The Impact of Abuse - it depends on how it happens
All abuse is damaging and will lead to life-long dysfunction unless the resultant impairment is addressed. However, there is difference that will influence the way the dysfunction is expressed; it depends on how the abuse is executed. For some kids, each episode of abuse will be the same, for others the form of abuse is varied, almost random and for some it is some mixture of the both.
To understand how the difference caused by the manner in which the abuse is delivered, we need to examine the real behaviour variation as seen at the boundary between the child and others; that is, how the child deals with stressful interactions will reflect the manner in which they were abused.
When a child is raised in an environment where the abuse is predictable, that is there is a repetitive pattern, the child can develop behaviours that address this abuse in an attempt to minimise the impact. For example, one type of subtle, consistent abuse I have seen during my time as a football coach has been the unreasonable sporting demands of a parent on their child. For example, a small, immature for their age child has every right to feel scared of the physical contact expected in the sport and when he hesitates or ‘misses a tackle’ the father verbally abuses him in front of his peers.
The thing is there is a persistent pattern to the abuse and so the child can learn a behaviour that either avoids the abuse or minimises the damage. In the example of the football parent, I see children throw themselves into positions where they are certain to be hurt. However, the physical pain is preferred over the abuse and rejection of the father.
In contrast to this patterned abuse is the abuse that is unpredictable, that is there is no clues in the child’s environment that allows them to anticipate their parent’s actions and make an adjustment to their behaviour to avoid, or minimise the resultant ill-treatment. This sort of environment is most common in families where substance addiction or psychotic mental illness is prevalent. How the parent treats the child is linked to how they feel and how they feel is dependent on what part of the addiction/psychotic cycle the parent is on.
This inability to predict what will happen develops a sense of hopelessness in these children, that they have no control over their life and so their behaviour becomes erratic with no apparent purpose especially in times of stress.
The difference between these two extremes of response to abuse can be illustrated by examining how they relate to the following characteristics:
The children from unpredictable environments feel:
Less Than – These kids, through their sense of worthlessness and shame never feel they are really entitled to have their fair share of life. When they are rejected, or by-passed, their response is not to stand up for their rights but say what they think ‘it doesn’t matter’ because they think they don’t matter.
Vulnerable – They are unprotected from unwanted boundary intrusion, at any level as well as lacking the ability to get their own needs met through establishing healthy relationships.
Bad/Rebellious – Remember it is their sense of self that shapes their reality and because they have felt their abuse was because they deserved it, they were bad and so they feel this way. Then, in some act of defiance they confirm this opinion by their actions. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘so you think I’m bad well I’ll just show you how bad I am’!
Dependent – Because they have no sense of competency, no belief they can do anything properly, because of their toxic shame, kids with no protection of their ‘core’ depend on others to make decisions for them. It is an extreme example of them having an ineffective boundary.
Out of Control – This is the result of the inconsistent life they have lived. How could they have a sense of control when the have never experienced consistent consequences for their actions. When they make decisions, they have no prior knowledge about what will happen and so they make their ‘best guess’. In lots of cases these kids watch what their friends do, unfortunately the only kids that hang around them are those who exploit them and have the same deficiency in decision making for the same reason.
These ‘out of control’ kids are easy to recognise, in fact they demand our attention. Their behaviour destroys the environment for others as well as themselves. The kids without boundaries, or extremely soft boundaries will act impulsively and with dysfunctional behaviours, learned in their dysfunctional homes.
At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have been abused in a more consistent manner. They display the following characteristics:
Better Than – Because they had to be just what their parent wanted them to be even if this was not to complain, getting the decision on how to act was important, it had to be ‘just right’. They effect this need to be right, or more probably the danger of getting things wrong made it important for these kids project a successful image.
Invulnerable – The inflexible boundaries function to stop others from ‘getting in’, that is finding out how they really feel. Regrettably, this emphasis on preventing authentic contact with others limits opportunities to get their own needs met. This being locked in makes them appear and feel invulnerable but the cost is isolation.
Good/Perfect – Much the same as ‘Better Than’ this characteristic is also a result of the earlier need to make no ‘mistakes’ when dealing with their abuser. Part of the features of an abused child is hypervigilance and so these kids are well aware of how to avoid behaving in a way that will give the other person an excuse to punish them.
Independent – Because of the walls, the rigid boundaries they have built around them, they really don’t feel they have access to the support of others. There was no ‘help’ when they were young and abused and so they never risked depending on another person.
Total Control – It is no surprise that these kids don’t take risks, it is too dangerous if you make a mistake and so they take control of their life. The tragedy is that the behaviours they use to ‘control’ their environment are the ones that deny opportunities to satisfy their own needs.
