Managing Change

Change can be unsettling, frightening and a cause of great concern.  Especially when unexpected, change can leave us reeling, questioning and in a considerable state of distress.  I believe this has a lot to do with our sense of control – not that we’re necessarily control freaks as such but that as humans we feel safer and more secure when our lives are predictable and running smoothly.  When we experience sudden change, our status quo is altered and we are left feeling vulnerable and powerless.  In times like this it’s human nature to cling to our past, the way things used to be and to urgently resist these new changes with all our might.

In my experience (and I have experienced sudden and traumatic changes in my life) I have found the following, an excerpt from Sogyal Rinpoche’s ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ (1992, pg 34) the most helpful way to remain at peace and manage change around me, even when it seems that the hand I have been dealt is more than I can possibly bear.  I suggest using a coin as the object, it helps to actually do as instructed to get the full meaning from the teaching.

Imagine that you have an object in your hand. 

Clutch it tightly in your fist. 

Extend your arm, with the palm of your hand facing the ground. 

Now if you let go or relax your grip, you will lose what you are holding. 

That’s why you hold on.

Now  try this. 

You can let go and yet keep hold of whatever you have in your hand. 

With your arm still outstretched, turn your hand over so that your palm faces the sky. 

Release your hand and the object still rests on your open palm. 

You have let go but you still have a hold.

‘You’ve let go but you still have a hold.’

What do you think?  Do you think this exercise could be a useful one in managing change that occurs in your life?

Chocolate – Why YOU Need It

Easter Sunday – April 8, 2012

The Health Benefits of Chocolate

I’m not talking about good old Easter eggs here, but as there is a lot of chocolate going around today I thought I’d share some information about the numerous health benefits associated with eating dark chocolate (dark means with a cocoa content of 70% or greater).

Remembering that organic chocolate is going to be even better for you, consuming around 40 grams (4 squares) a day has been scientifically proven to have the following health benefits:

– increases serotonin uptake so can therefore act as a mild anti-depressant

– decreases the production of stress hormones (such as cortisol)

– makes you feel good because it contains endorphin

– has anti-inflammatory properties

– protects the heart

– has antioxidant properties which help fight free-radicals which are a toxic by-product of being stressed

– helps you to feel more alert as it is a stimulant

So now you’ve got some good reasons to eat chocolate without feeling guilty about it, have a safe and HAPPY EASTER!!

Student Behaviour

For anyone who’s a teacher (or parent for that matter) the issue of behaviour can sometimes be the cause of our greatest concern and distress.   In fact, in the staff wellbeing training and development that I run with school staff, student behaviour features very regularly as the number one cause of teacher stress.  Interestingly though, I am still hearing from new graduates that they have very little (if any) training that is specifically related to student behaviour, so it seems not much has changed since the good old early ’90s when I was at uni and ‘Student Behaviour Management’ was a one semester ELECTIVE that I thought I’d be stupid not to take.  I clearly remember wondering why it wasn’t a compulsory subject, my logic being that if you as a teacher were unable to maintain some semblance of order in a classroom there wasn’t going o be a whole lot of learning going on.

As it turned out, SBM ended up being one of my favourite subjects and 20 years on, here I am blogging about it.  My teaching career always had a heavy behavioural component to it and has spanned hard to teach schools in the Northern Territory, England (including a stint as a classroom teacher as specialist behaviour school in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire), culminating in a School Counsellor position since 2006, a position which I have only just relinquished in May this year.  It’s fair to say I’ve seen a significant range of different behaviour presentations in these positions over the years and have some definite ideas about what works really well in supporting students with their behaviour choices and what can make it definitely worse.  Realise here that this info is intended to provide participant in tonight’s #teacherwellbeingchat with a little background and hopefully make for some useful sharing and discussion so it won’t be a broad and comprehensive guide to student behaviour.  I am simply going to include some examples of theory, practice and ideas that changed the way I taught and supported students with their behaviour and which I considered much more effective (in some instances) than your go-to sticker charts and the time-out chair.

