In a previous Newsletter Challenging Beliefs – Not so Easy (see - 04/02/2017) we discussed the basic principle behind the formations of beliefs and why they are powerful. In this essay we will revisit some of these concepts and why beliefs have such a powerful hold on behaviour. Understanding the process of formation provides the processes and conditions that drive a behavioural change.
Beliefs are the internal maps of our environment we assemble from the moment we are born. These maps are the memories of the connection between actions in and from the environment and the experienced impact on our self that followed those actions.
All behaviour, when examined closely is designed to support our survival and later the ability to reproduce, this is the Selfish Gene Model proposed by Richard Dawkins. In early childhood when our internal maps are being formed, it is the drive to survive that governs our behaviours. These internal maps are memories of the best way to get our needs met in the environment in which we are raised.
For example, if we need to get the attention of a distracted, uncaring mother and after various trials we find the best, most reliable way to do this is to throw a tantrum then the memory of that behaviour will determine what we will do next time mum ignores us! We expect to get attention with anger and when we do, this belief is reinforced.
Over time we develop a whole network of memories associated with various situations and the more these are reliable, the more they ‘work’, the more they become the truth; they become our fundamental view of the world. This belief allows us to operate effectively to deal with incoming senses because they worked before. The belief becomes a ‘permanent’ part of our memory and as well as assessing incoming evidence about the environment, it also allows us to ‘know things’ without reference to the environment. As I sit here typing I ‘know’ my car is in the driveway, I know my kids are at work; I confidently know these things even though I have no real evidence. This ‘knowing’ makes my life more efficient because in most cases my beliefs will match the unseen evidence.
The key point is that the belief has been developed in a specific environment. Throughout these essays we assert the problem for children raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that when they move from that punishing environment into a different setting such as a classroom, the behaviour driven by their beliefs does not work. Logic suggests that if one behaviour fails then you try a different one after all that’s how you formed your beliefs, but they are not formed that way, evidence will never overshadow beliefs. This is especially so for memories (beliefs) formed in early childhood or when the child is feeling threatened! The evidence is that when a child has established a set of beliefs, logic alone has little chance of successfully making a change, particularly when it suggests behaviours that go against their sense of self. The difficulty when working with these children is for us to understand just how important and powerful their beliefs are and the difficulty in changing the resulting behaviours.
Every one of us needs a sense of certainty when we make-a-decision. Not making-a-decision can lead to either inactivity or procrastination or become reliant on others to tell you what to do. Extreme indecision can lead to aboulomania a mental disorder where pathological indecisiveness leads to emotional anguish; indecision, or lack of ‘knowing.’ This ‘not knowing’ is also associated with obsessive compulsory disorder. We need to sense we are right all the time.
I have an unexplained dislike for the term behaviour modification, it implies that through control you make someone act in a certain way. I also have the same disquiet in regards to operant conditioning based on Skinner’s model of stimulus response/reward punishment model. However, we are working with children who have developed behaviours through the ‘reward and punishment’ feedback from the environment in which they were raised so we can’t disregard this connection. My thesis is that if you want these children to learn to behave in a way to get their needs met in the school environment we have to structure the feedback from their actions to build the connection between their behaviour and their desired consequences. The feed-back will be either they get their needs met in the environment, a ‘reward’ or, if they do not get their needs met, they are ‘punished’. It is through their actions within a structured set of predictable consequences they are modifying their behaviour.
Feedback, whether positive or negative are only consequences of actions and are what happens when you act a certain way. Previous Newsletters (Consequences - 03/26/2018 and Consequences – Neither Punishment nor Reward - 04/02/2017) discuss consequences at depth and the case for establishing them is made in detail in these essays.
Setting consequences is not easy, especially those that are not ‘natural’. For example, if you go out in the rain without protection you will get wet, that’s a natural consequence. Some consequences can be logical, for example if you are asked to pick up papers because you are caught littering, the connection between creating trash and removing that, is rational. However, some consequences have to be imposed. If a child hits a smaller one it would hardly be natural or logical for the child to hit back so society develops a set of ‘chosen’ consequences that follow such actions. It is best if everyone agrees on the consequences but it is essential that they know what will happen!
If we are to build up the child’s sense of independence and the resulting sense of self-empowerment the consequences that are imposed as an outcome must not be influenced by what you want for the child but what the child sees as being significant, that is what they want and don’t want to have happen.
This is where structure and persistence are critical. To develop a new set of beliefs for the child that will drive functional behaviour you have to present an environment that is so structured, so predictable that the evidence, the feedback resulting from behaviour that comes from that environment, will eventually create a set of beliefs that will overwhelm their existing belief structure.
It is important to remember that the belief structure constructed during early childhood was developed by being the best way they had of surviving in their physical and social environment. It is really difficult for anyone to give up their beliefs just based on data. Our reliance on beliefs is powerful and, in some cases regarded as a more reliable test of reality. Recent events in America are testament to this phenomenon. How often do we hear leadership pundits telling us to trust our intuition, use our ‘emotional intelligence’? When we do this, we run the risk of choosing beliefs over evidence. When that best-selling book by Daniel Goleman came out I was working with children with belief systems formed in abusive and neglectful environments. I always thought that emotional stupidity was just as valid a subject!
The real secret is that the consequences are attached to the behaviour, not the child. It will not surprise you to know that this is best done when there is a very supporting relationship between the teacher and the child. This ensures that the child understands it is their behaviour within the structure that controls the consequences not whether or not the teacher likes them. This is how they develop a sense of self-empowerment because they develop the understanding that they control their behaviour and in doing that, they control the consequences good or bad that come their way.