It would be a mistake to think abused kids will be exclusively down one side or the other. There is a tendency but you need to think of this as a matrix where a child could be a mix across five continuums. For example, a child might have the following profile:
For the child who fits this profile you could expect to be a bully. Even though we can make a judgement about these kid’s behaviour remember, this is not we think about them but how they think of their self. Bullies, unless corrected during their childhood remain bullies all their life. This profile, with the ‘Dependence’ and ‘Out of Control’ could portray the profile of members of extreme groups such as the white supremacist or out-law bikers.
The characteristics described above are, of course a crude attempt to have something to hang our discussion on when describing these children’s sense of self which in turn defines their reality. It is never as simple as these five and of course every individual varies.
It is tempting to conclude that the middle ground is where a healthy individual’s sense of self should be. It seems right that:
No one is less or better than anyone else, we are unique, have our own DNA and experiences and so comparisons are a waste of time.
Should we never make ourselves vulnerable to others? Many be in intimate relationships we may need to trust another to expose ourselves. But the cost of being hurt is great. If we are invulnerable then we miss out on the intimacy that requires trust. So, again the ‘middle ground’ is a tempting rationality.
No one is good or perfect just as no one is bad or rebellious, we can all do bad things or good things but we are not our actions even though others will define us by those actions.
We are social beings and so we do depend on others to get our needs met; society is set-up to share. Therefore, we can’t survive if we are totally independent.
It is tempting to commend a totally in control position. This work has always had the aim of teaching these kids to control their behaviour. But, that is to the extent that they are coming from a position where they don’t understand they can control their life. If and when they do develop a functional suite of behaviours then it is time to expand their knowledge and to do so they need to try new things, they need to take risks, they need to let go of their control.
The truth is there is no proper position of the characteristic continuums presented but for every situation there will be a ‘best spot’ from which you can act. Sometimes it is suitable to be independent and others dependent when to take that position or the infinite variations between these extremes depends of the situation you are in. The question ‘what is really going on’ is the key and is the key to setting functional boundaries.
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
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.
Dealing with disability has become a major focus for our governments in recent years. The recent Royal Commission into disability has shone the spotlight onto the difficulties facing those with a disability. At the school level, teachers have constantly advocated for governments to provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of these children. I’m confident that we continually promote this cause because we want all our students, including those with an inability to:
achieve their authentic sense of value,
exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities,
access all opportunities that are available to others
In our schools we capture a full range of disabilities under the following categories:
Our schools are tasked with providing them support to take their place with all students and so we provide the things needed to achieve this goal. This might be relatively simple to identify for those obvious deficits such as vision, sensory or physical but how to address behaviour, mental health or autism becomes a more difficult task. Leaving autism aside, this is a very specific disorder, I would contend that behaviour and the vast majority of mental health issues share a historically mutual experience and that is early childhood abuse and/or neglect.
To be deemed as disabled, the impairment or condition experienced by a child must impact on their daily activities, communication and/or mobility. These incapacities can be a result of:
DNA Malfunction – these are the disabilities that result from an abnormal interpretation of our genetic code that misdirects our foetal development. These cover a range of disabilities including vision, hearing and other physical impediments and mental health issues that our students are born with.
Accidental Trauma – The range of barriers faced are almost the same as those above but the difficulties are a result of an accident, a fall, a car accident, any event that interferes with the ‘normal’ functioning of the child.
Early Childhood Abuse or Neglect – This covers those disabilities that, like Point 2 describe an intrusion into the ‘normal’ functioning but these impediments are the result of deliberate assaults or neglect of on a normal child.
The undeniable fact is that the children who are causing the vast majority of seriously disruptive behaviours in our schools have suffered from early childhood abuse and/or neglect. This has resulted in these children not only suffering the normal reactions to trauma, their continual exposure to this environment results in specific brain damage that effects their ability to choose appropriate behaviours. This paper seeks to draw attention to this problem but the overwhelming message is that these children have:
Become disabled completely at the hands of adults whose behaviour has caused this damage
Developed ‘presenting behaviours’ which although often quite repulsive are not of their choosing, they are doing the best they can
Presented the greatest challenge for teachers to deal with these children without appropriate acknowledgement or supporting resources from educational institutions
The investigation by the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has unearthed an appalling level of abuse and shone a light onto the long-term damage inflicted on the victims of these crimes. However, that Commission has unearthed just one area of child abuse, it did not include the full range of horrific abusive acts of abuse and neglect that occurs outside of institutional settings, that is in the child’s home and local community.