Language:

Tell students what you want them to do instead of what you don’t want them to do.  The reason for this was exemplified in a webinar I participated in just this past Monday night, hosted by Emma Grey, director from WorkLifeBliss.  She explained it this way…

“If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, what immediately comes into your mind?  Of course, it’s a pink elephant.  And the reason for this is the mind can’t visualise the “don’t” part of that instruction but can definitely visualise the pink elephant.  So when you say to a student “Don’t run/snatch/run/cheat/pick your nose/whatever” the instruction is essentially useless because all their minds do is conjour the image of whatever it is you are telling them not to do.  The same applies when we give just blanket “don’t” or “stop it” as the instruction.  Don’t what exactly?  Breathe?  Be a boy?  And stop what?  Blinking?

When giving instructions you need to tell students exactly what you want them to do.  Explicit instructions will leave the student with absolutely no room for misunderstanding.

“Come here.”

“Leave her hair alone.”

“Get off the roof.”

To add some oomph to your instructions (and also to make them more polite) I suggest using ‘thanks’ instead of ‘please.’  Please can sound desperate (I’ve heard mums in the shops pleading, begging with their children to ‘just stop – pleeeeeease’).  Much more effective but no less polite or authoritative is ‘thanks.’  Thanks gives the impression that it is about to be done, and works like a recognition n advance (‘Come and sit on the mat now thanks,’ ‘thanks for releasing him from a headlock’)

Restorative Practice:

I was introduced to the concept of Restorative Practices in 2006 by Terry O’Connell, an ex-policeman who had extensive experience with working in juvenile justice.  He was sharing the information the court systems had introduced in the rehabilitation of young offenders which instead of throwing them into detention held them accountable for their wrongs and through interviews with their victims had them understand the damage their actions had caused.  Instead of a ‘hurt and harm’ punitive approach, RP allowed perpetrators of crimes to take responsibility for their behaviour and to have the opportunity to make amends for their wrongs.  This process had significant impact as young people were seen to learn from their mistakes which resulted in a substantial reduction in re-offending.  The following passage clearly shows how the RP process supports students with managing their own behaviour:

If a Child…

“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we ….

            …teach?                  …punish?

Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?”

Tom Herne (NASDE President) Counterpoint 1998, p2.

In the school context and also with my own children I have successfully used the RP process to teach students how to take responsibility for their behaviour and learn from their mistakes. As with many other South Australian schools, had great success using a modified version of its framework when sorting out behaviour issues with students (and I have to say also with parents).  I simplified the questioning format from the original 5 to these 3 questions and used them in 95% of the conflict situations I worked through in my role as counsellor:

1.  What happened?

2.  Who has been affected?

3.  How can you make things better?

What I found with this process was that as long as children weren’t too frightened to take responsibility for their behaviour (and some needed to be taught that telling the truth would not compromise their safety) some resolution could usually be reached relatively quickly.  As RP became an established practice at my site and students learnt that conflict was normal and could be resolved relatively quickly as long as everyone was calm and told the truth, behaviour issues quite drastically declined.  From my perspective the process certainly changed as students learned not to fear punishment when they experienced difficulties with their peers but to expect support through a scaffolded process when they needed help to work through issues.

Trouble vs problems:

Following on from this, normalising conflict and pointing out it is actually healthy and can be helpful is useful when supporting students with their behaviour.  Replacing “being in trouble” with “sorting out a problem” gives students a very different perspective about what conflict means and results in students feeling more empowered to seek support when issues arise (as they invariably will).

*Note here there are exceptions to this: for extreme and/or repeated behaviours or when students refuse to take responsibility for their behaviours there is sometimes no other option other than to implement negative consequences for such behaviour choices.

