Education: Saving children from their monsters

When you're only five, and you've already had 19 foster homes, what chance have you got of behaving well at school? At the Kingsmead centre, teachers aim to stamp out disruptive behaviour early on, by giving children some stability. By Diana Appleyard
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"Michael, you're sitting up beautifully - David, I love the way you put your hand up then to ask a question - and here's Anthony, and he's ready to come back to us now."

Six-year-old Anthony had been taken from the room, after throwing himself to the floor, crying and shouting, trying to disrupt the quiet and orderly session. It had always worked in his old school, a sure-fire way to get attention.

But the lesson continued as if his tantrum had never happened. Another teacher quietly took him out to calm him down before he could rejoin the others. It's a regular occurrence, when you're a teacher dealing with some of the most disturbed and chaotic infant-aged schoolchildren in the country.

This is the Kingsmead centre in Derby, which runs what is thought to be the only pupil referral unit for infant schoolchildren in Britain.

The centre costs around pounds 300,000 a year to run and supports 114 children who attend ordinary schools across the city.

The centre is extraordinarily successful in catching children before they slip into a rut of misbehaviour that leads them into exclusion from school and finally a place in a special school. The centre takes six children for a year and of the 30 infants who have been through since it was set up five years ago, only two have ended up in special school. The rest are in ordinary schools. Only one has been excluded but he has settled in another mainstream school.

Nationally, exclusions from school are running at around 11,000 a year. Exclusions of primary school children are shooting up. Some 1,200 primary schoolchildren are being excluded a year, yet resources for difficult children are targeted at older age groups when early intervention could pay dividends. Left untreated in ordinary schools, disruptive primary schoolchildren can grow up to become the children that hit headlines because their teachers refuse to teach them.

The Kingsmead children, most of whom have statements of special educational needs, are supported by education care officers in their schools for either a few hours or several days a week. Many would otherwise be excluded from their schools.

Six are chosen to come into the centre for four afternoons each week because their behaviour problems are so severe they cannot cope full-time in their ordinary schools. Despite their age, most have already been excluded, some several times, for violence in the classroom, for throwing furniture and for swearing at and abusing teachers and other children.

Often another school has only agreed to take them on with the proviso that they attend the Kingsmead centre. One child has never been in school because he was too disruptive at nursery.

Nearly all the children sent to the unit have suffered major trauma in their short lives. A five-year-old has been in 19 different foster homes, another has lost both parents. Their teacher, Kye Currie, says: "You cannot expect these children to sit down and follow the national curriculum when their lives are in chaos."

One of the children in the unit will scratch herself until she bleeds if disciplined. Mrs Currie has learned to steel herself to sit still with folded arms as a response rather than leaping forward with tissues.

The large classroom is decorated with the children's own pictures, play corners and a reading area. The group works on a very strict routine. The children arrive at about twelve and are immediately subject to the structure and rituals of the group. Just to get to the dining area, they have to take the journey of no more than 15 yards in three stages. If anyone misbehaves, or shouts or pushes another child, they all have to go back to the first stage. It can take up to half an hour.

They stay until three. There is a story or they tell each other their news, then they work.This is followed by quiet first play, and then second play, when the children are encouraged to use their imagination, invent games, build houses, dress up. The afternoon ends with a drink and biscuits.

The staff's aim is to bring consistency into this corner of the children's lives. The timetable is unwavering and when staff say something will happen, including a punishment for bad behaviour, it happens.

They also spend a lot of time encouraging anything that is positive in the children, most of whom suffer from battered self-esteem.

Mrs Curry says: "Most of the children here think they're rubbish. When they first arrive this praising really throws them - and they'll often look over their shoulder if I say, 'You did that really well.' In the past they've only been noticed because they've done something wrong."

Teachers emphasise to the children that they have a choice over their lives. If they climb on the furniture, or swear or will not sit still, the teachers point out that the child has chosen to behave that way but there is a price to pay. The price is a cut in play time - one minute of second play for every misdemeanour. While the others play, the child who is "paying back" has to sit still with their arms folded.

It is easy to see why the children have been referred to the unit if you spend an afternoon with the group. They all have severe difficulty in sitting still and concentrating. They are either reluctant to speak or constantly and continually butting in.

When asked to sit down and write out the names of their friends, two boys immediately wandered away from the table, determined not to be seen to be obeying orders. Mrs Currie warned them that it was their choice not to do the writing but they would lose play time. They sat back down to work but then one of them stabbed himself with his pencil to get attention as Mrs Currie praised another. "Ow," he yelled, trying to disrupt the small group. "It hurts! I'm bleeding! I don't want to do this!" It's easy to see how disruptive this would be in a normal class of 32. Mrs Currie ignored him.

Many of the children are subject to sudden and violent outbursts - but they are always dealt with by another member of staff taking them out of the class until they calm down. Physical restraint is sometimes needed - so the children realise that adults cannot be controlled by anger and hostility.

But the behaviour of the children in this current group, part-way through their year at the unit, has vastly improved. They will sit still, raise their hands to ask questions, respond appropriately to an order and play with each other.

The head of the centre, Stephen Cox, says the work at the unit is vital because there is little or no provision for children with problems at this age. If they are excluded and no other schools will take them, then they have to be referred to a special school. Once there, it is very hard to get back into the mainstream.

Stephen Cox says: "Many of these children are still effectively toddlers. They can't collaborate with other children, and their play is often still centred around solitary play, usually found in very young children. Our job is to encourage them to understand that other people are real and have feelings and that they're valued by us.

"It's so important to have this early intervention. Any infant or nursery teacher will tell you that you can spot the child who is going to have problems. If you break the cycle of violence and disruption at this age, you can have the best chance of affecting their educational and life chances."

He says Kingsmead is unique because money has traditionally gone to pupil referral units for secondary aged pupils because of a general reluctance to acknowledge the problem in primary schools.

"But the problems are there in very young children - and I think we should be much more aware about tackling them. There has been a tendency to avoid labelling very young children - and primary teachers traditionally have been very reluctant to exclude."

Mrs Currie says, "If you label a child as a failure at the age of five what chance do they have? This unit works because it's a partnership with schools - and we have some very supportive teachers in mainstream schools. I really admire them because I know that to have one child who's off-the- wall in a class of 32 can have a devastating effect.

"Yesterday a little chap said to me, 'This is the bestest place in the world' - he'd been excluded at the age of five just as his parents were going through the most traumatic splitting-up, and his school said it didn't want him. He was at home for an awfully long time and this is the first time he's been made to feel good about himself."

At second play in the unit, one of the youngest children, very quiet, very withdrawn - both his parents have recently died - headed, as he always did, towards the big bricks. "What are you building?" asked Mrs Currie. "A safe house," he said. "Where the monsters can't come."