Time to Stop Talking and Just Listen, Watch, Learn.

Yep, that’s about it. I’ve talked a lot about what I have learned from victims: of abuse and neglect, of aggressive teachers, and of people who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, or who took the easy way out and resorted to punishment. I’ve told you some of the things I’ve learned from watching and listening to brilliant, magical teachers who transformed their dysfunctional students. I’ve told you what I’ve learned through conventional research but often from unconventional sources that seemed at the time unrelated to the field of youth rescue.

Now it’s time to listen, to observe and hopefully to learn some more. So I need your help. So do the readers of this blog (and bless you all for caring enough to read it).

Firstly, let me plead with anyone who reads these words who can offer a perspective that teachers, youth or social workers might not usually hear. We need to hear from anyone who has suffered from abuse, neglect, or domestic violence. We need to hear from anyone who has endured a diabolical teacher – anyone who made them feel unimportant, unworthy, or unintelligent. We need to hear from anyone who needed help, tried to get it, but whose attempts resulted in further pain.

We need to know what it was like to endure through hardship. How did you survive being labelled, ridiculed, bullied, or ignored? How did you cope with people who assumed you were evil? How did you not give up?

I’d love to know what you thought, what you felt, how you reacted, what people said about you or to you. Please use this blog as an opportunity to tell it how it was, how you would have liked it to have been, and what could have made a positive difference.

If you know of someone transformational, who made a difference for you, please tell us about them. What made them different? How did they help? Teachers, youth workers, social workers, counsellors, parents, or anyone who cared enough to want to make your life (or that of others you know) something special – please tell us about them here.

Every person has the right to feel special: loved, trusted, and respected. This apples especially to our young people. The sad truth is so many of our young people today do not feel like this at all.

If you found someone who helped you to feel like this when you were at your lowest, we want to hear about them. Maybe you never really thanked them. Here is your chance. Tell the world how wonderful they were. Give them a big cyber hug.

Righto, over to you. I promise to reply to every person who is brave enough to post a comment. You are the experts, I am ready to learn. Please don’t be shy.

Till next time, hugs to you all,

Lindsay (the Hugsman)


Magic Woman: working miracles with damaged youth

Deb was a magic woman. I’d seen her work miracles with the worst of the worst – those students who tore teachers apart, who got their kicks from causing teacher trauma, who hurt people badly and laughed about it, the ones who didn’t care about others in any way, shape or form. They were heartless. They were merciless. They were evil.

How bad can students get? Deb worked with one group of students who had revealed to her they had a very well-orchestrated plot to put enormous pressure on teachers with the aim of either making them resign, sending them clinically insane, getting them fired, or having them suicide. They had been successful at least once, and were well down the track with a number of other well-meaning, dedicated teachers. Their success spurred them on.

They had a blood lust. I’d witnessed it in action, and it terrified me. The level of viciousness cannot be adequately described. They scared the hell out of me and a large number of other teachers.

They targeted the week and wobbly. If you were young, new to teaching, female, emotional, if you had suffered some sort of personal tragedy, were ill, or had a disability you were a target.

They got together to set their targets, sensibly choosing a handful at a time so they didn’t overstretch their resources. Once they had you in their sights, they went all out to destroy you.

Deb worked with these diabolical little demons, and all the other really tough classes in this North Queensland high school. The staff of the school called her the Magician. She was, but I also believed their was method in her magic. I believed if I could tap into her magic, I could save threatened teachers. I had not, at this stage, realised that these students were the nastiest because they felt threatened and totally worthless (except with Deb).

So, I set out to discover why they were angels for Deb, why they were super polite, considerate and cooperative, why they would do anything to please her, yet be totally merciless in their attacks on other teachers. I asked Deb if I could sit in the back of her classroom and watch her at work. She told me she didn’t have any special method. She just did what came to mind at the time. She carefully planned the content of each lesson but not the way she would interact with her students. What she did came naturally.

I told her that it didn’t come naturally to many teachers. I told her that there were many teachers at her school who were really struggling to survive day-to-day and that she could help.

She was super embarrassed to think that someone thought she was good at what she did and wanted to study her methods. She was modest. It was charming, but I needed to know how she did it. So, I pleaded. I begged. I pleaded some more. In the end she gave up and told me It was OK but that she was extremely uncomfortable with it all. I told her she wouldn’t even notice me after ten or fifteen minutes. I knew she was totally focussed on her class.

Every lesson was the same as the first I had seen her teach. Students bent over backwards to help her, to learn from her, to make her look good. I remembered teachers from my own childhood for whom I had done the same. It got me reminiscing. Then it got me analysing from memory what was special about those teachers too.

I watched for three or four lessons before I went to Deb and told her what I had observed. I had seen a pattern that she repeated every time she stepped into a classroom. I told her there was a pattern. She told me she did whatever popped into her mind. “I don’t have a method, Lindsay. I don’t think about what I’m doing. It just happens.”

Well, maybe she was magic, but she did have a method too, even if she didn’t know it. I described the pattern that each of her lessons took. “Really? Every lesson? The same every time?”

That day, I found an answer to a question that had vexed me for a long time. I had learned (the hard way) that what educational-behavioural gurus said about modifying errant behaviour only worked for kids who cared, ones who came from families who valued education, ones who wanted to do well. Before this day, nothing had worked for me for the students who didn’t fit into this neat little niche.

Deb’s magic worked for everyone. It worked for the off-the-wall ‘bad’ kids and it worked for the rest as well. It made everyone (including her) feel amazing, special and worthwhile.

I asked her how it had been for her with each new class in the first weeks of them meeting her. She told me that part wasn’t easy, and it needed simple perseverance and a belief that there was good in every student waiting to be released. For some you need to hang tough for longer than others, she told me, but if you do, you get what I was seeing in her classes.

What I was seeing was simply awesome. She had all the very worst classes in the school. They loaded her down. She didn’t have a single class that the school considered manageable. She waved her wand and they turned into angels.

OK, I’ve tortured you long enough. What did she do? What was the pattern I had seen that worked so well with these kids who wanted only to tear other teachers into shreds?

She used what Stephen Covey, the famous American business-relationship psychologist called his ’emotional bank balance’. She made lots of deposits into each child’s self-esteem account and build each balance till they were in the black, feeling great about themselves (with her).

She had something extra special though. She had a framework in which she placed all this positive feedback. She had an identifiable, simply repeatable system. She had established a habit by using a system that, for other teachers, would ensure they stuck at the task of lifting student spirits rather than giving up when they didn’t get instant positive behaviour.

Deb’s Framework

Outside the classroom – individually:

  • She met each class outside her door.
  • She greeted them enthusiastically.
  • She lined them up and walked along the lines talking to students individually.
  • She commented on anything she could find that was positive about each person.
  • She commented on their speed to class, the way they were dressed, how handsome they looked, their hair, their clothes, what they had done recently in class, what she had found out they had done out of class, out of school, at sport, in their spare time, their interests, their hobbies, the things they loved doing.
  • She paid special attention to the most at-risk students.
  • She built them up.
  • She didn’t put them down in any way. She said nothing that was negative.
  • She reminded me of that old teacher maxim, “Find them doing something good and jump on it.”
  • She waited till everyone was there before she took them inside (everyone wanted to get there early for her because they knew she made them feel good with her positivity before class, so they really pushed it to get there on time.)

Outside the Classroom Still – to the Group:

  • She told the class how pleased she was to see them all again, how she had looked forward to their class or a similar group positive.

