Jack Allen on how disruptive children deserve more than a trip to the sin-bin

25th August 2000 at 01:00
Teachers have always had to deal with disaffection; they accept it as part of the job. But now the rules have changed. Inclusion, not exclusion, is the name of the game. Pupils who once would have failed to make it through the normal school channels are "welcomed" back into the fold and special unit pupils are finding themselves in mainstream education for longer than they like or is good for them. Inevitably, this causes a rise in stress levels - for them and for their teachers.

Schools have been left to their own devices on how to conjure up ways of integrating these pupils back into mainstream education. Teaching them acceptable patterns of behaviour is fantastic in theory but impossible unless it's properly funded. An ordinary classroom teacher no longer has the time to enquire why a particular pupil is misbehaving or seems emotionally distressed. Exam results are all-important; pupils stand or fall by those. It's no wonder that certain pupils can't take this pressure-cooker existence. Of course they rebel - what normal adult wouldn't buck the system if continually subjected to such stringent demands?

And while most experienced teachers can deal with disruptive behaviour as long as it's just one or two pupils out of a class of 35, no amount of skill can help them deal with five or six disaffected teenagers determined to disrupt a lesson. Their group ego will prevail and cause chaos. Exam results will suffer, adding even more pressure and stress.

So what happens to pupils who have severe emotional and behavioural difficulties these days? The signs are not encouraging. Early reports tell of silent classrooms with juvenile miscreants sullenly performing under punitive regimes. Usually reading or writing for the long period of attendance. Speaking only when they're spoken to. Hands up if they want to ask a question and a "no Sir, yes Miss" atmosphere. The stubborn gene which is prevalent in most EBD pupils will tell them to stay away, to play truant and join up with their mates who have already voted with their feet. Why should they conform to such austere measures when there's more fun to be had in town?

How can we deal with EBDs i a way that will benefit the school, the pupil, the parents, and society? One answer is to relieve the pressure, just like lancing a boil. Education must be an enjoyable experience, so we must withdraw these pupils from all GCSE subjects they don't enjoy. Pupils must want to come to school, must see the advantages to attendance, developing friendships, acquiring skills and a self-confidence that will enable them to control their own destiny. We must give them wings so they can fly.

Classes must be small - no more than six - with teachers who understand working-class culture and who can pick up on and praise the smallest concession disaffected pupils sometimes make. Above all, there must be a negotiated timetable. A trade-off, if you like: reading or maths for a game of pool. And why not swap play time for money? A financial incentive works wonders. How about wages for a full term's attendance? Make chips, pakoras or Cornish pasties to eat or sell at lunchtime? Children know what will sell, so let them decide what to sell and let them keep the profit. Encourage entrepreneurial skills to increase their self-esteem.

Take motor bikes or old bangers on to a piece of wasteland. Go camping out in the wilds. Make day trips to London to see the sights. Do whatever it takes to build the bond of trust. Only then can you start to turn them around.

Attempt to break the cycle of deprivation that has held them back for years - drugs, poverty, overcrowding, petty crime, sexual abuse, bullying and violence in the home. They've seen it all in some shape or form since the moment they were born, and their parents before them. A sin-bin run on disciplinary lines? Like an old-fashioned punishment block? Do me a favour.

Jack Allen is the author of 'When the Whistle Blows' (Dedalus, pound;8.99), a novel which deals with the problems of stress and teaching children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (reviewed in 'The TES', July 7). He worked as an English teacher at a high security prison for young offenders before becoming head of a special unit for disaffected youngsters at a large inner city school in Bristol. He is now a full-time writer

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