Mag­gie Dent: The Ele­phant in our Class­rooms

Mag­gie is a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for a com­mon-sense ap­proach to rais­ing boys in or­der to strengthen fam­i­lies, schools and com­mu­ni­ties. “We need to name the ele­phant in our class­rooms — un­healthy anx­i­ety, driven by stress.”

The Australian Education Reporter - - CONTENTS - MAG­GIE DENT

THE Univer­sity of Syd­ney re­cently sur­veyed 18,000 teach­ers, and found they are “drown­ing un­der in­creas­ing amounts of pa­per­work”.

On top of that, teach­ers are strug­gling to man­age an over­crowded cur­ricu­lum with a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents who have poorer self-reg­u­la­tion than ever be­fore.

Add to this the very real threat of in­creased vi­o­lence in schools, and we have an en­vi­ron­ment that is cre­at­ing teacher res­ig­na­tions and burnout at record lev­els.

The stress is very real.

Many stu­dents aren’t do­ing very well ei­ther in terms of men­tal and emo­tional well­be­ing. Re­cent re­ports have ex­posed the alarm­ing im­pact badly be­haved stu­dents have in Aus­tralian schools, both on staff, school lead­ers and other stu­dents.

Poorly be­haved stu­dents have been a part of the school­ing scene for­ever; how­ever it seems the numbers are in­creas­ing, and the stress and angst this causes is adding to de­clin­ing stan­dards of ed­u­ca­tion.

With in­creas­ing numbers of 4 to 6 year-old chil­dren be­ing sus­pended or ex­pelled — mainly boys — and grow­ing con­cerns of par­ents around anx­ious pri­mary school chil­dren, we need to have the con­ver­sa­tion in our school com­mu­ni­ties about how to re­duce the stress that is drown­ing many of our chil­dren.

It isn’t just chil­dren ei­ther. The numbers of ado­les­cents strug­gling with men­tal ill­ness con­tinue to climb — some re­ports sug­gest anx­i­ety is an is­sue for one in three teen girls and one in five boys.

Leav­ing high school with a men­tal ill­ness and a pre­dis­po­si­tion to anx­i­ety is not the sign of a valu­able ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. The mas­sive in­crease in self-harm and school dis­en­gage­ment is an­other sign we need to make se­ri­ous changes.

I have heard from many high schools and com­mu­ni­ties who have mul­ti­ple deaths from sui­cide — and many of the stu­dents were high achiev­ers, aca­dem­i­cally ca­pa­ble, achiev­ing high stan­dards in sport and the arts.

We must change this re­lent­less pres­sure for high grades for grades’ sake.

In the past decade, we’ve seen large numbers of chil­dren di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion and be­havioural dis­or­ders such as ADHD, ADD and op­po­si­tional de­fi­ance dis­or­der.

Re­search shows though that the symp­toms as­so­ci­ated with th­ese dis­or­ders are of­ten an in­di­ca­tor that a child is suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety.

Dr Lynn Miller from the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia has found that as well as com­mon and known symp­toms of anx­i­ety (stom­ach aches, headaches, dif­fi­culty sleep­ing, avoid­ing school, nail bit­ing and phys­i­cal re­ac­tions such as in­creased heart rate or breath­ing), there are many fre­quently over­looked symp­toms — such as:

• An­gry out­bursts

• Ir­ra­tional silli­ness

• Op­po­si­tional and re­fusal be­hav­iours

• Tem­per tantrums

• Ag­gres­sion

• At­ten­tion-seek­ing be­hav­iours

• Hyper­ac­tiv­ity and dif­fi­culty sit­ting still

• At­ten­tion and con­cen­tra­tion prob­lems

• Scholas­tic un­der­achieve­ment or ex­ces­sive re­sis­tance to do­ing work

• Fre­quent vis­its to school nurse

• High num­ber of missed school days

• Dif­fi­cul­ties with so­cial or peer group.

• Un­healthy per­fec­tion­ism.

We need to stop kneel­ing at the al­tar of high grades, with­out ac­cept­ing the huge cost on men­tal health and while also not recog­nis­ing and valu­ing the need to de­velop the at­tributes of good char­ac­ter, re­silience and a hunger to make the world a bet­ter place.

The af­ter­math of 10 years of Na­plan-driven test­ing and ac­count­abil­ity has ended up with Aus­tralia con­tin­u­ing to drop on in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion scales and a mas­sive in­crease in lev­els of stress and anx­i­ety for our stu­dent, teach­ers and par­ents.

We must ad­dress this ele­phant in our class­rooms be­fore we can im­prove our stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tional out­comes.

