Hilary Wilce considers the tricky subject of challenging bad behaviour. 

What should schools do with badly behaved pupils? There is a lot of argument about this in education circles at the moment after recent figures showed that the number of pupils being permanently excluded from schools – what we used to call ‘being expelled’ – is rising sharply.

In the school year 2016/17 about 1,000 more pupils were excluded than the previous year, bringing the total to 7,700, which is  40 a day. 

But are schools right simply to boot troublesome students off the premises? Or is it their duty to try and educate all their pupils – perhaps especially those troubled and angry students who need their help most?

It’s a difficult question and getting more so. Many teachers find children harder to handle than in the past. Today’s pupils aren’t meek and quiet. They don’t have an automatic respect for authority and expect teachers to earn their respect. They have shorter attention spans than in the past and a lot are wound up, anxious and on very short temper fuses.

When you add in additional stress factors, like dysfunctional family backgrounds, or educational special needs you can have a ticking time bomb of bad behaviour.

“Children need what we all need, to be cared for, seen, heard and respected, but they also need rules and boundaries”

Parents might well think that excluding disruptive pupils is right. Turf the little blighters out! But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Schools compete with each other and their popularity – and therefore funding – depends on having a good reputation for behaviour and exam results. So it’s very tempting to ‘off-roll’ pupils at the first sign of trouble. Moreover, austerity has squeezed the resources for handling difficult pupils, which means excluded kids may well end up getting no support or education.

Even leaving aside the moral question of whether we want to be the kind of society that simply gives up on children because they don’t fit the mould, the consequences of that are likely to be bad for us all. There’s a very close link, for example, between school exclusions and knife crime.

Yet there are schools that have been able to bring exclusions down by enforcing firm behaviour boundaries, bringing in carefully targeted interventions and support, and always nipping trouble in the bud.

And in this, there are lessons for us all. Even if our children aren’t violently disruptive in school, they may well be part of the sizeable minority of pupils whose shouty, impulsive and disorganized way of carrying on leaches away at classroom time because it means teachers have to try, try and try again before they can embark on a lesson.

That sort of behaviour can wear us down at home, too, leaving families in an endless cycle of nagging, threats and sanctions. So how do you manage a child’s behaviour effectively?

The principles are simple. Children need what we all need: to be cared for, seen, heard and respected. They like to have things explained to them. They like to contribute their views. But they also need rules and boundaries – it’s what makes them feel safe and secure – and they need to know that these rules are there for a good reason, and there will be consequences if they flout them.

However, simple doesn’t mean easy. Parents, like teachers, have to be the grown ups. They have to be kind, but consistent. And if a behaviour issue has to be revisited dozens of times before it’s resolved, then they somehow have to find the patience to do it.

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