Got Behaviors?

It’s a difficult time of year, and I feel like the pot is bubbling and is soon going to boil over. I want you to know that I am here to support you.  I am here to listen and offer you solutions.  There are times when I carry your burden without you even knowing it.   Please do not give up on teaching appropriate behaviors and providing interventions to students who desperately need it.  Simply punishing students with behavior issues it not effective.  There is always a reason a student is misbehaving, and if you simply push back in a power struggle, you will likely lose. 

Disrespect for the sake of disrespect is not ok. I’m not saying challenging behaviors are ok. But, we have to consider why the student is acting in a certain way and adjust ourselves. They are still just children.  Often they are children with less than ideal situations at home, so they lack skills. The skills they do have are to survive in their home environment, which often requires aggression (verbal and physical).  All students deserve love and respect as well as guidance. There are certain expectations that must be met, but many student require teaching to be able to meet those expectations.  If we expect them to learn only from mistakes and consequences, we will simply be reinforcing their negative image of themselves, not teaching new skills. If they had the skills, they would use them.

When we are stressed (for any reason: because of our environment, lack of nutrition/proper sleep, illness, etc.) our body releases a hormone called cortisol.  High levels of cortisol over a period of time actually changes body chemistry, particularly in the brain, and can actually cause mental illness.  The first time I read about that I was shocked that this is not common knowledge in our society.  This reaction is why people in war zones or those who experience abuse or neglect develop things like Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, anxiety, depression, etc.  In fact, studies have shown that young children living in poverty have increased levels of cortisol and that it is particularly damaging to their development during the critical ages of 0-5.

In addition, the classroom environment and teacher-student relationship can itself cause stress.  
Therefore, while we as teachers lament about poor behavior and choices, we are often ignoring the fact that many students are not equipped to make better choices or it is our behavior that is creating the problem or making it worse. That does not mean that students should not have consequences, but there should be balance. When a child can’t read, we don’t  blame them (or at least most people don’t), we teach them. If they can’t behave we should teach them the skills they are missing.  We need to first examine ourselves. Are we providing enough positive feedback? A stimulating and engaging environment? Enough support? Are we teaching conflict resolution, anger management, organization and communication skills? Are we modeling respect, forgiveness and compassion?

I know I’m asking for a huge shift in thinking for many.  But, I don’t base my philosophy on pseudo-science, I’m basing it on solid psychological and neurobiological research.  At one point I considered getting my master’s in neuroscience because it’s so interesting to me (but then I learned that I’d practically need a second B.S. degree first and changed my mind).  There are PET Scans that back up these facts.  Our society prefers to ignore the socio-economic issues and tends to blame those living in poverty or abusive situations, but it is much more complicated than most people think.

In my mind, if children coming from difficult backgrounds are to have any chance at all in life, it will be because of positive influences in their life, and almost certainly because of a teacher.  You are in a position to change a child’s trajectory.  That is a heavy responsibility.  I know you chose this field to make a difference. Further, you chose Imagine because you wanted a different atmosphere than a traditional public school.  While we enjoy the benefits of working for Imagine, we have an even bigger responsibility to our students because we offer a promise of teaching the whole child.  We offer this knowing that the burden falls primarily on the classroom teacher because we have limited support resources.  I would not waste my time writing this email on a Saturday if I did not believe in my colleagues.  I believe in your love and compassion as well as your dedication.  I know that everyone does the best they can with what they know.    

Knowledge is power, so with that in mind,  I’ve pulled some article excerpts to share with you in the hopes that it will give you some insight and increase your  understanding for these students.  Increasing your own skill-set in dealing with behavioral issues will only increase your effectiveness as a teacher.  I am always here to help you problem solve!  I want you to know from where I base my advice, thus I’m sending out this novel of an email.     

