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Monday, June 26 2023

The Size of the Problem

The previous Newsletters have outlined the problems and possible solutions for dealing with out-of-control classrooms.  Like most work on this topic there is a level of generalisation across the system as if all schools are the same.  This is such an obvious mistake especially in the public sectors.  Yet when it comes to providing support to deal with dysfunctional classrooms there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach from the Department.  For example, for counsellor support is based on a student ratio!


In recent years there has been a drift from public schools to the cheaper private schools especially for families who have the resources and opportunity to take their kids out of classrooms where disruptive behaviours impact on the learning of their children.  Like their rich counterparts, these private schools don’t take students whose behaviours are relatively uncontrollable.  This has resulted in a residualisation of public schools and unfortunately a concentration of these students.


To add to this disparity the socioeconomic areas schools service directly influence the distribution of dysfunctional behaviours.  The most common cause for students with these behaviours is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from childhood abuse.  It is estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer PTSD as a result of childhood trauma but in some poor areas the proportion can be up to 26%.  These students invariably attend their local, under-resourced school!


Suspension data is a fairly strong indicator of the behavioural environment. Using the 2021 data (2022 data was heavily influenced by the COVID pandemic and not considered) this difference can be identified.  As a percentage Sydney-North had 0.6% of their students experiencing a short suspension while North-West NSW had 5.3%, that is 530 students compared to 3,434!  Long term suspensions reflected this difference.  To ask teachers to deal with behaviours on a systematic scale in the same way, with the same resources is unfair but it is what is expected!


The following information is our attempt to provide some more specific advice for these schools.


Take the time to identify and understand the nature of the challenge your school and therefore your classroom faces.  By careful analysis you can identify significant factors that will influence the student’s behaviour.  In the first instance you should scrutinise the community’s strengths and weaknesses.  You will undoubtedly be dealing with the parents and understand their expectations, real or imagined.  Then analyse the school, how does it deal with severe behaviours and are these strategies effective? 


If you are a classroom teacher your level of influence on these external factors will vary depending on your personal power within the school and community.  However, in the classroom you are the seat of power and you need to understand the students you are dealing with.


An analysis should identify:

  1. Are the students you are working with proficient in English.   A significant proportion of the population in low socioeconomic areas come from new migration or refugees.  Their lack of English proficiency will make it difficult for you to communicate instructions.  This lack of understanding excludes them from participation and may lead to disruptive behaviours. 
  2. Catering to the diverse needs of students with learning disabilities, particularly early childhood PTSD and attention deficit disorders or other special needs require differentiated approaches to instruction and behavior management.  The application of consistency and persistency in your management style takes on another level of significance.
  3. The impact of poverty, unstable home environments, or community violence has a profound effect on a students' behavior, emotional well-being, and eventually their academic performance. 
  • Many of your students will arrive at school already hungry because there was no food in the house or their parents were not ‘awake’ when they left for school.  Ohers might not have slept during the night, maybe they spent their time walking the streets or maybe they couldn’t sleep because they were witnessing high levels of domestic violence. 
  • These students will have complex needs that must be addressed before they can learn.  Although this is your responsibility it is difficult to make a difference unless you have additional support.  If this is not coming, try to provide that support, it is what we do!
  1. Managing classrooms with students from diverse cultural backgrounds, where norms, values, and expectations may vary, requires sensitivity, understanding, and effective communication strategies.  Particularly the children from first generation migration will live in two cultural worlds.  At school they will inevitably absorb the prevailing culture of the community, this just happens but often the parents object to this and put pressure on their children to conform to their cultural norms.  The most visible of these are dress codes where girls are expected to wear hijabs or Hindu boys turbans.  It is important that the other students accept this and the particular students feel comfortable.
  2. All too often you will be dealing with parents or guardians who will have minimal and/or inconsistent support and involvement.  This might not be a bad thing in the short term but this can hinder the reinforcement of classroom procedures and discipline.  The physical and psychological abuse directed at school principals is at unprecedented levels but little protection is offered from the Department.


Based on the insights gained through your analysis you can consider how to move forward to address the specific challenges and obstacles you are facing.  Take the following steps:

  1. Reach out to colleagues, administrators, or other professionals who can provide guidance and support. Share the challenges you are facing and seek their support and advice.  Listening to experienced teachers or supervisors can show you other ways to deal with these problems.
  2. Modify the existing procedures to suit the class.  This is not to water-down the expectations you require but another way to communicate and reinforce them!  Consider procedural adjustments that may better address the specific challenges and obstacles you are facing and be open to trying new strategies and approaches that have the potential to yield positive results.
  3. Clearly communicate any changes or adaptations to the procedures to your students. Explain the reasons behind the modifications and how they will benefit the learning environment. Ensure students understand the expectations and the rationale for the adjustments.  Students appreciate being included in solving the problems.
  4. Identify students who may require additional support.  In some cases this may require you to go beyond the school’s resources.  In these cases it should be the principal that seeks that assistance.  Within the school support staff, such as counsellors, special educators, or social workers can help to develop individualised plans or interventions that can help address their needs.
  5. After any modification of a procedure you are obliged to monitor its effectiveness.  Not all change makes things better.  Collect data, observe student behavior, and seek feedback from students and colleagues to gauge the effectiveness of the modifications. Make adjustments if things are still not working!  


It is a popular truism that the most predictive influence on a child’s future success lies in the family into which they are born.  I believe this is blatantly unfair; a child’s future should not be determined by their parent’s resources, not that I’m advocating that all parents should not want to and do provide every opportunity for their kids, they should.  But it falls to the schools to even out the playing field so all kids, especially those who have been abused and neglected by their parents are given a second chance.  It takes a brave teacher to accept this challenge and fortunately we have these in abundance!


Posted by: AT 12:50 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, June 21 2023

Surviving an 'Out of Control' Classroom.

The next series of Newsletters will focus on managing very difficult classrooms.  From as long as surveys have been taken focusing on teachers’ greatest concerns, managing difficult behaviours has inevitably been at the top of that list (only in recent years has the extreme workloads displaced it).  Also, with the rise in private and selective schools there has been a residualisation of those schools who take students who, through no fault of their own have dysfunctional behaviours.  Teachers in these schools should be exposed to training and development that helps them deal with these behaviours.  The driving force behind all our work has been to provide that help.


Regaining control of an out-of-control class can be a challenging task, there are times when you feel like throwing up your hands and giving up.  This is understandable but inevitably the extremely disruptive behaviour is initiated by a few students, the majority deserve to be taught in a calm secure environment, so at least you have a responsibility to:

  • Protect the students – you must ensure, as much as possible the safety and security of the members of your classroom.  It may be necessary to remove the offending student from the classroom or in certain situations you might move all the others out to a safe area nearby
  • Protect yourself, you are of no use if you are injured.  It is often necessary to remove the offending student from the classroom or in other cases you might move all the others out to a safe area nearby.
  • Protect the offending child as much as you can from being harmed, either physically or psychologically.
  • Protect the property. 


If you have removed the student from the classroom you must ensure they’re safe.  In some cases the student might flee the school area, if this occurs notify your executive and they will contact the child’s family.  In any case you need to notify your supervisor in a manner that maintains everyone’s safety, that is do not send a student out with a message if there is a chance they might be confronted by the perpetrator.


It may be that two, or more students are having a physical fight in the classroom.  If this is the case then:

  • Ensure the immediate safety of all students. If necessary, evacuate other students from the immediate area to prevent them from getting hurt or becoming involved in the fight.
  • Do not physically intervene, as a teacher, it's crucial not to put your-self in harm's way. Your primary role is, protect the other students, to defuse the situation and seek assistance if needed.
  • Immediately call for help, contact your supervisors, or at least another staff member and inform them about the fight and request their immediate assistance.
  • While you shouldn't physically intervene, you can attempt to defuse the situation verbally. Remind them firmly that fighting is not acceptable and that there will be consequences for their actions.
  • If it is safe to do so, try to create physical distance between the fighting students but never put your-self or others in danger.
  • It is very important to document the incident, note of any important details regarding the fight, such as the names of the students involved, witnesses and any relevant information that may help in addressing the situation later on. This documentation can be helpful for school


You have to remember that you are the adult in the room and you do have a responsibility to regain control of the class.  When this situation arises the first response is to remain calm, you need to put on your boundaries.  Take a few deep breaths to manage your own stress levels before addressing the situation.  The previous Newsletters have plenty of advice on how to do this but as far as the students are concern you need to:

  • Stand up for yourself in an appropriate level of assertiveness – you are in-charge when being the teacher 
  • Model non-hostile body language, stand up straight, hands off hips, fists unclenched, no finger wagging
  • Continue to act as if their behaviour has no effect on you
  • Sustain a steady, positive gaze
  • Speak clearly
  • Remain silent after you have delivered your message.  You must give enough time for that message to be understood.  Silence, coupled with confidence is a powerful way to communicate
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact
  • Don’t stand too close or touch them

Remember, your demeanour can have a significant impact on the students involved and the rest of the class


After the crisis has passed you will need to document the event.  This will provide a record that might provide pointers that will help you avoid this particular situation reoccurring.  The following points will help:

  • Once the situation is under control, ensure that the students involved receive appropriate support. Talk to them individually, privately, and calmly to understand the underlying causes and offer guidance or referrals to counselling or other resources if needed. It's important to address the issue rather than simply punishing the students involved.
  • If it is a significant event or a reoccurring one then reach out to the parents or guardians of the students involved to inform them about the incident. Maintain a professional, non-judgmental approach while discussing the situation, and be prepared to answer their questions or address their concerns.
  • After addressing the immediate situation, you should reflect on what caused the situation and assess what preventive measures can be put in place to minimize the chances of similar incidents occurring in the future. This will be the topic of an up-coming Newsletter.

