Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Sofi's Choice - helpful or unhelpful?

Sofia was new to the country and was vivacious and good humoured. She was an enthusiastic student, who worked hard at her studies and had a wide circle of friends. She had a ready smile and a caring nature, sensitive to the needs of others, a delight to teach.

On many occasions she would accompany me on yard duty and we would talk about things and inevitably the topic of discussion would turn to friendships and her concern about a particular student who did not seem to like her. This student would generally ignore her and chose not to associate with her in the classroom or in the yard. Sofia would become tearful and I would ask why she felt so sad. She said that she didn’t understand why this student didn’t seem to want to be her friend as ‘everyone else liked me, why doesn’t she?’ On another occasion Sofia said she wasn’t happy because this student wasn’t her friend and she would say ‘she makes me sad.’ As a Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy counsellor I used some of the REBT strategies I had learned. According to REBT Sofia was ‘musting, oughting and shoulding,’ that is believing that her fellow student ‘must’ like her and that it was so awful (awfulising) that she couldn’t stand it. To add to her sadness Sofia believed that there must be something wrong with her! There must be something about her that the other student didn’t like and that this was all Sofia’s fault!

And so our discussions began to take on a philosophical note. I asked Sofia how this other person ‘made’ her sad. Sofia said that she ‘should’ be my friend and if she was then she could be happy. So I said, ‘you feel sad because she won’t be your friend and that you can only be happy if she becomes your friend.’ Sofia agreed that this was so and this became the basis of our further talks. We talked about a ‘perfect world’ and what that meant. We agreed that it would be nice if everyone we liked liked us in return and that everything we wanted to achieve we achieved. We talked about perfectionism and how it was unrealistic to expect that everything should go our way all the time. We can work hard to get an A+ and fall short, we can try to make friends with others we like but we may not always meet their approval. This is the way the world works. Sofia agreed and could see the wisdom of what we were talking about. So we returned to what Sofia believed, what her philosophy about herself, others and the world was. Sofia understood that her unrealistic oughting, shoulding and musting were making her sadness (‘she should like me’, ‘I must get her approval’, ‘she is bad because she won’t be my friend’, ‘I am unlikeable, I can’t stand this and it’s awful’). This insight was the turning point for Sofia, as she understood that her desire for a perfect world was an unrealistic expectation. I asked her, ‘must other people you like always like you in return?’ ‘Is it awful when you don’t get an A+ for your assignments even when you tried your best?’ ‘Are others bad if they don’t approve of you or like you?’ ‘Are you an unlikeable no good person because she doesn’t approve of you?’ Sofia answered with a resounding ‘NO!’

So we talked about helpful, rational thinking that would be healthier. I asked Sofia to challenge and change some of the unhelpful beliefs she held to be true.

I said, ‘must you always do well and achieve your goals.’ Sofia said, ‘No. It is better to believe that, ‘I will work hard to achieve my goals. I would like to achieve my goals but I don’t always have to.’ Why is this better?’ I asked. ‘It is not realistic to always get what you want. That is not how the world works!’ she said. She added that she would keep trying anyway.

What about the belief that, ‘people you like must like you in return and always approve of you?’ Sofia said, ‘this is not realistic either. People don’t have to like me. They can make their own choices.’

What about the belief, ‘you are unlikeable; you have nothing to like. You are a nerd.’ Sofia said, ‘this is not true. I have other friends. I have many positive qualities so I can’t be worthless or unlikeable!’
Construction in progress

So it transpired that Sofia became more comfortable with herself and the world and she could now accommodate and accept that her fellow student did not want to be her friend, that it was OK, that it was disappointing but not awful and she was still OK. She didn’t need her approval at all!

Sofia’s errant, irrational philosophical beliefs have been challenged and modified to become more rational (self and other helpful). Thus Sofia is not unhealthily anxious, angry or depressed (unhealthy negative emotions) because she hasn’t got what she wants (to have her fellow class member as a friend). She now tends to be healthily concerned and disappointed (healthy negative emotions) as she would have preferred (and not demanded) to have the friendship and approval of her classmate.

Sofi likes elephants

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Students on the Autism Spectrum and REBE

The English lingo is replete with idioms that would pose a problem or two to a student with Aspergers Syndrome. Certain turns of phrase would be as clear as muddy water! She would remain none the wiser if you were to ask her to ‘pull your socks up’ or ‘pull your finger out'or 'take a chair!’ Are you with me? She’d be flat out trying to cop on to the message.  How difficult would it be to get a handle on the meaning of a message if it can only be taken literally.

