Dear Ted

14th March 2003 at 00:00
How do I discipline an unruly Year 6 boy when the usual punishments don't seem to work any more? I don't want to exclude him

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

I am not sure what your "usual punishments" are (rack and thumbscrews?), but unruly boys are not confined to secondary schools. I remember reprimanding one such lad in a primary school, only for him to say "Right, I'm off", and head straight for the exit and the bus route outside, pursued by me and a classroom assistant, to a mixture of glee and dismay from the rest of the class.

Most schools have a ladder of sanctions and responses. These usually start with a mild ticking off, move on to loss of privileges, and then to a "Look here, sunshine" interview with a senior person, such as the head or deputy.

Thereafter comes the summoning of parents, the involvement of an outside source of assistance and, in dire circumstances, exclusion.

Problems often arise when the code of practice is unclear, is misunderstood, or if someone misses out agreed steps and waves the red card too early. There can be aggravation if parents feel their child, or their ethnic group, is being unfairly treated.

But sanctions and punishments are only one route. The real question is why the boy is persistently misbehaving and what he does. A bright spark bored into mischief by a tedious lesson is not the same as an embryonic psychopath with no moral compunction physically assaulting other pupils.

Solutions to misbehaviour must reflect the nature and the causes of it.

Some approaches to unruliness use a good analogy - "fire". What is the tinder (boredom, sitting next to another potential disruptive)? What is the spark (accidental physical contact, children allowed to insult each other)? What is the fire extinguisher (dampen the flames immediately so the fire doesn't spread; talk to children as individuals in a quiet moment; keep a watchful eye; establish and maintain good relationships, using a quick word or a bit of shared humour)? If it works, the fire brigade will not be needed.

You say

Find the cause of his bad behaviour

Eliminate any medical or learning difficulties as the cause of this boy's bad behaviour. Talk with your educational psychologist and Senco. Make links with home. Have experiences outside school impacted on the boy's attitudes? Also, any course of action you take will be more effective if it's supported at home. Is counselling appropriate?

I am concerned that we, as teachers, increasingly need to discipline and punish. Make a fresh start with this boy. If he is attention-seeking, give him positive attention one-to-one. Let him tell you why he thinks he behaves in this way. Negotiate - don't impose - targets for his behaviour and offer feedback and praise. Find something that enthuses him and introduce it into the classroom. Give him status - through a part in an assembly or a responsibility. Then praise him publicly. Effective inclusion means applying the rules differently for different children.

If all else fails, introduce assertive discipline to your classroom so that all children are given the same framework for their behaviour. Then talk to the secondary school so they can be prepared.

Tina Russell-Cruise, Macclesfield

Try one-to-one attention

Perhaps it's time to stand back from the problem and view it from an outsider's perspective. Occasionally, we can become so involved with patterns of behaviour - our own and the pupil's - that neither acknowledge that they exist. Is there a possibility that another member of staff, such as a classroom assistant, can afford some valuable time to give the boy some one-to-one attention to take the pressure off your relationship with him?

Kate Adams, Glasgow

Give praise where it's due

Try encouraging the positive aspects of his behaviour instead of spending your energies on punishing him for negative behaviour. Try to tactically ignore some of the minor bad behaviour; this will save you much needed energy to "catch the boy being good". Praise his good behaviour with a quiet word as he might not welcome public praise. Set short-term whole-class targets with tangible rewards. A bit of peer pressure to achieve the reward may pull him into line. Identify an area of school life or a personal interest where you could allocate extra time or resources. A personal target which is achievable, linked to a favourite pursuit or hobby, may do the trick.

As this boy is in Year 6, some liaison with the secondary school would prove helpful for you and his new teachers. Try to persuade him with a rewards and recognition system that shows him he can still be a success. If the teacher with responsibility for transitions at the secondary school can establish an early positive relationship, he may begin to look forward and behave in a better manner.

Karen Lax, Sheffield

Focus on his interests

Find out the real interests of this boy, not the superficial ones that he probably brags about. Ask his friends, family and other members of staff what makes him tick. Everyone has an interest in something. Focus on that and he may knuckle down and be better behaved. Are there any family problems or particular frustrations that he has encountered? Then again, some pupils won't change no matter what degrees of discipline are administered. Inclusion is surely the best policy.

David Kelly, Northumberland

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