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'Challenge the act - not the person'

A Portsmouth school specialises in helping trainee teachers learn how to deal with difficult and challenging pupils. Diana Hinds reports

Shadowing a difficult pupil at an inner-city comprehensive was an eye-opener for Amanda Jones, a PGCE student at Portsmouth University.

"It was probably the first time I had had to deal with a challenging pupil," she says. "The girl was very confrontational towards the teacher in the lesson, and walked out of the classroom of her own will. I then had to follow her - and she was a bit challenging towards me too."

Amanda managed to find an empty classroom where she sat down with the girl.

"After a while she opened up a bit. She explained that she gets frustrated in maths lessons, and masks it by being challenging. I hadn't been aware before of pupils masking things like that. I am learning that if a pupil is being challenging, don't challenge them back: take a step away, challenge the act, not the person."

City of Portsmouth girls' school is a training school - one of 82 around the country that take on responsibility for running programmes for student teachers. Here they specialise in helping trainees understand inclusion issues. They learn the techniques needed for pupils with learning andor behavioural difficulties. The school is well-placed for such a role, including in its intake many girls from areas of social deprivation.

"We do have some quite challenging pupils," says Beverly Scammell, the acting headteacher. "We are growing teachers that we, or other schools in the community, may employ in the future, and we want to produce professionals who are confident about tackling the kinds of issues they will face."

Elaine Cale, the teacher responsible for the training school brief at City of Portsmouth, agrees: "We don't want trainees to be scared of inner-city schools. Part of the challenge for the teacher is to motivate pupils who are demotivated, and help those who have a problem with anger. Some situations can cause anxiety, or even be quite frightening - and we have to help the teacher not to take it personally."

It is vitally important, says Beverly, that this process begins for trainees on the first day of the school year - not weeks into the term, when the dust has settled and experienced staff have established relative calm in their classrooms.

John Edwards, who runs the PGCE course at Portsmouth University, hopes more schools will follow City of Portsmouth's lead and invite trainees in earlier in the term. Amanda Jones is glad to have seen the school on day one: "There were a few ruffled feathers at first - not so much outright disobedience, but more to do with pupils not knowing the rules of the classroom.

"The first few lessons were all about setting out expectations - and I hadn't been aware how much time would need to be put into that."

Neil Chance, another PGCE student, agrees: "It was good to see that scaffolding going up. Managing behaviour is one of the biggest issues for us, and I started out with a belief that if I had a respect for the pupils, they would return that. I now know it's not quite as simple as that: there has to be a lot of groundwork and building of rules."

While at City of Portsmouth, trainees are encouraged to look at what goes on in the classroom from different angles: from the point of view of the disruptive pupil, the teacher, or the learning support assistant (LSA) - whose task it may be to calm an irate pupil or bolster one with low self-esteem. Trainees spend a day shadowing an assistant, and then take on that role themselves for a day.

Asha Basith, a PGCE student who is an old girl of the school, found this an illuminating experience: "I used to think that the LSA just turned up to the lesson, but now I see there is a lot of planning with the teacher involved," she says.

When the going gets tough, City of Portsmouth Girls runs a system whereby a difficult pupil can leave the classroom and spend the rest of the lesson in a special "time-out" zone at the top of the building, manned by two staff.

"The idea is that this is a time to calm down and reflect on what went wrong," explains Elaine Cale. "Often, the issues they bring up come from outside school, and they need to talk about these things."

In future, she would like trainees to spend a day shadowing staff in the "time-out" zone. She also hopes, once a term, to take a small group of particularly disaffected pupils - plus trainees - to a community centre to work on their behaviour through discussion and role-play.

But as trainees are reminded, in a lecture on "rewards and sanctions" by Helen Surawy, a history teacher at City of Portsmouth, the time-out option should be very much a last resort. Teachers should arm themselves with a range of strategies for creating a positive atmosphere in their classrooms, including physical rewards like credits or stickers, as well as constructive praise, quiet praise, or even a knowing glance or nod to show something was done well. At the first sign of trouble, a quiet reprimand is often more effective than a public confrontation.

"Try to avoid incidents escalating into detentions, or pupils being sent to the time-out room," she says. "There is a health warning in this: inclusion is our aim."

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