Disarming the classroom terrorist

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Behaviour remains an issue where schools expect so much yet teach so little, says Alan McLean

Imagine your headteacher suggests that, because of your unreasonable way of dealing with people brought about by an overblown ego, inadequate personality, chaotic lifestyle and dysfunctional marriage, you should see a difficult person coach. Then imagine your partner and colleagues are going to have a case conference to discuss your state of mind. Once you have calmed down, chances are you would ask your head to explain exactly what they mean. The loose, judgmental thinking behind this nightmare scenario lies at the heart of our continuing difficulties with discipline.

Despite the constant stream of initiatives, indiscipline remains at the top of the Education Minister's agenda (TESS, January 23) and misbehaviour is as problematic as ever. Our understanding of the motives behind difficult behaviour doesn't live up to our inclusionist aspirations. The inclusion drive has expanded specialist jobs and expertise but, paradoxically, may have deskilled everyone else. Behaviour remains an issue where we expect so much yet teach so little. It is so much easier to condemn than understand.

Yet you won't see this issue considered in many policy documents.

Our partial understanding leads to "hit or miss" interventions whose outcomes are poorly evaluated and so we don't learn. It also leads to unhelpful feedback to pupils. Being told you are obnoxious won't increase your self-awareness. Understanding is the hallmark of a healthy school and it's only within attuned relationships that children and teachers begin to understand themselves. We need to match our new insights into how children learn with a better understanding of how they interact with school.

We instinctively distinguish pupils who are deliberately misbehaving from those who just can't help themselves. If the child has a syndrome such as "ADHD" (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), teachers are not implicated in the problem and so don't feel threatened. But most "problem" pupils don't come with explanatory labels. We assume they are in control of being "out of control". Primary teachers recognise "challenging" behaviour as an emotional response, while some "developmentally blind" secondary teachers see the same behaviour as a defiance of authority. Teachers tend to put their own behaviour down to the situation, but pupils' behaviour down to their dispositions.

Support agencies try to take a situational view of behaviour to avoid individualising what is a structural process. This has left the child-centered perspective frozen in the 1970s notion of "maladjustment".

Readers of the vacancies section of this newspaper will have noticed the term "EBD" (emotional and behavioural difficulties) as the catch-all label for pupils with more than the "normal" level of disruption. With our "one size fits all" mindset, if children don't fit they must have "EBD".

Teacher unions demand more "EBD" provision, on the assumption that such pupils are a discrete identifiable group. But we have never had an official definition or professional agreement about what constitutes "EBD".

Ascribing this label is more a function of value judgments than objective assessments, more politics than science. When it comes to understanding others there is no objective reality. Fortunately, psychology has never come up with a way to rank children emotionally.

"EBD" is a one-dimensional construct loosely used to explain multidimensional children. We urgently need more useful conceptualisations of children's emotional development and resilience. The most "challenging" pupils don't have problems managing their emotions. They are anti-authority and more interested in terrorising than pleasing adults. Some are over-autonomous; others are aggrieved, feel picked on and can't let go of their sense of unfairness. Pupils like this are thought to have a "conduct disorder", a psychiatric euphemism for pest. I prefer "specific oppositional disorder" - SOD for short.

Some teachers think schools should shift "misfits" to so-called specialist provision. But even within the same school it is difficult to agree on what is a behaviour problem. Ask 10 people what they think of David Blane and you will get 10 different takes on his behaviour. The relativity of misbehaviour, including violent incidents, will be apparent to any teacher who has moved from a disadvantaged area to a leafy suburb only to hear complaints about relatively trivial misdemeanours.

The practice of not opening a record of need for this group has meant that these children's needs have never been identified. The Additional Support for Learning Bill has given a fresh impetus to considering behavioural issues. However, rather than argue about who should get what plan, we should follow the lead set by the Better Behaviour Better Learning task group which located behaviour within learning and teaching.

Just as we now talk about assessment for learning, we need assessment for behaving. Assessment needs to focus on the skills that enable pupils to manage the complex social and emotional demands of school. Any model needs to start with the premise that misbehaviour is a natural part of growing up and opposition is part of everyday life - even in the staffroom. Pupils taunting teachers are like dogs tugging at a shoe; anyone who has played tug with a dog will know it is not the shoe it wants but the mutual tugging.

There are many paths to a greater understanding or at least a clarification of our perceptions. They include joint problem-solving groups and new curriculum programmes such as critical thinking skills and co-operative learning. We need to involve pupils more in discussions about their state of mind. We need to attend more to the E in EBD, the one thing we all have in common yet often deny - our emotions.

Schools are normative and judgmental in how they typecast pupils, but their norms and values are rarely made explicit. The citizenship agenda gives school leaders the opportunity to articulate a shared set of values and so generate an ethos that results in consistent and objective views of pupils.

This would also empower teachers to communicate their concerns to management. Just as governments need to understand terrorism better and avoid making a bad situation worse, schools need a smarter analysis of their own classroom terrorists. And just as there are only political, not military, solutions to terrorism, so discipline systems need a bedrock of understanding.

Alan McLean is an educational psychologist in Glasgow.

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