Keep your buzzword

26th April 2013 at 01:00

A friend of mine has just become head of a tough primary school where there are several challenging children in every class. One child is especially difficult. He is in the top infant class and he does as he pleases. If he feels like running out of the classroom, he will. If he feels like swearing at the teacher, he'll do that, too. He is often late for school and he's restless when he gets there, constantly disturbing other children. He can do very little in terms of schoolwork and usually refuses to put pen to paper.

To stop him spoiling things for everybody else, my friend often seats him at a table in her office. He loves this and is impeccably behaved, but since his concentration is minimal, she has to give him much of her attention. If she needs to talk to a visitor, he has to sit outside, where he creates havoc. It's a situation that heads and class teachers up and down the country face daily, and she needs to resolve it.

The sensible thing is to have a dialogue with the parents as soon as possible, and last week they were invited to school. There are nine children in the family and their father is out of work, although he seems to find enough money to support his use of illegal substances. He immediately fell asleep in the meeting. The mother finds it impossible to cope, but blamed the school for sending her child out of class, because if the teacher does that he's not going to learn anything, is he? My friend suggested some strategies that the parents might use at home, knowing that they were falling on stony ground.

But now, according to a recent discussion I heard on the radio, it's going to be easy to solve a problem such as this because education has a new buzzword. The little boy has something called "conduct disorder". It's a condition that can be diagnosed, and the cure is to get the parents, an educational psychologist, the child's class teacher, the head and a social worker "working in harmony to achieve a successful outcome".

Frankly, my mouth dropped open at the banality of all this, because we've heard it so often before and it rarely works. There will be the usual cycle of meetings that the social worker can't attend because another urgent case has cropped up and the headteacher can only attend for 10 minutes because the boiler's broken. The parents will agree to try yet another impossible tactic at home and the psychologist will tell them a lot of things they don't understand. In the meantime, the class teacher will struggle on.

In reality, we know exactly what the little boy's problem is: his home life is chaotic, his father is useless and his mother can't give him any attention because she's got eight others. So he takes his frustration out at school, ensuring he gets the attention he craves by being removed from class.

What he needs is everything he's not receiving at home: a competent and dedicated teacher, a stimulating and challenging school environment and, most of all, stability, warmth and consistency from the adults he encounters. Small-group tuition will also help. He needs basic skill competence so that he can feel he's making a positive contribution in the classroom. And all the time, behaviour boundaries must be drawn. But deep down, he wants those anyway.

As somebody in the radio discussion said, "We don't need more buzzwords. We need a hefty injection of common sense."

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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