Since it’s estimated that one in a hundred adults is a psychopath, why is it we pay so little attention to who these people are, how they live their lives, and what is being done, if anything, to identify them at an early age in order to address their therapeutic and learning needs as individuals?
One obvious answer to this question is that we generally know very little about this human condition, and we tend to care even less, unless it directly affects us. We also assume that we won’t have the misfortune to encounter a psychopath. We quite frankly never even consider what effect psychopaths have on society as a whole.
Nevertheless, if you’re a teacher or a member of staff in an average sized primary school it means you’re likely to have some daily contact with at least 3 or 4 pupils who have psychopathic tendencies as a result of them having a brain architecture that is abnormal. The situation becomes a lot worse for you if you happen to have a young psychopath in your classroom every day of the week.
An article in this week’s Times Educational Supplement has the heading
How to educate a psychopath
The writer of the article, Joseph Lee, points out that psychopaths have a number of distinguishing traits, the main ones being
1) A childhood history of antisocial behaviour and a desire to manipulate others for their own gratification and benefit.
2) A complete inability to feel empathy with others, as well as any other feelings we might characterise as ‘caring’, ‘loving’, ‘kind’, ‘generous’, etc.
3) Very shallow emotions, and a complete disregard for the feelings of others.
4) A complete inability to feel guilt, and a need to blame others for every harmful aspect of their behaviour. Genuine remorse is also an impossibility.
Assuming we’d prefer NOT to have ourselves or our families and our societies damaged by adult psychopaths, what exactly are we doing to identify these individuals at a young age and provide them with an education and an upbringing that will help contain their inbuilt tendencies? In other words, why don’t we do more to prevent individuals like Anders Breivik and various other mass murderers, as well as thousands of non-murdering psychopaths, inflicting their cold-blooded and callous harm on others?
The TES article goes on to say this
Can children without a conscience ever be taught to be good? Joseph Lee speaks to psychologists who say incredible changes can be wrought by reinforcing and rewarding good behaviour.
Part of the taboo [on identifying children as psychopaths] was that the experience of decades of working with psychopaths had shown that such individuals rarely respond to treatment. No one wanted to consign children to a future of endless suspicion.
But in the 1990s, Paul Frick, a former family therapist turned research psychologist, published his first work on a group of children he described as having “callous-unemotional” traits. As a therapist, he realised that some children did not respond to any of his methods. He knew they needed new tools, and that meant a new understanding of children with the most persistent antisocial behaviour.
Essi Viding, professor of psychology at University College London, told the author of this article, “These sorts of [psychopathic] traits are still open to change and development. Adult psychopaths are quite resistant to intervention. We need to take them seriously in childhood.”
The potential for change in children without remorse offers hope for a group whose similarity to psychopaths may lead some to write off their chances. “If you’re labelling someone a psychopath, it does seem to assume that there’s nothing we can do for them, that they’re going to grow up to be a criminal, and that you might as well just lock them up,” Frick says. “But you can teach a child to recognise the effects of their behaviour.”
The methods of changing behaviour that are emerging pose a challenge to received wisdom about discipline and behaviour in schools. Faced with some of the most serious misbehaviour, teachers and parents are asked not to reach for their most instinctive response: punishment.
Laura Warren is an educational psychologist who, like Frick, became frustrated that the methods she had been taught were increasingly failing on children with conduct disorders.
At the time, teachers would universally attribute bad behaviour to low self-esteem, she says. “What I was finding was that usually the children who were the most disruptive didn’t have low self-esteem. If anything, it was over-inflated. They thought they were fantastic. Overly high self- esteem is a bigger predictor of aggression than low self-esteem.”
A grandiose sense of self-worth is in fact one of the characteristic traits of adult psychopaths.
[We now know from the trial of Anders Breivik that he considered himself, and continues to consider himself, as a perfectly sane and successful individual and indeed a self-sacrificing hero whose actions will single-handedly force the government of Norway to change its stance on immigration and multi-culturalism.]
Warren says that when she began her career, behaviour interventions were based around two theories. One, attachment theory, said that children’s poor behaviour was a result of inadequate experiences in family life, which left them unable to trust others. The other, social learning theory, held that children needed positive feedback about their behaviour and clear boundaries.
“What they assume is that children have the motivation to shift their behaviour. That their primary social motivator is the relationship,” says Warren.
She interviewed more than 1,000 children with behavioural problems, aged eight to 18. “I was beginning to see children who weren’t responsive to these interventions, who weren’t interested in what adults, parents, educators, think,” she says.
