Punch kick spit

19th November 2004 at 00:00
How do you get behaviour right? It depends on your character, the character of your pupils, the nature of your school and the nature of the incident.

But there are common threads, ideas and solutions. In the Friday forum we're asking you to share your experiences. We're not telling you how to do it: you're telling us how you've managed a particular pupil's behaviour on a particular day. This week, David, a scraggly five-year-old intent on harm. He kicked, spat, and trashed the classroom. Staff at his small school, including his class teacher, Alison Smith, were at their wits' end.

The solution? To educate him on his own, across the road in the village hall with a teacher and a "bomb-proof" teaching assistant. As his behaviour improves, he is allowed back into school for afternoon lessons and playtime, and increasingly for occasional lessons in the morning.

Headteacher Mike Kent, LEA adviser Liz Henning, sixth-former Meg Shakesheff and psychiatrist Raj Persaud also comment. You can contribute by going to the behaviour chatroom at www.tes.co.ukbehaviour

Pupils who are violent devastate school life. They bring lessons to a standstill; they darken the days of teachers and peers, spreading fear and anxiety. When a pupil becomes violent, the classroom can seem a very enclosed and dangerous place. And when it happens in a small school, the entire community feels endangered; the impact is huge.

Teacher organisations believe the number of disturbed, violent children is growing. After 36 years of teaching, Marilyn Tulloch is convinced this is so. On the face of it, Kirk Fenton CE primary school, of which she is head and which serves a bundle of villages in the flat agricultural lands between Tadcaster and Selby, North Yorkshire, is as tranquil as its surroundings. This school of 150 children, which nestles between farms and barns, is warm, friendly and close to its community. It is forward-looking and adventurous with its curriculum, and invests heavily in staff development; it was one of the first primaries in North Yorkshire to have two advanced skills teachers. Nevertheless, Ms Tulloch has noticed over recent years that more pupils are "edgy", troubled and troublesome. And in a small school, she says, an unruly child can cause a disproportionate amount of disruption.

Nothing prepared this greatly experienced staff for the violence unleashed by David, a scraggly five-year-old intent on harm. In a large secondary, says Ms Tulloch, David's impact would have been akin to throwing a brick into a lake; in a tiny primary with a teaching head it was the equivalent of throwing a boulder into a puddle. The school was turned inside out.

Alison Smith, 32, one of the school's ASTs and its special needs co-ordinator (pictured), was David's class teacher. She is recognised for her skills in creating imaginative, stimulating lessons with clearly defined learning objectives, and for managing behaviour. The school's discipline procedure consists of simple sets of whole-school rules, reinforced with rewards and sanctions. Ms Smith is proud of the way she adapts these for her five and six-year-olds, creating an atmosphere of consistency and security, while taking account of individual needs and foibles. But it wasn't working for David.

In reception he had been a sensitive boy, though there was nothing extraordinary about his behaviour. But in May that year, when family circumstances took a turn for the worse, with family bereavement, ill health and other stressful changes, David suddenly became unrestrainedly, insanely aggressive.

"Usually, serious behaviour problems will escalate if nothing is done to deal with them, but with David there was no progression, no warning," says Ms Smith. "One moment we had a sensitive, vulnerable child, the next we had someone who was lashing out all the time; kicking, spitting, trashing the classroom."

Every piece of movable equipment would be swept or emptied on to the floor, or used as a missile or weapon against other children and staff. Teachers and teaching assistants were covered in cuts and bruises. He whipped the headteacher with a skipping rope, and threatened Ms Smith with a rolling pin; teaching assistants were having to change their clothes because they were covered in his spittle. Everyone was stretched to the limit.

"David had this intense, dark look and you could tell he was working out what harm he could cause next," says Ms Smith. "Sometimes, when it was difficult to remove him from the class, I had to move all the other pupils out to keep them safe. Sometimes I would summon another member of staff to help manhandle David to a place of safety and put him on a large cushion until he calmed down. He would curl up with a teddy bear and sob. That got to me. I realised we couldn't go on like this and that we were not helping him."

Staff were exhausted and traumatised. So were pupils, some of whom were bedwetting through anxiety. Parents and governors were outraged. Kirk Fenton had reorganised its teaching assistants so that one was working full-time with David, but this meant other children were not getting the support they needed and, in any case, it wasn't working. Despite all that, Ms Tulloch and her staff did not want to permanently exclude David, although they had excluded him for days at a time. "If he'd been in the top year we might have permanently excluded him, but he was only five and there was nowhere else for him to go," she says. "We are not in the business of giving up on five-year-olds. Also, his parents were desperate for us to keep him in school."

Ms Smith developed a keen sense of failure; she rarely had a problem with behaviour management. A former nursery nurse, she had moved into teaching after taking a degree in linguistics, determined to make learning stimulating. She had left school before A-levels, finding it dull and uninspiring, and believed no child should be left to feel like that.

"Lessons must be lively and children should know why they are there," she says. "I can tell whether there is good behaviour management in a school, even before I've walked in a class. When children walk through the school door at 9am, you know by the way they behave if they are clear about what is expected of them."

But it was becoming increasingly clear that David could not cope with being in a classroom at all. Withdrawal was the only option. For a while Kirk Fenton put him with a teaching assistant in the only space available, the cloakroom. But that was a cramped area outside the toilets and David was unable to work in such a confined space. And he was still attacking children when they went to the toilets.

Ms Smith felt angry and frustrated. North Yorkshire, an extensive rural authority, has the largest number of small schools of any authority and resources are stretched. The school called multi-agency meetings about David, but there was little medical or mental health assistance available.

The authority acknowledged the problem and was committed to helping, but it took almost a year for the necessary support to kick in fully. Staff felt isolated.

David is now educated across the road in the village hall with a teacher and "bomb-proof" teaching assistant funded by North Yorkshire's pupil support services. Ms Smith liaises with these specialist staff to provide an individualised curriculum. As David's behaviour has improved, he has been allowed back into school for lessons and infants' playtime in the afternoon, and increasingly for occasional lessons in the morning. Ms Smith says this, combined with keeping David on at the school, has brought about a "miraculous" improvement. He is much calmer, and when he does occasionally blow, there is a set procedure of containment and a secure place for him to go.

"Other children are also safe, and David is learning, reading and writing.

He wants to be in class with everybody else, so now we can give him choices and clear consequences for his behaviour. If he stays calm he can stay in class; if not, he knows the procedure. We make him think he is in control."

David's curriculum includes games that involve his having to take turns and to lose. "We felt his fear of failure was a real trigger for violence, so we ensure he loses within the game so he can learn to handle that."

Ms Smith says she has learned much about dealing with children's aggression from her work with David. "I look much more at things from the child's point of view. I look hard at what they feel they can cope with, rather than what I think they should be coping with. We analysed where David wasn't coping and we worked from there.

"Saying 'no' to him would increase the violence. Now we don't get to that point. We don't box him in. We work through offering choice."

Dealing with children like David takes an inordinate amount of time and resources, and Kirk Fenton believes that without its current level of county support, it would be back to square one with David. "Our aim is to have David full-time in school. We are getting there. But time is of the essence," says Ms Smith.

Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TESsurvival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Token nine is on page 3 and an application form on page 23

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