Working with children with severe behaviours is extremely challenging. The personal demands you will experience working with these difficult children are not to be underestimated; they are extremely stressful. In one of my books (see resources) I discussed the concept of toxic resilience. The idea is that to be successful in a highly demanding vocation you need top be resilient. Working with difficult students over time certainly qualifies as being a demanding job; it demands a high level of resilience. But, this resilience comes at a cost. The ability to keep fronting up to these children places you in a situation that has a high likelihood of producing constant elevated stress. This constant exposure has a significant negative impact on an individual’s personal health, a situation that is understated and largely unrecognized.
Resilience has been defined as the ability to display constant competence under high levels of stress and produce quality outcomes despite demanding conditions. This definition is now accepted for every age group. This has long been held as a strength especially in education. It has allowed us to keep going long after others would have given-up. This is a quality required when dealing with these kids. One of the prerequisites for success is to hang in with them long after they had expected you to give-up.
In earlier Newsletters (The Intricacy of Stress, June 19th 2017 and Anxiety 24th July 2017) we have discussed the biological consequences of elevated levels of stress particularly when those levels are maintained over a period of time. You must be aware that you are working in such an environment.
The following is just a brief outline of symptoms, causes and recovery techniques that you can use as some sort of guide to self-care around maintaining a healthy level of resilience in this very difficult job.
In the Newsletter we have discussed the healthy stress cycle, arousal with its flight/fight/freeze response, the discharge of the released energy and a return to rest. We have also discussed what happens if, before we return to our baseline homeostasis, we are again provoked to a level that produces another cycle and the cycle is incomplete. The level of confined stress is magnified. This build-up is gradual and, unless you are vigilant you will not realise you are becoming burned-out, a not so nice way of saying you are dangerously stressed. If this is happening you may notice changes to your physical and emotional wellbeing as well as changes in your behaviour. These are:
Feeling very tired or exhausted all the time
Changes in sleep patterns
Changes in eating habits
Low immunity, catch everything that is going about
Feel like nothing matters
Work is either extremely boring and worthless or it is overwhelming and you can’t cope
Feel like a failure, you feel helpless or detached
Your level of motivation has dropped
You become cynical and start to criticize everything
Avoid responsibilities by missing, either taking excess sick leave or other forms of leave
Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkley was renowned for her work around occupational burnout. She has described five causes for burnout and these are:
1. Work Overload – People have too much work to do in their day or, they don’t have enough time to complete the work they are given or, they are not supplied with the resources to complete their work. In any modern public school all three conditions are the norm.
2. No Autonomy – When we are given a responsibility but not given the authority to make decisions about how that task should be done or the freedom to plan the work we become disempowered. This leads to frustration that can build to resentment.
3. Under Valued – As teachers we are always looking to provide our students with positive feedback when they complete a task. We understand that this sort of response helps them become motivated to carry on. Somehow this simple technique is ignored when we are dealing with our colleague or those we supervise. When we fail to provide positive feedback or some type of reward we feel under-valued or disrespected.
A particular problem you will face if you ‘specialise’ in dealing with these damaged kids is that the mainstream educational community has no real time for these children other than mouthed clichés when they make the headlines in the media. This discounting from the leadership send a message to colleagues that don’t work in this area that somehow your work is not important. This can be quite disappointing.
4. Not Supported in the Workplace – This leads on from the latter part of the previous point. However, when you are working with these very difficult kids there will be time, more than is usual when the students will have to be removed from their class. This is where the teacher requires the support of the rest of the school. These students must be removed for everyone’s safety, including their own but they must be supervised. There is nothing more demoralising than sending a student out and having them return almost immediately with little or no intervention being delivered.
5. Fairness – This is another point hat is underpinned by the understanding that you will be working with difficult kids. Shallow educators equate teaching quality with the attainment of high grades in their classrooms. This insult is carried on by the community and the media. There is little understanding of the difficult work you do on top of the delivery of curriculum which is the task of those teachers working in ‘selective’ environments. Everyone deserves respect especially those who work without minor extrinsic rewards.
6. The ‘Meaning’ of your Work – This is the final part of the causes that make working with these difficult kids a dangerous place to take on. You should not expect your colleagues or your supervisors to understand the value, not to mention the difficulty of the work you do. I worked for ten years as a principal of a special school for adolescents with severe behaviours in a very needing area in South-West Sydney. During that time, I had four supervisors all of whom were wonderful people but I know they had no idea and little interest in what we were doing at the school. This is where you need to believe in your understanding of the work you do and if possible, create alliances with contemporaries from nearby areas. These days you can contact similar colleagues ‘on-line’ one advantage of the digital world.
When discussing recovery let’s use the same three categories, physical, emotional and behaviour. In reality, these are really just the reverse of those things we have identified as the causes of stress.
Physical – Lots of the things that have used to deal with your elevated stress have affected your health. It’s doing almost the opposite that will help you recapture your physical health. There are some simple things you can do:
Get regular exercise. This doesn’t have to be excessive and really it needs to be ‘age appropriate’. Don’t develop an obsession with exercise, that is a symptom of activities addiction, that is exercising so you avoid the issue that is causing the stress. It might be jogging or walking the dog, anything that gets you out and about. Joining in a team activity would tick two of these boxes.
Try meditation, follow the guidelines outlined for the students, they will be the same. It is also a good idea to take meditation or yoga classes to get out and meet others.
Avoid drugs, this goes without saying. It is part of our western culture to reach for a drink when we are over worked and the thought of a stiff drink at the end of the week is tempting. Like all things, in moderation is a good guide.
Emotional – When you are ‘burned-out’ you really do not feel good about yourself and you tend to isolate from others. Some simple ideas are:
Reach out to those who are close to you. Your first though is probably they don’t want to hear about your problems but in most cases, you would be wrong. People are flattered when you seek them out. The very act of choosing to speak to them communicates that you trust them and value them. They will be supportive.