Remember, it's crucial to follow your school and the Department’s policies and guidelines for dealing with extreme misbehaviour and violence. However, your primary focus should always be on the safety and well-being of your students while maintaining a supportive and conducive learning environment.






Posted by: AT 12:38 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, June 07 2023

Boundaries for Teachers

By defining and communicating clear limits, teachers establish expectations and structure within the classroom, providing a safe and secure learning environment.  Effective and healthy boundaries allow both students and their teachers to navigate through the lesson with a sense of mutual respect and genuine connection.  Children, and teachers for that matter who come from fully functional families generally have already established healthy boundaries but, as outlined in a previous Newsletter…! (Newsletter 238 – Boundaries – 30 May 2023), those kids from neglectful and abusive backgrounds must be taught to have the protection that keeps them secure and allows them to go out into the world to get their needs met.


Compromised Boundaries

Even with the best intentions teachers can easily encounter various boundary problems in the classroom. Here are some common challenges they may face:

  1. Over involvement with students’ personal lives – Teachers, by nature are caring individuals who naturally develop relationships with their students. However, the risk is they become too involved and cross the line from professional to personal relationships.  This is inappropriate and dangerous, it leads to favouritism, compromised objectivity, and difficulties in maintaining a fair learning environment.
  2. Lack of respect for personal space – Each of us has a personal space and you will know this because when others move too close your emotional stability is compromised.  You will know your outer limits are being crossed when your stress levels rise.  However, you will never know the others’ outer limits as all of us have a different size ‘space’ so you will never be sure if you are invading the personal space unless you are told.  Teachers who constantly invade the personal space of others by say, touching them without permission, or making inappropriate comments make those students feel uncomfortable and can negatively impact the learning environment.
  3. Emotional boundaries - Teachers may find themselves emotionally invested in their students’ well-being. While empathy and support are important, we must navigate the fine line between being supportive and taking on the emotional burdens of their students.  Maintain your professional role, if the student is need of specialist counselling then refer them to the appropriate person, you are their teacher not their therapist.
  4. Digital boundary violations – With the increasing use of technology in education, teachers may encounter boundary issues related to online communication and social media.  You must be careful in how you use such platforms such as Facebook, understand that any personal information you post can be read by your students.  The Department has pretty good guidelines for this space


Professional Boundaries

As mentioned above, professional boundaries involve clearly defining the space between the student and the teacher.  The following are helpful:

  1. Physical Boundaries – You need to maintain this area, not only to protect yourself but to maintain the appropriateness of the relationship.  Enforce the outer limits of your physical space and never invade the children’s. 
  2. Availability Boundaries -You need to define when you are available to deal with students.  It is not appropriate for teachers to be contacted when at home.  Clearly communicating office hours or designated times for student consultations helps manage expectations and ensures that teachers have dedicated time for planning, grading, and personal activities.
  3. Parental Boundaries – Parents have the right to ask about their child’s progress and inquire about problems they may have BUT the school should clearly communicate the procedures that must be followed for parent-teacher interactions.  Establish appropriate channels of communication, and set boundaries around response times.


It’s fine to know where your boundaries end but it is important to communicate their outer limits to those with whom you are dealing.  The keys to effective communication are:

  • Explanation – Convey the situation as you see it and be specific.
  • Feelings – Own your feelings and take responsibility for them.
  • Needs – Say what you want.  Be selective, realistic and be prepared to negotiate.
  • Consequences – Outline how things will be if there are changes or if they stay as they are.

It is no surprise that these represent the steps to assert yourself outlined in the last Newsletter(238 – Boundaries – 30 March 2023):

  1. When you …!
  2. I feel …!
  3. Because …! 


There will be times, especially with psychological boundaries when the definition of your boundary will require some negotiation.  The following outlines the steps you must take to ensure your integrity is intact and your safety assured:

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


Healthy Sense of Self

By establishing and maintaining effective personal boundaries, you can create an environment that promotes respect, professionalism, and emotional well-being. The strength of our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group.  This fosters a positive and empowering learning experience for students. 


Children who do develop this sense of belonging are categorized as being able to: 

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

When working with those students whose abusive and neglectful childhoods have robbed them of any defence against further abuse or exploitation, learning the protective boundaries outlined in this series, teaching them through instruction and modelling is perhaps the most effective skill you can give them.




Posted by: AT 07:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 29 2023


In the last Newsletter we discussed the protective behaviours students and adults use to protect themselves from stress in their life. In these next couple of essays, we will examine the concept of boundaries; what they are and how to control them.


Everyone has a sense of their self.  The extent this ‘self’ intrudes on the external environment in a physical self is relatively easy to experience.  We all have an understanding of our personal space.  When someone comes within that space our emotions change, our stress response is triggered.  If the intrusion threatens our safety (our homeostatic equilibrium) then we will be motivated to protect our ‘self’. If, on the other hand that someone is someone who we love, we still have an emotional shift when they come into our space but this is the result of us seeking that contact; a type of positive stress. 


These external boundary violations occur when others do things like:

  • Stand too close, or touch you in any sense without permission
  • Violate our rights to privacy (i.e. going into your bags, eavesdropping on conversations, etc.)
  • Exposing you to risk (i.e. Subjecting others to your illness or smoking in ‘no smoking’ area)


We also have a psychological sense of our ‘self’ and these boundaries are not spatial but we react in a protective manner when others are denigrating our position in the community or we will, or should have a positive sensation when our standing is celebrated.


Internal boundary violations are assaults on your psycho/social self by others.  This includes:

  • Yelling or screaming at you
  • Lying or breaking a commitment made to you
  • Calling you derogative names
  • Patronising or telling you what you should do
  • Addressing you in a sarcastic manner
  • Shaming you or your community


So these boundaries are the physical and psychological space between you and the outside world.  They define the outer limits of your physical and emotional sense and intrusions that cross this border trigger an emotional response expressed as stress. 


In the classroom, teachers have to be aware of their student’s personal physical and psychological space and understand that this ‘space’ will vary from student to student.  The illustration below indicates that point of intersection.


Simply put, effective boundaries control what is okay and what is not okay on how others treat you. 


In the last Newsletter we examined inappropriate behaviours to control stress levels under the heading of people addiction.  The use of such behaviours may protect you in the short term, at the point of your boundary but the following illustration shows how this action ‘to protect’ will build what could be called walls around you.  


As you can see, the walls do protect you but also entrap you; you are unable to move into the environment freely to get your needs met.


Types of Boundaries


This is when there is no real division between where you finish and the other starts.  These people have no real protection and are:

  • Easily exploited
  • Victimized by others
  • Have difficulty getting their own needs met



This occurs when people close their ‘self’ off from others for protection, always reacting in the same manner when stressed.  They will never understand how to deal with others in an appropriate way, to either reject unwanted advances or initiate connections.  These are the walls discussed above.



People can use a combination of soft and rigid depending on how the other person presents, that is:

  • If they are comfortable with the other person they have soft boundaries they will accommodate the other person. 
  • On the other hand, if the other person startles them then, they cut them out, put up walls.



These are the ‘goldilocks’ boundaries, not too soft and not too rigid but just right; an appropriate application of boundaries.  The person has enough of an understanding of their right to get their needs met.


The illustration above shows how you can be protected from physical and emotional abuse by being responsible for the things you do wrong, we all make mistakes and we accept appropriate consequences and protecting your ‘self’ when you are under threat.


The kids who are causing you trouble will inevitable have poor boundaries and many adults suffer that same incapacity but you can learn to apply effective boundaries following the steps outlined below.


Importantly it is the stress that causes you to behave.  Controlling this is important if you want to use boundaries to control your life. I use what is described as a relaxation response.  With practice I have developed a style of relaxation by counting from five to one in the following sequence:

  • 1. Relax the muscles in my head
  • 2. Relax the muscles in my neck and shoulders
  • 3. Relax my arms and fingers
  • 4. Relax the muscles in my stomach, lower back and buttocks
  • 5. Relax the muscles in my legs and feet, down to my toes


I do this slowly and after a period of training, when stressed I just count down from five to one.  I have placed an extended description of this technique in the resources section in our web site –


When you are calm you can use the following steps to learn how to deal with any situation.


  1. Ask the Questions
  • ‘What is really happening’?  Often this is not the immediate action that you observe, there could be other factors that got you to this place. 
  • ‘Who is responsible’?
    • If the answer is ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take action to address the cause of the stress.
    • If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
      • ‘What is causing the incident’?
      • ‘What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?
  1. Take Action.

Assert you rights without threatening the other person.  You can use the follow script:

  • ‘When you …’
  • ‘I feel…’
  • ‘Because...’


