Rowdy pupils get instant calmer classes

Disruptive children facing expulsion are being won round by a new scheme - and so are their parents, writes Esther Leach
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The Independent Online
"IT'S hard being good, but I am trying to do better," says Lee, 11, whose loutish behaviour in school would have certainly led to his eventual expulsion. "If I'm good I'm not grounded - and mum's happier too."

Lee is trying to follow the rules set down in a behaviour project introduced at a secondary school to help him keep his temper and stay out of trouble.

What makes this scheme unique is that the rules also apply to his mother. "I mustn't blow my top if he's trying to wind me up," says Julie. "I've got to keep my temper too and walk away from the situation, otherwise I lose control."

If the pilot project works, says its leader Jenny Oberon, it could make a tremendous difference to children whose behaviour might otherwise have resulted in their being permanently excluded from school or winding up being put into care and on a downward spiral that too often ends in prison.

And preventing that, of course, could save hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money in the process, she says.

The scheme involves parents and children attending separate support groups for about 45 minutes every week on different days at Agnes Stewart High School, Leeds, where they are shown how to control their behaviour - towards each other and in general. In class the children are "shadowed" by special needs assistant Glenys Peace.

"I know it's partly me," says Chris, mother of Sarah. "And if I can keep my temper I can get on better with Sarah. She's happier, I'm happier and things will improve.

"She gets into fights easily - especially when anyone says something about me," says Chris. "Children know they can wind each other up if they say things about their mother. I couldn't stop her the other day having words with another girl - but she didn't get into a fight."

Kelly had problems paying attention in class. She says the children's group has helped her to "stay good". "I feel bad if I have done something wrong, I am disappointed with myself. Before I just wanted to be bad all the time. I am happier now."

Melanie says her son is like a new child. "I really thought I had a child from hell. I dreaded the calls from school saying Martin was excluded for an afternoon because of his behaviour.

"I have no doubt he would have been eventually expelled from school if he was allowed to go on without help."

The role of Glenys Peace, who attends both the groups, is vital. She watches the children in their different classes and it just takes a look from her to remind them to think about their behaviour. "My father just had to look at me to make sure I behaved properly," says Ms Peace. "And this is how I work. I don't need to raise my voice or even speak to a child. It just takes a warning look or a knowing smile and they know they are on the edge."

The key to success, she says, lies in building relationships with the children, getting to know them and their particular problems such as lack of attention, being noisy, a tendency to talk too much - all traits which can disrupt the rest of the class and land them in detention or worse.

Jenny Oberon, a deputy head seconded to the Leeds Attendance and Behaviour Project, says the training for both parents and children is based on being calm and clear about what they want from each other.

Simple ground rules demand being responsible for your own behaviour and telling the truth. Praise for good behaviour is important. "Three positive comments about a child's behaviour for one negative," she says.

It was the head of 900-pupil Agnes Stewart, Ann Nichol, who called in the attendance and behaviour project for help when she identified a number of children who were finding it difficult to adjust from primary to secondary school. They were soon disrupting classes.

"Teachers were anxious about a small group of children in the school but we did not want to exclude them. They had serious problems, failure to attend lessons, creating noise, causing disruption, preventing other children getting on."

The scheme, which began three months ago, has been adopted by another school in Leeds and Ms Oberon hopes it will be taken up nationwide. She says it could offer many children a vital second chance. "It would be all too easy to write off these children but they can be saved."