A sense of the extent of this level of abuse and neglect is shown in the Australian Institute of Family Studies statistics where the number of notifications for abuse or neglect rose from 48,420 (2011 – 12) up to 60, 989 (2015 – 16). These notifications consisted of:
45% Emotional Abuse
18% Physical Abuse
12% Sexual Abuse
These statistics do not include intellectual or spiritual abuse.
Of these children a significant number will go on to develop early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) especially those who are subjected to:
Frequent episodes of abuse that never seems to cease
Unpredictable episodes of abuse, there is no warning the attack is coming
Multifaceted abuse, not the same technique of delivering the threat.
Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty
Although a strict definition of trauma is illusive all definitions have these same contents:
It is a psycho/emotional response to an event or experiences that is deeply disturbing or distressing
It generates an overwhelming amount of stress that exceed an individual’s ability to cope or integrate emotions involved with that event
Causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes the ability to experience a full range of emotions
Any trauma will result in a skewing of our perception to our environment. These are:
Intrusive and distressing thoughts about the event, flashbacks and/or nightmares
Active avoidance of people or places that are reminders of the trauma, withdrawal, dissociation and emotional numbness
Hyper-vigilance, insomnia, agitation and anger outbursts
Children who suffer from PTSD carry these common reactions to trauma. On top of these, they also have exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves and they are reluctant to participate in positive activities. However, it is the continuous elevated levels of stress and the resulting range of chemical actions washing across their central nervous system that will result in real brain damage.
Early work in this field has revealed damage to the frontal lobes and the hippocampus as was clearly demonstrated. This was through investigation in the tragedy of the Romanian orphans, for neglect and serial killers for early childhood abuse. More recent work has shown that the:
Amygdala is increased in size – this makes the victims hypersensitive to perceived threat
Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this translates into a debility in forming memories
Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is the ‘functional’ area of the brain where complex, considered decisions are made.
Cerebellum is reduced in size – contemporary research is revealing the predictive facility of the cerebellum. This influences the prediction of potential outcomes for behaviours
These represent real physical damage to the child’s brain and this will have a direct impact on their cognitive abilities. They are less likely to be successful in an academic world. However, on top of this impediment the damage to these areas of the brain have a direct link to their behaviour. Here in lies the problem; the many behavioural expressions of these disabilities are such they threaten the safety and security of the other students and the teacher.
The following developmental disorders have abuse/neglect at their core:
The majority of the entrenched behaviours associated with these mental illnesses result in socially inept behaviours. They range from dissociation where the child appears to be disengaged and non-threatening to the other extreme, characterized in Conduct Disorder where children display cruel behaviours such as, hitting others, teasing bullying and eventually involved in antisocial activities such as theft and vandalism.
These repellent behaviours offend well-meaning people, including teachers. The result is these children whose disability should engender an empathetic response more often than not are rejected by their peers and community. This rejection compounds their sense of worthlessness and inhibits any motivation to change.
Complementing these behaviours that are directly linked to the brain damage is the reality that even if these children want to take responsibility for meeting their needs they are ill-equipped to do so. The problem is the behaviours they ‘learned’ in their family of origin is functional in that family. For example, a small child might want to get their mother’s attention, they will, like the rest of us try different behaviours until we get one that works. By experimenting with different behaviours they eventually discover that yelling and screaming loud enough will finally force her to pay attention. Even though the attention she gives the child is hardly nurturing it will work. By repeating this process, they learned that to get attention is to scream and yell!
So, when the child is at school and wants the teacher’s attention they do what they have always done – scream and yell! Of course, this will still get attention but in the classroom, there are better ways to get attention but these kids need to learn how to do this. For the teacher, the screaming and yelling will make the student unattractive but for the experienced teacher this behaviour gives a clue to the problems the student and subsequently the teacher faces.
Again, it is not the fault of the student, it is the fault of their childhood.
We must keep in mind these hardened behaviours have been developed as a result of the conduct of the adults and environment in which they developed. They are the fault of the adults who shaped that environment not the child but it will be their presenting behaviour of that child that will influence their acceptance by others.
Appropriate teaching responses to Managing behaviour in the classroom involves:
Understanding the importance of a predictable, stable learning environment
Understanding the effects of early childhood trauma on behaviour and emotions
Understanding dysfunctional behaviour and emotions learned in early childhood will emerge in stressful situations
Understanding students need to operate in a state of calm to learn
Being able to identify and respond to dysfunctional behaviours and emotions
Finally, like all disabilities, schools need resources to allow these students to take their rightful place in society. In our schools all disabilities are underfunded but this particular disability is extremely neglected for the following reasons:
These children do not attract the empathetic support enjoyed by other disabilities. There are no real observable problems, they look healthy and they can behave ‘if they want to’ and so it is easy to think it is their fault.
