One group of children particularly affected in this way are those children who have what might be phrased 'mild behavioural difficulties'. Following the S.E.N.English at KS2 course I decided to look at ways in which the strengths of these children can be better channelled into class discussion and related follow-up work, groupwork in its true sense and other class activities that require a level of self discipline that they may find hard to cope with.
During the course of this writing I shall outline some of the tasks arising from the course and other tasks that arose as a result of attempting to address the deficiencies of these children in following up the original tasks.
Very often, particularly towards the end of key stage two, behavioural difficulties seem to accompany academic failure, although which is the leading problem is often less clear. Children suffering socio-emotional upheaval often show their helplessness in antisocial behaviour, which will interrupt their attention to their studies. Conversely children experiencing failure in ther work, who may feel frustration and become demoralised when they compare themselves to others in the class, may resort to disruption in order to gain recognition from their peers.
The factors leading to a particular child's emotional state will rarely be even partially uncovered or understood through discussion with that child at a teacher-pupil level. The counselling relationship that would be needed to get nearer to the root of socio-emotional difficulties is not one that many teachers will have the time or opportunity to nurture. There will always be conflict between the need to understand and empathise with the child and the equally vital need to discipline and control behaviour for the sake of effective teaching and learning among the whole class.
In the classroom I was looking for activities that would achieve a number of objectives.
‘Traditionally talk between learners in the classroom has been discouraged and treated as disruptive and subversive. Although ideas may have changed to some extent in recent years, pupil-pupil talk is still regarded suspiciously by some teachers. (Mercer. Guided Construction of Knowledge. p87)The involvement of children in a group work situation must not merely place them in close proximity in a working unit, but actively encourage them to respond to each other's ideas and enhance them for the benefit of the group.
The composition of the group is therefore critical if the work is to be successful. What actually constitutes a group as opposed to a convenient work unit should be given some consideration. Hargreaves outlines five criteria for group status:
In many cases of group work with my own class the last three criteria were those that caused the most concern when dealing with children with behavioural difficulties. The common goals or purposes that I had assigned to the group were not always the goals or purposes of all members of the group. For some members social goals such as dominance or attention seeking were higher in their minds. The norms of behaviour of children coming from an incredibly variant set of home circumstances reflected that diversity and were on a number of occasions too diverse to allow the group to hold together effectively. Hence the differentiated structure of the group was not achieved.
(Hargreaves. Interpersonal Relations and Education. P87)
- 1, A group is a plurality of persons.
- 2, The members are in face to face relationship and aware of their common membership.
- 3, The members have common goals or purposes
- 4, Members subscribe to a set of norms.
- 5, Members are differentiated into a structure.
An alternative approach to the nature of a group is summed up in the following quotation.
Any group of people is made up of those who are experiencing at least three levels of life. Each member has his private world of thoughts and feelings. He may choose not to communicate them and to a large degree they may be inexpressible. Beyond this world lies the perceived world of time and space which he shares with others. Thirdly there is the world of shared values and assumptions, fantasies and beliefs, which hold the members together. These things are vital for the group's existence, for without them each member might find that there is no reason to belong. (Carr. The Priestlike Task. p45)It was important to me to find an activity where enough common ground could be reached in order to bind the group. One that achieved a fair degree of success was the 'mind-mapping' of a story. It may be that where this activity was most successful the story itself had drawn the children into its own belief and fantasy structure, aligning the children behind it.
Terry Jones' fairy tales includes one with the title "The beast with a thousand teeth." which was particularly successful. Children were required to produce a graphic design as a group which summed up the main structure and content of the story, including representations of characters, plot, setting, feelings and themes. The story having been read aloud to the whole class those children with reading difficulties were already on an even playing field when it came to discussing what they had heard.
The quality of the ensuing discussion was encouraging. The 'less able' children appeared to come out of the activity with improved self esteem and showed a higher than usual level of motivation. One child who always wrote a minimum amount and could not read independently took on the role of scribe, taking instructions from the rest of the group as to spellings and plot order but also making quality observations that the group took on board in producing the mind map.. In the finished piece which reflected the story well the child was able to identify with and recognise his own contribution.
