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The Blameless. Part 3: The Afflicted

October 25, 2008

Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they have a medical or psychological condition.

There are two versions of this argument. The first version suggests that 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. There are two main flaws in this argument, both incredibly obvious. Firstly, there is no clear reason why a child unable to do their school work would misbehave rather than simply say they couldn’t do it. At the very least it assumes that the penalty for admitting to personal academic failure is greater than that for disrupting the learning of others, which would itself be a disordered situation, where personal responsibility needs increasing, not denying. The second flaw is that it assumes that assessing a child’s inability to complete work is a difficult task, probably requiring expertise beyond that of the classroom teacher. In actual fact, this form of assessment is an integral part of teaching and while doctors and psychologists might be required to find a root cause of an inability to complete work, nobody is likely to be more effective than a teacher at identifying a failure to be able to do work. These two flaws mean that the argument is dependent on the circumstances of both the child being unreasonable and the teacher being incompetent, which, while this may sometimes be the case, is a ludicrous assumption to make when dealing with poor behaviour in general.

The second version of this argument claims that medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour. Obviously children shouldn’t be punished for actions influenced by Tourette’s or having a coughing fit. However, such situations are incredibly rare. In order to allow for more wide use of this excuse medical and psychological “conditions” have multiplied to cover virtually every human inclination. Such conditions are usually impossible to explain, let alone identify, without using a comparison with some view of what is normal for a child (often this is tied in to the concept of “developmental levels”). If a child is more energetic or inattentive than normal they have ADHD. If they won’t follow instructions as much as expected then they have Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If they are anti-social or even annoyingly pedantic then some form of autism will be suggested. (The latest condition I have encountered, admittedly online rather than in real life, is a parent who claims her children have “impaired proprioception” a physiological condition, symptoms of which include such supposed anomalies as “crashing into things, throwing themselves onto the floor, swinging as high as they possibly can”). In the event that no specific behaviour disorder can be identified then, conveniently, almost every failing can be covered by “low self-esteem”.

Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires. Different people have different desires. The worst behaved kids will, of course, have a desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted, than that of the better behaved kids including the average (or “normal”) child. If this is grounds for seeing the behaviour as abnormal and in turn diagnosing a “condition” then the obvious result of this is that what are clearly just character traits, that should be as susceptible to human judgement as any other, will become seen as uncontrollable quirks of fate. Worse, the more extreme a moral failing, the more it is claimed to be beyond conscious control. In the case of those who argue that children are naturally good we gain a particularly spectacular piece of circular reasoning: All bad behaviour (unless covered by the previous explanations) must be abnormal; therefore it has a psychological or medical cause; therefore it is not under the child’s conscious control; therefore the child is naturally good; therefore the child’s bad behaviour is abnormal.

The confusion over what counts as a disability, and what is simply a matter of character or ability, has created the Special Needs racket, a system where help intended for students with genuine disabilities is lost in a swamp of claimants and the disgraceful efforts to “include” badly behaved students at the expense of those who do behave. Baroness Warnock, who was responsible for the creation of so much of the Special Needs system, is reported to now be in the position of disowning it:

“Mary Warnock, architect of England’s special needs education system, is to publish a damning report on how it has turned out in practice. Baroness Warnock says pressure to include pupils with problems in mainstream schools causes “confusion of which children are the casualties”. She also says the way the most severe needs are assessed is “wasteful and bureaucratic” and “must be abolished”. .. Lady Warnock says that it was expected that 2% of pupils with special needs would receive statements. That statements were actually given to 20%, she says, reflects the lack of clarity over their application.”

From http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4071122.stm

A final note: once again the word “need” has appeared when discussing a way of absolving children of moral responsibility. In the next few days I will look at this more closely.

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22 comments

  1. [...] of disability or illness. There are two main flaws in this argument, both incredibly obvious. First Source Online schools – [...]


  2. The current system is doing nobody any good. Those pupils who, for whatever reason, find being in mainstream education difficult are not served by it, the teachers find it difficult to cope with the sheer numbers of pupils in any one class who have different special needs and the rest of the class suffers when teachers have to devote the bulk of their time to dealing with poor behaviour.

    I was told at a recent training session that statistics prove that children with ASD do better when they’re in classes with “normal” children. That’s great – every child should have access to a good education, but what about the other twenty-five or so children in that class? The child with ASD may well have one to one support, but that doesn’t stop them from behaving inappropriately and disrupting a lesson, to the detriment of the other pupils.