These children quite often pose a threat to the security and peaceful workings of the classroom. Other students are really disadvantaged to have these kids in class without support.
Teacher training is totally inadequate in preparing teachers for dealing with these children.
There is a lack of provision of specialist settings for these students and there is no professional development for the staff that work in these settings.
This paper is called ‘Malevolent Development - The Condemned Disability’ because the fact that children are treated in such a way requires a certain malicious attitude on the part of the people who commit these atrocities. It is also a condemnation on our broader society that we allow this damage to continue at increasing rates.
Schools are constantly being asked to deal with the problems of society and for these children the school is their only chance. It is up to that broader society to provide the resources for them to do this valuable work.
How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing. This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties. This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning.
As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be. So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.
The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN. Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers. Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.
Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity.
There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!
The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’! This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years. Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.
Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever. However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed. This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence. More success with more effort, sounds familiar!
Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies. In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach. To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!
The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field. How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy! Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field. The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm. Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school! Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.
The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success. Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests. A few points:
Naplan is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test. This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools. This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population. Hardly a significant sample!
The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding. I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.
However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’! If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed! If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.
And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying! Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life! The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!
Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage. Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn. So far - no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.
The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception. A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements. Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate. At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking. The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves. In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’. In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.
Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self - but how? The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do. As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!
Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents. We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment. It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other. Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently. You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background.
In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life. This what good teachers do!
Converting Teachers' Lessons to Intrinsic Motivation
How often do we hear the comment ‘anyone can teach’ and I have to agree. I see ex- footballers, netballers, etc. most afternoons ‘teaching’ youngsters how to play their sports. The thing is anyone, who has the knowledge can teach someone who wants to learn that topic. What defines a professional teacher is one who can teach a child something they:
Don’t want to learn
Don’t think they can learn
Have no reason to learn
Yet every day we go into our class armed with a syllabus full of topics that children, not only have the above attitudes, they often have no idea what the teacher is talking about. But, every day successful teachers meet this challenge and they do this by motivating their students.
In a previous Newsletter, I discuss human motivations and how they are related to our physical and emotional wellbeing. When we are dealing with the curriculum we are dealing with the child’s intellectual ‘wellbeing’! The challenge is to create a level of stress that will motivate the child to learn. We want our students to ‘want to know’ about the topic we are presenting; we want them to be motivated to learn.
In 1985, Edward l. Deci and Richard M. Ryan published ‘Intrinsic Motivation and Self- Determination in Human Behaviour’ and this underpinned what was to become Self-Determination Theory. This theory explained how motivation supports the journey to independence, to make one’s own choices and control one’s life. Of course, I can’t argue with this as a goal although I would add a few things like being ethical, responsible and contributing to make your community a ‘better place’.
Deci and Ryan discuss motivation that is underpinned by three drives:
Relatedness – A sense of belonging, interacting with others. Caring for them and having that support returned
Autonomy – To be the causal agent in your life. Your behaviour is self-endorsed and you are the master of your own destiny
Competence – You control the outcomes of your behaviour, you have the knowledge and skills to be successful in your community
These drives are very specific and can be part of any model of human needs but they have in common being involved with the cognitive processing of behaviours. From the previous Newsletter this type of motivation is only possible as an active drive if our physical and emotional needs are generally satisfied. The following discussion will describe this model but keep in mind that a successful fulfilment is limited to children who have a secure sense of self.
There are two further facets to be considered and these are:
Extrinsic Motivation – A drive that comes from an external force or demand to achieve nonessential goals. In the extreme this motivation will be to get a pleasant reward or to avoid a disagreeable punishment.
Intrinsic Rewards – These come from the individual’s core values and a desire to seek new challenges and experiences. The behaviour is at the heart of curiosity and enhances their expression of their ‘best self’.
The Model describes motivation being on a continuum based on the amount of external/internal motivation. The continuum runs from an ‘amotive’ position, a point of no motivation, no prospective outcomes and no drive to behave through to a situation where all behaviour is driven by the internal drives outlined above. The relevant behaviour is driven by self-interest and will satisfy the person’s desires; this is the point of authentic, intrinsic motivation. Because the outcome they are working towards is so ‘rewarding’ the students will be fully focused on the task.