The ‘when you’ step is the time to describe to the other person what the situation is, say for example if you are having trouble with their behaviour, you tell them ‘when you’ and describe exactly what they are doing that is causing the problem.  The ‘I feel’ allows you to let them know how their behaviour is upsetting you.  Don’t be afraid to tell them how you really feel and finally the ‘because’ gives you the opportunity to tell them what are the consequences of their behaviour. 


If the confrontation is more serious or the students are not engaging in the process of solving the problem, then a stricter approach can be:

  • ‘If you …’
  • ‘I will…’

This is when you can spell out that if they behave in a certain way you will deliver a set of consequences.  The decision on what to do is theirs but they will have no control over what happens next.


  1. Let Go

Sometimes even if you have done everything possible to contain of the other person or a class is out of control, using the right techniques and with the best intentions but things are still not working, it is time to seek help.


Letting go is a difficult thing to master, everyone wants to believe they control their life, this gives us our security but rationally we understand the only thing we can control is how we prepare for life and as life presents us with the inevitable challenges we respond in a way that we currently understand will get our needs met. 


Healthy boundaries are vital in taking control of your life.  Students who have been raised in chaotic families rarely have developed them but they can be learned; that is the same for teachers.

Posted by: AT 01:03 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 22 2023

The Impact of Elevated Stress

In the previous Newsletters we have discussed how stress is generated when we feel vulnerable because the conditions in our external environment pose a threat to our safety.  Further, we examined how this elevated stress impacts on our choices of behaviour in order to protect ourselves.  We also discussed how stress is needed not only to initiate behaviour but that stress allows us to learn new methods to deal with hostile external conditions in the future.  As can be seen from the illustration below, as an individual becomes more aroused their brain is said to ‘gate-down’.  Although the graph moves up from a state of calmness the neurological attention is moving down from the cerebral cortex, through the limbic system on to the midbrain/brain stem hence the phrase ‘gating down’.  

You can notice that we have moved from being able to consider a range of alternate behaviours when using our total brain into a condition of concrete thinking where we will only access behaviours that have worked before.  These issues have been covered in detail in two recent Newsletters, 228. Stress = Life - 1st March 2023 and 233. Gender Differences in Dealing with Early Childhood Trauma – 3rd April 2023.


In this essay we want to describe how people deal with this problem, first in a dysfunctional manner and then how to act in a way that will allow us to deal with future situations that echo the characteristics of the threatening environment.  In their early careers Margaret Paul and Erika Chopich presented a model of the different responses to threatening levels of stress; the following outline is founded in their work.


All addiction is an attempt to deal with painful stress which of course drives the need to return to homeostatic equilibrium.  Unfortunately, the use of any dysfunctional, protective behaviour in which you redirect your cognitive process or manipulates the cause of the threat or if you change the chemical composition of your brain without making a change to your behaviour condemns you to always being at the mercy of such situations.


These dysfunctional behaviours are shown in the illustration above, the people and activity addictions are the attempt to redirect the cognitive process of the perpetrator and, of course substances addiction is a well-known method of protection.


When you talk to substance addicts they almost invariably will tell you the first time they were ‘high’ on whatever substance they felt a sense of peace and personal power.  For kids with a history of abuse and that resulting sense of toxic shame it is no wonder the slide into addiction is easy.  Of course, the issue is that the more they use the drug of choice the more they will need of it.  Eventually, and this applies to all addictions the behaviour to protect themselves from stress becomes the source of future stress.


Activity addiction is not easily recognised as an addiction.  To understand the process that makes an activity an addiction is that whenever they feel stressed they will busy themselves with a distraction.  This is more easily illustrated in adults with the workaholic being the poster child of activities addiction.  Years ago when I was forming this model I was explaining it to a colleague.  When I mentioned activities addiction he exclaimed ‘that’s me’!  I had suspected that was the case and I continued on with ‘you don’t have to be that way’ to which he quickly replied, ‘that’s alright, I’m going to do my PhD’!  I had suspected this because of his frenetic approach to his work and the times he talked about the deteriorating quality of his marriage.  Needless to say, him achieved his PhD and lost his marriage.


This same addiction is seen right across society, from children being addicted to activities such as skateboard riding to becoming a fanatical football fan to some underserving team.  A word of caution, not everyone who has a consuming hobby, loves a particular team or spends most of their free time involved in a sport is an addict.  It is when they retreat from difficult situations they achieve that status, for that colleague, every time his wife wanted to address their problems he was ‘too busy’!


Finally we come to the people addiction and understanding the use of this type of protection will help you recognise what drives some of the behaviours of students. When being stressed by other people those choosing to protect themselves have a choice, they can try to control the other person or resist any attempts for the other to affect them

The types of people addiction are shown in illustration below.

The attempts to control the ‘other’ using overt behaviours can be summed up as ‘if you stress me, I will stress you back to a level you will leave me alone’!  They are, as the graphic indicates bullies; they threaten, use their friends to tease them or mock them to make them the centre of ridicule.  Eventually, the perpetrator will withdraw removing the source of the stress from the overt control addict.  This may work in the short term, the stressing behaviour of the adversary my cease but unfortunately when a similar situation arises the student will have to again be aggressive.


An alternate way to ‘control’ the stressful situation caused by another is to be so nice to them they will never attack you.  This is the covert method of people control.  Like the overt model the use of being a ‘best friend’ or ally is that you have to submerge your own need to avoid being exposed.


The final type of people addiction is that of resistance.  This is when a potential victim of ‘intimidation’ from others chooses to isolate themselves, refusing to accept any responsibility to whatever stressful situation exists.  They refuse to take part in organised activities, are absent a lot and isolate themselves.  However, there will be times when the resistors join forces and justify their behaviour with each other.


These acts of addictive behaviour are not just for the students, adults will also use these forms of control.  The selection of whether or not to be covert or overt depends on their perceived personal power in regard to the other.  It is more likely that a ‘boss’ that is feeling overly stressed will take on the overt role.  It is easier to bully those with less power.  Alternatively, those who work for an overt style boss might find it more comfortable using the covert techniques, ‘sucking up’ to make sure they are not their target.  The use of either control method disempowers the individual, the boss will lose the respect if their staff and those using the covert style will not be respected by fellow workers or skilled managers.


In the last illustration I have presented the student diagram as it applies to staff.

I’m sure we can all recognise these behaviours in our school staff.  Overt control teachers are those who put their students down, ‘why would I waste my time with this lot’.  Covert control teachers seek to be popular by letting their students ignore school norms, forgiving them for not handing assignments in on time.  What they don’t understand is that they are denying their student their right to learn about responsibility and in the long run they are never really respected.  Finally, we have those who sit up the back at staff meetings, reading the paper or talking amongst their allies.


I hope this information will help you identify those students and colleague’s dysfunctional behaviours not to condemn it but to let you approach them with compassion and understanding that these behaviours come from a faulty and toxic self-belief.  I have put a copy of Chapter 8 of my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ called Acting to Protect Yourself.


In the next Newsletter I will talk about how to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way.


Posted by: AT 01:50 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 15 2023

The Key is Stress Management


This is the first in the latest series of essays on the impact and importance of the levels of stress in the classroom.  In broad terms, stress is the process where the brain comprehends, and attempts to maintain, a person’s homeostatic status.  Of all the Newsletters we have produced those discussing the impact of stress on behaviour and learning far outnumbers any other topic.  Like all living things we humans are driven to survive and reproduce and when any situation in our environment either threatens or nurtures our existence we will act to deal with such a situation; we will behave!  This Newsletter will focus on that process focusing on homeostasis.


Homeostasis is the process by which the body maintains a stable internal environment despite external changes.  Our internal environment consists of our physical, social/emotional and intellectual world.  This three-part feature is embodied in the physical structure of the brain, often referred to as a triune brain shown below.

The brain’s only task is to regulate its behaviour in response to the external environment to retain homeostatic equilibrium. 

To maintain homeostasis at the physical level much of the processes are reflexive, that is they are achieved at an unconscious level; part of our genetic organisation.  These are things like breathing, maintaining blood pH and sugar levels.  The act of breathing to maintain our oxygen levels demonstrates the power a deficit can have on your behaviour.  Just try holding your breath for say two minutes and feel the growing urgency to address the disequilibrium.  The continual process of oxygen depletion and renewal demonstrates our need for continual adjust to the changes both in our bodies and the environment.


As well as this biological feature of the physical realm there is that of movement.  From the moment we are born we have to learn to move our body to sustain equilibrium.  Watch a new-born try to get their finger into their mouth.  Just like any lesson, through trial and error eventually a neural pathway will form, a behaviour is learned.


The social/emotional level involves the regulation of how our sense of self interacts with the community that is in our immediate environment.  The limbic system through structures like the amygdala and hippocampus regulates our stress levels.  When there is a perceived threat or danger, the limbic system initiates the "fight or flight" response, which triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When we perceive something in the environment that we need to address a deficit, say we are hungry, the stress response if not a product of a fight/flight response but one of seeking food in this instance and is driven by dopamine.

Once the threat or deficit is addressed the brain's homeostatic mechanisms work to restore the body to a state of equilibrium.


