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Monday, October 26 2020

Be Persistently Consistent

Throughout these Newsletters the importance of being persistent and consistent is constantly reinforced but why is this so significant when our students live in a world that is full on inconsistencies? The following should provide the answer to this puzzle.

 

Over the many, many years I worked in schools the one thing I heard teachers and principals say to students in trouble was ‘What did you think was going to happen’? or ‘think about what will happen if you do …?  To most of us these are fair questions but for very young students, and a special group of kids asking them to predict what will happen to them is a waste of time.  Young children are just learning about what happens when they ‘do’ things.  It takes time for them to build-up a repertoire of possible consequences for their actions.  Consistency helps them create a solid foundation to make predictions from and develops a sense of self-control when the connection between their actions and what happens is reinforced. 

 

However, there are another group of kids that have no idea that their behaviour is in anyway connected to what happens to them.  These are the kids who have been raised in very unpredictable, chaotic families.  This most often occurs when one or both care givers are incapable of their own consistent behaviour as a result of some significant mental illness especially if they are psychotic or the use of mind-altering drugs.  I will illustrate with the story I was told when I was first intolerant about this phenomenon.

 

When we think about what will happen when we take an action implies we can anticipate the consequence.  Now consider the following scenario; a little eight-year-old girl walks into her mother’s room – the think about action, walking into the room and contemplate the consequences that follow:

  1. It is 7.00 AM, mum is extremely hungover after being out all night and feeling very sick.  The response to the girl’s actions goes something like ‘what are you doing here’, ‘I hate you’, ‘I wish I never had you’, ‘Get out of my sight’ or ‘I wish I was dead’ and lashes out trying to hit her.  These are the consequences and they would probably be delivered using more colourful language. This is ‘Mum one’!

 

  1. The same action at 12.00 noon mum’s still not good but a bit better.  ‘What did you get up to last night’, ‘Why can’t you clean up after yourself, you are a disgrace’, ‘I know you didn’t go to bed when I told you’ or ‘how come your brother didn’t have a shower’.  Enter ‘Mum two’!

 

  1. Its 2.00 PM and mum is feeling a bit better, especially after having a couple of drinks.  ‘What video did you watch last night, was it good’, ‘I saw your friend’s mother and she said you had been playing at her place last week’ and so on.  Now we have ‘Mum three’!

 

  1. 5.00 PM, mum is planning to go out for another bout of drinking.  The girl enters the room and mum is desperate to ease her own conscience. ‘How’s my big girl’, ‘You’re like a sister to me’, I’m so lucky I can trust you to look after your brother, you’re so responsible’, ‘let’s go and get a video for you to watch and I’ll give you money so you can order a pizza’ followed by ‘do you don’t mind if I hop out for a little while to see my friends’.  This is ‘Mum 4’ one that offers some positive affection!

 

  1. 10.00 PM, mum arrives home drunk with some man in tow, someone the daughter has never seen before. ‘Here’s my little princess’, ‘This is Joe he has a car and will take us out to Water World tomorrow’, ‘I have decided next year I will take you to Disney World in the US’, Why don’t I get you that bike you have always wanted’.  Finally, ‘Mum 5!

 

The thing is, what would be the point in asking this girl what would happen if she walked into her mother’s room; she would have no idea; in the example above, I have given just five possibilities there would most certainly be more, increasing her insecurity.  For children raised in such homes the idea they have any control over their life is a fantasy – life happens to them!  They are left feeling powerless with an undefined sense of self.  This uncertainty is carried into the rest of their life including the classroom. 

 

All kids arrive at school and instinctively work out where they fit.  Healthy kids struggle at first but soon learn the ‘rules of behaviour’ and quickly settle in.  Children raised with uncertainty do not and their confusion is expressed in the following ways:

  • Feeling Less Than – It is inevitable that they see other kids getting on with each other and are secure in their behaviour.  However, our kids have no idea what to do and it’s no wonder they feel less than everyone else!
  • Vulnerable – Of course, these kids feel threatened when they are uncertain.  All their life things have happened to them regardless of what they have done.  Why would they expect anything else?  So every interaction holds the possibility of at least disappointment.
  • Guilty – For all of us the early years are the most significant in forming our sense of self.  Those early years are also a time when we are very ego-centric, that is we are the centre of the universe and therefore everything that happens is our fault!  When things go wrong it’s because they did the wrong thing and they are therefore guilty!  This, of course is a faulty belief.
  • Dependent – Understandably, these children become very frightened to make any decision for themselves; why would they?  Instead of actively living life they have to wait until things happen to them.  So, it makes sense to let others decide what to do and just follow on.  This becomes a real problem if they get into ‘friendships’ with anti-social groups which is likely to happen.
  • Out of Control – This last trait is linked to their dependence, when they are in a position where they have to make-a-decision, that decision is a wild guess acting with hope but no conviction.  No wonder they have no sense of control and this results in feelings of hopelessness and despair.

 

A major theme of our work is underpinned by the understanding that behaviour, in fact all learning depends on the environment in which the behaviour is formed.  It is obvious why these kids raised in unpredictable environments have missed out on that condition that would have developed a strong sense of self.  The bad news is that it is extremely difficult to change a person’s sense of self because it is formed early in life and becomes very stable.  The good news is that it can be changed.  By presenting a very structured persistent and consistent set of behaviours in your classroom eventually these children will develop the courage to believe their behaviour can dictate what happens to them.

Posted by: AT 06:17 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 17 2020

Anxiety

Teachers have always had to deal with anxious children from the first day at kindergarten to the last day of their tertiary entry examination and the years in between.  At a basic level anxiety is another expression of fear and the two are products of stress.  No surprise here and in other Newsletters (particularly the 19th June 2017) this is discussed in detail.  To recap stress in itself is not a bad thing, we need a level of stress to engage in the world but too much stress or distress will hinder performance especially in the classroom.

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

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

In general, anxiety is described in three ways:

  • Panic Attacks – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go.  These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion.  However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
  • Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment.  It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents. 
  • Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time.  They are children who will avoid what we may consider mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt a task.

The prevalence of anxiety at a clinical level is about 14.5% or one in seven Australians and in the majority of cases it starts in childhood.  As with all things there is a coming together of genetics and environmental conditions that lead to anxiety but as always teachers can only impact on the environment in an attempt to limit the levels of anxiety in their classroom.

So, what to do?  If you really have concerns about the level of anxiety of a student in your class then you must refer them to the school counsellor and/or tell the parents about your concerns.  The latter is not as easy because this is news for whatever reason they don’t want to hear.

However, for the day to day running of the class, when you think a child is really anxious to the level you have concerns encourage them to talk about it.  The following questions will assist both you and the child:

  • Tell me about how it feels being anxious?
  • What is making you anxious?
  • What do you fear will happen?
  • What does it stop you from doing?

A technique that can be effective is for the teacher to establish a procedure where they can give the child some space to calm down.  This is a type of ‘time out’.  In fact, you can empower the child to control his or her access to time out through some non-verbal cue.  For example, the child could move an object on their desk that signals to the teacher that they are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.  The teacher would then ask that child to go and get something from say the principal or the office.  Of course, the principal and the office would be aware of the purpose of the visit and provide that time out while the child remains in supervision.  Just the provision of this retreat can be enough to alleviate the threat of anxiety and give the child a sense of control over their fears.

However, dealing with anxiety like all classroom activities is best served when the relationships between the teacher and the students along with the students’ relationships with each other are strong and positive.  This, along with a calm and a really predictive environment will help minimize the impact anxiety will have in your classroom.

Posted by: AT 01:45 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 08 2020

Nature vs Nurture

Historically we have argued about the strongest influences on our levels of achievement as to whether it is our genetic make-up, (our nature) or our experiences (our nurture).  This has consistently shifted towards nurture as being the dominant feature.  What is important for us teachers to remember is that it is in this field we operate.

At the time of conception, a child is subject to a given genetic blue print that determines its physical self; their hair colour, how high they grow, etc.  I must point out that these pre-set specifications are not all definitive, for instance the height of a child will vary depending on their diet, etc., but in very recent times the discovery of the process of epigenetics shows that we continually alter our genes.  This is the gene’s response to their environment but of course that is part of their nurture!  For the sake of this essay the child’s genetics determines their capacity including their cognitive potential.

 As educators we are most interested in the brain and how best to interact with it to maximise the student’s learning.  Despite the Pollyanna view of many education leaders in that if we try hard enough for long enough we can all succeed, the myth of meritocracy prevails.  In reality children are born with a normal distribution of all features including their potential ‘learning achievement’.  This capacity to learn is reflected in the efficiency they can establish memories and their exposure to experiences!  That is, the child perceives a situation, tries an action and if that works ‘remember’ to do that next time the situation occurs.  When the child is motivated for whatever reason, the neurons in the brain try different combinations to generate the desired action that will result in satisfaction.  Eventually they come across one sequence that succeeds, this success motivates them to try again.  If this next attempt is also successful the pathway becomes stronger eventually being myalinated, coated with a sheath for efficiency and is stored as long-term memory – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’!   Nature is not a form of egalitarianism; some kids form these memories after a few exposures while others require a multitude of repetitions to make the connection! 

If you have taught mathematics you will have experienced this difference.  Some kids only have to be told once how to do a computation and they get it and remember it.  Sadly, I have experienced those beautiful kids who try, and try to learn for example, how to multiply fractions and by the end of the lesson they ‘get it’ but tomorrow, when they return to class ‘it’ has gone – much more work is needed for this to become a long-term memory.  This variation in the ability to form memories is expressed as a normal distribution when aggregated across the total population; most in the middle and fewer as we move away from the average.  Where any child finds themselves on this curve has nothing to do with their worth or character it is just their genetic inheritance.  So, if they are on the extreme they will have very different abilities through no fault of their own.  

But nurture is different in the sense that, unlike genetics the characteristics of the environment in which a child is raised is imposed on them.  They had no choice about who would be their primary ‘carer’.  Throughout these Newsletters we have discussed the importance of the developmental environment in the formation of behaviours (See Newsletters – ‘The Impact of Poverty and Neglect’ – 20th August, 2018 and ‘Poverty and Student Success’ - 19th November 2018).   We have focused on children who are raised in chaotic, unpredictable homes where the connection between what they try today that works will work when repeated because the parent’s response is different there is no consistent firing of networks to allow memories to develop. 

For this discussion we need to focus not on this deficit but describing the type of environment that will provide the best opportunity for the students to build a rich and varied neural architecture.  In the next few newsletters I will discuss these features in detail but for now they are:

  • Structure – all kids need to know what will happen when they act, this is how they construct their memories
  • Expectation – everyone needs to know what behaviours will create what outcomes.  This is like structure but is a shared quality between teacher and student.  We need to know what works to solve problems.
  • Lesson Content – I have proposed that in the first instance the ability to quickly create memories is a significant indicator of academic success.  The next characteristic is the assortment of those memories.  The richer and secure an environment is, the more memories are developed.  The more stored memories you have, the better equipped you are to solve new problems.

It is important to keep in mind student achievement is directly linked to:

  • Their genetic make-up
  • Their developmental environment

When considering issues around education I find a pictorial approach helps me think and draw conclusions, they are sort of thought experiments.  Below The following diagram I devised to illustrate the significance of these factors.  It is not critical to examine this for the points I want to make but I suspect some will find it helpful.

I have used an arbitrary measure for achievement (Units of Achievement) which allows for comparison.  I have chosen four students, S1, S2, S3 and S4 and they fall on either, extreme end of the curve.  In this set-up we have two born with very poor neural efficiency (S1 and S2) and they find memory formation extremely difficult.  S3 and S4 have been born with the natural ability to quickly form and retain memories.

We now take these students and raise them in environments that reflect the conditions at either end of the curve, one end extremely neglectful with no experiences that would at least stimulate the formation of memories.  At the other end these children are raised in a warm and secure family with a rich and varied set of experiences, they have plenty to form memories about.  To mix the starting points I have exposed S2 and S3 to the neglectful environment and S1 and S4 to the fertile environment.

Taking a scale of 100 Units of achievement for both nature and nurture in a perfect world a child could achieve 200 units.  For the illustration I have given them a position 5 Units inside the maximum, so for nature:

  • S1 and S2 get 5
  • S3 and S4 get 95
  • For nurture:
  • S2 and S3 get 5
  • S1 and S4 get 95

When you aggregate their scores:

  • S1, 5 + 95 = 100
  • S2, 5 + 5 = 10
  • S3, 95 + 5 = 10
  • S4, 95 + 95 = 180

It can be seen that there is a potential difference of 160 units of achievement for students, born with very poor cognitive abilities and raised in a very neglectful environment, to those who have been gifted with cognitive potential and raised in a highly supportive and fertile environment. 

The point we have to keep in mind is that no matter how a child is born it is their community, their family and school that makes a difference and it can be a big difference. None of these fictitious students had a choice in how they were born and what they were born into and their achievements at school are out of their control.  However, how the influence of the environment which impacts on the child’s achievements is the responsibility of our whole community.

It would be nice if governments recognised this reality and provided real support through pre-school, school and up to universities but we know how far this is from the reality schools face today.  So, again the task of helping those kids falls to the schools and for those with disabilities, linked to their nature it will be our public schools that bear the load.  I know we always rise to the occasion with the assets we have but just think how much more we could do if we were properly resourced?

Not doing so leads to a massive loss in human potential!

Posted by: AT 11:16 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 25 2020

The Voice

‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is Latin for ‘I think therefore I am’.  This is one of the fundamental truths of philosophy but René Descartes’ purpose was to prove our existence.  This Newsletter takes a more personal interpretation of this saying.  Our behaviour is driven by our memories and this is the thinking that underpins our actions.  For kids who have a bank of memories laid down in abusive, traumatic environments, their thoughts almost guarantee dysfunctional actions.

None of us are impervious to thoughts of failure.  We all suffer those unwanted thoughts that creep into our psyche when things are not going well.  Research has shown that 94% of people experience unwanted thoughts.  In extreme cases these intrusive thoughts are at the heart of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where the fear that something bad may happen stops sufferers from living a fruitful life.

Anxiety is at the heart of these unwanted, intrusive thoughts.  I’ve just returned from golf and standing over a three-foot putt to make a birdy guarantees my negative self-talk was in full swing.  However, my problems pale in significance when you consider the self-talk of those children who have developed early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

We have discussed some of the types of thought patterns when we examined the sense of toxic shame that is interrelated with early childhood PTSD (see Newsletters Toxic Shame, 3rd July, 2017 and Vacuous Shame, 18th September 2017).  The belief that they are faulty and not worthy drives their thought patterns and when they face a classroom task those beliefs have them failing before they start.

So, what to do?  If you were a therapist you could take the time to help them learn that these are thoughts, they exist and they are powerful but they are fuelled by the student’s own history.  But, as a teacher you won’t have the time nor the training to undertake such an intervention.  Teachers always have the wellbeing of their students at the forefront and the natural thing to do is support these kids through praise or reassurance.

Both these approaches are at best marginal in helping.  Saying things like ‘you can do it’ reinforces the importance of the task.  Daniel Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University came across a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky's in 1863 which stated: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."  Wegner conducted a test on his students asking them not to think about a polar bear while undertaking a set task.  He found that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not there hence ensuring it is.  Saying to ignore the negative thoughts ensures they will be present.

Another problem with always reassuring those students is that by doing so you are reinforcing their sense of self and providing attention they may enjoy.  You have to remember that they are comfortable with their beliefs, at least they know ‘what will happen.’  Some students embrace their sense of helplessness and become reliant on your reassurance.

Praise is not any more effective.  It may work for children under the age of seven as they take all your comments at face value.  However, by the time they are twelve they interpret your praise as a sign you think they lack the ability to do the work.  By the time they are teenagers they discount praise to such an extent they equate it with criticism (see Newsletter Dangers of Praise 12th September 2018 for discussion on praise).

We are in the business of teaching and correcting mistakes is a key tool in achieving the acquisition of new knowledge.  We have to criticise the mistakes all kids make and this is a challenge when dealing with these kids who not only know they have made a mistake, they think they are a mistake, the hallmark of toxic shame.  No matter what the problem, be it their behaviour or their classwork you can criticise their work without depreciating the student by following these steps:

  • Be specific, explain the situation as you see it; ‘this is what is wrong’.
  • Acknowledge the positive thing that the student has got right.
  • Empathise, tell them it is not easy for anyone especially the first time they try.
  • Remain calm, don’t let them see you are frustrated with their efforts even if you know they haven’t really tried.  These kids don’t fail on purpose, they fail because they expect to!
  • Keep to the task at hand.  If it is a behavioural problem don’t be side-tracked by discussing something else that happened.  Be like a broken record, this is what we have to deal with now.
  • Be specific in what you want from them.  Don’t assume they know what to do even if you have explained it over and over.  Kids get the message at different times so be patient.  Even if they are trying to annoy you remain professional.
  • Explain the outcome that will be achieved if they do as you expect.  For every action there are consequences and they need to be reminded that they are free to do whatever they want but they will not be free of the outcomes.

Working with these kids is the greatest challenge for any teacher and it is easy to let your guard down.  The following are some of the classic mistakes we can make:

  • Ignore the problem, some behaviour management theorists recommend you ignore problems but only if they are not important.  I agree but it is part of the art of teaching and depends on just how good an ‘artist’ you are.  Sometimes ignoring is just a sign you are too tired to do the hard thing. 
  • Send a double message, you say the right things but your body language and tone of voice, the non-verbal cues are sending a different message.
  • Being impatient, don’t hurry through your explanation.  This tells them you don’t care, or think they are a waste of time.  These kids need more time.
  • Talking too much or too little.  Get in and make your message as effective and efficiently as you can.  Kids, everyone gets turned-off when the ‘teacher’ goes on and on.  Give them the Goldilocks instructions, not too short, not too long but just right.
  • Keep your emotions in check, never lose your temper if you lose that you have lost the student.

I’ve called this Newsletter You’re the Voice after a hit song from John Farnham.  In our family there is a division about just how good he is but there are parts of the song that teachers can apply to this problem:

‘We have the chance to turn the pages over’
 

‘You're the voice, try and understand it’
 

‘With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better’

 

You are often these kids’ only chance, you have the power to help so be their voice until they can speak powerfully for themselves.

Posted by: AT 09:04 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 18 2020

Purpose

One of the hardest things to achieve when working with students with dysfunctional behaviour is to instil a sense of purpose that is beyond short term satisfaction.  In fact, this is a problem for teachers dealing with all students.  Any serious examination of life’s purpose leads to a philosophical exploration into what makes a ‘self’!

In the preparation of my new book, currently in print, I spent a good deal of time examining what characteristics I would like the students to have when they graduated from school.  I have posted a section from that work (Changing the Child) in the resource section of our webpage, Frew Consultants Group that will outline the conclusion I came to and what I mean by the following characteristics:

  • Sense of Self – feeling you are of value
  • Relatedness – able to navigate in your community
  • Autonomy – having a sense of competence and the confidence in that ability
  • Aspirations/Purpose – having something meaningful for which to strive

It is this last point that is the focus of this Newsletter.

At the fundamental level our purpose is to survive and reproduce, these two drives control all our behaviour (See Newsletter Drives and Needs - 11th November 2019).  When we are threatened or need something in our lives we will become stressed and behave in a way to address the situation.  Of course, the drive to survive and reproduce becomes much more complicated as we negotiate our way around our community but all behaviour can be reduced to these fundamentals.  I have also uploaded a Chapter from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ in the resource section of the web page that provides a comprehensive explanation of our tri-part brain and how this manages various levels of our integration with our communities.

The focus on aspirations, or purpose has a lot to do with the temporal consideration of our behaviour.  When confronted with a stressful situation, if we act ‘in the present’ we are looking at immediate gratification.  However, if we can project into the future and act in a way that delays our instant satisfaction for the sake of an enhanced outcome in the future we may well be better off.  This ability to resist immediate action or to act in a way that eliminates any future outcome is within our ability.  The notion that you can choose to act is vexed and I do not subscribe to the idea of free-will, not in the immediate sense. I believe what we do is determined and is controlled by the memories we have at any given time.  So, if we want to change behaviour we have to change the memories.  The hypothesis that all behaviour is driven by our memories underpins all our work.

This temporal perspective gives some insight into the significance of having a purpose. The USA’s Declaration of Independence looked to articulate the purpose of their Government and that was expressed in the following:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Those who know me will not be surprised that I’m no fan of the American system of Government and I feel the last four words of this declaration reveals its very weakness.  Happiness is about living in the present; it’s about getting what you want – now!  This approach ties the individual to external forces.  If happiness is about getting it follows that we are taking from our external world.  That’s fine while it is available but there are at least two problems.  The first is that, if we rely on the external world to provide our happiness we are at the mercy of things, and relationships that are beyond our control and control is critical for our self-esteem.

The second is more specific to the children we focus on.  Their external world has provided abuse and neglect leaving them with behaviours that encourage further rejection when they try to integrate at school.  If we want to help them we need to provide them with the tools to get a purpose that does not rely instantly on others but act in a way that will provide internal satisfaction in the future; we have to give them a future oriented meaning for their behaviour - meaningfulness.

Meaningfulness is all about looking to the future, delaying gratification for future reward.  It is a path that often forces the student to forgo happiness to pursue their future goals.  This can increase the probability of challenges and setbacks that increase their level of stress.  Living a meaningful life is not easy.

To cultivate this quality in children who have been raised in an environment that has almost completely destroyed any hope for the future is extremely challenging.  It is human nature that our expectations of our future are based on the experience of our past.  The past for these kids has provided little or no real occasions of things that have made them satisfied.

As happiness relies on ‘getting’ things or friendships, meaningfulness requires the student to ‘give’ to the outside world.  It comes from contributing to others, helping others which means forgoing your own ‘happiness’.

So, how do we develop purpose in our students, especially those who have never had hope about the future?  As I said at the beginning, this is one of the hardest qualities to instil in a dysfunctional child.

The first thing is to teach the importance of contributing to the external world be that in learning how to share, to work in charitable activities, to participate with others in a way that teaches the community set of values.  So many of our Newsletters have dealt with the structure, particularly the moral value of the environment but it is important to provide this milieu so the students can move from that foundation into the future.  This is the environment in which they will develop new memories that change their sense of self.

For purpose we need to not only focus on the environment in the classroom but also the work we ask each child to do; this is where goal setting is valuable.  When a child reaches a goal, it provides them with an intrinsic reward which is really a new memory associated with a pleasant emotion.  At first these are short-term goals; abused kids don’t have the luxury of delayed gratification and they won’t stay engaged.  If they are working on a longer project, because the class is more advanced, then set a long-term goal and break it down into bite sized short term goals that allow you to manufacture their intrinsic reward.  Setting goals is an excellent way of encouraging these kids as long as they are attainable.  If they are too hard they will give-up and you will be reinforcing their negative sense of self.

Finally, expose them to as many different experiences as you can.  We want these kids to have a meaningful life but it is not our job to tell them what to pursue, what becomes their purpose.  Give them choice and trust them, eventually to make a meaningful choice!

In my career I often heard parents lament, I just want my child to be happy.  I understand that but the pursuit of happiness is full of risks.  The reliance on ‘others’ inevitably leads to disappointment.  As a teacher it is important that you want your students to live a life with meaning!

Posted by: AT 11:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 11 2020

Trauma and the Environment

Throughout these Newsletters we have consistently maintained the premise that the majority of children who display dysfunctional behaviour at school have a history of abuse and/or neglect that is the cause of their problematic conduct (we have excluded those children whose behaviour is driven by a physical anomaly such as developmental delay, psychosis or autism).  Although we understand there is a real difference between the consequence of abuse and the resulting trauma (see Newsletter - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse – 11/06’2017) and neglect (see Newsletter - The Impact of Neglect 09/12/2017) the merger of both has often occurred for convenience and is the reflection of the reality some children experience.

This combination has long been accepted and as early as 1995 psychologists formalised the impact of both neglect and abuse through the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) index.  This index categorise sufferers based on the number of the following childhood experiences:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • mental illness of a household member
  • problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member
  • illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member
  • divorce or separation of a parent
  • domestic violence towards a parent

In the US over half of all children had suffered at least one of these events.

However, just because there is a strong propensity for these children to experience both abuse and neglect the approach to healing these kids is complex, requires very specialist training and is not nor should be the task of the classroom teacher.  However, we contend that for the classroom teacher the practice we outline is the same regardless of the complexity of the child’s history.

Since the time early childhood trauma and neglect was properly accepted as a significant cause of behavioural dysfunction there was a spate of training programs that advertised themselves under the heading of ‘trauma informed practice’.  From these, teachers were instructed to change their teaching, regarding their behaviour management practices to cater for these kids.  This was setting an impossible task for the teacher and providing no real help for the student.

For the teacher, there is at least two problems; the first I have alluded to above.  Teachers are not mental health professionals and are not equipped to deal with the specifics of the cause of the behaviour.  To modify your behaviour management practices and cater for the individual requires you to really understand the cause of the behaviour and the best way to address that cause.  For a therapist in a one-hour face to face consultation it is hard enough, to think you can do this in a classroom with 30 other kids is farcical. 

The second problem is that by making allowances for abnormal behaviour does not provide the student with the experience of ‘normal’.   

The complexity of dealing with this problem is not surprising, each kid comes with 80 billion neurons that are shaped by unique experiences.  In the broadest possible manner, we can put these kids’ inappropriate development into the following categories:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Development (PTSD) – here the child experiences an assault on their physical or psychological sense of self that evokes a stress response that is beyond their ability to cope (see reference above).  This damages the ability to deal with situations that repeat the conditions of the original abuse, or circumstances that resemble those conditions.  When the environmental conditions change the intense reaction steadily returns to normal.  These kids are often engaged at school.
  • Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD – this is the result of frequent and sustained abuse.  The abusive incidents occur at such a frequency and without warning the child finds it difficult the address any stressful situation.  They have missed those periods of normalcy, peaceful times when they could have learned some coping mechanisms for those day to day disturbances.  So, when they confront the minor stressors found in in any classroom, the traumatic memories evoked are beyond their ability to cope.
  • Deprivation/Neglect – These children have not had the exposure of experiences that allow the child to develop a rich variety of encounters that build their memories.  As teachers we understand the importance of kids being exposed to a lot of different environmental events to build a rich palate of memories.  For these kids not only do they miss out on any variety they fail to be exposed to the most necessary, fundamental experiences:  
    • Affection, this is the key to developing strong attachment and a positive sense of self.
    • Attention is required for a child to get their needs met.  When they are hungry they cry and get fed.  Of course, these strategies change as they get older but the thing is the child gets a sense of control.
    • Structure is crucial for a child to get a sense of safety.  It gives the child the ability to predict what will happen in a given situation.  After relationships, the provision of a structured classroom is crucial for all students to learn.
    • Guidance or lack of appropriate guidance never allows the students to be taught how to operate in social settings.  Little kids regard their parents as being the gold standard for behaviour.  They have nothing to compare with in their formative years.  More often than not these kids have no social skills and so they are unlikeable.