    Last year, in one year 7 class of about twenty-two pupils, I had two (statemented) children with ASD, neither of whom could read or write, three others who were down as School Action Plus plus another two or three School Action. Those on SA+ were boys with various difficulties – all of whom were badly behaved. I don’t teach a core subject, which I imagine would be the reason given as to why I was on my own in this class with no support whatsoever. Sorry, I’m going off at a tangent, but I’m sure this is the case in a lot of “tough” schools, where the proportion of pupils with SEN is far higher than in other schools.

    Also, I’m sure that many of the diagnoses of ADHD and the like are not, in fact, accurate, but are simply the result of parents not having the ability to use the word “NO”. When kids get these labels, they tend to use them. One year 7 boy proudly told me that he had “anger management issues” a few months ago, when really, all that’s wrong with him, from my observations is that he doesn’t like it when he doesn’t get his own way. And looking through the newly updated SEN registers for my schools, I’m struck by the number of pupils who are listed simply as having “Behavioural (and Emotional) Difficulties”. Why is the fact that children are unable to behave appropriately a “special need”? (And by that, I mean the kids who don’t have a *real* medical condition to account for it).

    The Ed. psychs are too quick to assign these labels to kids who don’t merit them – which in turn means that the kids who really DO need the extra help don’t get it because finances and resources are too stretched.


  3. In fairness to the Ed Psychs, I have known a few who will rubber-stamp any claim of disability if it means the child, and also thereby the teacher, gets some support.

    It irks me that there seems to have come about some rose-tinted Ideal Of Childhood patched together from childhood novels and The Waltons. Yes, it is nice if you live in loving harmony with a happily-married parent of each sex, siblings as perfect in mind and body as you are, adequate income and nary a cloud on the horizon of those warm, sunny summer days when you climbed trees without the possibility of physical injury or the attentions of the local paedo.
    Back in the real world, it seems that any experience that diverges from the above must be classed as a medical abnormality and compensated financially.


  4. Even without the bland EdPsych reports coming in for students who seem perfectly normal to me (a big chunk of my A level physics class seem to have some official educational disability, despite getting good grades!) senior teachers can often take it all too seriously.

    If a child only ‘plays up’ in one class then the teacher has a problem (‘personality clash’ – of course I clash with agressive or rude children!), but if they destroy classes all around the school (or, indeed, in the senior teacher’s class) then it’s “don’t expect me to punish (him) as I think he’s a bit dislexic.” Don’t even wait for the ‘correct’ diagnosis of some made-up-social-itis, decide on the spot and lean on the teachers.

    It saves having to do something.


  5. I’m not a teacher, but I’ve been trawling teaching sites for some months now.The reason? Having raised one completely normal child -nicely behaved, eager to please and now serving happily in the armed forces- and one away-with -the fairies sprite who has completed her schooling by Brownwinian motion- I now have the most appallingly behaved child in one of the biggest and most mixed-intake schools in the State.
    None of the sites that I have perused ever accepts or even advances the premise that many problems are genetic.People are not a blank slate-the hardwiring is there at birth.All we can do is to try to install the right software.
    I am fully aware that the usual response of behaviouralists is to tell me that I am using biology as an excuse for my own inadequacies.
    As a parent I have obeyed every injunction and followed every suggestion.I now work part-time and spend my spare hours at the school “being involved”.My child has had enough psychologists, educational consultants and paediatrician’s opinions to deforest the Amazon and follows a home routine worthy of Colditz.
    Quite frankly the only positive effect it has had is to allow me to watch the other children at the school and to confirm my own prejudices re nurture/nature. There are children in his class who have spent their formative years in refugee camps and who face the world with optimism. A child whose mother died of a drug overdose is sweet and co-operative.The worst children seem randomly placed not just vis-a-vis their socio-economic status but in terms of their parent’s attitudes and involvement.
    I realise that I am just an amateur and that I may be self-excusing.But also- perhaps we should stop the blame game generally- stop looking for reasons and excuses and just treat the problems empirically?


  6. ["But also- perhaps we should stop the blame game generally- stop looking for reasons and excuses and just treat the problems empirically?"]

    If only it were that simple – Educational Psychology is indeed an evidence-based discipline. However, to use the theme of this post as an example, the evidence for both inclusion and separate special schools is equivocal. It is hard to pick one over the other as a universal answer when neither suit enough children to make a big difference in themselves. The answer is presumably to go for both, but we need more evidence to find out when which is preferable for any individual child.

    Consider that evidence in teaching and educated is hard to come by, it is far more affected by value judgements and pre-existing assumptions. For example, while OldAndrew is very often right to question such assumptions, he usually negates his good work by making his own equally questionable assumptions.