This activity went a long way towards meeting my first two objectives above. It was repeated with different stories, some topic related (such as Daedalus and Icarus) and some arising from longer stories or short novels (like Julia Jarman's Nancy Pocket and the Kidnappers.) I would not go so far as to say that it solved all problems of social interaction. There were occasions when a group would break into two smaller units usually as a result of failure to share the task effectively. However, in spite of specific incidents like this I was left with the impression that regular contact with this sort of activity was having a beneficial effect on cohesiveness and relationships generally. I shall be continuing to use this method and it will be interesting to see how the children develop over a year. If improvements in constructive interaction can be sustained then the implications for the school are that the earlier children are encouraged to work in this way the greater the benefit in terms of relationships and ethos as they go through the school.
Another activity highlighted the precarious nature of group cohesiveness when children with behavioural difficulties were involved. Starting with a paired activity in which children were asked to identify and list either verbs or nouns in a piece of text the pairs were then asked to group with a pair tackling the other type of word to produce some new short sentences, working towards a poem.
I allowed children to choose a partner for the first activity. Two boys, who would be considered 'difficult', chose, as they always did given the chance, to work together. Writing each noun on a card they grouped them in different ways, discussing proper nouns, abstract nouns and those which were general and those which were specific. Listening at a distance I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of their understanding and their reasoning for placing words in particular groups. In ther own writing each of these boys tended to write a minimum amount and did not reflect the level of thinking that I witnessed on that occasion. Mercer comments on the effect of friendship on the quality of discussion.
Research in this fairly new field is well illustrated by an experiment by Margarita Azmitia and Ryan Montgomery, who set pairs of eleven year olds some problems that required logical scientific reasoning.....
They found that when children were paired with friends rather than mere aquaintances, they did more explicit 'scientific' reasoning through language and so solved the problems more effectively. (Mercer. Guided Construction of Knowledge. P97)This certainly seemed to be happening between the two boys. When, however, the boys were then placed with another pair to work on combining the words in short sentences the resulting group was never as successful. Even with adult mediation the quality of discussion was not revived. The pair with which they were placed were highly able, reflecting the level of discussion I felt that they were ready for. In the interests of equal opportunities they were girls. This may or may not have been a significant contributor to the perceived (by me) failure of the final activity. It may also be that the girls, usually highly motivated, had made presumptions on the quality of the boys contribution to the group based on experience of previous disruption and unhelpful behaviour in other situations. Wheras the two pairs had both accepted the goals of the activity I suggest they had insufficient shared values and assumptions to feel that they could belong together. They were not prepared to look beyond ther own initial perceptions of each other in order to work harmoniously on the task.
From what I knew of the background of the boys it was not a surprise that they should be close friends. Both were left to their own devices and could often be seen around the estate late into the evening. One was always early to school, sometimes lurking near to the school gates up to an hour before school started and both were frequently without a coat in inclement weather. Both were often left to the supervision of grandparents and possibly played on ambiguities in this arrangement to avoid supervision of any sort. The 'norms' of their existence were therefore developed from a similar base, they had 'much in common'. They often fought, or got each other into trouble, but even though this caused them to complain bitterly about each other it was accepted as part of life and in no way weakened the bond they had made.
In contrast the girls were brought to school and picked up. They had much parental support and interest in their work. They were encouraged to develop outside interests such as art clubs and joined in with such activities as choir or gymnastics after school.
There are no value judgements intended here, rather the situation is seen as illustrative of the different environments in which children in the same class are brought up and in which they evolve their personal norms, values and beliefs. Indeed it could be pointed out that both boys came from homes where both parents were at home, wheras one of the girls came from a lone parent family. It is perhaps damaging to our perceptions of the problems children face to be unduly concerned with stereotypes.