However, as teachers you are left to deal with these very needy kids without the resources you require.  We need to take our lead from the mental health experts and for any therapist dealing with these individuals the first thing they do is try to emotionally stabilise them before they can work on their problems.  Our task is to provide an environment that allows them to ‘stabilise’, this is at the core of our work.  The teacher’s essential task is to present a learning environment that has defined structure, clear expectations and supportive relationships.  These conditions must be in place before meaningful school work can be achieved.

Posted by: AT 09:27 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 04 2020

Prejudice

There is no dispute that in our schools, prejudice exists but it should not be tolerated.  However, it is hard to achieve a state where all kids feel equal.  More importantly, because teachers are more mature, educated and developed, the propensity for us to unconsciously act with prejudice is elevated.  

This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.

The basic characterisation of prejudice is our judgemental attitude to others based on their ‘group’.  Usually, it is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider inferior to our values.  There is the reverse situation where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us.  The significance of this propensity to compare has its beginnings in evolution.  

Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain.  This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning.  This coincided with the time we became a social species a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups bonded.  

This advantage continued but a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other tribes.  This became a matter of us being safe in the in-group and others in the out-group were dangerous.  As this was a matter of survival we learned to quickly identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’

The resulting cognitive alterations, situated in the brain’s emerging limbic system allowed us to survive and thrive because of this co-operation with others.  The ability to identify with our group not only depended on our compliance to the social norms but we quickly obtained the ability to critically examine others’ behaviours and reject any differences.  The mechanics of this perceived animosity began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat.  

Research has shown that when people think in a prejudice manner the amygdala lights-up, that is, it is activated.  This reaction was first observed when white men in the US were shown pictures of other faces.  Their amygdala was more active when shown pictures of black, Afro-Americans indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response.  However, the same anxious response has occurred when shown faces of other races, aggressive women or opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think is ‘other’.  

The broad result is that we view others as being different and in fact we believe those ‘others’ to be homogeneous, to be ‘all the same’!  For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals.  However, if you see a white man of a similar age and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’!  We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction. 

This marked the emergence of self-consciousness, that is we became aware that we were an individual separate from but belonging to others.  We also became selfish, understandable in survival.  Within the group it payed-off to share, we won together.  But with those groups that were not part of us it was a benefit to denigrate them; these outsiders represented a threat.

This prejudice has an impact on health.  Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress.  The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging.

So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps it was in the first instance but this is not the case now.  The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.

On an individual basis the brain develops over time.  The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth.  This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment.  It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not respond to differences in race, gender or class.  In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends.  Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.

However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured, dropped this inclination towards social diversity.  This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens.  It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also drives this need to discriminate in a micro sense.  This meant to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of the out-group.  

This is the period of the evolving teenage brain.  From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations.  You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you.  The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way.  However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley, at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger.  The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us.  This means prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!

The good news is we can unlearn prejudice.  We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:

  • Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
  • Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
  • Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm

Developing quota for positions of power.  There have been attempts to do this and with great success.  France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal.  A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved.  There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!

The real driving factor for change is role models.  This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics.  Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape.  In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol.  Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.

In his last years playing football Adam Goodes was, in every game he played booed whenever he got the ball.  Some commentators said this was not racism, it was just that the crowd didn’t like the way he played and that other aboriginal players were not booed. A common reason given was that he ‘called out’ a young girl who described him as an ape.  The next day Goodes explained he did not blame the girl and she needed to be supported.  He called out the behaviour she had ‘learned’ from an adult. Despite this the apologists kept referring this as him attacking the girl!  

I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point, Adam Goodes made the mistake of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out!  The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!

Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter?  Well we focus on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment.  The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families.  They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream.  

However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances.  Exploited on the basis of their life long rejection.  They are finally convinced they now have the security of belonging.  To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group.  They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees.  They finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them.  All too often this was their school!  

If we want to really support these kids all Australians should look at how their own values are reflected in the schools they support.  Elite private schools, religious and public selective schools all reinforce social prejudice.  They view the public, comprehensive school that serves the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior.  This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament, sadly both major parties must take responsibility for this. 

As teachers, we have to check our own preferences in where we want to work being sure that a desire to teach in these needed schools does not expose your own belief that some kids are ‘better than’ and it follows, others are not.

Posted by: AT 08:53 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, April 27 2020

The Hidden Cost of On-Line learning

Concerns over the forced on-line development in the education of our school students has focused on many of the obvious issues such as the availability of efficient connectivity, the disparity across the socio-economic divide regarding the suitability of devices and data access in some areas.  Of course, there is the issue regarding the discrepancies that will result from the inequality regarding university entry.  These are real issues however, there is a more urgent and pressing dilemma that I have yet to see identified.  That is the delivery of on-line lessons for the youngest of our student population such as kindergarten.

I concede that today’s generation will continue to develop in an on-line world and will progress behaviours that allow their applicable needs to be satiated in that environment but, this can only occur after they have developed a robust sense of self.  Your sense of self matures in the early years of one’s life and is the child’s emerging repertoire of behaviours to satisfy physical and more significantly social needs.  These occur at the interface between the child and their significant other, in the first instance their primary care giver.

In a perfect world the child tries different actions to get what they want.  Things such as crying when they are hungry work and in attentive families and those care-givers will, over time provide them with alternate behaviours like ‘asking’ for what they want.  We enjoy watching children learning to walk and most kids get positive reinforcement during the clumsy period prior to mastery.  This reinforcement is conveyed through the emotional content of the encouragement as the infant is in the very early stages of cognitive development.

Socially, the first of these needs, to belong is tied-up in the attachment of the child first to the primary care-giver and later to the extended family.  As they age the numbers of human interactions that become part of the child’s behaviour extends.  From about age three the drive extends from attachment, the more intimate sense of belonging on to that of affiliation, the ability to behave in such a way as to get their needs met from their peers.  The maturation of these behaviours continues throughout life but the decisive repertoire will be locked-in by about age seven.  To achieve full relational development, children need to be in a physical environment where they continue to refine behaviours through trial and error.  How effective their behavioural attempts are is assessed through the emotional acceptance from the target of their behaviour.

Even in a ‘perfect world’ infants need continued and expanded social interaction in a physically intimate environment, such as the classroom and playground.  This is not available on-line.

Seemingly, this is a minor problem for many children however the isolation is devastating for children with social disabilities and those who live in abusive or neglectful homes!  Our focus has been on helping teachers support these children who have developed behaviours that are functional in their own defective environment but clash with the character of their school.  For these kids, going to school not only provides protection from the abuse it also exposes them to an alternate social setting, one that more closely reflects that of the general community.

These children who have suffered early childhood abuse and/or neglect are already disadvantaged and, unlike those who are raised in functional families who will only suffer the loss of personal interaction during the early years at school, require many more years in a predictable, consistent and caring school environment.  They not only need to learn new behaviours they have to, in a sense unlearn those entrenched behaviours they acquired to survive during their early years.

If on-line learning continues for a significant length of time, the five-year-old missing out on Kindergarten will have a much more significant impact on their long-term learning than the current senior students who have already acquired their fundamental social skills. 

Posted by: AT 08:23 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 30 2020

 

In the previous Newsletters (see Conversations - 10th March 2020 and The Inner Critic - 17th March 2020) we focused on helping those students with dysfunctional behaviours regain a positive sense of self about themselves.  These ‘improvements’ are only effective if they can blend with their outer world.  No one is an island, we live in a community and we need that community to get our social needs at least met.  Happiness or as I would say homeostatic equilibrium is highly correlated with having close, personal relationships – the powerful need to belong.

As always, children who have suffered abuse and/or neglect miss out on developing the skills that support the development of such relationships.  The thing is, the behaviours they develop to protect themselves drive others away or in a closed community like a classroom and they become ostracised.

Ostracism comes from a practice in ancient Greek culture when those who ‘displeased’ the community were sent away for 10 years as punishment.  Today, we still see it as a form of punishment, ‘Time Out’ is a useful practice in schools where students are excluded for a period of time because their behaviour was not acceptable (see Time Out – 17th July 2017).  It is rightly seen as a more humane negative consequence than alternatives, historically corporal punishment.

However, ostracism can be an extreme form of cruelty.  We have all seen children excluded often because they don’t ‘meet the standards’ of the dominant group. The classic example is the ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena where a group of girls reject an individual.  Boys, all kids suffer from being ‘left out’ of a team, an activity even a birthday party.  Teachers understand the power of eye contact, children who are distressed because someone ‘looked at them’ or the subtler weapon of ‘refusing to make eye contact’. 

It seems the most damaging times for this to occur is about age eight to nine when kids have not yet learned how to protect themselves, not learned discretion and from thirteen to fourteen years when developing kids place a high value in belonging to a group.

Most usually it is the children who have not learned the social skills required to belong that are the target of social rejection and these are the very kids we are focussed on.  The girls are most likely to be frozen out of the group, the classic Queen Bee behaviour but they will do anything to be accepted back.  The boys, on the other hand are more likely to react in violent ways.  The extreme examples are seen too often with the tragic school shootings.

To address this situation, we need to reverse the problem of being ignored and we do this by the use of effective social skills.  That is, behaviours that we use to effectively communicate with others to get our needs met in a socially acceptable manner.  These behaviours are either verbal and/or non-verbal that reach out in a manner that results in a mutually beneficial interaction.

The non-verbal expression is important, especially if you are meeting for the first time.  In reality we all do make initial judgements about ‘strangers’ long before they open their mouth.  Foremost is how interesting they appear, their clothes, how they stand and if they are projecting a sense of friendship towards us, that is, are they smiling, making appropriate eye contact?  Of course, what will ‘make them interesting’ is how much they are either like us or appear to like us.  The value of any ‘relationship’ is how much they support our needs.

The value of the actual communication that takes place also depends on how we see the person contributing to us.  The content of the conversation needs to have a cultural match.  By this I mean if I’m trying to belong to a group of basketball fans I really will be more successful if I tap into their interest.  I probably would strike out if I started to discuss the implications of the Reserve Banks latest interest rate cuts or vice-versa.  Not only should we express opinions perhaps more importantly we need to listen to what is said.

How do we teach these skills to our troubled, excluded kids?  Like most things we have communicated in these latest Newsletters we need to become the substitute parent, create the environment that allows these important skills to develop.  The following steps will help:

1. Identify the Problem

There will be plenty of times, those teaching moments when you witness your students failing to effectively relate to their peers.  It is appropriate to stop what you are doing to take advantage of this moment and explain to the class what is really happening.  Point out how important belonging is to everyone in the class, what didn’t work and importantly what would.  This is a time when you can ‘cash-in’ on the relationship you have built up.  All the kids, especially the one who has made the social blunder can feel threatened.

2. Set Goals

There are countless ways in which social faux pas occur.  These can generally be described as ‘bad manners’; things like grabbing something without asking, talking over the top of others, etc.  An effective goal that addresses a lot of social incompetence is to identify and teach good manners. 

First you have to teach what is socially effective manners.  Remember, these kids learned the behaviours they are displaying in an environment where they worked.  Some families sit around the dining room at meal time and if they want the salt they are taught to ask for it with a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’.  Other kids, most likely the ones we are concerned with may well eat in front of the television, take-a-way and have no need to ask, they learn if you want something you take it without asking just like mum and dad.  So, you have to teach manners!

Then you have to practice.  Initially you can teach the skills directly through role play activities.  Social skills training is usually a ‘teaching moment’ activity, that is you take the opportunity to engage in a quick lesson before moving back to the lesson plan for the day.  However, some tough classes need a more formal approach.  I have used pre-set scenarios to initiate role play between two, or sometimes more and have the rest of the class evaluate the participants effectiveness in solving the social problem.  For example, the card might read “Jack has just taken your coloured pens without asking and you need them.  He is refusing to give them back”.  Two students would randomly select a role, either Jack or the other and act out that scene.  They would be evaluated, the class suggest alternate approaches and redo the scene, you can even change the participants and continue until everyone thinks the problem is solves to a satisfactory level.

3.With younger students I have even run a ‘Behaviour Lotto’ when students get points every time they identify ‘correct’ behaviour.  Points also go to the student who has displayed that behaviour.  Whatever source you use, be sure to reinforce the positive behaviour.

Finally, as always model what you want.  These dysfunctional kids learned their inappropriate behaviour from their role models.  Make sure you are the role model for the behaviours that will allow them to successfully belong with their peers!

Posted by: AT 01:41 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 16 2020

The Inner Critic

 "I think I can. I--think--I--can. 
I ---think--I—can” are the famous words from the American fairy tale The Little Engine that Could. This is the well-known story that encourages the values of optimism and hard work and in 2007 it was voted into one of the top 100 books for children by the American National Education Association.  Of course, I am a fan of positivity and effort but only if it is authentic.  The reason I cite this work is to illustrate the influence of the thoughts, the words have on the outcome; the little engine succeeds in the end.

This Newsletter follows the previous one (See Conversations 10th March 2020) and continues to examine the power of words!

Just what is self-talk or our inner voice?  It is what we experience when we are thinking, that verbal dialogue when we are conscious of our thoughts.  In its developed form it takes place as a dialogue between two or more assessments of a situation.  In our model it is the process of making-a-decision on how to act to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium, to feel satisfied and safe.  The words we use reflect the internal state of our memories about this or similar situations, they are learned.  However, our ability to ‘try out’ different scenarios to solve a problem in our heads depends on what we have accumulated from our existing environment.

Since the advent of modern functional imaging of our brains we have been able to take a closer look at the process. For the most part the same parts of the brain are activated when you are having a conversation with another person as happens when you are engaging in self-talk. The areas of the brain are Broca’s area with the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus but the internal dialogue activates more neural areas.  This reflects the two conditions; when talking to another we primarily act on our perception from the outer world while during self-talk our perceptions are internally generated and are less prescriptive, that is we are exposed to a range of options.

Like all behaviours and the memories that underpin them, self-talk is a learned practice.  From as early as the 1920’s Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky recognised this internal, private voice and hypothesised that this private speech developed out of the child’s social dialogue with parents or primary caregivers.  Recently it has been established that the internal dialogue becomes dominant at about age four, almost coincidently with the emergence of the child’s theory of mind and sense of separation; that is, they are aware they are unattached from others and their thoughts are private.  In a sense this is the beginning of Freud’s Super Ego the critical, moralising self that judges us relative to cultural expectation.

During these Newsletters we have discussed the type of development young children who are raised in abusive/neglectful environments experience.  This is summed-up in the type of dialogue used by those who suffer Toxic Shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017).  The narratives they learned, ‘you’re useless’ – ‘you are hopeless’ – ‘don’t do that’ – ‘you can’t do that’ become the storyline of their internal voice.  Changing this, to become like the Little Engine is difficult because, paradoxically there is a soothing quality to these messages.  The child is at least familiar with these words and has some knowledge of how to deal with them albeit this acceptance impedes efforts to make a change for these kids.  This is at the heart of the struggle in helping to make a change.

So, what to do?

As becomes evident in this work, teachers have to present an environment that allows the children to develop behaviours that suit that environment and let go of those evolved during their dysfunctional past.  In this case we have to provide the storyline we want them to adopt.  When talking to them replace their shame-based comments self-talk with more appropriate remarks, instead of their ‘I’m useless’ say ‘I know this is hard but you can do this’.

Never be afraid to teach children about how their thought processes work – this will empower them, and as an aside it is important you understand your own potential inner critic.  We live in a ‘thou shall not’ type of world and working with these kids is hard enough without the burden of your own destructive self-talk!  So, teach them:

  • They have the power to manage their own thoughts
  • They can treat the internal critic as a competitor to be ignored or overcome – answer back with a positive, counter assertion
  • Take a reality check, just what is the internal voice telling you.  You can’t change if you don’t know from what
  • Recognise where these thoughts come from, they are memories of past experiences that do not have to be repeated
  • Have a goal, if we want to replace the negative past we have to have an imagined future.  Setting goals gives our behaviour a purpose and shapes our new self-talk

Finally, and most importantly when you script a positive self-narrative never refer to yourself in the first person, never ‘I’ or ‘Me’ but speak of he, she or use your name.  A great illustration of this occurred when Le Bron James, the famous basketball player was contemplating a change of teams on 2010.  He was quoted as saying “one thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision, I wanted to do the best for what Le Bron James wanted to do and make Le Bron James happy”; this is not a sign of egotism but of taking the emotion out of the decision.  We are all very good at giving others calm good advice.  It is time to do the same for yourself.

Self- talk can be a destructive force in all our lives but the kids we focus on, those very difficult ones really suffer from a constant, internal critic that is the voice of their past memories and emotions that in turn, drive their dysfunctional behaviour.  By providing them with an alternate narrative and reinforcing this by teaching them how to use another supportive dialogue you can help them regain control over their behaviour.

Just as a post-script, it probably is unhealthy for any of us to have a 100% positive spin on life.  We are human, we have limits and we certainly make mistakes.  I can say ‘I think I can ... I know I can … ’ about lots of things that are well beyond my abilities.  This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human and that’s good enough for me and should be for everyone else.  But, I should know that I deserve to have every opportunity in this life and so do our kids!

Posted by: AT 10:53 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 02 2020

The Importance of Emotions

The importance of the emotional arousal in the student is vital if learning is to occur.  After all learning is in the first instance based on the formation of memories (see Newsletters: ‘The Intricacy of Stress’ – 19th June 2017, ‘Empathy’ - 18th February 2019 and ‘Sense of Self – Part 2’ 23rd September 2019).  In these essays I have emphasised the importance of getting that level of stress just right, not too little, not too much.  It is this stress that provides the energy required to form new memories, to learn new things.  But, what is the difference between stress and emotions? 

Neuroscience provides plenty of complex answers to this question but for our purposes the difference between stress and emotions is that stress is a response to demands or pressures from an external force.  For school children it is the teacher along with the contents of the lesson.  Emotions are internally stimulated in response to a feeling about the situation the student experiences.  This ‘feeling’ is not related to any concrete understanding of that situation but the arousal will be a result of the stimulated emotional memories. 

So, we have two broad types of memories that are present when we are faced with a new situation.  The cognitive, extrinsic memories that are the narrative of what happened before in the same or similar situations and the emotional, intrinsic memories of how the situation we are observing reminds us of the feelings of previous experiences. 

It is important to understand that young children form and rely on emotional memories far more than the cognitive memories required for academic learning.  Very young children are incapable of articulating memories of things that happened to them other than at the time of the immediate experience; they can’t recall that situation in the future.  This is known as infantile amnesia. 

The earliest recollections you have about your childhood will be after about the age of three.  This is when the hippocampus, that part of the brain that initiates cognitive memories is developed enough to lay down the required neural networks to store that memory.  More recent investigations suggest that it is the small region, the dentate gyrus, the bridge between the hippocampus and the surrounding structures that is developed at this time.  Either way, emotional memories dominate early childhood understanding of what happens for kids and the extent this dominates decreases slowly as they develop.  If you ask a child under ten to tell you about their life the conversation will be brief, very brief in most cases.  Contrast this with the narrative a teenager will supply if you ask them the same question and you will be there for as long as you can stand it!  It stands to reason, emotional memories dominate the developmental stages of childhood and so, learning is an emotional activity!

The importance of emotions was dismissed during the rationalist era in the early sixties.  That is when science became fixated on ‘evidence’ and gave rise to terms like ‘if you can’t measure it is not worth considering’.  The then leading psychologist, B. F. Skinner led the field and as a result consideration of emotions was a lower form of understanding.  This has influenced the psychology of education ever since and it still does.  Educational rationalism dominates academic research and bureaucratic curriculum development in a time when the same alliances lament the falling academic achievements of the students they ‘study’.  I disagree about the ‘falling standards’ but that is for a different time but I do know that the level of emotions, like the level of stress does impact on the quality of academic learning that will take place for that child.

Authentic teachers understand the importance of emotions for kids to learn.  This is why their relationships with each child is so important but as adults we ‘know best’, we understand how the kids feel.  We all know the saying ‘don’t assume because it makes an - ass out of - u and -me, well like most adages there is some truth for all us teachers, especially those in primary or junior secondary.  If you assume you understand how they feel at any given time and about any given task you will make a fool of yourself and you more importantly will be doing a dis-service to your pupils.

While thinking about these ideas I came across the concept of phenomenology, roughly speaking the idea that rational bias conflicts with lived experience.  For the purposes of this work it is that our rational judgement about how and why a student is feeling like they do may well be at odds with exactly why they feel the way they do.  It is more important that you find out how they feel about a situation than you ‘seeing’ how they feel about it.  To avoid this all you have to do is ask!

I have referred to phenomenology, not just because it is a big word that makes me feel important but because it is the study of the subjective experience of life, the internal view of the world.  We have made the point above that children’s learning is dominated by the emotional content of the lesson therefore we need to take the kid’s view of the lesson not what we think it should be if we want them to learn.  This is not easy to achieve but the following steps will help:

  • Give a voice to the kids; ask them for their opinions and join in adding your own views about the topic.  When they are talking really listen, don’t wait for them to stop so you can tell them what it’s like.  You have to create opportunities for these discussions to take place, it is your teaching duty!
  • Don’t judge them or the situation they are describing.  If as a class discussion allow lots of different views and discuss each without judgment.  Encourage controversial and/or ethical discussions. There are plenty of ethical dilemmas you can use at an age appropriate level.  This helps the kids understand the complexity of life including their own and it helps develop their critical thinking and moral development.
  • Teach kindness, we are always encouraged to have empathy, to understand how the other person is thinking or feeling.  From this work I hope you get the idea that it is impossible to understand ‘how someone else feels’ or ‘walk in their shoes’; I understand the attraction of ‘experiencing’ what the other is going through but you can’t, and saying you do is can be insulting.  I prefer the concept of compassion, we understand the other person is feeling bad, we don’t know how that feels but we know it hurts.  Kindness is the step beyond compassion, it is actually doing something for the other or about the situation.
  • In your classroom publicly recognise acts of kindness and call-out acts of meanness.  Develop a culture of caring for others.  You can get the class involved in volunteering work where they help those less fortunate.  There is lots of evidence about the benefits of such programs for the students and the culture of the school.  This teaches that the pursuit of happiness is a selfish occupation, it relies on some external response.  The pursuit of kindness is the attempt to produce happiness for others but the magic of humanity is that it leaves you feeling good.

Finally, and as always model – model and model the behaviour you want from your students.  The fact that acts of kindness will make the child contented can be multiplied for the teacher by the number of students they assist.

Posted by: AT 05:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 24 2020

Supportive Relationships

In the last Newsletter (Expectations – 18th February 2020) we tried to explain how the process of decision making is linked to the student’s sense of self, the antecedent condition they bring to any situation.  In class, we want them to ‘decide’ to learn the contents of the lesson but we understand, especially for those students with a toxic sense of their self that there are a multitude of other concerns in their environment that can attract their attention. These ‘other things’ will inevitably be perceived threats to their social survival.

The process is like this:

  • There is a situation with various ‘focal points’, each will bring up memories of past experiences.
  • These memories will allow us to predict what will happen now, given these circumstances.
  • That expectation will have a strong emotional content.  For damaged kids these are typically, frustration, fear or hatred.
  • The culmination of this sequence is that they will decide on a path of action, based on past experiences that will reinforce the existing sense of self.

How the child navigates their classroom is through their previous experiences – children learn to ‘know something’ about what will occur and prepare them for what they expect to happen.  Damaged kids are more likely to expect the worst, hence the negative feelings like fear, etc.  This is where the relationship with the teacher is critical!

There is a ‘popular’ view that we have to get the emotions out of the way so we can learn.  Emotions are very important in any lesson.  We need to be stressed to behave and behaviour leads to learning.  The trick is to be appropriately stressed, not too little or not too much (see ‘The Intricacy of Stress – 19th June 2017) by the situation that leads to what we want them to learn. 

The teacher has a professional responsibility to develop a relationship that supports both the significance of the lesson and, more importantly the integrity of the student.  This is a relationship that is really a one-way street.  The teacher really has to give without any expectation of a return.  However, the reality is that you will get so much more back but these rewards are not easily recognised.  These kids can change but it takes a lot of time and a lot of the change takes place long after they have left your classroom.  We all know that most people had a teacher who really inspired them – the thing is rarely do these teachers know what a wonderful job they did.  It’s the same here.

The quality of the relationship with all students starts at the very first meeting – even before a word has been spoken.  Your very appearance will affect their opinion on how much of a teacher you are.  I’m a great believer that all teachers have a ‘uniform’; it is to be modest, neat, clean and appropriate for the lesson.  A mistake many young teachers is to be ‘cool’ and dress to appeal to the kids.  This never works – you are their teacher not their best ‘friend’, you have to be their authority.  Your room is also central to this ‘first impression’.  How it looks reflects how important you think the work carried out in that space is, that is how important is the lesson.

These initial arrangements send a message that the work we will do is important.

As soon as the teacher speaks the personal connection becomes more influential.  Trust is vital for any relationship and people will give more credence to non-verbal communication.  The break-down of the emotional content of any dialogue is consistently given as:

  • 7% is conveyed in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% in the tone of the voice
  • 55% in the body language, how you hold yourself, your facial expression, etc.
  • I’m not sure how these figures have been established but I’m sure they reflect the importance of each element of any personal communication.  This means that 93% of the vital emotional content rests with the messenger and not the message!

The interpretation of these perceptions is hard enough for all children but, as usual it is more difficult for those who have a history of abuse.  These kids will:

  • Minimise or misinterpret any positive message.  Because they have been ‘disappointed’ so many times before they have lost trust in those in authority.
  • They are hyper-sensitive to negative clues.  As mentioned above, damaged kids anticipate the worst and will scrutinise at the presenting environment for any possible threat.
  • Commonly developed their sense of self in an abusive situation they have an extreme disability in understanding or ‘reading’ the non-verbal cues.  The inconsistency in their parent’s emotional reactions to situations never allowed them to use those emotions to predict what will happen next!
  • Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming signal.  It is a feature of abused kids to have a high level of emotional reactivity.  As children they were not taught to sooth themselves when they were ‘hurt’ and so when they think they might be threatened they become crushed by their emotions.

These un-natural, but understandable responses to your best efforts can be disheartening but you must remember you are dealing with students with a real disability.  These kids need the same patient understanding normal infants get when they are learning to walk.  When they fall down we understand they are just learning and we encourage them to try again.  When these kids appear to reject our efforts understand we will have feelings such as disappointment but don’t be had by those feelings, encourage them to ‘try again’.

So, how you interact with the student will make a big difference in the emotional quality your relationship.  Understand that when these students are faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:

  • ‘I can’t do this …’?
  • ‘Everyone else will laugh at my ….’?
  • ‘I hate …’?

A caustic teacher who is examining their work, who may well be trying to challenge the student, could make comments that reinforce their negative opinion of themselves.  Don’t make destructive comments like:

  • ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
  • ‘Is this your best work’?
  • ‘Why did you do that’?

A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:

  • ‘How can we make this …’?
  • ‘What can we do to …’?
  • ‘What will it look like if …’?

We understand it takes a lot of time to change the past memories, especially for those kids who have little of no experience of a positive expectation in their life.  But, it can be done.  By consistently presenting an environment that reflects a consistent, persistent and supportive (there are those words again) environment children can change their expectations of the future and when we achieve that they gain access to their imagination.  They become free to choose their way in the world.

