that they caused the defilement, they experience profound shame and because they fear rejection they conceal the desecration.  In these cases the ‘protection’ is to dissociate and so when the perpetrator revisits the victim the child will protect themselves by dissociating.  This works in a short-term dysfunctional manner.


In the case of consistent abuse the child learns a behaviour that is solely designed to ‘deny’ the abuse by presenting as not being ‘hurt’ by the abuse.  I will describe this as building walls to keep the abuse out.  These walls can be presenting as funny, angry, disinterested, the list of avoidance behaviours goes on.   The thing is these actions never reflect their true stressful feelings.


The unfortunate consequence of locking off the outside world is that the child cuts off any chance to get their own needs met.  The illustration below described these walls.

The other type of abuse is the inconsistent, unpredictable type.  In the family of origin  most often this type of abuse occurs when the caregivers are either addicts or suffer some psychotic illness.  In both cases the abuse will be related to the psychological state of the abuser and that is erratic.  Unlike the children who are consistently abused these children have no way of anticipating when and how the abuse will materialise and so they can’t establish any defence and become erratic themselves.  They are vulnerable to abuse from any source as illustrated below.


The following illustration shows the difference between those children with no learned ‘protection’, those with an exposed core and those who have developed ‘walls’ of behaviour to protect themselves.  The differences are explained in reference to five qualities of self-esteem.


Those with no protection are the children it is so easy to identify as being damaged.  They see themselves as not only being out of control but also not worth caring about.  They are vulnerable, bad and rebellious, dependent on others and of course unable to behave appropriately.  Conversely, those who have learned to hide their real feelings believe they must appear to be totally in control, they are good students, invulnerable and independent.  These students have learned to hide their real feelings from their immediate families so concealing them in the classroom is no challenge.


It is the second group that I worry about the most as they are difficult to identify and are more often female.  I recall a family I dealt with when principal of a school for Conduct Disordered and Oppositional Defiant students.  This family came to the school from Cambodia where they had suffered during the reign of Pol Pot.  The boy was clearly acting out, reflecting the characteristics of the exposed core.  I had reason to meet with the boy’s father and because he could not speak English he brought his daughter to translate.  She appeared to be a ‘straight A’ student, polite, well-spoken and articulate the very model of a pupil with a strong wall of protection.  I checked with the school and they agreed with my assessment, she was a ‘star’ student.  I have no real evidence that I’m right but that girl suffered at least as much trauma as her brother and I suspect, like all females probably more.  There is no way she will get any special care from the school, all their support resources are focused on the acting out behaviours.  Yet like all those kids living behind walls help should have been provided.


As I have outlined before, there is a growing number of teaching tuitions on dealing with trauma usually described as Trauma Informed Practice.  Our opinion on these is best explained in our previous Newsletter 193 (Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD, 13 March 2022).  To recap teachers are not mental health professionals nor do they have the time to address these students’ considerable disabilities while teaching in a classroom.  This is exactly why we take the approach we do and that is endeavoring to control the amount of stress provoking incidents in the classroom.  This is why the calm, safe, predictable and consistent environment managed by a teacher with a genuine warmth towards the children is the best we can do for both the out-of-controlled student and those hiding their pain.


Understanding the damage suffered by these kids and the difficulty of dealing with their protective behaviours in a classroom presents a huge challenge which is not acknowledged by the bureaucracy nor the academic world.  But it is a real problem faced by teachers every day.  Despite the difficulty these kids present the teacher must not:

  • Give up because the repetitive dysfunctional behaviours continue without apparent change, these kids are never a ‘quick fix’
  • Become discouraged because students will block approaches.  For them to trust others is too risky therefore they avoid relationships.  The trick is to hang in longer than they expect you to.


We often hear the characteristic of empathy being a prerequisite for being a ‘good teacher’.  I understand the intention behind this belief but I prefer the quality of compassion.  Empathy infers you ‘know how they feel’ but it is impossible for anyone to know how it feels to be abused as a child.  Even if you have had that experience you can’t know how another feels but you must know it is an horrific form of abuse put on a child when they are unable to defend themselves.   These kids are not bad they are injured so never give up on them even if it means they need to be referred to a more suitable environment.

