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Tackling teenage truancy - at 3

Schools are working with families to improve their emotional literacy and pre-empt later problems

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Teachers are being trained to stop children as young as three growing up to become badly behaved teenagers. Experts believe that the Teacher Classroom Management programme can prevent youngsters turning into problem pupils and truants at secondary school.

But the method is also aimed at helping parents do a better job. Tests by academics at Bangor University show that the programme can lower parents' stress levels, stopping them becoming depressed, which could, in turn, have a damaging impact on children's behaviour.

The programme works by teachers praising toddlers and children in a caring, supportive environment. The theory is that parents become happier as the behaviour of their children improves, making for a more harmonious home life.

Early intervention schemes such as this are increasingly seen as the answer to schools struggling with truancy and behaviour issues.

The Incredible Years Wales centre at Bangor, which trains teachers in the programme and other management techniques, secured extra funding from the Assembly government last week to extend training and undertake more research.

Teachers on the programme are taught how to run parenting courses and how to hold Dinosaur schools, a technique using puppets to model good social skills and manners for pupils. The aim is to improve their emotional literacy and encourage them to speak about difficult issues. So far, 14 of the 22 authorities in Wales have trained teachers in the method.

Speaking at the Incredible Years Wales annual conference last month, Michelle Mansell, an educational psychologist in Blaenau Gwent, called for the programme to be used nationwide. "It should be part of initial teacher training, as well as for foundation phase and early years teachers," she said.

Professor Judy Hutchings, who set up the Incredible Years initiative, said Gwynedd, Powys and Blaenau Gwent authorities had been particularly pro- active in using the schemes.

Some teachers go on to teach parents better techniques for dealing with their children.

Parents are also playing a large role in Wales's growing number of nurture groups, which take troubled children out of class to receive the dedicated attention of a trained teacher.

Supporters of such groups say children cannot begin to learn unless their basic needs for security and understanding are met.

Speaking at a nurture group conference in Cardiff last month, Dr Heather Geddes, an educational psychotherapist, explained the link between emotional health and children's relationships with their parents. She said the risk factors for anti-social behaviour and delinquency were well- known: conflict in families; vulnerable single parents; abuse; criminality; and drug or alcohol misuse.

"The infant experience (for children facing these risk factors) is of a person present, but not thinking. The parent becomes unavailable," she said. "For some children, adults at school might be the first source of thoughtful attachment they experience." She added that referrals to nurture groups increase in July as children's anxiety levels rise in anticipation of the long holidays.

Around 100 schools in 11 Welsh authorities have organised nurture groups. Three have been awarded a national quality mark: Gors Community School and Gorseinon Infants School in Swansea; and Maesglas Primary in Newport.

Marian Evans, chair and South Wales co-ordinator of the Nurture Group Network, said having extra staff during the play-led foundation phase has given teachers a chance to identify children who would benefit from joining a nurture group.

"They can target children who need that help to learn," she said. "It has been a very positive move."

Social and emotional problems can affect children from all backgrounds, she said: "Professional parents can become just as detached, but interest in the groups has mainly come from disadvantaged areas."

Angela Sarkis, chief executive of the network, believes every school should have enough funding to operate a nurture group. "We want a proper budget for nurture groups, so heads don't have to go scrabbling around for money," she said. "Nurture groups have been going for 40 years. It's not a fly-by-night project. It is tried and tested, with a strong evidence base. Early intervention is always going to be cost-effective. The real question is: can schools afford not to do this?"


Stella Gruffydd, head of Ysgol Bro Lleu in Caernarfon, Gwynedd, is effusive about the Incredible Years programmes. All the school's teachers and seven classroom assistants have been trained in its methods.

"Teachers have got more interested in what children do and why," she said. "We even introduced it to children, showing them how their brains work."

Behaviour at the school has improved and there is now a really positive classroom atmosphere, she said. "All our visitors comment on how happy the classrooms are and how well our children behave - well, 95 per cent of the time."

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