Naughty children and learned helplessness.

Not a single post as such, but two blended into one.

I’ve been watching Born Naughty and am dismayed by its title. Don’t get me wrong, the presenters are sensitively approaching the subject of ‘unseen’ differences, only the differences are not unseen at all. They commonly go under the guise of ‘naughty’. These kids are naughty because the greater collective conscience says they are, but this, surely, is nothing more than a social construct, perpetuated by the desire to ‘other’ anyone who is at all ‘different’? Say naughty or link naughty often enough and it must be so?

The last two weeks have included children with eating difficulties, which is a subject that is very close to home. The upshot of including eating difficulties is the insinuation that if you don’t eat everything put in front of you, you are naughty. Last night the ‘expert’ stated that babies will eat anything they are given, because it would have been bad in evolutionary terms not to. Sorry, but I don’t buy into it and I will explain why.

Both my boys were brought up on the same weaning regime. I would cook up whole cauliflowers, cabbages, bags of carrots etc then puree them up in their cooking water. I’d freeze the puree in ice cube bags, so that I could then pop them out and defrost as needed & in different combinations. I always left them in their own little puddles so that my boys could taste individual flavours. As they grew up, the purees became coarser and the boys mixed up the flavours as they fed themselves. Breakfast started with baby rice and moved on to Weetabix etc. So far, so good. I introduced finger foods and lumps of fruit. Both boys spat out raspberries. Why? According to the expert on Born Naughty, that shouldn’t have happened, should it?

Eldest generally ate anything, including curry, and eventually liked the aforementioned raspberries! Youngest, however, did not. He spat out rice, pasta, egg and any other texture he didn’t like. Texture, he does not like some textures. Brussels sprouts were fine if halved, but not whole. One holiday, Pluto came up to him at Disneyland Paris while he was eating breakfast. Youngest was about 2 ½ yrs old and Pluto decided to spoon-feed him some of his food. Unfortunately it was some scrambled egg we’d put on his plate in the hope he might try it (always hopeful!). My lad, beaming from ear-to-ear opened his mouth wide. We held our breath. Pluthoooo, out came the egg…… poor Pluto was creasing up, but unable to laugh out loud! To this day, my youngest does not like rice, pasta, egg, minced meat (although he will now eat Bolognese – with potato) and lamb. He has no qualms over eating a variety of foods, but definitely prefers the traditional meat & 2 veg over more exotic food blends. He’s now 17.

The thing is, I have serious food issues as does my nephew. I don’t know if my nephew’s issues are texture, taste or something else. With me it’s taste. So many food simply taste sour or bitter, but not in a nice way. 85% dark chocolate is bitter, but nice. Lemons are sour, but nice. Salad cream, for example, is completely unpleasant. Given that’s 3 people with closely related genetics, it seems that we were more likely to have been born this way, than have learned a ‘naughty’ behaviour. My earliest memory of eating issues is putting my sandwiches in the bin – in infant school. Don’t get me wrong, I eat well, I just don’t eat the foods that ‘most’ people do.

I generally shop in Waitrose, as they carry a good range of the types of foods I eat, including odd/raw ingredients. I went there this morning and I followed in a lad who was probably 4-5yrs old. I caught him toe-walking out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, he was bouncing about with occasional finger-flicks. I wondered if his father knew he was autistic. I saw him a few times during my shop, his dad was diligently including his son in doing the shopping. I saw him squatting down, discussing the food items on the bottom of the shelf with his lad, before making their selection. I heard the gentle reminders to ‘keep in a straight line’ when he was zig-zagging in busier areas. The lad, quite content, duly complied.

