All good primary school teachers know that the children who need love the most often ask for it in the most unloving ways. Of course, this can be difficult to remember when you're dodging the third chair of the morning, but after a quick hit of chocolate to calm the nerves, you return to support a child who is desperately in need of care and attention.
Every school has pupils like this. They are euphemistically labelled "high-profile" or "challenging" but their behaviour is "challenging" in the same way that an ultra-marathon is a "jog"; the description may be technically correct but it doesn't begin to sum up the reality of the ordeal. These children are the 1 per cent who take up 80 per cent of your time. They leave newly qualified teachers sobbing in cupboards. And they display behaviour so disruptive and unsafe that they have to be removed from the classroom - sometimes several times a day.
And I'm worried that we're encouraging them. No one wants to see a child upset or angry. In a building full of professionals who care deeply about children's emotional well-being, there is no shortage of adults ready to do whatever it takes to get a smile back on a pupil's face. Unfortunately, "whatever it takes" often means playing an iPad game, helping a grown-up with a "special job" or having a praise-riddled chat about feelings.
And thus, with the very best of intentions, the deleterious behaviour of these children is rewarded and reinforced. Although these tactics are effective in the short term, we need to ask ourselves if we are simply kicking the can down the road until it reaches secondary school, where the response from staff will be very different.
The root of the problem
We have, thank goodness, come a long way in how we deal with extreme behaviour. We endeavour to understand the reasons for negative conduct, instead of simply branding a child as "naughty" and enduring them until they are shunted on to the next unfortunate teacher.
The usual course of action now is to draw up a behaviour support plan to help the child take control of their emotions and actions; to give them strategies for strengthening their inner stop switch. Psychologists call this "self-regulation" - the ability to suppress short-term desires in favour of longer-term gains.
The benefits of such control have been demonstrated in "marshmallow tests", where young children are told that if they can resist gobbling up the treat in front of them, they will later be rewarded with two. When children who "pass" the test are followed up later, they tend to have higher grades and a lower body mass index. The implications of this research make a strong argument for teaching character lessons in schools.
No easy answers
So what of the gobblers in our classrooms? If we're not careful, we can teach these children a different lesson about control. They begin to dictate when they learn and when they don't. Maths isn't your favourite subject? Throw your book on the floor and start yelling. Phonics lessons don't feel fun enough? Overturn the pencil pot and draw all over your partner's work.
How we respond to such lapses in self-control is paramount to the child's success. There are always reasons for this sort of behaviour but we must never let them become excuses. To do so is to throw the child into a vicious circle of missing learning, which makes returning to class even more difficult.
To be clear, any child's emotional well-being must be firmly at the top of our priority list. But like toddlers facing the torturous marshmallow test, we must consider whether forgoing the short-term buzz of calming a child's anger with rewards could be the smart option in the long term. If a child re-enters the classroom thinking "that was fun", we're setting them up to fail.
It is our duty to make disruptive and self-destructive behaviour less desirable than following the school rules. That means firm boundaries and sanctions, not relaxed rules and treats. We must make it abundantly clear that such behaviour is unacceptable, and that because we care for the child, we won't let them damage their own education - or that of others.
Yes, children who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving ways, but what they are really asking for is a chance to succeed. We should give it to them. Whatever it takes.
Stephen Findlay teaches at a primary school in Essex
Explore how to use rewards effectively with this Teachers TV video.
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