Full of sound and fury

Attacks on teachers, dysfunctional behaviour and constant disruption are not confined to secondaries. The growing rate of exclusions from primary - and even early years - settings suggests that children are becoming unmanageable at ever-younger ages

Hannah Frankel

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There was no reasoning with Nicholas* when he was in one of his "moods". The nine-year-old would refuse to do what he was told, mess around and swing back on his chair.

When he got really angry - about once a month - he would push his desk over before pacing around the classroom, throwing books and chairs as he went.

"He had no strategy for dealing with conflict and no regard for those around him," says his then teacher, Essie Hall. "His anger and frustration just overwhelmed him."

It would be easy to dismiss such aggressive behaviour by one so young as exceptional. But the rate of exclusions in primary and even early-years settings suggests that Nicholas is far from unique.

In November, four-year-old McKenzie Dunkley was excluded from his Lancashire school for constantly disrupting classes and attacking teachers. And in 2008, an unnamed three-year-old girl in Caerphilly, Wales, assaulted a fellow pupil, making her the youngest child to be excluded from school in Britain.

"Teachers are telling us that children are becoming aggressive or highly disruptive in class at younger ages," warns Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). "It is making it even harder to teach primary children."

An ATL survey last November confirms that primary school teachers are suffering from stress, a lack of confidence and even physical harm because of disruptive pupils.

"Two boys made me dread every day," says a primary teacher from London. While her other 25 pupils were well-behaved, these two made her life a misery. "Every day was an ordeal. Sometimes they would disappear together, leaving the classroom or playground without permission. At other times they threw things across the room and out of the window."

Such physical aggression is not uncommon: two-thirds of primary teachers have witnessed violence by pupils, according to the ATL survey. More than half believe that behaviour has deteriorated over the past five years.

In December, the Conservatives highlighted figures showing assaults by children aged five and under led to 2,600 temporary exclusions from schools in England in 2007-08. That is an increase of 150 suspensions on the previous year and involved 1,650 assaults on adults.

The figures do not reveal the actual number of pupils involved, however: a small number of children could have been responsible for a large proportion of the exclusions.

But both the Government and Ofsted insist that exclusions are dropping. In its annual report last autumn, the schools watchdog said behaviour is good or outstanding in 95 per cent of primary schools and satisfactory in the rest.

Dr Jeremy Swinson says that there is a dearth of hard data on whether pupil behaviour is getting worse, or indeed better. His experience as principal educational psychologist for the Witherslack Group, which runs schools for pupils as young as four with emotional and behavioural difficulties, has brought him into contact with plenty of very young dysfunctional children - but he has seen no increase in recent years.

He suspects that some teachers and politicians are harping back to "good old days" that never actually existed. "Teachers have been saying that behaviour has been getting worse for years," he says. "There never was a golden age of behaviour."

But he concedes that too many young children are displaying unsocialised behaviour in the classroom. Dr Swinson points the finger at poor parenting skills: children who are inconsistently disciplined at home may not know how to listen to or obey adults.

Most experts agree that parents play a key role, but warn against over- simplification. Many factors contribute to bad behaviour, not all of which are within parents' control.

One that lies outside parental influence is the age at which children start school. Forcing five-year-olds to access formal education before they are ready could be one factor. The national curriculum's focus on literacy and numeracy has also been blamed, as has teaching styles. Both can leave pupils bored and prone to messing around.

Among young pupils, this frustration is most likely to be expressed through a well-placed temper tantrum. Children quickly learn it can be a sure-fire method of getting their way.

Lesley Ward, ATL president, has seen many ferocious and potentially dangerous tantrums during her 35 years as a primary school teacher in Doncaster. "I had one little boy who just ruled the roost at home," she says. "His temper tantrums were phenomenal."

While the reception-aged boy shouted, cried, swore and threw whatever was to hand, Ms Ward would send the rest of the class into the next-door room for their own protection. She would then sit by the door to make sure he did not harm himself. The boy may have learnt his behaviour at home: his father also had a foul temper, she recalls.

Such children, lacking in boundaries at home, take up a disproportionate amount of teachers' time and attention. "It's hard for some of the pupils to understand that no really does mean no. It might have an entirely different meaning at home, such as, `No, until you get mad enough and then you'll get your own way'," she says.

But Steve Iredale, headteacher of Athersley South Primary School in Barnsley, says it is too easy to blame parents. Shared responsibility is a more effective approach, he believes. Many of the parents at his school are facing myriad problems in their own lives and they need support, not condemnation.

Mr Iredale encourages parents to call the school for help with a wide variety of issues seemingly unrelated to education, such as housing problems. Parent-support workers and mentors are on hand to help, while its Webster-Stratton programme, a popular training package that helps parents to improve their parenting skills, also comes in handy.

"We are all social workers now," says Mr Iredale. "We take our responsibilities very seriously." But not everyone agrees that teachers' responsibilities stretch this far.

