Lend a hand to pupils, teachers and parents

Support work in schools is about more than just managing behaviour, says Hazel Davis
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The Independent Online

The term "support work" is such a woolly one. It screams "this is not a real job!" and is redolent of earnest men in polo necks observing quietly while someone has a paddy. Behaviour support work is even worse. Surely controlling behaviour is a teacher's job anyway?

Mica May is a family support worker at Working With Families, part of The Children's Society in Rochdale and an independent project operating within a primary school as part of the school's behaviour management (BM) strategy.

May says: "Behaviour management is not really seen as the responsibility of schools although it is in schools where the issues surface en masse because of the numbers of children teachers have to manage at a time." May also believes that "a woefully small amount of time within teacher training is put into BM because the curriculum is so full already. Trainee teachers get told that if they make their classes interesting and relevant the children will pay attention."

Stephen Cox heads up the Derbyshire Behaviour Support Service. Cox worked in special education before deciding to "work in a slightly more challenging environment". He says that behaviour support work is an "ageing" profession. Many come into it from teaching and he feels that's no bad thing: "You can't be inexperienced and do this kind of work. You need to be able to deal with being sworn at, difficult parents and thinking creatively."

Essentially, school behaviour support staff work with children in mainstream schools who may need help due to serious behavioural or emotional difficulties. They work alongside teachers and parents to help improve children's self-esteem, social skills, access to the school curriculum and devise strategies to encourage children to take responsibility for their own actions.

These strategies need to extend beyond the classroom. May also runs a private consultancy, working with parents using the same principles as behaviour support work. "Awareness of what can be expected from children at particular ages is lacking in the majority of the population, often due to the way children are portrayed in the media. I help parents develop a strategy to begin strengthening their relationship with their children usually based on play and praise. If a parent is able to spend time reading, playing or chatting with their child this can build the relationship enormously."

In December 2002, the Government launched a national behaviour and attendance programme. As a result all secondary schools have now been provided with audit and training materials and consultancy support, as part of the behaviour and attendance strand of the secondary national strategy.

Every local authority is supposed to have at least one behaviour and attendance consultant working as part of the strategy. A behaviour support worker will devise intervention plans, audit existing support and ensure that the environment is conducive to the pupils' development.

"When you are working with young people," says Cox, "their needs aren't always immediate. You need to be very analytical and able to look at behaviour and its causes." In some ways, adds Cox, behaviour support workers have an advantage over class teachers, "because they are able to learn from school A and apply the successes to school B. Class teachers sometimes say, 'that's the most difficult child I have ever seen' but they don't realise they are doing a great job because they don't have that comparison."

Behaviour support work isn't the highest paid in the world and there are no formal qualifications directly associated with it. And it carries some of the disadvantages of not being in full control of a classroom. Cox says: "Very often you will come up with a system which works for that pupil and you encourage the teacher to use it. Then they will get the credit for its success. But that's not why we're in this."

How to get in

* There are frequently behaviour support jobs advertised in local council publications and websites.

* Try your hand at teaching support to get used to a classroom environment.

* Edexcel is currently piloting a BTEC in support work in schools. For more information visit www.edexcel.org.uk