Posted by: AT 05:21 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, February 17 2020

Expectations

One re-occurring theme in these Newsletters is the importance to consider the processes of the brain – after all, if it’s not the brain that controls behaviour than what is it?  Just how difficult your work is when dealing with kids becomes clear when you appreciate the complexity of that vital organ.  Attempts to describe this complexity have resulted in some interesting ‘statistics’, the inverted commas indicate my scepticism but it is believed that the human brain has between 80 and 86 billion neurons almost half in the cerebellum.  To remind you of how many that is: a million seconds is equal to more than 11 days; a billion is the equivalent of 32 years; 86 billion takes 2,752 years, that’s a lot of seconds. 

Now add to that the fact that each of those neurons has 1,000 potential connections, that is the neural networks that control our cognition have 1,000 different possible ways to connect to the next neuron and this goes on through a colossal number of possible connections to compose a thought!  The reality is that the number of possible neural arrangements in any brain is infinite and just to make it a bit more challenging it constantly changes.

Tim Wilson, in his book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’ contends that our cognitive mind can process 40 pieces of information per minute while the unconscious mind will check out 12 million sensory inputs for threats or opportunities in that same time.  Unbelievable, but you would have all experienced a time when you perhaps ducked to avoid an incoming ‘missile’ like a stray ball and you did this without any conscious effort.  You did move because of the effort of your unconscious mind.

How is this enormous complexity relevant to expectations?  In our model of the process of learning and behaviour (see below) the attention the students bring to the classroom exists at the junction between the antecedent condition and the situation.

The model shows only one ‘situation’ but we know that the child, and the teacher has a potentially 40 ‘identified’ situations and so many more unrecognisable.  That is, what the student will make a decision about, how to act in that instance of a lesson depends on what they require for homeostatic equilibrium, that is what is concerning them at that moment and what they see as helpful in that environment.  Toby Wise of the University of London points out that people prioritize their attention when determining safety or danger in a busy setting, such as crossing a road.  This suggests that people pay more attention to things they have learned is associated with danger; I would also include those things they want that will satisfy some deficit in their needs.

Children, from abusive backgrounds certainly have learned to be hyper-sensitive to potential dangers and whenever they feel threatened in class they will act to deal with that threat.  I looked back over the past Newsletters for some background references for you but I came to the realisation that this concept is one of the significant elements that is at the heart of all our work.  Kids who have lived through frightful situations will have a predisposition to see the potential danger in any situation and so they are unable to see that moment of time as an opportunity to learn.

There are two things that help that situation.  The first is to deal with the antecedent condition and this is the student’s sense of self.  Students with a sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017) will always see any lesson as a threat.  Remember, they see themselves as being a mistake and therefore any actions they take will be mistaken.  They fail before they start!

Recent newsletters have discussed the sense of self (16th and 23rd September 2019 and 3rd February 2020) and the ambition for the teacher is to develop a sense of self-worth and capability.  If they learn to see the lesson not as a threat but as an opportunity they will make the decision to act in a way to get the consequence of learning the lesson; that is, they will have a path through the learning process.

The second problem is the how the environment is perceived.  This is where the learning environment is critical.  This ‘lesson preparation’ is our bread and butter, we need to:

  • Understand the specific & explicit goals of our lesson
  • Students know what the purpose of the lesson is
  • Have lessons targeted at their ability
  • Communication through various mediums (white board/smart board etc.)
  • Handouts ready
  • Work areas and materials organised 
  • Pace the Lesson
  • Time for students to guide their own learning
  • Transitions ready
  • Early finishers tasks…
  • Etc.

However, for these damaged kids, and I contend for all kids we need to go beyond this ‘text book’ approach.  None of these factors address the problem of the student’s expectations.  None of these factors alleviate their fear of failure.  The real ‘preparation’ for teaching these kids is in the formation of a strong, professional relationship (see Relationships 10th February 2020) that will enable the development of their independent, empowered sense of self.

In the model presented above it is the feedback loops that will change the student’s sense of themselves, that is the antecedent conditions they bring to school.  Just as children in functioning families required emotional support while they learned their value, these children, even though they may be objectional teenagers with highly tuned oppositional defiance, they also require that same support.  As professional teachers you are obliged to provide that support and meeting that obligation will be one of the most rewarding professional experiences you will enjoy in your career!

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Monday, February 10 2020

A Special Relationship

In our last Newsletter we discussed how important relationships are when correcting student’s behaviour.  This applies to all students but especially to those whose conduct is particularly challenging.  When we think about relationships we generally consider a transactional connection between individuals, transactional because we expect to contribute to that association as much as we anticipate it being a source to address our needs.

However, relationships between the teacher and student does not have a ‘transactional’ component, it is a one-way process.  In general, teachers harmonize with parents providing the age-appropriate support for each child.  A healthy parent provides support for the child as they learn to behave in a way that allows them to eventually learn to get their needs met in their environment.  In early childhood the parent does almost everything for the child, as the child masters a behaviour they move on to a more sophisticated behaviour.  Eventually, in the teenage years the child will demand independence from the parent and if that process has been successful this will be a smooth transition.  Those of you who have had teens will definitely understand that the kids think they are ready for the world long before you do but things generally work out.

The same transition is observed in our school yard.  Kindergarten kids need a lot of personal support as they learn.  The teacher provides plenty of encouragement as they face new challenges.  As they develop, that control is gradually passed back to the child and by the time they graduate from school, if we have been successful the students are independent learners.

This is all well and good however, for the kids that come from abusive families that ordered progress does not exist.  From the previous Newsletter and one on relatedness (21st October 2019) we have discussed the problems for those kids when they are in a ‘school environment’ that clashes with the one in which they developed their behaviour.  They have to start again – in regards to behaving, they become as needy as any infant.  This will require the teacher to ‘parent’ a child that although physically may appear to be close to maturity will be undeveloped in their behaviour.  This demands a special quality in the teacher, to treat a threatening, abusive teenager like a treasured infant is a challenge and that is what I want to discuss in this essay.

I believe that humility, on the part of the teacher is the distinctive quality of the relationship that best describes what is required to support these kids, and in fact all kids.  We have time and again pointed out that consistent, structured consequences for behaviour is the key to making a change and we have also reinforced the reality that this process takes a lot of time.  To hang in with these kids takes a lot of inner strength but this is not to be confused with self-confidence.  Humility is a quiet confidence in your ability as well as an acceptance that you don’t know everything.

This adoption of humility is covertly at odds with the current mentality of modern management practices which regrettably dominates teacher training.  Let us explain, the focus on T&D in NSW at least is on the development of leadership skills.  I’m on record as saying that leadership is a quality that emerges to address the problems of the environment in which it exists; it has a ‘bottom-up’ quality.  To train novice teachers for leadership roles requires a ‘top-down’ approach where proficiency comes not from experience but from ‘a book’.  My concern is that when you successfully learn the lessons from theory you are captivated by its narrative.  The belief you are now qualified is reinforced by your supervisors which develops a misplaced degree of self- confidence.

In our system this self-confidence is regarded as a desirable characteristic and an asset when seeking employment or promotion.  The competitive nature of the organisation requires teachers to sell themselves through resumes or interviews.  The result is that we can easily believe we have the characteristics outlined in our training and revealed in any application.  We feel like we are experts and we become susceptible to what is known as the Dunning-Krüger paradox, that is we falsely assess our performance.  The work that underpins this paradox has shown that poor performers in a task over estimate their ability, that is over confidence correlates with under achievement.  Meanwhile, those who have a degree of self-doubt about how they perform achieve much more than others.  This is particularly so when dealing in a social enterprise like teaching.

Humility is underpinned by this modesty about your abilities but also your real sense of worth as a person.  There is a reassurance when you accept that you have flaws but also gifts to share.  Humility is the opposite to toxic shame where, if you make a mistake it’s because you are a mistake.  With humility when you make a mistake that’s OK you can learn from it and move on.  This allows you to be grounded in reality, valued as a human and able to provide a model for the students you teach.  Humility is its own reward.

Your humility will be a gift for your colleagues and importantly, those you teach.  If we rely on the external validation of our abilities, the T&D courses and the creation of our resumes, if challenged we are compelled to defend ourselves.  To admit that we are unsure is to reject the process that produced our self-confidence.  To retain our sense of expertise we must reject any idea of failure.  One of the problems is that those who defend their behaviour in the face of evidence that confirms an error lose their credibility while those who publicly question their actions endear themselves to their contemporaries.

Humility is essential to having a healthy relationship with all students but none more than those damaged kids we are focused on.  It allows us to really engage with them when things are difficult.  Because we are unsure we are more willing to listen to them, how often do we feel the need to butt into their conversation to tell them what to do.  When we really listen to them we may find some new information that will help us both deal with the situation but more importantly when we really listen we are confirming their value to us.

When they see us admit we are unsure, that we will seek help we are letting them know that we are not perfect and that’s alright, and they get permission to make mistakes without being a mistake – never under estimate the power of this.

To paraphrase Saint Vincent de Paul, wanton self-confidence is nothing but a lie while humility is truth.  For kids who have a history of abuse, an adult who embodies truth provides that parent that was missing in their early years of development.

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Monday, February 03 2020

Sense of Self

Welcome back, this blog started at the beginning of 2017 discussing Bullying which was at the centre of the media’s attention to schools and since then over 100 Newsletters have followed.  In the break I went back and looked at this work and was pleased with the number of topics we covered.  May I suggest you have a look and please share this resource with any of your colleagues; it’s free and we do it because through our careers, both Marcia and I understood the problems children with severe behaviours pose for teachers, especially in those ‘tough’ schools.  We also understand that both pre-training and on-the-job development rarely, if ever addresses this issue.  So, welcome to the New Year.

At the beginning of this year we have found ourselves reviewing this work we do addressing the problems children with severely dysfunctional behaviours present to the school - not to mention the destruction that behaviour brings to their own lives.  We have spent years thinking and working on this conundrum and, not to dismiss the extreme complexity to do with any discussion regarding behaviour over the next few Newsletters, we want to share with you our underpinning philosophy.

The first premise for our speculations is that we are biological, that is we are living organisms made of cells that interact to support our life.  The fundamental defining conclusion is that these cells form specific genes that drive our evolution.  It is our genes that determine our humanity, plant genes determine the flowers and so on.  Further, to maintain our life, we transform energy into behaviour which allows us to survive and reproduce, to maintain the condition known as homeostasis in the environment in which we exist.  We do this based on what we have learned through experience and these memories define our self!  So we become a catalogue of memories of how to act to address deficits in our survival in our environment.

In previous Newsletters (Sense of Self, 16th September 2019 and Sense of Self - Part 2, 23rd September 2019) We discussed the progressive process of the development of our sense of self and how it impacts on our behavioural decision-making, these are worth revisiting.  This Newsletter emphasises the importance of the child’s relationships in determining that sense of self.  One thing is certain – our sense of self is our brain in action; it is the interface of our complex outer world with the developing, complex state of our inner world.  This inner world consists of memories, of those we inherit, those we develop unconsciously and those we learn. 

Remember, the fundamental drives, to survive and reproduce lie beneath the concept of homeostasis, that is the compulsion to behave in a way that addresses any situation that creates the stress that comes from the discord between our necessities and their availability in our presenting environment.  At the primary, physical level, if we hold our breath for too long we experience an overwhelming desire to breathe.  However, most ‘learning’ on how to behave, especially in the social realm is taught to us in the early years and that is predominantly by our primary care giver, usually mum.

Throughout these Newsletters and in our books the early establishment of behaviours that are ‘designed’ to deal with our social world have emphasised the fact that behaviours are learned to deal with the presenting environment.  For kids raised in abusive and/or neglectful conditions the lessons learned will be their best chance to survive in that environment regrettably they will not be appropriate in a more functional setting.  Therefore, in order to deal with situations that place them in a state of disequilibrium in the contemporary environment they are placed in a complex situation, facing conflicting messages from our ‘memory’ in order to make sense of the outer world.  

Unlike the majority of students raised in a functioning home, who arrive at a point where the lessons they have learned makes them feel free to make choices on how to behave in order to get their needs met at school.  For these damaged kids, their inability to identify any behaviour to make sense of and deal with a perceived threat from the external world of the classroom leaves them immobilised.  The resulting distress is a form of ‘madness’, a psychological pain and/or confusion that they cannot easily sooth and so they act in ways that they use to alleviate this pain.  These are their out of control behaviours we observe in class. 

We all see the world as an ordered integration between our self and the external world.  We move around the possible connections depending on the reality of both self and our external world (see below) in any set of conditions.  For a given situation there will be times when any permutation is ‘healthy’, you may be happy and the other will be happy or it may be appropriate for you to be sad because of the circumstances in the other world. It is healthy to experience the appropriate emotional state for the situation in which you may find yourself; this is normal.

However, for a child who has predominantly suffered the negative experiences of early childhood abuse and/or neglect, these healthy interactions are unavailable.  Their toxic sense of self (See Newsletter Toxic Shame, 7th March 2017) will dismiss the sense of happy self/world.

Instead of a real sense of who they are, and for that matter really, who is the other person they construct a ‘self’ that cannot be maintained and becomes disordered.  This disordered self oscillates between an idealized world and a punishing one.

 

In these simple models a child can potentially experience six different senses of self but only one at a time.  If they see themselves as ‘good self’ then they could make a judgement about the ‘other’ as being good or bad.  Tragically these damaged kids have had a life where they never experienced a sense of autonomy and whether they felt good or bad depended on the behaviour of the ‘other’, life is done to them!  This results in a rigid, inhibited personality that struggles to behave appropriately in any situation.

The task of developing a normal, healthy sense of self for these kids is extremely difficult even if they could access effective psychological support.  However, you – the teacher can help these children develop their sense of control over their behaviour which will lead to the emergence of a healthier sense of self.  And, unsurprisingly this is through providing a supportive, stable and persistent structure in the classroom where they learn the connection between their actions in the classroom environment and what happens to them. 

However, just providing this structure is not enough.  Remember, the development of a sense of self occurs in the early years and the characteristic of that sense is determined by the interaction between the child and the primary care-giver at that time.  The real quality of that relationship determines the effectiveness of the structure.  These severely damaged children require the same personal support while they learn to manage the new environment and the teacher needs to provide that support.  This responsibility is never articulated in any ‘job description’ but if you want to make a difference you need to concentrate on the maintenance of a healthy relationship even when their behaviour challenges you personally.

So, once again it is the structure, the persistent and consistent consequences along with a compassionate relationship that will best help these needy kids and what a surprise it is these are the same elements that provide the best learning environment for all kids.  We understand that this is extremely challenging but we can assure you that there is nothing more gratifying then seeing these kids succeed!

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Monday, December 09 2019

There is no dispute that in our schools, prejudice exists but it should not be tolerated.  However, it is hard to achieve a state where all kids feel equal.  More importantly, because teachers are more mature, educated and developed, the propensity for us to unconsciously act with prejudice is elevated. 

Prejudice

This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.

The basic characterisation of prejudice is our judgemental attitude to others based on their ‘group’.  Usually, it is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider inferior to our values.  There is the reverse situation where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us.  The significance of this propensity to compare has its beginnings in evolution. 

Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain.  This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning.  This coincided with the time we became a social species a development that required us to develop behaviours that kept the groups bonded. 

This advantage continued but a new threat and this was the danger from other tribes.  This became a matter of us being safe in the in-group and others in the out-group were dangerous.  As this was a matter of survival we learned to quickly identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’

The resulting cognitive alterations, situated in the brain’s emerging limbic system allowed us to survive and thrive because of this co-operation with others.  The ability to identify with our group not only depended on our compliance to the social norms but we quickly obtained the ability to critically examine others’ behaviours and reject any differences.  The mechanics of this perceived animosity began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat. 

Research has shown that when people think in a prejudice manner the amygdala lights-up, that is it is activated.  This reaction was first observed when white men in the US were shown pictures of other faces.  Their amygdala was more active when shown pictures of black, Afro-Americans indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response.  However, the same anxious response has been shown when faces of other races, aggressive women or opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think is ‘other’. 

The broad result is that we view others as being different and in fact we believe those ‘others’ to be homogeneous, to be ‘all the same’!  For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals.  However, if you see a white man of a similar age and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’!  We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction.

This marked the emergence of self-consciousness, that is we became aware that we were an individual separate from but belonging to others.  We also became selfish, understandable in survival.  Within the group it payed-off to share, we won together.  But with those groups that were not part of us it was a benefit to denigrate them; these outsiders represented a threat.

This prejudice has an impact on health.  Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress.  The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging.

So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps it was in the first instance but this is not the case now.  The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.

On an individual basis the brain develops over time.  The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth.  This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment.  It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not respond to differences in race, gender or class.  In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends.  Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.

However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured, dropped this inclination towards social diversity.  This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens.  It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also drives this need to discriminate in a micro sense.  This meant to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of the out-group. 

This is the period of the evolving teenage brain.  From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations.  You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you.  The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way.  However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley, at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger.  The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us.  This means prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!

The good news is we can unlearn prejudice.  We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:

  • Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
  • Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
  • Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm
  • Developing quota for positions of power.  There have been attempts to do this and with great success.  France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal.  A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved.  There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!

The real driving factor for change is role models.  This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics.  Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape.  In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol.  Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.

In his last years playing football Adam Goodes was, in every game he played booed whenever he got the ball.  Some commentators said this was not racism, it was just that the crowd didn’t like the way he played and that other aboriginal players were not booed. A common reason given was that he ‘called out’ a young girl who described him as an ape.  The next day Goodes explained he did not blame the girl and she needed to be supported.  He called out the behaviour she had ‘learned’ from an adult. Despite this the apologists kept referring this as him attacking the girl! 

I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point, Adam Goodes made the mistake of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out!  The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!

Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter?  Well we focus on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment.  The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families.  They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream. 

However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances.  Exploited on the basis of their life long rejection.  They are finally convinced they now have the security of belonging.  To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group.  They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees.  They finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them.  All too often this was their school! 

If we want to really support these kids all Australians should look at how their own values are reflected in the schools they support.  Elite private schools, religious and public selective schools all reinforce social prejudice.  They view the public, comprehensive school that serves the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior.  This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament, sadly both major parties must take responsibility for this.

As teachers, we have to check our own preferences in where we want to work being sure that a desire to teach in these needed schools does not expose your own belief that some kids are ‘better than’ and it follows, others are not.

Posted by: AT 04:32 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 18 2019

Secondary Drives

In the previous Newsletter I outlined the concept that underpins all behaviour, the drive to survive and reproduce.  Of these the most important for teachers is the part connected with the limbic system and they are particularly concerned with the formation of relationships; these are our ‘social behaviours’.  The importance of this is directly linked to the foundational concepts.  Once we began to live in groups our very survival, not to mention our opportunities to reproduce relied on our being accepted.

The contrary position to acceptance is rejection and for humans, rejection is as life threatening as being attacked by an outside force.  In recent studies it has been demonstrated that the same areas of the brain are engaged when we are rejected as do when we are being attacked.  A further demonstration of the power of rejection is the concept of suicide.  To take one’s own life flies in the face of our premise that all behaviour is to survive; how could we deliberately kill the very thing that carries our genes?

The answer is that the psychological pain to live in the face of rejection seems to be so overwhelming the individual chooses to end that pain and achieves this by ending their life.  Suicide provides a significant example of the power of drives to get us back to a state of homeostatic equilibrium.

The process of developing behaviours that support our membership into our group starts from birth; the child’s successful bonding with the mother is critical for long-term psychological health.  The sensitive period is identified from six months to three years but I would argue it starts at conception and the object of attachment is clarified through the early childhood experiences.

Attachment is a well-researched topic for child development but for the sake of this work we take the position that when attachment is secure, that is the child has positively bonded with at least the primary caregiver and feels psychologically and physically safe in their care they are in equilibrium. 

However, some children are not provided with such a safe environment and experience some uncertainty about the availability of the primary caregiver.  There are many models that describe these less than protected connections - these include insecure or anxious attachment.  Despite the physical ‘closeness’ these inadequate efforts of parenting will have a significant impact on the creation of the child’s belief systems.

Humans are herd animals and rely on other members of the community to improve their chances of survival and eventually reproduction.  As with attachment this connectedness is critical for ensuing survival.  So how we learn to acquire these skills happens in our childhood.  When we ‘grow-up’ we will experience the intensity of feelings we experienced as a child when things go wrong, these are emotional memories.  If we are abandoned we become extremely stressed and we will evoke the behaviours learned as a child. 

The intensity of the connectedness an individual has with another varies.  The caregiver has the closest connection and this means the caregiver can provide the highest amount of support.  This also means that withdrawal of the support will expose the individual to feelings of abandonment producing a large amount of stress.  This intimate, powerful attachment does not remain exclusively with the parent.  Eventually the drive to reproduce will see a replacement primary partner.  This significant relationship has the potential to meet the person’s drives but there is a significant risk of distress if this relationship fails.

Eventually the child will need a sense of belonging to more than their immediate family and this reaching out is the first step to a graduated association with the world.  The next stage of development in relational skills is called affiliation which happens first with extended family, say siblings and cousins and on to kids at pre-school and school.  The friendships develop with children having ‘best friends’ that may last for a life time but more usually last until a new ‘best friend’ arrives.  The child has to learn the rules of these relationships with parents or teachers initially showing them the first steps and then these ‘rules’ are learned through play.

One of the regrettable phenomena of modern life is the intensification of organised play.  Kids are taught how to do things ‘properly’ and adults adjudicate play.  Kids miss the opportunity to learn the real rules of association.  These are complex social interactions, behaviours we must master if we are to successfully integrate with the world.  We need to not only deal with close friends but we also have to associate with others on a continuum that ends with strangers.  We learn these skills by trial and error not just by parental instruction – parents only have their set of rules, these may or may not match those of the rest of their community.

The need to integrate ourselves with others on an increasing level of intimacy provides us with a good deal of feedback on our sense of ourselves. The ability of a person to move between various members of the community in a confident and comfortable manner indicates a strong sense of self-worth. People who have difficulty dealing with others will find the stress that comes from their inability to integrate in a satisfactory manner very troubling.

In contemporary education systems there has been a move away from disorganised play and a rejection of significant social content in curriculum.  The growing focus on the ‘basics’ reduces the opportunity for those children who were raised in families whose behaviours led to mainstream rejection to learn to re-attach with their peers.

Posted by: AT 07:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 11 2019

 

This is the start of a series of Newsletters that focus on how children who have experienced abusive and/or neglectful childhoods, those children who are the focus of our work develop dysfunctional behaviours.  Recently we examined our sense of self in two Newsletters. This prompted the impetus to go back to discuss basic human needs and drives.  This examination will take the form of a series of essays that build towards a finished model.

Let’s start with the fundamental drives for all species, the drive to keep our particular gene profile alive.  This is based on the work of Richard Dawkins who expanded Darwin’s model of survival of the fittest.  Dawkins postulated that in its basic form, our bodies are just vehicles to maintain the survival of our particular genome.  This was the foundation of our drive to survive, keep supporting our genes and to reproduce, ensuring that if, and when we die our genes will have been passed on to another host!

The fundamental purpose for our existence is to survive and reproduce!  Of course, it is not that simple.  All of us are driven to behave in lots of unique and complex ways however, if you look at any behaviour, the result of being ‘driven’ it can be traced back to these two instincts.  Of course, the drive to reproduce becomes more significant as we reach maturity.  It is not a real issue for primary aged students but does become a consideration for the secondary system, not only the curriculum but teacher awareness of the emergent attentiveness to the business of reproduction!

When we feel completely safe and secure we experience a level of calm that allows us to access the top levels of our brain.  This is the position of homeostatic equilibrium.  However, when we are not ‘safe and secure’ we experience a level of stress and that stress provides the drive to behave, to act in a way that will bring us back into equilibrium.

In the late 1960’s a psychologist named McLean introduced the concept of our brain that described it as having three distinct levels that were linked to our evolutionary journey.  He called this the tri-part brain with the following stages:

  • Primary Drives - the Reptilian Brain – the Brain Stem and Mid Brain

This part of the brain controls our physical homeostasis.  Whenever we are placed in a stressful situation, in disequilibrium this zone initiates the behaviours that will bring us back to homeostasis.  This is the area that controls things like breathing, our heart beat, our balance, those physical activities that allow us to physically survive.

Remember times when you had run ‘out of breath’, maybe under the water for too long recall how desperate you become to get some oxygen into your lungs.  This desperation is the stress that fuels the behavioural drive.

The ‘lessons’ assembled in this part of the brain begin to happen from the moment of conception and continue through the very early years of infancy.  We are born with the ability to breath but it takes a little time to master walking on two legs.  A feature of these behaviours is that they are for all purposes, unconscious and very difficult to change.

This is referred to as the reptilian brain because this most reptiles failed to develop beyond that point.  They do not have any social organisation and the times they do group together is because that environment supplies their physical needs such as food, water or the opportunity to reproduce.

  • Secondary Drives - the Social/Emotional Brain – the Limbic System

This is the second stage of cognitive evolution and this occurred because of the benefits group living provided to meet our needs.  The synergy provided by sharing the work needed to provide food, shelter and protection made living in groups much more productive however, it required cooperation.  This cooperation enhanced our access to the elements required for survival and reproduction but we needed to learn an additional set of behaviours that would prevent the very fact that living together had a strong potential to threaten that very survival through competition for the resources to survive and reproduce.

The major threat to our safety and security that comes from communal living is the possibility to be excluded.  In this stage of development, we learn to relate to others so that we are included in the sharing of desired, required resources.

The lessons learned here are almost but not quite as inflexible as those in the brain stem/midbrain but because they were predominantly learned in early childhood they are very hard to change and for our dysfunctional kids changes here are at the heart of providing success at school and beyond.

Despite some significant exception for all intents and purposes it is in this area of our brain problems of relating occur for the children we deal with.  Thinking back over the more than 100 Newsletters most problems faced by teachers and/or dysfunctional students occur because of the mis-match between the social requirements to successfully belong in one environment and those to survive in the environment of the early childhood.

Schematic Representation of the Brain

  • Tertiary Drives - the Intellectual Brain – the Cortical Areas and the Frontal Lobes

This is the last stage of our evolutionary development and it is where humans have gained the greatest advantage over our rival species.  It is in this area we can initiate a wide range of behaviours that allow us to manipulate the physical environment to our advantage, we have built cars to travel, air conditioning to keep comfortable and the advances in medical practices have prolonged our life expectancy.  We can modify the genes of plants to get more and improved plants, we have industrialised the capture of fish and so on.  All these come from our intellectual brain.

Unfortunately, this has also allowed us to build weapons, dare I say it of ‘mass destruction’, exploited and polluted the planet’s resources to an extent that survival of our species is threatened.

This is the part of the brain that teachers need to get focused in the classroom.  Remembering that behaviour, and learning is behaviour is only kindled when we are stressed and unlike the lower levels where a threat to initiate tension is relatively easy to achieve there is not much a teacher can ethically use to get the students to want to learn.  The best we can do is ignite their curiosity.

In the next Newsletter(s) we will discuss models of needs and drives but this essay explains the underpinning of all behaviours and that is to survive and reproduce.  I accept that some, if not all readers will disagree with my fundamental model but I argue that there are such a range of these models, the most influential being Maslow’s is because they are examining the secondary expression of the underpinning position of being in homeostatic disequilibrium. 

