Get them in, get them out

24th January 1997 at 00:00
MANAGING CHILDREN WITH PROBLEMS Edited by Ved Varma Cassell Pounds 14. 99




Graham Handscomb looks at four books that focus on misbehaving children and school disruption

The high profile given to apparently escalating misbehaviour and disruption in schools has spawned a plethora of books on the subject. These four titles help to restore a sense of perspective but vary in quality.

The approach taken ranges from "nuts and bolts" manual to academic exploration, and while both have their limitations, a reader can glean some guidance and professional inspiration.

On balance, the pick of the bunch is Managing Children with Problems, which contains contributions from the realms of psychiatry and psychology as well as education. Several writers stress, with Hitesh Raval, that only when the child is understood in social and cultural contexts can effective intervention be most beneficial. These contexts include the family, and K Elia Asen demonstrates how "so-called problem children carry a burden on behalf of their families, and freeing the child from this helps not only them but also their families."

The need to appreciate multi-cultural context is given in Ali El-Hadi's account of working with Asian and African families, and he is not afraid to recall his own misunderstanding when working with a Chinese family through an interpreter. Giving detailed case study description is a potent vehicle and is most effectively used in Francis Dale's forensic interpretation of the play and dreams of disturbed and abused children. His analysis is poignant.

The best contribution, which alone would commend the book's purchase, is Colin J Smith's guide to management approaches for children in mainstream and special schools. He combines intellectual rigour with professional application, and Smith's practical classroom aide-memoire of "Get them in; get them out; get on with it; and get on with them" is also quoted in Lund's book. Smith understands the stress upon teachers and the needs of children in recognising that "the implementation of a behavioural approach should have rewards for the teacher as well as for the pupil". Other parts of the book, such as the essays by David Jones and Philip Baker, are less impressive, tending to be over-technical while conveying little of substance.

The problem of specialist language also occurs in Andy Miller's work, with terms like "ethnography", and "intrapsychic events" not being defined. Nevertheless, it is a scholarly research account of how the work of educational psychologists is affected by teacher perception and school culture.

Refreshingly, readers are given access to the research methodology used to enable them to make judgments on findings. He shows how staffroom norms caused teachers not only to overlook positive change in parent attitudes, but also play down their achievements with difficult children. It was only by creating a "temporary overlapping system" of teacher, parent and educational psychologist that gains in pupil behaviour were acknowledged.

Whereas Miller's book is overburdened by research literature reference, by contrast A Whole- School Behaviour Policy is lightweight. It attempts to explore an array of topics from "teaching and learning", to "involving parents"; from "bullying", to "pupil and staff protection", and then proceeds, with a good deal of verbatim repetition, to give an example of a school behaviour policy.

While some sections, like the chapter on "rewards and sanctions", are valuable, the book descends into a glossary of tips for teachers.

Some of the criticism of the "doing it by numbers" teacher's guide to behaviour management can also be levelled at Bill McPhillimy's Controlling Your Class but the book is redeemed by its sensible level-headed tone and the sheer humanity of its advice.

McPhillimy explores the tension implicit in all these books between the "behavioural" and "cognitive" branches of psychology.

The thrust of his book is to establish a composite "behaviour, reflective and relationship" approach which deals with behaviour while reflecting on pupils' motives, all within the context of a genuine relationship between pupils and teachers.

There are many gems of advice ranging from the common sense: "when a teacher or a pupil is talking to the class or group, everyone listens"; to the humane: "it would be rather surprising, or even sad if a large group of children left to their own devices did not engage in a little monkey business"; to a combination of the two: "don't go on and on moralising about misbehaviour. Take whatever action is needed and move on."

Although somewhat dismissive of the importance of pupil motivation and offering unremarkable case studies, this book will strike a chord with teachers and will prove a valuable practical asset.

McPhillimy's guide tackles key issues present within all these books. They include the importance of facing up to the problem of misbehaviour, accurately assessing it, and using a multi-faceted approach, drawing on disciplines, in its effective treatment. The emphasis is on treating children as being worthy of respect, and preserving a positive and confident expectation of the behaviour of most pupils in our schools.

Graham Handscomb is deputy head at Tabor High School, Braintree, Essex

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