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Tuesday, February 28 2023

Stress = Life

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Posted by: AT 09:08 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Sunday, January 29 2023

A Fresh Start

The title of this first Newsletter for 2023 has been chosen for two reasons, it is the start of a new school year and the beginning of the next sequence of essays.  In the last Newsletter, I asked for feedback and if readers found them useful.  I was pleased with the response and motivated to improve the quality of up-coming additions.


One theme that came through in the replies was that some schools distribute each essay to their staff and one respondent used them as the basis of a professional conversation for the week.  With this in mind I am attempting to present the content of each essay in a sequence that builds on the previous one.  There will be times when I might address a specific issue that is topical at the time but by building the information in a rational way should make these more useful as a staff development resource.  This progression will generally follow the thread that goes through my last book ‘ Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ details of which are on the resources page of our web page Frew Consultants Group (  Here can also find a blog section that holds all the previous 223 Newsletters.  An up-dated list of these Newsletters is posted in the resources section of our web page.


The series of upcoming Newsletters will be organised roughly following the sequence outlined below.

  • Description of the brain
  • Development and the impact of the environment on the function of the brain
  • Abuse, types of abuse and the consequences of early childhood trauma
  • Shame- the underlying dynamic of shame is fear of rejection
  • Dysfunctional Behaviour – identifying how these manifest in the classroom
  • Homeostasis how the need to maintain this in equilibrium drives our behaviour
  • The ‘Protecting’ and ‘Seeking’ responses
  • Boundaries
  • Providing strategies for teachers to manage dysfunctional behaviours
  • The use of time-out and levels to modify behaviour
  • Providing structure, expectations and relationships
  • Changing school culture

Within each subtitle there will most often be more than one Newsletter.


The release of this Newsletter coincides with the start of what I believe will be a most challenging year.  Regardless of the political discourse that occupies the media it is undeniable that teachers are working in atrocious conditions.  The two factors that are always cited are the current teacher shortages and the crushing administrative demands.  These are real and very significant.  Those of you who have followed my journey know that I believe there is a third issue, student behaviour which is a significant challenge for teachers and an increasing one for teachers who work in low socio-economic communities and comprehensive secondary schools.  Until recently, almost every staff survey conducted placed student behaviour as the school’s biggest challenge.


John Hattie, who was worshiped in the early part of this century pointed out the significance of the absence of disruptive student as the second most impactful characteristic of successful student learning, the first being the student’s ability to self-evaluate.  The third was the classroom environment and it is obvious that the second and third category were interdependent.  Hattie is no longer held in such high regard and has ironically become a scapegoat for the current condition of public schools.


Why I say ironic scapegoat is because Hattie capitulated and supported the politicians, bureaucrats and academics who latched onto the forth characteristic of successful learning and that was the quality of the teacher.  By ignoring the problem of student behaviour and focusing on the teacher those in power had someone to blame for the failure of the education department; teachers became the scapegoats!  You only have to listen to any news report, any proposed T&D, and comments from the academics or politicians and they will say we are going to increase the quality of the teaching service.  This is an appalling insult to the thousands of quality teachers who are already in the system.


When we talk to teachers and executives of our schools they freely acknowledge that student behaviour is still an issue but gets no attention from the contemporary authorities.  These Newsletter may help address these problems without required paper work nor cost that is associated with programs like Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  Also, we are always available to help supplement the information we present.


If you have colleagues, either teachers or schools you know who struggle with student behaviour it would be a good time to get them on-board as we are about to begin a fresh start on the examination of this most difficult field.


So, welcome back we look forward to another year.

Posted by: AT 11:05 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 31 2022

Emotional Stupidity

Back in the mid 90’s I was working as principal of a school for students with severe behaviours, in fact they had to have the diagnosis of conduct disorder or oppositional defiance to be enrolled.  It was in this time Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book ‘Emotional Intelligence – Why it Matters More than IQ’ came out.  Unless you read the book you would get the superficial message of the book was something like ‘trust your instincts when in a difficult situation’.  I will give a brief formal description of emotional intelligence below but I really think the underpinning message is trust your emotions!


Almost every day I witnessed the emotional turmoil students in my care have them make the types of behaviour decisions that ruined their time in mainstream school.  At that time I felt someone needed to write another book with a title like “Emotional Stupidity – Why IQ is not a Consideration’.  I still think there is a call for such a book.