ABC of Student Behaviour:

Sometimes it’s really hard to work out why a student might be behaving in a certain way.  It might just not make any sense.  This is where recording incidents can be useful to establish patterns in behaviour – sometimes once we see data it is much easier to make sense of situations.  A really simple framework to use is known as the ABC Model, with ‘A” standing for antecedent, ‘B’ for behaviour and ‘C’ for consequence.  Antecedents are predicting factors or triggers which may set students off.  Examples of this might be sugar, a change in routine (such as a relief teacher) or not feeling well.  We can’t always see antecedents but sometimes its very easy over time how certain situations create patterns of a particular response.  Behaviour often refers to what we see and the consequence is what happens to the students as a result.  The table below is an example that shows how the consequences we impose can actually reward the behaviour, even when our intention is for the consequence to be negative.

Model for Problem Behaviour – ‘What Is The Payoff?’

(Source unknown)

IS IT TO…?

TO OBTAIN OR ESCAPE….?

FROM?

Stimulation/Sensory

Obtain or get something

OR

An adult

PROBLEM BEHAVIOUR

OR

Social Attention

OR

Escape or avoid something

OR

A peer

Tangible Activity

SMART:

I wonder if you are familiar with the Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF).  They are based in Melbourne and do excellent training known as SMART which stands for ‘Strategies for Managing Abuse Related Trauma.’  What the work of the ACF is focussed on is providing school based staff with strategies to support young people who have experienced trauma, and they do this by explaining how the brain of a traumatised child (and this includes traumatised by neglect, war, medical intervention and witnessing family violence) develops differently from a child who grows up in a safe and loving household.  SMART training turned the way I responded to and supported young people on its head, resulting in my practice with young people becoming much more supportive and inclusive.  And when I looked at it closely, I realised that many of the students I worked with who had so called ‘behaviour issues’ actually had trauma backgrounds and were most likely presenting in ‘fight, flight or freeze mode’ instead of out of conscious choice mode.  I can’t recommend the work of the ACF and SMART training enough – its simply fabulous. Check out http://www.childhood.org.au/home for more details (includes state by state trainings as well as an online module to help you understand the neurobiology of trauma).

Empathy:

In closing I just want to bring to your attention a quote from the Talmud (the central text of mainstream Judaism) which says “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”  I want to acknowledge that some students who present with behaviour issues can be extremely challenging and that it takes a huge amount of energy to give them the support that they require.  Working with students of this calibre often seems painstakingly slow, which we teachers as ‘solution oriented’ practitioners can find extremely frustrating.  It is often hard to be compassionate or empathetic to these individuals but it is actually compassion and empathy that is most helpful when working with students with such complex profiles.  Most often their histories will be chequered at best and may include incidences of abuse, trauma, diagnoses of illness or disability.  My suggestion here is to change the way you perceive these students, as tricky as they may be to work with, and to show more empathy when working with them.  Its also useful to remember that we aren’t always the best behaved creatures on the planet either, and when things aren’t going well for us, what we really need is for someone to just be there to give us a hand if we need it.

Coping Strategies

On Sunday night’s #teacherwellbeingchat we looked at stress coping strategies and the response was two things – overwhelming and phenomenal!  Thank you to all those who contributed.

My objective for the session was not for people to just have a whinge or a bitch about their work life.  My intention was more to create meaningful discussion and have those involved articulate and share what it is they do to manage the emotional demands that are associated with working in education.  I wanted participants to have the opportunity to do 2 things as a result of sharing their experiences which were:

i) articulating (and therefore bringing to consciousness) what they did to manage their stress and

ii) share this information so that it could be made available to others

I’d especially like to mention the contributions made by @Corisel ‘Teaching – Why I Don’t Give Up’ wp.me/p1izJX-ar and @catchkitey gu.com/p/3a556/tw – please make the time to read these, wonderful reflections from two fabulously articulate educators.

A range of responses re coping strategies came through and I have tabled them below.  We’ll explore those in a moment.  But before we do that let’s have a quick look at coping strategies and what we know about them in general:

Coping strategies:

Coping strategies refers to the way we respond to certain situations.  We see this in the students we work with (think avoidance behaviours, withdrawal, acting out, running away, compliance, over-pleasing, dissociation, hypervigilance and the list ges on).  As adults we also have our own coping strategies and we use them in our everyday interactions with others.  Some may even be the same as the ones I’ve listed above as they served us well in our childhood but they might not be so useful to us now as adults.  Although these behaviours may have become habituated they may also be outdated and no longer of use to us and may now be counter productive, even detrimental to our wellbeing.

