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Give 'em enough rope ...;Special needs

When you're dealing with children who are prone to 'acting up', the answer may be to encourage them to do just that. Reva Klein watches dramatherapyin action

One day after school, a few lads decide to amuse themselves by pulling a wire across a road, waiting for a classmate to race along on his bike. But things don't work out as planned. The mother of one of the boys comes pedalling down the road, hits the wire and goes flying. She is seriously injured. The first kid to scarper is her son.

This episode happened on Tyneside - which is how two teachers got the idea to incorporate it into a drama exercise for a small group of Year 9 children who are not beyond pulling wires across roads themselves.

The five teenagers - two girls and three boys - act out the scene with skill, feeling and the occasional laugh. But they're not doing it to learn the finer points of performance art. When the girl who plays the mother screams for help, her cry has a harrowing ring of truth to it.

Which is why she is in the group. The teachers aren't class teachers but dramatherapists who are part of Total Learning Challenge, an initiative in north Tyneside to tackle disaffection in a secondary school and its six feeder primaries.

It does this by working with small groups of children identified by special needs co-ordinators as being at risk of underachieving andor dropping out. The aim is to give them self-confidence and a sense of trust with each other that, once achieved, allows them to communicate their feelings and needs.

It's not an easy task. One of the lads in the group at John Spence High School in North Shields, where Total Learning Challenge has been working for the past four years, is the sort of child who is destined never to blend into a crowd. A difficult family background has made him demand constant attention.

That he is funny and quick- witted is a testament to the survival of the human spirit. For some others in the group, it's different; they seem withdrawn, locked inside themselves.

But it's clear they have gelled as a group, forming a kind of family, despite the fact that for some of them "family" has negative connotations. They bounce ideas off each other, showing patience as they go over the scene, changing roles to experience the story from different perspectives.

They're not saintly; there's the inevitable messing about you always get with this age group. But they do it with ease and humour, thanks to the bonds they have formed with each other and the teacher-therapists.

With their parents' permission, they leave their timetabled classes once a week to work with Ye Min and Sue Chapman, both qualified and experienced teachers. Although they are essentially withdrawal classes, Chapman says there is no stigma.

All the children in the group I saw asked whether they could continue the following term. One of them, Tommy, says: "I like doing drama here because there are fewer people, it's quieter and nobody laughs at you. You get to know different people, and you work together."

The first four weeks of the programme, developed by the dramatherapists and TLC director Toby Quibell, focus on enabling the children to share and co-operate. They develop a contract with rules they agree to follow. An environment of openness and acceptance is created through warm-ups, co-operative games and a circle time.

Quibell, a former teacher, says, "There can be highs and lows in this phase. The important thing is that everyone has a chance to speak and that the group listens and offers no judgment or criticism. It helps break down some of the barriers."

The middle phase involves drama work with scripts, plasticine, puppets or drawings. There is an emphasis on all the children engaging in combinations of group, individual and partner work with all the other participants, including those they would not choose themselves. Troubled teenagers can be resourceful at finding ways of avoiding new people and situations. This gets them to move out of their self-imposed corners and learn that it's possible to get along with people, even if you don't want to be their friend.

The last four weeks incorporate time for reflection and feedback on the work the group has done. Results have been positive. Headteacher Brian Davison, says: "We see it as an integral part of our commitment to inclusion. At first, we focused on extremely disturbed children, but TLC has had most effect on those who might otherwise have been forgotten about - withdrawn children in desperate need of people to take an interest in them." Exclusion rates have fallen from five a year to none.

The next stage in TLC's development is what it calls strategic schools response to disaffection - bringing multi-agency services into schools to meet the varied needs of all the children.

Quibell and Davison are working together to co-ordinate health, education, emergency and social services in the school. "It will involve representatives from the fire department, police, an educational psychologist, the heath service and social services visiting on a regular rota," says Davison.

Another facet of the programme is the training of all school staff in the TLC approach. "It's been a struggle to get this into mainstream schools," says Quibell, "because so much of it - listening to children and giving them space to express themselves - is counter to the way schools work. For it to have its most far-reaching effects, it has to be supported throughout the school. We want to show staff how this approach can have an impact and then train them to do the work themselves.

"Disaffection," Quibell says, "is an urgent issue. Heads are crying out for help. TLC is about re-engaging children with education and their own futures."

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