To me it seems a no-brainer,” says Essi Viding, professor of psychology at University College London. “Nobody’s going to get psychopathy as a present when they turn 18. Of course you’re going to see some precursors."
What might early intervention look like?
“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 lack of success in educating children sociopaths to recognise the effects of their behaviour may have more to do with using the wrong methods than it does a sociopath child's inability or unwillingness to learn:
“What [people who use social shaming as a method of punishment] 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.”
What does work?
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 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.’ Adults don’t like to dismiss children,” Warren says.
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.)
What sort of results can you expect?
“These kids are still having quite significant problems: they are not cured. But they are improving. Some have gone back to mainstream school, which is incredible,” she says.
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.
There are a couple of other interesting tidbits, like this one about "circle time" type emotional sharing activities:
“(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.