Posted by: AT 07:49 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 21 2022

Boundaries - The Point of Contact

In the previous Newsletters we discussed the impact stress has on our ability to ‘control’ our behaviour.  As explained, stress occurs when the conditions of the outside world threaten our survival either from attack or the denial of needed resources; the level of threat determines the level of stress!  This ‘point of contact’ occurs in the cerebellum where the perceptions of the environment, arriving via the purkinje cells are compared to learned effects assembled in our memory and communicated by the granular cells (see The Importance of Stress - Tuesday, March 1, 2022 for more details).  This is the biology of our boundaries, the space between our physical and psychological sense and the outside world.  Our boundaries define where we begin in relation to all others.


We have determined in the previous Newsletter that as the level of stress increases your ability to control your actions decreases.  Therefore, it stands to reason that the way to control your behaviour is to control the stress which is generated in the cerebellum.  In regard to classroom management the level of stress experienced by the students will determine the level of cognitive control, the potential learning that is available to all members of the class.  This is the biological explanation of why calm classrooms have always been recognised as being the most effective.


From the above, it becomes clear that boundaries are the place teachers should concentrate to control their own levels of stress and to limit the opportunities for students to violate each other’s boundaries.  Within the classroom boundaries are the point of contact between everyone.  When any of these ‘relationships’ become threatening there will be an increase in the levels of stress, boundaries are being violated. 


So just what are boundary violations?  These can be both physical, external and psychological, internal described below.


External Boundary Violations

These are the assaults on our physical sense of safety and include:

  • Standing too close, or any type of touching without permission.  This includes being hit, sexually violated or even tickled against your will.
  • Others violating your rights to privacy.  For example, someone going through your bags or wallets, eavesdropping on your conversations, looking at the data on your smart phone
  • Others exposing you to risk (i.e. Exposing you to their illness, they smoke in a no smoking area, not isolating when infectious, driving too fast for your comfort)


Internal Boundary Violations

These are the attacks on our psychological wellbeing.  Examples of these include:

  • Being yelled or screamed at
  • Someone lying to you or breaking a commitment they made
  • Calling you names
  • Patronising or telling you what you should do without being asked
  • Being sarcastic
  • Shaming you or your community
  • Rejection from the group


Any interaction that creates stress is a boundary violation.


What is important to the strength of any boundary violation is the closeness of the relationship.  In the illustration below you can see how this operates.



There is a gradient of potential stress from a high propensity to be aroused through the interaction with intimate others.  That is the closer the relationship the more potential for elevated levels of stress and the more need for honest communication. 


The most important yet the most difficult is the relationship you have with your ‘self’, Level 1 on the diagram.  This is critical for teachers to ‘get right’ when they question their own practices.


In a later essay we will deal with the need for honest reflection on your own behaviour in any stressful situation.  The reason self-evaluation is difficult is because your sense of self is really an amalgamation of your beliefs, in a sense you are trying to evaluate your performance using the same set of personal values that led to the behaviour.  Also, we can only interpret the behaviour of others when we reach the stage of development identified as acquiring a ‘theory of mind’, that is when children become aware that others are separate form ourselves.  But, just as we have difficulty in evaluating our own behaviour our evaluation of others is created by projecting those values on the ‘other’ and using these as the ‘reference point’ for our decision.


Another important fact is that we are hard wired to evaluate the external environment, this is how we predict the potential action of others in our group.  As Louis Cozolino in his excellent book ‘The Social Neuroscience of Education (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2013) points out, if we put a person in a brain scanner and ask them to analyse the behaviour of others, all sorts of neural networks become activated.  However, if we ask that same person in the same scanner to analyse their own behaviour there is much less activity.  Analysing others is most often reflexive and automatic while self-awareness requires concentration, effort and runs the risk of triggering anxiety.

We progress through the descending threats to our boundaries with Level 2 being the most important relationship.  For a child this begins with the primary caregiver exclusively up until birth and most likely from then on.  In the early years any boundary violation of an infant is most probably involving the parent and this contributes to the destructive nature of the early abuse.  As we get older we expand our circle of relationships increasing the potential to have our boundaries violated but reducing the intensity of a lot of these violations.  For example if your very best friend criticises say your hair that would be more stressful than if a stranger said something about your hair.  In the first instance you would be really hurt but the same comments from a stranger might just mildly annoy you.


