Thursday, 29 October 2009

Failure is only the opposite of success (and thoughts on neglect)

I would like to present a "reverse" technique for trying to understand what causes (youth) violence and how best to prevent it.

This technique is derived from one of my most cherished beliefs: that we are all (BAME and WAME…) born as 'evil' as eachother, but some of us are lucky enough to be taught (actively and passively) to overcome our 'evil' tendencies, and are lucky enough to exist in a sufficiently privileged situation where we never feel our only option is to use ‘evil’ strategies to secure our personal safety or income.

I figured that if we could describe what positive things create a physical/emotional/incentive framework that basically eliminates the natural tendency towards youth violence, we could try describing the causes of youth violence as being the opposite or absence of those positive things. We could then view the spread of state and charity organisations as simply attempting to provide the missing services to children who don't get them at home! I should even be able to map these items to state and 3rd sector services (and even find some that are missing from state services).

As part of this analysis I thought it would be interesting to ask myself why I personally did NOT engage in any serious violence as a child or teenager. During this meditation, I jotted down bullet points of what a 'good carer' provides for their children (this is probably a compliment to my parents by I’d never admit it…).

I say 'carer' very deliberately in order to include and celebrate step-parents, mentors, adopters and any other adult bringing up a child, whether as a single adult or a couple, married or not. Whoever the hell you are, as long as you provide all these things, the kid in your charge is seriously unlikely to end up in trouble!

[ I am deliberately side-stepping the single-mums/absent fathers debate for this post so you don’t get distracted! I will talk about this hot topic in its own right later.. And another caveat: I am not saying that a child missing any of the items on this list is doomed to eternal violent offending – I am just trying to describe a complete framework that most effectively eliminates it. ]

In the end I was surprised by the length and significance of this list. For a carer to provide all this requires enormous and increasingly rare levels of self-sacrifice, dedication, tolerance, and income (in that order!!). So here goes – I’ve left it mainly as a list – analysing every point would render the blog unreadable:

What an effective carer provides:

· Physical safety (protection). This is a crucial point. If the child feels that his carers cannot keep him safe in the house, he will find ways to spend as much time outside the house as possible.
And if he is in danger outside at play or on the way to/from school, (and worse if he also feels the police can't or won't keep him safe), he will automatically seek to protect himself in some other way - typically safety in numbers, defensive equipment of some sort, and overt aggression to deter any potential attackers. Look at the markings on caterpillars that serve to warn off predators... an aggressive swagger and clothing associated with 'being dangerous' is a viable self-defence mechanism. (See my post on ‘fear’ at ).

· Supervision. A child who knows he is not being checked on will be silly, period. They're silly even when they are checked on. My boy and his mate recently decided to wee in a box and put the box in his clothes drawer, despite regular checkups... imagine if they weren’t being checked on at all. This becomes more sinister when they start to experiment with explicit and violent media, booze, drugs, sex, weapons, gangs and so on. An unsupervised child is a lost soul.
Linked to supervision is the concept of early detection. An effective carer will look for and spot early signs of unhappiness, conflict, or disengagement. In doing so the carer stands a chance of helping the child share their issues and advising them on a solution before it is too late.

· Education. In the wider sense – not only the school curriculum (but of course helping with homework and learning is absolutely vital, to the point where I think schools presuppose that this is happening and so the absence of it is damaging). This is a huge topic but can be broadly described as teaching everything else about life that schools don't - which I could categorise into knowledge or personal skills. Knowledge could include including family planning and personal finance, skills could include avoiding conflict, influencing, etc. I'll explore a few vital skills below: emotional literacy, self-calming, peaceful conflict resolution and social protocol.

· Emotional literacy. This is a buzzword that basically means the child can recognise and distinguish between different types of (mostly negative) emotions. This is crucial because without this skill the child typically turns any negative experience (frustration, humiliation, embarrassment, sadness etc) into anger and onwards into violence. Learning the different types allows him to then key into different self-calming mechanisms he learns with the help of his carer.

