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Talking Shop

Former headteacher Sue Mulvany gets to the heart of issues that concern you

Q: While supervising pupils queuing for lunch some time ago, I saw two children from the same family behaving strangely. It wasn't what I would normally expect from six and seven-year-olds. Last week it happened again and I realised they were mimicking the most suggestive actions of lovemaking. I feel stupid, as I had missed the significance of what I originally saw - but I also worry that I might have read too much into what they did.

A: In such situations you don't have a choice - you must report the incident to the person on the staff named for all child protection issues. This is usually the headteacher. The head will then follow the procedures agreed with the local area child protection committee.

As to your own feelings, be kind to yourself. Sometimes things like this are difficult because they are unexpected.

You shouldn't worry about misinterpreting what you saw. Children often act out behaviours they have witnessed or been subjected to as a means of assimilating new experiences. You will have seen youngsters engaging in pretend play, copying smiling actions or applying lipstick.

The behaviour you describe will be a significant feature the social workers will take into account in their work with the family.

Q: I thought I had overcome my fear of parents' evenings, but at the last one I had to speak to a couple about their child's behaviour. The boy had kicked and punched other children in the playground. His father was antagonistic and defended his child's actions, saying that he taught his son to hit back if he was threatened. He would not be persuaded that this behaviour was unacceptable. How can I make the parents support what we are trying to do in school?

A: You shouldn't "make" people do anything - just see the results of the father trying to make his son act as he dictates.

Your job is to motivate and teach the child to achieve as well as possible and to foster positive attitudes to learning.

To get the best out of the school, the child must be secure in the knowledge that both the school and his parents are pulling in the same direction. Obviously, he is falling between two stools, as home and school have different ideas of what acceptable behaviour is. There is a lot of work to be done with this family but the school needs to set clear boundaries that the parents and child understand.

First, acknowledge with the parents that the expectations and rules of school differ from those of the home. Make it clear that the rules are there for a purpose: so everyone can get on with their lives unhindered.

Second, do something more creative about your parents' evenings. Situations like this are more likely to happen if the only way some parents have of discussing their children is in formal meetings. Many parents are ill at ease in such settings and are more likely to be defensive. Try more regular, informal contacts with the family, when you can give positive reports on the child's progress and deal with behaviour issues as they arise, rather than let infrequent meetings turn into a catalogue of misbehaviour.

Q: The last intake into my reception class has settled in well apart from one boy, who cries every morning and starts to scream as soon as he enters the building. His mother gets distraught and I'm feeling worn down. We have tried all we can, including staggered entry arrangements and informal activities to begin the day. His older sister never had any problem. What can we do?

A: Try to analyse the stages mother and son go through on their way to school. You need to identify the point at which things start to go wrong and bypass it. Tensions may begin at home, but from what you say the time and place of entering the school are the triggers.

Enlist the help of a trusted adult who meets the family before they reach the school and accompanies them into a comfortable place other than the class. Arrange for the older sister to be there with a friend and allow them to play a game or read a book with the child.

Ask the parent to do a job to disengage from her son while the others engage his interest. Take him to class with his sister. If this eases his crying, repeat the pattern for a while. If not, try changing the environment, walk round the grounds and inside the school, explaining what goes on and what happens in classes.

He is frightened and needs to have his fears dispelled.

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