There was also a couple of young ladies shopping together. Between them they had 3 kids, the eldest being between 2-3yrs old. All three were strapped into their buggies. The girl was vocal. She wanted attention & didn’t the whole supermarket know about it? I pulled silly faces. She stopped and smiled, the older lad did likewise. The kids were bored and the parents were busy talking to each other & discussing their choice of purchases. To shut the kids up, they broke out a packet of crisps. Once consumed, two of the kids erupted again. Now, while not all neurodiverse conditions can be seen, I saw no reason to consider this trio to be anything but bored and attention-seeking. I see this scenario being played out time and time again, and yet programmes with titles such as ‘Born Naughty’ insinuate that children with disabilities are the only ones who display ‘naughty’ behaviours. It really isn’t helpful to see such children in this light because psychologically, society links bad behaviour to disability. Quite, quite wrong. Bad behaviour, low expectation, veil of fear…..

Moving back to the lad and his dad. The lad was being engaged, even with the sensory explosions of a busy supermarket, the pair together were able to negotiate these to great effect. It couldn’t have been easy for the lad, but his father made it possible. I don’t expect the dad had read a manual, I don’t expect that he had any specialist tuition and quite possibly, he was yet to discover that his lad is autistic. To me, he was simply being a doting father, well-tuned into his son’s needs. So what goes wrong in our schools?

I was having a Twitter chat last night around this subject. I’m finding myself increasingly coming to an unpleasant conclusion – parents are teaching teachers the same learned helplessness that our kids are being taught in and by schools via velroed TAs. To explain: I, like a great many parents initially excused the school for its appalling behaviour. You see, I felt guilty that that the school had to make provision for a child who clearly did not fit there. I did not realise at that point that it was them, not my child or his parents. They refused to engage with him, they made the situation a bad one and did so through choice. I wasn’t born with the knowledge of how to immaculately accommodate my son’s needs, but like the dad in Waitrose, I did what came naturally – I taught him with patience, kindness and a constant smile. I wasn’t perfect, but I quickly learned that unless I carried a beaming smile, life became very difficult, he became very difficult. He sensed if I was tense and threw it back 10-fold, so I tried my hardest not to let my guard down. I smiled, explained and moved forwards. He, in turn, smiled, explained and moved forwards. But not in school. He turned inward, became distressed and extremely unhappy. Nurture went out of the window.

Teachers have degrees. At that point, I didn’t. At that point, I’d been a serious high-school under-achiever, but I read. I read mainly quick and easy stuff – women’s magazines. I knew all about ADHD, ASD, cancers, medicines; my knowledge was very broad and mainly from the perspective of the families involved. When I decided to join the Open University, initially to do science, I already had a good grounding. Forget A levels, I’d read Take a Break! But what about teachers? Do they not also read magazines? And what’s the degree about? Can anyone seriously explain to me why a degree-educated person, and a person wishing to work with children, has no knowledge of, or interest in, child development? I agree classroom support is central to inclusion, but what I’m talking about here is an individual’s desire for basic knowledge.

I hear parents rise to the battle cry of ‘but SEN/D isn’t taught in ITT’, I hear them lament the poor state of affairs where schools are under-funded and staff left untrained – and yet how about us parents? We tend to be SEVERELY underfunded, often finding ourselves without jobs, and we too were SEVERELY underqualified to take on our children. We didn’t spend years in education to understand our kids’ needs, our lives were changed in an instant. We had to react in an instant. Of course teachers can’t know about every condition out there and why should they? What they need to know atypical development in relation to typical development, and only specialise further as different ‘types’ of children enter their schools. My son’s old SENCO was also his maths teacher. I explained that his correction dose for high glucose was a 2:1 ratio. Her reply? Can you put it in a table for me, as I’m a visual learner…..seriously!?!? This woman had a degree and a post-graduate qualification! No, I’m sorry, learning about Type 1 diabetes in ITT would not have helped here. Putting it in a table would not have helped either. The woman was acting out ‘helplessness’.

I think we do a great disservice to teachers when we nod and agree that it’s not the schools fault they can’t help more. We are unwittingly breeding learned helplessness and it’s becoming more and more embedded. A vicious circle, or even an abyss, has opened. ‘What can we do to help and support’ has become as toxic a phrase as ‘you’re crap and I need to teach you how to do your job’. Why?

