Star of the show at special needs north;Opinion;Editorial

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
If anyone can pack in the crowds at special needs shows, it is Rob Long (right) , an educational psychologist with Devon county council. At the Special Needs North exhibition in Bolton next week, his seminars will no doubt have the audience crying with laughter as he imitates all of us - teachers and parents - as we harangue and threaten children, not letting them get a word in edgeways, too furious to try to understand where their behaviour is coming from.

It's a great performance, confident, funny, telling. At the end, everyone gets a coloured glass bead, which he tells us to keep for use when all else fails. The beads have been sitting in his clinic, he says, and absorbed all the available therapies. We half believe it.

When you talk to Rob Long, he sounds almost diffident - although that doesn't hide his commitment to troubled children and his passion for getting teachers to see things from their point of view. "I wouldn't want to be too entertaining - I'm there with messages," he says. "I also want to give teachers some tools they can apply, so that troublesome behaviour is less daunting. I try to short-circuit knee jerk reactions and help people look at the issues behind problem behaviour."

So he offers techniques, such as "7-11 breathing" (breathe in for a count of seven and out for a count of eleven to release tension) that work for teachers as well as children. He breaks down classroom organisation into separate elements - starting lessons, offering praise, going walkabout, how you give homework. "Teaching is always an art, but you can still identify skills and areas that matter," he says.

He himself was a late starter. He went to Coleg Harlech, the Welsh residential college for mature students, and took a course covering psychology, sociology, politics and philosophy. He then taught in an FE college in Wolverhampton, got a master's degree in psychology and began to specialise in behavioural and emotional problems.

From the start, he says, he "wanted to put teachers into the equation, as well as young people and parents", to inform them about the factors behind problem behaviour. With older children, he tries to help them see where they themselves fit into the equation. You can work on their emotional literacy, he says, and help them see their difficulties as challenges they can overcome. Teenagers who can't empathise with other people are indeed very difficult for adults - but they need help.

Above all, he wants to promote the importance of the emotions and self-esteem, at a time when the official focus is on curriculum and academic outcomes. "Without emotions there can be no joy, no values, no motivation. Emotions are very powerful tools for learning. The heart goes out of teaching when we become more concerned with where we're going than where we and the children are."

VIRGINIA MAKINS

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