Challenging Behaviour

Behaviour: teachers can see the signs of violence

Murder in mind
Features | Published in TES Magazine on 15 May, 2009 | By: Nick Morrison


Teachers are particularly well placed to spot children at risk of becoming violent offenders. But what are the warning signs, and what can be done to halt the decline into criminality?

After his son’s murderer had been convicted, Barry Mizen said he had been struck by a remark made by the killer’s primary school teacher. The teacher, Mr Mizen told a press conference, said he was “not surprised” to hear that Jake Fahri had committed murder.

Tom Crispin feels he has been misquoted. As Fahri’s only male primary teacher, he says the comment must have come from him, although he has no recollection of making it. But he does remember talking about the boy he taught at a south London primary school more than a decade ago.

“I remember Jake Fahri well,” says Mr Crispin. “When people have asked me about him I have recounted the comment of a colleague in the staffroom all those years ago: ‘If you held him under water for 10 minutes, he would still come up smiling’. Such was the arrogance of the boy that no matter what sanction was imposed against him, it would have little or no effect.”

Arrogance, imperviousness to punishment, lack of remorse, all fit the classic description of a sociopath, an individual with little or no social emotions, or conscience. Such an absence can make sociopaths prone to antisocial behaviour, including violence and crime. Even at an early age, many of the signs are visible, so can teachers spot children who may go on to commit violent crime? And if so, can they do anything to stop their pupils turning into criminals?

Barry Mizen certainly feels his son’s killer could have been stopped. Fahri was convicted in March for the murder of 16-year-old Jimmy Mizen, killed during a fight in a bakery when Fahri threw a glass dish at him, which shattered and pierced his neck. For Fahri, the only exceptional aspect of the altercation was the consequences. His life up to then had been punctuated with violence. Any absence of surprise at his fate seems entirely understandable.

After John Ball Primary School in Blackheath, London, Fahri went to Crown Woods School in Eltham, where he is said to have bullied other pupils and attacked them in front of teachers. He was suspended, but by the time he was 16 he had three convictions for violence, although he escaped jail each time. “He could have been identified a long time ago,” Mr Mizen told the press conference.

Professor Sheilagh Hodgins, head of the forensic mental health science department at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, believes teachers are in a particularly good position to identify future offenders. “There is a very small number of individuals who commit between 50 and 70 per cent of all violent crimes, who show an early-onset pattern,” she says. “Teachers are well placed to spot them because they are good observers and they have this large reference group.”

But this doesn’t mean all children with similar behaviour problems become serial offenders. Professor Hodgins says research in this area has pinpointed some temperamental and neurological differences between those who go on to commit violent crimes and those who do not. These only become apparent through extensive testing and also only show likelihood rather than cause and effect. “You can’t pick out a three-year-old and say this is a future persistent offender,” she adds.

It will come as no surprise that the characteristics in question include an inability to follow rules, aggressive behaviour, bullying, disrupting lessons, inability to defer gratification and an extreme reaction when they don’t get what they want. The signs are often visible by reception age, says Professor Hodgins.

She argues there should be a more comprehensive use of tools to help teachers spot children at risk, and cites scoring systems used in some European countries, where children are marked on a range of factors including physical health and behaviour, as one option. “We need to get teachers to identify children with conduct problems as early as possible, and then carry out a more complete assessment of the child and their family,” she says.

Signs of possible future offending are likely to be routinely picked up by teachers, says Kairen Cullen, an educational psychologist based in London. It will usually be apparent when a child’s behaviour is impeding their development. A propensity to break rules is particularly apparent. “Schools are very rule-bound places so they’re an ideal barometer of how well children follow rules,” she says.

But while certain types of behaviour can indicate a propensity for future violence, particularly where there is a family background of criminality, mental health problems or drug use, there is a danger in assuming this will add up to an offender in the making. Classifying a young person as a potential criminal could end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they live up to other people’s low expectations of them.

“It is a challenge for schools not to use this as evidence against a child,” Ms Cullen says. “Obviously they’re more vulnerable, often because some of the adult norms are not available, but there are so many other factors. It is a nonsense to make long-term predictions – it is too complex a situation and there are too many variables.”

She says how a child develops depends on their character traits and environment, and the interaction between the two. “We can’t predict how many opportunities and temptations might be waiting for each individual.”

While many children who become violent criminals fit this stereotype, others do not. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables both had troubled home lives and chequered school careers, but were not considered potentially violent by their teachers, although Venables once tried to choke another boy with a ruler. Thompson was a regular truant, but when he did attend school he was viewed as manipulative rather than a troublemaker. Venables was referred to an educational psychologist after he banged his head against a wall, cut himself with scissors and tore at his own clothing. There was little in their background to suggest the 10-year-olds were capable of serious violence against others, until they abducted and murdered two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993.

There will always be exceptions, but many teachers do feel it is possible to spot future criminals nonetheless. “Absolutely you can tell, sometimes from the minute they come into secondary school in Year 7,” says Jo Shuter, headteacher at Quintin Kynaston School in north London.

O ne of the first signs is lack of academic progress, suggesting family or health issues are creating a barrier to learning, as well as disruptive behaviour. “Children aren’t badly behaved for the sake of it,” says Ms Shuter, a former Teaching Awards headteacher of the year. “For most young people, disaffection is a sign of some underlying problem.”

She cites two former pupils who have recently been jailed for violent offences, one for armed robbery, the other for assault. Teachers identified both girls as potentially at risk of committing offences, but both were regular truants, and not in school often enough for any interventions to make much difference. “We knew they might be in trouble with the police. We tried everything, but we couldn’t hang on to them. It is not surprising that both ended up in prison at one time or another.”

