Difficult child is 'trying to solve a problem, rather than be one'
But Professor Pamela Munn of Edinburgh University urged teachers to "resist moral panic" over indiscipline. It was nothing new and not confined to Scotland where looked-after children and those with records of need were "disproportionately represented" in exclusion figures.
Professor Munn, who in 1997 published the research that led to the national alternatives project, called for a broad view in her address to the Scottish Support for Learning Association conference in Livingston. "Schools which look at behaviour in context tend to exclude less and decisions on exclusion are better when informed by a network of staff with a range of perspectives on pupils. The earlier the intervention, the better. The more you know about the young person, the more likely you are to intervene at the right time," she said.
She wanted to see a flexible, differentiated curriculum and greater parental involvement in decision-making. Teachers had to combine social and academic goalsfor pupils but there was no single action they could take. "We need a number of strategies in which expectations and beliefs are central. Sharing good practice is essential and teachers have the expertise themselves. If you have high expectations of pupils, it works positively," Professor Munn said.
She warned against over-dependency on psychologists. They were part of the solution, not the cure. Inter-agency work could also become over-complicated and young people preferred a single person they could relate to. Adults were more effective if they were seen as non-judgmental.
Alison Cousar of Burnhouse School, West Lothian, said its positive behaviour policy with challenging pupils was based on praise and included home visits, target diaries and task and behaviour certificates.
"Use praise effectively. Build rapport outside the class, praise small achievements and laugh with the pupils while maintaining clear guidelines of discipline. When push comes to shove - forgive them," she said.
Bernard Chisholm, head of psychological services in West Lothian, said:
"The problem child is invariably trying to solve a problem, rather than be one."