19th June 2009 at 01:00
Problem: One child in my primary class needs to be prompted on everything, whether it is to answer a question, find a section in a book or start a task. Is it a sign of something more serious?

While the majority of pupils respond well to instructions, you may have one child who, when faced with choices, simply ends up doing nothing at all. In the playground he or she might just sit and observe the other children, and in PE the pupil might not participate until told what to do in detail.

Whether this and other signs of disruption in the classroom are indicators of something more serious, such as abuse or dyslexia, depends on the individual. To find out, you would need more information about the child than is given in the above scenario, says Michael Davies, an educational psychologist.

"That said, it can't be ruled out if this is the child's usual behaviour that it could be a sign of a specific language impairment or even an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger's syndrome, which causes communications difficulties," he says.

There are some pupils, however, who simply give up and rely on others because they think the teacher will do their thinking for them, says Kairen Cullen, another educational psychologist. According to her, "learnt helplessness" - a theory that originates from Martin Seligman's experiments with dogs at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 - may supply some pointers. Dr Seligman found that some animals learn to behave helplessly to avoid uncomfortable situations. He drew links between this and human depression.

Ms Cullen believes that, although this sort of passive behaviour might not indicate something as serious as depression, it is worth noting that the problem tends to affect more girls than boys. But in considering whether this sort of behaviour indicates something deeper, Ms Cullen suggests you have to ask whether the child has been like this for a long time, or if their behaviour has changed recently.

"It can be a sign of abuse outside school, or it might be that the child is socially struggling and therefore takes no chance to look silly in front of the class," she says.

It is also important to ask whether the child is just bored of the lesson and does not want to take part actively, says Victor Allen, behaviour consultant at Mirror Development and Training.

"Set a small target for the pupil. If they say they can't find the page, ask how close they can get," he says, adding that teachers should also ask another pupil to work with the child to encourage them.

Philip Parkin, general secretary of the teachers' union Voice and former deputy head of a primary school, says it is crucial to look at the groupings within the classroom.

"I have seen teachers teaching with their back to the class - even with their back to the disruptive child. They are unaware of what is going on," he says.

Instead, teachers should sit the child so he or she can focus on the teacher. This will make it easier to give attention to both the individual pupil and the rest of the class.

Nonetheless, problems with short-term memory can be an indicator of dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, says educational psychologist Peter Congdon. Both conditions can be overlooked.

"These children are often wrongly chastised for laziness or a failure to concentrate," he says.

But it is not laziness, he argues. Pupils with these conditions often forget what they are supposed to do or say and may frequently mislay things.

In his short pamphlet "Helping the Child with a Poor Short-Term Memory", Dr Congdon notes that one solution can be to use checklists, so the child can check off each part of a set of instructions.

"As the child learns to manage this, so they can be encouraged to rehearse the list mentally," he writes.

Another way to get pupils to remember tasks might be to leave a note on their desk, says Andrew Spencer, deputy head of Portobello Primary in Chester-le-Street.

"You should set up signals with the pupil, so the prompts will not embarrass them," he says. "These are little signals that they need. It's like setting up a contract between the teacher and pupil."

A pupil's inability to take the initiative in class may seem minor, but the range of issues it could betray is huge and potentially serious. Consider this first, and act accordingly.

DO .

. Take advice from your special educational needs co-ordinator to see if it could be a sign of a more serious problem.

. Minimise the number of key points the child has to remember and ensure you give specific instructions in digestible chunks.


. Confront the pupil in front of the whole class since it is likely to embarrass them.

. Assume that the child is lazy. This behaviour can be a sign of something more serious.

Next week: Laughing when reprimanded.

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