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Kids behaving badly
'Three years ago, my site manager was put on the Christmas party list of the local glaziers', said Geoff Allen, Headteacher at Westfield School in Bucks. 'That's not a joke. I had to do something - I could not watch any more of my staff being seriously injured. But this stuff works, it really works.'
Allen was speaking at 'Kids behaving badly: How neuroscience can help', an event in Whitehall organised by the Learning Skills Foundation and Centre for Educational Neuroscience. The two bodies are working together to raise the profile of research and provide a bridge to practical application, and it was heartening to hear such positive reactions from those on the 'front line'.
The first talk had come from Essi Viding, Reader in Developmental Psychopathology at University College London and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience. She showed how charting the neurocognitive profile of different subtypes of children with antisocial behaviour may give important clues for intervention. Of particular interest are those children displaying callous-unemotional (CU) traits: a lack of empathy and remorse, and a shallow and insincere affect. Antisocial children who do not display CU traits may be impulsive, learn from 'time out' anger management training and are heavily influenced by parenting style. But CU kids are more premeditated, severe and persistent in their antisocial behaviour, show little link to parenting style and do not benefit from 'time out'. As Geoff Allen would say later, 'a few years ago our approaches were often not more subtle than a chapter in a Dickens novel - if you are nice to people they'll be nice to you. But these children don't give a monkey's. They don't want a reciprocal relationship, they want to be in control. We learnt not to use those approaches.'
So what's going on in the brains of these children? We might have known that the pesky amygdala would be implicated: it seems to be getting a bad press in all sorts of areas these days. Viding and colleagues, as well as other research groups, have found lower amygdala activity to fearful emotional faces in adolescents with CU traits, as compared with healthy comparison adolescents and those with ADHD. Children with high levels of CU also focus less on the critical eye region when they process fear - could this be at the root of their problems with emotional reactivity? Other research looked at the prefrontal cortex, finding abnormal activity when punished during a trial, along with increased grey matter suggestive of a maturational delay. All of this research suggests a neural basis for why antisocial children with CU lack empathy for others' distress, make poor behavioural choices and have difficulty learning from their mistakes. Importantly, it leads to a very different intervention approach compared with that traditionally used with emotional behaviour disordered children, becoming more about instant rewards for good behaviour - a focus on what good behaviour 'gets the child' - and less about relying on empathy.
Next up was Norah Frederickson, Professor of Educational Psychology at UCL and CEN, and Senior Educational Psychologist for Buckinghamshire County Council. She pointed to a new Green Paper Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability, which states: 'We want to ensure that assessments of SEN and any assessments of children displaying challenging behaviour, by any professional, identify the root causes of the behaviour rather than focus on the symptoms.' So are the characteristics associated with CU traits considered in planning bullying prevention and intervention programmes? Not according to Frederickson. Those seeking to utilise awareness of the distress caused and engage empathy are doomed to fail with CU children, 'zero tolerance' sanctions have little impact on those who are unable to learn from punishment, and skills training runs the risk of giving skilled social manipulators further ammunition.
Surveillance and incentives, said Frederickson, have the best chance with CU children. In Westfield Primary, staff trained by educational psychologist Laura Warren and led by senior teacher Tara Deakes have introduced strategies that include short targets for good behaviour with immediate rewards; 'emotional thermometers' to help children recognise the impact of their emotions on their body and readiness to term; and SMART thought chains to encourage accurate, helpful and socially desirable cognitions. Externalising problems (conduct, aggression, hyperactivity) are down significantly in the high CU group.
For anyone feeling uncomfortable about a focus on brain and biology, discussant Uta Frith (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) had a simple and confident message: 'We do much better for some children in recognising the biological bases of their behaviour.' And from Geoff Allen's passionate perspective, befitting a headteacher: 'What this team has done has allowed me to employ another teacher rather than replacing windows.'
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