Forswear foul ways

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Sarah Wellington describes how peer pressure reformed a troublesome pupil.

Darren is eight. He came into my class in September with a reputation and I wasn't looking forward to the year ahead.

He had arrived the previous term with a damning report which his behaviour confirmed from day one. He was said to be fairly bright, working at the average for his age but he mumbled rather - not always a bad thing, since his language was liberally peppered with words we don't use in a small Church of England village school.

The other children tried to make him feel welcome but their friendliness wore thin as Darren's aggression showed itself. In response to the slightest criticism he hit out or kicked or punched. Wherever he sat there would be trouble and he ended up being isolated at a table of his own.

Darren was brought to school every day by his mother, a quiet, slightly bewildered looking woman with whom Darren seemed to have an affectionate relationship. She accepted our reports with resignation.Wondering where to start, I observed that what seemed to outrage the other children most was Darren's persistent swearing.

I decided to address this aspect of his behaviour first, and suggested to him that we draw up a "reward system" giving him stars for periods of time when he managed not to use the "F" word. Accumulated stars would result in a reward. He managed ten minutes of genteel language, told his neighbour to "F off", realised he'd blown it and that was that. I was left with a feeling of failure and a lot of redundant silver stars.

We have "circle time" in class when children are encouraged to talk openly and listen to each other. at the next circle some boys mentioned trouble with football during lunch breaks. It seemed that "certain" people were being aggressive and spoiling things for everybody.

The circle discussed ways of dealing with the problem and came up with a system of appointing a "ref" for a week at a time who would have the power to issue "warnings". Two warnings for kicking (people, not the ball) would result in the offender being "sent off" for the rest of that day's play. Anyone who kicked back suffered a similar fate. Everyone, including Darren, was enthusiastic. Predictably, the next day Darren was sent off. Surprisingly, he seemed to accept this as fair. He had, after all, been instrumental in drawing up the plan.

Next day, one of the dinner ladies told me, in surprise, that the lunch break had been uneventful. The boys (there are 22 of them in my class of 27) told me with enthusiasm that "Darren was good and he never kicked or sweared once". This was cause for great joy and celebration.

Fulsome praise didn't seem enough, somehow. So I decorated a small book with gold paper shapes, wrote "Good news" on the front, recorded the lunchtime success and sent it home to his Mum. She came to see me and was delighted. So was Darren and so were the dinner ladies.

The dinner supervisor is a sensible woman and quick to support any efforts at improvement. She agreed to make some notes and after a few good days in the playground, started writing positive comments about Darren - his good table manners, helping to stack the chairs, walking without pushing and asking politely to have his shoelaces tied. (I liked that!) Each day the book was admired by the class and taken home to mum. Suddenly we had trouble free lunch hours.

Assembly was the next thing to focus on. Habitually, Darren behaved badly - poking people on either side of him, pulling faces, waving his arms in the air and doing aeroplane impersonations during prayer. He was freqently sent out. "What can we do?" I asked Darren. We needed an Ugent Plan of Action.

Darren had a think, then announced that he needed "good people to help" and he needed to sit at the front "so I can't see bad people". He chose two boys he considered "good" and we had a committee meeting. Or rather, they had the meeting and I chaired it. They talked seriously about seating arrangements then - being kindhearted but not entirely altruistic - the other boys asked what was in it for them. We agreed that there would be ten minutes "golden time" for all three if they succeeded in achieving a week of trouble-free assemblies.

Next day the three positioned themselves in the front row. Darren sat quietly then slumped slightly. Immediately, he was poked in the ribs and sat up again. Two pairs of eyes on either side of him constantly swivelled in his direction. He was good and the three-some walked quietly out of assembly with wide smiles on their faces. The same thing was repeated the following days. The rest of the class was ecstatic.

At eight years old Darren is beginning to have self-discipline. Discipline imposed from the outside, by adults, doesn't work with him. First he needs to see that his anti-social behaviour is alienating his peers and then to enlist their help and approval in controlling it. During the last circle time before half term, everyone had the opportunity to give a "thank you" or a "well done" to anyone they thought deserved it. I was able to write in his Good News book the following message home: "Darren had three 'well dones' from the rest of the class for not swearing, for playing fair in football and for sitting quietly in assembly." That's progress.

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