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An exercise in synthesis

Kairen Cullen explains how she helped a problem class make progress by focusing on the collective good. Some years ago, a colleague and I were drafted in to help with a primary class, 4X. It was known by staff as "the nightmare class".

One boy, I recall, liked to hide under the tables and would then refuse to move. Another would frequently vent his poorly controlled anger on staff and pupils. One girl would destroy her work as soon as she completed a task. And then there was the girl who would only speak to the classroom assistant and a couple of her friends .

The headteacher had searched far and wide for help with this challenging collection of children, about a quarter of whom were on the school's special needs register. A classroom management consultant, the borough's behaviour support team, advisory teachers and local authority inspectors had been involved. Autumn half-term came and with it the departure of the fifth class teacher.

Something had to change. So, taking an "appreciative inquiry" approach, we set up a project known as "turning horrors into lovelies".

The initial aim was to find something positive about the class. We asked teachers to recall any situation, activity or time when they had experienced 4X in a positive way. Some had to search back to key stage 1 or earlier but everyone found something - a memorable school trip, sports day, a classroom project.

We focused on the whole class rather than on individual "problem" children, and systematically applied psychological theories and approaches, such as family therapy and psychodynamic theory. We tracked the changes through consultations with staff, classroom observations, group sessions with parents and some whole-class work.

By and large, it worked well. Through shining a spotlight on the good aspects of 4X's history and reminding everyone of the class's more positive attributes, perceptions did change and with them expectations and gradually the behaviour as well. The need for supplementary, and in some cases specialist, input still remained for some pupils, but learning and behaviour for everyone in the class improved.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across a study by Swinson and Knight that looked at student behaviour in the context of the whole class and particularly in relation to teachers' verbal styles. The researchers carried out a study in a northern secondary school and observed 20 different classes. They looked particularly at 24 pupils identified by their tutors as having challenging behaviour. They measured the on-task behaviour levels of whole class groups and of the challenging pupils in different classes.

They found that the behaviour of identified pupils was better in classes where on-task behaviour was higher generally, regardless of teacher feedback to individuals. Another finding was that the more positive and frequent the feedback to pupils about their curriculum and learning- focused behaviour, the more on-task behaviour there was across the class, including the "difficult" pupils.

Teachers should bear all this in mind when Gordon Brown exhorts them to "personalise, personalise, personalise". For the sake of all pupils, including those with special needs, teachers need to create a positive whole-class atmosphere and to focus on the curriculum.

Of course every child matters, but the needs of the individual seem to be best met where there is a strong collective ethos

Kairen Cullen is a chartered educational psychologist


Cullen, KJ amp; Ramoutar, L (2003) `Building fresh perceptions of a class: Turning horrors into lovelies'. Educational and Child Psychology Vol. 20, No. 4, pp 116 - 130

Swinson, J amp; Knight, R (2007) `Teacher verbal feedback directed towards secondary pupils with challenging behaviour and its relationship to their behaviour'. Educational Psychology in Practice Vol. 23, No. 3, pp 241 - 255.

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