Carolyn O'Grady discovers a school that runs a series of therapeutic support groups for disturbed children
Three years ago, teachers at Bradley Rowe first school in Exeter decided they had to do more to meet pupils' special needs. "Children couldn't learn with some of the problems they had," says teacher Dawn Channon. "Some were coming in and putting their heads on the desk - completely out of it."
A whole area, including the behavioural, emotional and social needs of the children, was not being addressed, says the head, Annie Tempest, and this led to discipline problems and a general lack of academic progress.
Bradley Rowe, a large inner-city school in an educational priority area, has long worked on the basis that every child will probably have a special need at some time. And since it is home to an East Devon area assessment class for children with behavioural and learning difficulties - from where many pupils are integrated into mainstream classes - the school undoubtedly has a large number of children with special needs.
So, over the past few years the school has taken a number of steps. Like many good primary schools, Bradley Rowe has taken on board the staged approach of the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, developed a well-managed system of providing work to help each child progress, forged a partnership with parents which begins before the children enter the school, and created strong links with outside agencies. But Bradley Rowe then went a couple of steps further, particularly in working with children with behavioural and emotional difficulties.
The backbone of its approach is an "assertive discipline" policy. which was set up three years ago with the help of an educational psychologist. This American programme, set up with the help of an educational psychologist, is far simpler and less terrifying than its name suggests. It is a system of negotiated rules, awards and sanctions - mainly awards - designed to encourage good behaviour.
Signs of it can be seen throughout the school in the shape of stars on charts, smiley face badges and coveted certificates, which are presented in assembly. The school noticed improvements in the children's behaviour almost immediately, says Annie Tempest.
Equally important, however, is the most unusual element of the school's approach: support groups to which children are referred by class teachers at an early stage of special needs work.
These include a counselling group, a relaxation group and a behaviour support group, and are held twice a week for 20 minutes. They are attended by health visitors, social workers and the educational psychologist. Pupils usually stay in them about one term, and if there is no improvement they will probably move on to a subsequent stage of the Code of Practice - maybe the school will need help from outside specialists - and perhaps a statement.
The first group was set up for the small number of pupils who are persistently disruptive, bully other children or seem unable to play co-operatively. "We wanted to get away from the daily queue outside my office of the same children who were sent by their teachers to be shouted at for misbehaving," says Annie Tempest.
Instead, they work with Anne Hunt, a classroom assistant who also teaches at the assessment unit, and who had shown particular warmth with and talent in gaining the trust of children who can be difficult. Her knowledge and experience was topped up with some additional training from the educational psychologist to whom she refers for support.
In the sessions Anne Hunt plays games, discusses books and encourages role play. "The emphasis is on support and understanding and not apportioning blame. I explain in a positive, non-critical way why some forms of behaviour are unacceptable and try to get across the effect of this behaviour on other children".
She sees her role as extending beyond the groups. "Teachers in the classrooms have got to be more authoritarian than I can be, they have to maintain discipline. Children feel they can come to me - usually at the end of the day - and talk about things. They can say 'I'm fed up with so and so,' and get it off their chest." Or she might intervene in a particular situation. Recently when two groups were engaged in a playground feud, she brought them together to discuss their grievances.
Once the behaviour support group took off and appeared successful, two teachers, who had been trained in counselling skills, offered to run a group for those with slightly different difficulties: pupils who were withdrawn and angry and showed signs of low self esteem.
The two work with groups of about three children or one-to-one if the child finds that difficult, using books, drama, craft or puppets to help them talk through their fears, anger or grief in a safe way.
If they find themselves out of their depth, say, with signs of deep disturbance, support is provided by the local child guidance team.
The next group was a relaxation session for hyperactive children with poor concentration. Pupils do breathing exercises, and then may be taken on an imaginary journey to a peaceful place by the teacher, Christine Meredith. The idea is "to help children in turmoil find their own quiet place inside themselves".
The language group is an effort to help children who have mild speech problems and immature speech patterns. Drama sessions, games and taped interviews are among methods used. The motor skills group uses more physical games to help children to become better co-ordinated.
Also available is Soundworks, a programme in which two classroom assistants, trained by the Open School in Dartington, work with individual children from Years 1 and 2 who are referred by classroom teachers for 20 minutes a day. The idea is to give a sound grounding in phonics through a multisensory approach which complements the teaching of reading in the classroom.
Annie Tempest admits that organising and financing such a programme with no extra money is a "a managerial nightmare" because rooms have to be found for the groups as well as extra cover for the teachers involved. The task will not get easier as the school is losing staff in a present round of cuts. But she is determined to carry on and, if necessary, set up more groups.
"In the groups children have been seen to gain confidence, and learn to feel good about themselves," she says.
Recently she received some good news. An application to the county's social services and education committees for a grant to part-finance a new building with a nursery school and rooms for the groups has been accepted. Building, it is hoped, will begin at Christmas.
* A video and booklet entitled Every Child is Special: Developing a Whole- school Special Needs Policy is available from the Open School, Park road, Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon.