Behaviour is a universal issuel

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Poor discipline among children is not a matter to be dumped on parents alone: we all have a collective responsibility to guide personal and social development, argues Ian McEwan

No children who choose to avail themselves of the opportunities that education offers them should expect to witness some of the exchanges or scenes of physical aggression or violence with disaffected and disruptive pupils that have been reported in the press. No teacher should have to suffer them either.

However, as the debate on indiscipline in Scottish schools appears to be getting more heated, some sadness should be felt for those children (still thankfully in the minority) who exhibit such extremes of behaviour. In many ways it is a sad indictment of our society that they have such behaviours in their repertoire.

Collective responsibility for this must be shared by all of us, not just their parents, although their role is pivotal. To be a good parent, one has to have experienced good parenting. Against a background of social difficulties such as unemployment, crime, abuse, drugs and family break-up, it is an increasingly complex task.

But why have relationships between teachers and some children deteriorated to the extent that they have? Why are both sides now, on occasions, quite polarised in their attitudes towards the other side? Why do we talk of sides at all and use the language of the battlefield (arsenal, armoury, weapons, fight and so on) to describe some of these difficulties?

A visiting American expert in educational psychologist at Glasgow University, Dr Richard Majors, told a conference in Aberdeen over a year ago that our education system, and society's attitude to young people, appeared to be "obsessed with punishment". He suggested that what we were witnessing was actually a crisis in relationships with young people, citing as evidence the rates of school truancy and exclusions, the policy of anti-social behaviour orders and the clamour for tagging offenders.

This, he postulated, was the result of concentrating on the cognitive and academic domain in the education system at the expense of the affective domain, which would acknowledge the role of emotional and social factors in the learning process.

The highly acclaimed work by the American psychologist Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence develops this line of argument in a very challenging and persuasive fashion. The body of work being undertaken by the Scottish Schools Ethos Network is further evidence of it.

The McCrone report reminded us that "it is every teacher's responsibility to contribute to the personal and social development of children and young people by providing advice and comment on matters relating to their learning and general well-being". In other words, recognition is given to the concept that all our work with children and young people has an identifiable social and psychological dimension. It is no longer acceptable to think that teaching is an activity that is aimed at the rows of black blazers out there. It really is goodbye, Mr Chips.

When giving the keynote speech last year at a conference in Dumfries to launch an anti-bullying policy, Professor Brian Boyd, of Strathclyde University, had the courage to suggest that we don't love our children enough.

Those of us who have worked with young people over any length of time know that they can present with challenging behaviours that confound and confuse and make them difficult to love.

The psychotherapist Susie Orbach commented on this in The Guardian some years ago, when she wrote: "Children, when all is said and done, aren't much different from adults. If they are treated with respect, they blossom; if they are treated with inconsistency, they feel anxious; if they are treated carelessly, they hurt. It is what they do with that hurt that can be perplexing, galling and irritating to others."

We, as adults, carry a collective responsibility to our children and young people (particularly if we work in education), not simply because it is a good thing to do or because it marks us as being civilised, but because we are all interconnected as human beings and, if we wish to understand how to live better together, we need to accept that we live not in separation but in relationships.

Life is a journey we should be undertaking together: there really is no other way. If we take our responsibilities seriously as corporate parents to all children, we can't look to other professionals to fix everything for us without at least a critical examination of our own part in these interactions and processes.

Some readers will be old enough to remember the song by the Hollies "He aint Heavy, He's my Brother". That would seem to have some resonance for all of us.

Ian McEwan, a principal education psychologist with Dumfries and Galloway, is starting an exchange year as a full-time psychologist counsellor at a school near Brisbane, Australia

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