Consider the expressions ‘to get a handle on something’ and ‘turns of phrase’ mentioned above. Somehow we internalise these expressions, which make particular meanings and we draw them out of our linguistic hat and use them in the right place at the right time in the right context (We hope!). But what of the student who has Aspergers Syndrome?  What assumptions can we make about her capacity to understand these culturally specific idioms?

I was once asked to observe a student in the classroom setting as the teacher had some concerns about the child’s behaviour. I asked the student on one occasion ‘is that your paper under the desk there? To which he replied ‘yes it is’ and continued to carry on doing what he was doing. Implied in my words and tone was ‘there’s paper under your desk. I assume it’s yours and will you pick it up?’ I expected that the student would understand this, as most other students would do in my experience. I remember I found this interesting and repeated what I asked before. The result was exactly the same and then it dawned on me (‘to dawn on someone’ – another one!) that this person might be exhibiting characteristics of Aspergers Syndrome.   He understood the literal meaning of what I had said and responded accordingly but had missed the other more subtle meanings conveyed by tone and body language. How much more trouble would this student have dealing with idiomatic terms such as those mentioned above?

As it turned out he was diagnosed eventually as having Aspergers Syndrome.

What can happen if we assume a student ‘should’ know what was being asked of him? He would be reprimanded possibly labeled a naughty so and so who ‘should’ show more respect to his elders! The student would be wondering what’s going on. ‘You asked me if that was my paper under my desk and I answered you. Why am I in trouble?’ And it would escalate from there as mutual misunderstanding prevailed. 

As Karen Horney once said

‘Try to eliminate the word ‘SHOULD’ from your vocabulary … but try doing so though without replacing ‘SHOULD’ with OUGHT or YOU”D better.”

Karen Horney

Rational Emotive Behaviour Education reminds us that when we operate from a ‘shouldist’ perspective we don’t make helpful judgements and we don’t feel our optimum best.  Our ‘behaviour management’ approach to addressing student behaviour is based on such a perspective. All students are the same and they should all know better. Right?

Not true. Someone once said, ‘treating everyone the same is not equality.’
However we continue to persist with this system of warnings, detention, suspension and exclusion. Why is this approach unhelpful to our Aspergers student? What ‘musts’ ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ underpin this one size fits all approach to behaviour (mis)education?

Rational Emotive Behaviour Educators will:

·  Not assume that all students absolutely should behave as the teacher believes they must.

·  Remain calm as they will not demand that they should get something that they know they won’t get (in the short term).

·  Teach students how their thinking feeling and behaviour are linked together.

·  Negotiate learning goals with students to help them develop their competencies.

·  Regard behaviour education as part of the curriculum and not exclusive of it.

Specific to the Asperger child the Rational Emotive Behaviour Educator will:

·  Understand that she will take things literally so teaching about idiom would help or choosing not to use it is an option in some situations.

·  Be explicit, ‘please pick up that paper under your desk?’ rather than ‘is that your paper under the desk?’

·   Help her challenge inflexible ‘must’ expectations e.g. ‘People must always behave as I believe they must’ or ‘things always must be the way I want them to be’ (social stories, change classroom furniture, change the timetable) by exposing the student to subtle and explained changes.

·  Teach her to put the ‘badness’ of situations in perspective, to decatastrophise so she accepts that when she doesn’t get what she believes she must have, she can handle it.

·  Teach her to prefer rather than demand that others/the world should always give her what she wants.

Relax. Catch some rays and a few zzzz's

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Mental Health, Teaching and Learning - lives under construction

Children are constructivists. They make sense of what's happening and put two and two together and make their own four. Depression is a condition that undermines our ability to engage with the world successfully. What habits of believing have we constructed? Do we know what they are? Can we do anything about it? Why do I feel as I feel? Good questions to ponder and Rational Emotive Behaviour Education facilitates the students capacity to think about their thinking, to examine the philosophies they hold. If we have constructed our depression by cultivating irrational (unhelpful, unhealthy) habits of believing then we can deconstruct it! We can constantly revisit the meanings we have made about our experiences and re examine them through the REBE lens. 'Am I worthless? What does this mean? What evidence is there to support this hypothesis? What reconstructed meanings can I make that best fit the evidence?' This kind of awareness and learning allows the person to monitor their mental health, to make decisions about what they can do to help themselves forge ahead in the world. The REBE approach to Positive Psychology is promoted through The Rational Emotive Behaviour Education in Schools Program which is being implemented in many schools in South Australia. Para Hills School P-7 staff is working hard to help children understand how as constructivists they can thrive even when confronted with change and challenge. This is a useful thing to do.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ruby is Confident - A six year olds perspective

