Behaviour and the brain...
I have written about Jake a few times, particularly referring to the arguments or conflicts he gets into with others as well as his reluctance to try things due to a severe lack of self-esteem (See Self Esteem... Mind the Gap). What struck me most about today's session with the PRU was the variety of negative ways Jake interacted with the group, so I thought I'd write about him again this time to try to better understand his behaviour.
A lot of Jake's interactions with others are negative. He's very quick to put others down, finding opportunities to do so in almost creatively silly ways. For example, he told me today I was being rude and had no manners because I was drinking my hot chocolate while standing up... Silly me for forgetting this apparently well known rule of etiquette!
Jake particularly seemed desperate to get Joshua to play with him today, but then would proceed to insult and tease him. At various different times throughout the session he swore at Joshua, gave him the middle finger and called him names.
Finally Joshua had enough and began avoiding Jake.. I would have too! I had noticed Jake treating Isabelle in similar ways at the session last week, but perhaps because she was busy doing other things today he found someone else to target.
At one point, all four of the children ran off together, initially playing a tag-like game. But it soon evolved into a game they called 'Walking Dead' in which they were hiding from, fighting and killing off zombies. They referred to Jake as 'The Boss' and were to report any zombie sightings or incidents back to him.
I found it interesting that Jake had been accepted as the leader, but after observing for a short while, I realised that his 'leadership' was merely a title, as his 'team' proceeded to dissolve after he dished out his usual abuse. They all ran off back to camp and he then followed suit.
It is probably very apparent to you that Jake's behaviour follows the pattern of a bully. And we are told that one of the reasons people bully others is due to their own low self-esteem and the belief that if they put others down, it will make them feel better. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that these outwardly confident people actually feel very insecure, but what happened next confirmed this is exactly the case for Jake.
When the session finished, we all gathered bits of kit to carry out of the wood as usual. Jake wanted to pull the trolley, which has the heaviest load on it. He made fun of Joshua for something along the lines of “being weak” and “not carrying as much as he was”. Jake then began to pull the trolley through an area of deep mud instead going the more sensible route over the path.
This was frustrating for all of us because it meant the trolley could get stuck and it was delaying us all getting out of the wood. In the frustration, someone made the following comment: “Jake, that's just silly” - a harmless comment really, only meant to highlight that he was not only making things difficult for himself, but for the rest of us too. However, this little comment set Jake off, and he dropped the trolley handle and stomped off (in the opposite direction from where we all needed to go!).
One of the school staff members remained behind and eventually encouraged Jake out of the wood to the car park to head back to school, but he continued to sulk and wouldn’t speak to any of us as the group packed up to go.
Now, for someone who can so easily dish out an insult to anyone and everyone, it seems contradictory that Jake could not emotionally cope with just the slightest amount of criticism. However, I think it highlights that sadly, Jake's emotional and social intelligence is highly underdeveloped.
Margot Sunderland (2006) states,
“There are three key areas of social intelligence: the art of relating; the capacity to negotiate, resolve, and be a great team-player; the capacity for compassion and concern” (pg. 219).
The art of relating involves reading body language and social cues. Being a team player means being able to compromise by recognising other's needs as well as your own. Compassion comes from feeling emotions yourself and having the ability to recognise them in others and offer comfort. Just from my quick description, you can probably tell that these are areas with which Jake struggles.
So what causes underdevelopment in social intelligence? Well, one factor is the relationships (or lack of) we have throughout our childhood and the effect this has on the brain as it develops.
Sunderland (2006) states,
“Lack of love leads to low self-esteem and social confidence... Research shows reduced activation in the child's left frontal lobe (higher brain) as a result of an unresponsive parent. This part of the brain is associated with both positive feelings and social approach behaviour. The child with an emotionally unresponsive parent, and an under active left frontal lobe, is more likely to have negative feelings about himself and others” (pg. 189).
Now, I honestly do not know Jake's background and am not aware of what his home life and relationships are like. However, I do know that most of the children who come to the PRU have and continue to struggle with quite difficult situations, so it would not be out of order to assume this has also been the case for Jake.
I think it's important to recognise that we often judge people by how they behave towards us – if they smile, we think they're nice, if they frown, we think they're rude, if they swear at us and call us names, we think they're mean. But we often forget that each individual has a story, and it is that story which has actually shaped the neural connections within their brain, thus constructing their behaviour.
I think it is important for me to clarify here that this discussion is not meant to excuse the negative way Jake behaves and treats others and I do not condone it in any way.
However, knowing this information about relationships and brain development does make it easier for me to dig deep and find a bit more patience when an 8 year old like Jake looks me in the eyes and calls me a name...
Sunderland, M (2006) What Every Parent Needs to Know, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London.