Nurture groups

Marion Bennathan

Are children with emotional and behavioural difficulties different, a class apart? The Department for Education in 1994 said: "Their problems are clearer and greater than sporadic naughtiness or moodiness and yet not so great as to be classed as mental illness ... EBD is often engendered or worsened by the environment, including schools' or teachers' responses." (Circular 994.) This is not much comfort to schools struggling with more of their fair share of pupils with EBD. The Department for Education and Employment's report Excellence for all Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs (1996) reflects this. Talking about inclusion, it says:

"one group ... presents schools with special challenges - those with EBD ... The number of children perceived as falling within this group is increasing". So can inclusion really work for children with EBD?

The Government has put great effort into promoting behaviour policies and spreading good practice. Early intervention is recommended, which makes sense. The Association of Workers for Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties is delighted that nurture groups, which succeed with more than 80 per cent of children nearing exclusion, have been recommended in every recent policy document. (Such groups are described in Effective Intervention in Primary Schools: Nurture Groups, by Marjorie Boxall and me, David Fulton 1996.) John Bangs of the NUT has given nurture groups his blessing: "They worked in the Inner London Education Authority Teachers found them very helpful."

The essence of nurture group work is relating positively to the child, analysing where they are in their learning and providing focused help, as described in our handbook The Boxall Profile published by the AWCEBD in 1998.

Nurture groups were invented in 1970 by educational psychologist Marjorie Boxall, based on the theory that the learning process centres on attachment and trust. Children spend about three months in the group, keeping up links with their classes, until they are reintegrated. Group teachers provide warm and careful attention, routine, a family atmosphere and a lot of time for talk. At the same time, teaching is precisely targeted.

Good teaching is crucial but equally so is understanding what gets in the way of good learning. Teacher training and official policy often seem to work to a cardboard cut-out model of a child so that when a child does not respond teachers perceive it as their failure. And inclusion can be pushed too far. Children in serious difficulties may not make progress without special placement, perhaps residential. Confident teachers move to intervention before the point of exclusion.

The AWCEBD welcomes anyone who works with children with EBD.

Marion Bennathan is consultant to the DFEE-funded Nurture Group Project at University of Cambridge and chair of the AWCEBD, Charlton Court, East Sutton, Maidstone, ME17 3DQ. Tel: 01611 843104. E-mail:

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