can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 3

It’s clear from responses to the previous two posts that some further explanation is required of how the Root Cause approach to behavioural problems works. People have raised issues such as:

  • Some of the children in my class are refugees from a war zone; I don’t know how to tackle the root causes of their behaviour. Other agencies don’t seem to know either.
  • I don’t have time to teach all the children in my class individually, never mind sort out their behaviour issues.
  • How do you find out what the root causes are anyway?   Children will lie and blame anything but themselves.

All behaviour has causes, ranging from an involuntary response to physiology or the environment, through to a deliberate, carefully planned, long-term strategy. All unwanted behaviour in schools has causes too.

the environment

Unwanted behaviour often emerges if the school isn’t sufficiently explicit about its expectations. Rules such as walking in single file in corridors, no talking at certain times, are health and safety related. They reduce the risk of accidents and allow teachers to be heard. Other rules (e.g. do what teachers tell you, hand in your homework on time) facilitate learning.

The Strict Discipline model uses reward and punishment to ensure children comply with the school’s behavioural expectations. But having an explicit behavioural framework reinforced by rewards and sanctions doesn’t mean all children will keep the rules. Nor that all children are able to keep the rules. And sometimes the behavioural framework itself can cause problems.

One school I encountered experienced ongoing ‘challenging’ playground behaviour. On the wall by the door from the Y3 cloakroom to the playground was a small card bearing 13 rules for playground behaviour. Expecting 7 year-olds to memorise 13 rules seemed a bit unrealistic, and any child who stopped to read them would create a bottleneck likely to result in somebody falling over or getting their head bashed as the door was shoved open. I won’t even start on the problems caused by the coat pegs and lunchtime arrangements.

But what can schools do if a child is persistently not adhering to an explicit, carefully thought through behavioural framework, and rewards and sanctions are having no effect? My suggestion was to investigate the root causes of the behaviour.

the child

Most of us are familiar with the Root Cause model in some form or another. We know from personal experience that the causes of behaviour aren’t always obvious. We are aware (thanks to Freud) that the causes can sometimes be deep-rooted. Teachers will be aware of the cycle of deprivation theory that’s widely misinterpreted (and sometimes presented) as the Can’t Help It model. If you’ve never undertaken a root cause analysis, it’s easy to assume the causes of problematic behaviour will be nebulous and difficult to identify. That a child’s unwanted behaviour will turn out to be rooted in a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the community’s cultural expectations, or whatever. That’s often not so, even for the most apparently challenging behaviour.

For example, a pupil with a diagnosis of autism and complex specific learning difficulties attending a residential school (so yes, the school had the capacity and expertise to tackle difficult behavioural issues) began exhibiting extreme distress and ‘school refusal’. Some careful probing with the student revealed the source of the distress not to be some obscure aspect of his ‘autism’, but anxiety about being asked to do things he couldn’t do, in three particular lessons. The kid was given an opt-out card for those lessons. If it all got too much, he could show the card to the teacher and go to alternative provision. The card was never used; knowing he had an escape route was enough to allow him to cope.

The school could have explored in more detail why these particular lessons were an issue, but in this instance they didn’t need to; the problematic behaviour was avoided by a pretty simple solution. I’m sure some of the Strict Discipline adherents will at this point say that if a ‘get out of jail free’ card was available everyone would want one, but this was an approach the school used frequently and that’s not what they found. It became a kind of badge of honour to have the card but manage not to use it.

children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND)

Old Andrew complained that the Can’t Help It model made SEND an excuse for poor behaviour. It might, but in my experience, some teachers don’t know enough about SEND to make that judgement call.

Teachers in mainstream schools have always been expected to teach at least 98% of the child population; only very small percentage of children have attended special schools. But initial teacher training (ITT) has generally focused only on the 70% of children in the middle ability range. Not surprisingly, children with specific learning difficulties or disabilities have often been problematic for mainstream schools. I’ve advocated making SEND training an integral part of ITT.  Teachers have raised objections:

  • SEND training isn’t necessary. Direct instruction and explicit rules work.
  • How can teachers be expected to provide individual tuition to each child?
  • How can teachers be expected to learn about all those different conditions?

Direct instruction and explicit rules work      Direct instruction and explicit rules can be very effective. Whether the same direct instruction and explicit rules are effective for all children is another matter. Advocates of direct instruction and explicit rules also have a tendency to question the policy of educational inclusion, and to complain about objections to exclusion. Although their complaints might be valid, there’s a fine line between ‘wanting to get on with teaching and avoid disruption for children who want to learn’, and making problem children somebody else’s problem.

