So how do you defuse a tapping pencil?

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
As a citizen of the world and not just of the classroom, whose mind is regularly exercised by the vagaries of discipline, I read Alan McLean's musings (Platform, March 12) with interest and concern. I find it hard to imagine the day that I won't be tormented by endless thoughts - some of them unethical - about the classroom terrorists (Mr McLean's words, not mine) who, for reasons too infinite to list here, rule the roost in many Scottish classrooms.

Among other things, Alan McLean talks about schools condemning rather than understanding, thus resulting in "hit or miss" interventions. He claims that pupils are receiving unhelpful feedback on their behaviour. The widespread use of the labels "emotional" and "behavioural" is criticised as a one size fits all approach - very demotivating remarks.

Granted, the whole discipline arena is enormously complicated and long gone are the days when all was solved by teachers going into a terrifying psychopathic mode. But any well run school already has discipline right at the top of the agenda.

What is utterly dismal is the tacit assumption by Mr McLean that schools are not moving heaven and earth to explore the reasons why some kids go off the boil. It's simply not true that schools opt for a uniform approach to dealing with emotional and behavioural difficulties. As a scientist, Mr McLean should know that we need some hard empirical evidence to support his gloomy assumptions.

Take my school. A huge amount of time and money is invested in dealing with discipline problems. Whatever label Mr McLean likes to slap on the various behavioural conditions - "specific oppositional disorder" is fine if you want something that sounds like a real diagnosis - the truth is that we try very hard to understand all our pupils and that involves everyone from young teachers starting out to the headteacher. We are actively encouraged to be positive in our feedback to pupils and, yes, we do realise that challenging behaviour is an emotional response.

But, of course, and it may be a little below the belt to point it out, what Mr McLean, along with his fellow educational psychologists, will never have to do is turn up at a school every morning and teach all day, classroom terrorists or not. Dispensing advice from afar is always the easy option.

Incidentally, what is glaringly absent from Mr McLean's polemic is any single meaningful strategy for the battle-torn classroom. He says that we need to involve pupils more in discussions about their state of mind. Tell us how exactly?

Let me run a couple of scenarios past the educational psychologist. A first-year class is plagued by individuals who engage in low level disruption to the extent that the class becomes unmanageable. One pupil starts tapping his pencil and gradually the whole class joins in. You can imagine the torture effect for the teacher. This is a first-year class in a secondary school with a reasonable reputation. How should the teacher deal with this? Answers on a postcard please.

And what about the pupil who has had every therapy imaginable to help and support him through primary and secondary school? Should he finally be referred to the child psychiatric services? Is there a point at which, for utilitarian reasons, the school has to declare defeat?

Another point. I was puzzled by the comment that the new citizenship agenda will empower teachers to communicate their concerns - presumably about discipline - to management. In our school we go for the radical approach of knocking on our headteacher's door and speaking to her.

But I am with Mr McLean's final comment - discipline systems need a bedrock of understanding. I think though that he should spell out what he means.

After all his depressing remarks, he owes us at least that.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today