Posted by: AT 06:36 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, October 21 2019

Relatedness

The successful integration into a community at any level is crucial for mental health of everyone.  For the kids with PTSD, relationships are matters that are fraught with difficulties.  The development of techniques to establish significant connections with others, at all levels takes place in early childhood.  The different types of relationships are established in a sequential order.  That is from the exclusive attachment to their mother up to the affiliation with peers.

The most powerful adult relationship is that to an intimate other.  Part of fulfilling the evolutionary demand to reproduce in our society is most often with a significant partner.  The power of this type of relationship is made obvious by the initial intensity of the establishment of a loving relationship and the emotional pain when that love ends.  This is the last type of connection developed in our species and it is a strong echo of the first intimate relationship with the significant care-giver at birth.

The structure of this intimate connection is first established at birth when the child attaches to the parent.  At this time the child is totally reliant on their carer(s) for all their needs, their very survival depends on an adult taking care of them.  Attachment theory is a major field of psychology and beyond the scope of this essay but it gives a great illustration of this process.  Secure attachment occurs when the care-givers meet the needs of the infant.  Not only are the physical needs met so are the social and emotional ones satisfied. 

Within the description of the course of development there is a consistent correlation between early childhood abuse and neglect and disordered attachment.  And the children with severe behaviours are invariably those with insecure attachment.

It is obvious that if you leave a child alone to fend for themselves, they will die.  So, the dysfunctional children who have made it to your classroom have had some support in these early years but not enough.  The example of an extreme form of neglect is illustrated with children who were in the found in the orphanages of the Eastern European countries at the end of the Cold War, particularly one in Romania.  At one level they were fed and clothed but had little, or no emotional/social bonding or mental stimulation.  They just lay in their cots all day.  The outcomes are horrific.

The kids causing trouble in our schools may not be so damaged however there are plenty of individual kids have suffered a range of abuse.  These kids will not have a secure attachment to their primary parent and as this early failure is the template for future relationships.  The difficulty continues throughout development.

When they get to school they should be on the way to developing the next level of relationships and that is the ability to affiliate with other children.  In an ideal situation this occurs in preschools or supervised play where the carer givers teach skills like sharing and cooperation.

As said, kids who are unable to form primary attachments are already at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing these affiliations and they are very likely to have parents who do not teach them how to appropriately respond to the inevitable conflict between kids or they don’t even provide the opportunity to learn.

To address this relational deficit in a classroom is an enormous challenge for the teacher but one that must be faced.  The outcome we want for these kids is to be a valued part of their community so the task is to make them a valued part of your class.

The first skill is for them to recognise the social norms of mainstream society that should be reflected in the classroom.  Initially this is achieved by teaching social skills through classroom discussions on topics about sharing and relationships that have struggled.  Stories about fictional kids who are experiencing difficulties in their life, say the break-up of their parent’s marriage are a great class discussion.

Providing negative consequences to the students when they break the social expectations is an appropriate response but only if there is an accompanying explanation about why the actions were inappropriate.  Early on this might seem to be a waste of time.  As pointed out before, these kids will have little empathy in the first instance but by teaching them not only what is not appropriate but also why it is inappropriate you are front-loading the brain with connections that may bear fruit in the future.

As the development of the child’s sense of self is enhanced through smart cooperative learning and volunteering class activities these programs work well in developing the ability to form healthy attachments.

Posted by: AT 06:52 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 09 2019

Recovery Time

We have established that the children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment have verified brain damage and the theme of our work is to provide rehabilitation through changing their Renvironment.  Predominantly this is focused on schools but these principled interventions work even better if they are applied around the clock which can occur in special settings such as juvenile detention centres.

However, one of the frustrations for teachers or supervisors is the length of time it takes for any real change to occur.  There are two things to consider about this; the first is the extended time interval required for real neurological change to be entrenched that drive new behaviours, the second is the difficulty in changing deep held beliefs.  The focus of this Newsletter is on the first of these problems, the impediment of time!  

Changing the neurological organisation of the brain in any permanent sense requires the extinguishing of the existing circuits and the construction of a replacement path.  This is known as plasticity.  This plasticity varies throughout the brain, from the brain stem, through the limbic system and on to the cerebrum.  Behaviours learned in the brain stem are extremely non-plastic, that is they are very hard to change.  This makes sense as those behaviours are designed to support our physical wellbeing, such as breathing, blood pressure, balance, etc. that are vital for our survival and this resistance to change protects us.

Those social/emotional lessons that are stored in the limbic system are also hard to change.  This is where our affective memories are stored and these are the organisation of our sense of self.  We develop our sense of self in the early years and the behaviours that accompany this have been learned because they have provided the ‘best way’ to survive in the environment in which they are learned.  It is in this area our beliefs are maintained and, although arguably easier to change than those maintaining our physical security, they are also ‘hard-wired’ making change a time-consuming event.

The importance of both the physical and socio-emotional functions are important to our survival and so it makes sense to protect them from change; this is why they are so locked into the brain circuitry.

The part of the brain that remains relatively plastic, that is reasonably easy to change is the cerebrum and cerebral cortex, mostly in the frontal area associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving.  Those other areas of the cerebrum are associated with the development of fundamental skills that complement our survival mechanisms, things such as vision, speech, etc. are also developed in the early years and most likely share the non-plasticity of the lower levels of the brain.  These are:

  • Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli
  • Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing
  • Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech

There is not the behavioural need to change these although there is a case for mediation for students who did not receive the appropriate level of stimulation in the developing years.

 Although I have seen no research that would describe the level of plasticity in these areas a clue to the difficulty is in the problems faced by children who have been born with cataracts that have not been removed before about eight months.  Up until this time the conditions in the occipital lobe are extremely plastic, this is referred to as its ‘window of opportunity’ when the brain’s neurons are surrounded with supporting materials, principally myeline the material that sustains and enhances the circuit. After that time has passed the myeline that has not been used along with the unemployed neurons are removed in a process called pruning.  This makes the circuit even more efficient and long-lasting it also makes the behaviour controlled by the neural path non-plastic.

The difficulty faced by many teachers who work with these children is that their day to day teaching focuses on those frontal areas, associated with reasoning, planning and problem solving, the stuff of the curriculum.  We see how relatively quickly children can learn new material.  We are also exposed to a range of intervention programs, almost exclusively based in the cognitive behaviour therapy model to help children deal with their dysfunctional behaviour.  We make the mistake of assuming the pace children learn say history or mathematics should be the same pace they learn to change their behaviour!

The real rate of change that can be expected from the deep-seated brain damage from abuse or neglect is best understood when it is compared to brain damage that is a result of a physical trauma, say a motor vehicle accident.  People and families that work with such casualties expect the road to recovery to be slow and very difficult for the patient.  Although this process can be frustrating usually the victim and their support are very committed to make the effort to get better, or to recover as much functionality as they can.

Rehabilitation is basically placing the patient in an environment that will stimulate the behaviour that is required to function in that environment.  For example, if the individual needs to learn to walk again they will work through a process where the legs are exposed to conditions that demand a ‘walking’ response that will encourage new pathways to form.  This can take months even years to recover even if only partially.  The thing is the community knows the ethics of providing this support and the economic value of the intervention.  The thing is, these victims did not deliberately choose to have their disability and their prospects of having a ‘successful’ life is hindered by their injury.

It takes a rare individual to take the same view of a teenager whose dysfunctional behaviour is expressed in a violent outburst in their classroom or sits in the back of the classroom completely disengaged in learning.  It takes an even exceptional political/bureaucratic system that would provide the same level of support for this victim of an acquired brain injury.  It is easy to feel compassion for the victim of a motor vehicle accident who may well have lost their ability to dampen their behaviour, become compulsive.  It is much harder to have that same compassion for a ‘compulsive’ child when we have no evidence of the ‘accident’ they suffered by being born into the wrong family!

The thing is, these kids can be helped, we have the same ethical responsibility to take up this challenge.  Despite the obvious decency of taking on the task there is a measured economic advantage for the community if we do.  There is the access to such an amount of untapped human resources and the reduction in the financial burden of providing institutional interventions, such as detentions centres, courts, etc. that attempt to control these behaviours.

For teachers, there needs to be proper training in the techniques of providing the correct therapeutic environment and the encouragement to ‘stay the distance’ through the long period of recovery.  It will be worth it!

Posted by: AT 08:49 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, September 02 2019

Looking After Yourself

Working with children with severe behaviours is extremely challenging.  The personal demands you will experience working with these difficult children are not to be underestimated; they are extremely stressful.  In one of my books (see resources) I discussed the concept of toxic resilience.  The idea is that to be successful in a highly demanding vocation you need top be resilient.  Working with difficult students over time certainly qualifies as being a demanding job; it demands a high level of resilience.  But, this resilience comes at a cost. The ability to keep fronting up to these children places you in a situation that has a high likelihood of producing constant elevated stress.  This constant exposure has a significant negative impact on an individual’s personal health, a situation that is understated and largely unrecognized.

Resilience has been defined as the ability to display constant competence under high levels of stress and produce quality outcomes despite demanding conditions. This definition is now accepted for every age group.  This has long been held as a strength especially in education.  It has allowed us to keep going long after others would have given-up.  This is a quality required when dealing with these kids.  One of the prerequisites for success is to hang in with them long after they had expected you to give-up.

In earlier Newsletters (The Intricacy of Stress, June 19th 2017 and Anxiety 24th July 2017) we have discussed the biological consequences of elevated levels of stress particularly when those levels are maintained over a period of time.  You must be aware that you are working in such an environment.

The following is just a brief outline of symptoms, causes and recovery techniques that you can use as some sort of guide to self-care around maintaining a healthy level of resilience in this very difficult job.  

In the Newsletter we have discussed the healthy stress cycle, arousal with its flight/fight/freeze response, the discharge of the released energy and a return to rest.  We have also discussed what happens if, before we return to our baseline homeostasis, we are again provoked to a level that produces another cycle and the cycle is incomplete.  The level of confined stress is magnified.  This build-up is gradual and, unless you are vigilant you will not realise you are becoming burned-out, a not so nice way of saying you are dangerously stressed.  If this is happening you may notice changes to your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as changes in your behaviour.  These are:

  • Physical
    • Poor sleep
    • Feeling very tired or exhausted all the time
    • Headaches
    • Changes in sleep patterns
    • Changes in eating habits
    • Low immunity, catch everything that is going about
  • Emotional
    • Feel like nothing matters
    • Work is either extremely boring and worthless or it is overwhelming and you can’t cope
    • Feel like a failure, you feel helpless or detached
    • Your level of motivation has dropped
    • You become cynical and start to criticize everything
  • Behavioural
    • Become withdrawn
    • Isolate yourself
    • Procrastinate

Avoid responsibilities by missing, either taking excess sick leave or other forms of leave

Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkley was renowned for her work around occupational burnout.  She has described five causes for burnout and these are:

1. Work Overload – People have too much work to do in their day or, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they are given or, they are not supplied with the resources to complete their work.  In any modern public school all three conditions are the norm.

2. No Autonomy – When we are given a responsibility but not given the authority to make decisions about how that task should be done or the freedom to plan the work we become disempowered.  This leads to frustration that can build to resentment.

3. Under Valued – As teachers we are always looking to provide our students with positive feedback when they complete a task.  We understand that this sort of response helps them become motivated to carry on.  Somehow this simple technique is ignored when we are dealing with our colleague or those we supervise.  When we fail to provide positive feedback or some type of reward we feel under-valued or disrespected.

A particular problem you will face if you ‘specialise’ in dealing with these damaged kids is that the mainstream educational community has no real time for these children other than mouthed clichés when they make the headlines in the media.  This discounting from the leadership send a message to colleagues that don’t work in this area that somehow your work is not important.  This can be quite disappointing.

4. Not Supported in the Workplace – This leads on from the latter part of the previous point.  However, when you are working with these very difficult kids there will be time, more than is usual when the students will have to be removed from their class.  This is where the teacher requires the support of the rest of the school.  These students must be removed for everyone’s safety, including their own but they must be supervised.  There is nothing more demoralising than sending a student out and having them return almost immediately with little or no intervention being delivered.

5. Fairness – This is another point hat is underpinned by the understanding that you will be working with difficult kids.  Shallow educators equate teaching quality with the attainment of high grades in their classrooms.  This insult is carried on by the community and the media.  There is little understanding of the difficult work you do on top of the delivery of curriculum which is the task of those teachers working in ‘selective’ environments.  Everyone deserves respect especially those who work without minor extrinsic rewards.

6. The ‘Meaning’ of your Work – This is the final part of the causes that make working with these difficult kids a dangerous place to take on.  You should not expect your colleagues or your supervisors to understand the value, not to mention the difficulty of the work you do.  I worked for ten years as a principal of a special school for adolescents with severe behaviours in a very needing area in South-West Sydney.  During that time, I had four supervisors all of whom were wonderful people but I know they had no idea and little interest in what we were doing at the school.  This is where you need to believe in your understanding of the work you do and if possible, create alliances with contemporaries from nearby areas.  These days you can contact similar colleagues ‘on-line’ one advantage of the digital world. 

When discussing recovery let’s use the same three categories, physical, emotional and behaviour.  In reality, these are really just the reverse of those things we have identified as the causes of stress.

  • Physical – Lots of the things that have used to deal with your elevated stress have affected your health.  It’s doing almost the opposite that will help you recapture your physical health.  There are some simple things you can do:
    • Get regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be excessive and really it needs to be ‘age appropriate’.  Don’t develop an obsession with exercise, that is a symptom of activities addiction, that is exercising so you avoid the issue that is causing the stress.  It might be jogging or walking the dog, anything that gets you out and about.  Joining in a team activity would tick two of these boxes.
    • Try meditation, follow the guidelines outlined for the students, they will be the same.  It is also a good idea to take meditation or yoga classes to get out and meet others.
    • Avoid drugs, this goes without saying.  It is part of our western culture to reach for a drink when we are over worked and the thought of a stiff drink at the end of the week is tempting.  Like all things, in moderation is a good guide.
  • Emotional – When you are ‘burned-out’ you really do not feel good about yourself and you tend to isolate from others.  Some simple ideas are:
    • Reach out to those who are close to you.  Your first though is probably they don’t want to hear about your problems but in most cases, you would be wrong.  People are flattered when you seek them out.  The very act of choosing to speak to them communicates that you trust them and value them.  They will be supportive.
    • Socialise both in your work and in the community.  At work you are with people you probably would not choose to mix with unless you had to.  But, you are with them during your working day and by trying to get to know them the consequential interactions are much more pleasant.  Don’t be afraid to initiate the contact.
    • Get your work into perspective especially when working with challenging kids.  The modern demands on teachers is on outcomes and we can get swept up in the idiocy of this approach to education.  All teachers know that learning outcomes depend on a range of factors with the teacher being one.  Assess your value with the effort you put into your work.
  • Behavioural – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’  How often have we heard this cliché but for the most part it is true?  These are some things to do:
    • High achievers are reluctant to say no to any request but there are times when you should say just that.  You have to maintain a proper life – work balance and that requires you to limit the demands placed on you.  Get into the habit of leaving your work at work.  I understand this has always been impossible for teachers, it still is but in dealing with that work you do take home make sure you make a timetable that includes an appropriate of non-work activities.
    • Think about how you work and how you could improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of your efforts.  This may include delegation of some activities that really could be done by others.  I had a process where, if I though some demand was trivial I would put it into a designated file and wait to see if the person who sent the directive followed-up their request (this is common practice for most teachers and principals).  If the demand was repeated then I would complete the task.  Of course, you need to know those things that must be done!
    • Plan; this can be an overall strategy for the school year or term but if so you need to break this down into smaller goals such as what you want to achieve in the next month, or whatever you choose but it is great to have a lesson plan that includes what you need to do.  When you have a plan, it takes away a lot of your stress.

The message is, look after yourself!  There is a statement made in every life-saving course I have been to and that is, never jump into a river to save a child if you can’t swim.  It is equally true that you can’t help damaged kids get better if you become ill yourself.  

Posted by: AT 08:30 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 19 2019

Student Stress

One ‘truism’ we hear constantly is that change is inevitable, and I accept this however, if you take this on face value you are ignoring two points that must be considered.  These are, change is not always for the best and the second point is that change evokes stress.  In contemporary years, society’s expectations of schools have never been more intense.  The issues facing schools are the increasing emphasis on schools’ accountability through close evaluation of its performance based on external testing, particularly the NAPLAN test in an environment where external departmental support is being reduced. 

Coupled with thi, is the emphasis placed on students to succeed in a narrow range of all the skills they will need to acquire.  Literacy and numeracy are just two elements in a child’s education but the whole worth of our efforts is based on these factors that are at the heart of the NAPLAN test.  Not only does this put pressure on the teachers but I am well aware the students are also pressured. 

Further, when the media focuses on a social problem there is a perceived assumption that schools need to ‘solve’ the problem.  At the end of my career I remember listening to the radio going home from school where the ‘problem’ of our unfit youth was being discussed.  The majority of the calls taken by the presenter reinforce the view that it was the ‘school’s fault’. Of course, I was silently defending our school, silently making the case that was not our fault!

Then I realised I was acting in the adversarial manner so typical of our modern society.  It is obvious the people listening are also prone to take one side or the other.  I understand that many parents agree with the position ‘it’s the school’s fault’.  This conflict breaks down the community spirit and invariably leads to tension and stress conditions both for the parents and the teachers.  This situation is not conducive to collaborative solutions to help our kids. 

Of course, things are not perfect and today’s students can do better.  It is also true that schools are part of our community and do have a part to play.  I am aware that:

  • Some parents do feel anxious in regards to what is happening with their child at school 
  • Some students are over-anxious about their schooling
  • Teachers are becoming more and more stressed 

I know good schools always want you to contact them when you are concerned, they know they are far from being perfect and will make mistakes.  But sometimes children do not divulge the whole story when they talk about what has happened at school but it’s the only version the parents hear. 

To help parents (when I refer to parents, I include all other primary care providers including guardians) get a clearer picture of what is really happening and more importantly, help you minimise the stress you, the parents and the child may be experiencing I have outlined some steps you might take that could help you get a better idea of what is really going on at school and how to help them develop personal skills and resilience.  I have summarised below some information you may share with parents:

1. Sharing too much

When your child comes home from school with tales about being bullied either by ‘mean’ girls, ‘aggressive’ boys or ‘insensitive’ teachers, keep in mind that your children feed off your emotions and can get more distraught when they see you distressed.  Try to keep our own anxiety in check while sympathising with theirs.  You should be the emotional rock; the person who understands and supports your child.  Then get the facts and if need be you should contact the school.

2. Advocating too hard

We all want to stand up for our children, but our eagerness to advocate can sometimes actually raise everyone’s anxiety levels.  If your child shares a school problem with you, your first instinct is often to march into the school and try to resolve it. This tells your children that you don’t have faith in us or in your child to fix their problems. Your first priority should be to help them find a solution they can implement without your help, every time.  Again, if it is serious contact us.

3. Compensating for weaknesses

It is truly an unusual child who is great at everything.  So it follows that generally there will be areas at school in which they struggle.  We want our kids to have healthy self-confidence and instead of focusing on and compensating for weaknesses, remind them to play to their strengths. Children can’t always avoid their weak areas, but by focusing on strengths we build self-efficacy and confidence.

4. Overplaying strengths

Linked closely with the previous point is the risk that too much positive affirmation can easily turn to pressure. Compliment children when they excel, but don’t make their excellence a reason you love them or to expect even more from them.

5. Having great values

Sometimes children make poor choices and I know they fret about their family finding out – it can seem like a fate worse than death.  Let your children know that while values are important, you understand the realities and temptations they face.  Disapprove of the behaviour but never of them.  Don’t create a culture where your children are too anxious to come to you and admit they messed up.

6. Hiding your troubles

If your family is struggling financially or fighting with each other, don’t make the mistake of thinking your children are better off not knowing.  They are very good at sensing problems and if they suspect something and if don’t know the whole story they can blow it out of all proportion.  Should we pile our own troubles on our child’s shoulders - no, but it doesn’t hurt to be honest about what your concerns are and more importantly what you’re doing about it.  By sharing what makes us anxious and how we deal with it we’re modelling practical ways to resolve anxiety.

At the end of 2016 year I conducted my last Year 12 Graduation assembly.  At that ceremony I saw the whole school community at its best.  The students made the school proud as one after the other presented themselves as the mature and dignified young men and women who I could see will make great members of their community.   The staff could rightly feel a sense of achievement looking at these young graduands and knowing what they have achieved.  Most inspiring for me was the number of parents and friends who joined the celebration.  All the struggles, disputes of the previous years were over but it was through these times the young children learned to become these great young adults.  Never lose sight of this achievement that is repeated year after year in all our schools.

Posted by: AT 06:27 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 03 2019

Addiction - Behaving to Avoid Stress

Throughout these Newsletters the consistent premise has rightly been that the effective management of stress underpins all successful behaviour management programs.  That is, for a teacher to present an effective learning environment it needs to minimize those conditions that threaten the safety of all members of the classroom.

Of course, there will inevitably be situations that disturb this desired state of calmness and when this happens we will act to alleviate that stress.  In a perfect world we would have learned to take actions to relieve that tension but there will always be circumstances that are beyond our current competence and it is under these circumstances that we have a choice, we either learn how to deal with this new situation, the ‘adult’ response or we act just to get rid of the stress.  This short-term reaction is at the heart of addiction and that addiction includes the compulsion to act in inappropriate ways.

There are three ways addictions are manifested; through the use of substances that alter the impact of the emotion, the use of activities to distract thoughts from the problem and the third is focused on stress that has its source in personal interaction; this I call ‘people addiction’.

The use of substances is long been used to alter emotions.  When anyone mentions addiction the first thing most people think of is the classic drug addict and I would argue that at the heart of the reason these chronic addicts are around is their early childhood abuse.  I have worked with children who are suffering from such addiction and they will invariably tell you that the first time they got high/drunk/bombed-out was the first time they felt good about themselves.  Never be under the illusion drugs don’t work but the problem is that like all addictions the more you use them the more the need for the effect and eventually the need for the drug becomes the primary problem for the user.

The second type is activities addiction.  This is where the person becomes so focused on a task or hobby they can’t think about anything else.  You can see this with over-the-top sports fans who live every moment for the team.  Or with kids, when a new craze sweeps the country you see those who become obsessed with it.  While ever I am fully engaged I will not have to feel the emotions from my ‘shame’.

You see activities addiction in the work place.  Years ago, when I was formulating these ideas I discussed them with a colleague.  He stopped me and said – you are describing me.  I had suspected he was somewhat engaged in such addictive behaviours as he was having difficulties in his life but was enjoying success at work.  When I started to expand my thoughts he cheerfully told me it was alright, he had just enrolled to study for his doctorate.  He achieved his doctorate but lost his family.

The catch with activities addiction is summed up by those who become workaholics.  The extra output they achieve because of the hours and the intensity they put in to their work results in their promotion.  Soon they are in positions where the workload becomes the problem, like the substance they need more and eventually they break down.

The last type of addiction is what I refer to as people addiction.  In reality, this is most likely the reflection of how the children learned to survive in the abusive relationships in which they were raised.  As with other addictions these behaviours are the result of previous experiences of success in alleviating unhealthy levels of stress.  This ‘people addiction’ is the product of behaviours that worked directly on the stressor, the ‘abusive other’.

The first type of people addiction is that of overt control.  The tactic is to stress the other person much more than they stress you.  In a sense, you abuse them straight back and in such a way they will stop their behaviour. This can be done through all types of aggression ranging from physical attack, making fun of the other person, discounting their worth, any form of attack on their physical or psychological safety.

People will take this form of defense when they hold a position they perceive as being superior to the other person.  This could result in overt behaviour against a younger sibling, a different gender, usually female or someone you perceive to be in a ‘lower’ social ‘class’. 

Overt action can make the original aggressor stop but this does not provide protection from future attacks and as with all addictive strategies, there is a long-term cost.  The aggressive behaviour pushes others away and so the danger is you become distant from others.  Those who use overt control limit their opportunity to have productive relationships; they become isolated, frustrated and bitter.

 The reverse approach is that of covert control.  This strategy consists of being so nice and cooperative towards others they will have no reason to attack you.  A common phrase used by those who adopt the covert position is ‘I don’t care – whatever you want to do’.  These children are nice to be around because they are sensitive to your needs and do whatever they can to make sure you get them met.  They avoid unpleasant situations at all costs.

They take up this position for the same reasons as those who take up the overt position, because they consider themselves less than the offending other.  The problem is their own needs are never met and resentment and anger will build-up but remain internalized.  This adds to their feelings of worthlessness.

The final position is that of resistance, the students choose to ignore the source of the attack by not getting involved with any of the other students or activities.  They rebel against any organised activities and are absent a lot.  They will avoid anything that has the potential to cause stress.

The cost of opting out of interactions with others is the loss of opportunity to get any needs met.  These students become isolated and marginalized.

So, what to do?  Dealing with situations that threaten your composure requires you to control the impact of these ‘attacks’ and to achieve this you need to develop strong boundaries (see Newsletters - ‘Teaching Practical Boundaries’ 31st July 2017 and ‘Dealing with Difficult Kids’ 4th September 2017).  Successful management of all stressful circumstances relies on the honest response to the questions that underpin all responsible behaviour.  These are:

  • What is really going on?
  • Who is responsible?
    • If its my actions then take responsibility and change that behaviour
    • If it’s the ‘others’ behaviour then understand you can’t make them do anything and you must behave in a way that has the best chance of getting your needs met in the long term
  • Let go of this relationship?

Understanding how to produce effective boundaries distinguishes adults from children, despite their real age and teachers rely on this ability to survive in the most difficult of classes. 

Posted by: AT 01:52 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 27 2019

Perfectly Imperfect

This is a follow-up Newsletter from ‘The Impact of Abuse’ where I described the different outcomes of unpredictable or predictable abuse.  This article expands on the characteristics of those children who lived in a family where the destructive treatment was always the same.  As pointed out the people from this background felt they had to be better than, invulnerable, good/perfect, independent and totally in control.  In fact, they had to be ‘perfect’ or others would discover just how damaged they were.

Elene Aguiliar, the author of many books on coaching recently wrote about understanding perfectionism.  Despite not linking this need for perfection to an abusive childhood much of what she says helps us understand these children.  She recognizes that at the heart of perfectionism is a belief that, in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best all the time. Our very worth as a human being is tied to our perfection.

This belief has its core in toxic shame (see Newsletter 7th March 2017), the view that if I make a mistake I am a mistake and so to have any sense of worth I have to be mistake free! 

It is prudent to remind ourselves we are dealing with children with a damaged sense of self.  We all know, or should know perfection is unattainable but the striving to achieve perfection is at the heart of all real success.  We don’t want these children to stop trying but we want them to understand the reality of any situation in which they find themselves. 

