THE TAMING OF THE UNRULY

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The Independent Culture
Boys and girls as young as six

are being expelled from school

and labelled 'problem children'.

What can parents do about it?

When Greg had had enough of his lessons at school, he would get up and leave the classroom. Tall and strong for his age, he would push his teachers aside and make for the door. He refused to read or write. Between the ages of six and his early teens, he was expelled from four different schools. At home, he was equally impossible: any argument would make him storm off, slamming doors, for a 10-minute session of kicking his possessions around his room.

Troublesome teenagers make the news, and always have. Earlier this year, for example, teachers in Nottingham threatened to strike if a disruptive 13-year-old boy was not removed from classes. The surprise is that children as young as six are being excluded from school for bad behaviour. Recent Department for Education and Employment figures show that, since the start of the decade, the number of children expelled from primary schools has increased fourfold. As class sizes expand, the decline in individual attention from teachers means that children who need extra academic help may be passed over. Is there anything parents can do to help their child, when it becomes obvious that they are failing to fit in at school?

Greg's parents say they were "desperate". But things have changed, from what his father refers to as "the bad old days". Greg, now 14, is calmly writing a short composition, sitting in Jean Robb's large, light, airy sitting-room, with its enormous picture windows and balcony looking out over the estuary of the River Dee and the Welsh hills beyond. Jean's home in West Kirby, Liverpool, is a hive of activity most afternoons; it is the scene of regular after-school classes for children who need extra help to fulful their potential. Between work sessions, the children can let off steam in the large garden; and relaxation times, where they lie down and listen to a story that helps them focus and rest, round off the afternoon.

Looking at the 15 or so children, from toddlers to teenagers, busily engaged on a spelling or writing task, or reading their compositions aloud, it is hard to believe that any of them could be "problem children". But some have been held back at school by illness, or deafness, or autism; some are disruptive; a number are bright children who are under-achieving because they find it difficult to concentrate on lessons, or to retain and organise information.

Jean Robb, with her colleague Hilary Letts, aims to show parents and teachers how to help children like these. Their new book, Creating Kids Who Can, outlines some of the techniques that they have used to help the thousand or so children who have passed through their classes in the last five years.

Jean and Hilary, both educational therapists, believe that teaching children how to learn, rather than labelling them as "problem children" and shunting them into less demanding, less rewarding classes, is one of the keys to success. "When I was at school, I was a 'difficult child', and in order to keep my psychologist and get out of double Latin, I had to keep manufacturing problems," recalls Jean. "It was really quite hard to keep thinking up these problems; they were all totally in my head. I was certainly a difficult child, there was no doubt about that, but nobody ever explained to me how to get out of being a difficult child, they just allowed me to carry on being one, which was hopeless."

She later became a teacher, and developed an interest in children, who, like herself, had put themselves outside the normal education framework. "I realised that children who were not succeeding had no idea what they were doing wrong, so I became interested in how you explain to them what is expected of them, whether it is to do with classwork, or how to socialise and get on with their friends. The next step, when a child is not doing well, is to find out what is missing - what the barrier is to success."

These barriers, according to Jean and Hilary, are rarely insurmountable. "Teachers have been trained to believe that there are all these special needs," says Jean. "If a child isn't paying attention, there are several labels which exist - attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, dyspraxia. The child is shoved under one of these convenient labels and put on the shelf. For example, when people can't read well, there is a whole range of materials which lets them just about understand the message of what they are reading, which are used rather than teaching them to read properly; they are being fobbed off with something very minimal."

They both feel that it is very difficult for parents who see that their child is struggling and needs a boost to seek help through schools. "Parents who ask for help can very quickly find themselves on the special needs slide," says Hilary. "What they really want to say is 'Can someone hear my child read every day, because I don't think she's coming on.' The child will then be tested and tested, and everyone will say 'Oh yes, she's way behind', and then the label will come out, and it's very easy to get swept up an escalating situation of 'Oh, special needs, there's a support group for parents like you'."

Creating Kids Who Can takes a very different approach: practical, common- sense and down-to-earth. For some children, very basic gaps need to be plugged. Jean and Hilary have found that many simply don't know what's expected of them at school; to have someone explain that they are there to work and listen to the teacher comes as a revelation. "There is a whole group of seven-year-olds who don't think they are part of the human race; they believe that rules are for other people, not for them," says Jean. "Parents have got to send their children into school expecting to listen to the teacher. It isn't up to the teacher to spend all her time controlling them, and that's what we teach the kids here. If we walk away to do something else they are expected to keep on working quietly."

They also teach parents to show children how to take responsibility for their own learning. One key skill is organisation; children are encouraged to think about how they will go about successfully completing a task. "Without a pencil, the child won't be able to work," says Jean. "The need for responsibility has been taken away from children; they turn up at school with no pencils, no books, no bag."

As well as helping parents work out why their child is not learning, and address problems such as confusion, poor organisation, lack of attention or lack of self-esteem, the book is crammed with practical drills, exercises amd games to help with the principles of reading, writing, spelling and maths.

"If parents can set aside just five minutes a day, they will be amazed at how much they can achieve," says Jean. "Many parents are afraid that they won't do things the right way, but the basics of learning of all kinds are fundamental, so if parents can instil those at home, the child won't be undermined by changes at school."