Inside the Room:

  • She reminded the class what wonderful work they had done previously, told them how much she loved being their teacher or a similar group positive.
  • She got the lesson moving, provided group instruction, asked questions and gave positive feedback.
  • She set them to work, then made her way around every student, saying something positive about every person.
  • If someone was off track she would reframe negatives as positives, “Wow! That’s an amazing idea. You’ll make a great … one day,” and then refocussed the errant student.
  • She summarised the lesson, making special note of positive effort.
  • She told them how pleased she was with everyone’s effort, often telling them how effort like that led to great things after leaving school.
  • She told them how much she enjoyed their class and  asked them how long it was till she would be lucky enough to see them again, and dismissed the class.

On the Way Out:

  • She walked and talked briefly with as many students as she could manage. I noted that she always talked with those considered most at-risk. She gave them further positive feedback on the way out.

I went on later to describe what she had done to transform these students from demonic to delightful as ‘hugging’ her students to health. They were all psychological hugs. I’m sure she would have liked to have been able to give out real physical hugs too if teachers were allowed to do something so radical. Of course, we aren’t, so she didn’t. The psychological hugs were just as effective, I found. They were the magic.

Deb’s System in a Nutshell:

  • Individual hugs for as many students as possible as they arrive for class.
  • A group hug before entering.
  • A group hug to start the lesson.
  • Individual hugs for everyone as she made her way around the room.
  • Some individual hugs with the summary of the lesson.
  • A group hug or two in conclusion.
  • As many individual hugs as possible on the way out the door and while walking to their next class.

My pattern-seeking mind saw it as framing the lesson:

  • each lesson/ session started and finished the same – with lots of individual hugs and one big group hug – sort of like a photo frame around the lesson. Inside the room there is a further, inner frame – a group hug at both start and finish of the lesson. Inside that inner frame are lots of individual hugs, reinforcement, and positive feedback.

When I laid all this out for Deb, she had to run it through her mind a few times to see that this was, in fact, what she did, without conscious thought, each and every lesson.

Deb told me how important it is that what you say is always the truth. She told me to never make anything up, no praise that’s not due. She said that if there’s nothing positive about their work or their behaviour to start with, don’t worry. She said you could always find something else to comment upon in a positive light.

It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is true. When you make it up, you totally devalue all you are trying to do. You sabotage yourself. You waste your valuable time and sentence the program to failure.

So, magic teacher, Deb, used (unknowingly) Covey’s ‘Emotional Bank Balance’ with her own Positive Feedback Framing system to transform nasty into nice, threatened into safe, denigrated into respected students. In the process, she gave her students an unshakable belief in themselves that allowed them to go on to treat others well, be ready to learn, be good team members, and to care. She gave them the the three greatest gifts: love, trust and respect. She gave them control of their own lives. She gave them a future.

What I learned from the Magician helped me enormously. I hope it helps you too.

I would love to hear your stories of transformational teachers too. I strongly believe, the best learning does not come from the ‘experts’. I’ve learnt so much more from watching great teachers at work and asking myself and them, “How did you do that?” than I ever have from listening to highly paid educational or behavioural gurus.

I advise you to listen to you students and anyone who has gone through really tough times. Their perspective is what we really need if we are to make a positive difference in our students’ lives and in our own classroom climate.

Till next time, hugs to you all.

Lindsay (the Hugsman)

Positive Emotional Balance: How to get it and how to lose it.

Part 1: Doing Magic with Dysfunctional Students

I’m not much of an instant believer. I tend to listen, consider, then look for a demonstration of the principle in action. Using the buzzwords of the last decade, I look for someone who can walk the talk. So, when I first read Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Effective People”, it resonated with me, but I set out to find the principles in action, before I committed to them myself.

I had two very moving experiences that convinced me that Covey’s “Seek First to Understand” principle and his “Emotional Bank Balance”  were absolute winners with school students (and others). l told you in my last post about the triple zero phone incident. I won’t bore you by going back over it again. Suffice to say, it helped to change my classroom practice enormously in a hugely positive direction that  benefitted and continues to benefit both me as the teacher and all my students. The second experience really showed me how catastrophic classroom behaviour can be turned on its head using these two principles in tandem.

As a Behaviour Support Teacher in North Queensland (Australia), I was fortunate enough to largely manage my own time. I spent some of that time observing dysfunctional students in classroom settings. This led me to a startling discovery.

A young high school music teacher asked me to observe her class in action. She told me the behaviour of the whole class was totally out of control and needed an independent witness as the Principal would not believe her reports and requests for assistance.

Her description of the class was extreme, or so I thought before I saw them in action. In reality, she was under exaggerating. They were, very aggressive, threatening to the extreme, psychologically and verbally abusive, and totally oppositional. All this behaviour was directed solely toward the teacher who had acted professionally throughout the lesson despite the horrific treatment she received at their hands. I don’t know how she survived that lesson or any other with these merciless young people.

She had made me promise her that I would, under no circumstances, intervene. Watching a group of thirty students tearing their teacher apart reminded me of the feeding frenzy of Great White Sharks. Until that day I had never witnessed ‘blood lust’ in action. It made me sick. I was appalled and terrified for this young woman who was just trying to do her job professionally.

I was shaken. I was still in shock when I fronted to a Geography lesson, that I had organised to attend, so I could observe some students who were part of my case load. Deb, the teacher who everyone in the school considered a ‘magician’ because she could get even the worst students working productively, was leading the lesson.

Still shaking, I climbed the stairs and came around the corner to Deb’s classroom. Her class came into view, lined up in two neat respectful lines outside the classroom. Deb was walking along the lines talking to the students who were giving her their absolute attention.

I breathed out. I felt like a man stranded in the desert who walks in the vain hope he will find salvation before he dies of thirst and exposure, who stumbles upon an oasis when he’s reached the limits of his endurance. I felt the cool breeze waft over me.

From depression to exhilaration within a few short seconds. I stood, watched and listened. I wanted to feel her magic. I wanted to learn from it. Thoughts of the horror class before were gone.

Deb, talked to them as a class. She told them how glad she was to see them all again. She told them how much she loved teaching this class.

She spoke to many of them individually. She said things to them that let them know she was taking notice of what was happening in their lives. She gave compliments and thanked students for being early, for having their equipment, being in uniform – all sorts of little (but to her students important) things.

She welcomed them to her class and invited them in. Deb had them in the palm of her hand. I’m sure not a single student would have volunteered to be anywhere else.

They moved quickly without any of the jostling that so often accompanies high school classes. They had their books out, ruled up and equipment ready in a heartbeat. Every face was turned toward Deb, without her asking for their attention. Wow!

“How long has it been since I had you guys last?” They told her it had only been two days ago. “Feels like months. Gee I miss having you.” They beamed.

She got them started and walked around the room, commenting on work, refocusing ones that were slightly off track.

About then, I refocused as well. Maybe the shock had finally worn off.

The smiling faces lost their general fuzziness and unfamiliarity. For the second time that day I was shocked beyond belief. Most of these boys were the same ones who had torn the music teacher to shreds minutes before. It was like watching the identical but angelic twins, after seeing their evil other halves. I shook myself mentally and settled down to watch with new eyes.

Deb continued around the room handing out positive reinforcement. Students were striving to please her. She even reframed what could have been negative comments, “Wow. It is that sort of thinking that leads to amazing scientific discoveries,” she says then guides the student back on track.

The students, evil angels, lap it up and do amazing work. They are hungry to learn. Their manners and the way they treat their teacher are impeccable. They would do anything for this wonderful teacher.

This is a 40 minute lesson, and it’s nearing the end. She summarises the learning, finds opportunities to praise the efforts of the class and some individual students.

“I can’t wait till we can do this again. How long is it till next time?”

“Tomorrow, Miss.”

“Oh, thank God.”

She walks out with them, talking to individual students, giving them more positives. They are happy. They are polite. They are lovely people. She is magic.

It was like watching a whole class of kids with split personalities. How could students be so diabolically evil for one teacher and yet be such angelic, hard-working, respectful students for another – all with in the space of a few minutes?

