can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 2

The second of two posts analysing Old Andrew’s view of the behaviour of children with special educational needs.

special educational needs

In the Can’t Help It model that Old Andrew satirises in Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory, special educational needs (SEN) are conflated with disability. The child is seen as “ill with ADHD” or “on the autistic spectrum”. And we’ve all seen discussions about whether children ‘really have SEN’. According to one newspaper a 2010 Ofsted report claimed that “many of these pupils did not actually suffer from any physical, emotional or educational problems”.

The SEND Code of Practice defines special educational needs in terms of the “facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions” (p.14). In other words, the definition of SEN is a piece of string. If the facilities generally provided are brilliant, there will be hardly any children with SEN. If they are generally inadequate, there will be many children with SEN.

special educational needs and disability

Another post referred to by Old Andrew is The Blameless Part 3: the Afflicted.   He again pillories Can’t Help It as assuming “if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work, and that the most likely reason a child might be unable to keep up with their peers is some form of disability or illness”.

Andrew asks why “a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it”, completely overlooking communication difficulties ranging from children physically not being able to put the words together if under stress, to feeling intense apprehension about the consequences of drawing the problem to the teacher’s attention in public, such as jeers from peers or the teacher saying ‘you can do it you’re just not trying’ (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that statement masquerading as ‘high expectations’).

The second charge Andrew levels at Can’t Help It is the assumption that “medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour.” Leaving aside the question of who decides what constitutes poor behaviour, Andrew draws attention to the circular reasoning that Can’t Help It entails. If a medical or psychological condition is defined in terms of behaviour, then the behaviour must be explained in terms of a medical or psychological condition.

That’s a fair criticism, but it doesn’t mean there are no medical or psychological conditions involved. Old Andrew goes on to question the existence of ‘proprioception disorder’, linking it, bizarrely, to a Ship of Fools definition of purgatory. Impaired proprioception is well established scientifically. A plausible mechanism is the variation in function of the different kinds of sensory receptor in the skin and muscles. (The best description of it I’ve found is in the late great Donna Williams’ book Nobody Nowhere.) Whether Andrew has heard of ‘proprioception disorder’ or whether or not it’s formally listed as a medical disorder, is irrelevant to whether or not variations in proprioceptive function are causal factors in children’s behaviour.

It’s the Can’t Help It model that has led, in Andrew’s opinion, to a “Special Needs racket”. I’d call it a mess rather than a racket, but a mess it certainly is.  And it’s not just about children who don’t have ‘genuine disabilities’.  Mainstream teachers are expected to teach 98% of the school population but most are trained to teach only the 70% in the middle range. If teachers don’t have the relevant expertise to teach the 15% or so of children whose performance, for whatever reason, is likely to be more than one standard deviation below average, it’s hardly surprising that they label those children as having special educational needs and expect local authorities to step in with additional resources.

children as moral agents

Old Andrew questions an assumption he thinks is implicit in Can’t Help It – that the child is ‘naturally good’. I think he’s right to question it, not because children are or are not naturally good, but because morality is only tangentially relevant to what kinds of behaviours teachers want or don’t want in their classrooms, and completely irrelevant to whether or not children can meet those expectations. The good/bad behavioural continuum is essentially a moral one, and thus open to debate.

The third post Old Andrew linked to was Needs.  He suggests that framing behaviour in terms of needs “absolves people of responsibility for their actions”. He points out the difficulty of determining what children’s needs are and how to meet them, and goes on to consider an ‘extreme example’ of a school discovering that many of its pupils were starving. If the school feels it has a moral duty to the children, it would feed all those who were starving. But if the school attributes bad behaviour to going without food, it would “cease looking for the most famished child to feed first and start feeding the worst behaved… We would be rewarding the worst behaved child with something they wanted”.  Andrew concludes “Imagine how more contentious other types of “help” (like extra attention, free holidays, help in lessons or immunity from punishment) might be”… Whenever we view human beings as something other than moral agents we are likely to end up advocating solutions which are in conflict with both our consciences and our knowledge of the human mind”.

Andrew has raised some valid points about how we figure out what needs are, how they are best met, and about the Can’t Help It model. But his alternative is to frame behaviour in terms of a simplistic behaviourist model (reward and punishment), and human beings as moral agents with consciences and minds. In short, his critique, and the alternative he posits, are based on his beliefs. He’s entitled to hold those beliefs, of course, but they don’t necessarily form an adequate framework for determining what behaviour schools want, what behaviour is most beneficial to most children in the short and long term, or how schools should best address the behaviour of children with special educational needs (as legally defined).

