US guru of behaviour disarms the cynics

8th October 2004 at 01:00
"Hope. H-O-P-E. First comes hope, then comes responsibility."

The words are pure American self-help. But the audience, nodding enthusiastically, is unmistakably British. Assembled in a chilly school hall, they perch on orange plastic chairs, rain beating down overhead.

The entire staff of Thamesbridge college, in Reading, has gathered to listen to Allen Mendler, a New York behaviour expert.

Dr Mendler has been brought to Britain by David Triggs, the executive principal recruited to turn around Thamesbridge and Greig academy, in London, both notorious for their challenging pupils and low achievement.

Mr Triggs contacted Dr Mendler, after an unsuccessful attempt at disciplining two pupils. "They ripped me to shreds," he said. "I used the old-fashioned method of raising my voice, and they just out-talked me. That way of speaking to young people no longer works. It's time we came up with a new strategy."

He hopes to base this strategy on "Discipline with Dignity", a programme devised by Dr Mendler. If initial trials are successful, Mr Triggs will adapt the programme for British schools.

So, as Thamesbridge staff huddle in coats to keep out the autumn draught, Dr Mendler, his tie emblazoned with a smiling sun, dispenses classroom aphorisms.

"Tough kids are really softies at heart," he says. "Little things make a big difference. Can you make it impossible for kids to fail? No. Can you throw roadblocks in the way of their failure? That's what you're here for."

His approach is to emphasise the positive, tackling challenging pupils with praise and humour. A child who refuses to hand in homework, for example, could be complimented for strength of character. Approval of their refusal to give in under pressure should then be followed by a polite explanation of the reasons for setting homework.

If staff are initially cynical about what the author of As tough as necessary and What do I do when...? can offer a British comp, they are quickly won over.

Megan Seydel, a newly-qualified history teacher, said: "He's given us a holistic way of looking at the causes of behaviour. If you respect the individual, that leads to responsibility.

"A lot of this stuff is familiar, but it's useful to have strategies for putting it into practice."

Many of Dr Mendler's proposals are unconventional: he cites a teacher who removed all chairs from a classroom, because pupils were using them to make noise and disrupt the lesson. They were replaced with cushions, beanbags and, for hyperactive children, exercise bicycles.

Another teacher distributed coupons entitling each child to 10 minutes of grumbling time per lesson. Yet another reinforced how much each pupil was valued by greeting them with the choice of a hug or a handshake.

But Dr Mendler bristles at the suggestion that such tactics are gimmicky.

"I don't like the word 'gimmick'," he said. "Not every technique is for every person. But there's a framework driving the technique. The bigger concept is to think about ways of engaging the kids."

This is what Bob Dore, Thamesbridge head, hopes his staff will take away.

"It's about building relationships and giving pupils choices," he said. "We should be working at the best way for each pupil to learn."

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