Thursday, 15 October 2009

child behaviour problems: the role of teachers, parents, the curriculum - and how to upset the Daily Mail editor.

Read this first please.

Let's look at the language: "tackle" "problem pupils" "tough" "will not be tolerated" "should be isolated".

Move them aside! Put them with other bad kids just like them! Punish them! Criticise them! Persecute the badness out of them! When are we (especially the punitive Sir Alan and his ilk) going to wake up?

Punish the child for the teacher's incompetence? Hold on a minute!
We have got it @rse about face. Instead of looking at these pupils as 'problems' that basically get in the way of delivering the curriculum to all the samey, bovine, quiet children, why not accept that in fact the school's primary challenge is to find ways to teach the disruptive kids behaviour sets that they haven't learned yet, in a way that the kids engage with? And celebrate the achievements when they progress towards them? If a teacher cannot engage with a problem child, and find which buttons to press to motivate a 'problem child', despite the teacher's advanced age and all their training, then I say that teacher is failing too. Maybe the *teacher* should be isolated to prevent them from failing promising but 'emotionally disabled' young children? Do us parents have access to legal powers to "tackle problem teachers"?? No, they are masters of their own kingdom in that closed classroom where it is their word against the child's, where it is easier to expel than excel.

Perhaps we could sentence the teachers to a 'permanent exclusion', and put them in a 'TRU' (Teacher referral Unit) where they can join lots of other punitive and uninspiring teachers. We could give them the 'easy' kids to teach, who will learn whatever they have in front of them, and keep the inspiring and talented teachers to work with the problem kids who really desperately need help. Cast your mind back to when you were at school: I bet there were some charismatic teachers who even the worst kids behaved well for. And I'll bet that teacher paid them special attention and went out of his way to show that he liked them and believed in them.

And here's another thing - I'm willing to bet that well over half of all problem kids are actually among the brightest, most creative and outspoken kids in the school in terms of ability. The 'problem teacher' fails to spot this and concentrates on the outward behaviour pattern instead. The 'problem teacher' does not give them harder or more challenging work or targeted help. The 'problem school' does not put them in their 'gifted and talented' scheme, or describe them as having special educational needs in terms of how much educational stimulation they require. Oh no, they're TOO NAUGHTY. So the kid is bored in class and talks a lot. Is that supposed to be a surprise?

So now the child gets 'isolated' to protect all the 'good' children. Confused and upset, the child lashes out behaviourally and becomes slightly worse than before. As soon as a child is marginalised and socially rejected (do not underestimate the crushing, humiliating, effect of being rejected and frowned upon by the only authority figure in a young person's life: their teacher, in front of their peers), the self-fuelling cycle of failure -> unhappiness -> bad behaviour -> failure begins, which serves to accelerate and worsen the child's behaviour degradation. The good kids tell their interested parents who is being disruptive and being sent to the headmaster's office. The parents suddenly don't invite that kid to the next jelly and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey party any more. Educational rejection widens into social rejection. And all because that child had not learned to behave like the mainstream yet.

Let's say that child could be called 'behaviourally disabled'. Now let's look at a child who has gammy legs. Will she be punished for not running fast enough in PE? No, so tell me how it is fair to reject, isolate and intimidate a 6 year old child whose only crime is that he has failed to learn how to shut up in class or how to share and take turns? If we don't keep these 'problem kids' very close to us, and find positive motivational paths towards positive 'normal' behaviour sets, we are failing them and we become a substantial *cause* of their worsening behaviour. We have to show them what they stand to gain by behaving well, and what they stand to lose in the long run by behaving badly. Read on to see commentary about how we have to consider the good kids education too - I'm not a blinkered ultralib.

Punish the parents then! Yeah!!
As as for the parents thing, I am taken aback at how facile Alan and Ed are being here. If the parent (s) (or general adult in the child's life) has, so far, failed to teach the 'accepted' behaviours, it can only be for one of four reasons:

1. The parent does not give a damn how the child behaves, and behaves appallingly themselves ("problem parent")
2. The parent really cares, but has not learned how best to teach their child how to behave yet (parents don't get training: teachers do)
3. The parent is doing all the right things and really really cares, but the kid is a bit behind the pace emotionally and just isn't able to be quiet in class yet, or deal with conflict peacefully. Like a kid who is good at literacy but a bit crap with numbers, for example.
4. The parent is from a culture or demographic group where certain ways of expressing yourself and behaving, seen as acceptable and normal to that culture, is unfortunately what middle class people (who I suspect account for a majority of teachers) think is unacceptably rude or disruptive.

Whichever of those four it is, "strengthening our message to parents" and reminding parents that they "play a crucial role and have a responsibility to support their school's behaviour policy" will have absolutely no effect at all on the parents of these particular 'problem' children:

Camp (1) will tell the school to f*** off,
camp (2) will die of shame and feel awful about how incompetent they are and probably take it out in anger at the child, whose behaviour will worsen because of the new upset
camp (3) will feel completely exasperated and powerless and grow a lot of grey hairs.
camp (4) will feel persecuted and probably cry classism, racism or other ism.

IT WON'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE, ED AND ALAN. Actually it will make it worse. HOW IS THIS NOT OBVIOUS TO YOU??? Maybe, JUST MAYBE, it really is obvious to you, but you are too preoccupied with pacifying the Daily Mail readers (editors actually), and being seen to be 'tough on scum'... and don't have the guts or the permission to implement a difficult-to-sell 'supporting the most needy' policy that will actually work.

