Conflict is part of school life - but the importance of helping children to understand and resolve it is often overlooked. Diana Hinds sees the benefits first hand.
Billy and Nina have fallen out. Billy kicked Nina's ball over the fence at break time and Nina was so angry that she shouted in his face. Sounds like a regular playground scenario - except that this one is being acted out by two rag dolls, watched avidly by a small group of Year 2 children.
The children are asked to think of ways that the two dolls might make it up and their suggestions include: "saying I'm really sorry", "having a hug" and Billy paying Nina "a compliment". Julie Shailer, senior learning support assistant, gently stresses the importance of listening to other people's points of view. When Heather Babb, nursery nurse, asks the children what they might do if they fall out with a friend, one boy answers thoughtfully that he would: "have a small discussion".
For half a term, these six children come for sessions three times a week in the Orange Room at All Saints Primary School in Wimbledon, south-west London, with Julie and Heather. The aim of the sessions is to help them be more aware of their own and other's feelings and to find words and strategies to cope with difficult situations.
This small group work forms part of the second phase of the national primary Seal (Social and emotional aspects of learning) programme, in which this school is leading the way in the London borough of Merton.
All Saints first experimented with small group work two years ago in a pilot and now demonstrates the benefits of this approach to other schools.
Since September, Julie and Heather, both Seal trained, have dedicated themselves to small group work for five mornings a week. The approach has been extended from Year 2 to Years 5 and 6 (with new materials now available from the national Seal programme) and All Saints is also hoping to work in this way with reception children. Every child joins a Seal group for half a term, but children with difficult behaviour may in future attend further sessions.
"The small group work has had a huge impact," says Roz Cordner, headteacher. "The curriculum is so busy, but for the children this is a time just to come and be yourself. It's an opportunity to tell a story, share something, talk about something that wasn't fantastic, in a small group where people have time to listen. That's what primary school should be about."
The national Seal programme was introduced in primary schools in 2003, piloted in 25 local authorities as part of the Government's primary behaviour and attendance strategy and is now in place, to varying degrees, in all primaries. The programme comprises resource materials on themes including New Beginnings, Getting On and Falling Out, Say No to Bullying, Going for Goals and Relationships, for use in assemblies, class circle time and small groups.
An evaluation of the 2003-05 Seal pilot by Professor Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education at the University of London was published last autumn. The study found that the programme helped staff understand their pupils better and approach behaviour incidents in a more reflective way. Relationships between teachers and pupils in the classroom were calmer, with problems discussed and solved in a friendlier atmosphere. Children's behaviour in the playground and at lunchtime was also improved, with fewer children being sent to queue outside the headteacher's office.
Eighty-five per cent of teachers said their skills in promoting positive behaviour had improved as a result of Seal. Initially some teachers had doubts about the programme, but after two years, 90 per cent felt that it had been at least relatively successful.
"In the late 1980s and 1990s, the pastoral role in schools became a no-go area, with teachers more or less told to focus on academic attainment," says Professor Hallam. "One of the key things Seal is doing is giving teachers permission to take on a pastoral role again."
Part of Seal's success, according to Roz Cordner at All Saints, is that it improves the emotional awareness of staff as well as pupils. "It's important for staff and children to be aware of their own emotional state - so that if, for example, a teacher feels things are reaching crisis point in the classroom, they know to give themselves time to step back. If a child is playing up before a maths test, the teacher needs to be aware of these emotional feelings, rather than just thinking the child is being naughty. Seal has made teachers understand the children better, because they're aware of what the emotional triggers are."
Support from the local authority and proper training are crucial if Seal is to work well, says Roz. "The programme needs time to evolve and it's important that it is taken on by the whole school."
Shareen Mayers, Year 6 teacher and key stage 2 leader, conducts Seal assemblies every week and also oversees the small group work. "Seal has made a real impact on behaviour and children doing small group work are calmer throughout the day," she says. "It's good we've now extended the small groups to Years 5 and 6 because there is so much to get through in the curriculum and Seal work would otherwise drop off."
"What has been embedded here is not just talking about feelings, but the children now have the skills to problem-solve for themselves, with the right cues from adults," says Roz. "I now have children coming to me and saying, 'we've sorted out this problem and this is how we did it.' That shift is really lovely."
A TOUCH OF CLASS
Carol Smith, headteacher at Birchwood Junior School in Lincoln, describes her school's experiences of Seal:
"We started using the pilot material in 2005. We wanted to help children to be successful as independent learners and to enable them to learn skills to cope with situations that were barriers to learning, like falling out with friends at playtime or coping with anger.
"We also had a group of children who needed more intensive work and we were keen to set up small group learning where they could develop key skills and build confidence.
"We started off with a whole-school launch and staff training. That was important because you've got to get everybody using the same language.
"We had Seal assemblies and we used the materials in class, as discrete lessons as well as integrated into cross-curricular learning. After about half a term we started small group work, because that was a major need for our children.
"When we first started there was no language and no structure for talking about these kinds of social and emotional issues. Now there is.
"The biggest difference is that the school is calmer. There is a common language and strategies shared among children and adults for dealing with problems and calming down (including special areas inside and out). We still have difficult times, but we are much better equipped to manage them - staff and children.
"It's not a magic wand that will change everything overnight. You have to keep working on it."