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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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.