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What I Didn’t Say During the INSET day on Special Educational Needs

September 10, 2010

To begin our INSET day we were directed to sit in departmental groups and given details of an origami model to make.

“What do you think the learning objective of this activity is?” we were asked.

“To make a paper model.”

“To work effectively as a group.”

“Excellent. What does ‘working effectively as a group’ mean?”

“It means everybody takes a turn and plays a part.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

What I didn’t say: “But that’s ridiculous. Effectiveness is to do with achieving your aims. How many people play a part is entirely different to whether people play that part effectively. The group might be at its most effective if only the most effective people contribute”.

Then we got on with our folding. The SENCO started shouting at the teachers at one of the tables, saying things which seemed to suggest he was motivated by sheer despair and hatred. I put my head down and ignored it. After a few minutes we were stopped and told the origami and teamwork was just a ploy, we were actually going to talk about dealing with SEN children.

“Did anyone think that argument was real?” asked the SENCO.

No hands went up.

“How did it make you feel? How would it make you feel if you were a child in a classroom when something like that happened?”

What I didn’t say: “Patronised”.

“Scared of the teacher.”

“Scared to ask for help.”

“Yes that’s right.”

What I didn’t say: “You do get that most arguments in classrooms are started by students? Are you aware that in year 9 there are several boys who start shouting at you the moment you ask them to work or to stop chatting with their friends? If you ask them to be quiet, or tell them why they need to work, they shout even more. If you try to punish one of them then he’ll pull out a card saying he has permission to go to the SENCO if he feels stressed. Those boys have become unteachable and it is your fault. Sometimes they look for some kind of excuse for the argument, like claiming they are picked on. A lot of the time they don’t even bother; the other day I had two of them go off at once because I told them I’d be looking to see how much work they had done at the end of the lesson.”

“Quite often, when a teacher shouts at an SEN student it is because the student hasn’t actually understood what they were supposed to do”.

What I didn’t say: “They have a legion of teaching assistants to do their work for them in this school. What’s to understand?”

After a few more attempts to blame the teachers the main speaker arrived. He was a “behaviour expert” who worked for the Local Authority. After a quick explanation of what challenging behaviour he asked us to discuss in groups and write down what students do to annoy us. Lots of sensible suggestions (talking out of turn, throwing, refusing to work etc.) were suggested.

What I didn’t say: “I know what behaviour most annoys me: Pulling out a card saying they can leave the room if they are challenged about their behaviour or effort”.

Then we were asked to do a similar exercise about what we do to wind up the students.

Answers were along the lines of:

“Telling them off when somebody else is also misbehaving.”

“Not praising their work.”

“Not explaining clearly what they have to do.”

“Giving them work that’s too difficult.”

What I didn’t say:

“Asking them to sit down.”

“Asking them to work.”

“Enforcing the rules.”

“What you need to understand is that behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. The behaviour is just the symptom. The rest of the iceberg, below the water, is the cause of the behaviour. Their frustrations. Their poor social skills. Their home situation.”

What I didn’t say: “This is a model for natural phenomena, not the choices of human beings. We don’t have ‘causes’ we have motives: things that make us want to do bad things.  And all human beings have motives to do wrong, they aren’t caused by social or medical deficiencies, they are just part of what it is to be human. Whether we act on those motives is a question of right and wrong. You have to choose to do what is right and you have to resist temptation to do wrong. How are they going to do this if we act as if their choices are symptoms of an underlying condition beyond their control?”

“We should ask ourselves if their behaviour prevents them from doing anything else. Whether it causes damage or danger. Whether it causes distress to the individual themselves or harm to others. If the answer is no, then why try to change it?”

What I didn’t say: “Because we are not isolated atomised individuals; whatever one child is allowed to do will be copied by other children. Whatever is acceptable will become normal. Whatever is normal they will continue to do out in the real world. This will cost them opportunities in life. If we tell them that rules are not to be followed unless there is an immediate, obvious harm caused by breaking them, then by the time they try to enter the workplace they by adulthood they will be unemployable and probably criminal.”

“The important thing is to judge the behaviour not the child.”

What I didn’t say: “If you are saying that we should not write off any kid as irredeemably evil then fair enough. But you cannot separate a person from their behaviour.  From the point of view of other human beings we are our behaviour. That’s all we see of other people’s minds, their external behaviour. To treat somebody as if their behaviour is not part of who they are is to treat them as a machine not a human being.  Human beings get to shape their own behaviour, and it would be downright dangerous to tell them they are not responsible for what they do.”

“Now let’s talk about body language.”

What I didn’t do: Pull out a card saying I could leave.

