Horace begins elementary school and enters Grade 1. He is an intelligent, curious and active boy in a class of 28 children of both sexes. The teacher Miss Stump struggles to control the class and deliver the required lessons and often feels that she is on the verge of losing control. Horace often finds what is going on in the class in terms of other students and their behaviour to be more interesting than what is being taught. Moreover, what is being taught does not seem to be in any way relevant or useful to him in his present situation and is therefore not viewed as being worthy of his attention or effort. As a result, a power struggle ensues in which the teacher’s desire to teach the lesson and have the student respond appropriately through compliance to her wishes begins. The combination of Horace’s natural inclination to test limits and the teacher’s feeling of being overwhelmed combine to form a toxic situation in which both feel undervalued by the other. As Miss Stump teaches a range of subjects, Horace’s response becomes generalized to all of them, and a process of disassociation or disinvestment begins. Horace begins to seek the attention given to him by other class members when he comes into conflict with his teacher. Other male class members urge him on as being representative of their attitudes towards their teacher and what is being taught. Horace emerges as a countercultural leader.
Entering Grade 2 Horace is already feeling that the school environment is invalidating and having paid little attention to his lessons finds himself in Mrs. Grundy’s class. By this time, Miss Stump has already filled in Mrs. Grundy about the problematic uninterested child she is to receive. The die is cast. Horace continues forward in school putting in minimal effort interspersed by brief but unsatisfying periods of effort that do not result in any perceptible improvements in his marks. Increasingly, Horace starts to develop acute insecurities around school and especially in mathematics. The math he concludes is useless anyway. However, avoiding work is a different matter than not being able to do it. Gradually, that insecurity increases to polarize his feelings between it being a useless subject and evidence of his stupidity. This internal conflict continues throughout high school where special provisions and programs are put into place to facilitate his move forward. But with each concession and lowering of expectations, the victory of avoiding challenges is coupled with a sense of inadequacy that needs to be addressed by peers and online videos feeding into a fantasy future life of success doing only those things that are easy and pleasurable.
As the end of high school looms forward, Horace becomes increasingly concerned about how he views himself and how others view him. He begins to deliberately fail subjects with marks that are so low or through actions that send the message clearly that this is a deliberate statement. Horace can’t be fired/failed. Horace resigns/quits. This effort to make a statement, stop the train and delay his graduation results in increased anxiety and depression resulting in anger and frustration and an overwhelming sense of being a victim. Now viewing himself as a victim, his sense of powerlessness and frustration increase together with anger directed at those close to him. His world contracts as he finds himself increasingly alone failing not only in the academic realm but also in terms of relationships and life in general. Horace begins to think of substances to make him feel better and then self-harm. Suicidal ideation occurs and then his first attempt to kill himself through a parasuicidal attempt takes place. He is admitted to the hospital and referred to therapy.
It is clear that this account, though fictitious, describes a continuum in which there is a systemic development of problems that end up being subject to a therapeutic approach only at the point of outright crisis. It is equally true that if this crisis is amenable to a therapeutic solution, it is equally amenable to therapeutic intervention at any point along the chain leading up to it. Moreover, as in so many preventative strategies, the earlier a problem is addressed the easier it is to solve, and the less collateral damage is allowed to take place.
So back to Horace, the beginning of his tale involves the lack of validation within his school environment leading to an entry into a spectrum of emotional and cognitive dysregulation that defines his academic performance. However, this argument could be said to be equally true of any and all other students who are not responding to an academic environment in a fully positive manner that is reflective of their abilities if they were to be invested in their outcome and not encumbered by self-invalidation. Whereas many students may not be in crisis, the same factors leading to the crisis are present in lesser and less toxic forms reflected in varying levels of academic success.
In an unpublished paper written around 1902, The noted English Philosopher and Mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote the following “The division of the mind between intellect and emotions, however convenient, is no doubt largely fictitious. Men understand best what most interests them, and their interests are derived from their emotions.” Later when Russell was to write on the topic of education and eventually establish his experimental school, he regarded the cultivation of emotions as being an essential scaffolding for intellectual growth that should be addressed most effectively in early childhood years. The belief that this was the most efficacious approach did not however preclude the applicability of the approach to the intellect through the emotions in later years.
In the same manner in which a physical object requires duration in time in addition to the three dimensions that it occupies, the combination of intellect and emotions assumes behaviour. Behaviour in this regard can be viewed as having two polarities in as much as it encompasses both action and inaction. In short, not acting upon something qualifies as a behaviour equally to acting upon it where both can be ultimately assessed relative to the intent and realization of intent within a context.
Given that emotions can be regarded as the engines of intellect, it is perhaps fitting that when the train becomes derailed, it is to the emotions rather than the intellect alone to which should look for explanations and equally to the emotions that we should look for corrective measures. Intellectual dysfunctions are generally not a result of a lack of intellectual ability but rather an emotional substratum that interferes with the ability of the intellect to function properly. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, it is better to speak in terms of feeling/thinking and thinking/feeling as inseparable expressions distinguished only by relative proportion or balance. Clearly, feelings can inhibit the ability to think just as thinking can inhibit the ability to feel. An optimal balance is not predetermined in absentia but rather is dependent upon the specific demands of specific instances within a specific environment.