Socialise both in your work and in the community. At work you are with people you probably would not choose to mix with unless you had to. But, you are with them during your working day and by trying to get to know them the consequential interactions are much more pleasant. Don’t be afraid to initiate the contact.
Get your work into perspective especially when working with challenging kids. The modern demands on teachers is on outcomes and we can get swept up in the idiocy of this approach to education. All teachers know that learning outcomes depend on a range of factors with the teacher being one. Assess your value with the effort you put into your work.
Behavioural – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ How often have we heard this cliché but for the most part it is true? These are some things to do:
High achievers are reluctant to say no to any request but there are times when you should say just that. You have to maintain a proper life – work balance and that requires you to limit the demands placed on you. Get into the habit of leaving your work at work. I understand this has always been impossible for teachers, it still is but in dealing with that work you do take home make sure you make a timetable that includes an appropriate of non-work activities.
Think about how you work and how you could improve the efficiency and/or effectiveness of your efforts. This may include delegation of some activities that really could be done by others. I had a process where, if I though some demand was trivial I would put it into a designated file and wait to see if the person who sent the directive followed-up their request (this is common practice for most teachers and principals). If the demand was repeated then I would complete the task. Of course, you need to know those things that must be done!
Plan; this can be an overall strategy for the school year or term but if so you need to break this down into smaller goals such as what you want to achieve in the next month, or whatever you choose but it is great to have a lesson plan that includes what you need to do. When you have a plan, it takes away a lot of your stress.
The message is, look after yourself! There is a statement made in every life-saving course I have been to and that is, never jump into a river to save a child if you can’t swim. It is equally true that you can’t help damaged kids get better if you become ill yourself.
The Star Wars franchise continues with the release of the latest edition. Star Wars is a modern version of old myths, and because of this, it is an easy trap to fall for some of the glib statements that have become truisms. The famous ‘Do. or do not. There is no try". Comes from the wisest of characters when he chastises the young Luke Skywalker for giving up.
There are three similar truisms that persist in modern education circles. Teachers, bureaucrats and for that matter politicians are drawn to the proverbial wisdom of their concepts, and they are promoted as the secrets of success. These are:
1. Meritocracy – This is the idea that success in life depends on an individual’s talent, ability and the effort they are prepared to make to achieve your goals. Modern democracies promote this idea that anyone can reach the top of any enterprise as long as they have the raw ability and put in the effort. This concept is in direct contrast to aristocracy where success in life was closely linked to the status and titles of your family and relationships.
2. Grit – Grit is a lot like meritocracy in that it has effort at its core but unlike the former Grit discounts the value of innate ability. Psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth who pointed out that success was more reliant then intelligence first defined grit when it came to predicting success. She showed that if an individual perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and self-control they would succeed.
3. Delayed Gratification – This is the third member of the trilogy of the lessons of successful. This concept exploded onto the world through the work of Walter Mischel in 1972. His famous experiment demonstrated that children with the ability to pass up eating a marsh mellow immediately for the promise of an additional one would be successful later in life. In follow-up studies, he showed that those children who could resist the temptation of immediately eating the marsh mellow had better long-term success in their academic achievement, social competence and a feeling of assurance and self-worth.
There is no doubt there is a lot of truth and wisdom in all of these concepts, but there is just as much deception especially for those children that experience failure at school. The three principles outlined have at their core the principle that success depends on the individual and in this lies the attraction and the expectation. But for so many kids that have only experienced failure, adherence to these principles draws the inevitable conclusion that any failure they experience will be their fault.
A closer examination of these three maxims reveals their limitations. For example:
1. Meritocracy – this concept relies on the structural equality of our population. It assumes we all have the same quality of parenting; same socioeconomic life-style attend the same schools, etc. Of course, this is not a reflection of the real world. Communities are structurally inequitable; this is reflected in the quality of the resources in their schools; children in very disadvantaged socioeconomic areas have limited opportunities. There are other structural disadvantages that are based on gender, sexuality and race not to mention those children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect.
2. Grit – I have a nagging feeling that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal if I had just tried harder. Those who know me and my sporting prowess understand that this is such an idiotic concept. I just don't have the talent to become the best in the world at any sport nor am I likely to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Even if I did have the talent does that mean I have to spend all my time pursuing just one goal? And finally there is nothing wrong changing your goals, in fact, it is probably quite healthy to diversify your interests.
3. Delayed Gratification – Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester challenged this concept. High in her findings was the amount of trust the children had in the adult making the deal. For many children who lived in chaotic homes would find the guaranteed consumption of a marsh mellow now at least give some pay-off. In their lives, the offer of a double serving in the future was too much of a risk. They are in fact making a rational decision. Their decisions confirm the significant connection between the ability to delay the intake and the family's socioeconomic status. Finally the ability to delay gratification lies in the child's Prefrontal lobes to over rule the drive of the hedonistic limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Children with a history of abuse and/or neglect have a considerable disadvantage in this as for these kids the prefrontal lobes ate reduced, and the amygdala is enlarged, so they are not even on the same playing field.
So what are we to do? There is an obvious benefit for children to show determination, believe in their ability to succeed and put off spending time on Face Book instead of trying to understand some mathematical concept. We all want our kids to have these qualities. But we must be careful to differentiate these qualities from the worth of each child. When they fail, they fail at something – for now. When kids with a history of disappointment do fail, we must ensure that this does not reinforce their distorted sense of self. They got their answer wrong this time but they are not wrong!
Yoda was not right, there is trying and sometimes as much as we try we will not succeed. But there is nobility in the exercise and humility in the acceptance we are not at all perfect.
One ‘truism’ we hear constantly is that change is inevitable, and I accept this however, if you take this on face value you are ignoring two points that must be considered. These are, change is not always for the best and the second point is that change evokes stress. In contemporary years, society’s expectations of schools have never been more intense. The issues facing schools are the increasing emphasis on schools’ accountability through close evaluation of its performance based on external testing, particularly the NAPLAN test in an environment where external departmental support is being reduced.