Finally, at the tertiary level is a treasure trove of memories that inform our behaviour in response to social cues, such as facial expressions and body language and environmental conundrums that may impact on our stability.  The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for what is referred to as executive functions like decision-making and impulse control plays a crucial role in maintaining that equilibrium. 

Importantly, it is this tertiary section on which we want the students to be focused.  Teachers need to create a level of uncertainty related to the content of the lesson they are to deliver.  The resulting stress is expressed as curiosity!


The status of homeostatic equilibrium refers to a state where the whole body is safe and secure.  To achieve this the whole brain has to provide the energy to sustain those demands require to keep us alive.  However, the brain is incredibly energy-intensive consuming roughly 20% of the body's total energy, despite only making up 2% of its weight and that energy is vital in supporting our physical, social/emotional and intellectual needs. 


For example, when there is a deficit in say our social needs the resulting state of disequilibrium will demand that the brain adjust its energy consumption to focus on rectifying this problem.  Given that we have a finite energy budget, this focus on the social problem means there is less to service the other needs.  Overall, the distribution of the brain's energy is tightly regulated to support the diverse functions of different brain regions, and this regulation is critical for maintaining normal brain function and promoting overall health and well-being, that is homeostatic equilibrium.  The following illustration explains the consequences of different types of disequilibrium.

It is obvious which state is suitable to maximise the learning outcomes for our students.


It is a truism that kids learn best is a safe and secure classroom and this is why.  It is the teacher’s professional responsibility to, as much as possible produce an environment where the student’s social and physical needs are not under threat.  In reality classroom management is really stress management!

Posted by: AT 12:35 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 01 2023

Toxic Shame

The ability to integrate our ‘self’ into our community is perhaps the most important skill an individual has.  All emotions are just a communication from our ‘self’ of how we are satisfying our needs.  When our behaviour is rejected by others we experience a particular emotion, shame which confirms the importance of belonging.  The fact that people take their own lives bears witness to the power of the underlying dynamic of rejection.

Shame is an emotion that we all experience at times. It's a feeling of embarrassment, self-consciousness, or guilt that can arise when we perceive ourselves to have fallen short of our own or others' expectations.  This is referred to as healthy shame, it is a signal that what we are doing is likely to lead to rejection.  It is a natural and necessary emotion that arises when we recognize that we have done something wrong or hurtful to ourselves or others.  It can motivate us to take responsibility for our actions, make amends, and strive to do better in the future

Healthy shame also reinforces our humanity. When teaching at a school for highly dysfunctional adolescents I used to claim I was a perfect human.  Of course, that got the reaction I wanted and so I followed up with the fact that no one could be perfect and so, not being perfect I was a perfect individual.  I used this because we are not and can never be perfect, we will do things that hurt others.  Not because we want to—we just make mistakes.  

This healthy shame also allows us to understand the imperfection of others, they will do things to us that are hurtful and will make us want to push them away. It is much easier to forgive them if we accept the imperfection in ourselves. If we never experience shame, then we are either God or the Devil. We are either divine or totally corrupt.

This is healthy shame and protects us from abusing our community and promotes our empathy for others, helps us be more tolerant of their mistakes.

The ability to recognise that our actions influence our acceptance or rejection from others is not instinctive.  Parents have to teach children through providing feedback when they behave in a manner others find repulsive and/or teaching them a better way to get their needs met.  Another important teaching device is to model the correct methods of satisfying their needs but not in a way that mistreats others.  More importantly they make the real distinction between the mistaken behaviour and the child, that is the child made a mistake they are not a mistake.

Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them.  An example is asking a child to drink milk from a cup before they have the motor skill for such a challenge.  They will fail and, when this happens the child should be comforted and patiently taught to perform this act.  However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they make a mistake, like spilling the milk they are often verbally abused and in some cases physically punished.  They can only conclude that they are stupid, weak and useless; it’s their fault!  Toxic shame is not shame over what they have done; it is shame over what they are.

Children with toxic shame take this debilitating belief into school.  At any level learning consists of trial and error and so it is at school, there will be the inevitable errors.  To healthy kids a mistake informs them that this is not the right way to solve a problem.  For the child with toxic shame the mistake is confirmation that they are not the right person to be in the class. These students fear the unavoidable negative evaluation about their work and the resulting stress suffered will make any real learning impossible.  The inevitable failure reinforces their sense of shame, this toxic shame.

In a vain attempt to hide their shame from the world, these children develop behaviours that will protect them. From about the age of three, they learn to manipulate others. They develop an inner dialogue, a self-talk that takes on a self-destructive tenor as illustrated below:

  • “Just give in. It’s easier than getting into an argument.”
  • “You have to do what that person wants or there will be trouble.”
  • “It doesn’t matter. It’s not important anyway.”
  • “You should …”
  • “You shouldn’t …”
  • “You better …”

This self-talk, this belief system, combined with the feelings that come from deep in the mind, form a potent force in decisions about how to act. The feelings are powerful and almost automatic, particularly in times of stress.

Teachers play an important role in creating a safe and supportive learning environment for their students, including those who may be struggling with toxic shame. The following will help:

  1. Build positive relationships: Students who experience toxic shame may have difficulty trusting others and may feel like they are unworthy of love and acceptance. By building positive relationships and showing them that they are valued and accepted for who they are; they are not their behaviour. 
  2. Encourage success with your language, in previous Newsletters (Newsletter 76 -The Impact of language on Behaviour - 4th February 2019 and Newsletter 77 - 100 Ways to say “Well Done’ - 11 February 2019) offers plenty of techniques.
  3. Students with toxic shame will have a negative self-image and struggle with self-awareness. Teachers can encourage self-reflection by asking open-ended questions, providing opportunities for self-assessment, and helping students to identify their strengths and areas for growth.
  4. Teachers can help by emphasizing and celebrating students' strengths and progress, and by providing specific feedback that highlights their accomplishments.

These strategies are just another way of expressing our underpinning philosophy; provide all the students with a safe and secure environment that is structured, expectations are understood and positive professional relationships are fostered. 

Posted by: AT 11:30 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 27 2023

Patterns of Abuse and Their Consequences


In our recent Newsletters we are building a picture of how early childhood abuse and trauma influences the behaviour of the victims, in our work focussing on the classroom.  Children who experience abuse can be subjected to a range of different types and patterns of abuse. Two patterns that can have distinct impacts on a child's development, behaviour, and mental health are consistent abuse and unpredictable abuse.  The difference will determine how the child deals with future stressful interactions.

Although it's important to understand that each individual responds to trauma differently, depending on a person's personality, experiences, and support system.  When a child is raised in an environment where the abuse is predictable that is, there is a repetitive pattern, the child can develop a strong protective response that minimises the impact of that abuse.  These children will bring that response into the classroom.

One example that stays with me was during my time coaching junior teams.  I remember a small, immature child who I could see was afraid of the physical contact expected in the sport.  Every time he hesitated to make a tackle or missed his opponent his father would consistently berate him or show his displeasure.  To avoid this rejection the child threw himself into collisions that would physically hurt but the resulting pain was not as worrisome as that rejection.  That child presents to the class as a tough kid a behaviour that hides his true temperament. As an aside, we understand that to build behaviours we need repetition and these children have learned behaviours that are ‘functioning’ in their abusive environment.

On the other hand, unpredictable abuse occurs when a child is subjected to a range of assaults or when it occurs randomly or intermittently.  The uncertainty and unpredictability in the child's life doesn’t allow them to develop protective behaviour.  Each episode is different and so the child does not have the repetition to create the behaviours.

The resulting inability to predict what will happen develops a sense of hopelessness in these children, that they have no control over their life and so their behaviour becomes erratic with no apparent purpose especially in times of stress.

Examining the responses to the predictability, or lack of helps us understand what drives the student’s behaviour in class.  The difference between these two extremes of response to abuse can be illustrated by examining how they relate to the following five particular characteristics.  On the left side we examine those children raised in unpredictive families and the right predictive.        


 The children from unpredictable environments feel:

  • Less Than – These kids, through their sense of worthlessness and shame never feel they are really entitled to have their fair share of life.  When they are rejected, or by-passed, their response is not to stand up for their rights but say what they think ‘it doesn’t matter’ because they think they don’t matter.
  • Vulnerable – They are unprotected from future abuse and they lack the assertive capacity to get their own needs met.
  • Bad/Rebellious – Remember it is their sense of self that shapes their reality and because they have felt their abuse was deserved, they believe they are basically were ‘bad’.  Then, in some act of defiance they confirm this opinion by their actions; it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘so you think I’m bad well I’ll just show you how bad I am’!
  • Dependent – Because they have no sense of competency, no belief they can do anything properly, kids with no protective behaviours they depend on others to make decisions for them. 
  • Out of Control – These kids have no concept of being in control of their life. How could they when they have never experienced consistent consequences for their attempts to protect them self.  When they make decisions, they have no prior knowledge about what will happen and so they make their ‘best guess’. 