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31 comments

  1. Did you receive any practical advice on how to get the children to behave/work?


    • On an INSET day?

      Of course not.


      • If only you loved them more, you wouldn’t have these problems. That’s all there is to it. You are clearly unfit to teach.


  2. do you have any forum where you can express what you want to say? even if it’s just down the pub?


    • Depends how broadly you define “forum”. You might express an opinion to a like-minded colleague. There is no way to change things, particularly not in the dictatorial atmosphere of the last 3 years.


  3. Great post.


  4. SENCOs know that their clients need a quiet learning environment, especially the ones diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, or PDDNOS, don’t they? Such a safe classroom in which throwing a tantrum is unacceptable must be enforced by the teacher. If we allow students to violate rules because of a supposedly innate deficiency we teach them to be outlaws.


  5. every one of the red paragraphs above should be printed, enlarged and laminated and then put on the wall in every SEN dept in the country.

    not wishing to adopt the tones of a serial sycophant but this was an inspired post. i have sat in countless insets over the years being patronised like this. i thought u captured the experience wonderfully.

    i am delighted to report though that in one of my schools i taught at, the inset was sooo patronising and inept the staff revolted and sent the external inset provider on their way.

    and on a similar theme, i once had a “behaviour consultant” deliver a lesson in front of 10+ colleagues and the students behaviour got so bad I eventually had to intervene. (to be fair the guy was actually very capable, its just that it was a very difficult class and to his credit he was not disgruntled at my assistance). but at the same time it somewhat undermined his 60 minute inset address before the demonstration lesson.


  6. One of the great things about being a teacher of some 30 years now coming to the end of my career is that I can (and do) say a these kind of things during our inset days in the sure and certain knowledge that I am virtually fireproof having good results and not wanting career advancement. Of course, the consequence is that the SMT regard me as an old curmudgeon (I think the current buzzword is a “drainer”) but – heigh ho, I generally enjoy my lessons still and the kids generally do too and I am on top of my subject so……life is reasonably sweet!


  7. Andrew.

    We knew this day would come.

    The Government are asking for YOUR view on the SEN racket.

    http://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=consultationDetails&consultationId=1736&external=no&menu=1


  8. I am especially interested in the comment: “They have a legion of teaching assistants to do their work for them in this school. What’s to understand?”

    As a sub, I often experienced that the kids who received special help didn’t pay attention to the lesson and didn’t even try to understand what was going on. As soon as they got their assignment, they left to go to the tutor (or aide or whatever) and the adult pretty much told them all of the answers.

    Even the regular kids have picked up on this. You don’t have to listen to the lesson, because all you have to do is say afterwards, “I don’t understand” and the teacher will give you a personalized and simplified version of the lesson. If you still say, “I don’t understand”, you often get several free answers, as the teacher works through the material “with” you.


  9. Laura, that is exactly what happens in my lessons and has for many years. Sometimes i have students that are so weak they really couldn’t follow a normal lesson and I wonder why they are even there but most have just been made lazy due to their servant adult.

    Sometimes u come across a good sen TA who circulates around the class, has good subject knowledge and won’t Molly coddle the kids. Good ones will say “answer it yourself, look it up yourself, listen to instructions”. They only offer support when it’s really required. They are not quite as popular as other TAs perhaps but they are much more effective.

    Oldandrew has mentioned the government research suggesting TAs lower standards. I could have told him that long before any research body looked into it. Lowering expectations always lowers standards. Why should sen students be any different?


  10. The medicalisation of poor behaviour continues unabated; at least through things like your blog we can see that it’s not an isolated phenomena. The central danger of this style of thinking is that if we reduce human behaviour to nothing more than a collection of biological predispositions, we end up dispensing with the concept of Free Will. And you can do that if you like, but there are consequences of adopting that paradigm; the most serious of which is that the concepts of responsibility, praise and blame become meaningless.

    Oh, and it eventually falls off the cliff into the abyss of nihilism and solipsism, where nothing means anything, and nothing matters.

    Which I imagine is DfE policy.

    http://behaviourguru.blogspot.com/


    • Hey, this is almost as cool as when Dan Willingham commented on my blog. (Although nowhere near as cool as when Sue Cowley linked to me complaining I couldn’t have read her book.)

      I have now added your blog to my blogroll and ordered your book on Amazon.


    • “there are consequences of adopting that paradigm; the most serious of which is that the concepts of responsibility, praise and blame become meaningless.”
      The title of C.S.Lewis’ The Abolition of Man sums up what I think he would see as the far more serious consequence of adopting this ideology. Judging from Andrew’s blog, this ideology has already long been adopted, hasn’t it?


