Unpredictable behaviour

1st November 1996 at 00:00
ATTENTION DEFICITHYPERACTIVITY DISORDER: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR TEACHERS. By Paul Cooper and Katherine Ideus David Fulton Pounds 12.99. MEETING SPECIAL NEEDS IN MAINSTREAM SCHOOLS: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR TEACHER. By Richard Stakes and Gary Hornby David Fulton Pounds 10.99. INSPECTING SPECIAL NEEDS PROVISION IN SCHOOLS By Maria Landy and Charles Gains David Fulton Pounds 10.99.

The authors of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: a Practical Guide for Teachers devote much time to justifying the existence of ADHD as a syndrome whose aetiology rests in the child's "biological make up".

They go on to describe its features. Children with ADHD are oppositional and disruptive, often out of their seats, bothering classmates, often off task, unpredictable and fail to learn from mistakes. These indicators are necessary but are not sufficient; the child also must have been like this for more than six months, must have been expressing these symptoms at a "high level of intensity" and have had the problems since before the age of seven.

Throughout this short A4 manual for teachers there are firm reminders that ADHD is organic in origin. The authors recognise that they are on contested ground here, but there is assurance that doctors and psychiatrists have looked thoroughly into this and found it to be true. A whole chapter is devoted to medication and the drug Ritalin - the use of which has occasioned such controversy - is given qualified approval.

The authors repeatedly acknowledge and discuss the debate about the relative importance of within-child or psychogenic origins of behaviour "disorder". They realise the dangers of a deficit model. But ultimately they seem to insist: "But this one is real. It's a real deficitdisorder." In fact, among the typos is "ADHD is real. ADHD is real" (or maybe it's not a typo).

There are good reasons to be cautious about brain-based explanations for children's behaviour. One is the extraordinary plasticity of the developing nervous system. Another is the understandable tendency to attribute all kinds of unwelcome behaviour to biology (especially when biological explanations impressively mention "neurotransmitters" and oxy5-hydroxy3-somethingorother) and to play down the influence of the social environment. The authors clearly understand the need for caution and one hopes that all readers will understand likewise.

Meeting Special Needs in Mainstream Schools is a basic guide to different problems which children may experience at school. It has chapters on children with hearing and sight difficulties, children with physical difficulties, practical considerations (which includes sections on such diverse matters as the curriculum, toileting, differentiation, and homework), assessment, curriculum planning, classroom management, developing reading skills, spelling and handwriting, developing maths skills, working with parents, and whole school issues. Phew. This is quite an achievement in 90 pages, and the breadth in such a space leaves little room for each topic. Thus cerebral palsy (under physical difficulties) gets 16 lines. For anyone wanting very basic guidance, though, they are 16 very helpful lines.

The second chapter is perhaps the most contentious, though. It's entitled "The characteristics of children with learning difficulties" and comprises several sections including ones on physical appearance and family background. The authors say that to link personal appearance with intellectual capacity is "fraught with problems". Nevertheless, they think it worth proceeding, and say that further investigation should be considered if children display any of 12 bulleted points.

These include "need glasses but do not always wear them" and "have generally messy handwriting". Oh dear; I qualify.

Family background is also "fraught with problems", but then there go the bullets again - 13 of them this time - and, "Particular note should be taken if children have parents who have separated or divorced; come from a family where there is unemployment of one of the parents; are on free school meals". Yup, it's fraught with problems. The advice should surely be, "Take care not to stereotype or pigeonhole children who . . .

Inspecting Special Needs Provision in Schools is a crystal-clear guide for schools preparing for an OFSTED inspection. It covers pre-inspection, the inspection itself and its likely foci(with 23 sections including the school's SEN policy, statements and annual reviews, and the likely SEN focus during the inspection) and post-inspection. Every school needs one.

Gary Thomas is professor and reader in education at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

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