In the classroom the relationship between the teacher and the students should be, and most usually is very strong particularly relative to the stage being taught.  Most parents have experienced that time when their five-year-old corrects you because their primary source of information, the truth is their teacher!  By the end of their schooling the relationship is still important but not nearly as powerful.  This is why teachers must present themselves and the classroom as being non-abusive but rather safe, calm, consistent and predictable and where they are all highly esteemed.


Unfortunately, too many children come to school with highly damaged boundaries or no ability to construct a boundary, this is the subject of our next Newsletter.  Providing the environment that supports the development of healthy boundaries can be achieved is one way we can assist those damaged children to get some sense of their ability to control their own behaviours and that is all any of us can do!

Posted by: AT 05:20 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Sunday, March 13 2022

Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD

In the previous Newsletters we discussed stress and early childhood trauma, in this essay we will link these issues to help teachers cope with these students in class.  To do this it is important to appreciate that teachers have to deal with the results of the disabilities generate in their classroom.  Even if only one student is suffering from the effects of early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the potential impact their behaviour can generate on the other students is significant. 

Over the years there have been a succession of intervention programs that have been designed to help teachers deal with the dysfunctional behaviours experienced when these damaged students attend the classroom.  All of these have some value and experienced teachers learn to take a pragmatic approach when applying the tactics described.  The latest of these types of approaches come under a methodology described as ‘trauma informed’.  The Department of Education, NSW has an excellent publication called ‘Trauma-informed practice in schools: An explainer’ which provides a thorough description of both the causes and approaches teachers can take to deal with the resulting disordered behaviours.  However, and this is where our approach differs significantly from other programs, the cognitive damage that drives these dysfunctional behaviours resides within the student’s brain, ingrained in their cerebral belief systems.  To change these structures requires a significant intervention over a substantial period of time by a highly trained mental health worker.  This is not practical nor ethically acceptable for teachers who have to deal with these students for relatively short periods of time in a setting that has to cater for the needs of up to twenty-nine other students.   

[A Note:  Our approach is to help teachers control what they can, the external environment of the classroom in a way that minimises the impact of excessive stress on the behaviour of students and the teacher.  This philosophy will lie behind all our future work.]

Add to this is the geographical disproportionate rates of lost learning this disability afflicts on our society.  It is generally estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD resulting from childhood trauma and in some low socio-economic areas, the proportion can be up to 26%.  This means that in a class of thirty students a teacher may have between zero students with these behaviour problems or up to eight who are suffering from PTSD.  Not only will these disabled students’ behaviour impede their classmates’ learning but they will also have a cumulative effect on each other.  This distribution becomes more concentrated when you consider the number of students who attend private schools that do not enrol students with disrupting behaviours so the ratios would be higher than those estimated above in certain areas.


Another issue is predominantly these behaviours are carried out by boys, approximately 80% of referrals to special settings and suspension data along with proportion of adults in incarceration supports this tendency; males act out and females internalise.  

There is a real difference of expression between the genders which appears when the students begin to be emotionally aroused.  The boys resist the threatening characteristics of the environment while the girls become compliant.  The simple answer to conclude that these behaviours are cultural and historical, females have learned to stay quiet about how they feel and suffer in silence while the boys fight back.  However, there is an alternative explanation of these disproportionate numbers.  This is based on the work of the anthropologist Louis Leakey who concluded that once humans became the apex species the main threat to survival was attacks from another tribe.  In the event of such battles, males had a greater chance of survival if they act-out, fought the invaders or ran to safety; that is they took action.  Such a response was not as effective for females and children.  They were more likely to survive if they surrendered or dissociated; they would be taken as trophies, it was a preferred action to survive (for a more detailed discussion about Dissociation see Newsletter 67 – Dissociation - 29 October 2018).

The graph below illustrates the impact that increased levels of stress has on the behaviour of students.


This particular graph is based on the work of Bruce Perry well known psychiatrist who has been at the forefront of research into the impact of abuse on the cognitive development of children.  It can be seen that as the level of stress increases (the ‘X’ axis) the mental state (the ‘Y’ axis) ‘escalates’ from being able to think in an abstract manner, the style of engagement we want in our classroom up until the boys are ‘out of control’ and the girls are suffering a mini psychotic episode, a condition where nothing is learned.


