Primary heroes who face a Herculean task

5th June 2009 at 01:00

Wallop. Another plank falls on teachers' heads. As we learnt from last week's TES, schools have apparently failed to recognise the devastating effects on children's lives of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) caused by their mothers drinking during pregnancy.

Still struggling to come to terms with that other disorder - the dreaded ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) - the teaching profession could be forgiven for taking temporary time out, en masse, and lying in a darkened room.

The frontline troops to combat this newly described threat are surely the primary teachers who, every day, have to be wonderful. Poised at the beginning of children's formal learning, they must be prepared for all-comers - the bright and the gifted, the deprived and the disturbed, the spoilt and the indulged, the neglected and the discouraged.

The classroom door is open wide and they are all equally welcome. But it is surely a magician who can tend to the needs of them all.

Take the FASD sufferers. The symptoms to identify are almost indiscernible from those evident in children with ADHD - hyperactivity, short attention span, mood swings and lack of social skills. There is the promising clue, however, that they will struggle at maths. (Come to think of it, couldn't that also apply to children from deprived homes who have no experience of kinaesthetic play?)

The recommendation is that these children should be given a calm learning environment, partially closed blinds on very sunny days, plenty of structure, constant supervision and frequent short exercise programmes.

Quite so, but what about those who have altogether different needs - those from poor housing and poverty who are desperately in need of a bright, vibrant and stimulating environment?

It is, of course, entirely possible that they could be the same children, which will confuse even the most gifted teacher. Research has shown that the ADHD risk factors are: low social class, large family size, severe marital discord, paternal criminality and maternal mental disorder. It doesn't take a genius to work out that there will be some measure of overlap with children whose mothers drank.

Early years teachers face a Herculean task. They are required, and expected, to respond to every child's needs. They must select the right strategies and use every trick in the book to capture interest, engender respect and encourage fair play (not to mention the matter of finding individual approaches to teaching literacy and numeracy).

Their deeper purpose, however, and the most admirable of all, is to meet the needs of growing numbers of "disordered" children and to stop their disadvantage from snowballing.

I'm not suggesting that in secondary schools we don't have our own share of problems. It should be noted that we pick up the pieces from the teenage binge drinkers, usually on a Monday morning, after they have spent a weekend of excess in the park. And yes, some of these will be girls who will have babies far too soon, and those babies will suffer from FASD.

It is a familiar cycle of deprivation, and the teaching profession as a whole plays a crucial role in throwing down the tacks in an attempt to puncture the wheels.

But it is the primary teachers who need all the support and recognition they can get. For it is they who need the compassion of Mother Teresa, the dogged determination of Nelson Mandela and the deep-rooted optimism of Barack Obama.

Heroes? We have them in spades, before our very eyes.

Lindy Barclay, Deputy headteacher, Redbridge Community School, Southampton.

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