I asked them if I could come back again. I wanted to see what she was doing to transform these kids. I wanted as to sit and analyse. Maybe she had something that I could use. Maybe she had something that all teachers could use. It felt monumental. To this day, I credit it as one of the turning points of my teaching life.

I willed the day to go quickly so I could, be in her class once again. Happiness is infectious. I had the bug, and I needed more.

In my next post, I’ll tell you how I figured she did it – transformed oppositional behaviour into the most amazingly good student collaboration.

Till next time, hugs to you all,

Lindsay (the Hugsman)

Balancing The Ledger with Dysfunctional Youth

I’d just committed the ultimate sin of teaching: I had gone ballistic at a student who had taken his mobile phone out in class, and had dialled 000, the Australian emergency response number, over and over again. As he laughed, he encouraged the other students in my Alternative Education Program class to follow his lead. “If we all do this, someone will die.” He thought it was just the best joke of all time. I didn’t share his glee, and that became quite obvious to everyone in the room.

“Put the phone away, Rick,” I said firmly but with some control. He continued to dial, his volume increased significantly. He was pushing lots of buttons, most of them mine.

He continued to dial and now more loudly calling for the other students to help him kill someone.

“Give me the phone.”

He ignored me and got even louder.

“Give it to me, now!”

He started to laugh as he punched triple zero.

I did my block. I vaulted the large meeting style table that stood between us, intent on taking the phone and restoring sanity. Sanity was, by that stage, the last thing possible.

He saw me coming and ran from the room, still dialling.

I gave chase. As I ran from the door after him, the last vestiges of sanity kicked in. I gave up the chase.

Gathering myself, I realised how crazed I was, how totally insane and potentially violent I must have seemed to my class of severely damaged teenage boys.

Oh yeah. Oops … sorry. I forgot to mention, my class was rather special. All thirteen of them were hard cases. These thirteen boys were responsible for over 80% of the school’s disciplinary problems from the previous year. They were suspended regularly. They were extremely violent, with no reservations about threatening teachers and other students, and the previous year they had not seen out a single lesson without being turfed out of the classroom, let alone spent a whole day in class. When they weren’t being thrown out, they were truanting – either for select lessons or a whole day at a time.  Nearly all had done whatever drugs they could access. They drank and smoked at school whenever they could smuggle in the contraband. Most had done some time living rough, without parental support. They hated school with a passion and seemed to hate everyone around them. All had very extensive unofficial police records. All had committed violent acts, been involved in theft, vandalism and the usual anti-social acts of angry youth. They were my boys.

All had volunteered for my program. All had signed an agreement that detailed how they would get to remain in the program. Their ‘parents/carers’ had each signed up as well. I was their last chance. They all recognised this and were grateful that someone was willing to give them another chance. They told me they were losers, and that I was totally insane to believe in them. They had pleaded with me at the end of the first day of the program, to give it all up, to abandon them and not ruin my career. “We’re not worth it, Mr Mac. We’re all losers.”

The thing is, I didn’t believe that at all. They were simply boys who had little opportunity. They were severely damaged psychologically. Everyone had given up on them, including their ‘parents’ and including themselves. I wasn’t going to join that list. I was determined I would do whatever it was going to take to provide them with a single person in their lives who had not given them the flick.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the boy, the phone, triple zero and the berserk teacher.

Re-entering the class, I started to try to apologise to the remaining boys. “I’m so sorry. That was just so totally unforgivable. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive my insanity.”

“Mr Mac,” Aaron said. “If you’d killed him, we would have helped you hide the body.” They told me he deserved it.

I disagreed. Noone, especially them, should ever have to put up with an aggressive teacher, regardless of the circumstances.

That afternoon, they taught me that what I had been reading about (and which I will describe to you shortly) was not merely a theory but reality. They described in their decidedly un-academic language Steven Covey’s Psychological Bank Balance. They told me that consistently over a long, long time I had believed them when no-one else (including themselves) would. They told me that each of them had treated me very badly on many, many occasions and that I astounded them each time by giving them another chance the following day after explaining why their behaviour was dysfunctional. They told me they knew I stuck up for them when everyone at school wanted to attack them, and tell everyone what bad people they were. They described all the little things I had done and said that made them feel gradually better about themselves. They said again, “Mr Mac, you could have killed him and we would have forgiven you because you are always here for us, no matter what.”

Their words taught me so much. We should all learn to listen to our students, particularly our students who are struggling with life, much more and much more carefully.

So what does the great American psychologist say? Well here we go.

Steven Covey uses the illustration of a bank account to describe each person’s mental state. We can be in credit or in debit. we can have more money than we will ever need or we can be severely overdrawn and approaching bankruptcy.

The greater our credit balance, the more able we are to see things in a balanced way. We can take criticism and redirection, seeing it as advice well meant. We view things positively. We are able to learn. We treat others with respect. We trust, respect and love so we receive these three most essential commodities in return and in abundance. We are willing to share our pie, because we know the more we share, the more there will be to share. We are mentally healthy, happy little vegemites.

When we are in debit – overdraft, owing money to the bank we are not nearly so well off. We have a debt that seems to grow every day. Like major debts where we have managed to get ourselves in way over our heads, we think we will never pay it off and be free again.

We see ourselves as losers. We cannot accept redirection, criticism or even a challenge of any sort. We react aggressively, violently, or we withdraw. We are depressed. We treat others with distrust, disrespect and this comes across as major anger or even hatred. We are not willing to share, especially not ourselves. We are sad, mentally ill and we are ready to take it out on ourselves and everyone else that gets in our way. We are not good news.

When a student is in overdraft:

  • they will be oppositional, withdrawn, aggressive or even violent;
  • they will not be cooperative;
  • they will resist whatever you are hoping they will try;
  • they will try to be either inconspicuous or totally out there, challenging you to take your best shot;
  • they will not see that you are trying to help them;
  • they will not accept any form of redirection , criticism or imposed discipline;
  • they will seek to hurt themselves and others around them;
  • they will not appear to care what you do to them – after all they can’t hurt any more than they already are;
  • they will not be ready to learn;
  • they will be disruptive and make life very difficult for you and the other students in the class.

If you don’t do something that changes their outlook, you will have a hard time for the entire time they are in your class.

How do you change their outlook? You pay off their overdraft by making regular deposits into their emotional bank account.

It sounds so simple. It is simple, but it is also very difficult. It will test your resolve and many more will give up and resort to the punishment spiral, than will persevere till the student pokes his/her nose into credit.

In my next post I will talk more about how to do this. Hope it helps. It has sure made a difference to me.

Please pass the link to this blog on to your friends and colleagues if you think it may interest or help them in any way.

I look forward to your feedback too. All ideas, your own related experiences or questions will be gratefully accepted.

Till next time,

Hugs to you all,



Prison Better then Home

How bad can it possibly be for our students today? Are the ones who present as argumentative, uncooperative, disruptive, aggressive and sometimes violent, evil people or is there something going on that  dedicated, caring teachers are missing?

Danny, Evan’s older and protective brother, was charged, convicted and transported to a Youth Detention facility (kids’ jail) after being nabbed in the middle of a drug deal with fellow students at my high school.

After considerable time inside, he was permitted time off for good behaviour – a day out with family or other approved people. Evan, his younger and previously severely traumatised, abused and neglected brother, asked me if we could take him out of the facility for a day.

Evan was recovering nicely after being saved from long-term abuse and neglect. Given one chance, he had grabbed it enthusiastically and was now hardly recognisable from the starved and beaten boy he had been only months before.

Danny was ‘inside’ because he had been trying desperately to prevent both brothers starving. He’d taken one too many risks.

Perhaps that was because he had ‘acquired’ brain damage. It was acquired from his ‘father’s’ steel capped work boots. He’d made the mistake of going to the refrigerator, desperate to find food for his brother. His father had made him pay.