How can teachers be expected to provide individual tuition to each child? They used to be expected to do this, before the education system became standardised and performance-driven. Basically, if you are teaching a very varied child population, you can have high performance if you shuffle off the more challenging pupils elsewhere. Or you can have well-educated pupils who might still not meet a narrow performance measure.  You can’t have properly differentiated tuition and high performance based on a narrow measure.

How can teachers be expected to understand all those different conditions?   They don’t need to. Whatever a child’s diagnosis, for children with SEN in mainstream schools, teachers need to know about a handful of challenges (parents are usually a good source of information too – note the ‘usually’):

  • Visual processing – does the child screw up their eyes or complain of headaches? Do they persistently misread letters/numbers or find it difficult to find a visual target?

Make appropriate modifications to material. (One child I taught couldn’t see letters or numbers in their right visual field. Shifting everything to the left was effective). Avoid classroom clutter. Get their visual functioning checked; most local authorities have an educational sensory impairment service.

  • Auditory processing – does the child ‘zone out’ when you’re talking to them, or lose track of what they are saying to you? Do they confuse particular phonemes? Do they put their hands over their ears?

Speak slowly and clearly. Give them time to respond. Get some Jolly Phonics materials for visual/kinaesthetic reinforcement (and no, I’m not talking about Learning Styles). Keep the classroom quiet. Get their auditory processing checked; speech & language therapists can help.

  • Attention/executive function – Are they easily distracted? Is it difficult to get them to switch attention between topics? Or both? Do they find it hard to remember instructions?

Sit the kid at the side/back of the room. Give verbal and/or visual cues to signal the need to switch topic. Back up verbal instructions with written ones.

  • Motor control – is the child clumsy? A chair-rocker? Poor handwriting?

Do lots of physical activities that don’t involve fine motor control. Lots of exercise involving balance and using both sides of the body simultaneously. Get an occupational therapist to advise.

  • Anxiety and unwanted behaviour – if the child is anxious or behaving in a way that’s causing problems, there is very likely to be a reason for it.

Win the child’s trust. Get them to talk – sometimes it’s best to start with what they’re interested in rather than confronting the problem head on. Find out what’s going on and find ways to fix problems together. Compromise is powerful.  Sometimes all that’s required is knowing that a teacher is really on their side.

Some teachers will argue that they can’t implement any of these suggestions because they don’t have time or can’t get access to external support services. Or that the problems are intractable and outside their control. Those things might be true, but they don’t negate the Root Cause model’s effectiveness. They do indicate that public sector services have a long way to go.

 

 

 

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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.

conclusion

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.

can’t help it, root causes and strict discipline: part 1

This week Old Andrew, renowned education blogger, has drawn attention to some of his old posts about children with special educational needs. He identifies two conceptual models that focus on children’s behaviour – and overlooks a third.  In this post, I describe the models and why teachers might adopt one and not the others.

the model muddle

In Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory Andrew satirises a particular conceptual model of children’s behaviour. I’ll call  the model Can’t Help It. This view is that children identified as having special educational needs, or those from deprived backgrounds, are not responsible for behaving in ways that are unwanted by those around them. The Can’t Help It model is the one that claims criminals abused or neglected in childhood can’t be held responsible for breaking the law. I don’t doubt it’s a view held by some people, and I can understand the temptation to satirise it. It’s flawed because almost everyone could identify some adverse experience in childhood that explains why they behave in ways that distress others.

But satirising Can’t Help It is risky, because of its similarity to another conceptual model, which I’ll call Root Cause. The two models have similar surface features, but a fundamentally different deep structure. The Root Cause model claims that all behaviour has causes and if we want to prevent unwanted behaviour we have to address the causes. If we don’t do that the behaviour is likely to persist. (Ignoring causal factors is a frequent cause of re-offending; prisoners are often released into a community that prompted them to engage in criminal behaviour in the first place).

I’ve never encountered Can’t Help It as such. What I have encountered frequently is something of a hybrid between Can’t Help It and Root Cause. People are aware that there might be causes for unwanted behaviour and that those causes should be addressed, but  have no idea what the causes are or how to deal with them.

If the TES Forum is anything to go by, this is often true for teachers in mainstream schools who’ve had no special educational needs or disability training. They don’t want to apply the usual a reward/punishment approach in the case of a kid with a diagnosis of ADHD or autism, because they know it might be ineffective or make the problem worse. But they know next to nothing about ADHD or autism, so haven’t a clue how to proceed. In some cases the school appears to have just left the teacher to get on with it and is hoping for the best. Teachers in this position can’t apply Root Cause because they don’t know how, so tend to default to either Can’t Help It or to a third model I’ll call Strict Discipline.