Andrew seems to view children as moral agents who can control their behaviour regardless of what disability they might have. The moral agents aspect of his model rests on unsupported assumptions about human nature. The behavioural control aspect is called into question by research indicating that the frontal lobes of the brain don’t fully mature until the early 20s.  Moral agency and behavioural control in young people is a controversial topic.


The Can’t Help It model is obviously flawed and the Strict Discipline model rests on questionable assumptions. The Root Cause model, in contrast, recognises that preventing unwanted behaviours might require an analysis of the behaviour expected of children, and the reasons children aren’t meeting those expectations. It’s an evidence-based model. It doesn’t rest on beliefs or absolve children of all responsibility. It can identify environmental factors that contribute to unwanted behaviour, and can provide children with strategies that increase their ability to control what they do.  To me, it looks like the only model that’s likely to be effective.

30 thoughts on “can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 2

  1. Interesting stuff as ever. I’m struggling to fully appreciate your Root Cause model. Could you provide a couple of case studies so I could understand the nuance better?

  2. I’ve had the delight of teaching a couple of students for whom the root cause was immediately obvious — they were sociopaths/psychopaths. That is, they would grow up to be adults with little or no sense of morality or empathy.

    Their personal behaviour was often quite good. What they were was a constant source of strife in a class, because they actively enjoyed causing trouble. And when they were not present, you could immediately see the “naughty” students become much more settled.

    But when they were also not very clever and not very fond of school they were a nightmare.

    Understanding the root cause was of no help, because such people cannot be cured by fixing the root cause. They respond only to discipline (in the wider sense, not to be confused with punishment).

    That a percentage of the world is actually psychopathic and/or sociopathic needs to be dealt with actively, and not merely wished away because it’s a depressing thought. It’s why I struggle with “root cause” solutions.

  3. Doesn’t behaviourism as a means of controlling behaviour actually kind of pull in the opposite direction to the idea of children as moral agents? If they are fully moral, surely all you would need to do to get them to behave well is explain why they should. Behaviourism has always seemed to me to see children as essentially amoral since they only behave through a system of rewards & punishment.

  4. Putting repeated poor behaviour on a scale with addiction strikes me as hyperbolic. Also potentially disproved by the fact that most students’ behaviour will vary. A child who messes around for most of their teachers will often have at least one that they still behave for

    • 1. What do you mean by poor behaviour?
      2. You might think the comparison between persistent behaviour patterns and addiction hyperbolic, but the article re-frames addiction as a persistent behaviour, so I disagree on that point.
      3. Of course students’ behaviour varies in different environments. So does addicts’ behaviour. That was the point of the article about addiction and the point of my advocation of root cause analysis.

      • I have lunch every day. Does that mean I’m an addict? A child who is constantly talking in class is not “addicted” to bad behaviour. At all. In a different class or school or with a firmer consequence 9/10 they wouldn’t do it

  5. But I don’t think you’ve adequately addressed the day to day disruption that secondary teachers face. These are students without SEND, without difficult home circumstances and yet, in a classroom without firm boundaries and consequences for their actions will talk, call out and ignore instructions. If
    1 we are to say that such students have some “root cause” that is just waiting to be analysed and yet is beyond the skill and resource of every teacher then what good is the theory?
    2 we are to label these students as addicts then ~50% of my school of 1200 students can be labelled so…which strikes me as a little off.

    It’s not that I’m favouring speculation over research. I am struggling to make it meaningful in my context

    • I don’t think it’s safe to make the assumption that the students don’t have SEND or difficult home backgrounds if teachers don’t have the skill or resource to find out. In response to numbered points:

      1. Why do you think root cause analysis is beyond the skill and resource of every teacher?

      2. Who is labelling these students addicts? I was pointing out that persistent behaviour and addictive behaviour have features in common.

      Are you saying that 50% of students in your school would engage in day-to-day disruption of lessons unless there were firm boundaries and consequences for their actions?
      50% of students engage in day-to-day disruption of lessons because there are no firm boundaries and consequences for their actions?

  6. Anything that disrupts the lesson, other children, the teacher’s explicit teaching is bad behaviour. This might be persistent actions like dropping a pencil contionously, constantly asking pointless questions (don’t say define these – any teacher recognises them), asking to go to the toilet, fill up a water bottle,- especially a stream of children doing this, getting up and walking about, shouting or calling out, throwing things. These are all bad behaviour. Root causes might be interesting,but set and clear discipline and expectations about behaviour, such as silent working, silent listening etc, will cure it faster, if backed by the whole school.

  7. That’s your view of bad behaviour. Other teachers/students might not have the same view. That’s the problem. Clear discipline and clear behavioural expectations are essential, I agree, but it’s not always easy to get the whole school to back it. That’s why I suggested a root cause analysis. It would provide evidence for the behaviour policy, rather than it being people signing up (or not) to someone’s opinion.

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