· Peaceful conflict resolution. Well it doesn't get more relevant than this does it. Just the thought of this raises my pulse, as I flashback to the last few days of prizing my two young half-term kids from eachother's throats because one wouldn't share or the other one was provoking them or on and on. This for a parent is the utterly depressing and life sapping reality of child-rearing. But this is the front line. All kids come into the world only knowing the fist as a mechanism for who gets what. Alpha male nature show business. Only by a (so far 7 years and counting) grind of multi-daily examples and taught alternatives do they learn to empathise, trade, negotiate, boobytrap, swindle and do other vile but ultimately non-violent things to resolve conflicts. Lord of the flies. This is it folks!

· Social protocol. Sorry couldn't think of a better word. Basically the carer teaches (excplicitly and by example) how the child should behave around others in the social/demographic group that the CARER intends or expects the child to live and interact in. This either means that the positive carer 'brainwashes' the child to behave in a way that is acceptable and expected in , say, Cambridge University and the Department of Children Schools and Families - where the carer hopes the child will end up. .. or it means the carer brainwashes the child to be loud, bigoted, aggressive, violent, racist, and other lovely things because that carer knows that anything other than this behaviour set will be rejected by the childs peers and seniors and ultimately his work colleagues. OR it means the carer doesn't give a stuff where the kid ends up, but just wants the kid not to make the carer look a fool in front of the carer's peers. Anyway the point is that social mobility is not just a function of access to money and good schools - it is a function of what the carer teaches the child to aim for and crucially how the carer teaches the child to behave around others. I believe classism or tribalism is far more prevalent than racism in employment discrimination terms, but that race can often be used as a lazy proxy for a social class. Just as often it is the spoken accent by the way. OK lets move on.

· Incentive structures. Something to gain, something to lose. A child who has neither will fall into despair and bitterness, and will have no reason to resist negative pressures. Study yourself: most of the things you do or refrain from doing are driven by external social and financial incentives (and occasionally by internal values which also serve as an incentive i.e. the avoidance of internal feelings of guilt/shame). I very much doubt that the reason you don’t smack your irritating work colleague in the teeth is because it is illegal.
The effective carer will build an intricate web of external promises and threats that will help guide a child through life, and also shape the child’s internal values that will go on to serve as an internalised incentive set.
This topic also covers ‘discipline’, it being one of the negative incentives on offer. See next.

· Fair discipline in the context of caring. I chose those words carefully. Physical punishment need not be a damaging experience for a child if the child knows that it is a last resort, that the carer does not like doing it and doesn't want to do it ever again, and that it is because the carer is worried about the child's future so badly that they are resorting to it, because all else has failed. And, of course, that it is not physically or mentally damaging. This of course implies that all else HAS been tried and failed…and is one of the most hotly debated issues.

· Diversion. Another crucial topic. Endless debate rages about insufficient activities for kids. But I think this is actually a proxy for the real problem: insufficient activities delivered by carers. Put simply if (big IF) the carer is financially able, and has enough time, to personally find, suggest, encourage, finance, and accompany the child to various positive pro-social activities…the child will not ever be bored, understimulated, lonely, unsupervised or kicking about on the street. And he will never need a youth club.
This of course requires the carer to unselfishly give up various things they would enjoy themselves, in order to benefit the child. Call me old-fashioned but this is the essence of parenting isn’t it?

· Reinforcement and celebration of independent positive thinking: the absolutely crucial ability the child must develop to allow friends / close colleagues/peers to make stupid dangerous decisions without the child getting involved or 'following' them. The ability to stay on your straight track when those around you derail. The effective carer gives the child the skills and self-confidence to do this, and sets up the incentive structure to give the child something to lose by getting drawn in / something to gain by walking away!