"Teachers are there to teach," says John Girdley from teaching union the NASUWT. "They are not social workers and not police officers."

But whatever efforts teachers make, some pupils will always need more than the school can feasibly provide. Despite one-to-one work, counselling, a learning mentor and home-school links, one five-year-old was clearly out of control at Athersley South.

"We held on to him as long as we could, but he couldn't be in mainstream education with all the kicking, scratching and screaming," Mr Iredale says. "Every intervention we introduced, failed. It was pretty horrendous."

Eventually, the local authority stepped in. Like other councils, Barnsley is considering setting up a unit to cater specifically for severely disruptive key stage 1 pupils. This would fit in with the Government's commitment to intervene before problems get out of hand.

By identifying troublesome pupils at primary school, it hopes to offer alternative provision before they start on a spiral of exclusions. Short stays in referral units for the very young is an option.

But until the units are created, and while permanent exclusions are discouraged, schools have to find a way to work with disruptive pupils. That will sometimes include physical restraint. Teachers at Athersley South learn how to safely restrain children on courses run by Team-Teach, an organisation that offers training in "positive handling strategies".

Ash Green Primary School in Halifax also tries to work alongside parents. Behaviour has not deteriorated, says Mungo Sheppard, its headteacher, but only because the school works so hard to help vulnerable families beyond the school gate.

"A lot of our children have chaotic lives at home," he says. "There is a high rate of unemployment and socio-economic deprivation around here and the recession means that people who had very little, now have even less."

In order to support the whole child, the school organises parent and child art workshops, where the parent can spend quality time with their child in a creative environment. Social gatherings and sessions on phonics and guided reading are also available.

Football, dance, cookery and gym clubs are available before and after school for just pound;1, which helps keep children off the streets and out of trouble. And organising a "walking bus", whereby a number of children band together to walk home under the supervision of parent volunteers, gives other parents a break.

To make sure no one slips through the net, a vulnerable pupil audit is conducted for each year group. Identified families will have access to family support workers and home-school link managers, who will either help or signpost struggling parents to other agencies, such as alcohol or drug support groups.

Without parents' needs being addressed in this way, pupils won't be in a frame of mind that is conducive to learning, Mr Iredale says. "Kids pick up on problems remarkably quickly. If they hear their parents arguing, it will have an effect somehow, somewhere. We need to minimise those problems as much as possible and nip them in the bud."

The national curriculum does not always help. Mr Sheppard suggests that pupils often lose their way during the transition between the free-flowing foundation stage and the more structured approach to learning in Year 1.

From spending 80 per cent of their time doing play-based activities, pupils are suddenly expected to sit and concentrate on literacy and numeracy for prolonged periods of time. Messing around may be the only way to vent their frustration.

Ash Green now has an extra teaching assistant in each Year 1 morning class to help bridge the gap and allow for smaller, more manageable groups of pupils. It also tries to keep some of that effective, play-based learning going for as long as possible. Keeping the curriculum interesting, and the pupils interested, is half the battle.

"I have been here for 13 years and in that time I have seen a move away from behaviour management and towards a focus on teaching and learning," Mr Sheppard says. "If pupils feel stretched and enjoy learning, they are much less likely to misbehave."

Jean Johnson, chief executive of Notschool - an online alternative to formal education - agrees. She says too much time is spent on behaviour management in schools, and not enough on making lessons exciting. Pressure on teachers can also constrain their scope to vary their lessons to match pupils' interests.

"Behaviour will deteriorate if teachers are not teaching what pupils want to learn," she says. "It's hard to be imaginative and innovative when your performance is being monitored and appraised the whole time. Targets limit what teachers can do."

The 2009 Rose Report, which recommended a more skills-based primary curriculum, may bring about change. But for now, pupils need to be proficient in English and maths by the time they are seven, and are expected to reach a minimum level 4 in English, maths and science by the time they are 11. The temptation is to prep and prime pupils as early as possible, regardless of their ability or maturity.

Not all five-year-olds will be ready to access formal education, argues Karen Jones, an educational psychologist based in West Yorkshire. "Children of that age will have very different language competencies," she says. "If they have had poor language experiences, their understanding can be very delayed."

Their limited vocabulary will be based on their role models. If their parent relies on orders rather than discussions, or demands over and above conversation, the child will almost certainly follow suit.

"The teacher may expect the pupil to respond or obey, but they can't. They simply won't understand what is being asked of them."

In such scenarios, the child may use "here and now" responses, Ms Jones says - hitting or biting because they have no language alternative. "Highly emotive responses will rise to the surface very quickly," she adds.

The situation may be equally challenging in the playground. If they have not been taught how to share toys or co-operate with other children, it can be very wearing on the teacher, Ms Jones adds.

Parents may not have had the time or inclination to introduce "repair strategies", whereby children learn from their mistakes. Without such practice, children are unlikely to know how to play constructively.