Ruby is six years old. She loves school and is having a great time. Her mum is a sole parent who exudes optimism and has a great sense of fun. Ruby's Nana and Pop often drop her off at school and they show a keen interest in what she does. Is Ruby happy because she was born that way or has she learnt to be happy or is there some kind of magical combination of many factors and influences that contribute to her positive demeanour?

It is hard to know and when we start to talk about which factors are most influential we enter the realms of conjecture and approximations. Some say genetics is the major player whilst others will say conditioning and learning is most influential. 

As a Rational Emotive Behaviour Educator I have a base theory which helps me to make an informed assessment as to why Ruby is Ruby. Ellis' ABC Theory of Emotional Disturbance explains or postulates that as constructivist learners we formulate our core habits of thinking as we experience the world and others around us. These habits of thinking drive our emotions and behaviours.

Let's assume that Ruby is genetically predetermined and charged to experience life with vim and vigour; to thrive and deal with disappointment and setbacks healthily never dwelling too long on problems before moving on. And then add the parenting style of a mother who takes risks, never self downs or judges others too harshly. A parent who always addresses behaviour and avoids personal put downs. A person who owns her own feelings never blaming Ruby for how she might feel. She will not only encourage her daughter to try new things she herself models the same attitudes and behaviours, risking failure but remains optimistic and hopeful. Of course Nan and Pop will value add to what Ruby is and will become.

I asked Ruby what she thought confidence was and she said 'I'm not scared to do things even if I they go wrong.' That's what I'm talking about!

Ruby and her sister Emerald

Para Hills School P-7 staff have been trained in the understanding and application of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy theory in daily teaching practice. The 'Rational Emotive Behaviour Education in Schools' program helps children like Ruby and her peers to be as happy and healthy as they can be. They are Rational Emotive Behaviour Educators.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Rational Emotive Behaviour Counselling - anxiety in young students and what to do about it

I find with some students that their anxiety is driven by the mistaken belief that somehow they themselves are responsible for how the teacher feels. Where would this idea come from? As discussed in many previous posts the young person would have constructed a set of personal beliefs that explain how and why others feel and act as they do. 

Consider a moment what a child might deduce when exposed to the following statements from adults around them:

'You make me happy when you do that.'
'You make me angry when you do that.'
'You make me feel whatever when you do that ...!'

They would conclude that 'my actions; what I do is responsible for how my mum/dad/teacher feels. I will try hard to be 'good' so that they feel good (because it's my responsibility). I don't want to 'make' them sad or mad so I'd better be on my best behaviour. I must behave and 'be good'.'

I'm OK!
As Albert Ellis reminds us when we have must expectations about ourselves (musturbation), others and the world we set ourselves up for great discomfort because we place ourselves often in a no win situation. What's the chances of our little friend stuffing up sometimes and making the odd mistake. Highly likely I'd say and when that happens 'back to shithood' she goes as Ellis would say!

Once she understands that as constructivists we make the strength of our feelings and the behaviours we make because of how we think she will be free of this affliction. The following is a transcript of counselling sessions I have had with students:

Me: You look sad.
Sofi: Yes I feel sad.
Me: What happened?
Sofi: The teacher shouted.
Me: How'd you feel?
Sofi: Scared.
Me: You feel/felt sad and scared because the teacher shouted?
Sofi: Yes. I do/did.
Me: Why was the teacher mad?
Sofi: Because someone talked and we shouldn't talk when the teacher is talking.
Me: So the students made your teacher mad is that right?
Sofi: Yes

Six year old Sofi believes that she and her classmates are responsible for how the teacher feels. She is in a high state of anxiety a lot of the time because no matter what happens she feels responsible and 'really doesn't want anyone to talk when the teacher is talking.'

It is important for teachers and adult role models to let students know that how they feel and behave is their own personal responsibility i.e. their thinking makes them act and feel as they do. Then children like little Sofi will not feel so bad and not take responsibility for how others feel so readily. 

Unconditional Self Acceptance