· Encouragement and celebration of positive achievement - building true self-esteem / confidence, and reinforcing the love of learning and achievement

· Structure / Routine - especially sleep discipline, school homework time, good eating habits, personal hygiene - but also indirectly teaching the child to accept and thrive in a disciplined and structured environment without railing against authority (without this skill, staying in school or holding down a 'proper job' is not easy). Many carers are ineffective simply because their own routine is awful and so the kid doesn’t stand a chance.

· Employment advantage – really important this one: assistance in finding and applying for vacancies, in particular providing contacts and personal recommendations to get you that first job. I wonder what percentage of the employed got their first break in this way as opposed to a cold application? hmmm

· A positive role model - This is all about 'cognitive' learning i.e. learning by example not by explicit teaching. There are too many aspects to list here but things like: showing how to handle disagreement in a non-aggressive way; respecting and having a relationship with (hopefully only one) woman; being scrupulously honest; respecting authority; spending money wisely; balancing work vs. leisure; and putting children's needs ahead of your own needs.
For the record this is not the meaning of ‘role model’ that most people refer to – which is typically an extremely high earner. I’m talking about a life skills role model.

· Unconditional love and care - building feelings of self-worth, and teaching by example how to love and care tolerantly for others even when they are driving you mad. The unconditional bit is important because it encourages a child to tell his carers the truth, confide in them and seek their advice on difficult situations.

· Sympathy and understanding - an ear to bash / a shoulder to cry on, enabling and coaching the child to progress through negative emotions of hurt, humiliation, frustration, anger and hatred – to a calmer more rational state – and ultimately on to states like acceptance, forgiveness or reconciliation.

· Support and 'backup' of the child and the school in the context of his schooling - i.e. working with the school and child to resolve difficult situations, This means the carer protects their child from possible discrimination/abuse/bullying by the school or other pupils. But it also means being reprimanded by the carer for unacceptable behaviour in the school on the other hand. Without this crucial engagement and advocacy role, the child is quite simply halfway to exclusion.

· Food and drink. Seems a bit obvious but certainly judging by my own bratz, they very often are horribly agitated and aggressive towards eachother until they have a wholesome and natural hot meal.

I say again: even a child getting most or all of this list could still conceivably become violent - other factors could conceivably rise up, combine and overshadow all this. But I firmly believe that a child raised with all of the above is the least likely to become embroiled in sustained, serious violence.

I need the success stories!
Getting back to the positive message, I intend to find some of the millions of very disadvantaged but non-violent young boys who live in the worst estates and attend bad schools, preferably black, preferably with a single mum, who have kept their noses clean and come out of school approximately sane and content and with some qualifications. I want to interview the families and ask the carer what their winning formula was, and look to see what other services the boy was also getting from the state and the third sector – if any.
But this is harder than it sounds – I recently asked some professionals in youth intervention (state and third sector) to put me in touch with some of these success stories…but they of course both said “sorry we don’t know any of those!”.

Get in touch with me if you can hook me up!

Wilful neglect or emotional disability?
I could even go so far as saying that any carer who genuinely could, but out of selfishness does not, provide these ‘services’ to their child, is neglecting their child as badly as if they were not washing or feeding them (which is probably happening too).
I deliberately say ‘out of selfishness’ to distinguish the idea of a selfish/self-centred neglectful carer from the one who is not delivering the goods due to their own financial or emotional handicaps or due to a lack of skills/advice/experience/support.

This notion of a carer ‘choosing’ to put their own needs above those of their kids typically triggers feelings of revulsion in ‘normal’ folks, and triggers urges to punish them somehow, to make them ‘change their evil ways’. Call me naive but I hang on to the belief that no parent or carer who has experienced a carer’s love and support could deprive their child of it unless some fundamental issues were preventing them from delivering it themselves.

