The Roots of Bad Behaviour,
the Nature/Nurture Debate
and Mr Michael Gove,
the Secretary of State
(an open letter)
Dear Mr Gove,
Having worked with children who have challenging behaviour for over thirty years I remain flummoxed even now by certain conduct. For example, why would a child purposefully repeat an action that they know will only make matters worse? Explaining consequence – telling them, “If this… Then that…” simply doesn’t work.
“If you push those metal prongs into that plug socket you are liable to get an electric shock”
“If you punch the wall it will hurt. You could end up in hospital. It could mean knuckles so injured that they are permanently damaged.”
Yes, we’ve all had to learn the hard way. Most of us, as teenagers, have toyed with the notion that you shouldn’t trust anyone over the age of thirty. It’s part of growing up. But I am talking about students who have put the metal back in the socket. Repeatedly. And others who, despite having no real knuckles left, continue to punch walls.
Why, when in a certain fame of mind, does the idea of deferred gratification or deferred punishment seem illusive to pupils with social, emotional, behavioural difficulties?
“If you continue to threaten that girl with a knife we will be forced to take it from you and things could get very messy.”
“If you refuse to go into the examination you will not get the GCSE you said you need for college.”
These are not made up scenarios. This is the daily deal for many who work with pupils like this. Some children, if they are lucky, get referred to Special Schools with teachers, psychologists, counsellors, therapists and residential social workers who are trained and experienced in dealing with these kinds of situations. Some children, if they unlucky, improve in their ability to fail, and then to fail again, by being left in an environment that is totally alien them – a mainstream school perhaps; a school that, with the best will in the world, is ill-equipped (in terms of finance, staffing, training and time) when it comes to understanding the problems associated with really unacceptable behaviour.
This is why it irks me when I hear people say the teachers are inadequate, that the school is at fault and that there’s no wonder the kids of today behave as they do because the education system is getting worse. “I blame the teachers,” they say.
Yes, there are poor teachers. Yes, there are failing schools. Yes, the education system needs to change (continually, as it happens.) But reason and research provide us with only one conclusion.
Poor parenting often results in poor behaviour which in turn produces poor educational standards. So when Michael Gove demands teachers improve and says he wants schools to return to the content and style associated with the, ‘marvellous education’ he had. When he says, furthermore, that under-performing teachers are to be weeded out so that heads can sack them, he should first remove the proverbial beam that is causing his myopia and ask himself some serious questions about his own education – in the broadest sense.
Did he as a child suffer any or all of the following?
- Abuse – were his parents drug abusers? (Heroin addiction is a particularly pernicious drug in pregnancy, frequently leading to psychological difficulties for the progeny.) Was he himself a serious drug taker from an early age? (That could cause grave problems with his ability to assess and interpret the world around him.) Did he suffer physical abuse in terms of severe beatings, even torture? Was he sexually abused?
- Neglect – was he physically and/or emotionally neglected? Did he have regular meals or not? Did he eat alone, in front of a TV? Were there no set bedtimes? Did he spend most of the night alone on the internet in his bedroom, or was he out prowling the estate with friends? (I mean a housing estate.)
- Poverty – was he poor? (Poverty does not simply mean a lack of money. The impact of other kinds of deprivation can be far worse. There may have been no real conversation with family members. There may have been no books at home. There may have been no concern for his welfare at all. Poverty could mean a dearth of interest in the value of education for example – no respect for schools, teachers, examinations, no one at home who cared about any plans for young Michael’s future.)
- Genetic traits – has anyone in his family ever been diagnosed with specific learning difficulties including Dyslexia, Dyspraxia or is there a history of Autism or Asperger Syndrome. Have they had Psychopathic or Addictive tendencies, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ADHD etc? (There are many genes that can affect behaviour some more voraciously if the parent is absent.*)
Some children suffer all of the above. Many endure some of the above in large doses. Their day to day experience is fraught with problems. This is probably why they do repeat an action that they know will make matters worse. This is almost certainly why deferred gratification or deferred punishment seems erroneous.
It is no good unless the parents do enough.
