Based on my own experience and observations I believe that there is a group of very seriously disadvantaged young people whose main problem has not been clearly identified so far and yet what they have may very well be the most serious educational disadvantage of all, one with extensive consequences for their whole lives.
The development of abstraction in the years of transition to adolescence has been studied by psychologists and others but there has been little attention paid to those for whom this development did not go well, to those who lack abstraction.
As this term can be interpreted in many different ways, I chose to define “abstraction” in a very specific way as the cognitive ability to perceive outside of immediate experience. The lack of such an ability translates into a form of cognitive blindness or at least short-sightedness, and I have given this condition the name “dystraxia”.
Dystraxia,as I define it, is neither an illness nor a neurological defect. It is a condition and, in the vast bulk of cases, probably arises from early childhood experiences or, to be more precise, the lack of certain early childhood experiences. However, I do not rule out that, in a small percentage of cases, dystraxic behaviour may stem from physical problems be they genetic, congenital, or arising from disease and trauma. Dystraxia is the name I give to a specific condition without implying any specific causality.
If a person has not developed this special ability to abstract (and this is through no fault of their own) then there can be very serious consequences at several levels of their life.
Consequences of Dystraxia
SELF: A sense of self relies on being able to reflect on oneself and this in turn requires the person to view themselves from beyond their immediate experience. This is virtually impossible for those who cannot abstract. They will live very much in a continuous present moment; they will be impulsive, even explosive. They will not understand their own emotions very well since that requires some degree of self-awareness that they do not have.
PRINCIPLES: They will not understand rules and regulations nor their fair application. They will often feel “picked on”, victimised. They will find it difficult to resolve conflicts. If fined for speeding they are likely to blame the administrator of the fine rather than the law or their own behaviour.
OTHERS: Unable to stand outside of their own experience, they will not be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and so will lack sensitivity to others. Empathy will be very difficult. They will be more likely to be tactless, cruel, to use aggression, to communicate in inappropriate ways. Their relationships will get into constant difficulty. They will find it hard to understand individual differences. They will constantly miss the nuances in others’ communications to them.
RESPONSIBILITY: this depends heavily on being able to see one’s own behaviour from a broader perspective seeing the longer term consequences of one’s actions and taking ownership for them. Without the ability to stand outside of immediate experience these people will have no sense of a connection between consequences and the behaviour that produced them. They will appear irresponsible, will often do things (e.g., drugs, tattoos, body-piercings, promiscuity, delinquency) with no thought of longer-term consequences.
TIME: A sense of time requires a person to perceive beyond the present moment and so these individuals will also lack this. They will find it hard and even undesirable to plan. Tomorrow’s homework will not be done because tomorrow does not exist for them today. It is not the memory of the past that is flawed but the anticipation of the future. Career planning will not make sense for the same reason. They will not be influenced very much by threats of punishment or jail since the future does not fully exist in their perceptual world.
SEQUENCE: They will not be well-equipped to understand life in general, the linkages between behaviours and events. They will tend to believe in luck (hence an attraction to gambling), fate, superstitions rather than believe in the value of effort. Deciding and problem-solving, since these rely on being able to see multiple facets of a situation and potential consequences, will be very difficult for them. They will find it very hard to generalise any learning to other situations.
In all these areas there is one common factor. People cannot incorporate into their cognition anything that they cannot perceive. They cannot make choices based on what they cannot see in their mind’s eye. If we attempt to “correct” such behaviour based on the assumption that they are choosing it with full awareness then our correction is probably going to be ineffective.
Features of Dystraxia
Some key aspects of this “cognitive myopia” are:
- The multiple behavioural and relational problems stem mainly from one deficiency.
- It is not a neurological “defect” or “disorder” but a condition, a disadvantage, an ability they have not developed.
- In most situations this developmental inadequacy probably stems from the experience of chaos in childhood.
- It is not a deliberate choice on the part of such children.
- The ability to abstract can be developed and the sooner the better.
- Punishment or blame is unlikely to remedy dystraxic behavour.
- We need to recognise, understand and work with it.
It is useful for parents and teachers to know the characteristics of dystraxia and how they point to an underlying disadvantage. Most of these “symptoms” are totally normal behaviour in small children but should be disappearing gradually as the child approaches adolescence.
- low empathy levels
- difficulty with planning
- lack of foresight
- lack of tact
- difficulty understanding analogies
- thinks in a concrete way
- apparent forgetfulness
General Intervention Guidelines
Understanding the underlying problem (lack of ability to stand outside immediate experience) will help teachers be more tolerant of such children and that in itself will be an important first step.
Visualise this deficiency as a mental muscle that needs to strengthen so that it can reach outside of immediate experience. This will be a slow process beginning with almost immediate experiences and progressing gradually to more distant experiences.
Initially, give these children very short-term projects, something that can be done in a few minutes. Such tasks should be very concrete and with very obvious advantageous outcomes for the child. Draw their attention to what is outside of immediate experience. “What are you going to do?” “How will you do it?” “What will this look like when you have finished?” “How did it turn out?” “Did the finished product match what you had in mind at the start?” “How do you feel about how you planned this and carried it out?” Children tend to learn over time to look at things the way the adults around them look at things.
It is important that the work is carried out in caring and collaborative environment. These children need extra doses of good feeling about their expenditure of effort. For them to deal with experience at the outer edge of their mental perceptual range must be made to appear attractive.
Generally parents and teachers need to be aware that the ability to stand outside of immediate experience is a very powerful advantage for everyone and that the fostering of this ability must permeate our interactions with those in our care. We already do this to a large extent but we must be more aware of the precise ability we are cultivating and how vital it is for overall well-being.
What is especially important in all of this is that teachers, counsellors and parents add a new dimension to their own thought. As well as evaluating school life with regard to relationships, achievement, literacy, numeracy, intelligence, diligence and co-operation it is important for educators to add abstraction as defined here. It is not something that will be taught in a single lesson or even in a course but rather through constant exercising of the “abstraction muscle” over a period of years.
Equally important is the need for an improvement in parenting skills and in general support for parents so that children will experience less chaos in early life. These children also need their disadvantage to be recognised as a disadvantage and not as some deliberate defiance of others or as an illness.