When talking to students I used to tell them all that I am a perfect human.  Having engaged their cynical attention, they obviously knew how flawed I am.  I went on to explain that no human is perfect, I’m not perfect so I must be a perfect human!  By repeating this catch phrase, it became part of our shorthand communication and understanding that these kids rely on external validation, when they had made a mistake I could remind them that they are perfect.  This is possible when you have developed a genuine relationship with the child, you can correct the work without having them link this with their sense of self.

We all have a real tendency to see ourselves as being imperfect and that is how it should be; this allows us to have humility and compassion, we know we have flaws but still have a sense of worth.  We also can observe the faults of others without dismissing their importance.   The thing is, these kids not only see their acceptance being tied to being faultless they see others as perfect.  They will accept their validation or rejection without question, they have no autonomy.

To change this sense of toxic shame is a long-term project.  This belief is linked into the child’s emotional memory and any cognitive discussion will have limited success.  The secret is to set-up the lessons in such a way that the expectations are realistic, that is the child can achieve the goals at least 70% of the time.  It is a mistake to make the work too easy, kids can see through this but having a success rate that is significant will encourage real participation.

When giving feedback be careful of how you assess their work.  As children mature they need less praise and in fact teenagers are likely to reject those who praise them (see Newsletter Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward, 4th February 2018).  Make your comments about the work and their effort if appropriate, never say well done when you and the student know there has been little effort. 

You need to understand that when presented with new work these children will already be experiencing negative thoughts like:

I can’t do this ….

Everyone will laugh at my ….

I hate ….

They are already set-up for failure.

Too often I have seen teachers, who have little understanding of these dynamics make comments about the resulting poor efforts by the children saying things like:

What do you think you are doing ….?

Is this the best you can do……?

Why did you do that?

Comments like these reinforce the child’s self-perceptions and destroy any chance of developing a working relationship.  At best, the child will agree with the teacher, of course I can’t do this, at worst they will really resent that teacher.

As pointed out above, keep the feedback focused on the work.  When presented with their work acknowledge what has been done and suggest improvement using statements akin to:

How can we make this ….?

What can we do to ….?

What will it look like if ….?

Using this approach is conveying the message that you believe they can see a better way to do things, at least you are being inclusive and that is a sign of acceptance despite their lack of ‘perfection!

As the teacher you have to be aware of the emotional state they come to each task; their natural reaction is to resist ‘having a go’.  Don’t confront this but acknowledge it with the following type of statements:

You hate being told to do this work.

I understand you would much rather be outside.

I get you don’t like doing this type of work.

They still have to do the work, they are students and you have to teach curriculum but by telling them you know they don’t want to, gives them the message you care about them and appreciate the extra effort they have to make.  You can transform a determination to not even try into a feeling of at least being understood.

This Newsletter started addressing the problems those students raised with persistent patterns of abuse and their faulty belief that they have to be ‘perfect’.  The suggestions outlined will support a teacher’s efforts to develop an authentic sense of self in these students.  The same approach will work just as well for those students who think they are totally ‘imperfect’ and failures.  It is all about validating their humanity.

Posted by: AT 11:09 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 13 2019

 

What's the Chances?

At the centre of good classroom management is a structured discipline and welfare policy that provides known consequences for actions.  The secret is to make the child understand the connection between what they do and what happens as a result of that action.  Of course a 100% connection is not a reflection of the real world.  There are many consequences that can be linked back to any action.  For example if I speed on my way to work I could get to work early, enjoy the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, have an accident, kill a pedestrian, there are a lot of possibilities that can follow my action.  So why is the tight link between the child’s actions and the consequences you deliver so important?

The objective of these Newsletters focuses on those students whose behaviour is severely dysfunctional however, the techniques we present will support all students.  Our premise regarding those with severe behaviours has been that for the vast majority of the kids their problems can be traced back to an abusive/neglectful childhood. 

In previous newsletters we have discussed how memories are formed and that those memories direct our behaviour.  As a child we have a need and we try an action.  If that satisfies the need we ‘remember’ it and when the need returns and we try the same action that memory gets stronger until it becomes our habit.  If the action doesn’t get a result memories are not formed.  This is at the heart of some of the behaviours we have discussed elsewhere, if throwing a tantrum worked once then I will try that again and if it continues to be effective that will become the habitual behaviour.  As we know that’s fine until you try to get that need met in a different environment.  Kids from these environments had a sense of control in their formative years but the tools they learned to get that control were specific to an environment that clashed with the one considered to be ‘normal’ such as the classroom.

For children who live with addicted parents or those with severe mental illness there is a lack of any predictability in their life.  Addicts and those with unstable perception do not provide an expected connection between the consequences they deliver for a child’s action and so the child can’t effectively learn how to behave. 

For example, if the son of an alcoholic gets into a fight and his father finds out the reaction from the father could be:

  • A belting for hurting the other boy
  • Getting a great deal of approval for being tough
  • Ignored
  • Being taken down to the other kids house to apologize.

The list goes on but in reality these and many other consequences the father dreams up are delivered depending on the ever-changing mood and perception of the father.  The result is the child has no idea that what he does influences what happens to him.

The children from families appear ‘out of control’, dependent, vulnerable and just ‘bad’ but this is because they have no sense of control yet they still have the needs they try to satisfy.

How we can help these kids develop a sense of control is by attaching a most predictable consequence for their actions.  Developing the link between actions and consequences is where the rules come into play.  For example if they talk inappropriately in class they get the same consequence, or maybe a sequential set of consequences they expect.  This is why the mantra of being consistent and persistent in your delivery of consequences is critical if you want them to develop that sense of control.  If they get this sense of control in your classroom there is a chance they will develop the confidence to use that capacity into the world.

The other thing you can teach them is that life is not really that predictable.  Take the example of me speeding while driving to work; some of the possible outcomes I could get are getting to work early, enjoying the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, having an accident or kill a pedestrian.  Only two of those consequences are in any way beneficial for me.  They are getting to work and being thrilled by my speeding but I certainly don’t want the remaining three consequences.  Of course the probability of these things happening varies.  I suspect that the chances of killing someone is not very high and I’m most likely not going to be caught BUT if I do speed I must accept that every one of those possible consequences could occur and that they would be my responsibility.

So, we teach the kids, yes there are probabilities and more likely than not you will get away with acting in an inappropriate manner but eventually that consequences you did not want will come up.  As I said to the kids, ‘well your number has come up, you knew that could happen so accept it is your responsibility’.  If you never want to have a particular consequence never do the action that can extract that outcome.

Linking actions to consequences is the greatest empowerment you can give to these damaged kids.  Not only will it make their position in life more powerful it provides you with a ready-made language to manage your classroom.

Posted by: AT 08:20 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, February 26 2019

Creativity

Creativity is recognised as the essential quality our students should have when they graduate from all of our tertiary institutions.  So, it follows that schools should be ‘teaching’ this characteristic.  This is not lost on our masters and the development of creativity is mandated in our National Curriculum and reiterated in almost every vision statement associated with schooling.  Even the Gonski Report emphasised the importance of this in our schools and so we should provide lessons that lead to the acquisition of an education that produces creative thinkers.

This importance placed on creativity is because it is identified as the driver for change in a world where the rate of environmental transformation is increasing at an almost exponential rate.  It is generally accepted that unless we change our industrialised approach to providing for our populations we will face the inevitable collapse of our planet.

Before we address the provision of ‘curriculum for creativity’, let’s investigate what we mean by ‘creativity’.  Like most concepts, when you look for a definition you are faced with a multitude of explanations and creativity is no different.  To simplify each definition emphasises that to be creative in any new development should provide a unique way of interpreting our environment (I have loaded a Chapter, ‘Teaching Creativity’ from my book ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom – The Getting of Wisdom for Teachers’ in the resource section of our Web Page).

We also need to define what type of creativity we are discussing.  James C Kaufman of the University of Connecticut described four forms of creativity, ‘Mini C, Little C, Pro C and Big C.  The first three describe a continuum from critical thinking to people who work in the creative fields, comedians, musicians, those who are vocationally creative but not necessarily eminent.  However, it is the Big C definition that is generally accepted as being the goal of creativity that changes the world and this is at the heart of this work.

However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is ‘creativity’ and what is just ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’.  The mix-up is best observed in the latest emphasis on the STEM approach to learning (project based learning focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths), this is where schools consider they address the issue of creativity.  The combined approach encourages the use of ideas from a mix of precepts to synthesise a ‘better’ outcome for a design brief.  This critical problem solving, in the main is just a more sophisticated organisation of existing knowledge and is not technically creative.  This is not to depreciate this work but it is not really creativity and if we continue to use this approach to the world’s problems we will end up with a much more effective, streamlined, wrong answer to our problems, the inevitable failure will just be ‘more efficient’.

This confusion is seen throughout much of the literature around this subject.  The first of the educational reformers was Ken Robinson whose TED talk on creative education is one of the most watched in that series.  The most recent pundit is Davis Eagleman who, along with his musical friend Anthony Brand wrote the best-selling book ‘The Runaway Species – How Human Creativity Remakes the World’. The central premise is that we must take existing practices to solve problems and ‘bend them, break them or blend them’ to achieve new solutions.  The bending or blending holds for critical thinking but what does breaking them achieve?  Probably no more than putting us back to square one, we still have a problem.

So, how do we achieve new creative ideas that by definition are different from existing knowledge when all we have at our disposal is that existing knowledge?  In the essay I have provided, you will find a detailed description of the neuroscience involved in creative thought but for this work it is best explained as some phenomena that takes place when implicit memories, those unintentional, emotional and unconscious memories are combined with those explicit memories, conscious recollections.

Graham Wallis, the founder of the London School of Economics described this subtle difference between critical thinking and creativity back in 1926 with his five-step model.  Without going into detail, he described the process as first immersing yourself in the problem, looking at all the details and possible solutions.  Then, and this is the movement into the creative approach you ‘incubate’ all you have found.  Now you leave the solution to your unconscious mind to make unique and often exceptional connections between all memories, implicit or explicit without the interference of our taught-thinking processes.  Finally, that creative solution will emerge in some ‘aha’ moment, those ‘moments’ that have been celebrated since Archimedes cried out eureka when he solved a problem about fluid dynamics while sitting in his bath.  History is full of such moments (again I refer you to the essay in our resource page.

This use of our memories has continued on and the Explicit – Implicit Interaction (EII) is a current popular model.  To summarise what you need is a challenge, then a long period of time to really personally examine all aspects of this problem.  This gathering of data will underpin the emergent answer and importantly this data must be stored in your memory not in a smart phone or computer (there is another whole argument about artificial intelligence and creativity but that’s for another time).  Then you must ‘let go’ of the control of the search for a solution and your mind may provide you with that creative ‘aha moment’.

Now, how do we teach creativity in our schools?  There is no surprise regarding the clash between what our political masters desire, creative graduates and what they demand from our schools.  The current educational model is dominated by outcomes based learning.  Our syllabuses are highly prescriptive leaving little room for divergence.  It is so crowded there is no time for deep consideration.  Teachers can’t wait for the incubation of a creative idea. 

Coupled with this is the current obsession with standardised testing both of students and teachers.  The former have their regular numeracy and literacy inspections while the teachers are ‘performance analysed’, based on their students’ results forcing them to ‘teach to the test’; to ensure they are just like everyone else.  This emphasis on reaching ‘milestones’ is a barrier to creativity.

The answer is not easy, creativity is an emergent quality that comes from individuals who see a problem.  What we can do is provide all our students with the abundant learning environment that includes exposure to as diverse a curriculum as possible making sure those ‘implicit’ subjects from the arts are given equal billing. 

Along with this ignite their curiosity and encourage their uniqueness and give them time to ponder.  The hardest thing to do when seeking creativity is to let go of control.  That applies to the individual seeking that break-through or the bureaucrats who want their people to be creative.

Posted by: AT 04:31 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, December 17 2018

In a previous Newsletter (4th September 2018) we spoke about the importance of looking after yourself while working in a stressful classroom.  At that time, we discussed things that you can do to maintain healthy levels of stress on an ongoing way.  Suggestions were to:

  • Debrief – Discuss the incidents with a trusted other; why they happened and how to avoid a repeat of those situations that generated that stress.
  • Boundaries – This is a topic that has been examined in recent postings but in general it is how to protect yourself in the stressful situation.

However, as we approach the end of the school year, this article focuses on the recovery from a long and stressful year at the chalk-face.

It is a tradition that teachers are all asked to ‘enjoy a well-earned break’ by the authorities of the day but to do so would rely on an ability to control our bodies through some cognitive instruction.  Such a statement demonstrates the lack of understanding of how the brain works.  It is as useful as telling a dysfunctional child to behave themselves!  If it was only that easy.

At the end of any school year even the most competent teachers suffer from an annual ‘burn-out’.  This happens because during any day the teacher is confronted by situations that ignite our fight/flight response.  It is this reaction that prepares us for the release of hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine and epinephrine. The energy generated by this response should be released as we actually physically fight an opponent or flight from the situation.  Following that sequence, we release cortisol into our system to readjust our physical sense of wellbeing.

But, as teachers it is inappropriate to take physical action against our students and so the energy we created for survival is not used and remains in out body.  Further the cortisol that naturally follows has no real work to do and so remains taking a corrosive toll on our body.

During the year, with the overwhelming schedule that demands a teacher’s time there is little opportunity for ongoing maintenance for each episode and so there is a cumulative cost on teachers’ physical wellbeing.

When we come to the ‘big-break’ teachers are tired, worn out and even though there is a demonstrated link between stress and illness.  Paradoxically, when the teacher goes on leave and the situations that constantly generate that stress somehow that ‘readiness to protect’ is removed and it is common for teachers to suffer some physical disintegration.  How often do you hear of colleagues getting the flu at the beginning of any holiday?

So, to take advantage of the annual opportunity to recover the first consideration is on our physical wellbeing.

Physical Activity

It is well understood that exercise uses those stress hormones and importantly releases the endorphins that promote a feeling of mental health.  Exercise uses our energy budget and then promotes healthy sleep patterns that also support our physical wellbeing.

Just how much exercise depends on your own physical shape.  It would be pointless for someone in their twilight years to take off on a marathon run.  For some a brisk walk is an appropriate holiday start to recovery.

If you take these walks outdoors you will restore your connection with nature.  This is called ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding’ that calms the nervous system and reduces inflammations and increases our blood circulation.  This ‘earthing’ is also associated with working in the garden.

Finally, think about undertaking some relaxation activities.  These can be formal joining some meditation classes or yoga or it could be a restful hobby like painting or knitting.

Just make sure the exercise is pleasurable – resist any thought of building another challenge.  This is about recovery not kicking off another ‘task’!

Feed your Recovery

There is plenty of information about the use of food and supplements to reduce your stress.  If you look at any of these resources they will include the obvious warnings about fatty foods, too much alcohol or caffeine.  This will be a bit of a challenge around the celebrations of Christmas especially on ‘the day’ but use common sense.

What will be helpful is to take time to prepare your ‘special’ meal with someone you enjoy sharing wonderful moments with.  Take the time to find that particular recipe, source the ingredients and delight in being the ‘Master Chef’ in your kitchen.

Share Your Love

Take the time to reconnect with family and friends.  Shelley Taylor of UCLA coined the phrase ‘tend and befriend’, the reverse of ‘fight or flight’.  Instead of generating the defensive stress response; ‘tend or befriend’ releases oxytocin that enhances our wellbeing.

This is reported to be stronger for woman than men but I would encourage all men to give this a go.  Taylor cites the benefit of cuddling, hugging kissing and loving intimacy as a great way to rebuild your body.

Not only share the intimacy, share activities like going to concerts or sporting events.  Share laughter and those moments that are so rare in your working life.

Finally, take control of your smart phone.  For most of my career I did not have any way to contact the ‘Department’ when I was on holidays and I got through.  If something is so important you will be contacted so take control of your digital life.  The friends on Face Book will not ‘tend or befriend’ you so get some human contact!

This is the last Newsletter for 2018 so we would like to thank you for your support and also thank you for all the work you do for those children who need you.  Have a great break and we will be back next year!

Posted by: AT 09:51 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, December 03 2018

Trust - The Glue That Sustains Relationships

 

Much has been written about the significant relationship between learning outcomes and trust.  Trust across all levels of the schooling system whether that is between the community and the school, the system and individual schools and most importantly between the teacher and the student(s).  

Dean Fink, from Ontario in his article ‘Trust in Our Schools: The missing part of school improvement?', gives an excellent summary of research that shows that across the developed nations PISA results correlate strongly with the social levels of trust.  Statistically, high levels of trust result in better learning outcomes.  He points out that when policy makers introduce easily measured testing regimes and insidious compliance tasks the level of trust contracts.  He goes on to suggest that the Australian "federal government's recent school improvement efforts are heavy on low trust strategies."  This observation explains the emerging dissatisfaction experienced by teachers across the system and the exodus of young teachers from our profession.

This significant relationship, between trust and learning is more critical when dealing with those students with severe behaviours.  Their developmental history almost ensures a natural distrust of the authority at school.

Erik Erikson, the German-born American developmental psychologist points out that psychosocial development including basic trust occurs in the first two years of development.  A child raised in a predictable and affectionate home with caregivers who are reliable and competent will have the confidence to trust the rest of their environment.  That is, they are optimistic about their future and teachers and schools are afforded trust. 

Conversely, and generally the children with severe behaviours are raised in homes where the opposite conditions apply.  That is their environment is chaotic, attachment is at best marginal and there is no foreseeable individual success; why would these children have any trust? 

The thing is, trust is the belief something will happen following a given set of circumstances.   At school, these insecure students will at best predict an unpleasant outcome but more likely will have no idea what will happen.  It becomes critical that their teacher must develop the child’s confidence in the future before any meaningful learning can take place. 

There are steps in developing trust in students.  These are:

  • Provide a predictable, caring environment where the boundaries between the teacher and the student are well defined.  Providing a structured set of expectations allows the student to develop the sense that it is their behaviour that initiates adverse outcomes, not the belief they have an inherent incompetence.  This separation of the student's sense of worth from the mistakes they make will slowly have them accept corrections from the teacher without destroying the relationship.

 

  • Students with a history of abuse and neglect are locked into the present moment as they tried to survive the situation in which they find themselves.  Eventually, they will be able to project into the future by trusting the advice given by the teacher despite the lack of any evidence these things will happen.

 

  • They will come to believe that putting in an effort will pay-off despite there being no real understanding between their efforts and some future reward.  So often we teach students subjects that, in all honesty they really would find it difficult to connect to some future but because they trust us they learn these lessons now without a guaranteed pay-off.

 

  • This last point is huge for these challenging students.  When they have developed real trust, they are risking their vulnerability, having faith that we will not exploit this exposure.  Never underestimate the core levels of fear these kids live with.  In early childhood, their abuse and neglect was linked with dying and this experience has imprinted overwhelming feelings of fear that normal children would never associate even with low-level rejection or mild threats.  For these children to expose themselves is an enormous level of faith in the teacher.  Eventually, this trust could be generalized and they could begin to trust the world.

Developing trust in these children is a gift from you.  Any teacher who takes the time to develop this level of trust is making an incalculable contribution not only to that child but also to their classmates, their school, and society.  The real bonus is their success will repay you in a way that is your real, unmeasured contribution to education!

Posted by: AT 09:16 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 05 2018

Childhood Trauma

Early childhood trauma is well established as the major contributor to disrupted neurological and behavioural development in children.  The inevitable outcome from the abuse and/or neglect that creates this trauma is a child whose repertoire of behaviours coupled with an adverse cognitive construction limits their ability to engage in our classrooms on an equal footing.  Although there is a recognition that these children do suffer from a ‘mental health' disability there remains a reluctance to embrace these kids with the same compassion as those whose disability is more visible and less offensive.

But what constitutes trauma? (The term ‘trauma’ is also used in the medical field to describe an assault on the physical body, but for this work, we are discussing psychological trauma)  The short answer is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or a negative event that is painful and overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.

The three conditions where trauma can occur are:

Shattered Expectations – We all have a belief that things will be OK in the future.  We live on an ideal beach with the surf lapping at our front door – then a tsunamis hits and your family has washed away; you're driving home from work and you’re hit by a truck that is out of control.

These events and countless other potential disasters, if experienced, force you to accept that a single person has no real control over natural forces.  Most of us will never have to face such events but for those who do the resulting stress levels leads straight to trauma!

Human Vulnerability – All our life we wake with an expectation that we will live through the day and repeat this process over and over.  We fail to see the fragility of our bodies and the tenuous grip we have on life.  However, if you witness an unexpected death, a road accident, murder, industrial accident or perhaps the onset of a fatal disease you become fully exposed to the reality of death and how helpless we are to prevent it.  If you have ever seen such an event, you will understand the trauma that surrounds it.  Imagine working in an area such as a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster, this human vulnerability is reinforced time and time again.  It's little wonder soldiers, police, rescue workers, etc. are highly likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress.

The Human Capacity for Evil - History is full of major events that illustrate our capacity for evil.  The holocausts, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia and the countless war crimes reported throughout history all confirm that humans are capable of a level of ‘evil’ behaviour that is rare in any other species. 

Such malevolent actions are not limited to these large-scale examples, go to any emergency ward in any public hospital, and you will see children, women and male victims who have been beaten for no reason than to satisfy some wicked person’s desire.

The reality that some humans do not share a capacity for kindness, tolerance and a fair-go shatters the belief system we depend on and when we witness extreme malevolence we become traumatized.


The types of trauma that tend to have the greatest adverse psychological consequences are those related to interpersonal or intentional trauma. These include childhood abuse and neglect.

But identifying these underpinnings of trauma do not appear to be relevant when discussing the trauma of young children.  Their cognitive development would make any real comprehension of the conditions outlined above almost irrelevant.  So, what are the conditions that traumatize kids?

This is a difficult area, what will traumatize an infant is different from say a two-year-old, this difference reflects the variation in their social/intellectual development.  I have attempted to create a crude model that illustrates the differences.  I have put these into stages.  However, the underpinning feature is the shattered sense of safety.

Stage 1. Infancy

Traumatic factors will include frightening visual stimulation, loud, unexpected noise, being hurt or abandoned.  The child's increased stress levels are a response to the fear of ‘death' even though they are incapable of that concept.  For them, ‘death' is the removal of support.

Stage 2.  Early Childhood

The initial conditions still apply, but now the reliance on relationships becomes a more significant factor.  Children, who are abused by primary care-givers not only suffer the trauma of that abuse they also interpret that as a complete rejection from the very person they rely on for survival.  Because they are intensely ego-centric that rejection must be because they are ‘bad’.  This is the foundation of their sense of toxic shame. 

There is also the situation when they see their mother beaten.  Mum represents life and when that is threatened the child suffers trauma.  Some research contends that seeing mum beaten does more damage than being hit their self.  Bizarrely, they will believe they deserve to be punished but not their mum.   Seeing their siblings abused continues this trend of helplessness in the face of evil.

There was a time when people believed that because their ‘memories' had not developed that the children would not suffer long-term consequences from the abuse and resulting trauma.  This idea that there is no impact could not be further from the truth.   Early childhood is the most vulnerable time for children and those who visit abuse or neglect on children at this time in their life are creating the maximum psychological scar possible.

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Monday, October 22 2018

 

Boundary Considerations

In the Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries (31st July 2017) I outlined the process of establishing effective boundaries.  The work described how you know your boundaries are being threatened and how to protect yourself.  This simplified approach is useful to either protect yourself from harm or to teach students how they can protect themselves and to develop independence.

Of course, boundaries are not that simple in the complex world of a teacher and the following will help create more professional boundaries that allow you to stay ‘in control’ in the most challenging situations.

Let’s start with a more realistic description of how we create our boundaries.  In a pure form your boundary is the interface between your-self and non-self.  As we grow we constantly build a connection between incoming stimulus, how that affects us and what happens if or when we act in response to that stimulus.  Eventually, after a number of trial and errors a set of rules will develop; those rules will be our reality.  The more consistently the impact of the stimulus and/or the consequence of our behaviour is interconnected the stronger will be the accepted reality.  The link is why we really start to believe we know what just happened or what will happen in any experienced situation.

The day to day correlation between our experiences of the physical world is considerably robust.   We soon learn that if we jump off a wall we fall to the ground or if we go out into the rain without protection we get wet.  But, people are biological beings and our experiences are dependent on the environment in which we develop.   Therefore, the correlation between what happens in my reality and yours is not so consistent.

However, there is enough of a matched response to situations between individuals to allow a broad sense of a shared reality.  This is particularly true if the development of our reality is within a homogenous group.  When we grow-up in a neighbourhood with shared socio-economic and cultural norms, the links between actions and consequences are more likely to be alike.  The chances are that you and the person with whom you experience an event will share the similar beliefs about that incident.  This shared reality will allow you to predict what is most likely to happen in a given situation and that is essential in building a safe and secure environment.

What are the complications for teachers?

The first is that there is a probability that you will be working in a community where the cultural expectations you learned are not the same as the culture you are working in.  The expectations of families, for their kids may clash with yours.  What you expect to happen may not be what they expect to happen.  To compound this problem, even within communities over time traditions change; the older you become the more out of touch you are with those pesky teenagers who grow-up in a ‘modern’ environment.  So again a clash of customs will occur.  It is this clash which will create a level of tension. To protect yourself from that tension the likely thing is to defend your view of reality which by implication means you reject the other view.  You’re right and they are wrong!

The second professional consideration is that you are dealing with children who are just developing their sense of reality.  Because of their limited experience very young children are still learning the stimulus-response/action-consequence connections.  Also, many of these lessons belong on the developmental path they are age dependent and so their reactions you expect for a given situation may not be present.  Say you are annoyed at something they have done, it may well be that they just didn’t know what to do.  Your ‘annoyance’ may provide the correct feedback they need to create this reality!

Finally, the kids we are focused on, those with damaged childhoods will most likely have an interpretation of any situation where there is a disagreement.  Their idea of what should happen, their reality may well be very much at odds with yours.  One example of this clash of realities is that many of these kids are comfortable in a noisy, chaotic classroom while such a classroom will/should strain your sense of ‘safety and security’ this situation will violate your boundaries.  But, when you get the class under control, achieve a state of calm this situation will threaten the abused child, it is not their reality.

One of the great impediments to having strong and effective boundaries is the faulty belief that your reality is another’s reality. This can never be the case (see Newsletter - Theory of Mind, 7th August 2018) your internal world, your reality is yours, it is unique and has developed in response to your perceptions and the environment in which you developed.  Too many people take for granted that their reality is the only reality and when there is a clash in the response to a situation they believe the other person is deliberately taking an action that annoys you. 

As a teacher, you have a professional duty to understand that the children you are dealing with may have a very different view of the world so it is worth repeating the third step in setting those practical boundaries.

Ask the Questions

  • ‘What is really happening’?  This is often not the obvious event.
  • ‘Who is responsible’?

If ‘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 attack’?
  • What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?

Boundaries are extremely important in every part of our life but it is no more important than when you are in charge of a classroom.  This is where your skills define you as a professional teacher!  Remember reality is just a set of rules learned to live in the environment you first develop and continue to live.  These children need the reality that will help them change their reality and so you need to create a structured and supportive environment that will facilitate this.

This change takes time so you have to rely on your own boundaries to allow you to hang in with these most deserving kids.  Understanding their reality, how it damages them, how to help this change should be your reality and this will give you the resilience to turn up each day.