The point of interest for the teacher is how do we get the students to this point when we present them with another lesson on ‘simultaneous equations’? This is particularly challenging when dealing with disengaged students. In a previous Newsletter (Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward – 2nd April 2018) I discussed the problem of using rewards as a form of motivation however, when you are faced with a student with no interest you may find offering a reward is the only option. This should only be the point of entry into the student’s world on motivation.
The task is to somehow link the pursuit of a ‘reward’ with a student’s sense of control. That is, they have some power in the transaction that drives participation. If you can then link this with an attachment to their values system, that is, if they can understand simultaneous equations it will enhance their drive for:
Relatedness - they are accepted by their peers and admired by the teacher
Competence – they have mastered a difficult skill
Autonomy – They have become independent in dealing with this mathematical problem
The teacher can support this change by teaching their students about goal setting. Explain that to learn to solve simultaneous equations can have long term benefits; depending on the maturity of these students this could range from next week’s test for very young or disengaged students to university entry for those rare, mature, students. Then teach them about breaking this task down to short term achievable goals that give them, and you a chance to reflect and celebrate.
The result is the student will become more engaged in the lesson. As success breeds success the more you can develop this intrinsic motivation the most successful your students will be. Sounds easy but it is not however, it can be achieved with patience and persistence.
Please go to the Resource Page, Frew Consultants Group for a copy of Chapter 2 ‘Human Needs and Drives’ from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ for a detailed description of my model of human needs and drives.
It has long been the ambition of teachers to understand how to motivate their students and apply that theory. There has been a history of attempts to present a model that explains this phenomenon. The most successful being Maslow’s who presents a hierarchical model. He argues people can only pursue higher, more complex endeavours after their more basic drives are satisfied. Maslow holds that it is only when lower drives linked to survival are satisfied, that humans could reach self-actualization, the highpoint of development. I agree, in a limited sense that we can only seek ‘self-actualization’ when we have satisfied more basic drives.
My theory reflects our tri-part brain, that is we have three relatively distinct parts of the brain that reflect the evolution of our species. The lower part focuses on the maintenance of our physical survival and is often referred to as the reptilian brain because reptiles’ cognitive development hardly progresses from this point. The next level is referred to as the social brain and this developed as our species learned to live in cooperative groups to increase their chances of survival. The last is our thinking brain, the area of development that is behind the dominance of our species. It is in this region we can make predictions into the future based on previous experience allowing us to plan ahead. It is this last part of the brain that we need our students to bring to the classroom.
It must be remembered that the brain is at the centre of all motivation and all drives are underpinned by our need to survive and reproduce. This is inspired by Richard Dawkins’ seminal work, ‘The Selfish Gene’.
The following are the major points of my model:
The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied. When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance. Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens. If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on. In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.
The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:
Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically composed
Secondary Drives - our need for emotional regulation is controlled in the limbic system
Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes
A person’s motivation will be focused on dealing with that area that is generating the most stress (i.e. that part of the brain that looks after our needs). For example, if you are out of breath your dominant motivation will be to get oxygen to survive. If you are excluded from your peer group your limbic system will be engaged to return to the group.
Learning is the result of trial and error in generating behaviours that assist the reduction of the stress and return us to a state of equilibrium. When we find a way of achieving this we repeat that action and through repetition our brain develops a ‘neural wiring’ or memory that allows us to quickly repeat the chosen behaviour when the same conditions occur.
The easy conclusion would be that our most powerful drive would be to physically survive. But, unfortunately the many people who commit suicide make this statement untrue, they deliberately kill themselves. Suicide is most often the result of emotional problems and the source of these is in the limbic system. My argument is that our behaviour is driven where the most stress or distress exists. I will also contend that our mortality depends on both our physical and emotional status and so will have primacy over any tertiary drive.
Finally, we can only fully access our tertiary brain when the lower parts of the brain are in relative equilibrium. That is if we want our students to fully concentrate on our lessons it is important that they are reasonably comfortable.
So, what are the consequences of these ‘fundamentals’? In the classroom the teacher’s goal is to have the student ‘learn’ to respond to a set of circumstances. For instance, if the lesson is on how to solve simultaneous equations we have to have the child stressed enough to be motivated to learn how to do this. At first the presentation of this problem should make the student ‘uneasy’ a condition that could be described as curiosity. I don’t think I would be alone thinking I could count the number of students who would jump at the opportunity to learn about these equations; I could name these students on one hand. Teachers need other ways to motive their students to be ‘curious’ about the classroom’s ‘simultaneous equations’ (in the next Newsletter I will continue this example hopefully giving you help in doing this).
What is important is that for the student to even give these intellectual problems their attention, they need to be in a relatively state of equilibrium in their physical and emotional worlds.
