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Self-belief is the key to success

As last week's task group report pushes discipline to the top of the agenda, Joan Mowat outlines key principles and good practice.

here is a very strong relationship between how pupils behave and their perceptions of their abilities to learn. One finding of the Improving Schools Effectiveness Project was that one of the strongest correlations between pupil perceptions and attainment related to the pupil's own perceptions of behaviour.

Many of the patterns of disturbed behaviour identified in pupils when they reach secondary school can often be traced back to learned patterns of behaviour which may have arisen in response to failures in the learning process.

How many pupils would rather be the class clown than the class dunce? By the time many pupils reach secondary, they have switched off because they perceive themselves as being unable to learn, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The self-esteem of pupils is an important factor in children's learning, but simply focusing upon "positive thinking" and attitudes will not in itself achieve self-esteem for pupils. What is crucial for self-esteem is to achieve success.

It is not sufficient to focus on reward schemes and praise: the most useful positive feedback that a pupil can receive is that which enables the pupil to succeed in the task being done.

The reaction of pupils when they encounter difficulties plays an important role within the learning process. Pupils lacking self-esteem who consider themselves to be poor learners will typically react by giving up, either demanding attention loudly or retreating into a world of displacement behaviours such as disrupting the class.

A pupil encouraged to see failure as an opportunity to learn and to persevere when encountering difficulties is much more likely to be a successful learner. It is therefore important to stress to pupils the need for perseverance, the need to regard failure as part of learning and to build up the confidence of pupils when they do meet difficulties - to see them as challenges, not insurmountable problems.

This therefore implies that to focus solely upon behaviour is counterproductive and unlikely to lead to any change of significance in individual pupils. Behaviour has to be looked at within the context of learning.

It is also imperative to recognise that behaviour is based upon value systems - if changes in behaviour are needed, teachers must encourage pupils to become aware of their value systems and to encourage pupils to challenge these values by encouraging them to focus in depth upon their understanding of issues. Positive change will only occur in pupils when they themselves want to change and believe that they can do so.

At Vale of Leven Academy, we have tried to put these principles into practice with intensive small-scale group work for pupils identified by staff as posing a particular challenge. These groups meet weekly with staff and undertake a range of activities, target-setting through negotiation between the teacher and pupil.

Targets are set weekly and monitored daily by class teachers, parents and assistant head, behaviour support teacher or guidance teacher. A pupil diary has to be completed which poses questions encouraging pupils to reflect upon their experiences within school and to develop strategies to help them cope better. There is also a focused activity encouraging pupils to develop greater self-awareness, a sense of responsibility towards others and self-responsibility.

Groups have been meeting now for two years, and evaluations by staff, pupils, parents - and examination of data such as referrals and suspensions - indicate that, for some pupils, this approach is highly effective, and for all pupils is of some benefit. I am pleased to report that, with a grant from the Cook Foundation and the support of staff, we now offer five groups this session for S2 pupils.

Only time will tell if this will work but there is no doubt that the traditional approach towards discipline is of no value to pupils and only compounds the problems schools experience with disaffected pupils.

Traditional approaches to discipline, raising self-esteem, initiatives to raise attainment (such as paired-reading schemes and supported study), promoting positive behaviour through recognising success and approaches such as that described above need to work in tandem if we are to bring the disaffected back on board.

Joan Mowat is assistant headteacher at Vale of Leven Academy, West Dunbartonshire.

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