Education: Are children breaking down or is it the system?

Badly behaved children have been called everything from delinquent to special. Perhaps it is not they who are at fault, but their homes and schools. A new study tackles that question
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The Independent Online
The number of children with "emotional and behavioural disorders" (EBDs) appears to be growing more and more rapidly. The dramatic rise in exclusions for bad behaviour from school is just the tip of the iceberg. Children are arriving at nursery school and behaving in aggressive, frightening and sometimes violent ways. To all intents and purposes, we appear to have a mental-health crisis among the young.

Some parents react by reaching for medical solutions, turning to drugs to calm disruptive behaviour. They are unable, it seems, to accept that they themselves may have contributed to the problem. If a condition can be labelled, it seems, a parent can be let off the hook.

But this supposed increase in "emotional and behavioural difficulties" needs to be set in the wider context of a rapidly changing world in which old certainties are being eroded by new technologies and changing patterns of work, gender roles, family and child-rearing practices. Within the education service, the introduction of the national curriculum, testing regimes and school league tables - coupled with devolved funding - have put schools in competition with one another.

It may be that the increase in EBDs has less to do with problems intrinsic to the children than with the environment in which they live and learn. "Challenging behaviour" may simply reflect unsuitable and even damaging demands and expectations on children. It may not be the child himself who is maladjusted; rather, the setting and the child's relationships may need to change.

With the current interest in the growth of EBDs, it is timely that the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has chosen to fund a large national project, the Joint National Project, to look into this issue in greater depth. The project is based at the School of Education at Cambridge University, Greenwich University, and the Institute of Education at London University.

The project team is already well into the process of surveying parents and teachers to establish the prevalence of a range of such difficulties. The researchers will then explore the ways in which different services and professionals diagnose and respond to such difficulties - and the impact this has on teachers, parents and the children themselves.

"Emotional and behavioural difficulties" are not particularly new problems. One of the difficulties in dealing with EBDs has been the many ways of understanding and describing them. We talk of "maladjustment", "adjustment difficulties", "psychiatric disorders", "mental health difficulties", "emotional and behavioural difficulties", "emotional disturbance", "disruptive behaviour", "disturbing behaviour" and "challenging behaviour". Some terms imply the involvement of particular professional groups, such as psychiatrists. Some of the labels applied - such as "disturbing" and "challenging" - imply that such difficulties are as much the problem of the adult as of the child they are dealing with.

There is also the question of how these terms relate to the broad concept of "special educational needs". Developments within special education since the Warnock Report in 1978, when the term "special educational needs" was introduced, have been towards a broad concept of "emotional and behavioural difficulties".

With the abandonment of the "handicap" categories went a rejection of the medical model, which implied that something was pathologically wrong with the child. Instead, attention came to focus on the one hand on how some children were identified as "disturbing" or "challenging", and, on the other, on ways of preventing and managing their behaviour at school.

However, we are now witnessing a resurgence of the medical model, with rising interest in and rising use of drug treatments for "attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder" (AD/HD). What is revealing is that parents have been the driving force behind this revival of medical approaches to "emotional and behavioural difficulties". School is a setting that is particularly sensitive to children, exercising responsibility for their behaviour. In the current school environment, with pressure on schools to raise standards and pressure on parents to support them in doing so, a psychiatric diagnosis can help to let parents off the hook when it is a question of explaining their children's disruptive behaviour.

Defining behavioural problems in terms of a neurophysiological deficit can relieve blame and offer a solution in the form of drug intervention.

The way in which public services respond to EBDs is inconsistent. The linking of the mental health system for children and adolescents with the "special educational needs" code of practice has not been worked out fully at a national level. Locally, the way a child is treated may well depend on service boundaries, historical patterns of working, and relationships between individuals from different professional groups. At worst, there are ad hoc, unco-ordinated and patchy services. At best, there are plans for the various services to work together.

Encouragingly, the Government is trying to improve this situation. The Teacher Training Agency has recently issued a consultation document on national standards for specialist teachers in "special educational needs", including "emotional and behavioural difficulties" as one of nine areas of specialisation.

Reference is made in the document to developing stronger links between agencies as a key element of specialist provision. And the Government's recently released programme of action for Special Educational Needs (SEN), underlines ministers' commitment to providing funding for improving provision for children with "emotional and behavioural difficulties".

In the Joint National Schools Project, we are investigating the prevalence of problems in six English local education authorities. We are questioning teachers and parents about some 4,000 children aged seven and 13. The schools chosen represent a range of attainment levels and socio-economic backgrounds. From this survey we are identifying children with similar kinds and levels of reported difficulties. The results promise to provide much-needed information about emotional and behavioural difficulties or policy-makers and professionals.

Examples of inter-professional collaboration at a time when we need to understand good-practice models will be identified. The findings will also contribute to international debates about emotional and behavioural difficulties and the implications for education, mental health and social policy.

The writers are Brahm Norwich, of the University of London's Institute of Education; Paul Cooper, of the School of Education, Cambridge University; and Pam Maras, of the School of Social Sciences, Greenwich University