  7. ["The first version suggests that if a child is behaving badly in a lesson they must secretly be unable to do the work."]

    EdPsychs are pretty willing nowadays to admit that bad behaviour is not strongly correlated with academic difficulties. There is sometimes a link, but often not. I do hope that teachers also, eventually, come to realise this as a group.

    ["The second version of this argument claims that medical or psychological conditions directly cause involuntary incidents of poor behaviour."]

    The majority of Educational Psychology has been arguing, since the 70s, that problems are not so much ‘within-child’ (a hangover of the ‘child guidance clinic’ model that was strongly controlled by psychiatrists with medical assumptions) as somewhere within the systems surrounding the child (school, family, class). This explains why some students ‘play up’ in some contexts and not others.
    Therefore, I would say, this argument of medical conditions should not be made too strongly unless they have a strong basis of evidence.


  8. I’m not sure why you are talking about educational psychologists. It is only a tiny number of cases (those that are most extreme or those that have the pushiest parents) that even reach the small number of educational psychologists available. I am talking about the day to day classifying of badly behaved students as having “conditions” or “problems” that takes place instead of punishment.

    I’m somewhat shocked to hear that the evidence regarding specialist schools and inclusion is equivocal. The extent to which inclusion is failing is spectacular if anyone cares to look.


  9. [...] writes about the “Special Needs Racket” and student responsibility: The Blameless. Part 3: The Afflicted posted at Scenes From The [...]


  10. “I’m somewhat shocked to hear that the evidence regarding specialist schools and inclusion is equivocal. The extent to which inclusion is failing is spectacular if anyone cares to look.”

    It would be very worthwhile, then, for you to ask for funds in order to carry out a study in order to find this evidence.

    Does the policy of inclusion have an affect on behaviour in your classes?


  11. I realise it’s an old gambit in education discussion for teachers to be told that what they see happening in front of their eyes every day is irrelevant until “studies” are carried out to prove that it’s not some kind of mass hallucination.

    But for pity’s sake, it’s not exactly a secret. If the researchers have missed it then that isn’t so much grounds for more research as grounds to stop listening to the researchers. It took the best part of forty years for research to “show” that synthetic phonics was better than the “look at books” method. Teachers spotted it in weeks. The same goes for inclusion. We see it failing all around us. even those who advocate it tend to say things along the line of “well it would work if we had more resources” rather than “it is clearly working well”.


  12. ["It took the best part of forty years for research to “show” that synthetic phonics was better than the “look at books” method. Teachers spotted it in weeks.]

    Then why were there, and still are, teachers prepared to say that phonics is terrible because it does not teach children to enjoy reading? That ‘whole reading’ approaches do not produce ‘robots’ and is therefore better? I think you conveniently ignore the fact that not all teachers agree with you. (Although, on this point, you are right – phonics are indeed shown by research to be very effective for students who have not yet achieved the phonological skills required).

    ["The same goes for inclusion. We see it failing all around us."]
    Give me an example, please. The name of one of your previous blog posts that shows inclusion failing would be enough. Ta!


  13. [Last year, in one year 7 class of about twenty-two pupils, I had two (statemented) children with ASD, neither of whom could read or write, three others who were down as School Action Plus plus another two or three School Action.]

    Caz, I can top that. In one of my current y11 classes, of 26, FOURTEEN are labelled variously with dyslexic tendencies, SA+, SA, behaviour issues, one or two actually mentally…do we say retarded in this country?—well, challenged, at least, and 1 child on the autistic spectrum.

    To be honest, that class is one of the reasons I’m working my way out of the teaching profession. It is ridiculous.


  14. (The latest condition I have encountered, admittedly online rather than in real life, is a parent who claims her children have “impaired proprioception” a physiological condition, symptoms of which include such supposed anomalies as “crashing into things, throwing themselves onto the floor, swinging as high as they possibly can”).

    Solve this one by taking it seriously. Oh dear, Joe will never be able to drive a car or learn to dance, what a pity. We know about all the issues with defective proprioception, Ms D O Pemum, and I can enrol Joe in our Klumsy Kids try to Dance alternative to PE. 3 hours a week with other kids who can’t dance will do wonders for his self esteem out of sight of the normal proprioception kids. Sorry we can’t do anything about him never being able to drive a car/ truck/ motorbike. Never being able to play sport or use a computer keyboard may cause him some upset but I’m sure you know how best to deal with him.


