A better class of behaviour

Growing numbers of disruptive children pose an increasing challenge to schools. By Heather Welford

IT'S PLAYTIME for the 29 pupils in Mrs Enid Martin's reception class at Pelaw Infant School, Chester-le-Street, Co Durham. The children, dressed in winter coats and hats, are lining up to leave the classroom. Georgia's wearing a pink-and-white print padded jacket, and she's managed the zip all by herself. She's sturdy, and tall for four, towering over some of the tiny tots waiting for the "off".

"Holly, I'm first," she says. She is eyeball to eyeball with another girl.

"No, you're not. Mrs Martin said I am."

"I'm first," Georgia repeats, more loudly this time.

"No, you're not."

"I'm first!" Georgia's yelling now, stamping her patent-leathered foot, her face contorted into a scowl. Holly turns away. Suddenly, Georgia is quiet. She goes to the back of the queue.

Georgia is having a good day. She always wants to be first, for everything, but on bad days she might throw herself to the floor and kick, screaming. She is totally unpredictable, volatile and defiant. On bad days, she hits, swears and throws sand when thwarted, and sometimes when not. Her behaviour in the playground, especially, is rough and aggressive. She says no to any request, and shrieks hysterically if crossed. She becomes loudly, uncontrollably and inconsolably distressed over small things.

Mrs Martin has written a two-page report on a tearful, obsessive tale of woe known as "the hairband incident", when Georgia was convinced that classmate Lucy was wearing her hairband. Yet at times, Georgia can enjoy the company of other children, who are willing to help her overcome her difficulties. She plays and works alongside them with enthusiasm, and she's made one or two real friends.

But the impact of Georgia's behaviour on her classmates, her teacher and the rest of this 180-pupil school is very marked. This isn't an especially wealthy area, but it's not deprived, economically or socially, and generally the children are happy and well-adjusted. When serious behaviour problems occur in four-year-olds, the ripples go through the whole school.

"Behaviour problems are a far greater challenge to the other children, the school as a whole and the staff than reading difficulties, or any other learning problem," says headteacher Irene Cochrane.

Georgia is just one of thousands of children who bring increasing pressure to schools from very early on. The latest available figures showing the number of schoolchildren excluded - usually temporarily - for behavioural problems show a massive rise. In 1997, there were 13,500 exclusions, an increase of 10,000 since 1990. Local education authorities have been charged with reducing exclusions in their schools by a third by the year 2002, and this year, the Audit Commission begins examining exclusion figures as part of its assessment of value for money in local government.

Under the Education Act 1997, school governing bodies are now required to ensure good-behaviour policies and to establish a written statement of general principles of discipline. A child like Georgia demands a huge amount of time, skill and energy from her teachers, and, says Mrs Cochrane, provides a negative role model for other children. "I have a responsibility, alongside Mrs Martin, to the other children in Georgia's class - they need to know what behaviour isn't acceptable, and they need to see us making that clear."

Mrs Cochrane alerted Durham County Council's Behaviour Support Service (BSS) before Georgia had been in school a fortnight, because it was obvious she was displaying more than what could be described as settling-in problems. "At playtime in week one, Georgia ran out to the top of the steps leading to the junior school next door. She lay on the ground screaming, and rolled herself to the bottom of the steps, knocking the other children out the way."

Children in Georgia's class - all making their own transition to "big school" - quickly became wary of her. Some were genuinely frightened, and a handful were physically hurt. A few, like Holly, have learnt to match her defiance, but this sometimes brings its own problems - they end up copying Georgia's aggression. Parents were regularly reporting their concern to Mrs Martin - they needed reassurance that the school was aware of the problem and that the BSS was working with the school on it.

Durham aims to respond as soon as problems become apparent, says Margaret Currie, advisory and support teacher with the BSS and Pelaw's link person with the service. "Early intervention is crucial and prevents problems later on. We work with the school before any formal assessment is done. You lose valuable time if you wait."

In fact, the BSS has had 170 referrals from primary schools already this school year. Georgia is still awaiting a complete assessment from Durham's educational-psychology service, but a programme of home and school behaviour modification has been in place since last October. This rewards her for good behaviour, and demonstrates that unacceptable actions have predictable consequences.

Also, Georgia has a shorter day than the other children, though Mrs Cochrane wants to extend this gradually. She's aware that the help for Georgia from special support assistant Lorraine Shield - currently scheduled by the BSS for three sessions a week - is set to end. "I don't want it to finish yet," she says to me. "Not just for Georgia's sake, but also because without Lorraine, it's harder to give attention to the rest of the class."

I see this demonstrated in the morning, before Shield begins her afternoon's support. Sitting at one of the classroom's low tables, Enid Martin has Georgia at her left hand. She gives gentle guidance as Georgia practises writing. At her other hand, a group of children wait patiently for her to check their work. The whole time Mrs Martin is dealing with the others, Georgia tries to speak to her, or to distract her. She's not unpleasant, and she acquiesces, for a second or two, each time Mrs Martin reminds her to wait. But she is insistent.

When Mrs Martin reads Little Miss Chatterbox to the class, most are rapt. Georgia sometimes listens for a few seconds. More often, she's trying to get the attention of the girls on either side of her. She whispers to Johanna, then plonks her face right in front of Molly, so Molly can't see the book, and starts to talk, so Molly can't hear. At one point, she gets up and walks round the children, stepping over their legs. When the story ends and the children are asked to line up for lunch, Daniel protests as Georgia pulls his arm, roughly. Mrs Martin asks her to apologise, which she does, grudgingly, and without making eye contact with either Daniel or her teacher.

At lunchtime, I feel sorry for Georgia's mother, who's come to a team meeting to review progress. She expresses guilt at having such a difficult child, and she's clearly keen to do anything she can to support the school. She and Mrs Martin keep a detailed written log of Georgia's behaviour, and there's good communication between them.

An only child, Georgia has always had tantrums, and her mother has found it hard not to give in to her. "She'll throw a paddy in the Metro Centre, on the bus, wherever - I've got to the stage where I just don't like to take her anywhere."

Georgia's problems seem to have affected her confidence as a parent, but she's working on this. She says she and her husband now aim to be consistent with Georgia, and they try to back one another up in front of her. Yet there are hints of unresolved issues. "Sometimes, it's me and Georgia against the world," she says.

In fact, all agree Georgia's behaviour has improved since the programme began, but the need for continued help is clear. Margaret Currie says Shield can carry on with her input, phasing down to one weekly session before the end of term. The school will stay in touch, and report back.

Irene Cochrane is relieved. It's an important element in the resolution of what she has described as a potentially serious conflict - between the needs of the child, and the needs of the class.

Note: the names of Georgia, her parents, and all the other children have been changed

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