Then, the part of his brain that normally helped him to consider potential consequences of his actions no longer functioned. He took unnecessary risks. This one had landed him in prison.

Those of us from decent upbringings, those who have had the benefit of parents who didn’t abuse, assault and neglect us to the point of starvation would think that being sent to youth detention  would be a total catastrophe. Put in Danny’s place, we would struggle to cope.

Danny flourished inside. His once skeletal frame filled out. His sallow, lustreless skin took on a real glow. Once clothed in putrid rags, rotting at the seams, he now wore simple but clean clothing. He was healthy, clean and cared for where once he had been a dead boy walking.

He told me he loved jail. He said, for the first time in his life he had the chance to be treated fairly. He loved the idea that he would not be punished unless he had done something bad – an enormous change from his life with his ‘father’ who beat him mercilessly if he dared to use anything that was in the family home. He even got to watch the occasional bit of television, a new experience.

Danny told us that he was learning to read and was making his prison teachers proud of the efforts he was making to improve himself. He told us it was easy to concentrate on learning when your mind wasn’t consumed by trying desperately to survive.

We had a wonderful day out together. We spent time at the beach, playing in the sand and at the water park, but most of the time we spent talking together, catching up.

Danny was focussed on finding out how his little brother was doing. They had endured together a ‘life’ that would be incomprehensively terrifying to most of us. They had survived, thanks to an unshakable loyalty to each other.  Even knowing that a decision to help a brother would cost them an unmerciful bashing or quite possibly a horrible violent death, they persisted in supporting each other through the unendurable.

The end of Danny’s leave approached all too soon. Spending privileged time with two of my heroes warmed my heart.

Danny left us with a wave and a bright smile. He was looking forward to going ‘home’ to prison. In his eyes, he was the luckiest kid alive. He’d been given a second chance, and he was thankful for every moment and every opportunity to try his hardest and do his absolute best.

Evan looked at life,  now free from the yoke of his father’s reign of terror, with the same bullet-proof positivity. Yet, only months before, both boys prayed that they would simply survive each day.

They had been problem students: uncooperative, obstinate, disruptive, aggressive – evil little toads. Now, they were polar opposites to their old selves, at least on the surface.

I wonder, if we teachers were to dig a little before condemning our difficult students, could we discover that there is no real difference at all. What drives these children to survive the nightmare of their lives, is what also makes them so positive when their burdens are removed.

How quickly and completely a teacher’s perception can change when he/she is exposed to the truth. When my eyes were opened, it was hard not to feel very, very guilty. For many years, I cried when I retold my young heroes’ stories. I am still a little misty eyed as I type this today, many years later.

I learned not to blame myself. I didn’t know. I’m betting there are thousands of teachers who don’t know what lies beneath the oppositional behaviour of some of their students. I’m sure that when they see, their classrooms will look a whole lot different.

I am reminded that the behaviour I see, as a teacher, should never condemn a child. I am confident in my teaching family. I know the vast majority of us joined the ranks because we wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of each and every student who we were privileged to teach. I am confident that together we can change so many lives for the better. We can do our bit to save threatened children and give them back their childhoods. At the very least, we can seek to understand before we react blindly, based purely on dysfunctional behaviour.

Please, give them a chance. Learn from them. They have a lot to teach us all.

Till next time, hugs to you all,

Lindsay (the Hugsman)

Looking Below the Surface of Student Opposition

They make our lives as teachers extremely stressful. They oppose whatever we are doing in class. They influence other students to rebel. They are aggressive and are potentially violent. They seem to care about nothing. Their own education is not on their list of priorities. They are drifting into a lacklustre future and they don’t seem to care a fig.

They are evil children/ teenagers. We wonder how long it will take them to get into so much trouble with the law that they end up in jail. We wonder how much pain they will cause all those with whom they become involved.

It’s very difficult to view these students in any other way after all attempts to control their dysfunctional behaviour have failed miserably. We’ve tried and we’ve tried again, but it’s like they are sneering at us, saying, “You can’t hurt me. Really, is that the best you’ve got? Bring it on!”

Where does it go from here? We retreat to the usual school punishment spiral. Our efforts to control use greater power and more serious sanctions, until the student is suspended and then expelled from our school, so that they are out of our hair. Someone else can try to control the little animal. It’s not our job to put up with this crap any more.

If we constantly seek to control our dysfunctional students rather  than seek to help them, the situation above will become more and more familiar to you. Teachers who joined up to make positive differences in the lives of all their students will be left with an odd empty feeling when we bid them goodbye.

It never will be farewell though – there is no way that they will fare well till someone decides to do what it takes to end the cycle of desertion.  Teachers will know there was something more they could have done, be clueless as to what it was, and also feel relieved (but not in any way satisfied).

The first step in changing from a purely control to a helping focus is to discover where these students are coming from. If you have no concept of how bad it can be for them you will not have the empathy required to persevere in your attempts to halt the vicious cycle of betrayal. With no real understanding of their world, you will never see them blossom.

It is far more likely that you will be witness to their rapid decline, and who knows where that will end. Attending student funerals or learning of student imprisonments are no fun for anyone but the most vindictive. If you get any sort of satisfaction from events such as these, you should not be teaching. You are not the solution in any way, shape or form. You are a big part of the problem.

Can teachers be major contributors to students decline into major depression and self-harming behaviours? Absolutely. In many cases, teachers’ reactions can accelerate the deterioration. There are way too many of us that are willing to go toe-to-toe with at-risk students on an almost daily basis. There are too many of us that rue the day when corporal punishment in schools was outlawed. There are still far too many of us that seek to bend the little ‘bastards’ to our will.

I’m sorry folks – this is not what teaching is about. If you are into student control, please find another job while you still can. Don’t leave it too late, or you might find you are trapped in a profession to which you are a total mismatch. The stress of this incongruence will finally get to you and you will start counting the days till your retirement. Till you are freed, you will contribute to many, many lost lives, many ruined futures, many disastrous relationships. You will be a major contributor to the perpetuation of the cycle of dysfunction, aggression and failure. Yet, you will be so blinded by your own pumped up opinion of yourself, you will not see that you are equally as dysfunctional as the students you ridicule.

Enough of teacher ineptitude for now. (I am so wound up by this brief discussion, though, that you can expect more on this topic in a later post).

First understand. Forget imagining the worst possible scenario from our own direct experience. For the vast majority of teachers, this will not even come close to the worlds in which our severely dysfunctional students exist.

If you can’t learn directly of each student’s real existence, at least read my words without the blinkers of a middle class upbringing blinding you to the absolute horror that confronts some of our students every day of their young lives.

Evan’s Story

You will most probably find this hard to believe. The horror in which this young man lived every day is beyond most people’s understanding.

Evan’s behaviour , when I first met him, was totally out of control. He was argumentative, oppositional, aggressive and often violent. He either faced his problems aggressively or ran away. He was hated by all his fellow students and a cause of extreme frustration and often fear to his teachers. Add to these ills his illiteracy and a nearly complete lack of the skills needed to attempt learning at high school level. Evan was what many teachers call a ‘feral’.

Evan was pointed out to me in a rather unique (at that time) manner. “Here comes Evan,” my colleague and friend on the Student Special Support Team told me. Although he was not yet in sight, I had no doubt which direction from which he was approaching. I could smell him long before I could see him.

He was a pitiful sight. He looked like one of those old wild west movie bad guys who hadn’t washed or changed his clothes in months. The shirt he wore was falling off him, the seams rotten. What passed for shoes were patched with packing tape; his bare toes poked through, the socks rotting off his feet. He looked skeletal, his eyes sunken and dull. His skin was putrid as were his clothes. He walked with a pronounced stoop, his whole body depressed. He looked starved, anorexic.

