Rising to the challenge

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Are new teachers really prepared for managing difficult behaviour? Denise Dew-Hughes looks at the gaps in training and support.

All teachers now have responsibilities for pupils with special educational needs. Standards for new teachers require them to show that they are competent at identifying and assessing special needs and all initial courses must train teachers how to do this. But many new teachers feel this training hasn't gone far enough. The management of challenging behaviour is one area of particular concern.

A consultation exercise on initial teacher training funded by the Teacher Training Agency in 1997 revealed considerable anxiety about working with special needs. My colleague Sonia Blandford and I, working through Oxford Brookes University, then decided to send a questionnaire (after doing a pilot study) to all 251 new teachers in one county. Sixty-one per cent responded. Nearly all said they had some contact with behaviourally challenging pupils, in lessons and in the school as a whole. For more than half these teachers this was more than they had expected before they started teaching. Only one third thought it was less.

Only about half said management of behavioural difficulties had been included in their initial training, and of these not even half felt it matched up to their present requirements.

Most, but not all, knew that their present school had a policy concerning behaviour. Some had been told about it by a manager or by their mentor. Others had read it for themselves. However, most believed they needed more help and further training.

Fifteen of the new teachers volunteered to have their comments explored in greater depth. Small groups were interviewed at Oxford Brookes University in an informal setting. They were able to discuss the issues with their peers, comparing experiences.

It was revealed that levels of initial training had differed widely, as did the support, policy, and management of the new teachers' present posts. The main points to emerge were:

* The teachers had limited knowledge of national standards for the newly qualified.

* Specific concerns included: defiant or disobedient pupils; unmotivated pupils (especially at GNVQ); sixth-form "non-learners"; unco-operative or aggressive behaviour; multiple needs in large classes; short attention spans.

* Practical or environmental concerns included: no classroom help with large groups; geographical isolation, inadequate buildings; pupils' medical problems; reception and nursery classes of 26-30 children; termly new intakes meaning many new relationships to form; challenging pupils in every class; a rise in the numbers of challenging pupils; OFSTED inspection delaying induction; problems passed on from previous teachers; acute behavioural and social needs in inner-city schools.

* Good and bad personal experiences included: feeling under-skilled in the first term, but growing confidence; peer appraisal more supportive and informative than senior management teams, SEN co-ordinators or mentors; whole-staff training on behaviour at the beginning of the first term, and regular in-service training behaviour programmes; managing pupils becoming easier as a "real teacher"; awareness that early years teachers were establishing life-long behaviour standards; reliance on techniques such as "sweetie economies" or star charts; policies whose theory was hard to relate to practical issues.

* Comparing initial training against the realities in post, a mix of experiences emerged. Recollections of training highlighted: participatory lectures, role-play and videos; a one-day placement in a "difficult" class; behaviour management not addressed specifically in training; elective assignments on behaviour, peer instruction without tutor input, and lectures arranged by students from private sources; emotional and behavioural difficulties addressed in passing, or in jargon; "a lot of theory, but little practical help" or recommendations; village school practice placements, which did not prepare for an inner-city post.

Our study showed that the new teachers' training had included some good practice-related strategies, role play and discussion of reactive strategies. Extended interests in problem families and parent partnerships had been included, and training had generally stressed a positive approach to challenging pupils.

However, training had included theory-based strategies unrelated to practice and "of no help whatsoever", behaviour management had been treated as an SEN issue, not general practice, and it had been affected by time constraints.

New teachers called for more training in SEN before, during and beyond the induction year, and would welcome stronger support systems. Most were meeting challenging behaviour daily, and at the core of every challenging situation were a young person seeking the security of boundaries and an adult whose personal and professional competencies were being questioned.

Denise Dew-Hughes is a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford Brookes University

NEW TEACHERS SAY THEY WANT:

* Classroom strategies, phrases and approaches which match actual practice

* co-ordinated support in special educational needs for the whole school, not just "crisis management"

* legal positions and safeguards

* jargon decoded

* "bricks and mortar strategies" - clearly defined and practical

* support in maintaining self-esteem for less able pupils

* wider training within the school in behaviour management

* access to external, low-cost local courses as part of continuing professional development

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