The one of the continuing themes of these blogs is the importance of stress control. This is particularly critical for children raised in chaotic, abusive environments. By remaining calm they have a much better chance of making good decisions. In previous Newsletters (Teaching Practical Boundaries 21st July 2017 and Boundary Considerations 22nd October 2018) I have discussed the value of boundaries and how to engage them. This is relevant for teachers as well as students. One of the central elements in making good decisions is the ability to remain calm.
Very briefly, boundaries should be applied when we begin to feel stressed, it protects us from reactive thinking. As soon as we sense that feeling of unease, the application of your boundary protects you, that is allows you to stay calm, to relax. It is well understood that this composure plays a significant role in this process. However, when anything is unearthed to assist people negotiate their way through difficult times it is only a matter of time before this ability is high-jacked and morphed into a self-help industry; the ‘next big thing’ to solve all society’s ills. If you extend the efforts to remain calm you inevitably arrive in the area of meditation and this is proving to be ‘the next big thing’.
This latest and most powerful expression of this new panacea for our behavioural problems is the Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction program (MBSR); a systematized approach to meditation. This practice has really come out of the work of Richard Davidson who studied with Buddhist meditation practitioners. It has long been understood that the constant exposure to high levels of stress create changes in the brain’s structure. Things like an expanded and more sensitive amygdala, a reduction in the hippocampus, the prefrontal lobes, the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, all of which hinder the individual’s capacity to use their cognitive ability to address the problems that cause the stress. There was an almost opposite impact on the brains of individuals who practiced meditation. In these monks, the amygdala was reduced making them more resilient to stress. The increased size of the frontal lobes and hippocampus enhanced the cognitive capacity of the brain.
Davidson’s work was subjected to some criticism but subsequent studies have confirmed his findings. In recent years Jon Kabat-Zinn has systematized the approach with his trade mark MBSR where through his organisation the eight-week program is disseminated across the globe; being used in schools, the military, corporations, etc. and is so programmed the Buddhist teacher Miles Neale refers to it as McMindfulness.
MBSR is just the latest addition of a whole industry of happiness. It has become a $40 Billion industry with over 60,000 books on the subject being offered by Amazon alone. Every year we have a ‘Happiness Conference’ where for a substantial amount of money you can learn how to fix your world.
If you sense a bit of cynicism here you would be right. I have no trouble with meditation and you know I endorse teaching these kids to relax. If nothing else I firmly believe the control of stress, the elimination of it is at the heart of all behaviour management programs and teaching practices. But there is a difference between staying calm while you examine ‘what is really going on’ in your environment and focusing so hard on controlling your internal world discounting what is going on in your external world to cause your stress. If you are about to be abused it is of little value to slip into deep meditation.
What underpins MBSR is that any stress you experience comes from inside you and it is your responsibility to deal with it and if you don’t it will only be a result of your poor choices. This is a cruel message to give to kids who have been raised in an abusive/neglectful family. It is obviously unkind to tell them that all they have to do is meditate to be fulfilled in such an environment, their fear and resultant stress may well be keeping them alive but the more damaging element is by telling them it is ‘really their fault’ if they don’t take control of their life reinforces their sense of toxic shame – they know they are faulty!
But I digress, as stated above the ability to stay calm is fundamental to having good boundaries and using meditation will help these students experience some degree of remediation of their cognitive structures. However, we should never lose sight of their suffering and should work towards changing their environment as much as, if not more than changing their response to it.
For students with backgrounds of abuse and neglect the process for relaxation is very threatening. To relax, you need to focus on your internal world, limiting your attention on the stimulus that flows in from the external world. A feature of these students is that they are always scanning their outer zone looking for potential dangers. This hypervigilance, a trademark of PTSD has been crucial to ensure their survival. Now we are going to ask them to take the focus away from the very practice that aided that existence and to go inside their minds.
A complication is that when we get these students to focus on their internal world we are asking them to attend to their sense of self and for most it is to examine their toxic shame. As we have discussed earlier, this toxic shame reinforces their sense of being a failure. This self-reflection seems hardly a practice that will help them develop a new approach to their behaviour but it is a crucial part of their recovery.
Finally, the process of meditation becomes even more difficult when you attempt to conduct relaxation sessions in a group setting, especially if that group consists of students with similar histories. In my experience, you need to limit the opportunity for each student to communicate with others. To teach meditation in such an environment you need to be aware that all the class will be anxious when they are asked to sacrifice their protective hypervigilance and to avoid this they will attempt to sabotage the teacher’s efforts. This is a real difficulty that can be overcome.