He was hard to miss. Other students moved as far out of their way as possible to avoid contact with him.

In class, he sat alone, as far away from other students as he could and tried to remain inconspicuous – a hard ask. Any response from Evan was met by jeers and abuse from his fellow students. This often deteriorated to the stage where a barrage of missiles were launched in his direction with growing venom.

When he could take no more he became extremely violent. He used whatever weapon he could lay his hands on, once attacking another student with a hockey stick and beating him severely before a teacher could intervene.

Teachers didn’t know what to do with him or for him. Most simply gave up and called in the big guns. Generally that was me.

I was first called in to a class in a science lab. When I arrived there was an incredible din coming from the room. The students were screaming at the top of their lungs and hurling poisonous barbs at someone. The teacher seemed powerless to do anything of use. A barrage of objects were hurled toward the front of the room, many of them objects that could inflict serious injury or damage.

Evan was curled in foetal position underneath the front bench, swallowing pins, thumbtacks and anything else that would inflict self-harm. He was whimpering like a fatally injured dog who’d been hit by a truck.

Somehow, I restored some sort of order and then removed Evan from the battlefield. He was a shivering mess and fought me every step of the way.

My first step, was to calm the poor boy down. As I was attempting what seemed on that day the impossible, I learned that he was severely depressed. I know it wouldn’t have taken a brain surgeon to figure that one out. He told me he wanted to die.

My second step was to start to learn what caused this boy’s depression, and why he was so obviously neglected. On my journey to enlightenment, I found Evan suffered from much more than neglect.

Evan was born to a mother in her early teens who was scared, confused and totally unsupported. She had no idea how to be a mother, how to feed her young family (Evan was the second child – the first, a brother two years his senior).

She was desperate. One more mouth to feed, endangered both his mother and brother. Not knowing about support networks and having nowhere she thought she could turn, she fought to survive.

Like any mother, her first thought was to sacrifice …

She left the baby Evan in a spot where a speedy disappearance should have been assured. Living in the Northern Territory (of Australia) town of Darwin,  prehistoric salt water crocodiles abounded. She chose a brackish billabong, far away from all human habitation. There she left Evan, wrapped securely in his baby blanket – a sacrifice for her little family. She prayed it would be a quick end for her little man.

Trying to cover her tracks, she returned to the nearest neighbourhood supermarket, found a police station, and reported her son kidnapped. She told police she had left Evan in his pram outside the supermarket for only for a moment. When she returned the pram was gone and so was her baby.

Maybe her tears were real. She knew what she had done and regretted it. In her own warped way she loved her new born. She just didn’t have the means to support him without putting her other son or herself further at risk.

The police felt something was a bit off. Any professional develops a sixth-sense when things just don’t ring true. So, while they conducted proper investigations at the shopping mall, they also began a search of the neighbourhood.

Evan’s little body was found beside the billabong days later. Little hope was held for his survival in the harsh climate of Northern Australia.

The chance of an adult surviving in this situation for days was minimal. Salt-water crocs rarely miss such a golden opportunity to stock their larders.  Emergency services considered there was no chance of a new-born baby surviving even the first day.

Yet, when police approached the tiny body still wrapped securely, they expected a corpse. They were shocked to find a faint pulse. Evan had survived against all odds. There were fresh croc tracks all around the little body. Why they hadn’t toched him is  both a mystery and a miracle.

In their great wisdom, the government department set up to keep our children safe from domestic violence, abuse and neglect chose to take Evan from his young mother and return him to his father. Maybe now, Evan would have a decent chance.

No such luck. Evan’s father was an extremely violent man with a long history of domestic violence toward women and children. Anyone associated with him was the subject of continual abuse and extreme neglect. Even his sisters had barely survived childhoods where they were subject to vicious and unprovoked physical and psychological attacks. He had injured both so badly, they had spent many a day in hospital in critical care after escaping with their lives miraculously. His anger and his disregard for human life knew no bounds.

Why the authorities thought this would have changed is beyond me. They chose to believe that a man who had fathered children with a string of barely teenage girls who had all been abused by him was great father material.

So, Evan and his protective older brother had to survive further ordeals much worse than the extreme depravation they had already experienced with their teenage mother. Peter, the father, was happy to have the boys officially in his care. He could use the government hand out that came with the boys. He would enjoy the extra cash to feed his alcoholism and drug use.

The boys were a source of funds: they were NOT to be the subject of a single cent of spending on their behalf by their sperm donor father. He made it very clear on their arrival that they were not under any circumstances to touch anything outside their room. They would not be fed by Peter. They would not be clothed by Peter. They would not be cared for in any way by their ‘father’. He made it very clear that if either of the boys brought the authorities to his door, he would make them regret it.

Children grown up in mutual hardship that threatens their very survival on a daily basis are resilient creatures. They are supportive of one another to extremes. They do whatever it takes to survive and to see their siblings survive along with them. They know what true sacrifice is. They do it every day to protect brothers or sisters that are dearer than life itself.

Evan’s brother tested his father’s limits. He had the audacity to open the refrigerator in search of food to sustain his little brother. His father attacked him unmercifully, screaming his hate as he tore into the boy. He put him in hospital with multiple fractures. The brave young boy was wise beyond his years. He knew that any suspicion that his injuries were inflicted by a father addicted to violence would lead to his death at his father’s hand, and put his brother in further peril.

The child support agency visited the house after the older brother was allowed to return from hospital. The boys knew what was ‘good for them’ and refused to implicate their father.

When those charged with the boys’ protection left the property, Peter waited till there was no danger of them witnessing what was to follow, then set about making both boys sorry. He wore steel capped work boots. He’d never worked a day in his life, but he still wore steel capped work boots. The boys would soon find out why.

The broken ribs that Evan suffered, were not apparent to anyone outside the family home. Evan knew their lives now depended on his bearing the pain in silence and leaving no clue that he was suffering severely with every step he took.

His brother wasn’t nearly as lucky. When a pair of steel capped boots meet a young cranium with maximum force something has to give. Danny’s skull was caved in – the result of the boy’s carelessness as the emergency staff learned. Survival was doubtful. Brain damage was inevitable.

Danny survived but the part of his brain that was responsible for considering consequences before making considered decisions did not. Both boys would later look back on this severe head trauma as their eventual saviour.

The boys had learned valuable lessons. Had they learned enough to survive their father? They covered their troubles expertly as do most other children who are the constant victims of unprovoked domestic violence, severe neglect and abuse. They learned quickly to leave no evidence – nothing that would bring their family  situation into focus.

Ask yourself what you would have to do to survive with no food, no love, and no parental support. What would you be willing to do to survive? The boys somehow managed to survive, living totally on their own resources. They stayed out of trouble and managed to keep the authorities away from their home till I somehow got involved.

I visited the home address listed in the school records, trying to find out all I could about the home life of the students I was seeking to help. I knocked on the front door and waited … no response. I could hear people moving around inside. I knocked again and waited some more … no response. Still I heard movement inside.

It dawned on me that they were trying to avoid acknowledging I was at their door. I thought it strange at the time that they would continue to move around quite noisily inside while they were trying to hide from me. Maybe they thought I would just give up and go away.

I was persistent. I kept knocking and waiting. Finally I called out, “Hello. I know you’re in there. I can hear you clearly. Please open the door.”

I’m sure I imagined the huge sigh from inside. Footsteps coming closer prepared me for what I was sure now would be a confrontation. I prepared to defend myself physically if required.

The door opened to allow one eye to peer out at me. “Hello. I’m from Evan’s school. I just dropped by to say hello and meet his father.” I’d decided to hold the real reason for my visit in reserve, not knowing that it would be received in a positive light. I feared the consequences for a boy already doing it tough and not needing anyone to make it any tougher.

“Is Peter home?”