If you examine this graph you can see how the stress controls the area of the brain we access to survive.  This represents a fear response, the fight/flight/freeze explains the protective behaviours likely to be observed.  There is a similar impact on behaviour when students’ stress levels are elevated because they can’t get their needs met.  Of course, this model reflects the propensity of genders, there are plenty of students who will react contrary to this portrayal, the girls will act out and the boys internalise.


In the illustration below it can be seen that at any given level the teacher believes they are ‘engaging’, that is they are influencing their level of arousal, the student reaction will vary.  This is another version of the importance of the inverted ‘U’ curve discussed in a previous Newsletter (The Importance of Stress - Tuesday March 1 2022).  The difference is that in what appears to be an unacceptable level of classroom arousal will terrify Student 1 while hardly disturbing Student 3 who finds the chaotic lesson reflects their childhood environment.  In a sense they are happier when things appear to be out of control.



Another extremely important consideration is the impact increased stress has on decision making.  Many of the behaviour management programs offered to schools are based on the use of some type of cognitive intervention.  The classic is the once popular ‘Stop -Think – Do’ program created by Lindy Petersen an Australian clinical psychologist specialising in behaviour management of students.  The approach is to teach the students to stop before they react to a situation and then think about the consequences of their automatic behaviour and compare this to a more functioning response and then do what is best!   This makes sense to everyone and when it is discussed in the school counsellor’s office the projected long-term outcomes will be appear to be excellent.  But, back in the classroom, when the student is confronted and they become highly aroused this idea of delaying any attempt to protect themselves is ineffectual.  The table below illustrates the impact stress has on our cognitive functions including our consideration of long-term outcomes.

It can be seen that as the level of threat increases the reference to future consequences becomes increasingly less considered.


It is obvious that the levels of stress initiate descending levels of our cognitive functions and in the case of the students with extreme disordered behaviours we work with, any elevated stressful environmental conditions will access entrenched belief systems that drive their reactions.  The most effective and attractive approach would be to change these belief systems however this process is extraordinarily difficult for a practicing mental health worker dealing with the student in a one-to-one environment over an extended period of time.  Such an approach is not available to a teacher who is not a trained mental health worker, does not have the luxury of dealing with the student individually over a period of time.  Our only chance to improve the learning outcomes of all our students is to focus on the other side of the ‘equation’ and that is to control the level of stress in the classroom.

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Monday, November 29 2021

Supporting a Sense of Self

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


The following Newsletters have detailed descriptions of these features:

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


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

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Wednesday, November 24 2021

Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing – Behaviour Management


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


The strategies of their approach are:

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


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


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


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


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

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Sunday, October 31 2021

Oppositional Defiance Disorder

Every teacher has experienced that student who just refuses to follow your instructions.  They are defiant, disobedient and, if challenged will escalate the conflict even in the face of extreme consequences.  These kids attract the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists criteria for diagnosing ODD. These include emotional and behavioural symptoms that last at least six months. Of course, this is not for a teacher to diagnose but it’s helpful to know the obvious symptoms.


Angry and irritable mood:

  • Often and easily loses temper
  • Is frequently touchy and easily annoyed by others
  • Is often angry and resentful

Argumentative and defiant behaviour:

  • Often argues with adults or people in authority
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults' requests or rules
  • Often deliberately annoys or upsets people
  • Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehaviour


  • Is often spiteful or vindictive
  • Has shown spiteful or vindictive behaviour at least twice in the past six months


The severity of the effect of this disability is variable ranging from:

  • Mild - Symptoms occur only in one setting, such as only at home, school, work or with peers.
  • Moderate - Some symptoms occur in at least two settings.
  • Severe - Some symptoms occur in three or more settings.

For some children, symptoms may first be seen only at home, but in time extend to other settings, such as school and with friends.  However, by the age of eight years the disorder is well established being more common in boys than girls.  Girls do become more defiant coinciding with the onset of puberty.  Another factor that may influence the apparent difference between the genders is that boys act out their resentment and are generally more aggressive while girls will internalise and appear to be more compliant.


The causes of ODD are predictable and as with most developmental disorders they come from a chaotic or dysfunctional childhood.  Typically their home-life is hectic and unpredictable resulting in at least an insecure attachment to their parents.  These behaviours may have started as a way of getting attention and this was reinforced by the parent; defiance worked!