In my last school for these kids I used to teach them a bit of meditation (I have uploaded an essay on meditation with a script for meditation that you could use). These were very ‘tough’ kids and I would often have as many as thirty at a time. Before we commenced the meditation, I explained what the process involved, what happened during the process and how that would benefit them. Of course, this information was included during their lessons in how the brain works, part of their recovery curriculum.
I found a few rules help conduct the meditation lessons. I allowed them to lie on their stomachs with their face down. I also was aware that some would try to break the desired atmosphere by making a noise, coughing, sighing and even the occasional noisy ‘expression of wind’. I understood the calm environment threatened them and if they replaced this with behaviour that upset the class they would feel more comfortable. This was common when students first came into the program.
The process was that I would read a script, the same every morning and if a student acted in a way that would upset the process they were quietly removed from the room. When I had completed the script, those students who participated moved onto the next activity. The students, who were removed were then returned to the class to have the script read to them again.
At this time, I would tell them that I could not make them relax, I explained that I understood they felt threatened but I insisted that they should not spoil the process for others. Eventually the students would sit through a complete ‘reading’ and then they could return to their class. I was surprised that after a time, students asked for the relaxation activity.
Working with these kids will provide you with lots of life lessons not the least of which is there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve human suffering, theirs or yours, but as long as you keep learning and moving forward you and your students will move towards that state of authenticity and peace.
In the late Twentieth Century American Psychologist Albert Ellis became frustrated with the lack of consideration given to the emotional side of psycho-therapy. This was in reply to the stimulus – response approach that had become popular in the late sixties when leaders in psychology, like Skinner adopted a rationalist approach to behaviour. Their ideas were underpinned by the belief ‘if it can’t be measured it is not worth considering’. Ellis accepted the importance of feelings in driving behaviour and so founder what was called Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy.
He reduced the complexity of behaviour to the following:
It is in the ‘Beliefs’ where ‘rational’ behaviours become ‘irrational’. Those who have been following my work will see that this sequence forms part of my schematic representation of the processes of behaviour management as shown below.
My model is more complex but it does incorporate both emotional and cognitive memories but as consistently pointed out in my work the emotional memories are far stronger when we are considering behaviours that are triggered by stressful events, that is when we are being ‘threatened’.
A significant element in the dysfunctional behaviours displayed by students who have very disruptive actions is that of Toxic Shame often referred to in this blog (Toxic Shame - 7th March 2017) and this ‘shame’ is established in early childhood in an abusive or neglectful environment and is predominantly retained in the emotional memories and so these beliefs are the principal driving factor in decision-making when under stress.
At the heart of Toxic Shame is the feeling that you are a ‘mistake’, not that you have made a mistake. It’s a feeling that:
Is not based on reality
Is a false message that creates a false sense of self
Is put on us by others
That is a chronic, permanent state
Exaggerates our faults.
Ellis produced a list of faulty beliefs that described how this feeling of shame is expressed in the life of a casualty of childhood abuse. These are:
I must be loved or approved of by every significant person in my life or I will be a worthless person
I must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects if I am to consider myself worthwhile.
When people act unfairly or badly they should be severely punished.
It is terrible and catastrophic when things are not the way I want them.
Human unhappiness is caused by external events and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances
I must feel anxious if something is or may be dangerous or fearsome and keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurrence.
It is easier to avoid than to face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.
I should be dependent on someone stronger than myself on whom I can rely.
I should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.
The world should provide me with what I want and when it doesn’t it’s a terrible place and I can’t stand it.
My past is the most important part of my life and it dictates how I live.
It is easy to understand why people with dysfunctional behaviours hold the acceptance that how life treats them is, and has to be dependent on others. You can see it in all the points outlined above and that’s because when their sense of self was being formed, in early childhood they had no self-control. So why should they now?
It helps to understand the thought process used by these people but more importantly how do we help them? Of course, long-term mental health intervention for each individual would be ideal but as teachers, we are neither qualified nor would we have the time for such an intervention. And, unfortunately the chances of the vast majority of our students who come to us with such beliefs the chances of them getting access to such a service in miniscule.
However, what can be done is to create an environment that has a highly structured connection between what is done and what happens. If a child does ‘X’ they will get ‘Y’ as much as possible and when the consequence is being delivered it is always attached to the action and never to the person. As they become aware of the connection between what they do and what happens they start to take responsibility for their behaviour and eventually for their life. Of course, it is impossible to get a 100% connection between actions and consequences but for these kids, the more often you can reinforce the link the better their chances of taking responsibility for their life and that is the best learning outcome any teacher could hope for.
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.
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.
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 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.