New ways out of trouble

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Disruptive pupils create classroom problems, but teachers can learn assertive discipline strategies to quell moments of high emotion, Douglas Blane reports

Only a tiny fraction of the 190 courses listed under behaviour management in the national register of CPD providers deliver strategies for dealing with the bane of all teachers' lives: disruptive pupils. One of the best courses is not even on the list, but soon will be.

"We have been coming to Scotland and working with schools around the country for many years," says discipline consultant Geoff Moss.

"I always enjoy it. There's a professionalism among the teachers here, a receptiveness to new ideas, a willingness to work together to tackle the challenges of education that I don't find anywhere else."

This explains why he and his behaviour management colleagues have chosen Stirling University as the location for a conference on assertive discipline next month, at which teachers and heads from around the country will share good practice.

Their schools range from inner city to rural, from those where bad behaviour sometimes seems the norm to those where it is confined to a core of persistent offenders.

A drama teacher will explain how any classroom environment can be improved by teaching children to use different voices - partner voice, group voice, playground voice - appropriate to different situations.

A primary head will describe a behaviour curriculum that identifies the skills schools need to teach and children need to learn.

"This is the key idea that these teachers and managers have been putting into practice. We have to teach young people good behaviour in the same way as we teach them French or English," says Mr Moss.

Few school initiatives bring such valuable rewards as improving the behaviour of the minority of children who cause the majority of problems.

Some say it can't be done nowadays because sanctions are few, parental backing is unreliable and models of good behaviour are hard to find. But this counsel of despair is one that Linda Kirkwood - who will present conference sessions on better behaviour for all, and handling difficult students - firmly rejects.

Oban High, where she is headteacher, is a large secondary drawing pupils from a wide and varied portion of Argyll. In such sparsely populated areas options for education are few, so the pupils are diverse and occasionally demanding, and include a few that some teachers would describe as impossible.

They don't have to be, insists Ms Kirkwood: "I have no child in this school who is not working well with somebody."

Strategies, scripts and scenarios that quell rather than nurture disruption, and are able to moderate moments of high emotion, can be applied by classroom teachers. Children with all kinds of needs will respond, says Mr Moss.

Assertive discipline will appear for the first time next year in Strathclyde University's PGCE course, says Mr Moss.

"I was at a CPD conference that has a presentation on thinking skills," he says. "It was very much about: how am I learning? What techniques should I be using? But research shows we learn better when we work together.

"I believe children with learning difficulties can benefit from the thinking skills approach, but it's got to be in a social context and we have to be teaching that context in our classes.

"Teaching interpersonal skills and interpersonal intelligence, showing them how to take turns, to share, to build on each other's ideas rather than rubbishing them, all this is part of our behaviour curriculum. It's also a great way to boost kids' self-esteem because they can do it."

One keynote speech at the Stirling conference will highlight "the dramatic change in the way our children now experience their childhood", and the consequent resistance to adult authority and frustration among teachers and parents.

"Until we adapt to this, we will experience growing social, behavioural and emotional breakdown in our schools," says Mr Moss. "We have to change the way we teach if we want to rebuild communications with our children."

Conference on Assertive Discipline in Scottish Schools, University of Stirling, June 11-12, tel 0870 241 8262

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