A sensible timetable for homework and structured help from parents may seem like basic measures, but parents who have followed the Creating Kids Who Can regime find that it works. Mary Errington's seven-year-old son, Mark, was finding it hard to concentrate on his homework. "With junior school coming up, we felt he needed help to achieve his potential," she says. "The first time he came, Jean started straight away to teach him to spell 'difficult' words. The first one was 'mysteriously' and she had him spelling it forwards and backwards. Using her method, breaking down the word into syllables, he had no problems. You think 'It's so simple! Why didn't I think of that?'"

Mark is a bright little boy, but many bright children, who find that the initial stages of learning come easily to them, are discouraged by tasks that they cannot achieve effortlessly. Now he is learning to apply himself, he is getting full marks for spellings and tables at school, and his mother says proudly that his teacher says he's a "different boy".

"The book is very straightforward and simple, there are no tricks; we have word games at the breakfast table and things like that," she explains. "And as soon as we started behaving differently with Mark, he started responding differently." Now, instead of saying "You must do your homework", she says to Mark: "Would you like to do your homework now, or would you like to have a play first?"

"You give the child a choice," she says, "but there isn't any option of the homework not being done. He has become much nicer - for example, he used to tease our dogs, then one day he came home and said he thought fox-hunting was cruel. I was able to say, 'Don't you think it's just as cruel when you tease our dogs? We should look after animals', and he was able to understand and never teased them again."

Lynda and Chris Chanin, Greg's parents, are also enthusiastic about their son's achievements. "When he first came, Jean said his reading age would improve in just a few weeks. We didn't believe it, but he started reading and writing almost immediately. It's all to do with confidence." He has also stopped bullying his two brothers, got himself a paper round, and his parents say he "behaves like an adult member of the family". They would recommend this therapeutic approach. "As pharmacists, we have been told about the drug Ritalin, which is often used to calm children down, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem," says Chris Chanin. "It's like putting a plaster over a splinter, the splinter is still in there. This way, you are trying to address the root problem of whatever is stopping the child from learning."

Another mother has followed Jean and Hilary's method with her three children, who had fallen behind at school because they all suffered from hearing difficulties caused by glue ear. "My daughter is so much calmer than she was, and she's made great strides. It teaches her to cope with school. I sit every evening and read with them, and it works - they really enjoy it."

As do the other students. A number of former pupils, who have gone on to academic success, have volunteered to come back and help others. There is certainly no question of forcing anyone to attend: some even come back outside class hours. Greg is currently earning pocket-money by tidying Jean's garden. "I love coming here," he says happily.

! Jean Robb and Hilary Letts's Successful Learning Institute workshops are available by individual apppointment and assessment(0151 625 2619). 'Creating Kids Who Can' is published by Hodder & Stoughton at pounds 8.99.

NOT PROBLEMS, BUT CHALLENGES

These two stories, from Creating Kids Who Can, demonstrate how easy it is to label children "problems". Ken and Lewis were simply receiving wrong messages from parents or teachers

KEN'S STORY

Ken, aged seven, couldn't read. Every night his father worked on his reading with him, trying to be encouraging and supportive. He did his best to make learning fun, with jokes and stories.

For some reason Ken couldn't learn, and his reading remained poor. He didn't know that he was supposed to be learning; he thought he was simply meant to be having fun with his dad.

Ken's father thought his son was lazy and dull; he did not realise Ken simply didn't know that the real purpose of their sessions together was learning to read. Once Ken did understand what he was supposed to be doing, he began to learn quickly. Ken's father was then able to help effectively, because he made it clear throughout their sessions what he was going to teach, exactly how he was going to teach it, when playtime stopped and started, and when lessons began.

LEWIS'S STORY

When a famous footballer says "I never bothered at school, I can't spell and it never stopped me", we get a Lewis. Thousands of children see working hard at football, rather than putting effort into learning to spell, as a sensible use of their time.

Being unable to spell is labelled a "special learning difficulty", so Lewis's failure to learn is accepted and the pressure taken off him. His parents have been told to make him feel good about himself, so when his friends are doing homework, Lewis practises football. His spelling is never corrected in case he is discouraged, so he is trapped.

In the football team, Lewis is expected to work on all his weaknesses. To do well at football, he knows he has to train, practice, recognise his weaknesses and do something about them. He gets sympathetic responses to his weaknesses in football, but he gets only apathetic responses to his weakness at spelling.

POINTS FOR PARENTS

When coping with a child who is unruly, or who seems to be learning slowly at school, the most obvious points are the ones most frequently overlooked. In their book, Jean Robb and Hilary Letts offer these ten tips:

Remember that your attention is the most valuable thing you can give a child.

Make sure you make the time to give your child attention.

Teaching children is always a challenge. When everything seems to be going wrong, don't despair. Be optimistic that problems can be sorted out.

If you don't understand something your child is saying, ask a question. Listen to the answer carefully. If you still don't understand, ask another question. Keep asking and listening until you do understand.

A mistake should be seen as a chance to learn. Don't feel guilty about mistakes; just think what you have learnt from them.

Teach your child the qualities that will make him or her good company in all kinds of situations - at home, at school, and in other places where he or she goes.

Remember that you are your child's best friend and teacher. The person he or she most wants to please is you.

Every situation has something to teach your children. Teach them how to cope in lots of situations, how to contribute to them, and how to learn from them.

Children are not born knowing how to do everything. Childhood has a serious purpose. It is learning for adulthood.

Ten out of ten is not a realistic score in any life situation - including parenthood. Getting it right a percentage of the time is the most any of us can hope for. Think about what worked for your child and what did not, and you will find you get better at some things. Notice the successes as well as the problems, and talk about them with your child so he or she can learn along with you.

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