Good Boys gone bad…?
Updated: 29 October 2016
Some years ago I encountered ‘Johnny’ and his younger brother, ‘Harry’, at a school I taught at in a run-down town in East Yorkshire. Their behaviour tended towards the extreme – although I have come across worse in my time as a teacher! – but was not that far removed from the behaviour of many boys (and some girls!) in secondary schools in deprived areas. As I taught both boys and had Harry in my tutor group, I learned a fair amount about their backgrounds and factors which influenced their attitudes and behaviours. I developed this diagnostic case study and recommendations from those experiences.
My experiences in schools since, my conversations with other educationalists and my readings in Sociology and Psychology leave me still convinced that schools and society in general fail this kind of child. The case study is updated with more of my understanding in Integrated SocioPsychology.
‘Johnny’ was an ‘interesting’ 11-year who came to the school I was teaching at to start Year 7. He was bright, enthusiastic, eager both to learn and to show off his knowledge – almost always the first to have his hand up to answer a question. He was often ahead of the class in completing written assignments and all but shoved his completed homework into my hand the next time he saw me. Johnny was also desperate to help out: distributing text books, collecting work in, cleaning the whiteboard, etc, etc. He was loud, energised, fun and full of life.
For a while, I couldn’t help but like him.
However, Johnny would frequently shout out answers at the same time as he put his hand up. He would ask for help with his written work when he couldn’t see how to do it; but he deeply resented criticism or uninvited guidance and would shout aggressively that he could do it himself. If he offered to give out books or clean the board and was told “Not now, thanks” or “Later”, he would go into a noisy sulk, throwing his bag down and kicking chairs.
And trying to get Johnny to be quiet so I could teach the class was a losing battle!
Johnny was impulsive and compulsive to the point of seeming not being able to help himself. He also appeared to have little ingrained understanding of what was and was not socially acceptable. So he knew it was ‘wrong’ to hit another student in the class; but that didn’t stop him. When asked why, he would either say something like the other student had annoyed him or simply shrug his shoulders and say, “Don’t know”. For a while, I wondered if the problem really was me; that somehow I was pushing the wrong ‘buttons’ for Johnny. However, slowly but surely it began to become obvious that other teachers were having similar problems and clear patterns of troubled and troublesome behaviour emerged.
Inevitably, Johnny received punishments. Break detentions at first, then lunch and after-school. Letters and phone calls home followed. Johnny bitterly resented the punishments and mostly blamed others – including the teachers for disliking him and taking that dislike out on him.
And, to some significant extent, teachers did become less patient with him because they knew how disruptive he could be and began to anticipate it. Timescales he remained in class before being removed by senior management became shorter and shorter. Simply staying in class became one of the targets on his daily report.
The only effect the punishments seemed to have was to stimulate even worse behaviour. Pushing other students in class, leaping around the room from desk to desk, and simply walking out of class were just some examples of Johnny’s worsening behaviour. “For fuck’s sake!” was a frequent rejoinder to attempts to correct him; and I was just one of several teachers he told to “Fuck off!” At times Johnny had to be isolated just so the classes he was assigned to could have lessons without him disrupting them. ‘Jenny’, Johnny’s mother – separated from his father – and his grandparents were summoned into school on several occasions, he was temporarily excluded a number of times and he was threatened with permanent exclusion more than once. The respites from disruptive behaviour always proved to be brief.
At times Johnny could still be that charming young man desperate to impress. I well remember having a thoroughly enjoyable conversation about motor bikes whilst driving him home from an after-school detention. However, increasingly he became the hardened delinquent who boasted to other students about his detentions, letters home, isolations and exclusions as if they were prizes.
By the end of Year 7, Johnny was arguably the most disruptive student in that year group.
Reading this account of Johnny, you might be tempted to think there was something of the conscience-less psychopath about him; but that was not the case. From talking to him, it was clear he did have a sense of right and wrong. It was not the school’s idea of morality for sure; yet Johnny definitely had morals – even if he sometimes violated his own moral code.
As Johnny entered Year 8, embittered and as disruptive in the first week of the new term as he had been in the last week of the previous one, his younger brother, ‘Harry’, started Year 7. As my Harry was assigned to my tutor group, I got to know him fairly quickly.
He was just as enthusiastic, helpful and full of zest as Johnny had been. And he was just as impulsive and compulsive. And, because, he was Johnny’s brother, teachers thought they knew what to expect. Within a fortnight of starting, Harry had collected a number of detentions.