So, what is emotional intelligence?  The most common definitions can be summed up by Wikipedia as being ‘the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions’.   This ability is referring to the management of both your own emotions and those of others.  The elements that define emotional intelligence are:

  • Self-awareness – understanding how your behaviour impacts on others
  • Self-regulation – having strong boundaries that allow you to stay relatively calm
  • Motivation – having the drive to solve conflicts
  • Empathy – understanding and having compassion for the other(s) circumstances
  • Social skills – being able to engage with others in a positive way


My problem with the concept of emotional intelligence is that it makes the unrealistic assumption that we all have a strong positive sense of self.  The evidence for the existence of emotional intelligence is the correlation between characteristics of successful people and the elements outlined above.  I would argue that the characteristics of successful people depend on the environmental conditions of early childhood.  This is no form of intelligence it is just the luck of the draw.


Children who have been abused and/or neglected in early childhood develop a sense of self that reflects their environment.  The emotional elements of these kids is the mirror opposite of those that define emotional intelligence:

  • Lack of any self-awareness – Any self-awareness these children have is that they are worthless.  They experience what I describe as toxic shame (see Newsletter 114 - ‘Toxic Shame’ - 03 July 2017); they don’t think they make mistakes they believe they are a mistake!
  • Inability to self-regulate – In functioning families, when a small child hurts themselves, physically or emotionally they are soothed, held and reassured.  This external regulation is learned and these kids learn to regulate themselves.  On the other hand in an abusive family, when the child is hurt they are at best ignored but all to often told to ‘grow up’ or ‘stop that crying’ or ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’!  When you see these kids in your classroom you will notice how they take so much more time to settle after they have been provoked!
  • Un-motivated – Because of their toxic sense of self they have learned not to try; why would they?  Since early childhood they have had the belief of being unworthy and this has been reinforced by their significant adults so why try.  Further, the behaviours they do seek to do are those that will protect them from further pain.  They believe they do not deserve nor do they think they have the ability to succeed.
  • No ability to empathise – The fifteen criteria that define Conduct Disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) almost all describe the behaviour of someone who has no empathy.  These characteristics are:
    • Aggressive behaviour toward others and animals
    • Frequent physical altercations with others
    • Use of a weapon to harm others
    • Deliberately physically cruel to other people
    • Deliberately physically cruel to animals
    • Involvement in confrontational economic order crime- e.g., mugging
    • Has perpetrated a forcible sex act on another
    • Property destruction by arson
    • Property destruction by other means
    • Has engaged in non-confrontational economic order crime- e.g., breaking and entering
    • Has engaged in non-confrontational retail theft, e.g., shoplifting
    • Disregarded parent's curfew prior to age 13
    • Has run away from home at least two times
    • Has been truant before age 13

In summary the DSM – 5 concludes with the following qualifier ‘Limited prosocial emotions, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, callousness, unconcerned about performance, shallow or deficient affect’


Teaching those students who have missed out on a nurturing childhood is difficult.  We have to understand that the significance of the emotional content of any decision-making increases proportionately to the level of stress experienced.  The following diagram shown below illustrates this phenomena.  This was first published by Bruce Perry well known expert on the effect of early childhood trauma.  This shows that as the student becomes more aroused their mental state moves from being able to consider abstract choices for their behaviour on to being completely overwhelmed and being unable to do anything other than behave in the manner they acquired in early childhood. 

Their emotional state overpowers any cognitive consideration which is only really available when the child is in a state of calm; a condition rarely experienced for these children.

This inability to control the emotional side of their ‘intelligence’ is the reason the myriad of cognitive interventions that have been introduced in our schools to deal with dysfunctional behaviour fail.  This is not emotional ‘stupidity’ on their part it is more like an emotional disability.

By understanding this you will appreciate the approach we advocate when supporting these kids in our classrooms.  We need to provide a calm, inclusive learning environment that has well defined structure, understood expectations and carried out with strong positive relationships at least between the teacher and the student!

Posted by: AT 06:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 15 2022

Fiduciary Relationships

Fiduciary: an adjective ‘involving trust, especially with regards to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary’.