This argument has profound implications with regards to schools and the practice of institutional education insofar as academic performance is invariably assumed to be associated with an intellectual capability. The inference is that people who do well at school are smart and that smart people are intelligent. As such performance is inextricably associated with the assumption of a fixed intellectual capacity. Such an association does not therefore adequately take into account other factors such as emotional investment or the interplay between emotions and intellect that create a dynamic around performance. This dynamic is in fact central to an understanding of functionality but equally central to any understanding of dysfunctionality and could be described as forming a spectrum from high to low from one to the other.
What I am proposing therefore is that academic performance is directly related to emotional regulation and emotional investment with the intellect being driven and directed as opposed to establishing fixed limitations. As such, academic performance is more an index of adaptability to a specific environment than a measure of human potential or ability. Any dysfunction must therefore be related to the specific context within which that dysfunction is defined and then correspondingly analyzed in terms of what would be required in terms of behavioural modification necessary to address it. This would necessarily involve an approach in which all aspects of that behaviour were approached as a combination of the cognitive, emotional and behavioural factors forming the responsive dynamic. In short, a therapeutic approach involving Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or a combination thereof would provide the tools required to unravel maladaptive behaviours within that specific educational environment. Possible solutions, therefore, consist of (a) adjusting behaviours to a specific environment (b) adjusting the specific environment to presenting behaviours (c) a combination of both in varying degrees.
The behaviourist paradigm of restricting the study of human behaviour to observed actions describes behaviour purely in terms of what is observed rather than what is thought or felt. In so doing, it explains behaviour relative only to its consequences within a specific environment and measures behaviour as being accordingly being functional or dysfunctional. For example, Horace is seen to be fidgeting in his chair, not paying attention in class to his lesson and being confrontational with his teacher all of which combine to result in a failing grade. The interpretation of the behaviour is that the behaviour is driving the person not the person driving the behaviour. As such, Horace is doing poorly because he experiences difficulty concentrating. As a behaviour devoid of intent, this is then translated as an inability to concentrate. However, Horace does not like his teacher and sees no use in what is being taught and therefore his behaviour is directly related to his attitude, feelings, emotions, investment etc. and have nothing to do with an inability or issue around concentration other than the simple fact of not wanting to engage in it.
Much of what passes to be current psycho-educational assessment falls under the behaviourist model that seeks to classify behaviour only in terms of functionality rather than with any regard to those actions as manifestations of emotional/intellectual undercurrents. In the same manner as it would be simplistic to say that a person is suicidal because they want to kill themselves, a therapeutic approach views suicide as a means to an end rather than the actual objective. Seen as a perceived solution to a problem or set of problems, the understanding of the behaviour consists in the unpacking of the problems and then addressing possible solutions. In short, mistaking symptoms for the disease is unproductive.
Dealing with suicidal patients invariably ends up with a focus on emotional and cognitive dysregulation. Overwhelming emotions hamper cognitive functioning and like a tidal wave sweeping everything in front of them. The first step is to subdue emotions before clear thinking is possible. The next step is to engage in problem-solving within an emotionally supportive environment in which belief in self can replace despair. In this manner, the accumulated effect of numerous experiences and responses compiled over time leading to ever-increasing levels of complexity and intensity must be unravelled. When the disease is addressed, the symptoms will disappear.
The solutions to Horace’s problems do not involve focusing on symptoms but rather what those symptoms represent as indicators of the real causal factors at play. Central to this analysis is an understanding of the processes of invalidation and validation that have contributed to his behaviours and how self-invalidation has limited them.
So what therefore would a therapeutic approach within an educational context look like for Horace and what would be its components? I would suggest the following as components of such a program.
- an acknowledgement by Horace of his present state of unhappiness, its sources and a belief in the possibility of change
- a non-judgmental acknowledgement of the reality of Horace’s feelings and acceptance of his actions as justifiable responses to his experiences
- a work plan prioritizing objective in terms of reversing self-invalidation respective of self-regulation, interpersonal relationships and academic accomplishments
- programming intended and designed to specifically address each of these areas
- a structured environment with consistent expectations and impersonally applied rewards and consequences geared towards promoting cognitive and emotional regulation
- a removal from environmental factors and activities that can inhibit progress
- public and open acknowledgement of achievements together with transparent criteria for doing so
- an ongoing reminder of accomplishments to date and objectives to still realize within a coaching model
- specific goals in terms of not only objectives but also timings
- stress and focus upon the development of self-regulation, self-determination and personal responsibility for actions as a foundation for personal freedom and independence
This list is far from exhaustive but provides some general guidelines for consideration. It remains to stress that the education of the emotions is as important as the education of the intellect and until this fact is accepted and applied constructively, elementary and secondary schools will continue to only measure adaptability to specific environments rather than human potential.