What shall we do with the bolshy kids?
Classroom behaviour is the number one issue facing education today. On no other subject has so much been written and so much time been expended with so little stable effect on the ground. Any full and long-lasting analysis of the causes of disruptive behaviour has to take into account a whole range of societal, cultural and community issues. Indeed the relationship of schooling, as we know it, to society itself is long overdue for fundamental re-examination.
However, today - rather than in some far from clear future - there is a critical need to address chronically destabilising behaviour in the classroom, and not in the often piecemeal and ad hoc way often forced upon us. A great deal is already being done and there is much valuable research and practice available to take on board - see recent editions of The TES Scotland - but they do not add up to a comprehensive way forward.
The "school effectiveness" movement has clearly demonstrated how schools differ in their abilities to affect both learning and behaviour and the parameters across which it is possible to distinguish between effective and ineffective schools are generally accepted. An effective school will have a purposeful but democratic head, teachers who are valued and consulted, intellectually challenging teaching with a work-centred environment, consistency, maximum communication between pupils and teachers, active parental involvement and consultation, and a positive climate. In schools with these characteristics, opportunities for disruptive behaviour are minimised.
Nevertheless difficult behaviour will still occur. Training for teachers both to be aware of areas of individual difficulty and how to react seems to me to be essential and at the core of all practical approaches.
In the modern complex learning environment there should be a working knowledge of a range of psychological conditions and variables which may affect behaviour in the classroom. Attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, autistic spectrum disorders, dyslexia and dyspraxia are conditions regularly found in mainstream schools.
Solution-focused therapy and self-esteem enhancement are commonly and usefully applied for pupils and families having behavioural or relationship problems. The list could be considerably extended and what I am arguing for is not acqusition of expertise but that the insight and awareness that could be created by such working knowledge may ease the frustration felt by many in the face of inexplicable, difficult behaviour. This, in turn, may point both to lines of direct intervention and to efficient referral to others expert in these areas.
While the acquisition of group management skills such as the use of assertive discipline or positive behaviour reinforcement will remain essential, training in which behavioural and learning difficulties are explored could well be a prerequisite for all new teachers after one session in employment and the subject of regular in-service study.
There also needs to be a clear continuum of diagnosis and input. I would argue for at least parity of input for behavioural difficulties with learning difficulties and this means having both expertise and time available. In secondary schools overstretched guidance and assistant head networks are often not in a position to give the concentrated input required by the most difficult of pupils. Senior behaviour support teachers should be in place in all secondary schools. In some primaries the behaviour support need may be as great as that for learning support and the provision for it less adequate than in the secondary sector. That situation can lead to real stress for class and headteachers.
Beyond the school there are crucial roles for psychologists, advisers, support staff of various kind and managers acting in the central roles of liaison, cohesion and decision-making. All these people need the time and the freedom of action which they are currently often short of.
Support for parents and carers should be central. There are few instances of behavioural disturbance, beyond those attributable to the so-called developmental disorders, which are not linked to out of school factors. Parental input can be extremely effective in moderating school-based behaviour difficulties.
I make no excuse for painting a complex and demanding picture. The situation in some of our schools and communities is serious and we are not going deep enough or honestly enough in our piecemeal approaches across the country.
Bill Badger has been a head of middle school, depute head of a residential school for pupils with education and behaviour difficulties, head of a special EBD unit and a research fellow looking at school effects on disruptive behaviour. He currently works as an educational psychologist.