  11. I now understand much better why you referred to Lewis’ essay on punishment. The importance of choice is neatly summed up in “Morality and Psychoanalysis” (Chapter 4, Book 3 of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”).
    “What you need to understand is that behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. The behaviour is just the symptom. The rest of the iceberg, below the water, is the cause of the behaviour. Their frustrations. Their poor social skills. Their home situation.”

    What I didn’t say: “This is a model for natural phenomena, not the choices of human beings. We don’t have ‘causes’ we have motives: things that make us want to do bad things. And all human beings have motives to do wrong, they aren’t caused by social or medical deficiencies, they are just part of what it is to be human. Whether we act on those motives is a question of right and wrong. You have to choose to do what is right and you have to resist temptation to do wrong. How are they going to do this if we act as if their choices are symptoms of an underlying condition beyond their control?”


  12. “Excellent. What does ‘working effectively as a group’ mean?”
    “It means everybody takes a turn and plays a part.”

    What I didn’t say: “But that’s ridiculous. Effectiveness is to do with achieving your aims. How many people play a part is entirely different to whether people play that part effectively. The group might be at its most effective if only the most effective people contribute”.

    This is really putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it? What the INSET person is saying is that “everybody taking a turn and playing a part” is more important than achieving the aims; or maybe that THAT is what the aim is!


  13. I have had a number of runins with oldandrew over the years.

    I have been annoyed sometimes by the way he has perhaps presented a negative view.

    I now teach in an academy (since sept). I now understand oldandrew’s frustrations. I can see where oldandrew is coming from and for all of those “know it all” comments I made I apologise.

    I have also been in a similar INSET since returning from the summer break. I too would dearly love to start a blog describing my experiences but I have no idea how to ensure that I remain anonymous and according to the policies issued since Sept I would need to remain anonymous.

    Because of oldandrew I have started to read neuroscience (including Willingham), psychology, philosophy and cognitive science.

    This post is spot on and typifies the situation in which incompetent people attempt to impart wisdom in subjects they know less about than the gathered flock.

    I find myself in the embarassing position of having to apologise to oldandrew and ask that if anyone can offer advice on how to run a blog anonymously (ip addresses,internet providers etc) then please give me the nod.

    To oldandrew…i hope you will acept my apology.


  14. I saw “everybody taking a turn and playing a part” as the moderator setting up the rules that everyone should play nice and not question the pre-programmed discussion that followed.

    Battleground, I professionally love you.


  15. “It means everybody takes a turn and plays a part”

    The above is a first step to working effectively. Many children I teach spend a long time on this first step having no experience of it anywhere else.

    Agree entirely about children being allowed to use anything they can as an excuse for their poor behaviour. Recently my own son told me about his friend who couldn’t help getting into fights because he has ‘AM’ (Anger Management). The irony of his comment amused me and made me despair at the same time.


    • Chestnut wrote, ““It means everybody takes a turn and plays a part”. The above is a first step to working effectively.”

      There is voluntary cooperation, and forced cooperation. It helps to know the difference between the two.


    • I know 2 boys from a primary class several years ago, one had anger management issues and if he ate or drank certain things would be very volatile, his parents said he had to learn to control his behaviour and deal with the consequences of his actions, he is now on his way to a top university with grades As at a level. Another boy in the same class was exceptionally bright, he knew how to wind up the first boy and often did so. Whenever he was caught out and school tried to punish him his mum would say they were picking on him because he was from a traveller background and it was racism. Never his fault. He is not yet 20 but in prison for murder. All children have to learn to take responsibility for their actions. Some find it much easier than others to behave in an appropriate fashion but we do them and society in general no favours if we do not teach from the outset that there are consequences both good and bad to whatever we do and they make the choice on how they behave.


      • This is a very fundamental point. At some point children have to take responsibility for what they do. It strikes me as preferable for this to be “being naughty at school” rather than “stabbing someone”.

        I do have some sympathy with the murderer though ; you wonder how many of these wouldn’t have progressed this far if they’d been made to face the music earlier.


  16. OldAndrew. I followed your link from Ben’s Bad Science blog and was interested to see what you were writing about. I’ve spent some time (as a psychologist) working with the kind of kids who cause the problems in your classes. And I’ve also come across the kind of dubious advice and strategies that you highlight. And you have my sympathies. That said (to state the obvious), I believe it is helpful to understand both the motives of children and the underlying causes of their behaviour (both of which many children and their parents do not have great insight into). My hope would be that a GOOD SENCO or educational psychologist would be useful here – both to help the child to behave and to help the teacher with effective strategies to reduce unwanted behaviour.