“Who?” the owner scrawny, unkept face asked.   “There’s no Peter here is there Darl?” She was looking nervously back into the dark recesses of the house.

“Peter Kruger. I’m looking for Peter Kruger, Evan’s father.”

“There’s no Peter here. Peter … Peter. Wasn’t that the name of the last person to live here?” she asked no-one in particular. “Yes, that’s it. He moved … into town I think.” She moved to close the door.

“It’s OK,” I said. Evan’s not in trouble. Just wanted to say hello is all.” Well it was worth a punt. What did I have to lose.

“Let him in.”

The door opened cautiously. A large, rough looking man peered at me from just inside the door.

Hiding my fear, I took a step inside and stuck out my hand. “Nice to meet you Peter. I’m Mr Mac, Evan’s teacher.” I left it at that, not wanting to dig the hole any deeper.

“Oh right. Evan’s teacher,” he laughed. Amazingly he opened up and told me he thought I was someone from DOCS (Dept of Community Services – child welfare), or someone trying to collect money that was owing. It turned out they were dodging the law on a number of fronts, from rent collectors, to child support payments. Why he told me all this I couldn’t figure out – still can’t.

I explained that I needed to contact them if there was an emergency at school that involved his boys. I asked and was given their phone number, but had to promise to give it to no-one else.

I left the family home knowing a great deal, but having asked none of the questions I had arrived with. I walked to my car as fast as I could without raising suspicion, wanting to put as much distance between me and these people who raised all my hackles. I realised how fortunate most teachers are to have had childhoods generally free of neglect and violence.

Evan and Danny needed lots of support. I realised though that it needed to be the type of support that never reached the ears of their ‘family’. We would have to treat any issue at school completely in house, breaking the usual parent-teacher contract.  What communication did go home would have to be totally positive. With a miracle, this would be received favourably. More likely, their father would ignore anything that came from the school, leaving the boys in relative safety.

This school had a large number of students who were struggling to survive day-to-day. We had established a Special Student Support Team comprised of me – the Behaviour Support Teacher, the School Nurse, the Guidance Officer, the School Chaplain, and Youth Workers from three separate community organisations that had part-time offices at our school.

We set ourselves up to offer special support for students living rough and doing it tough – the kids that struggled each day to survive their parents. For them school was a great place, even though, at times, they didn’t learn a great deal. At school they knew they were safe. It was their haven, their oasis.

Between us, we fed and clothed the boys. We gave them a number of safe places around the school where they could go for support or to escape aggressive students who were making their lives even more difficult. They dropped in at the start of each day to set daily goals and so we could start each day positively (or to provide a place to recover from what they had escaped that morning before gathering themselves mentally to give each lesson their best shot).

They still felt the need, though, to supplement what we provided  for them to eat. They were coming from a position of severe depravation. Like any species that struggles to find enough food to sustain them through difficult times, they sought to stockpile when they saw the opportunity. They stole, traded, and retrieved the discarded left overs of other students and staff.

Everything they could get their hands on was a resource to be traded for food. This practice earned them the scorn of other students, but it sustained them.

They were mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by other students. Evan was the main target. For any trying-to-be-tough guy, he seemed to be a gift target – someone who was so scrawny and unloved that he seemed like he couldn’t fight back. How wrong they were.

It soon became obvious that these boys packed a real sting. Push either of them into a corner and force them to defend and you unleashed a nightmare. Forced to fight, the boys thought only of survival. They saw each confrontation as a threat to their lives and defended accordingly.

One such confrontation involved a gang of ‘tough’ guys attacking Evan during a physical education lesson. He defended with whatever he could reach – a hockey stick. Luckily for them, they had no real loyalty to their ‘mates’. At the first sign that someone was going to suffer severely at Evan’s hands, they deserted the scene. Their legs ran even faster than their mouths.

What resulted from this fracas? Severe bruising and total shock for the boy who did most of the pushing around, accusations that Evan had attacked this quite large group murderously and totally unprovoked, demands that he be expelled from the school was the result. The physical education teacher had not seen it start and supported the gang’s account.

The incident was serious and demanded a full investigation and further action from the school. Luckily in the course of the investigation the truth came out. In the middle of all the madness, Evan missed his bus home.

Evan was justifiably terrified. He had every reason to believe that his father would kill him when the school contacted home. We knew he wasn’t exaggerating.

What do you do when you know in your heart that a little guy is going to die a horrible, violent death if you don’t get the next bit right? The Special Student Support Team hastily discussed the situation with the Principal. We thought our best course of action was to seek some sort of emergency care for Evan. Experience had taught us that his father didn’t care if his son’s came home or not. All he seemed to care about was that he could remain anonymous and hidden away from the authorities.

We put our plan to Evan. He told us he would have to go home eventually and then his life would be worthless. He pleaded with us to take him home and let him take his chances with his out of control, violent father.

Our hearts cried for the little man. We couldn’t let him face his father alone. So there we were, our female Guidance Officer and myself, riding shotgun for the little guy.

On the way, we made escape plans, organised escape routes and hiding places where if need be we could pick him up. We gave him one of our mobile phones and set speed dial to reach us quickly. If we were successful and got him inside unscathed he would go straight to his room, take the fly screen off the window so he would not be impeded if a quick escape was necessary, then lay low for the night. That meant not eating, but that was the normal order of events at Evan’s household anyway. He nominated two people who lived nearby to whom he could run.

Debbie, the Guidance Officer kept the car running with the doors open ready for a hasty retreat. Evan and I stood on the doorstep. I thought there was little chance that we would escape this one without major injury. I have to tell you I was shaking. I thought Evan and I were about to die. I looked down at Evan and thought if it had to be, this little man was a fitting companion to go out with.

I knocked and waited. We got the same run around I had received at my earlier visit – they ignored the knock, I suppose hoping we would go away and not bother them further.

“Hi Peter, It’s only me Lindsay. can I talk to you?”

Somehow I managed to put the right spin on the incident, and Peter accepted that Evan was not at fault and had not brought the authorities to his door. Evan scampered away to his room, and I stayed for a ‘quick chat’ all the while my heart racing.

Deb and I both spent a sleepless night waiting for Evan’s emergency call. It never came. We both prayed that was not because he was not able to make the call.

Evan arrived at school the next day as usual – starving, unkept, in need of a bath and a friend.  We breathed again.

Later that term, Danny somehow came by a small stash of marijuana. He immediately saw the resale opportunity and had visions of filling their bellies for more than a single day. His luck held for most of the day. With five minutes left in the long lunch break, the teacher on playground duty noticed something suspicious going down and nabbed Danny in the act.

The school was required to report drug use to the police. So, the boys in blue paid a visit and took Danny away to the lock up. We later found that he had been convicted and sentenced to twelve months in the local youth detention facility. We heard not a word from Danny’s father. Plainly he didn’t care as long as they didn’t come knocking on his door, and as long as he continued to receive the youth allowance for his son.

Evan had witnessed the deal at a distance and was called as a witness. He was blameless. He said to me, “Mr Mac. You know how I made you take me home last time? It’s not going to work this time. I’m dead if I go home.”

After another hasty meeting with the principal, we rang the child protection agency to seek emergency care. Their response was, “How old is this child?”

I told them he was thirteen but that I didn’t see why his age mattered. Their response took my breath away. “If he was a baby or maybe under five, we could do something to help. We’re sorry.”

“We have no doubt that this boy will be murdered by his father tonight, and now you’re telling me you won’t help us.” They apologised again and hung up.

We had half an hour to find a solution that would keep Evan alive long term. We were speechless. We were desperate. We didn’t know where to turn.

One of the team suggested we contact the Senior Constable that operated the “Farm” – a working farm that retrained young offenders fresh out of youth detention. This wonderful man helped these boys stay out of jail. He provided ongoing support to keep them on the straight and narrow. He loved his job and his boys loved him.