  15. Sorry, forgot the really serious taking seriously.

    Here are your referrals to
    a) podiatrist – it could be his feet, gait analysis will sort it.
    b) neurologist – there are some conditions (not illnesses) that relate to this.
    c) nutritionist – ……………..
    d) pediatrician/physician …………………
    e) shoe shop – better shoes might help
    ……etc, etc, …………. anyone you can think of

    Oh you don’t think that’s necessary? Whyever not? This condition could affect his chance of ever getting a job/girlfriend/car ……..

    Ad lib the rest


  16. LOL @ adelady!
    Old Andrew, I show my husband (non-teacher; attended a Boys’ Grammar in the 60s/early 70s) your blog just so he doesn’t think I make up all the “My Day” dinner-table chit-chat for comic effect. What I am finding alarming is that he thinks that’s what you’re doing. Because he hasn’t stepped foot inside a school since he could stop going to Parents’ Evenings, he doesn’t really believe that things have got that bad. There must be millions just like him. There must also be quite a lot of teachers whose daily experience is nothing like it either.

    On the plus side, I suspect that (going back to the phonics/realbooks post) although in the past teachers have been prepared to accept the findings of “experts”, and to try new “initiatives” because they hadn’t been tried and failed before, and didn’t actually involve them in a real lot of extra work, the scales have since fallen from their eyes.

    The next move will be for the ones affected to have the strength of their convictions tested by insisting that they are not bad teachers nor unprofessional just because they refuse to accept a quasi-medical diagnosis based only on the symptoms of bad behaviour, and demand…… this is where I run out of ideas. Not sure what we can demand. More exclusions? Tie up the “experts” and poke them with sticks until they admit they’re talking rubbish?


  17. “Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires.”

    ‘Desire’ as a cause of human behaviour has its own problems. We are still, when we are discussing bad behaviour, identifying what is abnormal. We are identifying ‘abnormal desires’ that lead to unpleasant behaviour. Is there really that much of a difference, except that it fits more easily into a religious framework of ‘temptation’ and ‘sin’?

    Secondly, if we act on our desires, do we have free will? Surely, our actions are determined by these desires.


  18. We are still, when we are discussing bad behaviour, identifying what is abnormal.

    Isn’t this the very point I answered in the third paragraph?


  19. “Now identifying what is abnormal is probably a very useful principle in medicine. It is deeply flawed as a way of considering the causes of human behaviour. Our behaviour, including our bad behaviour, is based on our desires. Different people have different desires.”

    You deal with labelling behaviour as abnormal. You say this is silly. You then fall back one step and say that behaviour is caused by desires.

    Now, how do we talk about bad desires? Are we going to call them abnormal – or by some other equivalent word?


  20. I am now banging my head against the wall.

    Did you read the post about “Human Nature” before replying to it? What did you think it said about how normal it is to want to do bad things?


  21. “What did you think it said about how normal it is to want to do bad things?”

    You do indeed say that it is normal for all of us to have temptations. But the spectre of abnormality still rises up here, in the original post above:
    “The worst behaved kids will, of course, have a desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted, than that of the better behaved kids including the average (or “normal”) child.”

    You try to distance yourself from equating average with normal when, of course, this is quite impossible: what is numerically average / in the majority of the group is one main definition of what is normal. You are quite simply saying that the worst behaved kids are not average kids (and are therefore not normal (and are therefore abnormal))).

    You have not avoided the use of the word normal (and therefore its opposite, abnormal) even though you attempt to place the term under erasure with quotation marks.

    .

    .

    .

    I think that your real attempt to break with the tradition of medical abnormality, after ending using the word ‘normal’, is by saying that: “Worse, the more extreme a moral failing, the more it is claimed to be beyond conscious control”. For all your disagreement with the word ‘abnormal’, which you end up invoking anyway, your real disapproval is again on the subject of free will (or ‘conscious control’).
    Well, the stronger your desires or weaker your resistance to them (as you say: “desire to misbehave that is either stronger, or less well resisted”) surely the more acceptable reason to give in? If a weight is heavier in your hands, all the more reason to let go.

    Just because you try to avoid the word ‘abnormal’ does not make the case for conscious control of one’s failings (whether psychological or moral) any stronger


  22. You try to distance yourself from equating average with normal when, of course, this is quite impossible: what is numerically average / in the majority of the group is one main definition of what is normal.

    The point is that there isn’t an “average” human behaviour. There are common elements of human behaviour, but human beings do act differently. “Abnormal” should be saved for describing what is outside of those common elements (whatever we think they may be), not for describing all differences. Only a minority of people have blue eyes, but we wouldn’t consider it abnormal.

    You have not avoided the use of the word normal (and therefore its opposite, abnormal) even though you attempt to place the term under erasure with quotation marks.

    I put it in quotation marks to make it clear that it was a label I was commenting on, not using.



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