Outside influences

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Insults and 'happy slapping' are disrupting learning. Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises

Rosalind's problem

"How can I get them to take more responsibility?"

As an newly qualified teacher, I expected to meet a range of behavioural issues. I'm tackling these using various strategies, hopefully with increasing success. I'm lucky to teach in a supportive school where serious misbehaviour is not a problem.

However, I have found it difficult to deal with small issues that begin in the playground, or after school. These affect the atmosphere and the teaching and learning in my classroom. I teach Year 6, an age when most children are stretching their wings, anticipating life outside the structures of primary school. I want to build relationships with the children so that these outside issues do not escalate. More importantly, I want to ensure that the children learn strategies for solving their own problems.

For instance, some children get upset by comments about "so-and-so being your girlfriend boyfriend". Our pupils are predominantly Muslim, and I need to sort this out without offending anyone's beliefs. Sometimes during arguments, the children insult family members to incite a reaction. This makes some pupils so angry that they swear, something that never normally happens. As these things take place outside the classroom, and I haven't seen what happens, I feel unsure about apportioning blame.

Recently, there have been incidents of "happy slapping", both on a residential trip and in the playground. An individual or a group of children slap someone (not necessarily particularly hard), while others watch for entertainment. My school deals with such incidents swiftly and firmly. However, the children tell me they see violence outside school - in films, on television and computer games. How can I counter this?

As a teacher, I see my role as creating an atmosphere where the children mature as learners and as individuals. At the moment I am an integral part of the discussion process, but how can I get them to take more responsibility? I have seen circle time used effectively in other classes, but I find it hard to make time for long sessions because of Sats preparation. How can I teach my children some coping strategies and some discussion and negotiation skills?

I know this will become less of an issue as I gain more experience. I feel lucky to be in a school where people praise me on the progress I have made during my first term. However, I would like to find new ways to help the children succeed both in and out of the classroom.

Rosalind Mackie is an NQT teaching Year 6 at a primary school in Birmingham


"Create a physical divide between inside and outside"

Behaviour issues from outside the classroom can have a significant impact on your lessons. This is particularly so at primary school, where the children are in close proximity to each other all day. If left to fester, minor fallings out can develop into more serious incidents. At the very least, they create a tense classroom atmosphere.

Such incidents need to be dealt with, but preferably not during lesson time. Rosalind should get a written account of any incidents involving her pupils from the person supervising the playground. She can then set aside a time to talk through what happened with the children.

It's important to create a divide between what happens outside the classroom and what happens during lessons. Your aim should be to create a feeling that, whatever goes on beyond the classroom door, time spent in class with you is time spent learning. The classroom becomes a sanctuary, where issues of likedislike are irrelevant. Just as the pupils leave their coats outside, so they should also leave any personal disputes behind them.

There are various ways to achieve this. Create a physical divide between inside and outside. Position yourself at the door after breaks and insist that the pupils line up. Get them settled and in the right frame of mind to learn before you let them in the room. If you spot any low-level niggles between children, take them to one side for a quick chat as the rest of the class get settled for work.

Create a psychological divide as well, using creative approaches to help your children dump their "baggage" at the classroom door. A lot of post-playtime angst is about needing to vent frustration, so give your children permission to blow off steam, within a set timeframe. Try having a "minute to moan" at the start of lesson time, when the pupils can sound off to a partner.

Alternatively, have a box into which the children can post their worries.

This would make a good starter activity, with each child writing a postcard about one positive or negative incident from playtime. Look through the cards during the lesson and perhaps pick out one to discuss as a whole class.

Drama and role play provide a great forum for teaching vital skills such as empathy, negotiation and co-operation. Ask your pupils to re-enact some typical playground scenarios and explore how these might be resolved in a positive way.

Clarify your expectations of behaviour: especially useful at the start of a new term. Be crystal clear about what you want. The pupils must treat each other with respect, and be willing to work with anyone and everyone. Clamp down on even the smallest sign of disrespect for others. Personal feelings are irrelevant - the priority is the learning. Put a tricky mix of pupils together to work on a lesson activity and force them to co-operate in order to succeed.

Rosalind's pupils are right - there is a lot of violence in the modern world, but that is no excuse for them to emulate it. With "happy slapping"

in the news, it is almost inevitable that some children will experiment.

She might counter this by teaching them about some historical figures who espoused a non-violent way of life, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Some schools use a system of peer mediation to help resolve incidents between pupils. Children are trained to talk through issues with their peers and help both sides come to a resolution. This approach has proved very successful in changing attitudes and behaviour beyond the classroom.

With time and experience, you will learn how to handle disputes between your pupils. And your classroom will become a haven of learning where the outside world is kept at bay.

Sue Cowley is author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' (Continuum)


* Put yourself in their shoes: Don't forget what it was like to be a child - it can be hard for youngsters to shrug off the petty disputes that might seem silly to adults.

* Make your classroom a haven: No matter how difficult their lives outside your room, insist that behaviour in your lessons is exemplary.

* Set your standards high: Effective behaviour management is not only about how the pupils treat the teacher; it is equally about how they treat each other. Refuse to accept any signs of disrespect in your classroom.

* Get creative: Use unusual and imaginative approaches for solving behaviour issues. Children respond really well to anything that is out of the ordinary, such as the "minute to moan" idea described alongside.

* Use role play: Drama offers the ideal format for helping your children explore issues in a safe and non-threatening way.

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