How to beat the baddies

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The Education Secretary says every local education authority should have one. Adi Bloom finds out how behaviour consultants could make a difference in your class

Walking into a room full of fractious pupils, their cross-classroom arguments echoing down the corridor, a teacher has two options.

The first is the knee-jerk reaction: establish authority by berating them for their lack of attention and preparedness for the lesson. The second requires an ability to disengage from immediate anger: quietly commend those few pupils who are sitting, textbooks out, ready for the lesson.

"If you come in and ask pupils why they aren't ready, it immediately sets an adversarial tone," says Jenny Mosley. "But looking for something good first sets a positive tone. And praise is addictive - next time more pupils will make an effort to be prepared."

Ms Mosley is a behaviour expert: a specialist in advising schools on how to cope with disruptive pupil conduct. She provides a service that, says Education Secretary Charles Clarke, should be available to every UK secondary school. In December, Mr Clarke announced that each local authority should appoint a behaviour consultant to train teachers and offer advice on dealing with unruly pupils.

A former teacher, Ms Mosley learned many of her class management techniques while working at a special school in Clapham, south London. She was later asked by her local authority to take courses on the subject. From this initial interest developed a full-time consultancy practice. But there is no pre-determined training route. Some consultants come to the job after decades in the classroom; others take an interest in behaviour as a specialism within educational psychology.

Most experts offer staff training in a similar format. They will visit a school for a day to deliver lectures and seminars; some insist that all, including support and ancillary staff, attend. "I tend to work on a whole-school level," says Rob Long, who runs an independent consultancy in Dorset. "If we're looking at why a particular type of behaviour is happening, it helps if everyone is trying to work collaboratively."

An educational psychologist for nine years, Mr Long offers training sessions on dealing with behavioural and emotional problems in the classroom. His role, he says, is not to provide solutions, merely to offer an outside view on the problems a school may be experiencing. "There are times when we all get it right, and there are times when we all wish we could turn around and start again. But you don't always have time in the school day to stop and think about what you do," he says.

"I try to build on the positive. Most of the time, children and teachers work well together. Schools couldn't work if the majority didn't follow the rules." In many cases, he adds, teachers have fallen into particular response patterns, often guided by decades-old training.

The aim of behaviour management sessions is to shake off old habits: to encourage teachers to examine their day-to-day routine and to question basic reflex responses. "If a child pushes someone off a chair, most teachers would say, 'Naughty child'," says Ms Mosley. "But you should say, 'That was a dangerous thing to do'. Label the action, not the child. Once you've labelled a child, they become known as a troublemaker."

Another common mistake is to establish a rule or sanction, only to undermine it later. If pupils arrive at a lesson without the necessary textbooks, for example, a teacher should not hand out spare books one day and detentions the next: consistency commands respect.

Equally, teachers who mete out group sanctions create a divide between "us" and "them", which can be difficult to break down. Those who listen to pupils' concerns find that pupils listen to them in turn.

"The sessions give us basic strategies for dealing with the kind of everyday, nitty-gritty indiscipline that wears teachers out," says Kathy Kirkbright, deputy head of Nunthorpe comprehensive in Middlesbrough, who invited Ms Mosley to address staff last November. "Teaching can be a lonely job: once the door closes, you're alone in a classroom with 30 pupils. It's good to have someone you can discuss problems with in private, knowing they will go no further."

Staff at Nunthorpe have successfully adopted some of Ms Mosley's suggestions. But Ms Kirkbright is aware of the need to adapt techniques to the school's circumstances: while basic guidelines are applicable for most situations, there is no universal model. "Behaviour never happens outside a context," says Mr Long. "For example, bullying might have one cause in one school and another cause in another school."

To understand a school's problems, he prefers to observe lessons and set mini-projects for staff before addressing an entire school. Ms Mosley insists on establishing a broader context: she includes a pupil-based session in all training seminars. But pupil misbehaviour is not a product of the classroom alone. Teachers need to address the range of influences on children's attitudes towards authority. These can include exposure to violent media images, additive-rich diets and, most importantly, parental attitude towards education.

Acknowledging a school's limited power to curb a child's broader excesses of behaviour, some experts choose to complement school sessions with seminars for parents, offering guidelines on establishing clear, unequivocal boundaries for unruly adolescents. The importance of civil dialogue with teachers is emphasised: pupils who witness verbal abuse of a teacher are more inclined to be abusive themselves. "It's not about suppression or behaviour modification," says Ms Mosley. "It's about creating a broad, positive ethos that's sustained over time. With good intervention, you can break the cycle of misbehaviour."

Jenny Mosley: 01225 767157 Rob Long: 01803 866745

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