In comparison to much of the world it is easy to assume our children come to school with their physical needs fairly satisfied. Every night, on the ‘news’ you see children starving in areas of drought or in the many war zones. It is easy to see how these children would be unable to learn such complex problems as solving our simultaneous equations, they just want to survive. However, in every school there will be students who have missed their breakfast, are suffering an illness or believing that when they get home they will receive a belting from their father.
Of course, bullying is a problem for all schools and if your student is the subject of a physical threat the resulting fear/stress will take their attention away from the lesson. We can’t assume their physical needs are satisfied and if not, their attention will be on relieving this stress in preferences to studying maths.
A more likely distraction from the cognitive lesson would be a deficit in the student’s emotional world. As mentioned above bullying is a potential stressor in the physical world but it is just as distracting in the child’s social world. The fear of rejection is just as life threatening as a physical threat. Studies have shown that the very same areas of the brain are activated when people are either physically threatened or socially excluded. Just being a child is a tough time as it is the time children learn social behaviours and this learning is a result of their being stressed. If this is occurring in the classroom, the student will focus on getting the emotional state back into equilibrium; the equations can wait.
In secondary schools the drive to reproduce begins and that produces another set of ‘stressors’ that will distract students.
When you consider the number of possible distractions a child can experience it is no wonder teachers face a most complex task. To address a lot of the physical and emotional problems an individual student may face is beyond the teacher’s capacity, they are faced with up to thirty of these individuals with all their experiences. In fact, in most cases they won’t even know these problems exist.
When they are known, or the potential is understood schools can help. For instance, the school can have, as many do a breakfast club to cater for those students who are hungry or to reduce levels of bullying provide a strong, effective school anti-bullying policy.
But, the thing the teacher and the school can do is provide an environment that is supportive and reliable, one of the most important factors of a successful classroom or school is the level of trust. When students are at school, in a classroom where they are safe and secure they, and us teachers have access to their cerebral cortex and together complex learning can take place.
Our newsletters, in the blog and our books are predominantly about building such an environment.
The recent imprisonment of George Pell has focused our attention on the evil abuse suffered at the hands of those whom children should trust. The atrocious revelations, uncovered by Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission and reported across the globe, confirms the magnitude of this appalling cruelty. Unfortunately, the numbers of children damaged by a range of secular and non-secular organisations is most likely to be exceeded by those children who are abused those who they are programed to trust - their families and friends of those families.
Any attempt to quantify the numbers is at best an estimation as so many of the victims never disclose their history. Although estimates of the numbers differ it seems to be between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD. This is an increase on the general view that, from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.
The accuracy of these records is not relevant to this paper, they are just presented to give a sense of the magnitude of the numbers of kids who carry the wounds of their abuse or neglect. These statistics indicate that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students suffering PTSD. So, in a class of 30 students you could expect between three to nine students who suffer from the injuries inflicted on them through abuse or neglect.
Also, PTSD is not equally distributed across the landscape; in resource-poor suburbs up to 23% suffer PTSD (in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD). These figures are reflected in behavioural indicators in school systems. The numbers of suspensions positively correlate with the socio-economic profile of a school as does the number of children referred to child protection agencies.
The high levels of stress suffered during these abusive episodes, if systematically repeated will damage the child’s brain leaving them with a permanent cognitive disability. This includes:
Amygdala is increased in size – resulting in a hyper sensitivity to real or perceived danger
Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this is the area where memories are first created.
Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is our executive part of the brain where all the considered decisions are made.
Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is an area of the brain that is intimately involved in all the coordination of thoughts and imagined outcomes for given situations.
They have also learned to behave in ways that may well have saved them in their dysfunctional environment, things like exaggerated anger, bullying or unhealthy compliance.
However, the result of this cognitive damage and their dysfunctional behaviours have created a group of students who:
Have significant brain damage
Are vulnerable to elevated levels of threat
Have entrenched behaviours that repulse and threaten others
Have behaviours that push well-meaning people away
Have behaviours that damage the physical and psychological wellbeing of other members of their community
Having seen what abuse does to the child’s development it is no surprise that childhood PTSD is linked to almost every behavioural illness in the diagnostic manual (the DSM) used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. These include disorders whose symptoms create the difficulties for teachers:
I can’t emphasise enough these children do not easily attract the compassion from society that those kids who become disabled through a developmental mishap or an accident attract, yet their ‘injuries’ have been inflicted on them through the malevolent assaults of adults. They are victims, not of ‘bad luck’ but a cruelty that has never been really identified or accepted by society.