Strict Discipline has a long history, dating back at least to Old Testament times. It also has a long history of backfiring. Children have a strong sense of fairness and will resent punishments they see as unfair or disproportionate. The resentment can last a lifetime. A Strict Discipline approach needs a robust evidential framework it’s going to be effective in both the short and long term. In Charlie and the Inclusive Chocolate Factory, Old Andrew rightly eschews Can’t Help It and appears to opt for Strict Discipline, bypassing Root Cause entirely; he describes Charlie, despite “eating nothing but bread and cabbage for six months” as “polite and well-behaved”.

Good behaviour

This evaluation of Charlie’s behaviour begs the question of what constitutes ‘well-behaved’. Teachers who identify as ‘traditional’ often refer to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour as if both are self-evident. Inevitably, behaviour isn’t that simple. ‘Traditional’ teachers appear to see behaviour on a linear continuum. At one pole is strict adherence to social norms – whatever they are deemed to be in a particular environment. At the other is complete license, assumed to result in extreme anti-social activities.

The flaws of this behaviour continuum are immediately apparent because it’s based on assumptions. The norms set by a particular teacher or school are assumed to be reasonable and attainable by all children. Those are big assumptions, as shown by the variation in different schools’ expectations and in the behaviour of children.

Even very young children are aware of different behavioural expectations. What’s allowed in Miss Green’s class isn’t tolerated in Mr Brown’s. They can do things in their grandparents’ home that their parents wouldn’t like, and that would be completely unacceptable in school. That doesn’t make Mr Brown’s expectations or those of the school right, and everybody else wrong. We all have to behave in different ways in different environments. Most children intuitively pick up and respond appropriately to these variations in expectations, but some don’t. By definition autistic children struggle to make sense of what they are expected to do, and children with attentional deficits get distracted from the task in hand.

It doesn’t follow that children with autism or ADHD should be permitted to behave how they like, nor have all their ‘whims’ catered for. Nor does it follow that every child should be expected to behave in exactly the same way. What it does mean is that if a child exhibits behaviour that’s problematic for others, the causes of the problematic behaviour should be identified and appropriate action taken. In some cases, schools and teachers do not appear to know what that appropriate action should be.

In the next post I’ll look at the flaws in the Strict Discipline model in relation to children with special educational needs.

genes, environment and behaviour

There was considerable kerfuffle on Twitter last week following a blog post by David Didau entitled ‘What causes behaviour?’  The ensuing discussion resulted in a series of five further posts from David culminating in an explanation of why his views weren’t racist. I think David created problems for himself through lack of clarity about gene-environment interactions and through ambiguous wording. Here’s my two-pennyworth.

genes

Genes are regions of DNA that hold information about (mainly) protein production. As far as we know, that’s all they do. The process of using this information to produce proteins is referred to as genetic expression.

environment

The context in which genes are expressed. Before birth, the immediate environment in which human genes are expressed is limited, and is largely a chemical and biological one. After birth, the environment gets more complex as Urie Bronfenbrenner demonstrated.  Remote environmental effects can have a significant impact on immediate ones. Whether a mother smokes or drinks is influenced by genetic and social factors, and the health of both parents is often affected by factors beyond their control.

epigenetics

Epigenetic factors are environmental factors that can directly change the expression of genes; in some cases they can be effectively ‘switched’ on or off.   Some epigenetic changes can be inherited.

behaviour

Behaviour is a term that’s been the subject of much discussion by psychologists. There’s a useful review by Levitis et al here. A definition of behaviour the authors decided reflected consensus is:

Behaviour is: the internally coordinated responses (actions or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to internal and/or external stimuli, excluding responses more easily understood as developmental changes.

traits and states

Trait is a term used to describe a consistent pattern in behaviour, personality etc. State is used to describe transient behaviours or feelings.

David Didau’s argument

David begins with the point that behavioural traits in adulthood are influenced far more by genes than by shared environments during childhood. He says: “Contrary to much popular wishing thinking, shared environmental effects like parenting have (almost) no effect on adult’s behaviour, characteristics, values or beliefs.* The reason we are like our parents and siblings is because we share their genes. *Footnote: There are some obvious exceptions to this. Extreme neglect or abuse before the age of 5 will likely cause permanent developmental damage as will hitting someone in the head with a hammer at any age.”

