Driving children from distraction

"I was called in to see the teacher just a few days after my son Alex started school. The teacher said he wouldn't sit at his desk. We had just suffered a sudden bereavement in the family. I tried to explain how he might be feeling, but she didn't seem to want to know."

For Anne Cranston, this was the beginning of several years of difficult consultations. "It's very upsetting, hearing teachers being negative about your child. I would sit on the little chairs in the classroom and I wouldn't know what to say."

Teacher after teacher described a pattern: long after the other 29 children had started writing, Alex would still be scrabbling about in his pencil case. When the teacher looked over rows of bent heads, they would find him staring out of the window without having written a word. The least distraction in the class would be enough for him to stop work and it would take a lot of teacher time and effort to make him start again.

Compared with some of the problem behaviours children can exhibit, Alex’s might seem relatively minor. Many children spend some time daydreaming and get distracted. But according to Jackie Ravet, an academic at Aberdeen University, children “who don’t seem to want to learn” are the biggest source of stress for primary teachers.

Unfortunately, many try to deal with the problem by constantly telling the child to get back on task – a technique that can become little more than “relentless nagging”. To Ravet, who began her career working with disengaged children in London, this is not only ineffective but can actually make the situation worse.

“It further damages the relationship between the teacher and the child. Teachers have to sit down and talk to these children about how they are feeling. They have to work at building trusting relationships that will get the children back on board. They have to find time for these children as early as possible .”

Children who are chronically disengaged become increasingly difficult to reach, she argues. They underachieve in primary school and can fare even worse in secondary school, where their behaviour can become more seriously challenging.

Ravet studied 10 “disengagers” in a small primary school in north-east Scotland over a school year. These were all children who seemed “perfectly bright and capable” and had no diagnosis of special needs. Yet they all expressed negative feelings about school, often complaining of boredom. Two talked about hating their teachers who, they told Ravet, frequently shouted at them.

For Ravet, it appeared that patterns, which may have been set on a child’s first day at school, had become entrenched and both pupils and teachers were stuck in a vicious circle. Teachers did not want to spend all day battling with these children and in some cases were at their wits’ end.

The children described to Ravet through drawing and talking how they were using their behaviour as a survival strategy to rescue them from despondency. For some of them, school had become a “profoundly sad and depressing” experience. They were aware that they were falling behind their peers but didn’t feel they could do anything about it. They resorted to their difficult behaviours, which included flicking paper balls at the ceiling, chatting, starting ruler fights, wandering around and daydreaming. At the same time, many felt nervous and fearful of getting into trouble, yet trouble didn’t stop the behaviour. The ratio in Ravet’s study was nine boys to one girl, a typical gender balance. Most, she says, were active children who struggled especially with paper and pencil tasks.

The only pupils in her study who made progress in the year were in the class of an “exceptional” teacher who had found a nonconfrontational way of dealing with them. She worked lunchtimes and evenings with them and their families, spoke to them about their feelings and was able to some extent to get them back on board. These three ended the year taking some responsibility for their own learning.

However, Ravet found that most of the teachers in the study blamed the home environment for the children’s problems and few were aware of the children’s feelings about school. Parents can end up feeling like “piggy in the middle” if they aren’t honest about their children’s feelings about school, she says.

Ravet, who is now using her work in teacher training in Aberdeen, says teachers need to be less defensive and ask parents for feedback about their teaching style and relationship with the pupil.

Terry Wrigley, a lecturer in education at Edinburgh University, feels the problem is exacerbated by too much formal learning and a decline in time spent out of the classroom. “My Norwegian colleagues tell me that in the early years of primary they spend one day a week at a forest camp. How much time do our children get out of the classroom? Perhaps one day a term.”

Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University’s education department, agrees that disengagement in primary schools needs more focus. “By the time they get to secondary, it is almost too late.” He feels classroom practice is part of the problem. In some areas, he says, “the whole morning is spent on literacy and numeracy. But the children never see a real book. They spend the time working on letters and numbers on magnetic boards and, by the end of it, some of them are tearing their hair out.”

But Paul Hamill, a senior lecturer in education at Strathclyde University and author of a forthcoming book called Understanding Challenging Behaviour argues: “Children who rattle the pencil and look out of the window have always been with us. The best way of dealing with them is effective teaching. Teachers need to keep asking themselves, how can I make the lessons more engaging? But most teachers I see deal quite effectively with this. Teachers nowadays have much worse behaviours to worry about.”

But Ravet says: “These children may end up being disruptive in secondary. Or they may be the quiet ones in the corner. Even if they are not being disruptive, they are still making no progress. You can’t say that one group of children is more worthy of resources than another. We have to meet the needs of all of our children.” · Jackie Ravet’s book about her study, Are We Listening, is published by Trentham Books. The names of Alex and his family have been changed.

The Guardian
Tuesday February 26, 2008