The same applies to the way that we respond to stressful situations.  We all have our own way of responding or coping to stress and this will to a large extent be very much based on our experiences as children, even infants.  Think about how babies might self sooth or be soothed by their carers.  The might suck on something (their fingers or a dummy for example) or be given something to eat or chew.  Even though we might not remember these things as adults what we might find that similar stimuli in our adult lives have that same capacity to soothe when we are overwhelmed or stressed – although not mentioned in the chat how many people do you know who use vices such as drinking or smoking to manage the stress in their lives?

There’s a plethora of ways that we might cope with stress.  Some of these will be healthy, adaptive and productive.  In other words, these coping strategies might make things seem better, might actually reduce the cause of stress or even make it disappear altogether.  On the other hand, some stress management strategies are maladaptive, unhealthy and unproductive, that is they do very little to affect the cause of stress and in the long term engaging in these activities can actually make the problem worse.  Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and the use of drugs fit this category.

Healthy, productive, adaptive coping strategies:

These can be classified in to 2 different groups.  Palliative action strategies are as the name suggests, palliative.  That means that they may ease the burden of a situation and make it seem more pleasant but in actual fact they do very little to address the cause of a problem.  If we remove this activity, the problem remains unchanged.  The second type of coping strategies are called direct action strategies and these can affect the whole stress experience, making it seem much less intense or changing it altogether.  The table below shows some of the examples given on Sunday night.  Can you see where your strategies might fit in?

Palliative Action Strategies

Direct Action Strategies

Hobbies Debriefing
Drinking alcohol Thinking about the situation differently
Eating chocolate Journaling
Exercise (including walking, running, riding esp to and from work) Showing gratitude
Yoga Crying
Sleeping Delegating
Diversion/distraction (shopping, reading, tv/films, hobbies, playing with children, cleaning, gardening, ) Mindfulness
Social network (Face to face and Twitter)  Organising time (including regular scheduling of digital detox time)

Research suggests that its actually a combination of palliative and direct action strategies that are most potent in managing the stress we experience in our lives.  By giving our attention to how our past experiences affect our feelings, thoughts and behaviours we may be able to make conscious decisions to alter the extent to which we respond to stressful situations, including those we experience in the workplace.  If we focus on what we can change (being our own responses) then the likelihood is that things will improve and stress levels will be reduced, as with this comes a sense of agency and regained control over situations that cause angst in the first place.

The Stress Series: Stress Six –

Thermal Stress

Hands up if you’re the kind of person who is happiest when it’s 40* (for my American friends I mean over 100*F).  My hand’s up!  Or are you most comfortable when the wind is blowing, the rain is pouring down and its decidedly chilly out there.  Not me!  I get very upset when its winter and I find that the cold almost hurts me.  I find myself feeling cranky and irritable and my animal body responds in two very distinct ways – i) I sleep more and ii) I accumulate blubber.

Your preference for climate is something that’s most likely hard wired into your system and the opposite of your preference is what is most likely to cause your body thermal stress.  I know of people who almost wilt once it gets over 25* or who literally feel like they’re freezing once its below 20*.

How to manage thermal stress?

It’s fairly simple to manage.  If you like the cold, stay out of the heat.  Make sure you have ample cooling systems in your home.  Dwell (or visit during warmer summer months) areas that have cooler climates.  Conversely, if you like the warm, stay indoors, make sure you have adequate heating and visit areas in winter that are tropical and warm (Bali anyone?).  And finally, dress accordingly.

