How to tackle the little sods

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Pupils who misbehave in school are often described in the research literature as "deviants". The word suggests that most children follow a straight path of acceptable behaviour, but some decide to make a detour via anarchy.

The evidence supports this view. The great majority of children in both primary and secondary schools are indeed well-behaved. My own research, like that of others, has shown noisy chatter, not gross misconduct, to be the most common form of misbehaviour. Schools are generally places where order is to be found. You are safer walking the corridors of a school than the streets of a city.

The politically correct term for naughtiness nowadays is "manifesting more challenging behaviour", but nuts to political correctness. "Being a little sod" is often more honest.

I came across my own version of "challenging behaviour" recently when refereeing five-a-side football matches for 12 and 13-year-old secondary pupils. Refereeing school football can be hazardous. I once had to send off a parent.

One team only needed a draw to qualify for the next round, so they deliberately wasted time on throw-ins. The score was 0-0 with seconds left. I did my teacherreferee bit, telling them to get on with play and I would be adding extra time for time-wasting.

Then it happened. An opponent burst through, drew back his foot to shoot and was hooked down from behind by a defender a few yards short of goal.

Loud blast on whistle. Foul. Direct free kick. Player picks himself up, places ball and scores. Full time only seconds later. Result 1-0. At this point the 13-year-old losing team goalkeeper goes demented.

First he insists it should have been an indirect free kick. I explain: indirect free kicks are for obstruction, not for kicking the lights out of an opponent who has gone past you, but kids never know the rules.

Next comes the "he dived" ploy. Correct. It was that magnificent somersault with pike which people do when their legs are hacked while running at top speed.

More sullen griping and muttering. The lad cannot cope with losing, but his behaviour is the thousandth imitation of a thousand displays of petulance from adult role models who should know better. Deviance begets deviance.

Teachers vary in what they regard as misbehaviour, and in their response to it. Many different strategies are used to avoid or terminate deviance.

One teacher used to start the school year by taking off his jacket and then lifting a huge oak desk on to his shoulders before putting it down again. This is known as the "Sumo", or "double hernia" approach to class management, fine for retired wrestlers, not recommended for seven-stone weaklings who get sand kicked in their face.

More subtle is the negotiated settlement, or "Henry Kissinger". Teacher and pupil are both happy with the outcome, because honour is satisfied all round. It is the technique I used with my daughter when she was two and yelled "No!" to everything. "You're not going to refuse to go to bed are you?" "No!" "Well clear off then."

While some teachers try hard to understand each antisocial act (the St Francis of Assisi strategy), behaviourists see everything in the light of the psychologist BF Skinner's experiments on rodents, carefully reinforcing approved behaviour and ignoring whatever is disapproved.

This "ratological" approach is sometimes accompanied by a reward system. Occasionally sweets are offered for good behaviour, presumably on the grounds that tooth decay is a fair swap for fidgeting. I have not found that ignoring bad behaviour necessarily leads to what behaviourists euphemistically call "extinction". Ignore profane language, for example, and it often gets worse.

So what did I do about the "challenging behaviour" of the juvenile goalkeeper? I started with a St Francis ("It's a rotten feeling when you lose"), moved on to a quick bit of ratology ("You played well"), and, when that produced more abuse, ended with a Sumo ("Now look here, sunshine").

Later he returned and tried to persuade me that he had spotted a penalty incident which the rest of humanity had missed, a nicely-attempted Kissinger. It only failed because I was in charge of the whistle.

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