Daniel Gole­man wrote many years ago in his book Emo­tional In­tel­li­gence that “happy calm stu­dents learn best”.

Stressed stu­dents will strug­gle to make good choices around be­hav­iour and learn­ing — and many of our tra­di­tional re­sponses to poor be­hav­iour need to be re­viewed.

With the in­creas­ing re­search coming out around ACES — ad­verse child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences and trauma — we need to re­frame the way we see in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour from early child­hood through to sec­ondary school.

The ca­pac­ity for an in­di­vid­ual to self-reg­u­late, and to man­age chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions and hu­man re­la­tion­ships with­out be­ing spon­ta­neously trig­gered by their prim­i­tive brain will cer­tainly not im­prove if pun­ish­ment is still the pri­mary op­tion used in schools.

Some stu­dents who ex­hibit poor be­hav­iour that is dis­re­spect­ful, dis­rup­tive and in­ap­pro­pri­ate do so for many rea­sons that can be di­rectly linked to stress and anx­i­ety.

I have long been fas­ci­nated with how we learn and, with neu­ro­science we have dis­cov­ered so much about neu­ro­trans­mit­ters that in­flu­ence arousal states.

There are in­tri­cate com­plex­i­ties of how en­ergy ebbs and flows in the hu­man body and mas­sive di­ver­sity in brain in­te­gra­tion that im­pacts fo­cus and how we think — or not.

I pub­lished my first book Sav­ing our Chil­dren from our Chaotic World in 2003, ex­plor­ing much of this for par­ents and teach­ers.

Sim­ply pun­ish­ing th­ese trou­bled stu­dents rather than help­ing them ex­plore what is trig­ger­ing that be­hav­iour will have lim­ited suc­cess be­cause it in­creases stress.

As As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Anna Sul­li­van from the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia writes in The


“Schools need to avoid prac­tices that mis­treat, ex­clude and den­i­grate stu­dents and are based on in­tim­i­da­tion, anx­i­ety, threats and ret­ri­bu­tion.”

We can cre­ate mean­ing­ful learn­ing out­comes and health­ier, hap­pier stu­dents and staff but only if pun­ish­ment comes last not first on the list. Why?

It is over 40 years since I was at univer­sity, how­ever I em­braced and still re­mem­ber Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy and the won­der­ful wis­dom of the late Dr Wil­liam Glasser, who dis­cussed ‘Choice The­ory’.

It seems that in our dig­i­tal world, we may be for­get­ting the im­por­tance of the ba­sics of hu­man sur­vival. Hu­mans can­not thrive and flour­ish when they feel un­safe — and so many of our stu­dents do feel un­safe.

School cul­tures that fo­cus on build­ing in­clu­sion and pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships cre­ate suc­cess­ful learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments.

The Pos­i­tive Schools move­ment is do­ing fab­u­lous work show­ing how well­be­ing makes a huge dif­fer­ence when it is placed as an in­ten­tional ex­pec­ta­tion of schools.

This ap­proach val­ues the “do­ing with them” rather than the “do­ing to them” ap­proach and has a bet­ter chance of mak­ing stu­dents feel they mat­ter — a key to im­prov­ing how they be­have and, ul­ti­mately, learn.

Mind­ful­ness pro­grams, such as Smil­ing Mind, are a great and man­age­able place to start, and in­cor­po­rat­ing small mo­ments of si­lence and still­ness in your class­room has proven ben­e­fit for teach­ers and stu­dents.

With the pres­sures on teach­ers now, it is bor­der­ing on im­pos­si­ble for them to have ca­pac­ity to cre­ate a sense of gen­uine be­long­ing in our class­rooms and wider school en­vi­ron­ment for stu­dents who come from di­verse back­grounds, with dif­fer­ing needs and learn­ing chal­lenges.

It takes time to cre­ate hu­man con­nect­ed­ness and there is very lit­tle of that in the class­rooms of to­day. Un­healthy lev­els of stress and anx­i­ety need to be ad­dressed.

Ed­u­ca­tors across Aus­tralia need to be heard and they need to be con­sulted so the changes that need to hap­pen can.

We can­not con­tinue to al­low this pres­surised sys­tem of school­ing to con­tinue.

When our very best teach­ers are walk­ing away from the first pro­fes­sion they love — just like Gabbi Stroud, whose re­cent book Teacher cap­tured in a raw and hon­est way the re­al­ity of teach­ing to­day — we must ques­tion how we can fix this.

Min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham, please ac­knowl­edge the ele­phant in the class­room, and be bold and brave and send that ele­phant back to the jungle.

“We need to name the ele­phant in our class­rooms — un­healthy anx­i­ety, driven by stress.”

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