James Williams, a lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, recalls a pupil from his days as a science teacher at a north London secondary, whose schooldays were studded by attacks on staff. “It came as no surprise when he was constantly in trouble with police,” he says. “It was not difficult to spot.”

He says some children have certain traits, such as maintaining a lie in the face of overwhelming evidence, challenging authority, and aggressive behaviour, that, while not always translating into criminal behaviour, make it less unexpected.

But if experts believe it is so easy to identify many of the children who will go on to commit violent crime, why can’t teachers do more to intervene? Professor Hodgins says there already exist interventions that have a high success rate; the key is early identification.

Programmes with a proven success rate include mentoring schemes, peer support, group work and one-to-one counselling. A range of schemes address a child’s life outside school, such as parenting classes. “They don’t cure every child, but they have a very positive effect,” she says. “Everything suggests that the earlier you intervene the greater the success.”

Getting children on to these programmes is not always easy, however. “The biggest problem is sometimes not so much dealing with the children, as dealing with the parents,” says Mr Williams.

He says parents can often be obstructive. They may not want to admit that there is anything wrong; they may see such schemes as casting doubt on their ability as a parent; they may have a deep-seated suspicion of social services; they may themselves have had a bad experience at school and are reluctant to co-operate.

Sometimes parents don’t know there is a problem. Robin Wilson, head of a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, is working with a Year 8 pupil whose mother is unaware of what her son gets up to in the evenings.

“Without some significant intervention he will go down the criminal route and he is likely to be quite violent. Mum thinks there’s never a problem, but there’s never a problem because he is never at home. We’re working with the young man as best we can but we’re struggling because he will just abscond.”

Mr Wilson says lack of co-operation on the part of the parent or the young person is the biggest obstacle to a successful intervention. “There are agencies that can work effectively, but by and large it has got to be done with consent,” he says.

“The services are there, the schools are there and where there is consent there is an opportunity for it to work successfully.” Lack of consent can also be an issue when drugs are involved. If the young person doesn’t want to stop taking drugs, teachers can do little to change their minds.

Mr Wilson has seen the consequences when pupils at his school, Woodlands in Shropshire, fail to take advantage of the support available. A former pupil was recently jailed for pushing a glass into someone’s face, his second conviction for violence. The boy’s school career had given every indication that he would spend time in prison. “He used anger and threats to avoid the consequences of his actions, he was not communicating with his family and he had low self-esteem, which manifested itself as violent conduct,” Mr Wilson says.

A combination of attitudes and social circumstances can be a pretty good predictor of future behaviour, he adds. Predispositions are important, but the influence of the young person’s environment, particularly their home life, but also their involvement with other young people, is crucial. “You can often see when a young person’s prospects can be pretty grim unless there is a significant intervention. You can see them committing crimes, some of which could be quite serious,” he adds.

Where interventions do take place, however, they can prove effective, even if they have to be repeated. The behaviour of one pupil at Woodlands, who has ADHD and is on the autistic spectrum, markedly improved after he went on an anger management course and become involved with youth workers. His parents also went on a parenting programme. Recently his behaviour has started to deteriorate. “It is a case of doing it all again,” says Mr Wilson.

The most important factor in determining whether a particular intervention works is the relationship between the young person and the adult working with them, according to Andy Winton, president of the National Association of Social Workers in Education. “If you have a good relationship with the young person, you will be able to challenge them in a way that makes them think,” he says. “They will only listen to you when they feel they want to listen.”

He says that where children identified as at risk go on to commit serious crimes, it is often because they have not been reached early enough, or the chosen programme did not meet their needs. “It can be difficult to find the right intervention for the child, but where they are delivered well they are very effective.”

We may know what works, but that doesn’t stop new initiatives being put forward, he says. Inevitably, it is the new initiatives that tend to attract the most resources. “We have initiative overload and sometimes you end up saying, ‘This month I can offer this approach’. We already have a lot of brilliant stuff and we need to stop coming up with bright ideas,” Mr Winton adds.

But getting hold of these services is not always straightforward. Mike Welsh, head of Goddard Park Primary in Swindon, says schools often struggle to get specialist support for children, particularly in areas of mental health. “We identify children who might go on to be either victims or aggressors, but we don’t necessarily get appropriate help,” he says.

He suggests that, perversely, there are often more options for children with lower-level difficulties than for those with more serious problems. “We only touch the surface for children who have mental health issues,” he says. “We don’t get specific, targeted support for children at the sharp end.”

Children who do not fit neatly into a particular category can also find it harder to get help, adds Mr Welsh, a member of the national council of the National Association of Head Teachers. “Sometimes a child has clear needs, but if there isn’t a label for them they go into mainstream without adequate support and you are concerned about what will happen to them and to other children.”

Resources are also a key issue for Ms Shuter at Quintin Kynaston. She says schools can only deal with the tip of the iceberg when it comes to children who need help. “If we made the resources available at an early age we could significantly reduce the amount we spend on the prison system,” she says.

Schools are being increasingly expected to bring up children, she says, but scarce resources are forcing them to prioritise. “Often we’re replacing or compensating for parenting, and if we had more resources we could get to more of these young people.”

More resources, more awareness, fewer initiatives getting in the way. It may not be possible to reach every child; not every child may be willing to be reached, but you don’t have to look far to see what happens when we fail to spot the signs.

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