“If a child or group of children isn’t interested in pleasing someone, doesn’t care about sanctions, what they’re driven by is pleasure or reward. They will take the pain of the consequences but won’t change their behaviour.”
Her research led her to Viding and her colleague Alice Jones, now at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Over the past three years, a programme devised by Warren has been used at a primary school in the Home Counties for children with emotional and behavioural disorders.
The programme, called Let’s Get Smart, replaces sanctions with rewards. Some teachers were uneasy. “Some teachers felt that punishment happens in the real world; if they misbehave in the real world they will still go to prison. Why are we setting them up for unrealistic expectations?” says Jones. “Our point is that it [punishment] doesn’t work.”
By offering regular rewards, perhaps three times a day, controlled by the adult in authority, it aims to provide a rational, self-interested motivation for pleasing adults where that motive is emotionally absent. “The adult becomes the clear intermediary between the child and what the child wants,” Warren says. The rewards are tailored to each child’s interests.
These children often have a strong desire for control and teachers have to resist attempts to negotiate, because any concession just leads to more demands. “I teach parents and teachers to say, ‘It’s not open for discussion, go away.’
All this is backed by role play and other exercises that are intended to build children’s capacity to pay attention to and respond appropriately to others’ emotions. Video playback helps the children to see their behaviour as others do, often to their surprise. (“I do swear a lot,” one girl told Warren.)
[3Di’s view is that it’s not just a question of paying attention to others’ emotions – there also has to be attention to and respect for others’ feelings, thoughts, preferences and wishes. The distinction can be very important.]
Warren has worked with about a dozen schools in total, and next year her programme is due to be implemented in a mainstream secondary. But she says that there is huge resistance to confronting behaviour, and in some of the schools she does not even use the term “callous-unemotional” because some parents find it hard to accept.
Another concern is whether teaching children who are manipulative and lack empathy about emotional responses will just make them better manipulators. But Warren says that other techniques such as circle time and restorative justice are more of a risk.
“(In circle time) children say what makes them scared and children who have callous-unemotional traits think, ‘This is a useful piece of information to have’,” she says.
Restorative justice tends to give them opportunities to fake empathy and concern without changing behaviour.
Whether children ever really learn greater empathy or just learn to manage their behaviour is not clear. “My personal gut feeling is that you can modify behaviour perhaps more readily than you can improve the empathy response,” Viding says.
Frick says that in much of psychology, improving behaviour and well-being is the goal, even if the underlying problem remains. “What we want is them to be able to be more empathetic, we want to reinforce behaviour so they’re treating people better, and we’ll have to see over the long run,” he says.
Other research suggests that greater emotional engagement from parents can have an impact in early childhood. David Hawes, lecturer at the University of Sydney, last month revealed the findings of a three-year study of 113 boys aged two to four, which suggest that maintaining a warm and engaged parenting style can reduce the risk of future antisocial behaviour.
“The children’s callous and unemotional traits cause parents to become harsher in their discipline and to emotionally disengage,” Hawes told the Sydney Morning Herald. “This is the opposite of what parents should be doing.”
Warren’s experience with parents suggests that with older children, it might be hard to regain the emotional warmth until the behaviour improves first. She recalls one mother who suffered from depression as she struggled to cope with a son who routinely called her a “bitch” and was violent at school.
“She didn’t realise that the reason she had struggled so much wasn’t because of her, it was because he gives nothing back,” Warren says. “Mothers who have got kids with callous-unemotional traits find it very difficult. It has a massive effect on them and their sense of their ability as a person.”
It is clear that our growing understanding of callous-unemotional traits in children presents a massive challenge to schools: to accept that children can be without remorse or regard for others’ feelings, and that they are only made worse by punishment.
The best chance for such children is to intervene early in life, when behaviour is more malleable, Warren says. “After the  riots, exactly what I predicted happened: calls for more discipline, more sanctions. We can’t carry on with more of the same.”
My own feeling is that all of this makes perfect sense. I know from my past experiences as a headteacher, and therefore as the final arbiter of behaviour and the school’s response to dangerous, disruptive and violent behaviour, that some children, and some parents, simply don’t care about receiving punishment. They have no regard for how you view them and their behaviour. Their sole concern is with their own sense of power and their ability to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want. They never feel guilt or shame. They have no concern for the wellbeing of others.
What they need therefore is to be part of a school where the adults say to them, kindly but firmly, that if you want to be a member of and a participant in this school where interesting and enjoyable things go on every day they you have to earn the right to be here by following our code of behaviour, which is basically never to harm anyone in any way, and never to prevent other people doing the things they need to do in order to learn or to provide learning.