Being absent from school for several months through illness, I never saw the progressive deterioration in Harry’s behaviour. But I was shocked when I returned to find he was as disruptive and being as punished as much by Easter as Johnny had been at the end of Year 7.
What does the school do to them?
This repetition of descent into what was effectively delinquency started me thinking about how these two boys were when they arrived at the school and how they became as Year 7 progressed.
If you consider the deterioration in behaviour as a process, what was done – or not done – to those brothers during the school year to influence them into becoming as they were? I had never before been aware of such enthusiasm becoming so badly soured. However, once I started to think about such matters, I became aware of more students, mostly boys, whose initial enthusiasm had been progressively sapped and replaced with increasingly-disruptive behaviour.
Obviously, there were critical factors external to the school. Johnny and Harry came from the proverbial ‘broken home’, in a lower working class area of a small town high in the deprivation indices. Their parents were relatively poorly educated and had little aspiration for their children in terms of academic progress. The brothers seemed to live at different times with their mother or their grandparents – though mother was their official guardian – and to spend days at a time with their father. During Johnny’s time in Year 7, their mother, Jenny, after a series of short-term lovers, took up with ‘Bill’. Bill was a heavy drinker often out of work, whose own son, ‘Jed’, had just been permanently excluded from the school. Bill and Jed came to live with Jenny. The brothers were parcelled off to the grandparents – though they also returned to their mother’s house at times. The older Jed is known to have bullied Johnny and, in at least one incident, physically assaulted him. Bill himself is thought to have hit the boys’ mother on several occasions and to have hit Johnny too. One day Johnny turned up for school in casual clothes and without books or classroom equipment. This was because Jenny and her boys had fled to the grandparents for a few days while Bill and Jed rampaged around the house in a drunken stupor.
So clearly a lack of a suitable in-situ male role model! With drunkenness, angry shouting and sometimes violence in their house – and, from what the school could make out, little in the way of verbal teaching about manners, restraint and the ‘right way to behave’ – it was small wonder the brothers handled disappointment and frustration so badly.
At a more basic level, though, the boys simply were not safe and secure. The PURPLE vMEME’s need to find security in belonging would be disturbed by the split between the parents and quite possibly the series of short-term lovers Jenny took. Then, when the house itself became an unsafe place through the introduction of Bill and Jed, PURPLES’s security needs were pretty much shredded.
The Gravesian approach is shot through with the principle first enshrined in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) that, when a lower level of need is not met or is compromised, it impacts deleteriously on needs at a higher level.
Thus, abused and unsafe, the brothers seek from school both belonging and security (PURPLE needs) and the more complex esteem needs of the RED vMEME. Thus, they are enthusiastic and work with the teachers, requiring acceptance and belonging and wanting praise and recognition for their knowledge and skills.
So how come it goes wrong at a school populated (for the most part) by teachers committed to giving young boys and girls the best learning experience they can?
If part of the answer lies in their lack of social skills and the terrible role models they have at home, another key element is the temperaments of the brothers. It is their sheer impulsiveness and compulsiveness that makes the boys so difficult to manage in a classroom. This suggests that they are high in Psychoticism on Hans J Eysenck’s Dimensions of Temperament (Eysenck, 1967; Hans J Eysenck & Sybil B G Eysenck,1976). If so, then they will have a testosterone-fuelled natural impulsiveness – a tendency to act at that moment in time without thought or consequence.
Interestingly a literature review by Leoniek Kroneman et al (2009) found bad behaviour in class by girls more to do with coming from dysfunctional families than it was for boys. Yet boys generally are far more disruptive and often abusive and even violent. This gender difference can be attributed to the Psychoticism experienced more by boys (usually) having far higher testosterone levels than girls.
Someone high in Psychoticism will feel comfortable with the RED vMEME dominating their thinking. Since RED’s drive for esteem means it won’t be shamed, the brothers won’t back down when confronted by authority. The teachers’ criticisms and punishments further undermine PURPLE’s search for security and belonging. Into that gap – something like a dangerous jungle – ‘C’ life conditions, to use the Clare W Graves (1970) original nomenclature – it is only natural for the ‘P’ RED vMEME to assert itself even more aggressively. (Graves conceived that the internal systems we now call ‘vMEMES’ operate as a match to the prevailing life conditions.)
With RED – the peak manifestation of Sigmund Freud’s (1923b) Id – having no sense of consequences beyond the immediate, the brothers assert themselves in ways both to express themselves and to win praise from others than the teachers – ie: other students, especially the poorly-behaving ones. Thus, they gain some acceptance for PURPLE. Thus, the brothers take pride in detentions, letters home, isolations and exclusions. They have achieved something: they are esteemed among the ‘baddest’!