Good parenting tends to produce children who are compliant enough
to fit in enough,
who are confident enough
to ask the right questions enough,
and content enough
to be successful enough
These children tend also to do well enough in later life.
Parents who have had serious problems of their own – parents who have been deprived themselves – are unlikely to raise children who will perceive any need to comply, to value academic success (either for intrinsic reasons or as a vehicle for improving their lot).
Moreover, these parents will struggle when it comes to trusting the teachers who are trying to work with their kids. They will resist what they see as a pointless education system because their life experience tells them it’s worthless and the people who are trying to teach their children are not only, ‘not on their side’ but ‘not even on the same planet’ either. Their children, in turn, will not be able to see any real potential in learning at all, because their parents don’t see any real potential in learning.
Perhaps some of these parents would enjoy a pint or two with Michael Gove.
You can just imagine the conversation can’t you?
“Oi, oi, Micky boy!”
“Oi, oi, geezer”
“How’s it goin?”
“Them teachers are all tossers innit.”
So, if there is blame where should it lie? Is it the teachers? Is it the parents?
The Nature–Nurture debate is one that has raged for far more than 150 years. Psychology, of course, was a branch of philosophy until the 1870s but since then it has been accepted more and more in terms of it being an empirical discipline. However, the question of whether it is our genes or our environment that affects our behaviour was muted millennia ago by Plato, who said,
“Children begin life with knowledge already present within them, they do not learn anything new but merely recollect knowledge that has previously lain dormant”.
Despite the advances in research methods, genome discoveries and so on, I’m not sure we have gone that much further than Plato did. The questions still remain: Are we are all born equal only to materialise as the different people we become through our different experiences? Or are our genes are in charge? Are we are nothing more than elaborate genetically programmed machines? Dare we even consider blaming the parents these days?
Michael Rutter’s book** (2005) sought to address these issues. He asks a rather poignant question, ‘Why is the topic of genes and behaviour controversial?’ Rutter doesn’t preach but he does come to several very persuasive conclusions. He says that, ‘virtually all psychiatric disorders show a significant genetic contribution, with heredity at least in the 20 to 50 percent range’. So where do the 50 to 80 percent on the other side of the equation come from? Rutter points towards abuse and neglect, institutional deprivation with its resulting psychological dysfunction and the impact of poverty and drug abuse on childhood-disruptive behaviour.
Of course good teachers can sometimes help children improve their behaviour. Primary school teachers tend to spend more time engaging with children than their parents do. They can have a great influence. The worst teachers may fall short of correcting bad behaviour. Perhaps some blame should lie there. The important point is, poor behaviour means little learning.
Experience, research and, one could argue, common sense, suggest we should apportion blame somewhere. If you are offended by the ‘B’ word then try one that is less pejorative – ‘RESPONSIBILITY’.
I would like to lay the blame or the responsibility on the teachers; not because they are an easy target but because,
Parents are Children’s First Teachers.
What we are, what we say and what we do, determines what our children become. Parents who spend quality time with their kids, parents who communicate with teachers, generally produce children without poor behaviour. Similarly, teachers who work with the parents, as well as the pupils, tend to get better results both socially and academically. Pupils who have suffered abuse, poverty, neglect or are deemed at risk genetically, require specialist intervention. And there’s the rub. Specialist intervention is, almost by definition, costly. But the price we may have to pay without that intervention could be far higher.
Go to the estates Mr Gove.
Spend time, not just a fleeting visit, in some real schools.
Have a few days in some Special Schools.
Have a pint.
Then ask yourself some serious questions about education. In the broadest sense.
Yours Faithfully etc.
**Genes and Behaviour: Nature-Nurture Interplay Explained Sir Michael Rutter http://tinyurl.com/b8p3gw8 Seth G N Grant http://tinyurl.com/a3ybdej Seth G N Grant cites Rutter’s down to earth approach as he considers the genome project and rips into certain areas with titles such as, ‘The supposed poor quality of the evidence from twin and adoptee studies’, ‘Fraud and bias in behavioural genetics’ and ‘Acceptance of funding from organisations with an axe to grind’.