If behaviour is a choice, is it truly a free one?

“They know what they are doing”

“They are doing it on purpose”

“They are choosing not to do it”

These three common phrases, throwaway yet internalised, are often heard in corridors and classrooms across the country. But what does it really mean to say we know why a child is behaving in a certain way? As teachers we know not to make a diagnosis as it is not within our role to do so nor are we qualified for this type of work. But the use of such an efficient sentence (“They are making a choice”) does just that – it rules out medical, environmental, SEND and psychological factors amongst others. It is the single largest diagnosis anyone could make. A doctor would never rule out all other options when assessing symptoms without much greater understanding and exploration and we must aspire to do the same for behaviour.

Understanding our frame of reference

So what can we take from the concept of behaviour as a choice? For some behaviours there is an element of the involuntary – think medical, psychological and SEND. We know to make adjustments for certain situations whether it be to allow a child to go to the toilet more often or to wear ear defenders. But in other cases how can we apply the concept where there is an element of perceived free will?

In order to consider this fully we must recognise our own frame of reference or window on the world. Our own experiences can sharply influence how we handle behaviour whether consciously or subconsciously. Without knowledge of the terror of anxiety, the nagging dread of OCD type conditions or the emptiness of depression it can be hard to empathise fully with another’s situation. If you haven’t faced adverse childhood situations, it can be hard to see the world from some children’s perspective. Even things as simple as academic ability – if you were gifted academically you will have had a completely difference experience in school to someone without such a gift and vice versa.

So when we say behaviour is a choice we must consider the choices presented to a child. If a child chooses “No!” or detention or running, what does the other option look like to them? How much worse does the alternative seem to them, and why? What makes others able to say “Yes” or access the learning? It’s too simple to say attitude or characteristics of the person – that again is a diagnosis. Imagining the choices a child may have as different paths, there will be a path the adult wishes the child to take and the path the child takes. In a happy, contented, supported child these will inevitably be the same thing. However a child who does not meet these criteria will often choose the path that allows for escape, sensory stimulation/relief, control or the need for attention to be met.

For all children there is always the option to say “No” to anything in school. It is a physical possibility. However many don’t – they see the uphill path of accessing learning as a challenge and they feel motivated to try it. They have the right equipment, the energy, capacity and resources to go for it. They don’t want to refuse because that path, for them, is the worse option socially, academically and logically amongst many other factors. The child without these enabling factors (there are many factors!) will still see the terrible downhill path but the uphill path is much much worse (maybe impossible or even painful) leading to the child picking the lesser of the two evils.

What can we do?

So what implications does this have for the way we approach behaviour? Firstly the decision paths we saw and chose at school are not the same paths all children see within their experiences at school. We must recognise our frame of reference and its impact on our ability to make a judgement. Secondly, when working with young people we can do one of two

things. We can try to make the downhill path even worse to make the uphill path preferable through punitive measures and isolation. This can lead to fast-track exclusion. Or we can try to give the child what they need to take the uphill route. We don’t have to change the destination but we can take the longer, flatter way round if necessary. We can take a little bit more time to get there. We can show them what it will look like when get to where we are heading and we can give them the confidence to believe it’s possible.

If we put our energy into understanding what stops the uphill path being taken instead of booby trapping the downhill route, we have the capacity to overcome the greatest disadvantage. That path, however, is your choice.