It’s hard to say exactly why children develop ODD. It’s probably not because of any one thing. But there are some risk factors that have been identified that are linked to the development of ODD.  These are:

  • temperament – some children are born with an easy-going nature and conform to rules however, ODD kids resist from the start of their development
  • low academic performance at school – for example, if children have learning difficulties they will resist new lessons
  • speech and language problems in everyday life
  • poor social skills, poor problem-solving skills and memory problems
  • parenting and family factors – for example, inconsistent and harsh discipline, and a lot of family stress
  • school environmental factors – for example, schools with severe punishment or unclear rules, expectations and consequences
  • community factors – for example, negative influences from peers, neighbourhood violence and a lack of positive things to do with free time.


Children with ODD often have comorbid difficulties most prevalent being attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with 65% of ADHD attracting the ODD diagnosis. There is some suspicion that the defiance is a result of the child’s ADHD leading to them missing instruction and appearing to be defiant.  Other combined disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, anxiety and mood disorders or language impairment.


Never underestimate the power of this disability; when faced with a direct conflict between following the teacher’s instruction or maintaining their defiance the latter will prevail because following the teacher’s instruction would represent a loss of their sense of having power over their ‘self’.  In most cases this can be avoided by giving the child a choice in the way they perceive the consequences you present.  Say they are refusing to start to write in a lesson, you might say ‘do you want to do that with your blue or black pen – it’s your choice’.  The tag, ‘it’s your choice’ is the critical feature of the dialogue you have with ODD students.  Giving them that choice allows them to preserve a sense that they are in control.


I remember one particular child, call him Mark, in a special setting who was directed to get on a train at the end of the school day, just to go home and avoid causing trouble on the station.  He was told that if he didn’t get on he would be expelled.  You have to understand Mark was an extremely dysfunctional student who had passed the school leaving age and had received multiple long-term suspensions.  At our school the students were taught about behaviour and they all knew about ODD.  I said to Mark ‘what if I had told you not to get on the train’ what would you have done.  He knew he would have got on the train but even knowing this he still refused and was expelled.  I have often thought about my behaviour in this situation and if I knew then the lessons in this Newsletter I hope I would have acted differently.


As you can see dealing with these oppositional children is a real challenge. And in such a case as Mark’s it would have been better not to get in such a situation however, there was a lot of other things going on in this case.  But there are some things that will help you deal with these students.  These are: 

  • Understand the causes of ODD, the lack of positive attention and identifying ways to increase the opportunities to provide positive feedback
  • Modelling emotional control - ODD kids invariably have poor emotional regulation so it is important that you remain calm
  • Give short instructions with limited choice (i.e. ‘Would you like to play in the sand or have something to eat?)
  • It often works to give two similar choices with a time frame, such as “I’ll give you a minute to choose to write with the blue pencil or the red pencil”  If there is no choice made after your time limit, the teacher makes the choice of something quite different such as, completing a different aspect of the task not using pencils.
  • Avoid negative consequences – this is difficult for older kids but for pre-schools emphasis on positive reinforcement on positive behaviours.
  • Emphasise the child’s importance by doing things they like with them – pay them real attention.

Finally – look after yourself.  These kids consume a lot of the staff’s energy so make sure the organisation provides opportunities to withdraw from highly charged situations and have access to debriefing.


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Monday, October 25 2021

Dealing With Students' Anxiety

As schools return to full time attendance teachers should be aware that the prevalence of anxiety amongst their students will be elevated.  We have dealt with anxiety previously (see Newsletter – Anxiety – 24 July 2017) however in this essay the focus will be on the effect anxiety has on the level of concentration.

Anxiety is that lingering apprehension or almost chronic sense of worry about particular things or even life in general.  Professionals would diagnose someone as having clinical, generalized anxiety if they displayed three or more of the following over a six-month period:

  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Concentration Problems
  • Irritability
  • Muscle Tension
  • Sleep Disorders

In general, anxiety is described in three ways; panic attacks, social anxiety and generalised anxiety.  We will focus on concentration which will be the product of their generalised anxiety.