Posted by: AT 10:42 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Tuesday, September 04 2018

Let It Go

If you have young children or, as in my case grand children, recently you may well have been terrorised by the title song from Disney’s blockbuster film Frozen.  It was the most requested karaoke song in 2014 and is a tune loved by children all over the world. What made Frozen the number one animated film of all time and why do kids love its pivotal song ‘Let It Go’ so much?  Two psychologists decided to find out. Their verdict: the song recognises our desire to be happy and free.

But why are the words ‘let it go’ so important if we want to be happy and free? The fact is, if you look at the opposite of the positive emotions like happiness and freedom you arrive at feelings like anger, sorrow, hatred and fear.  While ever you hold onto these types of emotions you are locked into a negative spiral that keeps you their prisoner.

For all of us a great portion of our happiness is tied up in our relations with others.  We love being with those we care for, our friends and family and while these relationships are running smoothly, life will be OK.

So how is it with the students you teach.  Unlike family and friends the relationship is not so easily formed and is often one sided especially for those kids with abusive backgrounds.  These damaged kids find it very difficult to establish the kind of relationships that leave them happy and content.  More importantly for teachers, often their behaviours are so repulsive they sabotage any attempt you may have of forming a positive relationship.

In a recent research paper from the Monash University it was found that teachers, particularly those who handle the discipline side of our work are eight times more likely to be abused, psychologically and six times more likely to be physically attacked then the general public.  It is part of our professional duty to deliver consequences for dysfunctional behaviours and we have to learn to deal with the abuse that often follows.

It is not unusual for these most difficult kids to abuse their teacher, most often verbally but in too many cases they physically attack the teacher.  We understand that these severe behaviours have their origin in their past and even though it is an extremely difficult thing to do, we must separate the behaviour from the child.

The alternative is to not ‘forgive’ the child and let the incident dominate the future relationships.  This is holding a grudge and a grudge is the feeling of anger and resentment and drives the desire to ‘get even’.

We are human so think about the last time you were wronged, did you hold a grudge and if so was it a feeling of carrying extra weight? We often talk about ‘carrying’ a grudge like we’ve got a heavy load.

In an experiment the psychologist asked participants to remember when they’d experienced conflict. One group were asked to recall a situation that ended in forgiveness, while the other group were asked to remember a situation where they did not forgive the offender.   All participants were then asked to jump five times as high as they could.

Participants in the ‘forgiving’ group jumped the highest, while the ‘grudge holding’ group jumped almost one-third lower (on average) than the forgivers.  So there it is; carrying a grudge really does weigh you down.  Forgiveness can lighten the burden so let revenge go.

It is most important that teachers let go of this extra burden in their life.  Letting go is not easy, it may well be the most difficult thing you can do but it is imperative if you want to retain your mental health.  There are some things that you can do.  These include:

  • Debriefing – After any situation that you are ‘attacked’ you need to go over the circumstances around the issue.  It is best to do this with a trusted and informed colleague who understands your work.  The use of your family should only be as a last resort as it will cloud the boundaries of your home and your place of work.
  • Boundaries – We have spoken about boundaries elsewhere but briefly they protect you from abuse you don’t deserve, inform you of your contribution to any incident and let you plan how you will deal with the problem if it happens again.  The fundamental questions are:
    • What is really happening?
    • Who’s responsible?
      • If it’s me then I have to take action
      • If it’s the student I have to take action – this doesn’t seem fair but you are the professional and you must understand your health is your responsibility. Don’t hold a grudge!
  • Decide what you want in the future and take action to make that happen.         

The final step is to let go.  Generally it just requires you to forgive the student and start each new day afresh but in some cases no matter what efforts you put in nothing changes and you continue to be abused.  If things are like this ‘letting go’ may mean someone leaves the relationship!

Posted by: AT 09:09 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, August 01 2018

The Tribal Classroom

In a recent Newsletter we discussed how important a relationship is to enhance the learning for students in our class.  This importance lies in the reality that we have evolved to live in groups to share resources rather than in isolation where we would have to fend for ourselves.  That means our individual success depends on how we fit into that group, how socially aware we are.  This is not the case for all creatures, reptiles and some mammals do live in isolation but for the higher forms of mammals belonging to a group is critical for success. 

It follows that the strength of our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group.  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

They learned these skills through their association with a healthy group, from their family and their school. 

However, our interest is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours.  These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self or exclusion, neglect from the only company they experience.

In light of this it is informative to examine how we developed the reliance on the group.  In the first stage of evolution there was little development of social groupings and the subsequent social brain.  This ‘social brain’ coincided with the growth of the limbic system, that place where our emotions and sense of connectedness resides.  About 100,000 years ago humans moved into tribes and the social development began. 

The benefits of this tribal life went beyond the provision of food, shelter and security it extended to more time for ‘child care’ meaning there was more time for the development of our physical and cognitive skills.  Along with this was the development of language, from grunts, to words, from grooming to non-verbal communication.  This drive to communicate coupled with more security and better nutrition provided the conditions for the expansion of our brains.  

The size of these groups has been shown to be between 50 and 75.  This number is still a likely size of other primates who live in groups.  These seem to be the numbers where strong bonds and attachments are formed.  The cohesion found is supported by a sense of sharing and fairness.  We trust things will be fair and we can rely on our group for support when we are struggling.

In contemporary times the tribe has been replaced by the big cities.  Now in those cities we live not in discrete groups of about 75 we live with millions of strangers, our contribution to this metropolis often lacks satisfaction, being detached from the feedback your support is providing.  We have become very individualised moving away from the supportive benefits of the tribe.

Successful arrangement of these large cities relies on some form of hierarchical authority that needs to dominate the organization.  Those in ‘authority’ enjoy their own sense of power and the rewards that come with ‘individual success’ but they are not attached to those who serve them.  Likewise workers in large industrial organisations have no contact with those who consume their production. 

This loss of an encompassing tribal sized community has forced people to look for alternate ways to belong.  This means we look to ‘belong’ to a football team, a political party, or a religion, something that we can identify with.  This gives us something to defend but the support back from these communities is questionable.  These types of communities have invariably become another version of industrialisation.  Football teams have moved from being a ‘district team’ to a ‘franchise’ that really belongs to their owner not the fans.  They are businesses where power and authority rest with those who compete for the leadership position.

There is no doubt that this marginalization of the group for the development of large industrial organization has led to an increase in our consumption of materials and benefits in services but at what cost.

However, what has been observed in this industrial age that the best outcomes are achieved when tasks are carried out by subset, tribe-like groups within the larger organisation.  Success depends on tasks being designed to be completed by a special section, armies divide into units, police have squads, etc. there is an understanding of the benefit of ownership. This advantage comes from the social interaction of the group.  

Schools have by design understood this process and have organized their children into classes.  There have been attempts to ignore this process, we have had accelerated progression and vertical streaming but approaches satisfy the rationality of cognitive learning in fact they exemplify this approach but they have failed.  Learning is about the development of the brain and the best conditions for neural plasticity for children, the creation of autobiographical memories the substance of all curriculum is in the tribal group.

As teachers it is relatively easy in primary school to create your class as a tribe.  It is not as easy in the secondary years but it’s not as important but can still be done.  The trick is to develop an identity for the class, create a culture that the kids want to belong to.  Handle disputes as you would in a large family emphasizing the responsibility each class member has to the whole.

Creating this tribal class will not only benefit the students’ social learning it will provide the environment that will enhance their academic achievement.

Posted by: AT 12:11 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 25 2018

Relationships – They Know What You’re Thinking

A relationship between a teacher and their student is generally accepted as being the critical factor in the successful engagement of the child in learning.  Just how these relationships evolve will give teachers a clue to developing and maintaining this most important dynamic in the classroom.

How or the type of relationship reflects the environment in which the child is raised.  Remember it is the environment that builds or changes the neurologic structure of the brain.  If the first experiences are good then there is a flow on effect that allows future bonds to be easily made.  Of course the converse is true and the severe dysfunctional kids we are focusing on will have a reduced ability to form healthy relationships.

The emergence of a relationship for a child occurs from the very first interaction with their caregiver usually their mum.  Evidence that they are seeking a connection comes almost at birth evidenced by, from the very beginning mothers and others can get a baby to smile and ‘giggle’ by their attention.  In fact from a very early age, if you poke your tongue out at an infant they are very likely to return the gesture.  Now the tongue is a complex muscle and not easily controlled however this reflected behaviour is attributed to our mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons were first observed at the University of Parma in Italy where a team of researchers, Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi were trying to map the neurological pathways of a chimp performing a motor action.  The experiment was in a break but the chimp was still wired to the recording device.  One of the experimenters picked up a piece fruit and the part of the chimp’s brain associated with movement lit up despite the monkey remaining still.  Subsequent work has shown these mirror neurons exist in humans as well.

The crucial thing about these neurons is they send messages without any cognitive assistance; that is they convey massages without words.  These are the non-verbal communications that supply the emotional content of the relationship.  They help us understand the others’ emotions and they also communicate intentions.  In one famous experiment the subjects were faced with a dinner table.  In one sequence the subjects were exposed to a table that is ready for dinner to start.  In the second condition the table looked as if it was ready to be cleaned up.  Although the items were identical different parts of the brain were in use.  This indicated that the subjects had anticipated what comes next.

One of the findings around these studies is that children who suffer Autism or Asperger’s have fewer mirror neurons than the average child.  This may account for these children’s struggle to accurately read the feelings or intentions of others.  Of course this is only a small part of this very complex disease but may go some way to explaining their difficulty in successfully integrating in a big classroom.  

As far as the emotional message is concerned the exchange from one person to others is contagious.  Everyone knows if one person yawns it is very likely his or her companions will join in.  The same with laughter or sadness they are infectious.  Emotions such as Guilt, shame disgust, pride, etc. are all communicated through this system of mirror neurons  

It is important for teachers to remember the students get 93% of the emotional content of any message through your facial expression, tone of voice and posture.  These messages will be automatic and unconscious because they are communicated through the mirror neurons.

Because of this the authenticity of insincere messages are very hard to fake.  Paul Ekman the famous psychologist from the University of California studied facial expressions and concluded that there are 90 different facial muscles that can produce 10,000 different facial expressions.  These give us information about our intentions.  They fill in the gap between what we say and what we mean.

As pointed out earlier students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships.  The style of relationship formed reflects the environment it is experienced in and if they haven’t been exposed to nurturing relationships they will find accepting positive relationships difficult later in life.  These students:

  • Minimise or misinterpret positive stimuli
  • Are hypersensitivity to negative social cues
  • Find it extremely difficult to understand or read non-verbal cues
  • Have a high propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus.

These students are at a disadvantage, they think everyone is against them and they even suspect or misconstrue the intentions of the most positive teacher.  But this is just another example of the chance we have to have a positive impact on the behaviours of these most needy kids. 

We have to remember that the brain is a work in progress and they can change.  However, to make that change in these most difficult/damaged students will take a great deal of effort.  But they can be taught how to create relationships.  This involves the teaching of social and emotional skills to change the structure of the brain and constant repetition strengthens these changes.  This is part of the interventions to assist the children suffering Autism or Asperger’s.

We have to remember these children are not their traits; they are not locked into a genetic destiny.  They have the ability to change and you can effect this change through your treatment of these most needy children.

Posted by: AT 01:40 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 18 2018

Different Expressions from an Abused History

In these Newsletters we have asserted that the majority of dysfunctional behaviours kids display in schools have their origins in early childhood abuse and/or neglect.  The following describes ways children, particularly but not exclusively boys have learned to respond differently when exposed to threat. I say boys because they are more likely to externalize their behaviour.  Another strong response to abuse is to dissociate and eventually withdraw form any meaningful involvement in life and this has a particular gender bias.  Girls are more likely to internalise and ‘dissociate’ in response to abuse.  Dissociation will be discussed in a later Newsletter.

Abuse comes in various forms but it helps to discuss the nature of abuse on a continuum from a highly anticipated manner to a totally unpredictable kind.  For example, let’s say a father always treats their children the same cruel way and so the children learn to expect what will happen given a certain set of circumstances.  At the other end of the scale is a father who is erratic and completely unpredictable in the way he responds to that same set of circumstances.  This latter style of behaviour is a common state for addicts or the seriously mentally ill and so their children have no idea what to expect, they can’t predict and subsequently fail to learn how to behave.

Therefore the hypothesis is that the developed sense of self and the resulting boundary issues reflects the environment in which it is formed.  Fundamentally, boundaries are what healthy people use to protect their core sense of self from external influence.  In this essay we will contrast those children who have no opportunity to develop functional boundaries with those who are raised in an abusive but predictable environment.  The children will either have no protection; an exposed core to the influence of others or build walls of protection and no one gets in!  Either experience results in dysfunctional behaviour and teachers should be conscious of this difference when dealing with them.

The illustration below describes these differences in terms that reflect the characteristics of children’s personality.  These traits are just to facilitate the conversation.  Of course human habits vary from individual to individual and so these personality features exist on a continuum but it is easier to discuss the extremes.

The model refers to the child’s core, their sense of security within the external environment.  At the left we describe a child with an exposed core.  These are the children raised in a chaotic environment.  They are subjected to arbitrary consequences for specific behaviours.  For example, say a boy gets into a fight and the father finds out.  On one occasion he is praised for standing up for himself, ‘a chip off the old block’ but if he gets into another fight he might be severely punished even getting hit so he ‘knows how the other kid feels’ or maybe taken to the other child’s home where the father could make him apologise or want to fight the other kid’s father.  This boy will have no way of predicting what will happen if he gets into a fight.  Therefore, he will have no sense of control.

At the other end, the walled core, are the children who have been treated in an abusive manner but always in the same way. In the example this father might praise the son for ‘being a man’, ‘standing up for himself’ or being told about all the success and prestige the father got from ‘winning’ all his fights.  The kid knows how to behave to get his father’s approval or avoid his wrath.  ‘Encouraging’ the boy to fight is abusive and will impair his ability to form healthy relationships outside the home.  The son develops a ‘sense of control’ but only in the family.

The kids with exposed cores are easy to identify at school.  They will cause the most trouble in class and destroy your lessons.  However, the kids who have built walls of behaviour to survive in their home build a sense of not being vulnerable.  They feel they are in control, good or perfect but this belief is false.  The thing is they only feel comfortable when they think they are living up to these unrealistic descriptions.  To maintain this illusion they cannot consider any other possibility.  These kids are harder to recognize and are not an obvious problem unless someone threatens their self-belief.  When this happens they will put up this illusionary wall and refuse to change.

We need these kids to take control of their lives but on the walled end of our model interpret control as being on everything.  Obviously, those out of control kids have no idea there is any chance of control of anything.  The truth is we can, at best control our behaviour and appreciate we can’t make anyone else do what we want them to do.  Understanding this is perhaps the most liberating bit of information a teacher can get.  All you can do is provide the environment that is most likely to present the conditions that suit the other person and then they choose the action you want.

So what to do for these abused children.  The message is the same as always.  Provide the structured, consistent environment so the ‘out of control’ kids can build a sense of predictability and those kids behind the walls are shown there is an alternate set of outcomes for their behaviour and that they can begin to trust an alternate way of behaving that might allow them to better function in the school community.

And of course you must maintain respectful relationships with these students.  Remember their behaviours have been ‘put on them’ by dysfunctional adults and while they are behaving the way they do they are doing the best they can.  It will take your best effort to make a difference for these kids but that’s why you're a teacher.

Posted by: AT 12:44 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 11 2018

Rejection

A successful trait that has evolved in our species is that we have learned to take the advantage of living in groups.  It is ‘the group’ that provides us with an advantage in survival through things like shared meals and shelter and has presented us a range of potential partners so we can reproduce.  The development of our sense of belonging comes through the process of attachment.

Attachment is a process that begins at birth and evolves from the formation of intimate relationships with our primary carer, usually mum and on through to our attempts to join in with our peers from preschool through our schooling years.  It is well understood that healthy attachment is essential for physical and social wellbeing.

However, it is when our attempts to attach with others are declined, our wellbeing is threatened.  In recent years since the advent of brain imaging techniques it has been shown that rejection activates the same brain regions as a physical injury.  It is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that becomes active when people are experiencing physical pain and the same area is initiated when we experience social pain.  Research into this process has shown that the use of pain relief medication can assist people to deal with social rejection just as it does with physical pain relief.

It follows that rejection experienced by our students has an adverse impact on their psychological wellbeing.  Karen Bierman of Pennsylvania State University has shown that children who are rejected display one or more of the following behaviour patterns:

  • Low rates of pro-social behavior, e.g. taking turns, sharing
  • High rates of aggressive or disruptive behavior
  • High rates of inattentive, immature, or impulsive behavior
  • High rates of social anxiety

These rejected children suffer internalizing problems that lead to depression and social anxiety and of course these psychological impediments will have a negative effect on their learning.  Their obvious social clumsiness leads them to be the target of teasing and bullying which exacerbates their isolation.

The leader of this victimization from the social group that produces the rejection is usually that member with the most ‘social power’.  These are often those with the most confidence, physical prowess or social status.   The archetypical, main bully, in the popular media is the star footballer or for the girls the ‘queen bee’.  They are so threatening there is obvious pressure on the others in the group to ‘go along with the bullying’ because if they refuse they risk being ostracized as well.

Some children with long-term rejection will eventually deal with their pain by acting out, externalizing their problems.  This lashing out can be directed at them selves with the tragic extreme of suicide or in a few but significant cases it can be outward displays of violence towards others.

In an analysis of 15 school shootings in the United States between 1995 and 2001 found that peer rejection was present in all but two of the cases that is in almost 90% of the cases.  These perpetrators had suffered both acute and chronic rejection being bullied, ostracized and had been unable to form a relationship with a romantic partner.  Of course in these extreme cases there would be other pathological symptoms like extreme depression but it could be argued that these negative traits were a result of the rejection.  The question is could these children’s violence been avoided if they had experienced some form of acceptance?  This is the tragedy of the lack of genuine psychological support provided for children who are easily identified as being in need.

The pain of rejection is not limited to children; adults who have taken place in experiments including the famous ‘cyber ball trial’ have shown similar feelings of ‘pain’ if they feel excluded.  This experiment takes many forms but fundamentally involves three participants, only one that is truly involved.  In a simple form each member of the group pass a Frisbee between each other with a generally fair amount of sharing.  After a period of time the two confederates, those ‘members’ who are really part of the experiment reduce the number of passes to the research subject and eventually leave them out all together.  The subjects consistently report the feelings associated with rejection.  This feeling has been confirmed by playing a similar game in a functioning MRI.  When the subject is rejected the parts of the brain associated with physical pain light up.

So what to do for those students in your class you know are suffering from rejection?  In a perfect world we could send them to the school counsellor where they could be treated professionally but we know that this is not always, if ever available and so it is left to the teacher to at least try to minimize this.

One of the easiest things you can do is manipulate the combinations of students for group work making sure you place that student away from the perpetrators and with empathetic classmates.  Teachers already construct groups to achieve the best learning outcomes and so to incorporate the goal of reducing the ostracism is appropriate.  In any case I would never allow the students to pick their working partners for any project work, apart from this being a chance to academically strengthen all students it will avoid that most tragic happening I see in schools and on sports teams.  When picking teams the process is usually the choice of the best player and down until we get to the last chosen and that is a public display of their lack of value to the group!

You can also weave social skills training into your lessons and even manipulate public speaking exercises that focus on the problems of isolation in general allowing the students to apply this to their life.  Make sure that your classroom is inclusive and everyone is of equal value.

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Monday, June 04 2018

A Question about Controlling the ‘Structure’

In recent Newsletters I have outlined techniques to develop structure in the classroom and have advocated a method of ‘rule making’ that assumes the students are capable of making ‘appropriate’ choices.  There is no fundamental problem with this approach however it is important to keep in mind that children are works in progress and we assume they understand what we would consider appropriate.

Until relatively recently it was believed that the brain was fully developed by the time a child turned seven.  Since the advent of more sophisticated instruments to examine the brain this assumption has been dismissed and it is well established that the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties.  This development is not straightforward; there are periods, ‘windows of time’ when the brain prepares itself for the acquisition of new ‘behaviours’ such a sight, personal attachment and all the skills that make us human.  At these times the child experiences the particular properties of the environment and learns how to behave in a way that allows them to function in that environment.  At the risk of getting ‘off subject’ it is this learning how to behave relative to the environment that is critical to the long-term functionality of that behaviour.  In other words if the behaviour, say attachment is developed in a dysfunctional setting, perhaps the mother or father is over anxious, disorganized or suffers from an addiction the behaviours learned by the child at the time will create unhealthy behaviours in a future, functional environment.

The brain matures in two ways, from the bottom up and from the back to the front of the structure.  The latter development is through the cerebral cortex where the skills of sight, sound, language, etc. are acquired and situated.  The last stage of this development is in the frontal cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex. 

The bottom up development goes from the brain stem, up through the midbrain on to the limbic system and finally the cortex.  This is not to say all these parts of the brain are not being used until they are ‘turned on’ of course they are but they are not sculptured, not exquisitely structured until the correct neurological conditions are in place, that is abundant myaline to reinforce developed neural pathways and effective pruning of unused neurons at the end of that process.

And so it’s the prefrontal lobes that are the last to be developed and this task is not complete until the mid to late twenties.

In 2004 developmental psychologist Slywester described the early development into two ten-year cycles.  In both cases the first four years were characterized by an awkward period of learning followed by the gradual mastery and confidence. 

During the first ten-year cycle children learn to be ‘human’, to move, communicate and master fundamental living skills.  The second ten-year period they focus on becoming productive, reproductive adults.  They explore emotional commitment, sexual expression and a ‘vocational’ interest.  They learn these skills through testing behaviours in their environment.

The repercussion for the teacher, and for parents is how much choice about what consequences are appropriate for behaviours when we include the students in the construction of their classroom structure.  In crude terms the amount of appropriate responsibility is related to their age, their stage of development.  The graph below gives a simplistic illustration of how much freedom of choice is appropriate at a given stage of development.

It can be seen that very young children are dependent and it is the carer’s duty to tell them what to do.  I often despair when I hear parents ask a six year old what would they like for dinner.  Children are incapable of making appropriate decisions about the food that is good for their long-term health just as they are ill prepared for deciding what time to go to bed. 

As they get older the issues that you can introduce choice must be those that do not have a direct bearing on their physical or emotional development.  As you introduce them to limited control this must be linked to the consequences and their responsibility for those consequences.  This is the balancing act all caregivers must satisfy, that is when ever possible you should only allow the child to make choices when the worst case scenario is tolerable for the child.

And so it is in the classroom.  As a teacher there are times when you impose conditions that you know are right for their current level of development.  You need to know when they can, and should take responsibility and only when they are able to make those decisions.  This is true for lessons and for the setting of behaviour standards.

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Monday, March 19 2018

Dopamine for Teachers

 

In the last Newsletter (13th March 2018) it was shown that dopamine is a critical element in motivation. We discussed the significance of dopamine in regards to the motivation of children but what about the motivation of their teachers?  It is hard to remain motivated when you have to face up day after day to a class that has one or more students whose dysfunctional behaviour is such they dread that lesson.   Just as the students who are causing the anxiety and stress have low levels of natural dopamine due to their history of negative experience, teachers can have their reserves depleted when they face the same conditions in class.

Just as these stressed students have had the dopamine reduced the same conditions can occur for the teachers unless they experience some reward.   People with low levels of dopamine experience depression, boredom and loss of job satisfaction.  They can become apathetic, fatigued and have no desire to make an effort to change.  They become classically ‘burned-out' a condition prevalent in our modern schools.

It is not likely any useful help will come from our system or even from our direct supervisors. We know that the production of dopamine is linked to the seeking of a reward, but I believe teachers are motivated by the intrinsic reward, and that can only come from their desires.  The system, the supervisors, can only provide an extrinsic reward as motivation and these fail in all but the most ‘productive-line' enterprises.

So how do we raise the levels of dopamine? 

In critical cases, it may require medical intervention.  Dopamine is a chemical and medications do exist to support the supply.  If you do need that extra support, you need to seek professional advice.  However, some take the self-help route to self-medicate and start using illicit stimulants such as cocaine that produce immediate high levels of dopamine and fill the user with extraordinary confidence and motivation.  Stories abound about workers in highly demanding work such as flying fighter jets or traders on the short-term money market using these drugs to enhance their performance.  However, like all drugs their use may well have short-term benefits, in the long run, they become a significant problem.

One natural way to enhance the levels of dopamine is through proper maintenance of our bodies.  Exercise is associated with health levels of dopamine, and the actual pleasure you get from completing a fitness session provides a reward in itself and hence increases dopamine supplies.

Along with exercise diet is critical in the preservation of healthy levels of dopamine.  If you look through the literature, you will find that it is just a good selection of foods that help including protein from meat, fish, and poultry, fruits including bananas and avocados, nuts like almonds.  Like exercise, there is no magic bullet, but a wholesome approach to your diet is rewarding not only in the supply of dopamine but also the maintenance of your physical health.

This advice is well and good, but you still have to face that tough class.  How do you overcome the depressive working conditions that deplete your dopamine?  In my experience, it is futile to look outside for support.  Supervising teachers are usually too busy, and principals are snowed under with a bureaucratic workload that precludes them from being of much help.  However, the conditions that make you help yourself will in the long run make you stronger and self-reliant. 

So look at what you do for those students who lack motivation, lack healthy levels of dopamine.  The answer is in setting small but achievable goals.  The most likely cause of your classroom stress is the behaviour of some or in all cases all of the class.  Invariably there is more than one type of behaviour that annoys you.  Trying to deal with them all makes the task appear daunting, and the reality is it is impossible to make wholesale changes in one go.  So pick one thing you think is achievable and go into the next class determined to make that small change.  When you do you get that ‘unexpected outcome’ with its serotonin and the initial dopamine.  Keep this up, and as you do move through the changes, you would like, every time you reach a small goal you increase your dopamine and your natural motivation.

So if you want to get back that zest, the excitement you had before you were worn down by the sheer complexity of this work take the advice above.  Improve your health through exercise and diet but most of all set yourself reasonable, personal goals.  It is this last approach that fuels your enthusiasm and that directly influences the motivation of your students.

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Monday, March 12 2018

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has long been associated with the reward system within the brain’s structure.  The release of dopamine is a response to the anticipation of a reward.  The connection between the expectation and the production of this neurotransmitter is formed when we experience an unexpected reward.  That is when we encounter a pleasant surprise our feelings reflect the output of both the dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin is about the satisfaction after the consumption of a reward; dopamine becomes a predictor whenever there is a potential reward present.

Repetition develops a cognitive connection between the situation and the outcome, and it is then the dopamine supplies the ‘fuel' to drive the desired behaviour.  Eventually, this relationship between the stimulus and the reward outcomes becomes entrenched and the presentation of environmental conditions automatically ignites the dopamine release and behaviour becomes almost reflexive.

The implications for teachers is clear; if we can assist, in the first instance an association of school-based activities with an ‘unexpected’ reward and this experience is consolidated then when our students present their ‘work' they will be automatically engaged.  Eventually, the constancy of the ‘reward' for attending school is not required to initiate the dopamine led motivation, by then the expectations are established.

