Good behaviour and go-betweens

13th December 1996 at 00:00
North America is another continent. They look after disruptive pupils differently there.

"Funding didn't seem to be a problem." "It was strange to see counsellors,social workers and police just walking down the halls of an elementary school." "They give out sweeties freely."

These were some of the comments by British teachers and administrators who had been to look at how the United States and Canada (and, in one case,Australia), tackle "the education and reintegration of excluded children".

Funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, 13 Churchill fellows spent an average of eight weeks looking at schools and schemes from Nantucket to Vancouver. Nine of them gathered last week in a London hotel to pool their findings and discuss how they could be put to use here.

Their first discovery was that the name of the programme should have been changed. Children are excluded from school in the USA and Canada, but relatively rarely (although they exclude themselves on a grand scale, with some 1,500 dropping out of US schools each day). Much more often, they are put in one of a range of alternative schools or programmes. And the emphasis seems to be on identifyin g children with emotional and behavioural difficulties early and stepping in before things reach crisis point.

More than one of the Churchill fellows stressed the contrast between that approach and the "crisis management" common in England, where schools suddenly exclude a troublemaker who may then spend months or years in limbo, perhaps being rejected by one school after another.

Dr Carl Parsons, of Canterbury Christ Church College, who was chairing last week's meeting, had opened by relating the grim results of this country's failure to tackle disruptive pupils. Nearly 13,600 pupils were excluded last year in England and Wales, the great majority of them boys of secondary age. Studies have shown that half of those excluded are still excluded a year later and that about a third get involved with the police.

"In the United States, they start with a right to education," said Philomena Cozens, a special needs co-ordinator from Devon whose fellowship had taken her from the Deep South to Maryland and then via Salt Lake City and Nevada to California. "Here we have none, and excluded pupils may get only two to three hours of home tuition. "

So what do they do in North America? In decentralised countries like the USA and Canada it would be wrong to expect any kind of national scheme but constant strands emerged from what the fellows described.

First, as Elizabeth Charlesworth, a school inspector and former music teacher from Sheffield, pointed out: "There's a much larger-scale bringing together of various agencies in the US: educational psychologists, social workers, the Salvation Army and so on. We don't do that too well in England - we work in discrete pockets. "

All had been struck by the North American emphasis on dealing with problems within the school: educational psychologists who spent one or two days a week in schools, counsellors with full-time offices in schools, weekly meetings of behaviour support teams in schools.

The US federal government is funding several projects involving schools, the juvenile justice service and social services, with the school as the focal point. One programme, Fast Track (Families and Schools Together) for children of primary age, is now being carried out at some 30 schools in four disadvantage d areas.

It aims to prevent chronic and serious disruptive behaviour in a sample of children identified as "high risk" on entry to school on the basis of their behaviour at home and nursery school. Teachers who have attended training workshops teach the children self-control and how to make positive relationships with their peers, and children are also given extra tutoring in reading.

Parents, meanwhile, attend training groups to help to develop a positive relationship with the school and to teach them behaviour management skills,especially the use of praise, "time out" and self-restraint.

On the basis of the first year, the programme is already showing an improvement in pupils' social and reading skills and in the parents' management of their children.

Peter Bailey, manager of the behaviour support service in North Yorkshire,who had spent his fellowship looking at Fast Track, acknowledged that such an expensive scheme was unlikely here. But he felt the training in behaviour management could be imported.

Several fellows considered that all teachers, not just those dealing with children with acknowledged emotional and behavioural difficulties, should have training in behaviour management. This could help to prevent children's behaviour deteriorating to the point where the teacher no longer felt able to cope.

Pauline Curran, director of provision for EBD children in the south of Ulster, had been impressed by the clear behaviour consequence model she had seen in Nantucket. There, on the blackboard, were the sanctions agreed with pupils: "If you get up out of your seat, that's an extra two minutes' work; if you swear at the teacher, that's an extra 25 minutes' work," and so on.

And the police were not afraid to charge pupils in the case of a serious assault, she added.

In Canadian schools, said David Marsh, co-ordinator of County Durham's behaviour support service, two lists of offences were prominently displayed. The first would automatically lead to the involvement of the police and, in extreme cases nearly always involving weapons, to exclusion.The second could, at the head's discretion, lead to police involvement.

He had been astonished by the rarity of exclusions in Canada. There had been only 12 last year in the city of Vancouver, of which six had been revoked. And there was a vast range of alternative programmes : 21 in Vancouver alone.

Tailoring the curriculum to suit disruptive pupils was also a lesson that could be imported, the fellows felt. Several contrasted the North American approach, where schools used praise and certificat es to encourage difficult pupils, with the "one shot and you're out" approach of GCSEs.

"We're very restricted here - there's no flexibility to adapt, " said Philomena Cozens. "Kids drop out of Year 10 because they're told they'll get a G at GCSE, and so they've got no motivation."

Peter Bailey stressed the problem of getting teachers to acknowledge that pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties need special help. "They'll adapt the curriculum to those with acknowledged learning difficulties but EBD children are just 'naughty kids'."

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