Can you handle overactive pupils?

1st December 2006 at 00:00
The condition affects between 3 and 9 per cent of children. Yet very few new teachers receive training for it And not too many experienced staff feel qualified to cope either. Will Stewart investigates what is being done

AS a special educational needs co-ordinator, Margaret Baker has experience of pupils with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. So should all teachers. Official figures show the condition affects at least one, or two, pupils in every class in the country.

She gives an example of a boy with the condition: "The disruption comes in waves. We would sit him on a chair where the teacher would keep an eye on him, but after three or four minutes he would be rolling on the floor."

Mrs Baker says that all teachers should receive training to deal with disruptive pupils. But she found that the trainees she supervises at Queenswell infants' school in Whetstone, north London, get none at all - or very little.

She admits that until Barnet council provided specialist training, her own knowledge was too general. This is not surprising as the legal framework that training colleges must follow makes no mention of ADHD.

When The TES asked what specialist training there was in the 85 training institutions in England and Wales, only 10 were prepared to reply. Six hours training during a three-year course was the most offered. Three colleges offered nothing, one said two hours and the others an hour or less. Two admitted they offered 10 minutes. And only three had staff with specialist knowledge.

In other words, a large proportion of new teachers start with little or no knowledge of a condition they are likely to face several times per day.

Research suggests this need not be the case and that even a limited understanding can improve a teacher's quality of life and their pupils'

behaviour, attitude to learning and exam results.

Diagnoses have soared in the UK since the early 1990s, as have the number of controversial amphetamine-like pills - such as Ritalin - prescribed to treat it.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence estimates that it affects between 3 and 9 per cent of the 8 million pupils in England and Wales. The Department for Education and Skills' 210-page special educational needs code of practice makes no mention of it. There is just a brief mention of "behavioural, emotional and social development": hyperactive children, it says, lack concentration and may require extra help.

For Andrea Bilbow, founder and chief executive of the ADHD Information and Support Service, that sums up the problem with the department's position.

"They lump it in with social emotional and behavioural difficulties," she says, "but we object because it is primarily a learning difficulty. The behavioural problems are secondary."

Ms Bilbow says that pupil censuses don't include a tick box for the condition, preventing proper assessment of its extent.

A poll she carried out four years ago revealed that only about 2 per cent of teachers had had any training on how to deal with it.

In October, the Government had an opportunity to change the situation when, in response to criticism from the Commons education select committee, it promised more on-the-job special needs training for teachers. But, again, there was no specific mention of ADHD.

This concerns Professor Peter Tymms of Durham university. "There is a big problem both with initial teacher training and with continuous professional development," he says.

The difference that even a basic knowledge can make was revealed in a study of 2,040 schools he carried out with a colleague, Christine Merrell. The pair supplied random schools with a booklet summing up the theory behind the disorder, plus practical classroom strategies to help those with severe symptoms. It suggested peer-mentoring to help pupils concentrate, instant praise for good work, and involving pupils in outside activities. In schools where their advice was followed, pupils behaved significantly better: their attitude to maths and reading improved, as did teachers'

perceptions of the quality of their school life.

The findings confirm the suspicions of Kate Spohrer, author of an award-winning book on the subject, who argues that such pupils can do much better if they are taught appropriately. "It is a personality type rather than a mental illness," she says. "If you can draw out the good things, it can lead to people becoming very high achievers.

"At times, talking to a pupil with ADHD is like talking to another adult: they have old heads on young shoulders," the former advisory teacher for Sandwell, West Midlands, says. "But you put them into a normal classroom and they can be all over the place.

"You have to keep taking a step back. Things go wrong when communication breaks down."

Barnet council reached the same conclusion, with the help of some intensive lobbying from Ms Bilbow, who lives in the north London borough. Graham Durham, the assistant director of education, admits that four years ago the condition was not "fantastically understood" in local schools. Holly Evans, an advisory teacher, was his solution. On courses for teachers, governors and social workers, she emphasises that the key is to learn how to keep children focused and interested in their work.

But, as Ms Spohrer explains, this is not always easy. "The problem with ADHD kids is that they often look and give the impression of being able.

But just having the intelligence is not enough - you need the ability to apply that intelligence as well.

"It is very easy for teachers to lose patience, but you have got to remember where they are coming from and not just see these kids as lazy, rude and naughty."

Classroom tactics

Be positive - give five times as much praise as criticism.

Even if you don't feel patient, act as if you are. Eventually you will become the way you behave.

Avoid confrontation. Don't get drawn into adolescent exchanges.

Always respect the child.

Keep your sense of humour.

Source: Kate Spohrer, author of Supporting Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

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