These ‘out of control’ kids are easy to recognise, in fact they demand our attention.  They will act impulsively and with dysfunctional behaviours that were functional in their childhood homes.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have been abused in a more consistent manner.  They display the following characteristics:

  • Better Than – Because they had to be just what their parent wanted they learned that they could have a deal of power over the situation in which they found themselves.   Getting the decision on how to act was important, it had to be ‘just right’ to survive. 
  • Invulnerable – These kids become very self-reliant, they don’t let anyone get close enough to find out how they really feel. This being locked in makes them appear and feel invulnerable but the cost is isolation.  Regrettably, this emphasis on preventing authentic contact with others limits opportunities to get their own needs met. 
  • Good/Perfect – Much the same as ‘Better Than’ this characteristic is also a result of the earlier need to make no ‘mistakes’ when dealing with their abuser.  This reliance on perfection is their defence from being punished and they are well aware of how to avoid this. 
  • Independent – Because they have been raised in an atmosphere of having things done to them and because there was no one to support them when they were being abused these kids don’t really feel they can trust others and so they never risked depending on another person.
  • Total Control – It is no surprise that these kids don’t take risks, it is too dangerous if you make a mistake.  The tragedy is that the behaviours they use to ‘control’ their environment are the ones they learned in a dysfunctional environment; to try new behaviours is too dangerous and so they control what they can and ignore anything else!  

It is obvious from the descriptions above those kids who have been raised in unpredictive, abusive environments are easy to identify and our classic response of structured, predictable and consistent approach helps deal with them.  The kids who are damaged but in a predictable way will be at home in that environment and this is where the relationship component is decisive.  Only through getting to understand all the kids, not just the ones that demand your attention will you be able to help them become integrated members of the classroom. 


Remember none of us are:

  • Less Than or Better Than – we are unique and there is no point in comparing our worth!
  • We all live through times when we are vulnerable and there are times we have to risk being vulnerable.  All we can do is the best we can knowing that life will do things to all of us!
  • Bad/Rebellious or Good/Perfect – Of course, no one is perfect, this is an impossible ambition and there might be some reward in being a bit cheeky and rebellious, it means you are human.
  • We live in communities and so it is really impossible to be totally independent however, it would be a mistake to be totally dependent.  There are times when you will need to behave in ways that are near these extremes to either protect yourself or get your needs met but you need to be informed about the possible consequences before you make those decisions
  • Just like dependence, you are never in control of the environment and so you can never be totally in control.  The purpose of behaviour is to provide you with defence against assaults or the ability to acquire something from the environment that will nourish you.  Education is learning this level of control!

Regardless of the type of abuse experienced, the strategies outlined above are applicable.  


Posted by: AT 06:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 21 2022

Three Strikes and You're Out

In almost every school and every classroom you visit you will see a certain type of behaviour management.  For example a student, let’s say Craig starts to talk out of turn; his name is written on the board.  A short time later he throws something at another student and the teacher puts a tick beside his name.  Craig gets angry and pushes his chair over, another tick and then he swears at the teacher, a final tick and he is removed!  Now he is out of the room and no longer that teacher’s responsibility.  This non-verbal system of control is potentially an effective intervention but there is much more that needs to be considered before it is just introduced!


In 1976 Marlene and Lee Canter published a book called ‘Assertive Discipline: A Take Charge Approach for Today’s Educator’.  Like other programmes of that era such as Rogers’ ‘Decisive Discipline’ and Glasser’s ‘Reality Therapy’ this program was a response to the disruptive environments in the modern classroom.  The feature that made Canter’s approach was the promise to put the teacher in charge again.  A close examination of the program would reveal this has the potential to be an appropriate approach to classroom management.  However, there is one feature of the program that has been embraced without reference to all the necessary groundwork that has to be done prior to its use and that is the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ procedures.


It must be accepted that the approach was promoted as ‘putting the teacher back in charge’ and I hope those who have followed our essays would be wondering why this would be a problem.  There is a subtle difference in that many of the fans of Assertive Discipline interpreted this as being in charge of the students.  One of the most liberating truths you can have is that you can’t make anyone do anything.  All you can do is offer them choices of consequences and they will choose.  In our work we know that the teacher must be in charge of the choices, which is the behavioural expectations and the structured consequences!


The Canters understood what needed to be put in place before the non-verbal cues were used and their advice is well worth reiterating.  They have identified four competencies teachers need to possess in order to successfully manage classroom behaviour.

  1. Identifying appropriate behaviours that form the basis for classroom rules
  2. Systematically setting limits for inappropriate behaviour
  3. Consistently reinforcing appropriate behaviour
  4. Working cooperatively with parents and principals


In our model these points would be:

  1. Establishing expectations
  2. Designing structure, that is consequences for various behaviours
  3. Applying the reinforcement consistently and persistently


As for their Point 4, this would be part of the structure.


We would not be so controlling to state the following steps Canter prescribes for the first day in class.  He recommends the following be asserted:

  • “None of you will stop me from teaching”
  • “None of you will engage in any behaviour that stops someone from learning”
  • “None of you will engage in any behaviour that is not in your interest or the best interest of others”


It is this insistent approach that appeals to teachers who struggle with control of their class.  Canter’s warning to the students is a promise to the teacher that can’t be achieved in every case.


There are two issues here that I would disagree with granted that they are not critical.  The first is I know you can’t make anyone do anything.  This is extremely liberating for the teacher as eventually you can’t be responsible for their choices, nor should you want to be.  The second problem is, for the extreme kids that we focus on, this threat is also a challenge.


Canter strongly focuses on classroom rules which the teacher dictates.  In a broad sense this is the only difference between his approach and ours which, where ever possible the rules are made by the class (see Newsletter 96 - Creating Structure - 12 August 2019 for a full description of how we generate rules).  Our preference on the class designing the rules is that this develops their self-reliance rather than the expectation that they must comply.  To develop unquestioned obedience is a direct threat to democracy and it is possible for rules to be developed with a sense of representative ownership by the students.


To finalise this short examination of Canter’s Assertive Discipline the concept is dependent on the teacher taking charge of the classroom, this is at the heart of its popularity.  Some scholars have likened the teacher to the alpha male in a wolf pack.  Someone who controls behaviour, directs activities and ensures the well-being of the pack.  As far as a wolf pack is concerned this alpha position is always envied and up and coming challengers are constantly emerging and the right to have the power is fought over.  Control is power over others and this is inappropriate for the development of our society.


Further, for every alpha there is an omega wolf, one who lacks the qualities that would allow them to challenge and really has no power.  In a democratic society this is not such a problem, we are all of equal value we just have different abilities.


Canter puts a great deal of emphasis on the use of I-messaging, that is when he is correcting student’s behaviour he is directing the student on what to do.  This can be at the level we describe in boundary setting:

  • When you … - describe the students behaviour
  • I feel … - let them know the impact their behaviour is having on you

In our model:

  • Because … - explain the impact the behaviour is having on their environment, that is the effect on others and their own learning.

In Canter’s model this last step is:

  • I would like … tell the student what to do.


When students are not complying, maybe they are angry or distressed or just defiant then Canter will use statements like ‘I understand’ or ‘that’s not the point’ to get some movement towards compliance.   What he advocates is that you should take control. So when a student doesn’t want to do an assignment you would say something like ‘I understand you do not like this subject but it will be examined in the test’ or ‘that’s not the point, you need to understand this’.  However, this verbal intervention has a limit and non-compliance soon attracts a behaviour check.  We discuss these issues in Newsletter 144. Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult times (30 November 2020).


There is much to admire about Canter’s model however, the teacher needs to be of a certain personality type to make it work most of the time.  To do this you must be an assertive teacher by nature.  There are a range of personality types in teaching and all need to introduce into the classroom what both Canter and us insist on and that is expectations and structure and these are to be administered consistently and persistently.  Unlike Canter we hold that the most important characteristic is a relationship between the student and the child that is equal in importance.  The difference is in their responsibilities.

Posted by: AT 05:21 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 14 2022

Modifying Behaviour - To What?

I guess there is an accepted assumption we all make when we consider introducing programs that are designed to modify children’s behaviour because how they are acting is not working for them.  And that’s fair enough, the purpose of these essays is to help teachers deal with those kids who are failing at school because of their dysfunctional behaviour.  We know what we want them not to do but if we want this to become a decision that comes from them, from their beliefs then this is a more profound undertaking and this should only be done in a way that empowers the child.

Of course, we want them to function in the world, teach them how to behave in certain situations but at a deeper level what do we want their basic ‘skill set’ to be?  When you think about this you realise modifying behaviour is really modifying their sense of self.  Remembering that behaviour is just a method of getting our needs met and those kids who are acting in a dysfunctional manner are satisfying their needs.

Take for instance a scenario where a student helps another complete a task.  That student may be motivated to improve the other’s learning for ethical reasons, they want them to succeed.  On the other hand that ‘other student’ may have access to something the students wants and so the help is more trans-actual, the drive is for an overt, selfish reason.  It is the motivation to act that exposes the core make-up of the student. 

For the children on which we focus, those who have experienced neglect and/or abuse we understand they have a ‘damaged’ sense of self.  This is best described as having a sense of self that exposes a core of toxic shame (see Newsletter 14 – Toxic Shame – 03 July 2017).  I see no ethical impediment in helping that child change such an unhealthy sense of self.  But the ethical question I have to ask myself is what do I want the child’s sense of self to be?