When we rang him, we were looking for ideas. “Bring him to me,” he said. We told him we thought he would be taking too big a risk. We didn’t want him to lose his job over this. He had no hesitation. “I’ll take the risk. Bring him to me, please.”

We did. We heard not a peep from his father.

Three months later, I was mowing the nature strip in front of my house. “Hey, Mr Mac,” a voice from behind me called. I turned to see who was talking.

I didn’t recognise the young lad. He was a smiling, well dressed, well cared for young boy. “Mr Mac, it’s me, Evan.” It was hard to believe. The boy in front of me and the Evan I knew were polar opposites.

Evan had been living with his father’s sister. She had been physically abused by her brother too. She had kept Evan safe. He was loved. He was happy. He was living the life he’d never thought possible.

Evan was a survivor. Like so many other severely abused and neglected children, he had great strength, and only needed one chance.

My heart sang. I stood listening to him, tears streaming down my face. I was a happy chappy.

To his teachers, Evan was ‘feral’. He was uncooperative, non-communicative  and sometimes violent. He was the cause of great unrest in the class.  He sat and took no part in the lesson.

After his escape from his father, Evan became a model student.

A student in survival mode or one who feels worthless will not ever be your model student.  They will be your worst nightmare. This does not mean they are evil.

When you are next confronted by students like this, consider what lies below the surface. Give them a chance. It may well be the one that makes the difference.

How Bad Can It Be (for troubled Youth Today)?

I said in my  first blog post, that we must first seek to understand the troubled child’s world before we can hope to help them. However, initially all many of us can focus upon is restoring peace to our classrooms. Maintaining a positive learning environment is uppermost in our minds. Helping the cause of the unrest then is a secondary aim.

When we are under attack in our classroom, we are in emergency mode. When all hell is breaking loose in our room all we want to be able to do is simply teach again.

The troubled youth presents as an aggressive, potentially violent student who is totally focused on destroying the learning moment. He/she seems to want to prevent everyone else from learning and to punish everyone else in the room.

Naturally, we have the good of the rest of the class in mind. The good of the class outweighs the good of the individual.

If we can get ahead of the game, we can prevent these little emergencies happening in the first place and we can begin to truly focus on the welfare of ALL our students.. To do this, we need to establish better relationships with the troubled youths in the classroom. We must firstly understand them. Once we have done that, we can compensate for what is missing. We can help them feel like worthwhile human beings, and when they do, they will be much more likely to be productive, positive, and cooperative students.

So, how bad can it really be for them? Well, I’ll tell you, much of what I’ve seen would make the most dramatic TV program look like a fairy story. They say truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, truth is way more terrifying than fiction.

To give you a better idea, in this blog post,  I will provide the first of a number of examples. I have changed the name of the youth in question for her ongoing privacy:

Kelly, born in Melbourne Victoria, to drug addicted parents, never had a hope of a normal life with loving parents. After the mandatory time in hospital recovering from the birth, her mother and father brought her home.

Once there, they thought it would be fun to inject her with heroin. They thought it to be a laugh to see their weeks’ old daughter spaced out on drugs. They were too drug addled themselves to even consider that it might kill her. They were so spaced out themselves they didn’t care.

Kelly survived somehow. Perhaps it was the fact that for the nine months of her mother’s pregnancy, she shared blood with a high concentration of heroin almost daily. Perhaps she had built up an immunity even as a newborn baby.

As a toddler, Kelly had to endure her parents next idea of what constituted a great joke. Not only did they sexually and physically abuse their daughter themselves, they took bookings from their friends to do the same. That’s right, they kept a diary for bookings. Their friends would book up Kelly’s time so they could come and sexually molest her as a toddler.

How she survived is a miracle. This sick joke will have lifelong effects on the girl. She carries permanent and irreversible internal injuries that will prevent her having her own children.

Eventually, the government department entrusted with the well-being of at-risk children in our community discovered enough to suggest that she might not be safe with her own parents.

They put her out to foster care. By that time, Kelly was so badly damaged mentally and physically, that she felt totally worthless. She felt as if she was to blame for her parents abuse of her – they had told her so often enough.

Add to this, are now growing distrust of every adult that she came into contact with. How could you blame her? Every adult apart from the hospital staff, that she had contact with in the first years of her life had used, abused her and caused her severe pain. She knew anyone who wanted to give her something would want to take something in return.

Her foster parents didn’t stand a chance. Kelly didn’t stand a chance of ever finding the support or love that a family could provide.

Kelly was placed with a number of foster families. Each of them gave up in turn, after their efforts were spurned by the poor young girl. Kelly’s existence in foster care turned into a modern parallel of Cinderella working for her wicked stepmother and her three ugly sisters. She felt like a slave, was treated like a slave and felt there was nowhere left to turn.

When she saw no hope, she attempted to take her own life. On each occasion, her attempts were thwarted by well-meaning people who simply prolonged her agony.

At school she was the bad girl everyone avoided. She was withdrawn and if pushed aggressive and often extremely violent. As she was always in trouble, she learnt nothing.

Within weeks or months of arriving at a new school, the punishment cycle had taken her to thefinal step – expulsion.  Within a very short time, she had attended and been expelled from a large number of schools in suburban Melbourne.

She had not learnt to read or write. She had not learned and people skills or anything that would help her live a decent life. She learned nothing other than how to survive when it was her against the world.

She was unwanted, unloved, unsupported, and in her mind totally worthless. Other students, teachers, and anyone who might normally seek to help her, were in her eyes, the enemy. When threatened, she would strike out viciously. She had learned from bitter experience that if she was going to act she needed to do it fast and make it count. She got in before the other party had a chance to consider their actions.

In her mind, there was nothing that anyone could do to make her sorry, to make her care or to make her hurt any more than she already had. From a school perspective, that meant that none of the traditional behaviour modification techniques had a ghost’s chance of working with her. To the school system, she was a bad egg. She was irretrievable. There was nothing more that any school could do for her, except move her on to somewhere else. Let her be someone else’s problem.

At a new school in North Queensland, she struck trouble in her first week. Identified as a bad girl, capable of assuming leadership of a very nasty gang of girls, she was targeted for a put down. The gang met her at the local supermarket with her auntie, doing the early morning shopping before school. Surrounding them both, they confronted her threateningly. Kelly took the action she deemed necessary to protect her auntie. With one punch she knocked the leader of the girls’ gang unconscious. The rest backed off.

She didn’t want to be the leader of anything. She wanted to be allowed to mind her own business. She simply wanted peace. The gang gave it to her from that point on, everyone avoided her. Even the school’s toughest boys, seeing her coming, would quickly shift to the other side of the quadrangle to avoid her. She radiated menace. Only the most stupid or foolhardy could possibly ignore it.

Despite absolutely everything working against her, at this school she found what she most desperately needed – someone to believe in her. With unconditional support, she bloomed. With help, she learnt to read and write. Never having passed a single subject at school before that time, in year 10, she was overjoyed to find that she had passed absolutely everything and even achieved credits in some subjects.

She made friends. This was an experience she never dreamt possible. She was finally living. The school grew to respect her tenacity, her strength, and her loyalty. Her courage knew no bounds. She became famous amongst her school peers for her bravery and her never give up attitude.

You wouldn’t believe that a girl, who had gone through so much absolutely demeaning treatment, would be able to forgive her tormentors. Yet, when she learned that her mother was dying of terminal brain cancer, she returned to Melbourne to sit with her mother on her deathbed, hold her hand, tell her that she had given her and that she loved her.

With one term left of Year 10, her father collected her from North Queensland, taking her back to live with him in Melbourne. Those who had given her support in North Queensland were terrified that she would not survive in her father’s care.

