Everywhere I go in the course of my work with complex children and families, I find schools and children and families and staff under huge pressure, delivering curriculum that are becoming more and more preset.
What I hear over and over again is that the curriculum has become so super-charged that the times that used to be available in the day and week for just easing off pressure and taking a step back to explore a wider field have become more and more rare. So, what has an understanding of psychology got to tell us about this situation and about it's likely impact on child mental health and educational outcomes?
One really important well-known graph that is incredibly important in understanding child and adult mental health and well-being, and educational outcomes is the Yerkes-Dodson (1908) arousal performance curve. According to many studies, and this well recognised graph, human beings perform best if there is a certain amount of heightened arousal around in the context that evokes and is associated with curiosity and focus. In the face of stimuli that evoke moderate curiosity and excitement and a sense of opportunity, human beings - children and adults - pay attention and focus much better than in the face of stimuli which evoke little or any curiosity or need to pay attention. With alertness, engagement and motivation to perform, we see children and adults producing better results than when they are bored and uninterested.
However, the Yerkes Dodson graph also shows us that too MUCH arousal or anxiety leads to very significant deteriorations in performance. This is important. Both ends of this Yerkes-Dodson curve are important to making sense of what is happening in our schools.
My observation is that the relentless pressure on adults in our schools is being transferred to our children and it is complex children where the crushing or explosive impact of these pressures are observed most. Most concerning is the situation when teachers find that the complex child is a barrier to them being able to deliver the results that are being expected of them.
Unless the teacher, and usually also their head teacher, is confident and able to resist and stand up to the Ofsted-driven pressures upon them, the child and adult in the classroom are placed in an impossible pressure cooker situation. What we find too often rather than collaboration and curiosity is a battle ground between adult and child where the adults feel they must MAKE the child learn, and the child's role becomes too often one of deeply reluctant co-operation or active resistance.
Not long ago I was asked to observe a young 9 year old with diagnosed learning difficulties - probably due to foetal alcohol syndrome - the aim was to help think about his future educational options. He was in Year 5 but was managing work appropriate to a Y2 child. I observed this child working with a TA who was trying to teach him fractions, counting beads and using worksheets. The child had questions of football on his mind, and what was going to happen at playtime because a friend had been sent home. 40 mins later, the exasperated TA lamented - "his concentration is really no good today". For my part, I wondered just how many times people had tried to teach him about fractions - and how many more times they were going to continue to try to do so on his journey through our school system .
The point was, fractions were not interesting to him in that moment - certainly not in the format being presented - yet adults were feeling obliged to keep working at it, because their job was to hit targets. I wondered how many more adults would have to spend a frustrating time trying to teach him something that was not connected to what he wanted to learn.
As I heard another headteacher talking about the numbers of staff who were disengaging and excessively stressed, I also wondered about the impact on the sense of Self of both child and adult of this very unsatisfactory set up. I heard that in a matter of a few months, the child I had been observing, had gone from being a child who was desperate to please to a child who had become disengaged and cocky and 'strutting his stuff'.
Frankly though, where do you go, and how do you behave when you start to realise that what is being offered to you in school involves endless hours doing things you are heartily fed up of doing? In such a situation, thinking about football and playing up the teacher sounds quite an entertaining option, doesn't it? So, does this child with challenging behaviour have a mental health problem? I think he is on his way there.
I wonder when it will become accepted that so many top down instructions do not bring out the best in our teachers nor in our young people?
I wonder when enough teachers will have the energy at the end of the day to speak up about situations that too many know cannot be right. Is there enough space to engage curiosity and enhance motivation in your school day? How do you think these issues are related to child mental health? If you are interested in reading more about these issues, why not Click here to sign up for the I Matter Monthly Digest Newsletter
When a baby is small it would seem to be fairly obvious who is the Adult in charge, but one of the things that often happens in families of children with complex needs is that confusion sets in about this issue.
Children with complex needs are often more challenging to manage because they are developmentally younger. Their responses tend to be more intense and more difficult to make sense of. The level of supervision that is required is higher and goes on for longer and the adults are more prone to becoming exhausted.
