Share the answer to difficult children;Research Focus;Briefing

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Escalating exclusion rates, schools contributing to behaviour problems, namby-pamby educational theories that are too soft on ne'er do wells, Norwegian humanitarianism versus English disciplinarianism, "quack nostrums", and the growing risk of litigation as a result of exclusions ... recent issues of The TES have been bursting with articles on the persisting issue of pupil behaviour.

There is no doubt that difficult behaviour raises strong emotions. The primary teachers I questioned as part of a research study (Pupil Behaviour and Teacher Culture, Cassell) reported feeling alone and responsible for particularly difficult pupils. Some described how stresses had transferred to their home lives. Others with as many as 25 years' teaching experience confessed to harbouring doubts about their competence. All of these feelings were experienced in schools where colleagues were regarded as being supportive.

However, there are grounds for optimism. The 24 teachers interviewed in the study were chosen because they had all reported successful collaborations with educational psychologists. Mediation skills were used by the psychologists in meetings between the teachers and parents in order to move beyond mutual recrimination and blame. Joint home-school strategies were devised that set out clear rules, rewards and sanctions, and a system for exchanging information.

Each teacher achieved considerable and sometimes dramatically unexpected success, even though 18 of the 24 were dealing with some of the most difficult pupils they had ever encountered.

So why is there so little reporting of such successes? The interviews revealed a set of factors which inhibited these positive experiences from serving as examples or inspiration for others.

Some teachers described the extreme delicacy of achieving success with a pupil who had severely taxed a previous teacher, especially a senior colleague. Others feared losing face by appearing publicly optimistic, in case the pupil's behaviour subsequently reverted. Others again referred to the possibility of being cut off from a staffroom culture where having a "good moan" was a way of managing feelings generated by difficult pupils.

Where is the recognition for those teachers and schools who achieve positive results with difficult behaviour? With more and more pupils excluded from some schools, it is a cruel irony that "being good with difficult pupils" becomes a guilty secret and a dangerous reputation to have.

Dr Andy Miller is educational psychology course director at the University of Nottingham.

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