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Fall of the wild

Children behaving badly are being helped thanks to a morale-boosting programme. Reva Klein reports. How do you teach children who start school at four or five without the most basic social skills? Children who eat with their hands, who can't button their shirts or do up their shoelaces or ask for things? Children who have never been given even the simplest tasks to perform for themselves?

Carol Goodchild, headteacher of Newtown Infants School in Stockton, Cleveland, says that about 15 per cent of the children at her school fit that description. "The whole social structure around here has broken down. Our parents often don't know how to speak to their children or play with them." Economic blight is a cliche that could have been invented for this Teesside town. Where steelyards and shipyards were once the mainstays of the local economy, a void now exists. At Newtown Infants, nearly 60 per cent of the children receive free school meals. It's a figure that you'd associate more with a school deep within the bowels of the dirty, grey inner cities of post-industrial Britain than with a town surrounded by green fields on which cows graze.

To counteract the devastating effects on children of poverty, long-term unemployment, domestic discord and marital breakdown, Ms Goodchild and her staff have established a whole-school approach that focuses on self-esteem and co-operation. And it's no namby-pamby frill. It's all integrated into the curriculum.

Newtown Infants' approach draws on the strategies and has contributed others in Making a Difference: Developing Social Behaviour in Young Children, an information pack for early years teachers. The book is designed to equip children with the skills and outlook they need to learn and develop successful relationships with others. Newtown was one of the schools which piloted the pack.

It was developed by educational psychologists Sharon Lissaman and Elaine Riley, who worked together in Northumberland. Sharon says: "We started this because the majority of children referred to us have behaviour difficulties. Most of them behave badly because they haven't learned how to play in the early years. We wanted to focus not on individuals but on the role of school, looking at the ethos and the skills level."

They say that some nursery classes they work with can't embark on teaching pre-school skills because they have to spend all their time teaching simple language and basic social behaviour.

Now that nurseries are taking on this role, teachers need to work out achievable objectives for their pupils and ensure that they are equipped with the skills to achieve them, including appropriate behaviour for sharing, co-operating and collaborating.

"Teachers need to address the question of how they can expect children who have never made choices and decisions to carry out strategies like plan-do-review," says Elaine. "There's a massive need for concept development. "

Their book has drawn together good practice that they have seen in their many years of practice. Sharon says: "What we've done is to present bits of research and the practical strategies that teachers use. Our focus is very much that learning is not just about acquiring the ability to read, do number work and so on. But it's also about behaviour, about interacting in a society."

The pack is divided into sections - self-esteem, developing relationships and learning to co-operate, reducing conflict and aggression and managing anxiety and stress. Each one is introduced with snippets of research that the strategies address. The authors point out in the introduction that most of the activities they have incorporated are to be found in key stage 1 English programmes for speaking and listening.

One of the ground rules in the pack is that a child who lacks the confidence to make cognitive and conceptual leaps needs a strong base. That base should be built up through direct instruction, until the childis able to make that first leap.

Elaine says: "This fits in with the staged approach in the code of practice. A teacher may see a problem in the group, for instance, low self-esteem. If the focus is on four and five-year-olds, it will make a difference to the numbers of emotional and behavioural disturbance referrals later on."

In September, all primary schools in Stockton and Northumberland will be offered the packs and free in-service training, delivered by Sharon and Elaine.

If Newtown Infants' child-centred, self-esteem raising ethos is anything to go by, other schools in the two counties may be in for a surprise. It has one of the lowest referrals of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in the county. Given the socio-economic profile of its families, even the Office for Standards in Education remarked on it.

* Making a Difference costs Pounds 16 post-free from Psychological Services, Tyne House, Hepscott Park, Morpeth, Northumberland, NE61 6NF

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