For the sake of the child, it is imperative, therefore, that their vulnerable parents receive support, be it helping the unemployed find work, the angry manage their temper or the illiterate access adult education.

The Common Assessment Framework, which addresses children's additional needs, should help to identify and offer support to families at an early stage, plus ensure joined-up thinking between agencies. Behavioural support teams, run by the local education authority, are also becoming a more common sight in primary and secondary schools.

Teachers on the ground, however, are still often unsure how to act. Before meetings are organised or strategies devised, tiny tearaways need to be contained.

"We have a disturbed child in our nursery who is becoming increasingly violent," reports an exasperated teacher on The TES online forum. "He has punched children, stabbed adults with forks, thrown heavy equipment at children and we are becoming really scared something much more serious will happen."

The teacher has separated him from other children and is logging his behaviour, but is holding her breath in case someone gets hurt.

In such scenarios, headteachers have to weigh up the violent child's needs with those of the other children. When Ms Hall, formerly a senior manager at a large primary school in Southall and now a team leader for Notschool, was confronted by Nicholas, other children's parents complained.

"We knew exclusion would not be good for him, but we also knew that he wasn't good for other pupils," she says. "Parents were complaining, saying he was ruining their children's education. They feared he would upset or hurt their child."

In the end the school managed to work with him and his mother, and his behaviour improved. A small minority of pupils, however, may be so violent that the school has no choice but to exclude.

Extremely rare but horrific bouts of violence by children - such as the horrific attack by two brothers in Edlington, South Yorkshire, then aged 10 and 11, on two young boys - highlights how sadistic a small minority of children can be.

But exclusion may be the easy part. Where they go next, is not. "Where are these young people going to be placed? How will they be re-integrated into mainstream education?" asks Ms Johnson. "We need answers before schools decide to exclude. There isn't always suitable alternative provision available."

Labelling a child a troublemaker may dictate the course of the rest of their life. Studies by Jim Stevenson, emeritus professor at the school of psychology, Southampton University, show that behavioural problems among three-year-olds signify problems five years on.

"They are not transitory," he told TES Magazine. "They will often persist and carry noticeable effects at age eight."

That is why Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's School, a secondary in Tower Hamlets, east London, works so closely with her feeder primaries.

"We are certainly having pupils arriving in Year 7 with severe emotional and behavioural problems," she says. Many incoming pupils will also be taking Ritalin, the drug frequently used to control Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

George Green has a nurture groups (smaller classes that focus on emotional and social development) for its most vulnerable Year 7 pupils, and is embedding Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) skills across its curriculum. It also holds training workshops for teachers on conflict resolution techniques.

Research by Dr Stevenson shows that as little as two hours' training for teachers can dramatically improve behaviour. He favours training based on behavioural psychology such as the Webster-Stratton programme. Referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services is appropriate for more complex cases.

Parenting classes can also be popular, as long as they are conducted in a non-threatening way. Ms Johnson, who works with many families who have "fallen out" with schools, says parents can find them embarrassing, humiliating and upsetting.

"There are two typical responses: either `I'm not a bad parent', or `What does this person (the trainer) know about parenting?' It needs to be done in a respectful way if it's to work - one that recognises some of the massive hurdles these parents face just to get by."

The child of a third-generation unemployed single mother, who gave birth in her teens and has little or no extended family to hand, may not have the tools to prepare her child for school. One father threatened to beat up another dad at Ash Green, for some perceived slight on his eight-year- old son.

"If pupils see a parent like that - one who is happy to hit first and ask questions later - the school will be constantly swimming against the tide," says Mr Sheppard.

"Some parents don't seem mature enough themselves, and I'm not just talking about the younger ones. They argue with their child as if they were a child, too. It is hard for a school to pull that back."

But Mr Sheppard refuses to wash his hands of these parents or their children. Under his reign, no child has ever been excluded. Instead, he feels he is finally winning parents' hearts and minds. Today, if he reports a pupil's misbehaviour to their parent, he is fairly confident that they will back him up.

His guiding philosophy is simple: if a child is not mentally or physically ready to learn, they won't learn - and they are likely to prevent others from learning, too.

The apoplectic vision of a herd of five-year olds running amok in classrooms is no doubt misleading. But if that fantasy isn't to become a reality, primary schools have little choice but to reach out and help vulnerable families.

* Not his real name

How to manage behaviour in a primary setting

  • Make clear your boundaries and expectations.
  • Explain what rewards pupils will receive when they are well behaved and what sanctions to expect when they are not.
  • Time out can be effective: the disruptive pupil sits silently (while supervised) outside the classroom for a fixed period of time. Any complaints and the time is extended.
  • Always follow through with previously defined rewards or sanctions.
  • When the disruptive pupil is behaving, remember to praise them.
  • Keep it simple: do not put in place too many strategies to improve behaviour at the same time.

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    Hannah Frankel

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