In some cases I suspect that not being able to provide for your child must feel so abjectly awful that you ultimately distance yourself from the child to protect your own brutal feelings of shame and guilt. I have this nagging feeling, for example, that there is a link between impoverished unemployed black fathers abandoning the family and that father’s feeling of uselessness at not being able to secure a decent future for the family (see a later post I will write on the wider effects of historical overt racism in the UK, gulp). There will be myriad other reasons but I’ve never seen anyone offer this one up (apologies to any psychologists and advocates of ‘Post Traumatic Slave Disorder/Syndrome’ - Google it – who have made this case before me)

In the same way as I think all babies are born as evil (or innocent) as eachother, I also think that a carer’s ability and actions are shaped primarily by nurture, not nature. Hence the horror of the perpetual cycle of abuse, which I will live and die trying to break.

Blame-gaming is ultimately unconstructive: a stranger, or the state, criticising an outwardly self-centred parent will achieve nothing other than causing them to further disengage from the civilised society that they feel is persecuting them. In the end I think only personal aspiration, cultural influence, and education/skill building (as opposed to threat of legal sanction) can make a carer put their child’s needs ahead of their own desires.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

child behaviour problems: the role of teachers, parents, the curriculum - and how to upset the Daily Mail editor.

Read this first please.

Let's look at the language: "tackle" "problem pupils" "tough" "will not be tolerated" "should be isolated".

Move them aside! Put them with other bad kids just like them! Punish them! Criticise them! Persecute the badness out of them! When are we (especially the punitive Sir Alan and his ilk) going to wake up?

Punish the child for the teacher's incompetence? Hold on a minute!
We have got it @rse about face. Instead of looking at these pupils as 'problems' that basically get in the way of delivering the curriculum to all the samey, bovine, quiet children, why not accept that in fact the school's primary challenge is to find ways to teach the disruptive kids behaviour sets that they haven't learned yet, in a way that the kids engage with? And celebrate the achievements when they progress towards them? If a teacher cannot engage with a problem child, and find which buttons to press to motivate a 'problem child', despite the teacher's advanced age and all their training, then I say that teacher is failing too. Maybe the *teacher* should be isolated to prevent them from failing promising but 'emotionally disabled' young children? Do us parents have access to legal powers to "tackle problem teachers"?? No, they are masters of their own kingdom in that closed classroom where it is their word against the child's, where it is easier to expel than excel.

Perhaps we could sentence the teachers to a 'permanent exclusion', and put them in a 'TRU' (Teacher referral Unit) where they can join lots of other punitive and uninspiring teachers. We could give them the 'easy' kids to teach, who will learn whatever they have in front of them, and keep the inspiring and talented teachers to work with the problem kids who really desperately need help. Cast your mind back to when you were at school: I bet there were some charismatic teachers who even the worst kids behaved well for. And I'll bet that teacher paid them special attention and went out of his way to show that he liked them and believed in them.

And here's another thing - I'm willing to bet that well over half of all problem kids are actually among the brightest, most creative and outspoken kids in the school in terms of ability. The 'problem teacher' fails to spot this and concentrates on the outward behaviour pattern instead. The 'problem teacher' does not give them harder or more challenging work or targeted help. The 'problem school' does not put them in their 'gifted and talented' scheme, or describe them as having special educational needs in terms of how much educational stimulation they require. Oh no, they're TOO NAUGHTY. So the kid is bored in class and talks a lot. Is that supposed to be a surprise?

So now the child gets 'isolated' to protect all the 'good' children. Confused and upset, the child lashes out behaviourally and becomes slightly worse than before. As soon as a child is marginalised and socially rejected (do not underestimate the crushing, humiliating, effect of being rejected and frowned upon by the only authority figure in a young person's life: their teacher, in front of their peers), the self-fuelling cycle of failure -> unhappiness -> bad behaviour -> failure begins, which serves to accelerate and worsen the child's behaviour degradation. The good kids tell their interested parents who is being disruptive and being sent to the headmaster's office. The parents suddenly don't invite that kid to the next jelly and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey party any more. Educational rejection widens into social rejection. And all because that child had not learned to behave like the mainstream yet.