The process of the development of this dopamine drive develops as follows:

  1. You get an unexpected reward
  2. Understand how this happened
  3. Dopamine is the seeking of ‘how this happens’ identifying the conditions that precede the reward.

It is important to remember that the provision of an identifiable reward is the expectation then the effect of the motivation can die down.  However, school life is embedded as a pleasant experience, and more importantly, the teacher can use the process outlined above to introduce new work.

However, when working with students who you wish to re-engage in learning through the use of the dopamine cycle, you have to commence at the very beginning.  For them, school is predictably a source of negative consequences, and the continual lack of motivation deletes the natural supplies of dopamine.  They are in class with a relatively disadvantaged position, even in access to the dopamine cycle compared to other students.  To change this, we can provide that ‘unexpected reward’ enough times, we can stimulate the dopamine response, and there is a chance we can change that expectation!  These students are quite capable of becoming motivated about school, but you have to be patient.  When we teach them to connect success with school, we are in a sense extinguishing a robust negative association, and so we must try not to reproduce conditions that will sustain the existing response.

This link between a stimulus and response is a memory, and like all memory development, the more powerful the reward, the more serotonin, and dopamine are released.  In future this dopamine will focus the student's behaviour on seeking the same experience; they become very goal driven.

So what is the lesson for teachers?  Dopamine has the potential to be a great motivator for your students.  The new task must have echoes of previously successful assignments but must have an additional pay-off.  When the students have already engaged the strength of the new ‘reward' does not need to be great.  In a sense, we just build on existing, desired structures.

Those students who have a history of neglect and abuse that have carried their negative attitudes to school where they have been reinforced require a lot more work in building a positive association that will eventually produce a dopamine response to learning.  As always it is critical to be consistent and predictable to overcome existing behaviours and develop a new approach to school.  The great news is that you will experience the most significant rewards when you achieve this and you will make a real difference to that child and your class!

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Monday, February 26 2018

Relationships

At the time of writing this Newsletter, we are at the end of the Winter Olympics one of our biggest sports carnivals.  It is here the champions; the winners are acknowledged.  These are the athletes that outshone all others on that day.  But we know the performance given at that moment is the culmination of years and years of practice and rehearsal.  So too is a child's response to any stressful situation.  How they act is not based on the presenting conditions but on a belief system that has been built-up during their ‘training.'

Success at the Olympics has rightly or wrongly become very important to nations, and we have seen the great lengths they will go to support those competitors who are a chance to win gold.  All across the world, Nations have programs such as our Institute of Sport who search for every advantage.  New research has identified a significant finding that supports what good teachers have always known and that the relationship between the coach and the athlete is one of the critical factors that will allow one winner to emerge given the competitors are in all other ways equally gifted.  The pursuit of excellence of behaviour does not have the same appeal.  However, for teachers who deal with the most troubled students, the drive for success is just as powerful and for the student how effective that teacher is, will have a life-long benefit that goes well beyond the gold medal race!

According to findings presented in November 2015 at the World Class Performance Conference in London, super-elites, the winners felt that their coaches fully satisfied their emotional needs by acting as friends, mentors and unwavering supporters—in addition to providing superb technical support. High-performing athletes who did not ‘medal’ did not feel that way.  "This turns on its head a long-held view that we must simply pair the best technical and tactical coaches to our best athletes to achieve ultimate performance," says Matthew Barlow, a postdoctoral researcher in sports psychology at Bangor University in Wales, who led the study.

Effective teachers know that relationships are the key factor in providing the best opportunity for children to develop into the mature, self-reliant and responsible young men and women.  To achieve this, I believe that teachers and parents need to build what is referred to as ‘relationship intelligence.'  Before I discuss relationship intelligence, it may be prudent to describe what relationship intelligent isn't.

One thing children need to develop for them to face life's inevitable trials and tribulations are resilience; that is the ability to continue after the set-backs and failures we all face.  Resilience is best nurtured when we allow our students to face-up to rejection and failure while we support them as being worthy individuals.  It is hard for us all not to ‘make things right’ when we see our children distressed or when they have got themselves into trouble.  But if we solve their problems for them, we deny them the very conditions to develop resilience.  By just ‘being there’ for them when they are facing relatively small setbacks and not ‘fixing’ things allows them to build their capacity to live through the inevitable setbacks they will face as an adult when they are on their own.  This exposure to life’s challenges is of course on a graduating scale; it is ‘age-appropriate’.  At school we expect our senior students to be much more independent than our juniors.

So what is relationship intelligence? The following is a list of what I think helps make a good relationships work:

  • Consistency, students get a sense of security and control if they can trust that they will know what happens when they make a mistake
  • Mutual trust and respect – this is paramount in building positive relationships
  • Understanding and meeting students’ needs
  • Taking the time to communicate and this does not only mean talking to them but actively listen to what they have to say
  • Maintaining consistently high standards in your behaviour
  • Responding to and nurturing a child’s passions or talents
  • Not taking setbacks personally
  • Showing vulnerability – show that you are not perfect and accept the consequences of your mistakes

In my past life, I have had the privilege of coaching elite athletes who have represented Australia in football, and I have also had the honour to teach our most damaged of students.  In both instances the goal was the same, to be the best they could be.  Being the best we can be as teachers is in making an intelligent contribution to the personal development of all the children in our care.  Support children of all ages, while they are growing to be the best they can be is our task.  Our kids will make mistakes, but they will never be mistakes.

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Monday, February 12 2018

Creating Purpose

In 2011 the then President Ban Ki-moon commissioned a ‘World Happiness Report.'  To construct such a report many factors predicted to have a causal relationship for happiness were measured.  Amongst such traits were economic equity, life expectancy, the freedom to make choices, etc. a sense of purpose stood out as a most significant factor.  It was found that people, who had a good sense of purpose, live longer, have better relationships, sleep better and had a more positive sense of wellbeing.  Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, best described the importance of having a purpose.  He observed that those prisoners who had something meaningful to live for outlasted those who just gave up.

Modern research identifies having a purpose as being a significant indicator of both physical and psychological health.  As Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin observes if the concept of purpose were not so vague or ephemeral it would be a top public health priority, but it remains an idea that is ‘unscientific.'

So what is ‘the purpose of life?’

As Ryff observes the concept of purpose is hard to define.  The current, fallback position of logging on to the Internet to ‘Google' the answer for this question is of little help.  Of course, there are thousands of sites with their ‘explanations’, the majority providing a particular brand of religion as the reason we exist.  Other sites give their equally vague explanations, but the thing they all have in common is that it is something to live for, something that makes life worthwhile.

In historical times questions over the purpose of life were probably left to those comfortable enough to have the time to wonder.  Most people were busy surviving however even in the most primitive cultures there is a consistent longing for the presence of an afterlife, an organization that gave purpose to the day-to-day struggle to survive.

If we go back to the fundamentals of human drives, our primary purpose, I believe is the need to survive and the need to reproduce.  In a vast majority of the developed world, we have by-in-large come to the situation that these essentials are under control.  I have argued in other places that this essential satisfaction of the primary drives has given rise to our tertiary needs; that is to understand our self and our place in the environment.  I think that it is at this level our hazy graving of purpose is founded.

In these advantaged communities purpose is linked to the vague ‘pursuit of happiness’ and this quest takes two forms.  The first is of a hedonic nature; that is choosing to behave in a way that leads to pleasure or the accumulation of ‘rewards' - things that make us feel good.  The second way to create a drive is to behave in a way that is of service to others.  This selflessness gives a purpose beyond our self and strengthens our connection with community.

Both approaches provide the sense of happiness but with the advent of new methods of investigating what happens at a genetic level, it has been shown that the second approach, the service to others initiates an increase in the levels of activity in the area of the ventral striatum, a part of the brain that is linked to our reward system.  Further, this feeling of wellbeing has an impact on the limbic system and people giving of their time to others, soothes the fight or flight response to challenging threats.  There is a drop in the levels of cortisol present in these people that are not replicated in those who pursue hedonic activities.

For the teacher, the challenge to make schoolwork purposeful is difficult enough for those children who come from a history of nurture and security.  They have in their belief systems a past rich in positive memories, they have no reason to expect their future to be other than more of the same and so if we link this belief into the present lesson we will get engagement.  These kids will be open to adaptation and adjustment to any new experience.  If the lesson provides knowledge that better informs their understanding, they can modify their future goals.

However, our focus is on those children who have come from a background of neglect and abuse.  They have a memory bank full of rejection, physical and psychological cruelty and a well-developed sense of toxic shame (see Newsletter 3rd July 2017).  Any consideration of their future, like those of their healthy classmates, is more of the same but their ‘same' provides nothing to look forward to.  As all teachers of these students appreciates they are quite understandably fatalistic of their plight and will see no hope presented in the lesson UNLESS we can change this sense of their self and nurture a purpose in them.

Like all efforts to help these kids there are no quick fixes, and we must be prepared to provide the time, the consistency and build a relationship of trust.  On top of these fundamentals, we can offer projects that are designed to almost ensure successful completion with a small personal investment from the child.  These damaged kids more than most can identify any false patronization, so they have to make an effort.

If possible identify something, they may value.  It might be a football club, an interest in fast cars, fashion; it doesn't matter as long as the project you choose involves them investing some energy.

Taking a lesson from the strength of providing a service to others as a personal motivator, the teacher can fabricate situations that allow these kids to perform acts of kindness to others.  Things like visiting a retirement village or a pre-school.  In my experience, all but the most damaged of children thrive in these environments, and the contribution to the formation of a more 'positive' belief system is exceptional.

As stated at the outset, the definition of ‘purpose' is hard to pin down yet the importance is unquestionable.  I contend that developing a definite sense of purpose in these damaged kids is a gift a teacher can give that will make a lifelong difference.

Posted by: AT 09:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, January 29 2018

Educational Myths

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda

The Star Wars franchise continues on with Christmas seeing the release of the latest edition.  Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms.  The famous ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.

There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles.  Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success.    These are:

  1. Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve their goals.  Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort.  This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
  2. Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former, Grit discounts the value of innate ability.  Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant on ‘grit’ than intelligence, first defined ‘grit’ when it came to predicting success.  She showed that if an individual possessed perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
  3. Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of success.  This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972.  His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marshmallow immediately for the promise of an additional one, would be successful later in life.  In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marshmallow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.

There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school.  The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation.  But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.

A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations.  For example:

  1. Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population.  It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style, attend the same schools, etc.  Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world.  Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools. Children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities.  There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
  2. Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder.  Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept.  I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.  Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal?  And finally there is nothing wrong with changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
  3. Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept.  High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal.  For many children who lived in chaotic homes they would find the guaranteed consumption of a marshmallow now at least gave some pay-off.  In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk.  They are in fact making a rational decision.  Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family’s socioeconomic status.  Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's prefrontal lobes to over-rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala.  Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes are reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.

So what are we to do?  There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept.  We all want our kids to have these qualities.  But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child.  When they fail, they fail at something – for now.  When kids with a history of failure do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self.

Yoda was not right, there is ‘trying’ and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed.  But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.

Posted by: AT 11:38 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, December 11 2017

Boredom

‘This is boring’ - a comment most teachers are subjected to during any given day.  Comments like this frustrate young, enthusiastic teachers; of course, the kids don't think this is a problem, often it's just a ‘knee-jerk' reaction in the face of a new topic, but we would do well to examine this perpetual statement.  It is hard to under-estimate the difficulty in making something like solving simultaneous equations exciting and stimulating to a class of thirty or so average students on a hot summer afternoon.  This is what we are instructed to do, and despite our best efforts, some kids are bored!

The acclaimed major cause of boredom is the response from being forced to do something you do not want to do but are required to do.  This is often the case in class especially with such a prescriptive curriculum designed by those who love their subject and see no reason for anything about excitement.  In these instances teachers find ways to make those simultaneous equations at least interesting, this is what we do best.

The cause of boredom is a lack of focus on the issue at hand.  This lack of attention can have many reasons but all are linked to the student's perception of the situation they find themselves in.  On those rare occasions when the opportunity to get their needs and wants are present by the environment presented, boredom is the last thing on the student's mind.  But for children, especially teenagers, the chances of the lesson that is being presented aligning with their current interest, is fairly remote.  Students’ appetites and imaginations rarely match the environmental conditions of the classroom.  They find the schoolroom dull and tedious, it lacks stimulation and is stopping them from doing what they want to do! 

But there is more that can drive boredom and teachers should consider this response more carefully.  In some cases the claim the lesson is ‘boring’ might cover the real message that the lesson is too challenging!  Some kids have such a sense of being ‘failures’ it becomes a better option to be bored than expose themselves to their false reality – they believe it’s better to be bored than dumb!  This faulty belief is explained below.

For most kids, this lack of stimulation within the environment drives them to find alternate things to occupy their mind.  How they do this is telling for the teacher.

In our modern age, the availability of screen access is a dangerous answer to boredom.  Teachers are spending increasing amounts of time fighting against the easy escape into the smart phone.  Whether it is the social media or the availability of YouTube, kids have easy access to messages that are enclosed in highly designed, attractive ‘environments’.  The content of these messages are not the primary attraction for the child; the fun environment is.  However, it is the message that remains after the ‘excitement' dims.  Media manipulation of all levels of society thrives on boredom and the ease this ‘boredom’ can be instantly eliminated is seductive and can lead to a type of soft addiction.

Despite the difficulty, teachers are experts at manipulating the classroom environment and can make it at least attractive enough for most to get through the lesson content.  This is at the heart of our professional skill set.  However, those ‘difficult’ students who reside in all classes provide us with a degree of wisdom that goes beyond the presentation of a slick, stimulating and inviting lesson.

To get back to the issue raised above.  The most difficult kids to motivate, those these Newsletters focus on, are the ones with a history of abuse/neglect.  Their issues go beyond a lack of stimulation; they find the challenges of the classroom environment threatening and the goals of the lessons unobtainable.  What may appear to be the apathetic response, this apparent boredom hides their fear of attempting the work.  They ‘know’ they will fail and each time they do there is further reinforcement of their toxic sense of themselves.  They are better served to hide in a dispirited cocoon of boredom.

As pointed out it is the perceived lack of stimulation in the environment that causes boredom but I would expand this to take very much into account the child’s expectations of that environment.  If a student perceives that at the heart of the lesson the outcome is inevitable exposure of their sense of persistent failure, they will refuse to attempt the work despite the teacher’s best efforts.  Better not to try than to demonstrate incompetence.

A final point about boredom; the experience does not have to be unproductive.  In some cases, the feeling of boredom can drive the student to find alternative way of dealing with their environment.  This can lead to some creative outcomes for the student.  This is especially so for students who are confident with the presenting conditions and can move beyond what they see as easy and therefore ‘boring’.

In other cases the boredom, if we don’t divert our attention elsewhere forces us to reflect on the bigger pictures of life, even daydreams are attempts to imagine an alternate future.  Of course, it's hard for teachers to understand when these times are of value but the message is not to be too worried about the student's complaints about being bored.

I have often argued that teaching is as much an art as a science and perceived or ‘reported’ boredom can provide real feedback about how your lesson is going and an understanding that nothing is as simple as it appears!

Great teachers are never bored!

Posted by: AT 09:22 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, December 04 2017

What’s in a Name?

 

 

In a recent article, Stop Labeling People who Commit Crimes ‘Criminals’, Kimberly Brownlee from the University of Warwick in Coventry examines the impact labeling has on criminals.  Her thesis, describing the person involved with the same terms as the act they committed has ramifications for our work particularly with those difficult students we refer to as ‘dysfunctional,' ‘disobedient,' ‘naughty,' etc.  So how do we ‘describe’ the perpetrators of misbehaviour?

 

As you will have gathered by now, I am a great believer in consequences for actions, and when we commit a crime, there must be some form of sanction for the person involved.  Understandably but unfortunately the tendency is to personalize the action; that is, the thoughtless act has been committed by a thoughtless person!  How often do you hear someone describe a kid as stupid when they really have done a stupid action.  The label defines the child; a child who has been told they are stupid will believe they are stupid!  The impact of this labeling has significance for dealing with tough kids.

 

As far as the student goes there are at least two issues here.  The first is that as I've said, they will believe they are that label.  In a recent Newsletter (3rd July 2017) I discussed toxic shame, the belief that you have not made a mistake, you are a mistake.  These are children who come from a history of abuse or neglect, those who have a shattered sense of self-worth.  Whenever these children hear a teacher call them stupid, it is a confirmation of their belief system.

 

This toxic shame is such a debilitating condition because in their heart of hearts they believe they are always condemned to fail and never see themselves as having a chance to be anything other than ‘stupid' or ‘dysfunctional,' etc.

 

So how do we deal with this problem?  As pointed out above a major part of dealing with dysfunctional students is to teach them that actions do have consequences.  Far too many consequences are either not delivered, or the treatment they receive is in no way related to their behaviour.  This absence of structure is particularly true for children who suffer abuse.  These kids have no sense of personal control; life does things to them rather than they interact with life.  So teaching them about actions and consequences is a form of empowerment.

 

I often hear well-meaning teachers advocating punishment for children who misbehave.  I have a few issues with punishment, teachers who like to ‘punish' are ‘committed the assumption of  ‘authority'; they arbitrate and distribute the punishment.  The problem is this is an expression of power over the child.  They believe they can ‘make them behave.'  And more often than not the behaviour that must be addressed is at least annoying and as much as the teacher tries to conceal feelings of frustration and anger, the expression of hostility towards that child will damage their relationship.

 

Another problem with punishment is that the responsibility of the behaviour rests with that authority figure.  The child is excluded, in a sense excused from responsibility and will never ‘learn’ about their accountability.  There is no developed connection between the act and responsibility.  The child acted irresponsibly because they are irresponsible and can’t do anything about that.

 

This process reinforces the idea of the student becoming the behaviour!

 

It is in the delivery of the consequences that holds the key to helping address the burden of toxic shame. 

 

Effective consequences are based on the logical outcome of the behaviour.  For example, if a student litters the playground then an effective consequences is for them to clean up the playground.  Of course, this is not as simple as it sounds, what is a student hits another student?  It may be ‘logical' to hit them but not ethical or even effective.  In these cases, the consequence is a chosen response to the behaviour, and it is important that the child knows in advance what will happen if they behave in anti-social ways.

 

If the student understands the connection is just between the action and the consequence, then they can come to understand that the responsibility for the consequence rests with them and if they change their actions the consequences will change.  This is a time when the teacher can suggest other ways to behave and strengthen their relationship.

 

Everyone makes mistakes, and as teachers, when we make mistakes one of the best gifts you can give your class is to identify that you made a mistake.  There have been times when I have blurted out something like ‘you stupid thing, ' but eventually, I understood and quickly followed up with something like ‘now I have made a stupid mistake – we both know you are far from stupid but what you just did was not smart.'  Surprisingly this always seemed to work, but it’s better to prevent it happening in the first place.

 

The most important message a teacher can deliver to all students and especially those who suffer from toxic shame is that they are not their behaviour.  They really are precious, special and unique!

 

 
 
Posted by: AT 12:27 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, November 27 2017

Common Mistakes Teachers Make

Teaching kids is hard enough without making life more difficult through our own blunders.  This newsletter highlights some of the everyday mistakes made in the classroom.  By eliminating these you can make your life a lot easier.  The following are some of the most commonplace errors seen in the average classroom.

Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, especially when you are extremely busy or struggling to gain control of the class, it’s easy to do one of the following:

  1. Attack the Student on a Personal Level - You can call them ‘stupid’ or say things like ‘your just like your brother/sister’, ‘what else could I expect from you’! Comments like these destroy the relationship so necessary for effective teaching.
  2. Intimidate the Student – Teachers do have a position of power in the classroom not only through their status but just because they are the adult in the room.  This use of intimidation is usually a result of the teacher losing their temper and ‘lashing out’ at the student.  Actions like this not only destroy the relationship but also expose lack of self-control, a personal ‘weakness’.
  3. Poor Use of Non-Verbal Cues – Be aware that over 90% of the emotional content of any communication is conveyed through your body language, facial expression and tone of voice.  It won’t matter what message you vocalize the students will feel the way it is delivered.  In the extreme cases teachers are reduced to conducting themselves in a passive aggressive manner that does nothing for the student or the teacher.
  4. Show Impatience – It’s sometimes so hard to be patient, especially after you have given the instruction to the class and you ‘know’ the student has been listening.  And nine times out of ten you would be right.  But what good does an outburst do?  Those students who were not listening still need to hear the instruction and remember when you were at Uni. or in a T&D lecture how your mind wandered.  It is impossible for an adult to concentrate 100% of the time and this is more so for subjects that are not exciting for you.  So treat the frustration as an opportunity to practice compassion.  Also there will be some students who just didn’t understand the instruction and your displeasure will be a source of shame for them.
  5. Talk Too Much/Too Little – This is a bit like hitting the ‘goldilocks’ level of communication.  In my experience teachers are more likely to talk too much, unfortunately we all like the sound of our own voice and enjoy the limelight.  But once the student has ‘got the message’ the extra talk will turn them off.  It is less likely but does happen that the teacher talks too little and the message they think they are delivering fails to get through to the student.
  6. Not Listening – No one likes to be ignored and that includes the children.  If you are going to claim to run a fair classroom then everyone deserves the respect of being heard.  When you don’t listen not only do you belittle the student you may also miss out on some vital piece of information that can make all the difference to your lesson.
  7. Ignoring Conflict – One bit of advice, that I think is very hard to get right is ignoring any situation that you should deal with.  I know in my time I have ‘not heard’ a comment because I know the student has said something not expecting me to hear it so I don’t.  Working with very dysfunctional students I have been known to say ‘I’m sorry, I’m a bit deaf and I need to know exactly what you said then.  I don’t want to give you the consequence of what I thought you said’.  It’s amazing how often the comment ‘repeated’ isn’t really in its original form.  But this ‘ignoring’ is about me changing the focus of the behaviour.  However, when it is a conflict within the classroom then your responsibility to ensure a safe and secure environment must always be a priority.
  8. Not Modeling the Behaviour You Want – The way you conduct yourself is at the heart of developing a classroom culture.  Dress professionally; there is such a thing as a teacher’s uniform, neat, clean and tidy.  Make your workspace organized and efficient.  Notes on the IWB or computer screen should be neat and spelling correct.  Some inexperienced teachers like to appear to be ‘cool’ (is that still the term) but they are not kids, they are paid professional teachers and should model that professionalism so the students can develop behaviours that will empower them to one day present as being ‘professional’.

These are just some of the mistakes that can be made and I know at one time or another I have made them all.  Remember we are not perfect but we can strive for perfection.  The kids are worth it!

Posted by: AT 09:44 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, August 07 2017

Integration of Dysfunctional Students

An attempt to include all students into their community school is a moral and legal responsibility.  Every education system should have the goal to provide equity of opportunity for education.  By excluding students with emotional, or behavioural disabilities is a form of discrimination.  However, there can be some legitimate justification for separation of these students, from their peers, for a period of time.  Separation should not be longer that absolutely necessary.  Reintegration to mainstream society must occur as soon as possible.

Morally a society must accept the ownership of all children including those with disabilities.  Children with physical or intellectual disabilities with their requirement for extra, special care normally evoke emotions of compassion.  Special consideration to provide for their learning is rarely resisted.  Teachers are happy to help students who can’t do tasks, because of their physical or intellectual disability.

However, attitudinal research shows that students with behaviour dysfunctions experience the highest rejection rates of all categories of ‘special’ kids.  The reality that these kids with severe mental problems ‘can’t behave’ in a functional manner are somehow transformed to a belief that the student knows what to do but refuses.  The teacher translates ‘can’t do’ into ‘won’t do’ and from the perceived refusal builds resentment towards the student.  The principal task for the teachers in special programs, when attempting to reintegrate their students back to mainstream is to address this belief.  Unlike some of the other disabilities, given time and special attention these kids can learn to act in a functional manner.

The Case Against Integration

The arguments against integration can be summarized as follows:

  • Classroom teachers are not trained nor equipped to deal with these students
  • The presence of these often violent and out of control students present a risk to others
  • Special students need special teachers, they don’t belong in mainstream
  • Educational services for special students are complex and intrude on mainstream learning
  • Historically these students do not succeed in mainstream settings. Placement is based on the perceived ‘availability’.  That is, schools that take, and succeed with, one student will be rewarded by being the place of referral for all future students

There is a degree to which all these objections could be defended however they are problems that are not insurmountable.
 

The Case For Integration

It is possibly the most basic human drive to be accepted by society.  Therefore, as a civilized society, schools must accept their responsibility for ownership of all children.  The arguments for integration are as follows:

  • There is a moral obligation to include all students in their home school.  By learning how to accept students with special needs, including those with an ED/BD disability, schools develop a more supportive attitude that benefits all students
  • Learning to deal with these students with special needs results in teachers learning new skills.  The acquisition of new levels of mastery will satisfy a basic human drive within the school staff.
  • The ‘special skills’ required to deal with students with severe behaviours involve the use of best practices in classroom management, teaching styles and lesson presentation.  The benefits accrued when preparing for the dysfunctional student are translatable to all students.  All students should be exposed to best practices.
  • The use of differential programming is a viable alternative to common curriculum presentation.
  • Effective preparation for the inclusion of dysfunctional student involves a whole school perspective.  This collaborative approach has a flow on benefit for the whole school particularly in the area of student discipline and welfare area.
     

THE PROCESS OF INTEGRATION

To successfully move an ED/BD student from full time attendance at a special facility on to full time attendance in a mainstream setting is a gradual process.  To facilitate this in an effective manner the following steps must be followed.

1. Identification Of The Student’s Needs

Any move to integration must be part of the long-range educational plan of the student.  This plan must be the result of collaboration between the student concerned and all significant people involved.  When the long-term plan is established the educational needs of the student will be apparent.  Identification of the most appropriate setting to integrate into is effectively identified.

Further once the students’ long-term goals are established the staff, at the special setting, can introduce an independent learning package that best prepares the student for successful transition to the new school.  This will be in the form of an independent transition program.

2. Initial Contact.

At the time of the initial meeting the staff can address the questions that commonly asked.  These include:

  • Who pays for the increased services required?
  • What about the safety and liability issues that may arise?
  • How do the individual needs of the student fit in with the needs of others?
     

If we take this student will we be identified as a preferred site thus receiving a disproportionate number of these difficult students?  These are some of the legitimate concerns of a school and the program staff should prepare to answer them.

If, and when objections to the proposed integration have been overcome it is vital that the staff and the school leader develop a ‘vision’ for the process to be successful.

At this time the following can be addressed:

  • The setting of achievable outcomes can be established
  • The support requirements for the school can be outlined
  • The concept of the dysfunctional student’s integration to the school must be introduced to the rest of the staff.  The best way for a positive outcome to be achieved is through thorough planning at this time

After this phase has been completed a final decision on the procedure to be followed is made by the student and all key players such as the parents, program staff, targeted school and other involved personnel.
 

