All behaviour is caused by circumstance

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I do not believe that all behaviour is caused by circumstance. To make such a claim would be a crude over-generalisation. Clearly, individuals have individual traits that predispose them to certain behaviours more than others.

However, I do think we systematically overemphasise the role of individual traits and largely ignore the role of circumstance. We do this in conventionally good and bad ways. The bad way of overemphasising individual traits is when we deem a child to be naughty or spoilt or lazy. However, there is a good, socially acceptable way to overemphasise the role of individual traits and that is to ascribe all or most of an individual’s behaviour to an underlying disorder.

This is not to deny the existence of disorders. The landscape for diagnosing many disorders is complicated and often circular, but most will agree that they describe actual conditions. What we are unclear about is exactly what inferences we should make from such a diagnosis. At the basic level, should we attempt to treat a disorder or accommodate it? If a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, for instance, should we give her intensive reading instruction or should we give her a pen that reads text aloud for her? Should we do a mixture of both, alternating between accommodating in history lessons and treating in literacy? Similar questions may be asked of many such disorders.

Ascribing most or all of an individual’s behaviour to an individual trait is to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. When someone cuts in front of us in traffic, we assume they must be a rude and selfish person – we ascribe their behaviour to individual traits – whereas when we cut in front of someone else in traffic it is because we are in a rush or did not realise we had done so because we have a lot on our minds – we ascribe our own behaviour to circumstance. We tend to overemphasise the role of individual traits in the behaviour of others.

One profound way in which the behaviour of students is affected by circumstance is the effect of a student being in a group as opposed to being on their own. Every teacher will tell of a deeply challenging student who is surprisingly mature and reasonable in a one-on-one situation (which is why you should avoid admonishing students in front of their peers). It is not hard to understand – other students bring social hierarchies, histories, temptations and a whole range of other factors into the mix, changing the individual student’s behaviour.

I propose that this leads to something we might describe as ‘the counsellor effect’. Imagine Jack is causing trouble in a number of lessons and is therefore referred to a school counsellor. The counsellor sees Jack on his own and is impressed with how mature and reasonable he seems. Rather than ascribing this difference to Jack’s varying circumstances, it is tempting to ascribe it to an interaction between the internal traits of Jack – his disorder – and the internal traits of the counsellor and the teachers. Jack is mature and reasonable for the counsellor because the counsellor recognises and understands his specific needs. He misbehaves for the teachers because they do not recognise and understand his needs.

The counsellor effect is tempting because it plays to a heroic personal narrative and so I think it is a bias that could mislead anyone who tends to work with children on an individual basis.

Under the influence of the counsellor effect, we would try to ensure that teachers recognise and understand Jack’s needs. We would assume teachers lack knowledge, empathy or some other trait that the counsellor possesses and so the solution is to build this trait in teachers. The counsellor effect will therefore manifest as appeals to understanding students rather than as a set of practical strategies to apply. Yet, in a classroom of 25+ students, it is impossible for a teacher to interact with Jack in the way that the counsellor does and so this approach will not work. However, it would not be considered inclusive to propose that Jack be removed for individual attention. The teacher is in a bind.

Instead, a much more fruitful approach, supported by decades of behaviourist research, is to manipulate the circumstances surrounding Jack. This might involve setting-up a classroom seating plan, for instance. It might involve other physical arrangements – early on in my career, I learnt to spread science equipment around the room so there wasn’t an ill-tempered crush at the trolley. It might involve a rewards system or a ‘response cost’. In a recent blog post, Pam Snow suggested that children with developmental language disorder often do not understand sarcasm or indirect requests. So a couple of key practical strategies would be to avoid sarcasm and be as explicit as possible when giving instructions.

However, as I have suggested in my new book, such strategies tend to be good for all students, not just those with recognised disorders. So we really don’t have to single out these students and treat them in qualitatively different ways to their peers. You might even describe that as an ‘inclusive’ approach. Unfortunately, you can’t implement many of these strategies without the backing of a strong school policy and such a policy will be missing if the school leadership does not recognise the role of circumstance in behaviour.

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