Label them, reason with them, tolerate them, but whatever you do, don't tell a child off

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Label them, reason with them, tolerate them, but whatever you do, don't tell a child off. Meanwhile, every seven minutes a teacher is attacked or verbally abused

Why can't we accept that young children are sometimes naughty, and need to be told off?

We're told to make behaviour "contracts" for them, or organise circle time so that angst can be unloaded when it's their turn to clutch the furry hedgehog. We're encouraged to have in-depth discussions with Cynthia to discover why she kicked her chair across the classroom. We're persuaded to give certificates, trophies and treats when they behave well, as if good behaviour was unnatural and something to be joyously celebrated. We spend vast amounts from our school budgets sending lunchtime supervisors on training courses which tell them how to "manage" poor playground behaviour.

Or we find excuses. The children have attention deficit syndrome, hyperkinetic disorder, oppositional defiance syndrome... Label them, reason with them, tolerate them, but whatever you do, don't tell a child off.

Meanwhile, every seven minutes of every school day, a teacher is verbally abused or physically attacked.

When badly behaved children move on to secondary school, their primary teachers give a sigh of relief. It's somebody else's problem. When they reach puberty, the behaviour of these children usually spirals rapidly downwards. After another year or two, they're completely out of control. At which point there isn't a solution, apart from excluding them, and that's no solution at all. The current thinking from the Government is that we should "spread 'em around a bit". Dilute the problem. Every school should absorb a few bad eggs. Their attitude will improve by joining an environment where reasonable behaviour is the norm, and that will be that.

Problem solved. Trouble is, because ministers have little experience or understanding of state schools, they have no idea how behaviour is plummeting generally and what teachers have to put up with on a daily basis.

Let me lay out my stall. I believe children have an entitlement to teaching of the highest quality, from people who love their job and want the very best for them. School should be an exciting and interesting place, offering a wealth of opportunity. Get the atmosphere of a school right and discipline problems will be minimal. At my school, I choose teachers with great care, and I expect a lot from them, but they have rights too. They should not have to tolerate constant temper tantrums, petulance, aggression or rudeness. This is made clear to parents, and it is certainly made clear to the children as soon as they join the school.

These days, behaviour policies are mandatory, but a policy is no indication of how good a school's behaviour is. Yesterday, I read a ridiculously complex "model" policy, which began with a statement about behaviour and a description of what is, and what isn't, acceptable. The assumption seemed to be that teachers and parents haven't a clue what bad behaviour is. Then, a list of reasons why children should behave well, followed by consequences for poor behaviour, subdivided into categories and levels of severity. By the time I'd got to page 18, I wondered how on earth a young teacher would cope with it all. Frankly, I'd give up and let the kids crawl all over the desks.

But find an issue, and there's always someone ready to make a quick buck from it. This morning, I received a circular addressed to "The Anger Management Co-ordinator", offering everything short of cut price Ritalin. I look forward to the day when something is addressed to the "Co-ordinator For Common Sense". I'll probably have a long wait.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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