    I would say the SENCO is correct to say:
    “….the behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg…. the cause of the behaviour. Their frustrations. Their poor social skills. Their home situation.”

    But the SENCO needs to use this information to develop clear and logical strategies to help reduce bad behaviour. Sometimes the intervention may be best done in the home environment, but when this is impossible; intervention in the school environment may be the only option. The behaviour cannot be accepted just because the causes are better understood. As you say (or imply), accepting the behaviour makes it more likely to occur again.

    I’m interested in the idea that a child can just hold up a card to go and see the SENCO when they are behaving badly. I’m certainly not a specialist in child psychology, but in my limited time working with schools I’ve seen similar strategies rather too many times.

    The strategy demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of basic behavioural principles. Not only is the card seen to excuse bad behaviour – the way the card works provides clear positive reinforcement for their bad behaviour (child misbehaves -> child gets to see nice SENCO and get out of lesson -> child more likely to misbehave. As far as I am aware the only effective way to manage such behaviour is to have consistent, non-reinforcing consequences for unwanted behaviour. This is of course, easier said then done… But anyhow, a SENCO who does not have a clear understanding of these principles should perhaps reconsider their job.
    It must be incredibly frustrating to have to work in a system where such ill thought out strategies are enforced.

    Ok, clearly too much internet commenting this past week – and apologies for following you over from the other blog. Goodnight and Goodluck!


  17. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11287193 has an article about SEN, and its widespread misdiagnosis.


  18. My experience of SEN in a secondary environment is that the majority of SEN children have been failed way down the line, and simply cannot access the work whatsoever — in so far as they are illiterate at 14 years old and no one has ever picked it up.

    Interestingly, I have found that the conventionally SEN children (with autism etc) have never been the ones that act up in class.

    Years ago, I read a piece of research about male youths, depression and anti-social behaviour. The initial hypothesis was that depression could be the cause of male youth anti-social behaviour … until the researchers realised that it was actually the other way round, the male youths’ bad behaviour caused them to be depressed because of the antagonistic reactions people gave them in light of their bad behaviour.


  19. I have had similar esperiences Alex.

    It always amuses me when people say that student behaviour is not the responsibility of the students themselves. And that in some cases misbehaviour is a symptom of some SEN/medical condition.

    But I recall as a rookie teacher, observing total mayhem in front of me, powerless to stop it- then the Head of Dept would walk in….. and guess what?…. all these apparent lunatics suddenly knew how to behave!

    shirts were furtively tucked in, books suddenly opened, quiet studious work suddenly descended. “Yes sir, 3 bags full sir” what little angels they became.

    Of course, with a few years under your belt, in the right school, you become that teacher yourself. One walks into a rookies room and quiet descends- and the teacher cant beleive the ‘control’ you have.

    Of course its all mind tricks- but dont let anyone tell you the kids cannot help it.

    99.999% of the time a kid knows precisely what they are doing and why something is wrong/disrepectful.

    They CHOOSE their behaviour. And because it goes unpunished it becomes habit, an entitlement.

    Adults are just the same. Anyone use a mobile phone whilt driving in the past 2 years? You know its naughty, but you know you would be unlucky to get caught-so many still do it. When the fines increase and they start improving monitoring then no one will do it.

    SEN kids get away with murder for nearly a decade because no-one forces them to do something they dont want to do. Schools need to have the guts for the war of attrition that causes lazy kids to capitulate and engage properly with appropraitely challnging work.

    i have seen it happen. it aint pretty but it works


  20. “… there’s no such thing as free will. We can’t help what we are or what we do. It’s not our fault. Nobody’s to blame for anything. It’s all in your background and … and your glands. If you’re good, that’s no achievement of yours – you were just lucky in your glands. If you’re rotten, nobody should punish you – you were unlucky, that’s all.”
    “Substantially correct,” said Toohey. “To be logical, however, we should not think of punishment for those who are rotten. Since they suffered through no fault of their own, since they were unlucky and underendowed, they should deserve a compensation of some sort – more like a reward.”["The Fountainhead", Ayn Rand 1943.]

    This philosophy has been around a long time, as evinced by the above quote. It will not go away quickly.


  21. [...] background. A secondary school teacher in Britain posted this funny-but-sad blog entry about his experience at a recent INSET day. This bit caught my attention (the first graf is the [...]


  22. Good post, OldAndrew.

    A topic I would like a comment on is “Teach First”. I have read about it in British and US media, but it has now started up in challenging schools in Oslo, Norway.



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