First published in Children and Young People Now, May 2016

Reading the report on Medway STC last week it was striking to me that the review Board took a profoundly different ‘philosophical’ view of the children living there, compared with the G4S management ‘culture of control and contract compliance’ that they found.

In the course of my career I’ve observed five ‘paradigms of childhood misbehaviour’ - five distinct ways of conceptualising what is happening when children break the rules and boundaries we set for them (including breaking the law). Each of the paradigms leads to different beliefs about the right ways to respond, both in policy and in practice. In reality all five are widely deployed in very confused and conflicting ways right across our sectors.

The first paradigm sees misbehaviour as a normal, predictable part of childhood. The growing child is understood as having to experiment and practice self-control before being able to behave consistently well, and recognises that many children’s misbehaviour may have no malice or deliberate intent. In this paradigm it’s important not to over-react to misbehaviour, but for adults to respond with a calm disciplinary approach (in the original Greek sense of discipline, meaning ‘to learn’). In this ‘normal childhood’ paradigm parental and professional responses are an opportunity for the child to learn from their mistakes; a chance to reflect on their behaviour, its impact on others and what they could do differently in future; and also a chance for the child to understand the reasons behind our rules, so that they can begin to internalise them as standards of behaviour that they care about respecting in future.

The second paradigm sees misbehaviour, and particularly patterns of repeated misbehaviour, as symptomatic of an underlying condition of some kind, whether it be learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, personality disorders or psychological trauma and mental health problems. The high prevalence of these kinds of conditions among the young people who end up in the custodial estate (including too many undiagnosed until they got into trouble with the law) certainly suggests there are good grounds to support this paradigm. In this paradigm punitive responses to misbehaviour will not only be ineffective but can do harm by blaming a child for behaviours that are rooted in something over which they have little effective control.

The third paradigm is the ‘nurture’ paradigm, summed up as ‘Blame the parents’! In this paradigm a child’s misbehaviour is an indicator that they are being poorly parented in some way, either because their parent doesn’t know how to parent well, or is struggling to cope with their own problems; sometimes it may even be seen as something that the child is copying and learning from the adults at home. In this paradigm the focus will shift away from blaming or sanctioning the child towards home life, which may include quite punitive approaches towards parents, such as court orders, fines and in extremis, children being taken into care.

The fourth paradigm is the ‘delinquency’ paradigm. In the delinquent model of misbehaviour, children are understood to be making poor moral choices when they disobey rules or laws; it’s the “Lord of the Flies’ idea that if left to themselves without correction to keep them within the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, children will choose wrongdoing because they can get away with it. In the delinquency paradigm it’s not only important for their own experience that the misbehaving child is punished in accordance with the relevant rules, but it is also important for everyone else in society who lives within the rules to see that rule-breaking and moral wrongdoing are punished.

The fifth paradigm sees a child’s misbehaviour as an act of rebellion, a reaction to being treated unfairly, a rejection of adult authority or a system they don’t trust or experience as having their interests at heart. In this paradigm misbehaviour is seen as the ‘product’ of systemic injustice like extreme poverty, stigma, racism; a kind of protest at feeling excluded or as if they have ‘nothing to lose’. Responses here mean rebuilding trust and a sense of having ‘something to gain’ by not getting into trouble again.

If, like me, you have spent a lot of your professional life working with children and young people you will probably recognise all five paradigms of childhood misbehaviour. There is some important truth in each. In Medway the children were being treated by ‘the system’ as delinquent, while the review Board saw them as normal children, with symptoms of deeper vulnerabilities. However much practitioners may try to use other paradigms to tackle offending, the justice system adopts a delinquency model of the child as young as 10 as making a moral choice to break the law that should be prosecuted and punished. The paradigms for responding to misbehaviour can even be very different from one school to the next, and from one policy framework to another. With a series of important reviews expected in the next few months (Charles Taylor’s youth justice review, Lord Laming’s care and crime review, and Martin Narey’s care homes review) can we finally grasp the nettle of ensuring consistent philosophical approaches towards children across all of them?