It is testimony to her enormous heart, that she did. In later years she returned to North Queensland to accept a  position with a popular radio station as their advertising manager. She continues, to this day, to be a glowing example for us all.

How bad could it be for our troubled youth? Would you have believed Kelly’s story possible before reading it today? Is this sort of treatment of a baby and toddler within your experience?

If you are the typical teacher, it is highly doubtful that you would believe this possible. It is highly doubtful that you would consider this a possible motivation for bad behaviour in class. It is nearly impossible to even contemplate that the typical teacher, without Kelly’s life experiences, would even consider a child Kelly anything but evil.

Like Kelly’s foster parents, many of us would have given up on her. After our attempts at support had been initially spurned, we would have turned to the punishment cycle. We would have seen this reach its culmination in her expulsion from our school. We would have wiped their hands and hoped for better luck next time round.

Kelly’s tale isn’t so unusual. While we might think that this is a fanciful tale, it is nothing of the sort. Not only that, it is much, much, much more common in our schools today than any of us could believe.

No wonder then, our most troubled students are want to say “You can’t hurt me. I don’t care what you do to me.” No wonder the behaviour modification systems that are aimed at good children gone temporarily off the rails, have no positive effect on these troubled students.

If we let the situation fester, its poison may destroy our whole class. Everyone suffers when just one student feels totally worthless.

Despite appearances suggesting that these students do not care what happens to them, they do. They do indeed. They are waiting, holding on by their fingernails till someone shows they care.

For now, I encourage all teachers who care about the welfare of their students – all of their students – to live by the well-known quotation: they won’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care. When you are under pressure from a student who is turning your class upside down, pause for a moment to consider his/her backstory. Perhaps, like Kelly, they are lucky to have survived this far. Perhaps they are screaming out for someone to say, “You’re a worthwhile human being. I care.” Seek to understand where they’re coming from. Seek to make a positive difference in their often terrifying lives.

If you’re giving it a go and you need a co-conspirator to share your concerns with, I’m only an email away.

Thank you for your time. I hope this has been thought-provoking. Next post, how bad can it be continues. If you found this blog useful, please pass me on to your friends and colleagues.


Till then, hugs to you all,

 Lindsay (the Hugs Man)


PS Please share your thoughts with me. I would love to hear your opinions, your ideas, and your experiences. If you have a link that would be useful to our readers, please send it in.

With Troubled Youth: Seek First to Understand

We have no idea. As teachers, very few of us have any real understanding of the world in which our ‘worst’ students live. We know little of what motivates them, what they care about. We don’t know what they want from life. We don’t know the things that terrified them. We know not what they value.

We judge them based on what we ourselves value, what we have experienced, and how we were brought up. So, when they show behaviour that is aggressive, obstinate, uncaring, we label them as bad kids. We think of them as little criminals who are doing nasty things to other people to get their kicks. We are fools.

Educational behaviour modification gurus give us ‘fool proof’ ways of dealing with students who are uncooperative. Like me, have you ever wondered why ‘fool proof’ never seems to work with the ‘worst’ kids. When you hear, “Go on then, give me a detention, suspend me, expel me from your stupid school. I don’t care. You can’t hurt me. You can’t make me care!”, from them, does it make you wonder why it’s just not working for you or for them?

I’m sure most of us who really care about the welfare of our students, think it’s something we’ve done that makes the ‘fool proof’ methods fail. We haven’t applied them perfectly. We’ve been too soft, too hard too …

It’s not!

What is it then? Well for starters, those great educationalists have set up systems that would work for children just like they were – middle class, pro-community, supportive of education, working for a living, caring about our fellow citizens type of people.

We assume these children even care. We assume their ‘parents’ care. In most cases, where the supposedly fool proof behaviour modification techniques fail, it’s because the children simply don’t care. It might float our boat, but they won’t even notice the boat going down with all hands.

Does that mean these kids are all fine and dandy? No, it does not. They are screaming for our help, but we just can’t hear them. Our middle class filter blocks our ears.

Instead of helping, we punish. When that doesn’t seem to work, we increase the punishment and increase it some more. Eventually we say they are no longer our problem, because we have just thrown them out of our school. Let someone else deal with the little animals.

Shame on us! These sad little people are hurting more than we can imagine, so we punish them for it, till they are no longer our problem. We get rid of them so we don’t have to worry about them any more. They are an inconvenience to us, just like they are to many of their parents. They make teaching our classes difficult. We are happy, in turn, to make life more difficult for them, even though these ‘evil’ children won’t admit to us that it does.

They could have been saved. Often, it takes just one teacher who is willing to look below the surface, to seek first to understand them before passing judgement, before sentencing them to further pain. They can become productive, highly cooperative students if we take the time to understand.

I, like so many of my colleagues, thought in the way I’ve described above. I thought, “I’m going out of my way to help you, you little cretin, and all you’re giving me back is grief. I don’t deserve this.” I was no different to other teachers when I chose to use punishment when my well intentioned offers of support were returned with continued aggression.

Who can blame teachers for reacting like this? No-one really does. Most people in the community say, “I don’t know how you do it. Dealing with those horrible teenagers must drive you insane.” For many teachers it does, but really there is no need for it to be so.

I am, by no means, a behaviour modification expert myself. What I am is a person that has been forced to experience some of the realities of my oppositional students. I am a teacher whose eyes have been prised partially open.

When I started to see what some of these poor children went through on  a daily basis, I was shocked and terrified. What I saw shook me violently. It shattered my illusions of human nature. It made me see that no matter what a terrible childhood I thought I had, it was nothing by comparison.

Of course, when I could see without the filter of my own upbringing, I realised that every child is different. We can’t lump all at-risk students in the same basket, just as we can’t consider all students to be those who live in families where parents care deeply for them, value and support education, and want to advance themselves in the world. One size does not fit all. One size, when dealing with your students, fits one student only.

Looking back now, maybe I should feel ashamed that I didn’t care enough to find out enough about all my students to really help them. Maybe I should feel guilty for simply going through the motions of teaching.

I don’t. Firstly, beating yourself up is not at all productive. Secondly, I had no idea and no way of knowing that there were worlds in which my students lived and in which they tried valiantly to survive day to day, that were beyond my understanding. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

If I knew about the alternate realities of my very troubled students, and I chose to continue as normal, then I would have had reason to chastise myself. I didn’t, and I’m betting that you don’t either.

What I chose to do, once my eyes were no longer wired shut, was to seek to open them further. I remind myself that if a student is acting in a way that is destructive (usually self-destructive) in class there is a very good reason that goes way beyond him/her being an evil child.

I seek first to understand.

You might recognise this as one of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Mr Covey is one of the wise people whose writings on personal and business effectiveness have been very helpful to me in the classroom.

I know what he wrote wasn’t intended for an educational setting. So often, though, we chance upon something in a totally unrelated setting that sparks an idea that can revolutionise the way we respond to challenges. I recommend you read this book, but put your teacher’s specs on before you open the front cover. Ask yourself, “Where else could this help me?”

Thank you Mr Covey, and special thanks to all those troubled students who helped me to finally see. They taught me so many things that they never even mentioned at Teacher’s College. You changed my life.

This is my very first (ever) blog post. I hope someone finds it useful. I have to tell you, I’m totally at sea with blog construction and operation, so I hope you will forgive me when I seem new to all this. I am, but then I was new to helping severely traumatised youth too. Please help me out with suggestions of any sort.

I would be very grateful if anyone reading this would be willing to share their own stories about misunderstood youth, about the real world’s they inhabit, or about their own awakenings.

If you, like me, care about people who are struggling with life, please send me links to your own writings, blogs, websites etc. If you find my blog useful or thought provoking, please share it with your friends and colleagues.

Till next time,

Lindsay (The Hugsman)

Write about the most precious thing you’ve ever lost.


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