Let's say that child could be called 'behaviourally disabled'. Now let's look at a child who has gammy legs. Will she be punished for not running fast enough in PE? No, so tell me how it is fair to reject, isolate and intimidate a 6 year old child whose only crime is that he has failed to learn how to shut up in class or how to share and take turns? If we don't keep these 'problem kids' very close to us, and find positive motivational paths towards positive 'normal' behaviour sets, we are failing them and we become a substantial *cause* of their worsening behaviour. We have to show them what they stand to gain by behaving well, and what they stand to lose in the long run by behaving badly. Read on to see commentary about how we have to consider the good kids education too - I'm not a blinkered ultralib.

Punish the parents then! Yeah!!
As as for the parents thing, I am taken aback at how facile Alan and Ed are being here. If the parent (s) (or general adult in the child's life) has, so far, failed to teach the 'accepted' behaviours, it can only be for one of four reasons:

1. The parent does not give a damn how the child behaves, and behaves appallingly themselves ("problem parent")
2. The parent really cares, but has not learned how best to teach their child how to behave yet (parents don't get training: teachers do)
3. The parent is doing all the right things and really really cares, but the kid is a bit behind the pace emotionally and just isn't able to be quiet in class yet, or deal with conflict peacefully. Like a kid who is good at literacy but a bit crap with numbers, for example.
4. The parent is from a culture or demographic group where certain ways of expressing yourself and behaving, seen as acceptable and normal to that culture, is unfortunately what middle class people (who I suspect account for a majority of teachers) think is unacceptably rude or disruptive.

Whichever of those four it is, "strengthening our message to parents" and reminding parents that they "play a crucial role and have a responsibility to support their school's behaviour policy" will have absolutely no effect at all on the parents of these particular 'problem' children:

Camp (1) will tell the school to f*** off,
camp (2) will die of shame and feel awful about how incompetent they are and probably take it out in anger at the child, whose behaviour will worsen because of the new upset
camp (3) will feel completely exasperated and powerless and grow a lot of grey hairs.
camp (4) will feel persecuted and probably cry classism, racism or other ism.

IT WON'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE, ED AND ALAN. Actually it will make it worse. HOW IS THIS NOT OBVIOUS TO YOU??? Maybe, JUST MAYBE, it really is obvious to you, but you are too preoccupied with pacifying the Daily Mail readers (editors actually), and being seen to be 'tough on scum'... and don't have the guts or the permission to implement a difficult-to-sell 'supporting the most needy' policy that will actually work.

Locking the parents up will worsen the kid's behaviour. Fining the parents might just wake up camps 1 and 4 that there might be something in it for them to work on the kid...but more likely will cause the parent to disengage and hate the school, co-operating less than before. Never in my life have I seen punishment and conflict achieve positive outcomes unless delivered in a context of care and positive aspiration.

OK then smartass, how would YOU like it if your good kid was being disrupted by a problem kid? Huh??
Well it's funny you should say that: he is! And still I don't want the 'problem' kid isolated, labelled and persecuted, and I don't want the kid's exasperated, suffering mother to spend any more nights awake crying out of fear for her child's future and powerlessness in the face of the school's heavy handed tactics.
No, I want to ~work with~ the problem kid, get to know him, help him flourish and develop and enjoy learning, help him see why it's easier for everyone if he just keeps his finger on his lips in class even though he's desperate to say something and play with his friends.
I want the school to rise to the challenge and work with the boy and his parents in a positive caring way. I want them all to come out rewarded and satisfied with a job well done, and most of all I want the boy to get on with being a star pupil and show the school how badly they are missing the point.
Meanwhile I will teach my child the valuable lifeskills of blanking out background noise (I have to do this with my 'problem colleagues' at work who seldom shut up but get paid lots of wonga for the privilege), resisting the urge to copy children who are getting themselves in trouble, and succeed despite disruption. But then I'm different to many parents who only care about their own. I'm also lucky enough to see the 'problem boy' outside of school, where I see that he is unusually kind and caring, extremely sensitive, and incredibly smart. He just has the worst case of selective hearing that I've ever seen!