The really difficult issue in dealing with these victims is to foster and maintain an empathetic relationship with these kids. Beneath their severely dysfunctional behaviour is a child who is precious, special and unique. When we accept this, we recognise them as victims of such cruelty. Understanding this sustains our dedication when we are subjected to the very repellent behaviours we might face, particularly when we first encounter them in our classrooms.
Right now, the media is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and appropriately there is an outcry about the abhorrent nature of this abuse and sympathy for the victims. Unfortunately, the media will move on and this compassion for the victims will fade and we will return to the consistent position that these bad children should be punished. The connection between the bad behaviour and the abusive history is forgotten. But we are a professional teacher and we understand that these kids are victims and so we have a right to help them:
Achieve their sense of value
Exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities
Access all opportunities that are available to others
It is tempting to make the case that these kids are more deserving of special support but that would be plain wrong; all our kids need all they need. But, I would argue that these children whose dysfunctional behaviour that has been inflicted on them by adults do not receive the same support as other children with a disability. This is a task that requires specialist training, resources to support teachers dealing with these children and a professional recognition of the special skills required. Despite the difficulty in providing the appropriate programs there is promise that, with the proper interventions these children can make significant progress on overcoming their failings, an outcome not always available to children with more acknowledged disabilities.
This is a challenge for all of society but a professional responsibility for us teachers; it’s hard, it’s not fair but addressing the needs of these ‘unpleasant’ children allows us to display those very qualities that make teaching the profession I am proud to be associated with.
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.
If you ask a group of educators, from any sector what is the most important feature of successful teacher/student interaction invariably you get the answer relationships. And I would agree. However, personal relationships are hard work even when both parties are committed to having such a connection. It is a challenge when the relationship you need is between a teacher and an angry, oppositional student. It is obvious that it will be up to that teacher to build that relationship, not only is that connection a prerequisite for engagement, how else are they going to participate, it really is an ethical duty.
Relationships depend on two central abilities, the first is the capacity to communicate, the second is the ability to experience empathy for that student. Relationships, communication and empathy all take place in the intersubjective space between the teacher and the student; the point where both party’s feelings and beliefs overlap while they encounter a shared situation. The quality of this interaction depends on the teacher’s capability to empathize with the student and to understand the student’s interpretation of the event. It is not the student’s responsibility to make this happen.
If you go looking for a definition of empathy you will be inundated with numerous responses. Within all this is the idea that it is the ability to predict and experience, on a personal level how another individual feels and thinks about a shared situation. As with all ‘behaviour’ empathy is learned through our drive to improve our survival or reproduction. It is perhaps the most sophisticated form of social/emotional intelligence that equips you to navigate collective communications and get our needs met.
Empathy is first learned as an infant and it is no surprise that the earliest experience is in the eyes of a mother. A newborn’s field of vision is limited but it caters for the child to ‘see’ their mother’s eyes; in most cases the overwhelming love felt for a baby will gaze down. And so, it is the non-verbal communication learned in early childhood that holds the key to the development of empathy.
First the eyes, then the facial expression and posture. This conveys so much of the emotional content of our communication. Along with this is the tone of voice, cracking before tears or becoming edgy as we become annoyed. In a nurturing environment, the consistency between the non-verbal cues and the reality of the communication allows the child to grow into an empathetic adult.
In an early Newsletter (28th August 2018 – ‘Accept their lack of Empathy – Just for Now’) I explained that these children with severe behaviours lack empathy. Unlike those children mentioned above, these kids never experienced that consistent affection and care, they were denied the constant connection between life situations and emotional responses; they never learned to accurately predict.
So how do we build that relationship and subsequently build an ability for the child to empathize? It is important that you understand that in that intersubjective space between you and the student is a power imbalance that favours the teacher and this must be acknowledged. The teacher has control of this space and they must use that capacity to provide the conditions within that space to nurture the child.
That space must be safe, friendly and predictable, the conditions that allow trust to emerge. It is only when the space is reassuring, the teacher gains an understanding of the child’s intellectual and social functions, the student trusts the teacher and so teaching/learning can take place.
Although you are the ‘expert’ in the relationship it is important to remember that it is a shared experience. The connection between you will be strengthened the more the child is allowed to actively participate. How they do this is difficult as both you and the child really understand the power imbalance. However, there will be some areas where the child ‘knows things’ you don’t. If you seek to uncover their expertise and learn about it, the child will be more willing to engage with you. When we know this about the space it becomes easier to move on to new concepts or ideas.