The teaching profession is full of very fine people, going by those I talk to on Twitter. These tweeters though are actively seeking to engage with colleagues, parents and any other useful person tweeting by. It’s those others, those that we seems to have inadvertently disempowered by our apologies for having to take our children. Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but next time, if you’re a parent, stop and think before joining in with battle cries – are you adding to the problem of learned helplessness? Perhaps a simple – I don’t think so, I wasn’t trained for this either – is a more appropriate response? As a teacher, I’d much rather a parent explained a condition to me, I would gladly and gratefully accept offers of support.


6 thoughts on “Naughty children and learned helplessness.

  1. I found this very interesting and thought provoking. Would you agree that the continued lack of SEND at ITT and the established paradigms surrounding what inclusion looks like and who/how it is maintained have led to a system where teachers are enabled to opt out of certain aspects of their role? I would say this applies to SEND – not my area, where’s the SENCo/TA? – but also other, often pastoral, aspects of the job. Duties, parent engagement, wider aspects of school community (shows and trips et cetera) – the loco parentis-y bits, I suppose. The answer, in part, may be a greater emphasis on the care, nurture and pastoral aspects of being a teacher in general? For SEND though, I firmly believe we need a move away from having a divide in provision in order to cater for students with additional needs. Having a SENCo, an inclusion department, SEN corridor, team, et cetera enables a ‘not my problem’ attitude. There is not children/SEND children dichotomy…. Nor is there a children/naughty children divide…. There are only children. Unique, ever changing and all equally important as one another. The systems should be designed for everyone and provided because they need it, when they need it, for as long as they need it; and some will need things more frequently and for longer than others. No opting out and no passing the book. I’ve wrote about these ideas in more detail on my own blog,


  2. I couldn’t disagree. There are probably a multitude of causes that have resulted in a divvying up of children based on a set of perceived (and often false) assumptions and tenuously set, pre-determined criteria.


  3. It interests me that you have missed the question mark from the title of the tv show. It’s not an assumption, it’s a question to challenge the belief that the child was born that way or it’s the fault of the parent.
    In terms of teachers and helplessness, it’s a strange time we live in, where the threat of a lawsuit and liability loom large in the teachers mind


    1. The missed question mark wasn’t deliberate on my part, but I’m not sure it makes a huge amount of difference. Even with the question mark, it still links ‘naughty’ and ‘disability’ in the conscious or subconscious.
      Maybe there are some teachers who worry about lawsuits and liability, but even with the best risk assessment going, accidents happen to non-disabled children too and perhaps more so, since there are more of them!
      I hate it that some schools are curbing school trips ‘just in case’. I also hate the fact that my son’s teacher refused to take him swimming ‘just in case’. In the two years she had him, he only ever had one minor hypo…. I enjoyed the opportunity to go with the kids anyway, but had it not been my day off, sparks would have flown.


  4. With reference to the food issues have you considered that you may be a supertaster? You may taste certain foods as more bitter or sour than most of the population due to a chemical called PROP.
    On ‘learned helplessness’ in teachers, there is no excuse for a child being denied things others have ‘just in case’ something goes wrong but blaming individual teachers is problematic. They are operating within a high stakes system where they are often working at the limit of what they can do, in under resourced classes of 30+ with children whose needs may conflict. They are naturally concerned not to make mistakes as the consequences can be so severe and advised to be cautious by LEA, school, government and unions. Looking after other people’s children is a massive responsibility and we are fallible human beings who don’t always get things right. However I suspect the reasons may be more complex than ‘learned helplessness’.


    1. Like any situation where people are lumped into social groupings, there will always be a complexity to how things occur. Learned helplessness of teachers is an area of possible consideration and perhaps, investigation.
      Acting in loco parentis of course carries its own concerns, no-one wants a child to find itself in trouble on their watch!
      PROP might be something to consider, thank you. I do think I’m hypersensitive to taste, although at my age, I may be a lost cause!


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