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Nicky is taken, thrashing and crying...

Nicky is taken, thrashing and crying out as if his heart is breaking, to the 'chill-out area' where he can gradually come down from his crisis

Hamish is shouting, his Scottish accent rolling menacingly over the Rs, his face red and his beard a-tremble as he towers over Alfie, a small child with Down syndrome who is sitting down and refusing to get up again. "Don't you dare defy me, you terrible boy!"

The scene is from a special school more than 20 years ago, when "discipline" often meant confrontation. But we've come a long way in how we deal with challenging behaviour. The emphasis now is on getting children to take control of their own behaviour and reaching solutions in which everyone wins and no one's self-esteem takes a bashing. Take a recent incident at my school. I'm first alerted by the noise: Nicky is kicking and screaming as two members of staff escort him down the corridor, using prescribed techniques to securely hold and move him, keeping him and themselves safe. I check that the rest of the class are OK and then go to help as Nicky is taken into the withdrawal room. He's upset because it is someone else's birthday and, although this seems trivial, it's something he really can't handle at the moment but will certainly need to in the future.

So Nicky is taken, thrashing and crying out as if his heart is breaking, to the "chill-out area" where he can gradually come down from his crisis. The area is bounded by screens which the staff - it's taking four of us now - hold in place as he bangs, kicks, and charges at them. We wait as we see sometimes his head, sometimes an arm and sometimes a leg shooting up from the screens. The staff talk calmly to him and to each other, supporting each other through this upsetting incident.

"It's OK, Nicky," says one. "When you're calm, you can come out and have a drink." They encourage him to use techniques to calm himself down: count to three, big breaths, squeeze the cuddly toy, listen to the music. Nicky continues raging, seemingly out of control but then miraculously starts to do the breathing. We look at each other as we hear him whisper in a choking voice: "One two three, one two three". Then he starts to sob. "Are you ready to come out now?" asks Debbie.

We pull the screens back and out trots Nicky, seven years old, just a little, little boy, red-eyed and obviously exhausted. He nods when we ask if he wants a drink and sits himself at the table, shivering. We give him a drink and a hug. "Good boy," says Debbie, "you calmed down." He will be taken to pick up all the crayons he's thrown across the room because he needs to learn that his behaviour has consequences. Next time, the crisis won't last as long, and eventually he will be able to better manage his feelings by using the counting and breathing to stop himself before it gets too far. I'm confident because I've seen it happen before.

I take over in the classroom to give someone a 10-minute break before they come back in. Incidents like this are mercifully rare, but I'm always impressed by the way our staff handle such difficult behaviour. Much more common are the children like Jimmy who sit down and refuse to budge. Much harder to spot are all those incidents which might turn into crises if staff don't skilfully step in and avert the situation:

"Let's go and see what Sally's doing."

"Would you like to go out to play with the others or come back to class with me?"

"Will you help me push Sunny back to her room?"

Perhaps if Hamish had used one of those phrases, his beard would have stayed put...

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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