Banishing demons from the real world

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Just as teachers like to believe they do not exist solely for the duration of the school day, pupils have lives beyond the classroom too. Leaving the school gates is a joy for most. For others, it can be chaotic and disturbing. As teachers, we can provide boundaries, security and structure; but these things do not always translate into the home environment. Lack of consistency can quickly ignite emotional and behavioural difficulties, as a child struggles to come to terms with a code of conduct that is one moment there, then suddenly gone.

Working within a multi-agency team as a behaviour support teacher, I am able to access a clear overview of the circumstances that can affect a child's experience of school. My team consists of professionals from education, health, psychology and social services. We work closely together providing rapid, multi-layered support to a multi-layered problem. This innovative model of working can enable a school to bypass the bureaucracy and frustration of finding help: the mirage of social services, the vagueness of parents, the erratic lines of communication. It represents the possibility of drawing a complete circle around an "at risk" child.

A young girl was referred to our service by a local head who had growing concerns about the child's poor social development, challenging behaviours, and "bizarre" stories of a violent, menacing figure in black.

I observed the pupil in school and offered strategic advice to the teacher.

He was an accomplished practitioner, but he had lost patience with the pupil's persistent attention-seeking behaviour. He was resigned to shouting at her, but felt he could never get through to the child.

Discussions with the team family therapist revealed that the parents of this child were struggling to comprehend, and provide for, the emotional needs of their daughter whom they described as "demonic". But concerns about physical abuse were thankfully quashed. The figure in black was, in fact, a fictitious creation in the mind of a confused seven-year-old desperate to be noticed within a chaotic family unit.

Our approach was as simple as it was complicated: empathy. The child wants attention and is not deliberately trying to sabotage the home - or the literacy hour. During feedback sessions with the class teacher, we established some strategies for encouraging the girl to seek and receive attention in positive ways, ensuring these were consistent with family work. Thus began the long but valuable process of reframing the fragile emotional development of this person. Gradually progress was made. The outcome was good.

Unfortunately this success story, and others like it, failed to make an impact on the budget lords. A recent meeting with senior management, in which pages of statistical graphs and percentages were passed around, left a sour taste. We had not, as an organisation, met all of our targets. Our service was not "value for money". There had been improvements but they were simply not good enough. Every bit of casework myself and my team have done is good enough. It may not fit neatly into an Excel spreadsheet, but it has been beneficial to many individuals.

The reality of transforming underachievement and disaffected behaviour is about changing life. Not glossy government initiatives, but real life and real people. It requires investment, time and determination. But it seeks to address the cause of underachievement, not just wrestle with the symptoms. If people are encouraged to work in this way, the effects could be long-lasting and meaningful - not just for the welfare of a seven-year-old girl, but for schools, communities and society.

Louisa Leaman is a behaviour support teacher in east London

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