In general, kids with intense anxiety will respond to what others would consider typical daily challenges with one of the two responses mentioned above: fight or flight. Some students with anxiety withdraw and avoid the challenging situation. This can be come in the form of school refusal (not attending) or resistance (major difficulty transitioning to school). In somewhat milder cases, these are students that don’t take chances or shut down when school becomes challenging. With respect to fight, some anxious students lash out in the face of fear, and can become both verbally and/or physically aggressive.
At the core of anxiety is irrational thinking. These kids hold on to rigid, unreasonable rules about their environment that increase tension and apprehension. “I know I will fail that test”, “No one likes me”, “School is not safe”, and “Talking is dangerous” are but a small sample of the thoughts that increase anxiety, and in turn, result in behaviors that are getting in the way. These thoughts are irrational because in most cases, the beliefs or worries have no basis in reality. There is simply no evidence to support them.” http://www.specialeducationadvisor.com/fight-or-flight-anxiety-in-the-classroom/
BERKELEY — While a healthy dose of self-esteem can absorb the shock of rejection, poor self-esteem can trigger the primal fight-or-flight response, according to a new University of California, Berkeley study.”
Abused children quite often suffer from damaged or very low self-esteem in addition to the other myriad of post-trauma symptoms and negative behaviors. Treatment of these children often targets the overt behaviors that many post abuse children have: oppositional behaviors, acting out behaviors that include anger and rage, fight and flight, and quite possibly intense focus difficulties and bullying other children. Other children may have more internalized post trauma behaviors that include extreme shyness and social awkwardness, as well as very strained self-confidence in their abilities. In either case, the abused child struggles to attain a healthy self-esteem, and needs assistance to do so.
All forms of child abuse negatively impact a growing child’s sense of their own value; neglect, physical and sexual abuse, while having subtle differences in effect, has low self-esteem impacts in common. The effect of neglect on a child clearly conveys that the child is not as valued and as important as they should be to the caregiver. By the time the child is school age (Kindergarten), the child has come to the intellectual level to be able to discern the differences in how families function by observing other children and their parents. The neglected child is able to see that not all parents pay so little attention to their child’s needs; by comparison, the neglected child begins to consider why this is so. Inevitably, one stand out conclusion is that they themselves are not worth of such love and care from their caregiver.
Physical abuse produces low self-esteem due to the very physicality of the abuse. Children are tiny compared to adults, and really have no hope of fighting back (physically) in any way that is genuinely effective at protecting themselves. This kind of violation of one’s body creates a sense of helplessness, and, in the case of repeated physical abuse, hopelessness as well. Cultural meta-learning teaches everyone at a very young age that we have the right and responsibility to defend ourselves against wrongs, and if we do not, we are weak, ineffective, and less than perfect. So what happens to one’s self-image when the person who is wronging you is a loved caregiver? Confusion happens. If my caregiver loves me, and I love my caregiver, but my caregiver is hitting, punching, or throwing me, it must mean that there is something that I am doing wrong, or, there is something terribly wrong with me at a very basic level. I am bad. In addition, a kind of guilt feeling arises surrounding the child’s inability to protect themselves from the abuse. Out of these emotions, an intense feeling of being different from other children and the need to hide the facts surrounding the negative emotions begins to flow.”  http://krillco.hubpages.com/hub/Self-Esteem-Damages-in-Abused-Children
 Students with poor social skills have been shown to:
  • Experience difficulties in interpersonal relationships with parents, teachers, and peers.
  • Evoke highly negative responses from others that lead to high levels of peer rejection.  Peer rejection has been linked on several occasions with school violence.
  • Show signs of depression, aggression and anxiety.
  • Demonstrate poor academic performance as an indirect consequence.

“…toxic stress from prolonged and intense adverse occurrences.[5] Toxic stress can last for weeks, months, or even years.[5] Children are often incapable of managing toxic stress on their own, and need caring and supportive adults to help them.[5] If the sufficient support is not available, the results of this type of stress can lead to permanent changes in brain development.[5]Research has found that children experiencing severe and long-term abuse have smaller brain sizes.[6] If the situation is not as severe, toxic stress will still alter the stress response system.[6]The changes in the system will cause children to react to a wider variety of stressors.[6] However, with sufficient care and support from adults, children can return their stress levels to tolerable or good.[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_childhood_stress_and_neurobiological_effects