Coupled with thi, is the emphasis placed on students to succeed in a narrow range of all the skills they will need to acquire. Literacy and numeracy are just two elements in a child’s education but the whole worth of our efforts is based on these factors that are at the heart of the NAPLAN test. Not only does this put pressure on the teachers but I am well aware the students are also pressured.
Further, when the media focuses on a social problem there is a perceived assumption that schools need to ‘solve’ the problem. At the end of my career I remember listening to the radio going home from school where the ‘problem’ of our unfit youth was being discussed. The majority of the calls taken by the presenter reinforce the view that it was the ‘school’s fault’. Of course, I was silently defending our school, silently making the case that was not our fault!
Then I realised I was acting in the adversarial manner so typical of our modern society. It is obvious the people listening are also prone to take one side or the other. I understand that many parents agree with the position ‘it’s the school’s fault’. This conflict breaks down the community spirit and invariably leads to tension and stress conditions both for the parents and the teachers. This situation is not conducive to collaborative solutions to help our kids.
Of course, things are not perfect and today’s students can do better. It is also true that schools are part of our community and do have a part to play. I am aware that:
Some parents do feel anxious in regards to what is happening with their child at school
Some students are over-anxious about their schooling
Teachers are becoming more and more stressed
I know good schools always want you to contact them when you are concerned, they know they are far from being perfect and will make mistakes. But sometimes children do not divulge the whole story when they talk about what has happened at school but it’s the only version the parents hear.
To help parents (when I refer to parents, I include all other primary care providers including guardians) get a clearer picture of what is really happening and more importantly, help you minimise the stress you, the parents and the child may be experiencing I have outlined some steps you might take that could help you get a better idea of what is really going on at school and how to help them develop personal skills and resilience. I have summarised below some information you may share with parents:
1. Sharing too much
When your child comes home from school with tales about being bullied either by ‘mean’ girls, ‘aggressive’ boys or ‘insensitive’ teachers, keep in mind that your children feed off your emotions and can get more distraught when they see you distressed. Try to keep our own anxiety in check while sympathising with theirs. You should be the emotional rock; the person who understands and supports your child. Then get the facts and if need be you should contact the school.
2. Advocating too hard
We all want to stand up for our children, but our eagerness to advocate can sometimes actually raise everyone’s anxiety levels. If your child shares a school problem with you, your first instinct is often to march into the school and try to resolve it. This tells your children that you don’t have faith in us or in your child to fix their problems. Your first priority should be to help them find a solution they can implement without your help, every time. Again, if it is serious contact us.
3. Compensating for weaknesses
It is truly an unusual child who is great at everything. So it follows that generally there will be areas at school in which they struggle. We want our kids to have healthy self-confidence and instead of focusing on and compensating for weaknesses, remind them to play to their strengths. Children can’t always avoid their weak areas, but by focusing on strengths we build self-efficacy and confidence.
4. Overplaying strengths
Linked closely with the previous point is the risk that too much positive affirmation can easily turn to pressure. Compliment children when they excel, but don’t make their excellence a reason you love them or to expect even more from them.
5. Having great values
Sometimes children make poor choices and I know they fret about their family finding out – it can seem like a fate worse than death. Let your children know that while values are important, you understand the realities and temptations they face. Disapprove of the behaviour but never of them. Don’t create a culture where your children are too anxious to come to you and admit they messed up.
6. Hiding your troubles
If your family is struggling financially or fighting with each other, don’t make the mistake of thinking your children are better off not knowing. They are very good at sensing problems and if they suspect something and if don’t know the whole story they can blow it out of all proportion. Should we pile our own troubles on our child’s shoulders - no, but it doesn’t hurt to be honest about what your concerns are and more importantly what you’re doing about it. By sharing what makes us anxious and how we deal with it we’re modelling practical ways to resolve anxiety.
At the end of 2016 year I conducted my last Year 12 Graduation assembly. At that ceremony I saw the whole school community at its best. The students made the school proud as one after the other presented themselves as the mature and dignified young men and women who I could see will make great members of their community. The staff could rightly feel a sense of achievement looking at these young graduands and knowing what they have achieved. Most inspiring for me was the number of parents and friends who joined the celebration. All the struggles, disputes of the previous years were over but it was through these times the young children learned to become these great young adults. Never lose sight of this achievement that is repeated year after year in all our schools.
There will be times in your teaching career where you will have to deal with an extremely disruptive class. The students may have such a low sense of respect for the school, for you and unfortunately, for themselves they don’t worry about the impact their behaviour is having. The question for the teacher is ‘where to start’? There are so many inappropriate behaviours it appears to be overwhelming. Too often we just start to ‘fix everything’ and that becomes impossible so this Newsletter will provide a structured approach to taming this class.
The illustration below shows a range of problems faced in the class. Instead of trying to deal with all of them, choosing one concentrates the teacher’s efforts. This doesn’t mean you accept the other behaviours, you do what you have been doing but by making a real, extra effort on one you can make a difference.
Now you have chosen the issue you want to address take the following steps to solve this problem. You do this by creating classroom rules. Before we start just a reminder that it is most effective if you include the class in this process but if they are not willing to engage you can implement this by yourself or if you can with colleagues. The process follows these steps:
1. Identify the Real Problem
Because you think ‘it’s annoying’ is not a reason you will get support from the class. You have to identify what really is the problem with talking and you need to acknowledge there are times you want your student to talk but at the right time for the right reason. Remember this is ‘inappropriate talking’ that we are concerned with. The class will soon identify, with your help plenty of reasons this is hurting their learning. These include things like ‘no one else can hear the teacher’, ‘it’s rude to talk when others are trying to listen’, ‘it interrupts others who are trying to concentrate’ etc. Eventually you will get to the real problem hopefully that the class agrees with or at least they are told why inappropriate talking hurts their learning.
The final purpose might be as follows:
Talking when someone else is, stops that person being heard and stops learning. Talking too loud distracts others from learning both here and in other classes
Then write this down as the problem we are going to solve, put it on display - Inappropriate Talking Stops Learning.
2. Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Once you have identified the problem get the class, including yourself to brainstorm possible consequences. Stick to brainstorming ‘rules’ that is don’t discuss them as they are suggested just get them down. One exception to this is when they come up with ridiculous but funny ideas. If such a proposal gets a laugh then you can bet more will follow. Allow one, sometimes these are gems but stop it there.
A Typical List might be:
Sent from class – Yelled at – Given a warning – Given the cane
Write lines – Given homework – Cut out their tongue
Clean-up the playground – Kept in to make up time
Sent to principal – Made to stand in the corner – Shift seats
3. Yes/ No the Solutions
Now, for the first time you discuss each consequence using the following criteria:
Is it a consequence or is it a punishment? The difference has been explained in a previous Newsletter but briefly, a consequence is understood to be a result of that action not just something the teacher made-up to upset the student!
Is the consequence appropriate for the level of the behaviour? You might find that students are often too severe in their idea of what is required, Keep these realistic.
Can the consequence be realistically applied? It’s no use putting in place a consequence that is against the rules of the school or department. For instance you can’t keep students in after school without a lot of parental permission.
Do the students accept this as a fair outcome for that behaviour? It must be seen to be fair for all concerned.
Then place a Y beside those that meet the criteria and N against those that fail to pass the fairness test.
The following could be the result of this process.
Sent from class Y – Yelled at N – Given a warning Y – Given the cane N
Write lines N – Given homework N – Cut out their tongue N
Clean-up the playground N – Kept in to make up time Y
Sent to principal Y – Made to stand in the corner N – Shift seats Y
When you have completed this process eliminate the N’s.
4. Rank the Consequences
Now you go through the consequences left and rank them from the most severe (1) to the least severe. The final list might be:
Sent to principal (1)
Sent from class (2)
Shift seats (3)
Keep in to make up time (4)
Apologies to the class (5)
Given a warning (6)
Here you must decide if you want to have one consequence or devise a cascade from the least severe on to the most. If the mild level consequence does not stop the behaviour the next most punitive one is applied and so on until the student is sent to the principal! When you have decided on the ‘rule’ then write it down and display it somewhere in the classroom so the students are reminded of the new set of conditions in the class.
After the rule has been in place for a reasonable amount of time it is wise to evaluate how effective it has been in dealing with the disruptive behaviour. Wait a while to do this evaluation because quite often when you introduce a rule the students who are most likely to cause problems will test to see if you are serious. This is where our ‘golden rule’ for behaviour management comes in. Always be consistent and persistent, if you are not the students will not think you a sincere! But if, after a time there is no change, and you have been vigilant then you can repeat the steps coming up with a new set of consequences. If the class has not really been changed by the rule you put in maybe it is time for you to set the rule without them. Just make sure they know what is going to happen.
If the behaviour has changed then slowly let it fade away, the class has accepted a new standard. Then you can work on another of the problems you identified.
Remember there are some behaviours that are dangerous our just too severe to go through this process and are not up for negotiation! These you must deal with. But for most dysfunctional behaviour this approach will allow you to take ‘control’ or more realistically have the students take control of their actions. A pay-off is that when you get on top of a few of the behaviours most classes come to understand that you can make things change and you are in charge of providing a safe learning environment for them. When you gain such a reputation life becomes better in other classes so it is well worth the effort!
The use of ‘levels’ systems is a popular form of behaviour control and management in institutions that deal with children who struggle with their conduct. When used correctly, it can be an effective tool to improve children’s behaviour. When used incorrectly, levels systems can be in themselves a cruel form of abuse. It can be particularly hurtful for children who have no experience of appropriate behaviour.
The definition of inappropriate behaviour is difficult. The appropriateness of any action is related to the person or persons who are exposed to the behaviour. Therefore, any judgement of a student’s conduct depends on the group in which their behaviour is displayed. Group members will experience the inappropriateness of behaviour when they feel it is offensive or threatening. In reality, they will know this because their physical and/or psychological boundaries will have been violated.
To be offended or not, presents as two discrete sets of behaviour; you are either offended or not offended; you cannot be partially offended. This is not to say the magnitude of the affecting behaviour is not on a gradient. Obviously, levels of offence can range from mild disapproval through to sheer terror. However, when working with dysfunctional children; trying to teach them about offensive behaviour by tolerating any such behaviour will confuse the child.
Children who habitually demonstrate dysfunctional behaviour need to learn appropriate conduct. Learning can only be through trial and error, and if they are to assume a state in which their habit is to act appropriately, there will be a time when they have to think about how to behave. To pass through this phase of behaviour modification requires both the child, and the arbitrator, to be in a calm state. When stressed, they will revert to their existing habitual reactions to any situation. In a group setting, the arbitrator must be aware of his or her own activities as well as the actions of all other members of the group. This does not excuse inappropriate behaviour, but it provides a major complication in the process of changing behaviour.
The following issues arise for levels systems:
Others define what is offensive.
When more than one person is in control of behaviour arbitration, the definition of appropriate can vary.
Individual arbitrators’ boundaries are not constant; on one day they will tolerate behaviour (because they are in a good mood), and on the next day they will punish that same behaviour
Workers are tempted to tolerate mild misbehaviour either because they take the patronizing view that it is the best they can do or the worker fears any outburst from the child if they impose a sanction.
The environment must promote a feeling of calm acceptance of the child.
Levels systems can be a productive tool in the task of changing behaviour. However, to successfully implement a program requires a thorough understanding of:
the complexity of the program
the dangers of misuse
every child’s need to be accepted into a calm, supportive environment
There are various methods to create a ‘scoring’ method to track a child’s behaviour across any school day. When you are working with severe disturbed children it is prudent to divide the period of time they achieve a positive ‘score’ into small chunks, say ten-minute blocks. These can be accumulated across a day and then across an extended period of time. This design will depend on the children. However, the scores should always be on display and you should never take away any points the child has earned. This is extremely unfair for those kids who struggle to initially achieve even the tiniest improvement and is no more than a form of punishment, something they have a lot of experience about and there is no more certain way to have these kids opt out of this process.