Nicholas Emler (1984) calls this seeking for recognition through poor behaviour, when recognition through good is not forthcoming, reputation management.
Does the school system fail them?
RED’s drive for recognition and esteem, underpinned, by PURPLE’s need for safety in belonging, can lead to shifts in identity when one behavioural route is closed.
Using Robert Dilts’ Neurological Levels model (1990), we will assume that Johnny and Harry initially came to the school with the Identity of Student. Their Values & Beliefs centred around pleasing the teacher and doing well – reflected to a considerable degree in their Behaviour and their enthusiasm for developing the appropriate Skills & Knowledge to do that.
However, the effect of their Psychoticist impulsiveness is that much of their Behaviour results in what the famous Behaviourist B F Skinner (1938) called positive punishment: they act – eg: shouting out the answer – and are punished directly for it. Some other Behaviour can be construed as being met with negative punishment: they act – eg: ask to clean the whiteboard – and are punished by the removal of something prized when they are told they can’t. If the boys’ consequent kicking of chairs and grumbling produces a reaction from the teacher such as being told they won’t be allowed to clean the board for weeks, then this only adds to the negative punishment! Since RED won’t admit to the shame of having done wrong, the in-between kicking and grumbling is deleted and the asking to clean the whiteboard is linked directly to the extended removal of permission to clean the board.In these kinds of scenario RED can’t win. It wants esteem and behaves in a way which should get it but is undermined by the very Psychoticism which so often is so accommodating to the RED vMEME.
So when the Value of esteem sets in motion Behaviour which results in punishment for that Behaviour, the confusion leads to the neurological levels becoming misaligned. Since RED will continue to seek esteem, it sets in motion other Behaviour that will win it esteem and PURPLE acceptance. Thus, Behaviour which upsets the teacher but wins praise and acceptance from other ‘naughty’ students. Now, what Skinner called positive reinforcement takes place: act – upset the teacher – and receive a reward – praise from other students. Linking these models in this way, we can see how disaffected students like Johnny and Harry achieve reputation management. Since Values rarely exist in the psyche in isolation to each other, this model of reinforcement shows how the core Values of esteem and acceptance will now become associated with Values of disobedience and disruption rather than obedience and achievement. And this eventually impacts upon Identity. ‘Student’ gets replaced with ‘Bad Boy’. And once that Identity starts to form, all the punishments serve to reinforce this Identity and predicate the kind of Behaviour a ‘Bad Boy’ should engage in.
So the school system unwittingly facilitates the transformation of the likes of Johnny and Harry from enthusiastic but undisciplined Students into hardcore Bad Boys. Effectively labelling, this works out in 2 ways:-
- The teachers see the Johnny and Harry as Bad Boys and anticipate ‘bad’ behaviour and are cognitively primed to take action against them at the first indication of misbehaviour – thus, the shorter and shorter times the boys remain in class before being ejected
- Johnny and Harry accept this label and act up to it – a self-fulfilling prophecy – because of the reward it brings them from other Bad Boys
There are 2 further factors in the school’s unwitting facilitation of the boy’s transformation:-
- Its lack of compensatory training in social skills for those who lack them
- Its inability to handle Psychoticist impulsiveness.
The case for training in parenting skills and for social & personality assessment
So now we have some understanding of how the likes of Johnny and Harry end up as major league troublemakers, the question is: what do we do about it? What should we do about it? What can we do about it?
With regard to the kind of domestic circumstances these boys lived in, some might argue they would be better off being taken from their mother and placed in (local authority) care. However, research, such as that of Nancy Newton Verrier (1993), has increasingly shown over the years that children who stay with their natural families fare better than those who are taken into care and/or fostered. (Unless, of course, the children would be at serious risk of physical harm in the family home.) It is reasonable to assume, from the classic studies of developmental psychologists like John Bowlby (1953) and Mary Ainsworth et al (1978), that this is due to PURPLE’s need for attachment being even more damaged when children are removed from the parents.)
On the other hand parenting classes have been shown consistently to be highly beneficial for both struggling parents and their unruly children when the parents are willing to undertake such training (Martin Bright with Richard Colville, 2004). Which brings in the question of whether the likes of Jenny and Bill can be persuaded to attend such a programme. People with such attitudes and behavioural patterns are usually ‘damaged’ themselves at the PURPLE level and are dominated in an unhealthy way by RED in their thinking . RED would most likely resist suggestions they should seek help voluntarily because that could be construed by others as weakness and incompetence – amounting to a lack of esteem.