All of these factors contribute to a very frequent disorientation of the adult. When the child is not easily settled by the common parental behaviours that would settle a typical child, the exasperated parent can move between becoming i) tougher, less tolerant and more authoritarian, and ii) softer, more laissez faire and generally more passive. Neither Authoritarian nor Passive are effective with complex children but exhausted parents or teachers will commonly find themselves offering one or both.
Fortunately, the 'direction of travel' as we say in I Matter is to increase the intensity of the firm supervision and boundaries AND the intensity of the love and nurture and compassion. Every complex child, however disagreeable and challenging in their overt behaviour, is a child who is struggling with a state of overwhelm in which they feel unsafe around the adult on whom they depend.
Of course, a child who does not trust adults is hard to care for, so the challenge is to find the right balance for this particular child of nurture and firmness, and the right sensitivity to their developmental as opposed to their chronolgical age. And then the challenges is to sustain that balance over time so that the respect and trusting relationship that is at the heart of a happier parent-child relationship can flower.
The thing I love about my work, is that it is never too late for that to happen, even if the relationship has gone very off track. It occurs however, if and only if, the adult is willing to learn to read the signs, learn the skills and be very very patient. Remembering that if the task is to help the child mature, one of the most important roles of the Adult is to be able to take a longer view.
So who is in charge in your home? Have you got the balance right?
If you would like to learn more about some of the starting points of the I Matter Framework, why not sign up for the free E-course Five Steps to Success with Complex Children
One of the most common responses I find when people begin I Matter Training and start thinking about a child's challenging behaviours is that they begin to become more aware of their own angry responses towards their own child. Then they find that they are not sure what to do with that anger..
"I know it is not very helpful to be angry with my complex child they tell me, but isn't it normal to feel angry if my child is hitting me or hurting their brother or sister?"
In I Matter practice I like to encourage people to begin to make a distinction between i) healthy controlled anger which can be channelled into asking clearly for what we want - I call this form of healthy anger "Outrage" - and ii) toxic anger which is the primitive often out of control anger we associate with red route. This red route anger may be expressed outwardly towards your child in your own uncontrolled way, or it may be more suppressed and emerge in the form of persistent and equally toxic resentment and quiet but intense dislike of your child.
Being in touch with the ability to feel outrage is vital to your own well-being and to the well-being of your often strong-willed egocentric complex child. The movement of outrage arises from a healthy and primitive part of you that works to keep you safe. You will know you are in touch with it, when you become aware of your own needs and your own healthy wish to be treated well by others - one of whom is your child.
One of the reasons that living and working with complex children is so challenging is that we have to be able to stay in touch with very conflicting emotions. We may for example feel deep empathy and a sense of understanding for a child who has experienced neglect and trauma or who struggles to get on with a peer group. We may feel pain and sadness for them. But in so doing we mustn't lose touch with our own healthy outrage when because of their own challenges they treat us disrespectfully.
In contrast to an emotion like sadness, outrage is a healthy, strong, determined movement of energy that allows you to stand up for yourself and set a strong boundary to others. Your child needs you to maintain your position in the hierarchy if they are to be able to mature. One of the reasons that this is so important is that many children with complex needs are developmentally younger and confused about their own boundaries - ie confused about where they start and stop in psychological space. They do not find it at all easy to remember that they are surrounded by other human beings who have thoughts and feelings of their own.
Setting the boundary about how you want to be treated, and being firm and vigilant in policing that boundary demands daily effort but allows your child to gain a much stronger sense of themselves. It is vital to their ability to mature and become able to manage and make sense of their own emotional responses to Not-wants.
I advise that the simplest place to assert and monitor the boundary in your relationship with a complex child is by monitoring the day to day way in which your child speaks to you and treats you and others. If you co-operate with a child who is abusive and aggressive to you, without finding a way to draw their attention respectfully to the fact that this attitude will not win your co-operation you are making their journey to greater maturity much more difficult.
So next time you feel that rush of emotion in response to something that your child has done, don't be afraid of it, but instead remember to create a gap so that you can think then trust it and channel it into asking yourself - how am I going to engage and coach my child into treating me and others the way I know I want? And how am I going to do this in a very determined way with myself as a role model? If your determination is fuelled by your understanding that what you are asking your child to do is even more difficult for them than it is for you, you will know that you will be travelling down green route.
If you want to learn more why not consider signing up for an I Matter Training course?
Dr Cathy Betoin
Dr Cathy Betoin
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