In a recent article in the Conversation, 18 October, 2021 Elizabeth J Edwards from the University of Queensland reported that one in seven Australians are currently experiencing anxiety. The prevalence of anxiety among children is 6.1% of girls and 7.6% of boys.  These statistics were before the COVID pandemic and if research reported in the Journal of Medical Association can be applied to our population then it has doubled.

Throughout these essays the impact of stress on our cognitive functions is at the heart of our approach to improving the learning outcomes (see Newsletters - Generating Stress – 20 July 2020 and The Complexity of Stress - 27 July 2020).  It must be remembered that stress is just a response to our personal level of homeostatic equilibrium, that is how our needs are being met.  In our everyday life we experience a continuous variation in these levels of stress depending on how our needs are satisfied by our immediate environment.


We have already pointed out that we need children to be suitably stressed to be motivated learn, and that there is an optimum level of anxiety that will have the child perform to their potential.  Too little stress, they will not engage, too much and they will not take advantage of their cognitive resources (see The Complexity of Stress - referenced above).  This is the focus of this essay.  As you move along the level of arousal you go from low levels of anxiety up to extreme levels which result in trauma.  The results of these levels of arousal come from the work of Bruce Perry, a professor of psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago are summarised in the graph below.


This graph shows how as we increase the level of arousal different parts of the brain dominate the thinking process and result in the behaviours associated with these processes.  This is not to say no learning takes place when we are in an elevated condition.  We use all our brain all the time it’s just a matter of where it is focused.


The following diagram shows how the capacity for high order thinking, the process of academic learning is influenced on our levels of stress and these levels are controlled by our security in our immediate environment.

The table below presents and excellent summary of the impact of stress on our ability to participate in meaningful education.  Examining the bottom row shows as we increase of level of anxiety we move from being calm through the various stages of arousal to the level of terror.  The next two rows above this show the impact on our cognitive organisation with the focus moving away from the neocortex, the part of the brain used for working memory, to lower parts of the brain.  Eventually this means predominately using the autonomic section of the brain where all responses are reflexive.


The top row is important because to be truly motivated to learn we have to delay the gratification of that knowledge into the future.  This really only occurs when we are calm and have access to these areas of the brain that create such memories, the limbic system and the neocortex.


This Newsletter puts reason to what we know to be true, school-based learning takes place when each child is calm and relaxed.  This is why the management of classroom dysfunctional behaviours is so important.  Whenever such behaviours exist the learning capacity is reduced proportionately to the level of stress that behaviour produces in the offending student, their classmates and the teacher.

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Monday, October 18 2021

Dealing With A Crisis

Throughout these essays the focus has been on providing an environment that allows the students to focus on their schoolwork in a calm and secure manner.  However, I am certain that any teacher who works in difficult communities will be confronted by the uncontrollable child who at times will behave in a way that is temporarily ‘out of control’.  These are periods where the focus is on managing the immediate crisis.  Without preparation when such an explosion happens what you do will depend on what you have planned to do before-hand.  At the time of the crisis everyone, including your own’s stress levels will be so elevated it is difficult to make considered actions.


The following provides a scaffold to create a framework that will support your actions while experiencing such a crisis.


Of course, being forewarned is a benefit and the first thing to do is to identify any potential student who is likely to explode uncontrollably.  Apart from preschool, and in some cases kindergarten all kids come to a new school year with a record.  Teachers are entitled to be warned about those very difficult kids and if possible, have some prior knowledge about any potential problems with their behaviour.  However, if you are not forewarned you will soon observe an explosion and after two or three such events you should start to collate that information for yourself.  What you need to record is:   

  • Previous episodes of persistent outbursts of severe behaviours.  When these occur ask yourself:
    • Where these flare-ups are likely to happen: in the classroom, in a particular subject, moving between periods; knowing this will allow you to address that environment.
    • When do they happen: after a change of routine, when left alone, when they are with another particular student, in a crowd or when isolated.
  • Other factors:
    • The frequency these outbursts occur
    • The antecedent conditions of the environment, are they agitated when they arrive at school, maybe they have had a ‘custodial’ visit from a separated parent
    • Warning behaviours, do you see them becoming agitated

From this data you can build a picture of the conditions that you need to design and alter the classroom setting in a way that makes the uncontrollable, manageable.


Despite your best efforts there will be times when you are confronted with such an outburst and these events follow a particular pattern as shown below.