This forces us to face a couple of issues before we make such a decision.  The first is to consider the environment in which they live.  Most of these kids live in dysfunctional environments and those behaviours we want to eradicate are really functional in their homes.  By imposing what we consider functional may jeopardise their security at home.  So we have a conundrum.  Taking away their existing behaviours might be good for the classroom but might be very risky for them ‘at home’ where they are getting the best they can with the behaviours they have. 

However, teaching them to act other ways to suit different contexts, a type of ‘code switching’ allows them to succeed in both settings. This choice of behaviour to suit the setting is used by successful people.  Teaching the kids can behave one way at school and another at home can later be applied throughout their life, it empowers them to behave to get their needs met.

The goal of intervention should never be to change the child but to empower them and then let the child understand they have the power to change if they want to. To teach them additional behaviours that will let them meet their needs in this new environment gives them choice.  This is a difference between this approach and what has been the conventional method of dealing with students who have severe behaviours.

I have thought long and hard about this problem and investigated all the popular psychology movements such as the positive psychology movement with their list of character strengths and virtues and American psychologist Ken Sheldon’s personalities and traits.  There has been a rationalisation of these works and there has been a movement to distil personality characteristics into 'The Big Five' Personality Traits’ (for a detailed description of my investigation into this issue I have down-loaded Chapter 4 of my book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ in the resource section of our webpage).  However, this work is focused on what exists now, I want to describe what I would want any changes to these kid’s sense of self to lead to and I arrived at the following:

Sense of Self

A strong independent sense of self allows the students to approach work with confidence and purpose.  This is achieved by learning how to act when confronted with new problems in life.  This requires strong boundaries which allows us to apply the following approach to problem solving. When you feel the stress of being ‘out of control’ you should do the following:

  • Stay calm
  • Ask yourself the following questions:
    • What is really happening?  This is not always obvious.
    • Who is responsible?
      • If it’s me then I have to change my behaviour
      • If it someone else I have to decide what I want and act in a way to get those needs met in the long term.  It is critical that you understand you can’t make anyone change unless they want to!
  • Then act to address the stressful situation

The Reality of Self

The reality is that you are:

  • Special - You have unique abilities that can improve your life and/or the life of others
  • Precious - You are alive, this will not always be the case so don’t waste a moment.
  • Unique - There is no one alive that is like you so do not compare your ‘worth’ with others 

This is critical that you accept this and also understand everyone else is special, precious and unique, we have this in common and this fact should be celebrated!


We are social beings and get our needs met more effectively when we behave within a community.  Successful integration depends on us developing appropriate social skills for the community in which we operate.  Rejection from the community is life threatening so knowing how to get on with others is imperative.   


We have to realize that we make our choices about how to act to get our needs met and in the end it is our responsibility to do just that.  However, we need others but understand that no one exists just to serve us so understanding that our actions can harm others and we must be accountable for that!


Autonomy differs from sense of self in that healthy adults conduct themselves in their community in a manner that respects the needs of others while defending their own authentic self.  Autonomy is a fundamental trait that allows you to be the author of your own life.  You can take an internal attitude towards where you want to go and what you want to do. 


A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction.  Successful people have aligned their life’s purpose with their distinct sense of who they are.  They have long term goals that has been reduced to manageable short-term goals.  Of course, it is usual and appropriate for aspirations to change over time but for each day to be moving toward a successful future.

Developing such a set of core beliefs is not easy especially for the kids whose life has acted against them ever achieving such a healthy sense of self.  The way we can help them move towards such a state is using those techniques we come back to all the time.  Have high expectation of how they should behave in your class, provide a meticulous structure that reinforces those expectations and deliver this with a genuine acceptance of the child which will allow the development of those strong relationship that underpins all our work!

Posted by: AT 08:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 24 2022

Why Changing Behaviour is so Difficult

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

The Problem of Dealing with Autistic and Neuro-Diverse Students

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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


She presents a model she refers to as SEAT:

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


Teaching is hard and teaching students who:

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

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


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

Posted by: AT 11:29 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 27 2022

Avoiding Manipulation Part 2: Developing Boundaries

In the previous Newsletter we discussed techniques students use to avoid the stress associated with facing the painful impact from stressful, negative consequences that are imposed as a result of their behaviour.  As pointed out the continual use of such behaviours can easily become addictive, that is they are the ‘go-to’ response in times of rejection or psychological pain.


There are many types of addictions described in the previous essay, substance, activities and people.  That is when we can’t endure the pain of the situation we will habitually access one of these types of protection from the stress.  The objective of this work is to focus on ‘people addiction’ as this describes the behaviours used to manipulate the stressor.  However, a brief account of ‘substance ‘addiction’ and ‘activities addiction’ will be given.


Substance addiction is probably the most commonly portrayed of these addictions.  This is when the individual alters their emotional state with the use of chemicals.  The popular media focuses on those illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine but the more common legal substances such as alcohol and the multitude of other substances such as anti-depressants and food, either binge eating or anorexia are used to avoid the pain.  Dealing with these addictions is not the occupation of a teacher.


Activity addiction is another way of dismissing stressful situations.  This is when you take your mind off the presenting problem by focusing on an alternative behaviour.  By doing this you become too busy to deal with the current stressful situation.  This works in the short term but like all addictions it never prepares the person in a way that will allow them to address the same or similar situations in the future in a healthy manner.


Types of activities that are used by children to escape the stress are often the latest craze.  Things like computer games or collecting cards. Sport is another common distraction, either participation or supporting a particular team.  Adults will also access these activities perhaps becoming ‘mad’ football fans.  One addiction that is difficult to acknowledge is an addiction to work.  The workaholic is not easily identified as an addict, despite the descriptive name pointing that out!  In school the student that spends so much time doing their work will most likely be rewarded with complements and good grades.  The teaching workaholic will have the same outcome with being recognised as competent and likely being promoted. 


It must be remembered that these activities are the walls of protection and although they keep the stress out in the short term these behaviours eliminate the ability to get their nurturing needs met!


The addiction we will focus on in this Newsletter is the people addiction.  This deals with dysfunctional responses to the stressful interaction between individuals, specifically the teacher and the student!  The underpinning concept behind the model presented below is that, when students are stressed by the behaviour of the teacher they will attempt to manipulate that teacher to change their behaviour.  This is a case where, if the presenting environment clashes with the set of beliefs disrupting homeostatic equilibrium, instead of modifying beliefs the student attempts to change the environment! 


The model recognises three types of manipulative behaviours, overt and covert control and resistance.



Overt Control

This is a case of when the teacher stresses the student that child will behave in a way that is calculated to stress the teacher so much that they will stop stressing them.  They do this by either actively physically or emotionally attacking them.  These could be threats of aggression or in extreme cases actual violence.  Emotionally, they may attempt to denigrate the teacher by making fun of them or through threatening accusations about their behaviour.  The idea is, if you stress me I will stress you even more until you give up!


Covert Control

This is a more passive attempt to avoid being stressed in the first place.  These students will do almost anything to eliminate the need for the teachers to actually stress the student.  For the teacher, this approach is not threatening, they do what you want.  However, when they act this way solely to avoid being challenged they are using a type of ‘walled’ behaviour and walls may stop the stress but they deny the student getting their legitimate needs met.


Resistive Behaviour

These students really won’t engage in the classroom.  When they are challenged they withdraw.  While ever they resist the behaviours of the teacher or others they simply disengage.  These students like others use this behaviour as a protective wall and by so they deny themselves the opportunity to grow, getting their needs met!  They employ tactics like refusing to intellectually engage in class activities and physically becoming isolated in the room or playground.  They generally refuse to participate in the faulty belief that if they don’t they can’t be hurt!


Of course, unless we learn to deal with stress then these addictive behaviours to avoid stress continue throughout life.  Unfortunately, there are too many teachers who use these strategies to deal with the stress students impose on them.  The following diagram illustrates the ways these occur.

As can be seen, the methods of avoidance are so similar however, the impact on the students is more harmful because children are in the process of developing their belief systems and if you recall a recent Newsletter (Number 204 - The Importance of Personal Presentation - It's not what you do but how you do it – 13 June 2022), the students will adopt the behaviours presented by the teacher, reinforced because of the modelling and the qualities of mirror neurons.  A quick summary is as follows:


Overt control

These teachers are authoritarian bullies and because of their position they most often succeed in getting the students to cease being a threat to their authority.  By frightening the students the resulting anxiety detracts from the potential learning that could be available.


Covert Control

These teachers attempt to be ‘friends’ with the students, they are reluctant to challenge them in case they retaliate creating the feared stress in the teacher.  These teachers will put-up with low level, dysfunctional behaviours which makes the classroom unpredictable.  Perhaps more damaging is that they don’t teach the students responsibility.  They will accept substandard work, late submission and even pardon lack of completion.  The result is the children do not acquire that self-reliance and the relationship between effort and results.



These teachers will not properly follow the instructions of the department and the school.  In secondary schools they will dismiss any whole school approach to welfare with comments such as ‘I teach science, I’m not a social worker’.  My pet observation was always in staff meetings, especially those held in the library, these teachers would sit up the back and grab a book to look at while school policies were discussed.  Of course their lack of commitment put their students at a distinct disadvantage!