Since February 2004 local authorities in England have had powers to refer ‘dysfunctional’ families to courts for the imposition of parenting orders before actual criminal convictions occur. Take up of these powers has been patchy across the country and magistrates inconsistent in their use of parenting orders. Moreover, opinion amongst social workers and parenting class facilitators is mixed as to how effective such programmes are when the parents are forced to attend and don’t really want to be there (Stephen Scott, Thomas O’Connor & Annabel Futh, 2006; Amanda Craig, 2012).
However, compulsion may be the only way to get the likes of Jenny and Bill to such classes – and research has shown that some unwilling participants do learn from them and do make real improvements in their family situations. In cases such as Jenny and Bill’s, some form of counselling and/or therapy, such as Penny Parks’ Inner Child Therapy (1994), should be given to them concurrently with the classes to enable them to address the underlying causes of their own destructive behaviours. Parenting classes often make powerful use of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy concepts; but, while such strategies can lead to substantial changes in behaviour, they rarely get to the root of the kind of problems Jenny and Bill have and which may well then manifest themselves in other ways.
Through such means as parenting classes and therapeutic interventions to enable the parents themselves to deal with their attitudes and behaviours, more stable and nurturing home lives can be built for children like Johnny and Harry. With parents more able to instruct their offspring in the ‘right way to behave’ and setting better examples to model by their own behaviour, there is more likelihood of these vulnerable children developing the kind of social skills necessary to prosper in the school environment.
Even so, schools would be well advised to assess the social skills of their students on a regular basis and to provide compensatory training where they are lacking. To some extent, primary schools do provide a degree of social skills training; but, for many students, what is provided is not enough. What little social skills training is provided formally in secondary tends to be through agencies like Connexions and often is given only to hardened delinquents from late in Year 8 onwards – by which time it usually too late to make much difference.
Where social skills are lacking in children high in Psychoticism, it is critical compensatory measures are taken well before they go to secondary school.
In relation to the Psychoticist impulsiveness that derails the enthusiasm of so many young boys in the first couple of years of secondary school, I would recommend that Psychoticism be tested for annually from at least Year 4 on. This is to enable early signs of high Psychoticism to be identified and action taken before the students affected leave the much safer environment of primary school and are faced with the challenges of secondary.
It also important to be aware of those high in Psychoticism as they are more likely to be driven to extremes by the increasing dominance of the RED vMEME in thinking which most young people experience – boys especially! – as they pass through puberty and enter their teens.
Hans J Eysenck developed several psychometric tests for his Dimensions of Temperament construct – though these were aimed at adults and would need to be adapted for younger children. As with almost all psychometrics, allowance would need to be built in for margins of error. However, teachers and teaching assistants can be trained to recognise Psychoticist behaviours as a back-up to ‘pen & paper’ assessments.
Since, according to Eysenck (and others like Jerome Kegan, 1984), natural temperament is biologically based, children high in Psychoticism are likely to display Psychoticist patterns of behaviour from an early age. Since Eysenck believed the level of Psychoticism was due largely to the amount of testosterone in the system, we should expect more boys to display Psychoticist impulses – especially with the onset of puberty. They are also more likely to be driven by the RED vMEME’s drive for self-expression and esteem than those who are at the opposite end (Impulse Control) of this dimension. (Those with little or no Psychoticism are likely to be accommodating almost to the point of servility and will usually be driven by PURPLE’s need for safety and belonging.)
So we have a range of temperamental characteristics and patterns of behaviour which can be observed and categorised and predictions made as to likely future activity. And, of course, it should be possible to analyse such bodily fluids as urine for testosterone content.
Therapeutic interventions, based on these assessment, will not only offer children the opportunity to develop key life skills but they may even bring about some degree of epigenetic modification, leading to ‘difficult’ temperaments becoming naturally less difficult’.
Of course, the GREEN vMEME will protest both at the potential infringement of civil liberties/human rights such assessments could be construed as and the fact that it is a test for difference between people, rather than an assumption of equality. Meanwhile ORANGE will bemoan the cost and BLUE pooh-pooh anything that might sound like an excuse for poor behaviour. However, since the British school system is failing thousands of children like Johnny and Harry each year, clearly something has to be done. From a 2nd Tier pragmatic perspective, it is a case of what needs to be done to help make classes better places of learning and more people better able to manage unhelpful temperaments.
As I argued in the Blog post Formation more than Education, schools need to be more than just academic achievement. They need to be about the development of the whole person. A more rounded ‘personality’ is likely to be more successful in the learning environment.