For a successful levels program to be put implemented the following conditions must be in place:
Feedback should indicate the level of success the child has achieved as a proportional number (a percentage).
Students must continually reach this mark to progress. They must be allowed to move up and down until they can unconsciously behave in an appropriate manner.
The goal should not be 100 per cent success, as human error is constant and should not be ignored.
The environment must be consistent and persistent.
Implementation should be done in calm, non-threatening manner (100 per cent acceptance of the child and 100 per cent rejection of inappropriate behaviour).
The over-riding principle of a level system is solely to provide feedback to the child in regards to how they are behaving within the functional definitions of the classroom. One of the great failings occurs when teachers and schools use their ‘Levels System’ as a form of punishment or reward. This is extremely counter-productive as any resulting changes that are driven by that external motivation will not become integrated in the child’s habitual behaviour. In a future Newsletter I will discuss the failings of the use of rewards and/or punishment as a motivation of behavioural change.
The focus of our work is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours. These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self, exclusion or neglect from the only ‘tribe’ they have ever experienced - their family. Louis Cozolino, the American psychologist has been at the forefront of this approach in assisting children with a history of abuse. He has provided a detailed review of what he calls the tribal classroom in his book ‘Attachment-Based Teaching - Creating a Tribal Classroom’ (see Newsletter of 1st August 2018 – The Tribal Classroom).
Unfortunately, or some would declare ‘fortunately’ this approach has morphed into a formal program that has provided a step by step approach to develop creating a ‘tribal classroom’. We have seen this ‘trademarking’ of many a ‘good idea’ repeated over and over again in behaviour modification programs; take the positive psychology movement that has spawned ‘Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support’ (PBIS), the once valued ‘Reality Therapy/Choice Theory’, ‘Assertive Discipline’; the list goes on. These are all underpinned by a deal of common sense but as soon as you ‘formalise’ it you lose the ability to cater for the diversity of our children.
However, the point is, we can help these kids by providing group activities that promote the opportunities for all students to develop secure attachments to the group and from that within the classroom. The students we focus on will find this difficult at first but by providing a few group-rules their anxiety can be reduced and they can develop what Cololino describes as a social synapse. The formal program outlines these as:
Showing appreciation of everyone’s contribution
Each student having the right to participate, or not
There is a sense of mutual respect
In this Newsletter I want to focus on the teacher’s role in this approach. I am not going to indulge into restating all the great information that is available including the ‘quality teaching’ model – another systematization of common sense but as the ‘parent’ of the tribal class.
At the top of every good parenting inventory is the importance of being a good role model. Children are so busy watching what you do they can’t hear what you are saying. They will become the person you are so it is important to ‘be the person’ you want them to be.
It goes beyond just modelling, as ‘parent’ you are the leader of the group and what the students want more than anything else is a consistent, predictable environment where they can learn, through trial and correction how to successfully navigate through life with a sense of self-control.
There is an age ‘gradient’ in this approach. When they are very young they are unable to really make meaningful choices, they don’t have enough knowledge and so you have to present them with situational scenarios where they learn the fundamental skills. This necessitates a more ‘authoritarian’ approach but this must be balanced with complete fairness in a nurturing environment.
Someone has to be in-charge and that person is you! As they get older, this authoritarian approach by the teacher changes to become one of a ‘constructionist’ where the responsibility for student behaviour is placed firmly on their shoulders. In my experience this is a rare achievement, most school leavers still have a fair bit of ‘improving’ to do but by the time they are about to exit school we would hope they are all at least predominantly responsible.
They need to experience the negative consequences when they choose the ‘wrong’ behaviour in an effort to get their needs met but these should be delivered with the emphasis on the behaviour not the child. In your dealings with the students, at any age the following is a good guide to achieving this:
Encouragement should outweigh praise. The latter can become destructive in their teens.
Consequences should always replace punishments. Punishment never works in the long run (see Newsletter 2nd April 2018 – Consequences – Neither Punishment not Reward) punishment teaches the kids what not to do. Their attention is focused on not being caught misbehaving. The result is the students will behave when the teacher is present, but when they are away, the kids will revert to their habitual behaviours. They will not have embraced the desired behaviour.
Co-operation should always dominate obedience, this is age sensitive. For instance, more and more we see young children defying their parents when it comes to them ‘getting their way’. I watch my grandchildren using a whole range of behaviour to change their parent’s decisions after they have said ‘no’! There are times when ‘because I said so’ is probably the right thing to do; these children are not able to understand the long-term consequences of eating the junk food they crave!
However, eventually we want our children to be independent, communal obedience is a feature of political dictatorships and social cooperation is the mark of a healthy society.
Finally, here are some ‘parent tips’ to help you engage with your class:
Be involved with their life – find out about their interests, where they have lived, understand their history at an appropriate level. We don’t have the right to understand the details of their ‘intimate’ life but when the student knows you are interested they are more likely to form the relationship that will help them engage in your lessons.
How often have I helped a relationship with a ‘troubled’ student just by finding out which sporting team or ‘rock star’ he/she follows. When I know this, I take every opportunity to ‘bump into them’ in the playground an engage in some good-fun banter.
Always get to the classroom before the students and as they arrive greet them with their name and, if appropriate give them a ‘high five’, ‘fist pump’ or just shake hands; do this with a smile. This is one of the most powerful things you can do, it sends the message that you want to be there. Contrast this with the effect teachers, who arrive late and then criticise the students for not ‘waiting quietly in line’! What message is that behaviour sending to the class?
Tell them things about your life. Some teachers balk at this; I suspect they feel their life is none of the student’s business. On an intimate scale they are right, your personal life is your business but if you accept the importance of a relationship you have to participate. Telling them stories about your childhood, as lame as these may feel to you is very powerful. It humanises you.