So what to do, as stated in the last Newsletter the use of boundaries will help teachers and students learn to deal with stress rather than protect themselves.  We discussed what boundaries are but the following presents techniques that help you create them. 


The following are steps that will impose boundaries for you.  They may feel ‘artificial’ at first but eventually they will become automatic:

  1. Stay calm - when you feel yourself becoming anxious stop and try to relax.  It is important you stay ‘in the moment’.
  2. Ask yourself ‘what is really happening’ – too often what you see is a result of what is truly happening; it is not always the first thing you see.  You won’t always get this right but never jump to conclusions.
  3. Then ask who is responsible:
    1. If it is me then I must change my behaviour – that is I must learn another way to behave
    2. If its not me, then it’s the student therefore I can’t ignore the problem.  I must work out what I want to have happen and learn to make the changes to get that result.
  4. Take action -you must make an effort if you want to make a change.  Learning new behaviours is not easy you have to over-ride existing beliefs.
  5. Evaluate – after a period of time assess whether or not the stressful problem still exists.  If so assess the effectiveness of your application of your solution, perhaps you were not vigilant enough.  But if you were thorough in your efforts then go through these steps again.

The approach above does require some cooperation from the students but when dealing with very dysfunctional students the following approach can be used.  This consists of a directive and the description of consequences both of compliance and defiance:

  1. If you … (clearly describe the offending behaviour)
  2. I will … (outline the consequences)

In some extreme cases the student’s behaviour is beyond the ability of a classroom teacher and a main stream school and in these cases the system should provide assistance!


Interactions in the classroom will always generate some clashes between the teachers’ beliefs and that developing of the student.  The use of addictive, walls of behaviours will reduce the resulting stress in the short term however, the same or similar threatening situations will re-emerge.  If you take the time to learn how to deal with these issues when they arise, you will have a behaviour that will deal with that problem, you eliminate the stress in future incidents.  However, don’t get too comfortable life continually throws-up different problems to face.  Using the process of boundaries will help you navigate your way through this changing but always interesting life!

Posted by: AT 07:04 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 13 2022

The Importance of Personal Presentation - It's not what you do but how you do it.

In a recent Newsletter we discussed the importance of the way you present yourself to the school community, particularly your class (See Newsletter 202 - Survival Tips for Casual Teachers – 30 May 2022).  In this essay we will expand on how you present yourself to your students as this is critical in controlling their emotional state.  It is often suggested that 93% of the emotional content of any communication is conveyed through non-verbal cues, these being facial expression, body language and tone of voice.  The percentage may be in dispute but it is true that the feelings you have towards a student will not be conveyed by the words you use but how you deliver them.

This is so important when you are correcting the behaviour of highly disruptive students who have a history of abuse and/or neglect.  Your use of these non-verbal cues will go a long way in deciding if you maintain a positive relationship whilst delivering unpleasant consequences.

This opinion goes beyond ‘common-sense’ it is underpinned by neurological knowledge.  We are social creatures and how we are accepted in our community determines our safety and security.  Our survival depends on how we can carefully convey to others what we want and also understand the intentions of others when they are dealing with us.  The rich array of neurons that exist in the brain to support the various functions includes a specialised set called mirror neurons. 

Essentially, mirror neurons are intimately involved in our movements. At the basic level mirror neurons fire when we generate a physical action.  They also fire the same neurons in ourselves when we watch an action taken by someone else.  This helps us to imitate that action thus providing the proof why the demonstration of desired behaviours to students is so important.  More than this they allow us to experience the associated emotions and predict the possible outcomes that will likely follow any observed behaviour.  They are responsible for myriad of other sophisticated human behaviour and thought processes.


At the University of Parma in 1996, 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.   These researchers placed electrodes in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions. They recorded electrical signals from a group of neurons in the monkey's brain while the monkey was allowed to reach for pieces of food, so the researchers could measure their response to certain movements.


In a break in the experiment one of the research team reached out to pick-up a piece of food.  The research subject had remained connected to the recording device and to their amazement they found the same neurons fired as they did when the monkey picked up the food themselves. This explained the link between imitation and learning, not only skills but also importantly the emotional intention of others. (To provide more detail about mirror neurons in the Resource section of our webpage I have included a copy of a Chapter from my book - The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching, 2017. Published by Xlibris and availably on Amazon).


Our focus has always been on those kids who, because of their history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their early childhood abuse and/or neglect are hyper-sensitive to the emotional signals given by adults in authority.  They really struggle to accurately interpret the message the teacher is sending particularly when they are about to receive a negative consequence.  Another feature of mirror neurons is that they not only fire when they perceive actions they infer a purpose on that action.  How they predict what will happen is significantly influenced by their assessment of the teacher’s emotional state and that message will come almost entirely from the non-verbal content of the communication.


There is much available regarding non-verbal messaging on the internet and the following is a brief summary focusing on the broad categories of tone of voice, body language and facial expression.


Tone of Voice

It’s true, especially for the dysfunctional kids, the way you say things has more impact than what you say.  The emotional content is interpreted long before the cognitive substance of that message.  And your emotional state will be communicated through your voice.  The tone you use must match the attributes of the message you are delivering.  If the message is about a serious issue then your voice should convey that sentiment, if it’s good news then your tone would be more up-lifting.  Of course, the tone must match your facial expressions.


Not everyone has good control over this feature of communication and the following tips may help:

  • If you speak with a slightly lower volume level you will be seen as having more ‘authority’.  However, too soft and the students might not hear you.  If you have a voice that is too loud then you will come across as being abrasive.  Most importantly the class or individual must hear you!
  • The pace of your communication is another way you can manipulate the message.  If you slow-down a fraction it projects a sense of confidence which will be conveyed to the children.  It also gives them the opportunity to absorb the message.  If it becomes too slow they will disengage and conversely if too quickly you will appear to be anxious and nervous.

It is not easy to change the way you speak but mastering the art of giving a message with the right emotional content is the hallmark of a great teacher.


Body Language

How you hold yourself projects an impression on those who observe you.  In general terms if you present an ‘open’ posture, that is stand up straight, feet firmly planted on the ground and chin up this projects to the students that you are friendly, open and confident.  They will be willing to trust you. 


However, if you present a ‘closed’ posture, slumped forward, hands in your pockets or just lazing in a chair at the front of the room you project an unfriendly even hostile persona which will make the students anxious. 


The use of your hands is an important indicator of your personality.  Sometime ago, as a new principal I was sent to a workshop on communication.  At this venue the presenter emphasised that we needed to coordinate our hand gestures with what we were talking about.  These days, when I watch TV shows like the Drum, where professional ‘talking heads’ give their opinions I cringe when some of them flap their hands about as if conducting the whole speech.  There needs to be some hand movement otherwise you will appear wooden but too much either makes you look anxious or you just distract your audience. 


If you touch you face or hair too much you really will look either nervous or disinterested in what you are saying.


Facial Expression

Facial expressions are really tied to emotions.  There has been plenty of research that confirms that our facial expressions communicate our emotional state and more importantly if you think about the qualities of our mirror neurons they also project to the audience the intensions of the behaviour those emotions will drive.


There is strong evidence of seven universal emotions that are conveyed through our facial appearances.  These are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. 


The eyes are often described as the mirrors of our soul but it is the mouth that provides the major clue about our emotional state.  The following are ways the mouth does this:

  • Pursed Lips – the tightening of the mouth indicates a level of disapproval or disgust
  • Lip Biting – this will convey a feeling of anxiety or stress
  • Covering the Mouth – this is an attempt to hide your emotions from others.  This indicates a lack of trust both ways.  You don’t trust yourself to be authentic and the audience will not trust you because they will conclude you are not honest.
  • Turned-Up or Turned-Down Lips – The direction the lips go has a direct correlation with your emotional state.  If they are up, you’re smiling then you are happy.  Down, frowning you are emotionally ‘down’.  It is very difficult to have a turned-up smile on your face when you are angry at a student; that smile will be so obviously false!


Eye contact is also important.  This varies on whether you are dealing with an individual student or the class.  Looking at others captures their attentions but like hand gestures there is a balance.


If you are dealing with a single student eye contact is a real challenge.  If you are discussing a behaviour issue, you may be delivering an unwanted consequence then eye contact should not be too intense.  A rough guide would be about 60% of the time.  BUT, if the student is really damaged, eye contact is really difficult for them and I’ve even found it better if I sit or stand beside them so I don’t set them off. 


When talking to the whole class your eyes should be constantly scanning the room.  However, if there are particular students whose attention you need then hold eye contact with them for about three to five seconds then move on.  If you really do need to get that student’s attention still move away but come back relatively quickly.


Throughout these Newsletters predominantly considering how teachers help those students whose behaviour disrupts their learning and that of others, we have emphasised the importance of the level of stress a student experiences.  This stress is a reaction to the emotional content of the environment they are experiencing at the time.  You are the teacher and providing the learning environment is your professional expertise.  This is why, to be an efficient educator you need to master the non-verbal skills outlined in this essay.

Posted by: AT 12:18 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 30 2022

Survival Tips for Casual Teachers

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


Arrival – First Day

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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



The Classroom

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


Finally, stay positive, remember that:

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


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

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

Message to Subscribers

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Published by Xlibris

  • Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids

Published by Austin Macauley

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


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


Thanks for your on-going support.

