Bringing out the best in everybody

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Sometimes managing one child seems to take half your energy. Carolyn O'Grady offers some advice and guidance formulated by special needs support experts

All teachers will recognise this child: often sitting at the back of the class, unable to sit still, talking a lot and distracting other pupils, calling out and speaking out of turn, and occasionally aggressive to other children. He or she is possibly emotionally disturbed, but certainly difficult, and the description is typical of what many teachers see as an increasing trend in schools towards bad, even violent behaviour.

It could be worse. Schools have reported children coming in with knives and other weapons with every intention of using them. Sometimes they do. Nigel de Cruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolteachers Union of Women Teachers, in particular, has inveighed against the rise in bad behaviour in schools, blaming moves towards greater inclusion in mainstream schools of children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties and the closure of special schools, together with "increased market pressures through the publication of league tables".

He says: "There is a bitter irony in the over-emphasis on inclusion leading to more exclusion," referring to the recent 13 per cent rise in permanent exclusions from schools.

That teachers shouldn't have to put up with threatening or downright violent pupils is indisputable. Any teacher who feels physically intimidated or experiences violence at the hands of their pupils should go immediately to their head or union.

But, that said, how best can you deal with the consistently disruptive behaviour from children who may or may not have emotional and behavioural difficulties as defined by psychologists but are certainly very demanding and difficult? Or alternatively with the kind of children who are too overwhelmed by their problems to focus on learning? The kind who, as one teacher in a school with many disturbed children said, "come in and put their heads on the desk completely out of it".

The first thing to remember is that you are not acting in isolation. Every school should have a behaviour policy which establishes a consistent system of rewards and sanctions. Make sure that you know exactly what the hierarchy of sanctions is and apply them consistently and fairly. Don't feel that applying sanctions, for example sending children to the head, is a badge of failure. Done at the right time, it is the mark of a fair but firm teacher.

Also keep prominently in mind that a great deal of difficult behaviour results from special educational needs. Children with specific learning difficulties, for example, often vent their feelings of failure and frustration in disruptive, even violent behaviour. Children with severe emotional difficulties need specialist help.

Every school should have a special needs co-ordinator and if you suspect that a pupil has learning difficulties or severe emotional difficulties you should seek their advice. To succeed, such children may require extra support and an individual approach and the sooner they start the better. Refer to individual learning plans and use your school's own special educational needs register to get information on pupils.

Generally, differentiating work for ability is extremely important in keeping children motivated and feeling successful, which again forestalls frustration and bad behaviour.

Most children experience difficulties outside the classroom, at home or with their peers, at some point in their lives. If a child suddenly appears withdrawn and depressed or becomes disruptive, it is worth talking to the parents.

Perhaps the parents are divorcing or a close relative has died. Is the child being bullied? You could keep an eye on how they get on with their peers.

But although the relationship between teacher and pupil is only part of the jigsaw of a child's life, teachers in their attitude to pupils and in their own behaviour can significantly influence what happens in the classroom.

Very important is the teacher's ability to develop authority and respect, says a recently published guide from Croydon Special Education Needs Support Service. Managing Behaviour also emphasises that modifying the behaviour of difficult pupils takes a great deal of patience and trial and error.

"State or negotiate clear rules and display them within the classroom and discuss the consequences of persistent undesirable behaviour. Expect disciplined behaviour," it recommends. "Speak in a low, confident voice. This has a greater impact than shouting which gives an undesirable role model and may become lost among pupils' own shouts." Also important is setting a good example and reinforcing good behaviour.

Avoid stereotyping: giving a child a reputation for bad behaviour can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Often children don't want to behave badly, but have no clear idea how to behave well.

"Children can dig themselves into a hole and live in it. They need to be helped out of the role they've created for themselves," says Pat McDonnell, head of Smallwood Primary School in Sandbach, Cheshire, whose school has recently successfully instituted a policy of behaviour management.

The knack is often to reinforce good behaviour and ignore or marginalise undesirable behaviour. Most teachers will say they praise children a lot, but are you praising in the right way? Frank Merrett of the University of Birmingham School of Education, who with Professor Kevin Wheldall has developed in-service training packages for teachers in classroom behaviour management, called Positive Teaching, thinks that teachers often get it wrong.

Teachers will often say they are positive in their approach to children, " he says. "But generally they are positive about work. Towards behaviour they are negative: children are only picked out when they do wrong." Fulsome, general praise of the "Good Mary" at the end of the lesson type was not useful. "You must make sure that the child knows what the praise is for" and apply it carefully.

So, for example, his advice is not to take notice of a pupil who is restless or starts moving around. That only reinforces the behaviour by giving them attention. Instead go up to them when they have sat down for even a short length of time and say something like "I see you're getting on well". Rewarded consistently with attention for behaving correctly, the time will come when the child will only occasionally need this sort of positive reinforcement.

Avoiding confrontation is important. Discipline is not a battle which you have to win, child behaviour experts emphasise. The Croydon team recommends giving a pupil a way of making amends without humiliation and losing face. Also use discretion: if a pupil transgresses the rules by mistake be prepared to relax the consequences. And apologise if you make a mistake "which helps pupils realise that it is OK to make mistakes".

Take care not to set a pupil up for humiliation, they advise. It's easier to do than you may think. Often teachers ask pupils who are not paying attention what they think they have to do, knowing full well that the pupil hasn't listened. "This sets the pupil up for whole class humiliation and in an effort not to lose face in front of their peers they may choose to slag off the teacher", in which case you have a confrontation. A quiet, direct "do you understand what you have to do?" can often refocus the pupil more effectively.

And very important: don't take it personally. Carl Parsons of Canterbury Christ Church College, who recently undertook a survey of exclusion, says: "Often the child's problems don't have their roots in the classroom. Seek help from the head". He advises not just keeping a record of misdemeanours, but also recording what has been tried, so that you and other teachers don't go on experiencing failure.

Look after yourself. Managing a class is hard work, and if you feel relaxed and good about yourself then you will find it easier. Guard your free time and reward yourself after a tough day in a way that enables you to start each day anew.

'Managing Behaviour: a practical guide for the classroom aimed at reducing disaffection and disruptive behaviour.' Croydon Special Education Needs Support Service. Pounds 10. Tel: 0181 656 6551

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