Finish the lesson with a story – in primary schools this can be a serial, despite the benefits of engaging them in literacy the ‘right’ story teaches them about life and at least you send them home looking forward to the next day! It is hypothesised that this is a primitive need, a throw-back to the times when tribes finished their days sitting around a campfire exchanging stories.
This Newsletter has focused on a teacher’s approach to the tribal classroom and is not to be considered part of the extensive literature being bombarded into schools and an ever-increasing rate. I believe that relationships are at the core of all successful educational experiences. Further, they exist in the lower areas of our brain, the limbic system and as such are much more difficult to access and to change.
This modern approach to teacher training focuses on cognitive contributions which are quick and easy to implement for educated adults (teachers) but:
They are not appropriate for the young developing mind which requires ‘lessons’ for their emotional and social education
These cognitive lessons ‘disappear’ when the students’ stress levels are raised and they start behaving based on their emotional and social beliefs.
When all is said and done the teacher/student relationship is the most important feature of quality education and that boils down to how each participant feel about each other.
Teaching very difficult students is extremely stressful. Although there will be incidents that are exceedingly traumatic, it is the day to day grind of working with these kids and that build-up of stress that will destroy your health. At these times you will build-up an excess of physical and emotional energy. Unless you do discharge this energy, it remains ‘locked’ in your physiology. Debriefing is the process of discharging that energy, especially the emotional element.
Much of the literature on debriefing refers to the process of providing a service for those who have been exposed to a traumatic event. This Newsletter is more about you having the means to deal with your own emotional load within a school or other specialist setting. For ‘extreme’ traumatic events you need specialist support to deal with the victims.
On an individual level, the self-delivered debriefing process is very much following the steps outlined above in the recovery section. These are the physical, emotional and behavioural activities itemised in this section. This ‘self-help’ is predominantly the use of physical practices such as going to a gym, jogging, swimming anything that gets you to use up that energy that had been activated at the time you were stressed.
One technique I have used that is effective to immediately release the physical excess present after a very stressful incident is to go to a private place in the school, with a towel and out of the sight of others, twist the towel as hard as I could, I would talk to it, get all my frustrations out on that piece of material. The feeling of release was significant.
I have seen others use the action of punching a special bag or other inert object to achieve this result. There are mixed opinions about using this approach. There is some evidence it doesn’t relieve the emotional component caused by the aggravation, the participants remain angry towards the object of their frustration.
There is also the idea that punching, as a solution for a problem could be generalised. Punching another may have a short-term pay-off but there is a chance that the practice of punching an inert bag could unconsciously evolve into punching the object that caused the stress! Some would argue that it is the repetitive movement of the punching that reproduces a type of soothing, this repetition has seen in the rhythmic technique in swimming also seen as a productive approach to elevated stress levels.
The self-help approach may not be as effective in dealing with the psychological load as would working with others. It may well be that you can get support from a colleague when you are under elevated stress levels. This could be a friend or co-worker who you trust. It is best, but not vital if this support person works in the same field. They will understand the problems you face and their validation carries a lot of weight. You both know what is really going on.
The use of your own intimate partner, wife, parent or even one of your children is not so clear cut. To provide an effective environment for a victim the support person must remain partially detached from the concerns raised in this issue. It is hard for your intimate other not to feel an emotional connection, it is the nature of the relationship! However, they will be your greatest support and not sharing is shutting them out, this is not advisable for a meaningful relationship.
This is a real difficult issue; the best debriefing really is from someone who can remain detached from your emotions but compassionate about how you would feel because they really understand what it is like to be in that situation.
Therefore, try to develop a network of supporters who you can use and who will use you when they are needed. Personal contact is preferable but the use of technology such as Skype is a good substitute. Avoid social media, the things you say at this time will be sensitive and not for public consumption or for your record!
The last thing I will mention is debriefing for those establishments that deal with difficult kids as a group. These are vital in maintaining a healthy team culture, they allow the psychological wounds that occur throughout each day but these sessions are not for those occasional times when the level of personal damage is significant, either for the students or a staff member. This is the cool down time, the time for the physical body to recover is complete.
In the work place there will be times when the outburst has created issues that challenge the practices of the organisation. These may involve the potential of future discipline action or legal concerns. This does not imply there is no need for debriefing but at these times the management should provide professional, independent counselling. However, for the day to day situations a less formal, but no less important debriefing practice there is a benefit of having the ‘team’ debrief itself!
There are some rules to be followed if you are setting-up a formal debriefing session at the end of each working shift. These are fairly obvious:
Begin Simply – Even if you know there has been a fairly difficult situation the staff has dealt with don’t go straight into discussing that. By generally discussing the day that issue will emerge when the ‘time is right’. This relies on a level of trust that must exist! In fact, without trust debriefing can become an additional stressor!
Equal Rights – Although we don’t have equal rights in our places of work we do have equity at a personal level. No one individual’s needs are more important than any others. Debriefing is not about allocating blame or setting future agendas it is solely about dealing with the emotional discomfort of the day.
There are no ‘power plays’ – We will never repair everyone’s emotional state if there is an obvious difference in how each member of the team is valued; any imbalance of power will not allow long term issues to be addressed effectively.
No Secrets – Too often people fail to tell exactly how they feel. On the one hand it may be because they don’t trust everyone at the meeting or they may feel that others can’t handle their feelings. Often the stress is because there has been a conflict between staff members. It is these that must be addressed; if not they can destroy the whole program. There are no records of these meetings and any comments are to stay within the group. If, as a result of the discussion the group agree that some things need to change then everyone is involved in the decision and those outside of the team should not be privy to the discussions that led to that policy change.
The Environment – Conduct the debriefing in a pleasant environment. Make sure everyone is comfortable and there are no distractions. Avoid everyone having a cup of coffee or tea as enjoyable as that may seem, debriefing is a formal part of the day.