OK then smartass, I take it you have a better idea - or are you just an 'armchair teacher' who only knows how to criticise?
So what can be done about problem children. Why should the good kids suffer because of the bad kids? Have I got a better idea? Yes I have actually, but it is expensive and it will upset people who read (sorry - ~write~) the Daily Mail. Am I willing to pay more tax if that is what it takes? Yes I am: you can't have your cake and eat it. Here is an outline:

1. Think of the 'problem kids' differently
For a start I would like the problem kids rebranded. They are unfortunate children with special educational needs. Some are crap at literacy, some are deaf, some are disruptive. The education system already adopts this approach, and if the guidance ( - use link at bottom to get the PDF) is followed properly it can deliver great results.
Interestingly a full ~quarter~ of SEN children (with no statement) are in the 'behaviour' category - close second only to 'moderate learning difficulties'. See the 'primary need tables' excel doc at .
Many (but not all) of the disruptive kids are enduring brutal and aggressive and chaotic lives at home. They need our help, desperately.

2. Teach behaviour and emotional skills as a key part of the curriculum ~before~ academic skills.
Next, I would like a fundamental change of perspective in the education system. Where a school has a high proportion of disruptive children, the focus of the curriculum needs to shift to FIRST stabilising behaviour at the youngest age (I'm talking nursery, reception, year 1), and ONLY THEN focussing on academic achievement. This can of course occur in parallel a bit, but it's about the ~emphasis~ of school early years objectives. Don't teach numbers and shout at the wriggling boys. Teach sitting and listening - and drop some numbers in. As any professionals reading this should admit to themselves: people skills/emotional intelligence ('EQ') is even more important in life and the workplace than academic skills.
Please don't tell me schools are already doing it with a token 'Personal and Social Education (PSE)' half hour now and then. That is better than nothing, I admit, but it is tokenistic. I want PSE to be wider and the main focus.

2. Spend disproportionately more money on SEN children
This is the one that bites. This one puts equality on the page. This one really annoys people who believe that we are in a 'survival of the fittest' contest, that naughty kids should basically be erased - or left to erase themselves. People who believe in the death penalty ahead of prevention and rehabilitation. And so on. This one says that 'good children' are endowed with so much natural advantage through their birth, environment and inherited social network, that they can still reach the top even if we spend less on them. This one says that if there was only one lump of available money that could be spent on ~either~ SEN OR 'Gifted and talented', that it should all go to SEN. If you baulk at this, sit back for a minute, swallow the pill and think afresh at how this could work - then read on.

3. Spend a small fortune on children who end up excluded from mainstream education
This one ~really~ hurts the Daily Mail editor. He will choke on his 11am gin and tonic and retch into his BNP membership pack. IF we do 1,2 and 3, then for a start the numbers of permie exclusions will go down, big time. We could even just divide the existing pot amongst way fewer kids and get the small fortune I'm after. For seconds, if these muppets manage to get themselves excluded despite 1,2 and 3, then there is something ~severely~ amiss in their lives and they are in extreme danger. Therefore, unless we explicitly want them in jail, dead, or committed to a mental institution (probably via a string of violent crimes ruining countless lives), we are obliged to throw everything we've got at them, no holds barred. I don't mean ticking a few boxes, I mean unleashing the full force of social innovation on these people. Literally carrying them through life until they can walk. If there is one ultra clear signal, a flare soaring through the night sky, it is permanent exclusion. Take the signal and send out the lifeboat.

As you can see, the theme is to be less judgemental and to chuck resources at those who are failing. I have another post brewing up where I will give you a braindump of why it makes major, long term, social and economic sense to adopt this approach.

This will only ever reach centre stage politically if the people get behind it. That's YOU LOT. Make some noise!