Locking the parents up will worsen the kid's behaviour. Fining the parents might just wake up camps 1 and 4 that there might be something in it for them to work on the kid...but more likely will cause the parent to disengage and hate the school, co-operating less than before. Never in my life have I seen punishment and conflict achieve positive outcomes unless delivered in a context of care and positive aspiration.

OK then smartass, how would YOU like it if your good kid was being disrupted by a problem kid? Huh??
Well it's funny you should say that: he is! And still I don't want the 'problem' kid isolated, labelled and persecuted, and I don't want the kid's exasperated, suffering mother to spend any more nights awake crying out of fear for her child's future and powerlessness in the face of the school's heavy handed tactics.
No, I want to ~work with~ the problem kid, get to know him, help him flourish and develop and enjoy learning, help him see why it's easier for everyone if he just keeps his finger on his lips in class even though he's desperate to say something and play with his friends.
I want the school to rise to the challenge and work with the boy and his parents in a positive caring way. I want them all to come out rewarded and satisfied with a job well done, and most of all I want the boy to get on with being a star pupil and show the school how badly they are missing the point.
Meanwhile I will teach my child the valuable lifeskills of blanking out background noise (I have to do this with my 'problem colleagues' at work who seldom shut up but get paid lots of wonga for the privilege), resisting the urge to copy children who are getting themselves in trouble, and succeed despite disruption. But then I'm different to many parents who only care about their own. I'm also lucky enough to see the 'problem boy' outside of school, where I see that he is unusually kind and caring, extremely sensitive, and incredibly smart. He just has the worst case of selective hearing that I've ever seen!

OK then smartass, I take it you have a better idea - or are you just an 'armchair teacher' who only knows how to criticise?
So what can be done about problem children. Why should the good kids suffer because of the bad kids? Have I got a better idea? Yes I have actually, but it is expensive and it will upset people who read (sorry - ~write~) the Daily Mail. Am I willing to pay more tax if that is what it takes? Yes I am: you can't have your cake and eat it. Here is an outline:

1. Think of the 'problem kids' differently
For a start I would like the problem kids rebranded. They are unfortunate children with special educational needs. Some are crap at literacy, some are deaf, some are disruptive. The education system already adopts this approach, and if the guidance ( - use link at bottom to get the PDF) is followed properly it can deliver great results.
Interestingly a full ~quarter~ of SEN children (with no statement) are in the 'behaviour' category - close second only to 'moderate learning difficulties'. See the 'primary need tables' excel doc at .
Many (but not all) of the disruptive kids are enduring brutal and aggressive and chaotic lives at home. They need our help, desperately.

2. Teach behaviour and emotional skills as a key part of the curriculum ~before~ academic skills.
Next, I would like a fundamental change of perspective in the education system. Where a school has a high proportion of disruptive children, the focus of the curriculum needs to shift to FIRST stabilising behaviour at the youngest age (I'm talking nursery, reception, year 1), and ONLY THEN focussing on academic achievement. This can of course occur in parallel a bit, but it's about the ~emphasis~ of school early years objectives. Don't teach numbers and shout at the wriggling boys. Teach sitting and listening - and drop some numbers in. As any professionals reading this should admit to themselves: people skills/emotional intelligence ('EQ') is even more important in life and the workplace than academic skills.
Please don't tell me schools are already doing it with a token 'Personal and Social Education (PSE)' half hour now and then. That is better than nothing, I admit, but it is tokenistic. I want PSE to be wider and the main focus.

2. Spend disproportionately more money on SEN children
This is the one that bites. This one puts equality on the page. This one really annoys people who believe that we are in a 'survival of the fittest' contest, that naughty kids should basically be erased - or left to erase themselves. People who believe in the death penalty ahead of prevention and rehabilitation. And so on. This one says that 'good children' are endowed with so much natural advantage through their birth, environment and inherited social network, that they can still reach the top even if we spend less on them. This one says that if there was only one lump of available money that could be spent on ~either~ SEN OR 'Gifted and talented', that it should all go to SEN. If you baulk at this, sit back for a minute, swallow the pill and think afresh at how this could work - then read on.

3. Spend a small fortune on children who end up excluded from mainstream education
This one ~really~ hurts the Daily Mail editor. He will choke on his 11am gin and tonic and retch into his BNP membership pack. IF we do 1,2 and 3, then for a start the numbers of permie exclusions will go down, big time. We could even just divide the existing pot amongst way fewer kids and get the small fortune I'm after. For seconds, if these muppets manage to get themselves excluded despite 1,2 and 3, then there is something ~severely~ amiss in their lives and they are in extreme danger. Therefore, unless we explicitly want them in jail, dead, or committed to a mental institution (probably via a string of violent crimes ruining countless lives), we are obliged to throw everything we've got at them, no holds barred. I don't mean ticking a few boxes, I mean unleashing the full force of social innovation on these people. Literally carrying them through life until they can walk. If there is one ultra clear signal, a flare soaring through the night sky, it is permanent exclusion. Take the signal and send out the lifeboat.

As you can see, the theme is to be less judgemental and to chuck resources at those who are failing. I have another post brewing up where I will give you a braindump of why it makes major, long term, social and economic sense to adopt this approach.

This will only ever reach centre stage politically if the people get behind it. That's YOU LOT. Make some noise!

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