In our model of a complete learning environment (see below) all the components are important but the one that holds everything together is relationships.  As research shows

this view is held by all serious educators:

  • Teachers who support a student’s autonomy tend to facilitate greater motivation, curiosity and desire for challenge.
  • Teachers higher in ‘warmth’ tend to develop greater confidence in students
  • Students who believe their teacher is a caring one tend to learn more
  • Positive relationships enhance social, cognitive and language development
  • Students feelings’ of acceptance by teachers are associated with emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement in class

In fact, the greatest amount of variance in student achievement is accounted for by the quality of the teacher and student relationship.

Although we may all agree on the importance I would find it hard to recall any time in my professional training where reference to relationships went any deeper than to concede it’s importance.  There is an assumption we all know what constitutes a good relationship. 


If pressed, I expect we would all describe a relationship in terms of an association, a connection, bond or interaction between your ‘self’ and others.  Further, healthy mature relationships accept a level of equity, there is a balance of related power.  There is respect for each-others’ independence but a willingness for each to compromise within certain boundaries.


The significance of any relationship depends on how close the participants are to each other.  The second illustration presents the expanding levels of importance to the person represented as the ‘self’.  This is the critical phase in the development of healthy relationships.  Your ‘self’ is established in early childhood, it is the beliefs we have about our person that is based on the remembered experiences.  It goes without saying those children who are raised in dysfunctional, abusive or neglectful families will have a damaged sense of ‘self’ which will influence their ability to establish healthy relationships in the future.  To have a healthy sense of ‘self’ that you can take to any relationship you must have an honest sense about your beliefs and emotions.


The next level, which is with an intimate other is the place this early childhood damage is inflicted.  Tragically it is the intimate relationship that is the most powerful, which in a healthy bond is rewarding but for the destructive one the power is damaging and that injury becomes hard-wired into the child’s personality.  To have a healthy relationship you must treat the other with honesty and reveal your emotions, for damaged kids this is extremely challenging and, if in that toxic environment outright dangerous.


The next level is between the ‘self’ and peers or acquaintances.  This developmental stage takes place when the child begins to expand their interactions with others, this may be at pre-school or with families.  This is a level away from the need to completely share your inner secrets, this is where the value of boundaries begins to offer protection.  Friends and acquaintances should not have that intimacy but it a place where you share opinions, ideas and decisions you might make.  This level of interaction is difficult for damaged kids, they have no idea of how much to reveal or in fact to reveal anything becoming extremely secretive.


The final level of relationships is with strangers, those people who we may know at a superficial level or we meet at a function.  The discussions are often referred to as ‘small talk’ and that just about sums the level of personal disclosure you should offer.  You can probably remember some interactions when a stranger tells you their life story with all the intimate details.  That is a sign that they have not developed the boundaries that are so important to relationships.


So, what’s with fiduciary relationships?  The relationships I have described above are what I would call transactional relationships, that is they are a shared interaction for the benefit of both participants and is only possible between two members who have developed those healthy skills. 


Fiduciary relationships are generally referred to as those in financial or legal arrangements where one of the individuals places their trust in the other who has a position of power, such as legal expertise to look after them.  That person, with that authority must act with the sole purpose of benefitting the other.  Teachers have that same responsibility towards their students.


In the hectic conditions experienced in difficult classrooms it is easy to forget this responsibility.  Teachers who have retreated into their ‘self’ become inauthentic, they:

  • Ignore those things for which they are responsible, avoiding further stress
  • Put themselves above the student
  • Fail to deliver consequences for behaviour, positive and negative
  • Take the student’s behaviour personally


As I pointed out earlier, the quality of a relationship one can have with others depends on the relationship you have with your ‘self’.  Too often we are victims of our own flawed beliefs, we interpret the students behaviour through previous experiences and this can cloud our judgement.  If we acknowledge the potential for us to interpret the situation based on our suspicions we can adjust our understanding by making our decisions based on the real world not our internal world!