Punctuality – always start and finish at a set time. On most days you will feel the atmosphere lighten and, in my experience, when the debriefing is accomplished the groups will soon be laughing about the day. Be aware that in all stressful occupations the humour has a very dark quality; this should be expected and although may sometime appear to be disrespectful, you have to remember these are the people who front up every day and do there best for the kids. Their actions define the respect they have for the students!
If, on the other hand the mood within debriefing remains tense still finish at the designated time. The issue will still need to be addressed but by waiting for the next opportunity allows time for all to reflect on the situation. The main thing is not to carry on discussions with colleagues about the issue outside the confines of the debriefing process. To do so would be very destructive.
Debriefing is an important practice to maintain the health of any organisation that deals with highly demanding work. In a perfect world this would be a formal part of every working day however, in today’s busy world there seems to be no time for taking care of others. This is a travesty, taking time to debrief is the best long-term investment any organisation can make!
In a recent Newsletter (Addiction 3rd June 2019) I discussed the ‘addictive’ forms of behaviour that teachers deal with, particularly the people addiction. This newsletter takes a more formal look at addiction and the role it plays in behaviour.
Most work, understandably focuses on fear as being the fundamental source of stress. This is reasonable as it is the easiest to observe, we have no problem linking traumatic events with elevated levels of stress; fear is still seen as the most significant emotion. Compounding this is the fact that in animal studies it is relatively straightforward to put a ‘lab rat’ in a situation that evokes panic and study their reactions.
However, the underpinning premise of our model of behaviour is that the task of the young brain is to have us survive. The drive to protect us from outside threats is only one half of the equation, to survive we need to ‘consume’ things, food, water oxygen, love, etc. When these are denied to us our anxiety levels quickly elevate and the resulting stress has just as a profound effect on our wellbeing as does the threat of attack.
This is the seeking phase of our strategy to survive. It is the search for things that maintain a level of satisfaction, that is when we are in homeostatic disequilibrium and we need something to make up the deficit we ‘consume’ and return to equilibrium. This consumption gives us pleasure.
Just like the protection cycle, this seeking sequence is driven by an an electro/chemical response in this case the chemicals are predominantly dopamine and serotonin. These have two separate functions; the serotonin signals the return to equilibrium with the feeling of pleasure; the dopamine fuels the drive to seek what is required to produce the conditions of satisfaction. Unlike the fear related chemicals, these substances are sought for the feelings they produce regardless of an individual’s state of physical comfort. The ‘high’ they produce is the focus of drug addiction.
In the case of satisfaction, the leading drug is in the opioid family, things like opium or heroine. But, it is in the seeking phase, where dopamine is the driver we find the methamphetamine are used, the ‘speed’ and ‘ice’.
Dopamine is not the reward but creates the desperate longing that doesn’t actually feel good in itself but by focusing the attention on a goal it brings a powerful feeling of purpose to the individual. It injects them with a level of energy that is intense, they feel alive. For children with a history of abuse or neglect for them, this feeling of having a purpose is extremely satisfying. They come to crave that feeling of seeking much more than the satisfaction the seeking is designed to satiate.
This critique of the electro/chemical response illustrates the power of the seeking system and how easy it can become a major factor in the driving of dysfunctional behaviour. We are concerned with the behaviour in the classroom, the tantrums, the anger, the violence when kids don’t get their way. It’s prudent to remember that, as with the protective dysfunctional behaviours the tactics they use did work when they were being ‘learned’ but in a different environment they fail to achieve their goal.
The diagram below clarifies how the increase in stress manifests into the outrageous behaviours often witnessed in schools.
Although the elevation of stress levels is the same as the response to the fear of the current environment the expression is different. This may best be demonstrated by a child’s need to be attached. In the first instance it maybe that the child is rejected by a significant other, perhaps a parent. Their earliest reaction will be to try behaviours that have worked in the past to be noticed but when these don’t work the resulting psychological pain is immense. The seeking cycle is when a child selects someone who they want in their ‘world’ and when this other person rejects the child’s advances the dopamine cycle gets ignited and as this grows the behaviour becomes more dysfunctional.
At school the problem surrounding the dysfunctional seeking behaviours can be difficult. In recent years the emergence of children who have become over-indulged in early childhood (see Newsletter 22nd May 2017 – Education the over-indulged and Narcissistic Child’) has resulted in a growth in this form of dysfunctional expression of behaviour, the spoilt brat’s behaviour.
These children begin with wanting something, perhaps a piece of equipment, to be picked in a team or to belong to a group of friends. When they are first denied access to what they want they become aroused and the dopamine is released, this feeds their seeking behaviour and unless they get what they want eventually they will ‘lose control’ over their behaviour.
For the teacher, how to deal with this form of student behaviour is the same as other destructive student behaviours. Keep the classroom calm, teach appropriate boundaries and develop a professional relationship with that student so they get the time to create a sense of self that allows them to survive in their world.
In our formative years the brain has only one function and that is to initiate behaviours that allow us to survive. Of course, this fundamental truth can get lost as our interactions with our outside environment get more complex but all behaviour can be traced back to that central truth. Just how powerful this drive is can be demonstrated every day in emergency wards where people’s brains have shut down every activity but the bare minimum – they are comatose. This simple fact that would make understanding behaviour reasonably simple but life’s not simple and the rising, tragic levels of suicide provides the exception to the foundational rule; survival is the prime drive for behaviour! I will argue that individuals select not to survive because of their learned beliefs and these beliefs are more powerful than evidence the evidence from their immediate environment. (This Newsletter follows that of the 11th June 2019 – Faulty Beliefs).
Despite the anomaly of suicide, the brain’s purpose is to facilitate behaviours that allow us to survive. The model below helps us understand this process:
At the heart of this model is the link between situation, the presenting environment, our actions and the consequences. That is, we find ourselves in a threatening situation and we act to alleviate the stress caused by that situation. The resulting outcome is noted and ‘stored’ for future reference, that is it is remembered. This is the feedback loop in the model above. Successful responses will be reinforced and be available whenever a similar situation occurs.
