Fifty years on, behaviour still holds us back

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Since I entered teaching in 1952, my main educational interest has been behaviour problems. My first acquaintance with them was when I took up the headship - my second - of a lunatic asylum of a school in 1966, a girls'

comprehensive in antique buildings in Lambeth, under the auspices of the Inner London Education Authority.

No one but me and my brilliant deputy Margaret Tucker, of blessed memory, knew the full situation. Margaret and I picked up faeces from toilet floors, and dragged soiled sanitary towels from behind radiators, while our juvenile schizophrenic on all fours butted her head against swinging classroom doors, and hallucinated that bats were flying in through closed windows. A sick head of department flicked paper pellets with a ruler from a second floor window into the playground, one teacher pinioned a girl against the wall in a frenzy of anger, while another shouted at the recently arrived Caribbean children to go back where they belonged.

The list of disturbed, unreferred, untreated children filled many pages of my exercise book. I spent four years at the school, sorting out the mess, then limped off to a research fellowship at the psychology department of the London Institute of Education, learning how to research behaviour problems. I spent the rest of my career training teachers and developing strategies that I thought would help schools.

Late last year the government-sponsored report on behaviour from the committee chaired by headteacher Sir Alan Steer recommended that the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) should undertake research into behaviour problems in schools. But if so much has been achieved already in fields such as bullying and truancy, if we now have a UK Observatory for the Promotion of Non-Violence, if the principles of behaviour modification techniques are accepted as useful, what more is there to do, and how can the OECD help? I believe it can help a great deal.

My own research, some of it carried out with David Steed of Goldsmiths and Pamela Young of the London Institute of Education, has not been taken up as it should have been, for a start.

Does your school regularly monitor incidents of disruptive behaviour in terms of time of day, place, class or year involved, type of incident, and then consider action in the light of patterns emerging from the findings? Have behaviour modification principles been taught to all teachers, especially those working with difficult classes?

As for what the OECD could do to help, let us consider how few strategies on problem behaviour are based on well-tested psychological principles.

There are principles of behaviour and group dynamics which even now have not been fully exploited. The OECD should search for others as we badly need qualitative data about new thinking and developments in Europe and beyond.

In the mid-Eighties I carried out research with David Steed and Pamela Young into disruptive school behaviour in western Europe, mainly in the French and German-speaking countries, using an extensive questionnaire written in those languages. We focused on questions of the definition of disruptive behaviour, increased concern about it, special provision for pupils, support for teachers, and descriptions of the main causes and "cures" for it. More than 120 people working in the psychology field replied, including professors of education, educational psychologists, heads of special schools and researchers.

It would be useful to ask the OECD to do a similar study to ascertain developments over the past 20 years, and it would be useful to include criminologists. A study comparing incidents in different countries would also be of interest, with a focus on successful new initiatives. There is so much more to do, before we bring ease to the minds of all children and all teachers, so that learning takes place and knowledge is gained in a world that has increasingly desperate need for it.

Jean Lawrence is a retired former principal lecturer in education at the Goldsmiths College, London

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