This is the essence of a fiduciary relationship, you make decisions based on your expert understanding of the ‘real world’ situation and act in a way that advances the growth of your student.  There has been a whole industry built on the ‘study’ of what constitutes quality.  However, I contend that there are four fundamental requirements never truly acknowledged in these descriptions.  These are the characteristics of the teacher’s authentic understanding of their ‘self’ which allows them to develop functional relationships with their students.  These are being:

  • Self- Aware – being conscious of the impact they will have on the student involved
  • Compassionate – Have a genuine concern for the student, putting them first with humility and generosity
  • Concerned – being sincerely interested in each student’s life, their concerns, their interests and their beliefs.  Become fascinated by their life
  • Reliable – they have the ability to instil confidence in the others about their own abilities.  This makes the student feel safe and secure in their presence

These characteristics are never discussed by academics or bureaucrats when describing quality teachers but without them the thousands of words, the T&D projects, the assessments are worthless!


Relationships underpin all our endeavours including in the classroom however, that between a teacher and student is not transactional, there is no equity, the student is not responsible for the teacher’s wellbeing but the teacher has a definite responsibility for the student’s wellbeing, it’s a fiduciary relationship and we have the obligation to gain the expertise to fulfil our contract.

Posted by: AT 07:01 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 30 2021

Competence V's Warmth

At the beginning of most teacher’s careers some wise veteran will give the well-worn advice – ‘start in tough, let them know you’re in charge and then you can ease off’.  The idea is to show the kids who’s the boss in the classroom.  This advice holds some truth, you are the teacher and you should be the leader in the classroom but this ‘being tough’ can be counter-productive especially for young children and those who have a poor sense of self resulting from abuse and/or neglect.


From the very first time you meet a new class you have to be a professional teacher and this means you have to ‘teach’ the kids you have in front of you; you have to provide the optimum environment for all the children.  That environment consists of four factors that underpin a successful learning experience.  Each is important but some more than others depending on the maturity of the student. The diagram below illustrates the relationship between these factors where:

  • Pedagogy – This is the lesson content, style of delivery, assessment, etc. those things you should learn in preservice training.
  • Structure – This is the system of predictable consequences for the behaviour that is on display.  That behaviour includes the use of appropriate social skills as well application to set tasks. 
  • Expectations – In an effective classroom everyone knows what to expect, that is the standards of behaviour and work effort.
  • Relationships – Although last on this list, relationships is the most important for developing children, particularly those whose history of abuse/ neglect makes issues of trust tenuous.


(These factors are featured throughout the over 170 past Newsletters but ones for a quick review are:

  • Relationships               26February 2018
  • Creating Structure      12 August 2019 
  • Expectations                17 February 2020)


If you look at the four characteristics three would come under a broad heading of competence, pedagogy, followed by structure and expectation and the relationships represented as the emotional warmth or emotional competence between the student and the teacher.  These are shown below.

If you ask people if they had a teacher that really inspired them most, not all will be able to identify that special person that inspired them and if questioned about why you generally get answers like ‘they believed in me’!  


This connection is particularly important for younger students, they are the more in need of the teacher accepting them.  Schools do this quite well with kindergarten teachers providing a very pastoral approach to their student and as they mature the relationship between the teacher and student evolves into connection with their peers becoming more important.  By the time students are in their final years the subject competence of the teacher becomes much more important.  The following graph illustrates this point.


However, and this is important for those following our work, students who have suffered a history of abuse and/or neglect, do not follow this orderly progression.  They rarely, if ever experience a warm attachment with those who should provide it. 


Having these students in your class presents you with a great challenge.  These kids are hard to like, their behaviour often appals others and so, you need to discipline yourself to accept them unconditionally.  Applying the structure and expectations, the environmental competence allows you to do this.  These kids will ‘break the rules’ but the application of structure and expectations lets you reject the behaviour while completely accepting the child.


Even if you can do, this these kids will fight you at every turn.  They are suspicious of anyone who shows kindness; they are hypervigilant looking to avoid being disappointed by others.  Too often, people try to support them but easily give up and reject them. 


If the teacher is informed and motivated enough they can engage the student and a warm relationship can develop.  When this happens, they will follow the same trajectory as most kids, that is they may be thirteen when they start to trust but they can build from there.  The trust required can only be gained over a long period of time so you need to hang in with them for longer than they expect!


The importance of this connection between warmth and competency is not confined to the classroom, although I would say it is critical in the classroom it is considered essential in all activities where leadership is involved.  Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business School points out that workers require their leaders to be both warm and competent but the warmth must come first.  The illustration below is a modification of the model she and her colleagues presented.