George Lucas Educational Foundation

Shame: The unrecognized and untreated epidemic

Shame: The unrecognized and untreated epidemic

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Shame is the feeling we get when we believe we haven't, or don't live up to expectations of others, or our own, many of which ultimately came from others. Just think of all the expectations there are for kids. All those expectations mean plenty of opportunities to feel shame. Now imagine just how many times your special ed students have gotten the message from others, or their life experiences, that they don't live up to someone's expectations. Shame can be a primary or secondary disturbance. It can, and often is the primary feeling young people seek relief from by using and abusing alcohol and drugs, or even suicide. It's why kids shut down in school, and eventually drop out. Shame can play out as, or morph into anxiety and anger. It's understandable that kids would generate anxiety about their future behavior/performance when they've believed they've not lived up to peoples expectations so many times in the past. What people call low self-esteem is really shame about the past or present, and anxiety about the future because of that. But it can also play out or morph into anger. Anger gives all of us a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. Special ed students often feel powerless, like they're always hearing about what they do wrong, and often drowning in shame. Anger can be like a drug, or steroids for them. Unfortunately, teachers often react to anger rather than see it as a symptom of underlying feelings (shame, anxiety) and attitudes about themselves and life that need to be addressed. I use the metaphor of turtles and rattlesnakes. Kids struggling with shame will be one or the other. They'll suck into their shells when we approach them, or coil and rattle, and even strike if we poke them with a stick. We do that a lot w/o realizing it. But keep in mind that what rattlesnakes do is all defensive. Shame can also be a secondary disturbance. That means it makes kids (or anyone) want to keep what they think and feel a secret for fear of looking bad if others found out. It also makes them less likely to seek or accept help that is available for the same reason. When kids take their own lives, people often comment "I didn't even know anything was wrong" for that reason. Keeping secrets hurts them. They play irrational and often unfounded opinions about themselves and their lives like a broken record in their heads and those simple opinions start to feel like facts to them. Try working with a kid who reacts with "I'm stupid. I can't do this stuff". A side note. The last thing any kid needs is an adult telling them "You should be ashamed of yourself". They do that enough to themselves already. Last thing they need is adults piling on and adding to it. Besides, it reflects an inability on the part of adults to handle things they don't like. It's unprofessional for teachers to do it. If you don't like what kids do, say "I don't like what you're doing and I want you to stop. And if you don't, I'm going to...." and then do it. Don't ever say "You should be ashamed of yourself". You never know, it might one day be the last "nail" in some kid's "coffin". Truly effective emotional management is considered the most important and number one life skill. Literacy and academic skills are way down the list. Too often we keep trying to accommodate and reteach special ed students without much luck. It's because we not helping them deal with the real underlying problem or deficiency. Kids (and adults) have to be able to get in the right cognitive and emotional place to perform at levels they are capable of. And too many kids can't get there because we've never taught them to manage what goes on inside their heads better, and too many of them have more than they know what to do with. That's understandable given their life experiences so far. In the case of special ed students, too much shame and anxiety because of it. And perhaps too much anger in an effort to protect themselves. But their history does not have to be their destiny. That's why I came up with a "Mental and Emotional Tool Kit" approach for teachers and kids. I was a health education teacher all my career. I got certified in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) to help my kids better manage what goes on inside themselves because I knew doing so was the key to eliminating unhealthy, self-defeating behavior that wasn't responding to the usual advice and information. BTW, I ended up helping myself more than them by teaching the "tools" to them. I invite you to read about the "tools", why they're important, and how to teach them at: One of the most important for special ed kids is USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance, to address the shame. Shame blocks change in anyone, and especially in special ed kids. All the other tools play an important role in helping people think more rationally, to generate a more functional amount of emotion, and ultimately behave in ways that make their lives better instead of worse. The beauty is that it wouldn't cost you or your school anything to start teaching the "tools" to teachers and students, or even parents. Let me know if I can help in any way. I always start with the premise that all kids (and adults) who are struggling want their lives to be better, even if they say "I don't care". They just do that to protect themselves, especially if we're saying "Don't you care?". They just don't know how to make that happen. And it's been the same for them so long that they may have given up hope. That's where we come in. But too often what we do is like standing on the edge of a forest and yelling directions to a kid who's lost in the middle of it. It doesn't work well. We need to go where they're at, see what it's like to be where they are. The "tools" help you do that. And then give them the "tools" we have to help them find their own way out.

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Traci's picture
Educational Coach at Northwest College Support

I just stumbled across this post, and all I can say is SO TRUE! I see this everyday with the AS and ED young adults I work with. These individuals are so brilliant, but have executive functioning struggles. When they struggle/ fail (which is a day-to-day occurrence) they feel such a deep sense of shame. They feel they have let their parents and educators down, but more importantly they feel they have let their own selves down. I believe students in our special education systems are living with a constant sense of shame and anxiety that is difficult for "neuro-typical" individuals to understand. The rest of us see this shame expressed as anxiety, agitation, and defiance. This is why it is EXTREMELY important for special educators to form strong personal relationships and good report with students so they can gain an understanding of which behaviors are a result of shame and subsequent anxiety. These relationships will also in turn help students to not be so anxious and ashamed.

Jane Brooks's picture

The shame and shunning our kids endure would disable any normal person put in segregation and subjected to the distractions and discrimination. There are no text book access allowed for special education students in Cody High School in history or science or healh. They would have to spend money.

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