The Stress Series: Stress Five –

Electromagnetic Stress

This is so relevant to us as educators, especially those of us (and if you’re reading this that means you) who spend a lot of time on the computer.  Electromagnetic stress is the stress that our systems experience as a result of being near electric devices, such as computers, microwaves, photocopiers, mobile phones, televisions and hairdryers (hairdressers evidently suffer a lot from this).  I’d love to see a study measuring the impact of interactive whiteboard installation into classes over the last five years or so.

The theory behind electromagnetic stress is that the radio waves in the electric field that surrounds the above devices are toxic and interfere with our system’s normal functioning.  A classic example that clearly illustrates this phenomenon of this is the on-going research assessing if mobile phones cause brain cancer.  Other ways of describing this issue might include as electrosmog exposure or blue light radiation.  Blue light refers to the light which is thrown off screened appliances and can interfere with our brain activity as it messes with our circadian rhythms.

How do I reduce the impact of electromagnetic stress?

Using electrical devices in this day and age is almost inevitable.  However, reducing the amount of time in front of screens can help to reduce the amount of electromagnetic stress we are exposed to.  This is particularly relevant at night time as working on a computer late into the evening can result in difficulties getting to sleep (I wonder how quickly I’ll drop off tonight?)  Keeping sleeping areas completely clear of electric devices (including televisions and electric alarm clocks) can help, as can spending more time in nature (without your mobile phone in your pocket). Further to this, deliberately devoting time away from our devices (known as ‘digital detoxes’) are increasingly being sought as a way to de-stress and unwind and reduce the toxic side-effects of electromagnetic stress.

The Stress Series: Stress Four –

Mental, Psychic or Emotional Stress

This is probably the kind of stress that most of us are familiar with.  That feeling of being overwhelmed emotionally by events that are going on around us, whether they are beyond our control or coming at us too fast or having too much to do in not enough time are all fairly common situations faced by educators who work in schools in this day and age.

The neuropsychology of mental or psychic stress is fairly complex but I will aim to simplify it here.  As I already described we do need a certain amount of stress to keep us alive and some stress is actually good for us.  Having stress levels that are neither too low or high is best described as a ‘window of tolerance’ and keeping our stress levels within this range is optimal.  However, experiencing excessive levels of stress can spike us up into overwhelm or dip us down into shutdown as our systems struggle to manage with the demands of our environment.

In the work that I do with school based staff and with extensive experience working with young people and schools I am really aware that educational facilities are busy busy places where at times staff can experience a sense of their being too much to do and that they may often feel that the demands of working in these contexts are extremely stressful.  In fact when I survey staff at the training sessions that I do in this area, the standard response I get to the question “who finds working in education extremely stressful” is consistently at least 75% of a group confirming that this is their lived experience.

What Can I Do to Improve my Mental/Emotional Stress:

There are two main categories of strategies that people can employ to manage the mental/emotional stress they feel at work.  Palliative action strategies look at making the situation seem better (and include things like diet, exercise and sleep).  If these strategies are removed though, the problem still exists (in the same way that a person who is receiving palliative care will be more comfortable whilst receiving the care but will not be cured of the condition or illness).  Direct action strategies on the other hand are strategies that the person may implement specifically to ease the burden of a situation, like talking it through or avoiding particualr situations (such as confrontations).  Direct action strategies look to alter the persons level of involvement but increase their ownership and responses to the situation and it is through this process that the emotion can be processed and healing can occur.

There’s an old saying “A problem shared is a problem halved.” What this means is that talking about an issue is a form of catharsis, a release so to speak.  And this is where counselling comes into the picture.  I believe that the 75% of teachers who find their job highly stressful would benefit from confidential debriefing situations where they could offload about areas that were causing them concern at work.  Involvement in such opportunities could help them come to understand how they were feeling and what this meant for them and perhaps leave with a plan about how to reduce the impact of the stressors in future.

Next week, after I get the results from Sundays #teacherwellbeingchat I will collate responses I get to the question “What do you do to manage your stress” into palliative and direct action strategies so you can see the difference in the two there.  I look forward to seeing what strategies people share and I’m hoping there will be a lot of healthy and productive coping strategies shared by the group on the night.