In any situation, along with power comes responsibility. It is easy to become complacent about empathy or difficult to feel empathy towards a severely disruptive student. To avoid this failure to connect we can employ that most critical teaching technique of being predictable and consistent. The damage is done when we either fail to reinforce a connection between an action and a consequence or we become angry and/or unpredictable in our conduct.
As it is at the point of connection, the intersubjective space where failure occurs it makes sense that to avoid this breakdown you can apply the technique of retaining effective boundaries. Remember boundaries are synonymous with the intersubjective space.
These are outlined is the Newsletter (31st July 2017 – Teaching Practical Boundaries) and the steps are outlined to:
Stay calm – While you, the teacher remains calm you remain in the psychological state that most allows you to make good decisions.
Ask yourself – what is really happening’? The child’s motivation behind a child’s behaviour is not often transparent. An empathetic teacher will be informed about their students’ histories and understand how this will influence their response to the presenting situation.
Understanding that you have the power in the relationship and that you are imperfect, you need to be sure you have not created the conflict. If you have, you must accept your liability and change your behaviour.
If it is the child’s dysfunctional behaviour that has caused the problem them by understanding the driving force behind their disruptive conduct it is easier to maintain a sense of empathy towards them and retain that feeling of calm required to make proper decisions. If this is the case you need to decide what you want from them in the long term and what you need to do to get this.
If things are deteriorating and you are confronted with a failure to build relationships with your students don’t give up easily. This is a time to reflect, pause and contemplate the problem. A healthy attitude a teacher can take for any situations is that you:
Know what you know – you know what to do
You don’t know what you don’t know – you don’t know what to do
The thing that defines great teachers, read this carefully is they know what to do when they know they don’t know what to do and they take the required action; they will do what they have to do.
Finally, your empathetic relationships towards your students are professional, that is not to discount their authenticity but for your mental wellbeing they are to be confined to the school. You can be empathetic towards your students but you cannot live for them. It is their life and your job is to teach them how to get the best out of it for themselves.
We all enjoy praise and it is recognised as an effective method to motivate students. However, in the times of Skinnerian psychology, the reward/punishment approach to behaviour modification, there was an emphasis on positive reinforcement as a method to sculpt children’s behaviour. Of course, it’s hard not to feel this way, who doesn’t like to be praised?
The emphasis on praise has led to the ‘every one’s a winner’ approach to motivating children, whether that be in school or in sport. This tactic has back fired on a lot of fronts least of all in fostering enthusiasm – ‘why try if I get a trophy anyway’ and, what’s more the trophy means nothing!
Studies in business conducted by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada in 2013 looked at the effectiveness of praise and criticism. They found that the optimal ratio was 5.6:1, that is almost six occasions where the staff were prise for every piece of critical feedback. The low end had a ratio of 0.36:1 a very negative environment.
You do need to provide ‘negative’ feedback to correct behaviour, how will they learn without it but it must be a criticism of their actions, what they do. Never about what you think they are, for the students with histories of abuse and neglect and the resulting toxic shame, any negative description of what ‘they are’ only reinforces their poor sense of self.
There are times when it is impossible to provide any positive feedback. When I first started to work with these disabled kids the idea was you had to provide at least four positive comments before you could make a negative one. Teachers being assessed had to maintain this 4:1 ratio. I have seen teachers, placed in front of an ‘out of control’ class desperately trying to find something positive to say let alone keep up the prescribed ratio! Children will see any praise at this time as disingenuous and the teacher will lose their credibility! Sometimes you have to get them quiet enough they will provide a genuine reason to praise them.
It becomes obvious that praise has some value but research has shown that the value is what you praise and what you criticise. When you praise the child for ‘what they are’ saying things like, you’re very clever, you are a natural, you find this work very easy, etc.; there is plenty of evidence that this has a negative effect. Children praised for ‘what they are’ will lack motivation and lose interest in the tasks and have their grades actually fall. Most dangerous is to tell them they are very clever.
The praise should be directed at their effort and their attempts to complete tasks. Things like ‘I can see you have made a good effort in doing those maths problems’ or ‘that work is really good, I can see how much you have improved your maths ability’. If they think they are getting better they will keep on trying!
A more detailed description of this work is covered in a previous Newsletter on Praise found in the blog for September 12 2018.
Finally, there are a very powerful group of students who have been so rejected they view any type of praise as suspicious, they see it as an attempt to manipulate them. For these kids just consistently praise them for the right thing without expecting any positive feedback and they will eventually change their attitude as long as you hang in. Remember it has taken years of negative reinforcement to get them to the toxic sense of self they present, it will take a significant amount of persistence to change that position.
So, it is important to choose your words carefully. The following are some sentence starters that might help:
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.