Marcia and John


The following is the list of previous Newsletters:


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

Newsletter 2 – Bullying and Power

Newsletter 3 - Dealing with Difficult Situations

Newsletter 4 - The Troublesome Teens

Newsletter 5 - Challenging Beliefs – Not So Easy

Newsletter 6 - The Great Lie

Newsletter 7 - True Grit

Newsletter 8 – Education the Over-Indulged and Narcistic Child

Newsletter 9 – Routine – Support for Student Expectations

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

Newsletter 11 - Self-Esteem or Self-Love

Newsletter 12 - The Intricacy of Stress

Newsletter 13 - Teaching our most Difficult Kids

Newsletter 14 - Toxic Shame

Newsletter 15 - Locus of Control

Newsletter 16 – Time Out

Newsletter 17 - Anxiety

Newsletter 18 - Teaching Practical Boundaries

Newsletter 19 - Integration of Dysfunctional Students

Newsletter 20 – Ethical Teaching – Morality in the Classroom

Newsletter 21 - Independent Behaviour Programs

Newsletter 22 - The Passive Aggressive Student

Newsletter 23 - Dealing with Difficult Students

Newsletter 24 – The Impact of Neglect

Newsletter 25 - Vacuous Shame

Newsletter 26 - Characteristics of the Abused Child

Newsletter 27 - The Silver Lining

Newsletter 28 - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse

Newsletter 29 - Effective Behaviour Management

Newsletter 30 - Education for the Future

Newsletter 31 - Common Mistakes Teachers Make

Newsletter 32 – What’s in a Name?

Newsletter 33 – Boredom

Newsletter 34 – Anger Temporary Madness

Newsletter 35 - Educational Myths

Newsletter 36 – Boredom – Mark 2

Newsletter 37 - Creating a Purpose

Newsletter 38 - Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder

Newsletter 39 – Relationships

Newsletter 40 - Emotions Direct Attention

Newsletter 41 - Dopamine

Newsletter 42 – Dopamine for Teachers

Newsletter 43 – Consequences

Newsletter 44 – Consequences not Punishment or Reward

Newsletter 45 – Taming that Difficult Class

Newsletter 46 - A Question of Choice

Newsletter 47 - At the Time – There is No Choice

Newsletter 48 - Planning for a Disaster

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

Newsletter 50 – Rejection

Newsletter 51 - Different Expressions from an Abused History

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

Newsletter 53 - Dysfunctional Behaviour to Deal with Stress

Newsletter 54 - Attention Seeking

Newsletter 55- Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder

Newsletter 56 - The Tribal Classroom

Newsletter 57 - Theory of Mind

Newsletter 58 – Transference

Newsletter 59 - The Impact of Poverty and Neglect

Newsletter 60 - Accept Lack of Empathy – Just for Now

Newsletter 61 - Let It Go

Newsletter 62 – The Danger of Praise

Newsletter 63 – Areas of Indifference

Newsletter 64 - Getting to the Truth

Newsletter 65 - Resilience

Newsletter 66 - Boundary Considerations

Newsletter 67 – Dissociation

Newsletter 68 – Childhood Trauma

Newsletter 69 – Rituals

Newsletter 70 – Poverty and Student Success

Newsletter 71 - Respecting Other’s Boundaries

Newsletter 72 – Trust – The Glue that Sustains Relationships

Newsletter 73 – Testing Tough Kids

Newsletter 74 - End of Year Recovery

Newsletter 75 - Tips for Emotional Encounters

Newsletter 76 - The Impact of Language on the Behaviour

Newsletter 77 - 100 Ways to Say well Done

Newsletter 78 – Empathy

Newsletter 79 - Creativity

Newsletter 80 - A Timely Reminder

Newsletter 81 - Motivating Students

Newsletter 82 - Converting Teacher’s lessons to Intrinsic Motivation

Newsletter 83 - The Dishonourable Lie

Newsletter 84 – Malevolent - The Condemned Disability

Newsletter 85 – What are the Chances

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

Newsletter 87 - Perfectly Imperfect

Newsletter 88 – Addiction – Behaving to Avoid Stress

Newsletter 89 - Faulty Beliefs

Newsletter 90 – Mindfulness

Newsletter 91 - Beliefs

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

Newsletter 93 – Debriefing

Newsletter 94 - The Tribal Teacher

Newsletter 95 – Levels

Newsletter 96 - Creating Structure

Newsletter 97 – Student Stress

Newsletter 98 – ‘Do or Not Do’ - Yoda

Newsletter 99 - Looking After Yourself

Newsletter 100 - Recovery Time

Newsletter 101 - Sense of Self

Newsletter 102 - Sense of Self - Part 2

Newsletter 103 – Dreikurs’ Model of Behaviour

Newsletter 104 – Relatedness

Newsletter 105 - Drives and Needs

Newsletter 106 - Secondary Drives

Newsletter 107 - The Social Teacher

Newsletter 108 – Prejudice

Newsletter 109 - Another Year Over

Newsletter 110 - Sense of Self Continued

Newsletter 111 – Special Relationship

Newsletter 112 – Expectations

Newsletter 113 – Supportive Relationships

Newsletter 114 - The Importance of Emotions

Newsletter 115 – Conversations

Newsletter 116 - The Inner Critic

Newsletter 117 - Dealing with the Emotional Stress

Newsletter 118 - Developing Social Skills

Newsletter 119 – Avoiding Cabin Fever

Newsletter 120 - The Hidden Cost of on-Line Learning

Newsletter 121 – Trauma and the Environment

Newsletter 122 – Purpose

Newsletter 123. Toxic Resilience

Newsletter 124. Nature Vs Nurture

Newsletter 125. Structure

Newsletter 126.  Expectations

Newsletter 127. Pedagogy

Newsletter 128.  The Wounded Child

Newsletter 129.  Damage to the Brain

Newsletter 130.  Generating Stress

Newsletter 131.  The Complexity of Stress

Newsletter 132.  Routine

Newsletter 133.  Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse

Newsletter 134. Anxiety

Newsletter 135.  Toxic Shame

Newsletter 136. Dealing with the Exploding Kid

Newsletter 137. The Crisis Response

Newsletter 138. Personal Action in Times of Crisis

Newsletter 139. Making Matters Worse

Newsletter 140. Critical and Creative Thinking

Newsletter 141.  Be Persistently Consistent

Newsletter 142.  Creating a Calm Environment

Newsletter 143. Designing a Correction Plan

Newsletter 144. Dealing with Touching and Restraint

Newsletter 145. Theory of Mind

Newsletter 146. Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult Times

Newsletter 147. Prejudice

Newsletter 148.  Starting Off on the Right Foot

Newsletter 149. Beliefs

Newsletter 150. Structure in a Crisis

Newsletter 151. The ‘Gas-Light’

Newsletter 152.  Getting to the Truth

Newsletter 153.  Music

Newsletter 154.  Authenticity

Newsletter 155.  Supporting a Sense of Self

Newsletter 156.  Mono-Cultures

Newsletter 157.  Tips for Teaching Teenagers

Newsletter 158.  The Teens – a Time for Specific Change

Newsletter 159.  A Time for Reflection

Newsletter 160. Dealing with the Angry Ant

Newsletter 161. Dealing with Justified Anger

Newsletter 162.  Trauma Informed Teaching

Newsletter 163.  Restorative Justice - Proceed with Care

Newsletter 164.  The pursuit of Purpose

Newsletter 165. Hidden Types of Abuse

Newsletter 166.  Changing Behaviour

Newsletter 167.  Just Say No

Newsletter 168.  Achieving Excellence as a Teacher

Newsletter 169.  Indirect Bullying

Newsletter 170.  The Queen Bee

Newsletter 171.  Girls – They are Different

Newsletter 172.  Rewards and Punishments

Newsletter 173. Competence and Warmth

Newsletter 174. Student Discipline – What About Welfare

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

Newsletter 176.  Multi-Tasking

Newsletter 177.  Emerging from Lockdown

Newsletter 178. Dealing with a Crisis

Newsletter 179.  Dealing with Student Anxiety

Newsletter 180.  Oppositional Defiance Disorder

Newsletter 181.  Modern Teenage Challenge

Newsletter 182. Teaching Truth Seeking

Newsletter 183. Creating Policy for Student Wellbeing

Newsletter 184.  Supporting a Sense of Self

Newsletter 185. Am Ignored but Vital Workload

Newsletter 186.  Beware of Despair

Newsletter 187.  Time for revision

Newsletter 188.  Acquisition and Memory of Behaviours 

Newsletter 189.  The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour

Newsletter 190.  Early Childhood Modelling

Newsletter 191. The Importance of Stress

Newsletter 192. Early Childhood Trauma

Newsletter 193.  Dealing with the Impact of Early Childhood PTSD

Newsletter 194.  Boundaries - The Point of Contact

Newsletter 195. Dysfunctional Boundaries

Newsletter 196.  Identifying Source of Dysfunctional Behaviour

Newsletter 197.  Healthy Boundaries

Newsletter 198.  Stress

Newsletter 199.  Toxic Stress and Trauma

Newsletter 200. Toxic Shame Revision









































































































































































































Posted by: AT 09:43 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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!

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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