In support he cites a paper by Thomas Bouchard, a survey of research (mainly twin studies) about genetic influence on psychological traits; personality, intelligence, psychological interests, psychiatric illnesses and social attitudes. David rightly concludes that it’s futile for schools to try to teach ‘character’ because character (whatever you take it to mean) is a stable trait.

traits, states and outcomes

But he also refers to children’s behaviour in school, and behaviour encompasses traits and states; stable patterns of behaviour and one-off specific behaviours. For David, school expectations can “mediate these genetic forces”, but only within school; “an individual’s behaviour will be, for the most part, unaffected by this experience when outside the school environment”.

He also refers to “how we turn out”, and how we turn out can be affected by one-off, even uncharacteristic behaviours (on the part of children, parents and teachers and/or government).   One-off actions can have a hugely beneficial or detrimental impact on long-term outcomes for children.

genes, environment and interactions

It’s easy to get the impression from the post that genetic influences (David calls them genetic ‘forces’ – I don’t know what that means) and environmental influences are distinct and act in parallel. He refers, for example, to “genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones” (my emphasis), but concedes “there’s definitely some sort of interaction between the two”.

Obviously, genes and environment influence behaviour. What’s emerged from research is that the interactions between genetic expression and environmental factors are pretty complex. From conception, gene expression produces proteins; cells form, divide and differentiate, the child’s body develops and grows. Genetic expression obviously plays a major role in pre-natal development, but the proteins expressed by the genes very quickly form a complex biochemical, physiological and anatomical environment that impacts on the products of later genetic expression. This environment is internal to the mother’s body, but external environmental factors are also involved in the form of nutrients, toxins, activities, stressors etc. After birth, genes continue to be expressed, but the influence of the external environment on the child’s development increases.

Three points to bear in mind: 1) A person’s genome remains pretty stable throughout their lifetime. 2) The external environment doesn’t remain stable – for most people it changes constantly.  Some of the changes will counteract others; rest and good nutrition can overcome the effects of illness, beneficial events can mitigate the impact of adverse ones. So it’s hardly surprising that shared childhood environments have comparatively little, if any, effect on adult traits.   3) Genetic and environmental influences are difficult to untangle due to their complex interactions from the get-go. Annette Karmiloff-Smith* highlights the importance of gene-environment-behaviour interactions here.

Clearly, if you’re a kid with drive, enthusiasm and aspirations, but grow up on a sink estate in an area of high social and economic deprivation where the only wealthy people with high social status are drug dealers, you’re far more likely to end up with rather dodgy career prospects than a child with similar character traits who lives in a leafy suburb and attends Eton. (I’ve blogged elsewhere about the impact of life events on child development and long-term outcomes, in a series of posts starting here.)

In other words, parents and teachers might have little influence over behavioural traits, but they can make a huge difference to the outcomes for a child, by equipping them (or not) with the knowledge and strategies they need to make the most of what they’ve got. From other things that David has written, I don’t think he’d disagree.  I think what he is trying to do in this post is to put paid to the popular idea that parents (and teachers) have a significant long-term influence on children’s behavioural traits.  They clearly don’t.  But in this post he doesn’t make a clear distinction between behavioural traits and outcomes. I suggest that’s one reason his post resulted in so much heated discussion.

genes, environment and the scientific method

I’m not sure where his argument goes after he makes the point about character education. He goes on to suggest that anyone who queries his conclusions about the twin studies is dismissing the scientific method, which seems a bit of a stretch, and finishes the post with a series of ‘empirical questions’ that appear to reflect some pet peeves about current educational practices, rather than testing hypotheses about behaviour per se.

So it’s not surprising that some people got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The behavioural framework including traits, states and outcomes is an important one and I wish, instead of going off at tangents, he’d explored it in more detail.

*If you’re interested,  Neuroconstructivism by Mareschal et al and Rethinking Innateness by Elman et al. are well worth reading on gene-environment interactions during children’s development.  Not exactly easy reads, but both reward effort.

references

Bouchard, T. (2004).  Genetic influence on human psychological traits.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 148-151.

Elman, J. L., Bates, E.A., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Karmiloff-Smith A (1998). Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 389-398.

Levitis, D.A., Lidicker, W.Z., & Freund, G. (2009).  Behavioural biologists don’t agree on what constitutes behaviour.  Animal Behaviour, 78 (1) 103-110.

Mareschal, D., Johnson, M., Sirois, S., Spratling, M.W., Thomas, M.S.C. & Westermann, G. (2007). Neuroconstructivism: How the brain constructs cognition, Vol. I. Oxford University Press.