Recipe for sharing

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Children with behaviour problems can now get special coaching as part of a whole-school vision to develop empathy and co-operation. Diana Hinds reports

Five children, in checked aprons, are sitting at a table making a pizza.

They chop mushrooms and take it in turns to sprinkle grated cheese on their pizza base, remembering to say "please" and "thank you". The atmosphere is quietly domestic and the conversation turns to pets, friends and what the children do at home. Once the pizzas are in the oven, one girl helps her younger sister to take off her apron, and the group enjoys a few co-operative games with a ball and a parachute.

Such behaviour would gratify any parent who was looking on - but particularly, perhaps, the parents of these five children, who have been identified as needing extra support for their emotional and behavioural development. This is the primary strategy's Behaviour and Attendance Pilot, getting under way in 25 local authorities to try out a comprehensive programme for promoting positive behaviour among pupils.

Alongside a whole-school approach to developing their social, emotional and behavioural skills, the pilot is running a trial of small-group work with children needing additional help. These may be children who find it particularly hard to share, or listen, or take turns, and whose social development is holding back their learning at school.

At Leegomery infants school in the borough of Telford and Wrekin, in the West Midlands, the intensive group work has already begun. Four families, identified by the school, are involved so far. The children come, with their siblings, for a weekly session in the school's "nurture group" room, which has been attractively set up as an environment half-way between classroom and home and is staffed by members of Telford and Wrekin's behaviour support service. The parents, too, are invited in regularly; the hope is to gradually include parents and children in joint sessions.

No specific materials have been developed for this strand of the pilot, leaving it up to local authorities to choose approaches based on current good practice. At Leegomery infants, behaviour support staff are helping the children to develop more co-operative, empathetic behaviour through activities such as the cooking.

The children are rewarded - with a red heart to hang on a tree - every time, for instance, that they take turns and share. They work towards individual targets, such as following an adult's instructions or remembering to stop and listen. And they learn skills to help them with anger management, sibling rivalry or solving problems. At the same time, they are frequently and gently drawn into conversations about their feelings about home and school, and encouraged to be more trusting and open in their relationships.

As required by the pilot, Telford and Wrekin is planning to appoint a primary mental health worker to be involved in this group work. But the aim is to make all provision firmly school-based. Paul Stephens, the LEA's behaviour and attendance strategy co-ordinator, explains: "We're trying to make sure that provision is joined-up, with everyone working together."

Penny Sharp, from Telford and Wrekin's behaviour support service, is the pilot's "teacher coach". She says: "The emphasis of the pilot is on solution-focused work. We're not saying to parents, 'You're not doing this right.' We're saying, 'What are you good at?' Then we can try to build on the skills they feel they do have."

In solution-focused thinking, difficult behaviour is seen as a problem that contains the potential for a range of solutions. It highlights small successes and reinforces strengths. It also encourages pupils to talk about the future and set goals.

Ms Sharp says that intensive support for the children will help them to develop more skills for handling different situations. "We hope gradually they will generalise these skills, and put them into action when there are difficulties at home or in the classroom."

Sue Broadhurst, Leegomery's headteacher, is enthusiastic: "With input like this now, there will be real benefits for children and teachers later on.

Otherwise, some of these children could be in danger of exclusion in the next couple of years."

If children like these five represent the top of the pyramid in terms of the support they need, at the base is the whole school community and the whole-school ethos needed to foster good behaviour and attendance.

Ann Hughes, headteacher of Malinslee primary in Telford and Wrekin, has received curriculum resources developed for the pilot to be used across a whole school. These provide a framework with built-in progression for each year group; they include sets of thematic materials for assemblies (such as "Getting going and falling out", "Feels good", and "Going for Gold"), with follow-up ideas across the curriculum.

Mrs Hughes says the pack is "a useful tool, which will support teachers in the beginning stages". But she emphasises that its ideas "need to be embedded in the existing curriculum, so that they become part of everyone's practice".

Good behaviour is "partly taught and partly caught", says Mr Stephens, and must be treated "as a curriculum entitlement, not a bolt-on". At Malinslee, Mrs Hughes already has a wealth of whole-school initiatives in place - very much in line with the pilot - to foster behavioural skills and emotional literacy.

Speaking and listening, for example, are given a high priority across the curriculum, as is co-operative group work, where children act on a solution they have come up with together.

The school's behaviour policy is called a "positive teaching plan", with clear class rules and systems of rewards and sanctions. "We try to catch the children being good and praise them for it," says Mrs Hughes. Teachers encourage children to identify the positives in their behaviour, as well as the negatives, by expressing in words exactly what it is they have done.

The school also runs small "coaching groups", with the special needs co-ordinator or a designated member of staff, for children who need extra support. "We tell them it's like having a personal coach, to get your emotions fit," says Mrs Hughes.

"If we can catch things earlier in children's lives, then by the time children get to secondary school they will be better able to cope with difficult situations."

Many of the materials developed for the Behaviour and Attendance Pilot are available in draft form for other interested schools and LEAs. See:

* About this programme

The Behaviour and Attendance Pilot aims to provide continuing professional development opportunities for school staff and to test out a coherent model for work in schools where behaviour and attendance are key school improvement issues. It is being tested in 25 local authorities.

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