Discipline is a crisis we can't slim away

19th January 2001 at 00:00
As we contemplate our January selves and ruefully view the increased girth which would be a source of pride to an oven-ready turkey, our thoughts turn ritualistically to self-discipline. Punishing our over-indulgence by dieting, detoxifying and deprivation is the prescription. Depressing isn't it?

This month is wicked enough. The long haul to pay day. The hefty credit card bill. The struggle to remain motivated. On top of that medley of woes pupils return to school and the bad behaviour of some remains unaffected by anything they experienced in the festive season.

There is no paucity of discussion on the subject. You'll hear it in the supermarket and in waiting rooms and, of course, in the higher echelons of civil servants' offices in the Scottish Executive. And schools, yes. We endlessly discuss individual pupils and occasionally may think more abstractly about discipline.

I know there has been a lot of hullabaloo about Jack McConnell's plans for sin bins, or whatever you like to call them. Why such furore? Because the tabloid press urge us to take the nasty little miscreants and hang 'em high. Don't forget the old mantra - tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

What to do with badly behaved pupils? It's such a stretching question, it tires me even to pose it. When I started teaching in 1976 the belt was the main item in the teacher's toolbox. The barbarism of the act upset me.

I remember how my then principal teacher belted a boy who had misbehaved in my class. The floor shook, the lad howled in pain and he never again interrupted me. Sometimes I wonder about how he is now. The belt silenced him but did it tackle his problems?

But I don't belive that schools have the staffing or expertise to tackle deep-seated behavioural problems. Low level disruption we can deal with most of the time but even that is epidemic in some schools. A teaching friend maintains that parents should be called in much more quickly in the discipline process so that their support can be enlisted. Even three or four mildly disruptive pupils can snooker the learning process for the others.

Kids with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties are commonplace now. Few of them ever see a psychiatrist. I'm not forgetting the educational psychologists who are all too few in number. Referrals from guidance teachers, reports from teachers and social work comments all have their place in the system, but let's bring the experts into the class. In my experience most pupils are happy with the presence of additional adults in the classroom. All expert hands on deck is a pretty good adage, I reckon.

I'm perplexed as to why these pupils don't receive more highly trained help. Is it something to do with political correctness? Schools are simply containing these youngsters at the expense of the other children and, furthermore, these serious behavioural problems rarely go away. They go with the child into adult life, baggage not welcomed anywhere.

There are those who will deliberately pick up the wrong end of the stick here. I am not saying that children with severe behavioural problems should not be taught in our classrooms.

Nor am I trying to make mincemeat of the mainstream and inclusion arguments. Children should receive the full range of professional help they need - just as adults do. Misinterpretations on postcards, please . . .

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