In early childhood these memories are emotional, that is when we find ourselves in a situation similar to a previous threatening one, our emotional memory of that early encounter will evoke a response. That ‘feeling’ is the first expression of a belief! Later, when our brain matures we develop cognitive memories that function the same way but put reason to the stress we experience and this motivates us to act. This is the lower feedback loop in the model. We build up a sophisticated internal map of our ‘world’ and how the conditions it presents impacts onto our homeostatic state. These memories inform our decisions on how to act!
Initially, the sequence follows the observation of the threat, that is our senses alert us to the danger, they provide the data that drives the behaviour. But, one of the things that has allowed us to become the most successful species is our ability to use the memories we have built up to imagine or anticipate impending problems. These are as fundamental as having been threatened by a crocodile in a stream one day we become extremely cautious when we approach the stream on subsequent days. That is, we have a belief that there will probably be a crocodile if we go near that stream another day and so when we approach we will be anxious and consequently more cautious even though there is no sensory evidence, no data that indicates the presence of a threatening reptile.
The internal map of memories, beliefs allow us to ‘know’ things that are not relative to the data in our immediate circumstance. The authority of our belief systems is such that we can navigate our way around the world. If we were limited to act just on the explicit evidence we would be stuck in space. As I write this I have a belief that my car is in the driveway yet I have absolutely no direct data to confirm this, I just ‘know it’, beliefs are powerful tools. In fact, I could not even find my driveway except through clumsy and time-consuming trial and error if I didn’t ‘know’ where to turn as I go through the house!
So, we have two systems that regulate our behaviour. The first is incoming data – things like a car speeding towards us in a threatening manner, we will ‘decide’ to jump out of the way. The second is to always look both ways before we go onto the street because we believe it is possible that a car might threaten our safety even though we can’t know if a car is there without checking the data. The belief produces behaviours that ensure our safety even though there is no immediate evidence. We become careful!
The two systems that are equally important, serve the same purpose but are different. Our senses provide the data to perceive our immediate world. Our beliefs, our memories let us understand our world outside the confines of our perceptions and provides reasons for choosing protective behaviours. These operate independently and the brain only cares about how helpful either system is for its survival.
In the model, the feedback from the memories to the ‘antecedent conditions’ reveals the impact our ‘beliefs’ have on the way we view our environment. That is when we are confronted with any situation our perception of the incoming stimulus is influenced by previous experience. For most, this has given us a huge advantage in successfully managing our lives but, there is a malicious disadvantage for those whose memories are of abuse or neglect.
The students at the heart of these Newsletters invariably suffer from Toxic Shame (see Newsletter – 3rd July 2017) which results in a set of beliefs that are relevant to the abusive/neglectful environment in which they were developed. It takes some effort to understand how such a destructive set of beliefs could emerge in a child but if we put ourselves in their position we would see that these beliefs gave them the best chance of survival. Even the idea that they are worthless can reflect any circumstance where they felt worthwhile. Feeling valued could initiate a sense that you should ‘fight back’, defend yourself but for a child with an abusive parent any such sign of assertiveness would be crushed. It is safer to believe that defective image.
At school these children experience a positive environment where the senses, the data is or should be non-threatening and supportive. If you take the example of the crocodile in the river, the calm supportive environment may well be present but these kids know the possibility ‘of a croc lying in wait if the drop their guard’. The presence of a reassuring setting should make the child suppose things are safe and they can act in an appropriate way to get their needs met. But, of course they don’t! These kids remain suspicious, there may well be a croc lurking below the surface. Teachers get frustrated when they provide all the support for these children but their behaviour doesn’t easily change!
The answer is in the fact that these beliefs developed over a period of time and they drove the behaviour that was the most likely to ensure security. That is the situation, the pattern of environmental factors was not the exclusive one but the most likely. The brain learned to dismiss those that did not fit that arrangement.
When the child who has developed a strong belief about their sense of self has that challenged, is presented with an alternate supportive set of data, this dissimilar event on its own will not over-ride the beliefs. This may be a ‘one-off’ occurrence and we can still remember what could be coming next! Deep held beliefs are hard to change even in the face of over whelming evidence.
Take the argument about evolution and the conflict it has with those who believe in intelligent design, the Bible. These people cling to a very strong commitment to that story and any counter claim, evolution is denied despite all the evidence put to them. To accept they were wrong is a perceived, direct threat to their survival. Even a small concession would unravel the whole system and so they will defend even the most bizarre claims with what others would find preposterous. It is tempting to dismiss these people but if you understand they really have this belief system you realize they are not stupid.
The same goes for our kids. Too often I see well-meaning teachers take these kids on an excursion, say to an adventure style park where they successfully experience abseiling, rock climbing, etc. This, one-off adventure will not change their beliefs, it is just that a ‘one off set of data’ is no match for their beliefs. One problem is these adventure programs are run by non-school staff and they see the excitement of each group of students as they go through their courses and they think they are successful. But the kids return to school and not much has changed for these kids. Unfortunately, the teachers ‘see’ the kids cope with the challenges they face on these courses but get discourage when the kids, despite this evidence don’t change!
Beliefs can be changed but be prepared for a long process that must include an environment that consistently provides the ‘proper, positive data’ and a messenger that is acceptable. There is no surprise in the appreciation of the importance of the relationship between the student and the teacher. This is at the heart of all learning!
Although the data may ‘shout’ at the student, if it threatens them they will shout back. There is absolutely no value in confronting these students when they are under threat. The teacher must patiently wait for the right time and quietly offer an alternate view of the situation and their safety. Remember, the feeling of being under threat will be expressed in the emotional memories. If the child feels threatened enough their protective behaviours will emerge and they will go into a state of flight or fight. The teacher must remain calm and remain present!
To change beliefs takes a skilled teacher with a well set-up classroom and one who is prepared to chip away at the student’s faulty beliefs. They have to be the right person with the right data at the right time! And they need to be very patient. It is hard to turn these kids around but it will be the most rewarding teaching you will ever do!
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.
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.