3. Development Of A Whole School Plan

It is important for the staff of the special program to be available to address concerns when the staff is informed about the integration of the dysfunctional student into their school.  At this time the staff member should:

  • Answer the questions that will come including those outlined above
  • Highlight the negative aspects of the integration of an ED/BD student
  • Assist in the development of a school ‘plan’ which incorporates expected outcomes and the establishment of a welfare and discipline policy that includes the special needs of the student within the existing school policy
  • Development of a team to support the student
  • Identify support needs required by the school

4. Graduated Integration

Primary School

The period that has the best chance of success is first thing in the school day.  This is the time when the student and the teacher have their highest levels of energy.  If either become uneasy about the placement there is not long until the student returns to the special facility.  Another important consideration is that lessons traditionally given at this time are based on basic skills such as numeracy or literacy.  Instructions are generally more structured providing a more predictable environment for the student.  Continuation along a learning plan is less disrupted for the student and the teacher needs less time to fill in the gaps that occur if a student only appeared for one day per week.

When this approach is adopted it creates a daily routine for both parties and the belonging needs are quickly established.  It is not uncommon for schools to be the first to negotiate an extension in this period of attendance.  The schools quickly adopt ownership of the student.

Partial integration is more difficult in the secondary setting for the following reasons:

  • In a secondary setting the student will be taught by many staff members.  They will have to cope with a range of personalities and management styles.  This reduction in consistency creates an extra dimension to the difficulties faced by the student.
  • The secondary school is not at all likely to have the same subjects recurring at the same time each day.  Therefore attempts to partially integrate at a set time each day will most likely mean that the student will be exposed to a variety of subjects all of which are not presented in an unbroken sequence.  This situation produces gaps in the instructional presentation of lessons creating a great deal of frustration for both the teacher and the student.

Ideally the secondary integration should be initially for subjects the students enjoy, perhaps craft or art, and they would attend only when these subjects are timetabled.  As they become more comfortable at the school, more subjects can be included.  This system of integration works well when the special program is in close proximity to the school however if any significant distance separates the facilities this process is not feasible.

In cases, where students face the tyranny of distance, each integration process is best done on a case managed basis where all stakeholders negotiate the integration process and identify how support will be provided.

Develop A Plan For The Student

At the time the targeted school accepts the student then the special program staff should prepare the student for successful integration.  At this time the student should receive the following:

  • Visit the school and be introduced to key support people identified at the previous staff meeting.
  • Outline the discipline policy of the school and explain the ramifications of acting outside expected levels of behaviour.
  • Investigate the current programs of the designated class and prepare the student for the best chance of early academic success.
  • Address the administrative requirements of the school.

It is vital that the student’s apprehension towards the integration be minimized.  High levels of stress that come from the student’s uncertainty will almost ensure failure of the integration process.

Develop A Plan For The Teacher(s).

It is a daunting task dealing with the introduction of a student with severe behaviours.  To assist the teachers the following steps should be taken:

  • Training in practices that best meet the academic and behaviour needs of the student
  • Training should not be a ‘one shot’ input but should be ongoing and supportive
  • There should be a supportive team formed around the teacher(s) who include staff members of the special facility, school counsellor, specialist teachers, supervising teachers and members of other agencies
  • Teachers should be invited to join any district support networks that exist, or could be formed
  • Teachers should be included in any case managed activities that affect the student.

As the student moves from one facility to the other it is important that all stakeholders have a clear picture of what is occurring.  The practice of keeping good record such as daily information sheets, personal diaries, etc. provides a useful vehicle for the exchange of information between each facility.  At regular intervals the status of the level of integration should be reviewed and the student can move on the continuum between full exclusion to full inclusion.

Posted by: AT 02:21 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 24 2017

Anxiety

Teachers have always had to deal with anxious children from the first day at kindergarten to the last day of their tertiary entry examination and the years in between.  At a basic level anxiety is another expression of fear and the two are products of stress.  No surprise here and in other Newsletters (particularly the 19th June 2017) this is discussed in detail.  To recap stress in itself is not a bad thing, we need a level of stress to engage in the world but too much stress or distress will hinder performance especially in the classroom.

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

Restlessness Fatigue

Concentration Problems

Irritability Muscle Tension

Sleep Disorders

In general, anxiety is described in three ways:

  • Panic Attacks – where there is an immediate fear that the child is facing a catastrophe and has nowhere to go.  These are generally short term and result in the child avoiding any situation that ignites that emotion.  However, these situations can be really traumatic and move well beyond anxiety.
  • Social Anxiety – This is the fear and avoidance of any situation in which a child thinks they may be the centre of attention that can lead to their embarrassment.  It is no surprise that social anxiety is the predominant form of stress in children, especially adolescents. 
  • Generalized Anxiety – This is where the child worries over everyday things for months at a time.  They are children who will avoid what we may consider mundane or are constantly seeking clarification or reassurance before they attempt a task.

The prevalence of anxiety at a clinical level is about 14.5% or one in seven Australians and in the majority of cases it starts in childhood.  As with all things there is a coming together of genetics and environmental conditions that lead to anxiety but as always teachers can only impact on the environment in an attempt to limit the levels of anxiety in their classroom.

So what to do?  If you really have concerns about the level of anxiety of a student in your class then you must refer them to the school counselor and/or tell the parents about your concerns.  The latter is not as easy because this is news for whatever reason they don’t want to hear.

However, for the day to day running of the class, when you think a child is really anxious to the level you have concerns encourage them to talk about it.  The following questions will assist both you and the child:

  • Tell me about how it feels being anxious?
  • What is making you anxious?
  • What do you fear will happen?
  • What does it stop you from doing?

A technique that can be effective is for the teacher to establish a procedure where they can give the child some space to calm down.  This is a type of ‘time out’.  In fact you can empower the child to control his or her access to time out through some non-verbal cue.  For example, the child could move an object on their desk that signals to the teacher that they are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.  The teacher would then ask that child to go and get something from say the principal or the office.  Of course the principal and the office would be aware of the purpose of the visit and provide that time out while the child remains in supervision.  Just the provision of this retreat can be enough to alleviate threat of anxiety and give the child a sense of control over their fears.
 

However, dealing with anxiety like all classroom activities is best served when the relationships between the teacher and the students along with the students’ relationships with each other are strong and positive.  This, along with a calm and a really predictive environment will help minimize the impact anxiety will have in your classroom.

Posted by: AT 01:10 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, July 10 2017

Locus of Control

One of the objectives we have for kids whose behaviour is out of control is to have them take responsibility for their actions.  Being accountable for your actions is considered the stamp of a positive member of the community and research has shown that successful people are more likely to believe they have control over their destination.

In the mid 1950’s Julian Porter a psychologist looked at the contrasting mindsets that are held when we consider who controls our lives.  The contrasting positions are that we are free to do what we liked or someone else was in control.  In the days this question was being discussed there was a real difference in who was in charge with a clear division between the working class who had little decision making opportunities and the owners who took a much more authoritarian stance.  Religion was also a factor with the ‘will of God’ being a significant driver of beliefs.  This debate still rages but the modern version is whether we have free will or are our decisions ‘determined’ by our past, do we have  internal control, free will or are we controlled by our memories, ‘external’ factors.

This work continued and the next milestone was the idea to assess influence through an analysis of children’s behaviour related to concepts like personal control and helplessness.  This resulted in the Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control Test and a resulting scale from completely personal free will to being totally controlled by external factors.

The scores from these tests placed the child somewhere on the continuum from totally external control to the opposite internal end.

External Locus of Control

Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances

Internal Locus of Control

Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by his/her personal decisions and efforts.

As pointed out above there is a general belief that it is desirable to be towards the ‘internal’ end of the scale.  People who have this characteristic have more confidence and belief that they control their destination and are more likely to be successful.  A consequence on excessive internalisation results in neuroticism with anxiety and depression.

Although this is the general case it would be wrong to assume the relationship is causal; that is the more you adopt an internal locus of control the more successful you will be.  It is acknowledged that your belief system is learned from your environment.  The question should be asked does success and privilege come from being responsible or if you’re born into success and privilege you find it easier to take the credit for success?

There is always an ‘however’ when we are discussing children who have suffered early childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or severe neglect.  What I do know is that when it comes to measuring the Locus of Control with these kids things are not so simple.

When I worked at a school for students with Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disorder we used a test to measure a range of traits in these kids.  This was the Achenbach Test and amongst the range of characteristics this test examined were depression and aggressive behavior which are two features of these kids’ behavior.  For the initial test the results that identified their locus of control invariably placed them on the extreme, external end and that was reflected in the lack of responsibility they took for their actions.  When they were in trouble it was always someone else’s fault.  The other measure was for their level of Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour which was always surprisingly low considering they were expelled from mainstream schooling for their behaviour.

We retested those students who successfully made it through the school and either returned to mainstream or to work.  We found that the level of external control they reported had significantly reduced which was pleasing; they were taking more ownership of their behaviour.  However, in the exit test they reported an increase in their Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour.  At first glance it seemed the program had made them more deviant but I believe the increase in their acceptance of their behaviour had them making a more honest appraisal of their behaviour.

Contrast to this reported bias towards external control with the impact abuse and neglect has on their sense of self.  These kids believe they are failures, they are no good and because of this lack of real self-belief they have no expectation of success.  It would be a logical hypothesis that these kids would link their failure to their inadequacies; this would mean they have an internal cause of failure.

 I can only speculate that this result did not appear on the test we conducted because all the students who were sent to the school were extremely ‘acting out’ and aggressive.  One group of kids who suffer from PTSD and Neglect ‘act in’, internalize and I would predict they score on the internal extreme of the scale.  The sadness is these are the kids who are predominantly girls do not generally misbehave and are extremely compliant causing no trouble for schools and so receive no support. 

So what to do for these kids?  The answer is in teaching them healthy boundaries.  That is to teach them to self-evaluate their contribution to the situation they find themselves in. 

Part of having healthy boundaries is the ability to answer the following questions:

  1. ‘What is really happening’?      Sometimes what is in front of you is clear but more often than not the current dispute may just be a symptom of another issue that is not being addressed.
  2. ‘Who’s Responsible’?         Here you can use the Nowicki-Strickland test as a talking point.In all descriptions there is an unspoken presumption that we will take a position on the scale and that might be so as a general observation about individuals.But when we are asking the ‘boundary question’ the answer is not about our personal traits but about the current situation.Sometimes we are completely responsible other times we are completely the victim and all parts across the scale.Teach them that the real responsibility is for their actions not for who they are.
  3. ‘What do we want to happen’?         We want to make sure they understand what their real needs are and it’s their duty to take action to get those needs met.Their first responsibility is to their self.

One of the best bits of advice about behaviour is in the Serenity Pray:

‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

The courage to change the things I can

and the wisdom to know the difference’.

I believe there is one last step missing and that is to ‘let go’.  Understand that we can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do and if the conflict can’t be resolved then we must let go of that issue.  This is perhaps the hardest step in having healthy boundaries.

Posted by: AT 01:47 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, June 12 2017

Self-Esteem or Self-love

Since the early sixties, the time of ‘flower-power’ and the ‘love generation’ phrases like ‘developing self-esteem’ have been in the forefront of education discussions.  It was the time when we put away the rod and, while not spoiling the child we understood the benefits of a child having a healthy sense of themselves.  During my early years of teaching we were conscious of building each child’s self-esteem.  This goal is still prevalent although different phrases come into and out of fashion.  Now the most important trait we should develop is resilience.  I would argue that whatever the current phrase is at the heart of all this is the importance of nurturing self-esteem or resilience in our children.  However, I would like to place my version of this need to enhance the lives of our children by describing what I call self-love.

Scott Peck, a well-know psychiatrist from the United States relates some research undertaken when he was working with the US Defense Forces.  The military hierarchy wanted to understand why some recruits quickly advanced through the ranks to become officers well before their expected time so that they could improve their training.  And so they selected the top twenty officers and subjected them to a battery of tests.

One of the tests required these young recruits to list the four most important things in their life.  Remarkably they all agreed on the single most important thing in their life and that was their-self.  Items two, three and four varied usually citing career, family, children etc. but they all placed them-selves as the most important.

Years later Peck found himself working in the prison system with the most hardened of criminals.  He had the opportunity to run the same test with these inmates.  Unlike the successful population, there was no clear pattern of what they thought was important to them but the one thing that most identifies within the first four was their self-image.  The prisoners were conscious of the importance of what others thought of them, what their reputation was like.

The difference is stark.  It seems that successful people are driven by internal motives, what is good for them while unsuccessful ones are concerned by external factors like what will people think about them.  This difference explains their behaviour.  Ineffective people seek their happiness from external sources; a new car, a big house, people who love them and if they can’t get these things legitimately they take them in the belief they will be happy.  A quick analysis of any crime will conclude that the perpetrator took something or someone against the other’s will for their own benefit.

Before I make the case for encouraging teachers to foster self-love in their students I will clarify one thing.  Self-love is not about self-obsession the driving force of narcissism.  In a previous Newsletter I discussed the modern phenomena of over-indulged children and you often hear others making comments like ‘he/she loves his or her-self’.  This is not what I describe as self-love.  Self-love is the virtue of compassion, kindness and affection towards one’s self.

I advocate for the necessity to ‘teach’ the property of self-love to our students.  But this cannot be done through ‘direct-instruction’; formal lessons will have limited impact on a child’s sense of self but we can provide the conditions where self-love can emerge from the conditions in our classrooms.  This is achieved by the school and all the staff modeling the following values and while supporting practices that will lead to the students developing these standards.  The school should also abstain from the practices that undermine self-love.

So to the values we should live by:

1. Live Consciously

At the core of self-love is the acceptance of your-self.We have to acknowledge differences to others we have both externally, in our physical world and understand our internal feelings and beliefs are ours.It is our right to keep these to ourselves or share them.This belief includes the acceptance of our values and our right to defend these or modify them if we choose.

Most importantly we consider our-self to be equal to others in our right for dignity and respect.We do not consider that right to worthiness to be better than or worse than any others, we are all worthy.However, we do accept that others may have more talent or prestige in some areas that we will acknowledge without jealousy.

2. Responsibility

We live in a community that lives by certain social rules and we understand we accept this.We will not profit at the expense of others and claim no special rights or privileges.If we disagree with others we will address the issue with dignity and with compassion towards others however we will not be exploited.We have the right to be received with respect as well as the responsibility to practice that respect to others.We can resist manipulation and collaborate only when it is appropriate and desirable.

We don’t fret agonize over past event nor are we overly concerned about possible future happening.We focus on what is our task now and complete that with a view for future rewards.That is we have the capacity to delay gratification.

3. Self-Efficacy

Finally we have self-respect, confident in the way we live our lives.We know we are worthy of love and friendship and we can expect to achieve success and happiness in our lives.

We know we can learn new skills and make appropriate choices and we are assured in our judgment and confident in our capacity to solve problems.

 

Some schools equate making their students feel good with building their self-esteem.  It is obvious that providing the conditions that develop self-love are far from ‘making the kids feel happy’, these qualities are tough to live by and hard to maintain and just maybe self-love comes from us providing tough-love for all our kids.

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Monday, May 22 2017

Educating the Over-indulged and Narcissistic Child

 

23 May 2017

 

A growing phenomenon in our schools as well as in our society is the focus on ‘self’ by students and a growing number of teachers.   We now live with what could be described as a ‘me’ generation.  The growth of social media where people report the most everyday events in their life, the number of ‘selfies’ taken and distributed, all indicate an inflation of people’s belief in their importance.   Of course this is an over generalized description of a whole generation but there is a growth in self-centered behaviour and its extreme manifestation - narcissism. 

The cause of this is commonly linked to modern parenting styles.  We are urged to provide unconditional love, which is true but the mistake is translating unconditional love with unconditional feedback.  Some kids receive constant praise from a significant adult usually a parent but can be others such as coaches or teachers, where they receive praise without deserving it.  It is little wonder these kids expect to be the centre of attention no matter what they do.

We tell them they can be whatever they want which may well be motivated for the best of intentions but by doing so parents create a lot of damage to their children.  In other places I refer to this as a form of abuse because they are denied the opportunity to become self-aware, resilient and sociably acceptable in society.

This modern parenting style is only one part of the creation of the narcissistic child.  Modern media celebrates the idol child.  In movies and television shows the rewards that are associated with young, smart children are for all to see.  It is inevitable that any child will see the connection between doing what you want with getting everything you desire.  There is no requirement for effort and no one but no one should get in your way.

Surprisingly there is another that develops in conditions that are almost the opposite described above.  Children who grow-up in cold, depriving families receive inadequate validation and support about their behaviour and their need for love and attachment skews their development.  They cope by repressing negative experiences which would exacerbate their chance of acceptance by developing grandiose ideas about themselves.   The drive to present as perfect translates into their self-belief.

For teachers there are two problems.  The first is the aggressive parents who attack any member of the school staff if they dare to deal out consequences for children’s inappropriate behaviour.  The parents refuse to accept their child made a mistake because they ‘know’ he/she is perfect just like they have been telling them.  Unfortunately they are denying their child the opportunity to become really self-aware. 

The second is with the students, especially in the secondary years are more than ever focusing on themselves.  Social media, especially Face Book is full of posed pictures of young men and women.  Modern kids, with their mobile phones have seen an explosion of indulgent movie clips that are put out for all to see.  However, the recent increasing trend of sex-ting, the sending of explicit ‘selfies’ to others is a practice that would have been unheard of a couple of decades ago.  Instead of modesty, the belief you have some private life, these children place the most intimate information out in public.  The danger of this behaviour is alien to them as they have a belief that everyone ‘loves them’ and besides there is a chance they might be the next ‘Kardashian’ – rich and famous!

So what to do?  Teachers are being challenged more and more by the ‘entitled’ child and the following advice may help:

  1. Avoid taking battles personally – you are not responsible for the child’s behaviour but you are responsible for providing appropriate feedback and consequences.  Keep in mind you may be the child’s only chance to become self-aware.
  2. Place responsibility on the student – always associate the consequence with the behaviour not the child.  There is no value in referring to their ‘selfishness’ this makes the discipline personal - about the child, even if you know their self-belief drives that behaviour.
  3. Avoid extrinsic motivation – the worst thing you can do for children who ‘want it all’ is provide more opportunity for them to get more.
  4. Reinforce the benefits of community – get the whole class involved community service projects.  Never under estimate the power of volunteering work.  This will give these children another way to feel good about themselves.
  5. Educate families – this is not easy if the parents are the cause of the child’s narcissism.  It is a productive tactic if it is done on a macro scale, which is the whole school believes in sharing, helping others, etc. the power of the group will at least make the enabling parents keep quiet even if they don’t stop the ‘abuse’.

Modern teacher’s work is hard enough and teaching children to be authentic should not be their responsibility but good teachers understand that until children have that genuine sense of their self, serious education is not an option for the child.
 

 

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Monday, May 08 2017

The Great Lie

9 May 2017

In this time of obsession with the ‘quality teacher’ as being the answer to all the ills of our modern education system it is prudent to look at a few statements and reconcile them.

The first two come from Professor John Hattie in the work that established his reputation.  These are:

For learning outcomes:

  • 50%                            - The Nature of the Student
  • 10% - 18%                 - The Nature of the School
  • 32% - 40%                 - The Nature of the Classroom

The four most influential factors cited are:

  • Self-report grades
  • Absence of disruptive students
  • Classroom behavioural (conditions)
  • Quality of teaching

Another statement that is relevant to the discussion in this paper is that studies in memory acquisition or learning have examined the procedural aspects of this process on individuals in isolation.  This focus on individualised learning ignores the impact the social setting can have on the process for each student.

I am sure John Hattie is well aware of the interaction between these factors in the first point but since this finding, bureaucratic and some academic leaders have implied that the 50% the child brings to the evaluation is in isolation; as if Hattie’s second point was irrelevant.  Practicing teachers are well aware of the impact one or more acting-out students has on the learning outcomes of others.  In fact this condition is implied in the second and third of Hattie’s influential factors with the impact of the teachers down to forth place!

This slight of hand has allowed those ‘leaders’ in education to look at teachers as the only variable we can work on.  Hence they feel ‘off the hook’ when it comes to taking responsibility for student performance – it's the teachers’ fault.

However, the reality of the classroom is not with the education leadership be that academic, bureaucratic or even political, the latter just imitations of the former; it is with the classroom teacher.  It is the in the classroom that how much of the 100% (half the contributing factors) potential each individual student brings, depends on their engagement with the lesson.  How much is accessed depends on the atmosphere of that classroom.

It is the teacher who is in charge of that atmosphere that determines the engagement of the student.  No problems with that but, and here’s the point, classrooms are social gatherings where the web of personal interconnections establishes the learning climate of the classroom.  Each individual brings to the classroom a contribution to that atmosphere through the social connections.

When a class has one, or more students with severe behaviours the impact of their actions has a devastating effect on the learning outcomes of all the children in the class.  All humans’ pre-occupation with social networks is ingrained, it is important at a survival level and the threat these students create to everyone else in the classroom is unavoidable.   The students and the teacher spend a significant amount of their learning potential psychologically or physically surviving!  There is not much left for learning.

Even if a teacher is expert enough to deal with these severe behaviours to do so will take a considerable amount of on-task behaviour away from the lesson.  If the teacher is not equipped to successfully deal with these students, any attention to the lesson is almost non-existent.

Back to the premise of this essay, the education elite who evaluate students, teachers and schools, through common testing such as NAPLAN, etc. ignore the environment in which the learning takes place.  The distribution of these difficult students is not homogeneous, just as there is no equity in the distribution of all resources to schools.  Teachers and students should not be judged unless the total learning environment is considered.

The answer is not to eliminate students with severe behaviours, the whole purpose of our consultancy group is to help all levels of the education community, academics, bureaucrats, schools, teachers and students to overcome conditions that are overwhelmingly the result of childhood trauma or neglect neither of which is the child’s fault.  Their presence in any class or school will have a significant effect on learning and its time education leadership took some responsibility and dealt with the problem by appropriate training for staff instead of scapegoating the teachers.

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Tuesday, May 02 2017

Newsletter 6, May, 2017 

 

Challenging Beliefs – Not So Easy

Teachers who work with troubled students are well aware of the importance of the children’s belief system.  There is no surprise that these students have an expectation of failure at every level and for the vast majority, their belief about their academic ability is insignificant compared to the importance for them to survive physically and socially.

Beliefs about the world are built from experience.  When a certain stimulus occurs a chosen action will get an expected result.  So when we are faced with a situation that needs to be addressed we believe something will happen based on what happened in the past.

For most of us this ability to know what will happen, a sort of long range detection device works well and the better people can predict the more intelligent they are deemed to be.  The consistent narrative gives us a fundamental view of the world, a sense of consistency, control and cohesion – conditions that give us confidence in the future.  In fact all learning is based on the ability to predict so beliefs are crucial.

But for our belief system to be ‘intelligent’ it must be based on reality, that illusive condition that would rely on precise and objective analysis of what is really happening.  This precision is hard enough in the objective sciences but extremely difficult in the social fields.  A further complexity is that most of these social beliefs are imparted by our parents and have no direct link to the child’s reality.  The power of these hand-me-down beliefs can be seen in the religious wars that have raged, and still rage across the globe.  People die for their beliefs!

It is obvious that beliefs operate independent of sensory data and will persist in the face of contrary data.  They do so because having beliefs, no matter how much they clash with reality provide reason for what is happening, can determine the cause of why things are as they are and underpin our principles.

It is hard enough to take account of our beliefs as adults, every night we see intelligent adults arguing about the current political system.  It is easy to lampoon some of the more colorful characters, the USA have a textbook case who when confronted with evidence provides ‘alternative facts’ to maintain his belief system.  Change is hard and evidence is insufficient.  There has to be a strong emotional component along with evidence to allow a significant change in important life sustaining beliefs.

So we return to these kids we work to support.  Their belief of themselves is:

  • I’m worthless
  • I'm hopeless
  • No one cares about me
  • I am a failure

The list goes on and why wouldn’t they think that?  When their belief system was being formed they experience all those conditions.  Kids can’t be expected to understand the reality that they have been abused and/or neglected and being kids they believe it is their fault.

So be patient with these kids.  Providing evidence is not enough nor is providing security in the short term.  I believe that over time with a structured, supportive predictable environment they will develop a new set of beliefs that will allow them to function in our society.

 

 

 

 

Posted by: AT 10:29 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, April 17 2017

 

The Troublesome Teens

Newsletter  5.         18 April 2017

For years it was accepted that by age 3, the brain was fully developed and those educational pioneers, the Jesuits believed that by seven their character and intelligence was fully formed - ‘Give me the child and I will return the man’.  This model underpins the traditional view that if you want to deal with troubled kids you have to get them early.

Of course there is a lot of truth in this belief, early intervention is by far the best approach to helping kids in abusive or neglected environments and traditionally policy makers have focused the majority of their resources on this group.  This concentration of resources on early intervention has a couple of shortcomings that need to be considered.  These are:

Young children who are being neglected or abused are usually unable to seek the help they need and unless others discover their situation they will develop dysfunctional behaviours.  Often this only emerges at the time of adolescence.  They will not receive the support needed during their ‘early’ childhood.
Modern investigations into the brain development of children have shown that at the time adolescence hits, the child’s brain is in a state of re-organization and abuse at that time can cause specific, additional damage to cognitive and behavioural development.

In the first instance investigation of data that reflects behaviour shows that at about age 11 things change.  The boys will start to act-out with dysfunctional behaviours that bring them to the attention of schools.  This is an expression of the pain that has gone with their life of abuse or neglect and a reflection of their interrupted development.

The girls on the other hand act-in and the dysfunctional behaviours, although increased are not as obviously alarming as the boys.  Girls internalize their pain and withdraw, a type of dissociation that is common for them at the time of their abuse.  Girls present a real challenge to educators because unlike the boys who demand our attention the girls sit passively in the classroom often being completely compliant.

The journey through the teen years has been described as leaving childhood to become a productive, reproductive adult (there is a new essay on the webpage that gives a more detailed account of this developmental stage).  It is a time when much happens but this Newsletter is about caring for kids with severe behaviours.

So the second concern is that the onset of puberty is characterized by a massive change in the brain’s frontal lobes.  As with all stages of development when the time comes for the brain to learn a fundamental skill the area of the brain this skill is situated experiences a surge in the amount of grey matter and the presence of myaline increases 100 times.

Most brutality that occurs to teenagers is in the form of verbal abuse.  As kids get older, perpetrators find it more risky to abuse them in a physical sense – they could fight back and hurt the aggressor.  However, I don’t think society really understands the severity of the damage verbal aggression produces.  There is a belief that words don’t hurt as much as blows but for adolescents the social acceptance is a necessity these words convey a cruel rejection of them and the effects are significant and enduring.  The cruel paradox of this teenage abuse is that most often it is the kids whose early abuse created the dysfunctional behaviour that attracts this second round of abuse.

This abuse damages the child’s frontal lobes. As a result these children have trouble interacting with their social environment, have deficits in their expressive language, their memory is impaired in regards to habits, word association and the rational thought processes.  MRI evidence has shown a 20% reduction in the size of the frontal lobe in adults with severe behaviours and some of this loss occurs at this time.

Of course we need to continue to strive for successful early intervention but the case is clear, authorities should rethink their piecemeal approach to protecting teenagers and providing proper support for those already damaged.

 

Posted by: Frew Consultants Group AT 02:10 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email

PRINCIPALS

John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance


ABN 64 372 518 772

ABOUT

The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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