Understanding, not excusing

Back when I used to study criminal law, we looked at the question of defences. Special defences, absolute defences, pleas in mitigation, that kind of thing. And we spent one hell of a long time understanding the difference between two categories of defence: excusatory and exculpatory.

Simply, an excusatory defence lets you know why someone did something. It provides the reasons. And those reasons may be something you may wish to take into account when considering the verdict, or if found guilty, during sentencing. An exculpatory defence obviates the need for any of that. Exculpatory defences, if successful, mean you cannot be found guilty of the offence.

What links the two defences is that in both cases there is absolutely no doubt that you did the thing you are accused of. Everyone accepts that, even the accused. But an excusatory defence allows the court to consider the circumstances in which you offended, whilst an exculpatory defence prevents you being blamed or punished.

The two are often confused; looking at the circumstances of a case causes many people to complain that you are “letting them get away with it”. It seems law is the only field in which gaining an understanding of why things happen is a bad thing…

I don’t make a secret of the fact that I teach children who others would characterise as “very bad”. With few exceptions, they are in our institution because they have been excluded from other schools due to their behaviour. Last year my two groups were the out of control “Band of Arseholes” and the overly sexualised TOWIEs. This year I have three groups (plus one group of mainstream students).

As with last year, I’ve been told to fuck off more times than I care to remember, called a dickhead, threatened (though oddly this year nobody has questioned my ability to teach—I must be getting better…). In each case I have sought to understand why students reacted the way they did. Did that mean that they were “rewarded” for their bad behaviour? Hell no. Consequences followed, as consequences must. But once students come to us, simply reacting to misbehaviour with the usual array of disciplinary responses stops working. Reporting someone to their tutor doesn’t scare a student expelled from his last school for punching a teacher. Becoming “just another adult who hates me” won’t draw them away from their pattern of behaviour.

Misbehaviour, punishment, more misbehaviour, more punishment. If you can’t spot the pattern then you aren’t looking hard enough. Doing something to break the cycle requires trying to understand, to empathise, and to learn what factors are influencing a child to behave that way. It does not mean punishment goes out of the window. It does not mean rewards for bad behaviour. It does not mean a child is not responsible for their decision to do something. It does mean learning why that decision was easier than behaving well, and providing assistance to the child to alter their way of thinking.

I have a lot of students who behave very badly. I have no “bad” students. Amongst the students I teach are these examples:

  • Student A: does not know where he will be staying from one day to the next, constantly shuttled between relatives, sometimes only told when leaving our institution where he will be staying the night. Constantly threatened with being sent abroad to live with his father, who used to beat him.
  • Students B and C: both bullied so much they had to move institution. Both have trust issues. Student C hadn’t been in education for over a year, and now has attendance issues since she started being bullied again.
  • Student L: excluded from his last school for theft. Stole the items to sell so that he could eat, as his mum refused to feed him. Living with other relatives but worried about being taken into care.
  • Student N: after her mother’s death three months ago, subject to a bitter custody battle between her step-father and her biological father. Suffering from mental health issues.
  • Student AX: suffers from severe mental health issues.
  • Student T: currently in the youth criminal justice system, my most recent dealing with T was clarifying whether he had an appointment with his case worker which justified his leaving my class early. His appointments had been rescheduled to earlier in the day, he hadn’t realised, had missed his appointment and was terrified of being breached. As he was on a tag and due in the Crown Court the following day, he was frightened this would go badly for him.
  • Student H: strong suspicion that H is being groomed for sexual exploitation.
  • Student R: severe alcohol abuse issues, R and her sisters have been taken into care, and separated. R is currently in a relationship with a far older man and suspected of being groomed for sexual exploitation.
  • Student C: violent, aggressive, uncaring. C is regularly beaten by his father for trivial offences.

Student C is probably my most difficult student. He doesn’t see the point in education, declares that nobody can make him do anything he doesn’t want to do, and is regularly aggressive to everyone. He feels that teachers “don’t like him”. He is aware that he gained a reputation, and in Year 9 tried to change, but felt that he was still being punished on the basis of his past reputation, so he gave up trying. He told me that most of his schooling was spent in isolation and detention units due to his vocal outbursts. He has confessed he cannot control these and I suspect an underlying condition and have referred him.

If this condition is there, then C is being punished for something outwith his control: a diagnosis would give him an exculpatory defence. The rest of his behaviour is within his control. He has learned that misbehaviour is easier than compliance, especially when compliance with rules resulted in the same outcomes for him. Do as you’re told and be punished, versus do what you feel like and be punished. If the consequences are the same for him, he will choose the easier path. The cycle has to be broken. Does that mean he escapes consequences? No, but consequences should be applied differently. And yes, that may sometimes involve rewarding him for behaviour that should otherwise be a given, and attract no reward. Many rail against that, but C no longer sees benefits to adhering to rules, and so needs to relearn that good behaviour brings benefits. It is a state of mind that has been beaten out of him, physically at home and mentally at school.

All of the above students have given me disciplinary problems. The ones with the most difficult issues have, unsurprisingly, given me the biggest problems. I try to understand their current situation before punishing them for misbehaviour. Sometimes that means discipline is not as harsh as it might objectively merit. Sometimes it means behaviour management which some might view as lenient, or even rewarding the bad behaviour. It isn’t.

These children are responsible for their actions. They are responsible for their choices in life. But if you want to understand their choices, if you want to change those choices, then you need to know what led them to that choice. You need to understand and accept the things about which they have no choice in their lives. These things have a huge impact on how they behave, how they react, what they see as their options. Understand these, understand the child, and you can help them change these choices.

This isn’t letting them get away with it. It isn’t rewarding bad behaviour. It is empathy. It is responsibility. It is accountability. It is caring. It is making the difference in a young person’s life and helping them become a better person. It is one of the very reasons for education.

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