The key words here, of course, are “interesting” and “enjoyable”, and it’s crucial that schools are in fact able to guarantee learning experiences that are interesting and enjoyable for children of all interests and aptitudes. As is made clear in the TES article, the payoff for children with psychopathic tendencies is that they can enjoy their schooldays if they learn to control and moderate their behaviour and stay within what they clearly understand are the boundaries, which are applicable to all and are non-negotiable. The whole thing breaks down if the school never sets out to cater for individual needs and differences, and never provides learning experiences that are truly personalised, creative, interesting, involving and worthwhile from the child’s point of view.
If a psychopathic child, or in fact any child, decides that school is a place where pointless and boring things happen day after day, then the child will tend to create its own diversions, distractions and ‘fun’. In the case of psychopathic children, who have no real fear of punishment and in any case are often cunning and skilled at avoiding detection and blame, then very serious consequences tend to follow.
And whilst these children are often excluded from mainstream education and often end up in special ‘units’, they inevitably carry with them problems that will sooner or later manifest themselves with very harmful effect elsewhere in society.
What psychopathic children need, more than any others, is to have their strengths identified, as well as their weaknesses, in order that they becoming educationally successful in those areas of strength and go out into the world knowing that they can succeeed in certain things and find a proper place for themselves in their societies. The alternative is to have losers such as Anders Breivik becoming more and more isolated, alone and resentful, and a tremendous danger to those around them.
If we’re able to make our schools places where even the worst-case children’s developmental needs are properly met, then think about the benefits to society if indeed each and every child has a happy, engaged, creative and productive childhood and leaves school knowing how they can use their strengths for their own and everyone else’s benefit? Isn’t that better than leaving school with a few certificates of academic attainment, or with no worthwhile certificates at all?
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I had an encounter with a psychopath decades ago. They are almost impossible to treat simply because they enjoy their condition and do not want to change!
Absolutely fascinating article. As a psychopath, I would definitely agree that interesting and engaging lessons kept me from acting out too much in school. Most of my “fun distractions” were covert and went unnoticed. Only a handful of times was I disciplined for ‘bullying’, and that was mainly because my stupid friends couldn’t keep their mouths shut.
But like I said, the fact that I enjoyed most lessons in school kept my mind occupied.The only lesson I actually hated (Maths) was always the one I messed around. I used to jab other kids with mathematical compasses and make them yelp.
I find this so fascinating. I have always been intrigued by the criminal/psychopathic mind. The post reminded me of The Bad Seed chapter in James Hillman’s, The Soul’s Code. Hillman claims the first step to helping psychopaths/bad seeds transcend their callings is to recognize they have callings that cannot be denied. So often schools and adults in general are afraid of hurting a child’s self esteem.
I am interested in the counter-intuitive idea of rewarding or creating self-interested forms of motivation in order to modify a psychopathic or empathy-poor child’s behavior. I know punishment does not work.
How can we make education stimulating, enjoyable, a worthy reward?
Thanks Bren. I don’t think it’s a question of rewarding these sorts of individuals – at least not differently to the sorts of rewards we offer every other child. I see this as a need to offer clear benefits that are only available to those who show they can stay within the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. There needs to be a benefit such as enjoyment of school and the learning opportunities on offer there which serves as an incentive to keep harmful behaviours in check – or else risk banishment from the classroom or the school, either temporarily or permanently. Temporary exclusion tends to bring home to them the fact that the ‘freedom’ of home is actually less enjoyable and worthwhile than the stimulation and creative activity available within school (or within worthwhile employment in the case of adults).
Of course this presupposes that schools are indeed offering proper stimulation and opportunities for creative learning, and here lies the crux and the challenge. As you say – “How do we make education stimulating, enjoyable, a worthy reward?” There’s no simple answer, but good schools somehow show the determination to succeed in this goal, and the answers will be different for every school, every teacher and every child. Ultimately the key is that learning experiences need to be personalised through continuous adjustment by experienced classroom practitioners who can constantly assess pupils’ needs and plan the next steps accordingly. It’s not easy, but it’s doable as long as there’s the intention to work in this way and the determination by the whole school team to succeed.
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I wholeheartedly agree with you but feel for school personnel. It must be exhausting trying to personalize education and make it engaging as well. Not to mention all the standardized testing material that must be included in the curriculum. I observe my children’s teachers and sense their stress.