Why life's a gas for my little stinkers

Talkback: you speak, we listen

Jamie's traditional entrance to my learning support unit (door swings open, he stands there a moment, then farts) is becoming boring. It's a theatrical fart. He stands and laughs and the others join in. But worse than the boredom element is that he sees nothing wrong with theatrical farting.

It is one of the many unsocial actions my students perform: spitting things into wastepaper bins, shouting to one another about bodily functions, using offensive language. We plead. We chastise. We take away credit points. But they carry on regardless.

The other evening, Cathy (my learning support assistant) and I were trying to work out what to do. Our sad realisation was that the kids we work with don't understand social behaviour. They aren't part of society.

Out of school they spend their lives in their rooms playing computer games and the like. If they aren't doing that, they are out wandering the streets. Their lack of social skills is illustrated by their inability to play board games. They shout across each other. They have to be reminded about taking turns. If they aren't winning, they're likely to throw a tantrum (and the board goes flying, too).

Recently, I was running a training course away from home and I had to spend the best part of a week in a hotel. Each morning I met a room full of silence as individuals chomped their way through the full English. I wanted to break that silence. I tried to chat to the hotel staff but they were more concerned with topping up the juice.

In some ways, work is no different. The unit is set away from the school. There are days when my only adult contact is Cathy. Kids come and go. They wander in, work (or not), then wander out at the next bell.

They are in the unit because they can't cope in "normal" classrooms, so they act in an antisocial way. They come to us to break these habits, but a room full of antisocial kids is not the easiest place to engender social skills. Jamie farts. To Harris, a sentence is incomplete without the word "fuck". Coral's in the corner interspersing work with text messages to her latest boyfriend.

There are days when I spend as much time on correcting social ills as academic ills. At what point do I abandon fractions and start the conversation about why potential employers might not appreciate being told to "fuck off"?

But punishment continues to be a barrier to progress. The school uses isolation as a punishment. Teachers respond to misdemeanours in class by sending pupils to an isolated room where they must work alone and in silence. Fixed-term exclusions are a high tariff for minor offences, so the isolation room is seen as the only realistic alternative. But to kids who live a solitary existence, how much of a penalty is more time on your own? To some, isolation increases their inability to cope.

Time in this room leads them to us. To a place where we try to develop social skills. To reverse the antisocial trend. To overcome the desire to throw the board across the room because someone laughed at you for landing on Old Kent Road.

But there is some hope. Coral took Cathy to one side last week. She's pregnant. At least one of our students has contact with another human being (in addition to the texting). I didn't dare ask if she and her boyfriend actually had conversations though.

The author manages a learning support unit in East Anglia

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