Mercer identifies three levels of talking and thinking. These are briefly outlined as Disputational talk, in which there is rarely agreement and decisions rest with individuals in the group, Cumulative talk, in which participants build positively but uncritically on what is said by others in the group, and at the higher level Exploratory talk where members of the group are critical of each other's ideas in a positive and constructive way. (Mercer. Guided Construction of Knowledge. p104)
In my opinion both partnerships were verging on successful exploratory talk when working on the preparatory task but rarely surpassed the disputational when attempting to pool their resources. The girls, with a history of approval of their work and confidence in their ideas were unwilling to accept suggestions from the boys. The boys whilst obviously able to match the level of the girl's thinking, did not have that history of approval as they had not produced work in the past that reflected their level of ability, and so lacked confidence in their suggestions, not to mention the manners to put them forward constructively. I saw the challenge in addressing these problems as being on two fronts. Firstly to encourage a deeper understanding of and respect for each other in order that they would be able to look beyond their presumptions of each other to find common values and so build a set of positive norms on which to operate. Secondly, in the case of under achievers due to behavioural difficulty, to enhance their perception of their own ability so that they are able to express themselves with greater confidence. The links between self esteem and academic achievement have been well proven, but it was important to me that the programme would not rely on artificial rewards for minimal improvements. The motivational success of being praised to the hilt for work you have dashed off thoughtlessly in a couple of minutes before the end of a session where most of your time has been wasted is dubious.
To begin to address the first challenge I turned to the listening activities recommended by Gillian Feest. She describes her own experience.
I became increasingly interested in children as people, their problems and interactions with each other and the ways in which they failed to learn when stressed or isolated or afraid. 'Bad behaviour' became the only way they could make someone listen to them......All around me I saw children needing to be self- empowered and able to support one another and needing to come to some greater understanding of their own feelings if they were to overcome some of those difficulties. (Feest. Listening Skills. p8)With this in mind we started a continuing series of Circle-time sessions. The groundrules for circle time were, as the name implies; that we all sat in a circle so that none was seen to be of more or less importance than the rest of the class; that only the person holding the shell had the right to speak; that noone should in any way belittle or tease someone for what they say; and that anyone had the right to pass the shell without speaking if they wanted to.
The first circle time run in this way was not very encouraging as the children latched onto the last groundrule and sent the shell quite quickly around the circle. The task I had outlined was far too wide. I had not asked them to speak about anything in particular. By narrowing the task down results improved. The children told about events that had happened at the weekend. More children offered their contributions and were pleasantly surprised when they were quietly listened to. There were still a fair number that preferred not to actively participate and I was surprised to see that this did not bear any close relation to ability as I had expected. Over the weeks some became quite prolific talkers and more and more made their first contributions. Often children asked "Can we have a Circle?" and it would have been easy to let it take a disproportionate amount of class time.
A few weeks into these sessions there was a particularly unpleasant case of bullying which had spread from the field at lunchtime into an art lesson where an incident had brought it to the attention of the head teacher. I decided to put the situation to a circle. I was encouraged by the maturity of the responses of the class and in most cases found that the rules of the circle were respected to the extent that children were able, with the minimum of interruption, to present their view of what happened and why. The children were able to show their disapproval of the actions that took place but also showed a surprising amount of understanding for the reasons behind the actions. I felt that those involved had benefited from learning viewpoints other than their own in a non judgemental situation. I also felt that there was more of an effort being made by those on the periphery of the incident to understand rather than to condemn. The circle did not replace the school policy on discipline, which was carried out as normal but the circle process enriched the learning experience going some way towards enhancing interactive relationships.
Two other ideas that were successful arose from the circle that were indicative of the value of peer contributions well harnessed.
Firstly after a half term holiday the children told a partner about their half term for a minute or two until all children were ready. The partner then had a turn to tell whilst the first child listened. When this was done the shell was passed and children had to tell about what they had heard of their partner's holiday. The resulting follow-up work was one of the better pieces of writing achieved during the term and underlined to me the importance children place on the ideas of their peers. Even the low achievers were able to approach the task enthusiastically producing a series of superficial sentences, one each about a group of friends statements. More able children tended to write about fewer events but to go into more detail about them, offering opinion and responses to them.
Returning to the idea of 'norms' and shared values it was interesting to note the variety of responses to an incident involving cruelty to an animal. The child who reported the incident saw nothing wrong with kicking the unfortunate animal merely because its owner had got in the way of his skateboard, causing him to fall off. Reaction from the other children ranged from outrage to mirth to nonchalance. Sometimes our own belief in values that we might consider to be shared universally does not appear to be based on anything more than our own convictions.
Secondly in an attempt to improve the gender mixing in the class a circle game involving an empty chair was very useful. The object of the game was to get everyone to change chairs only once without leaving anyone out. The person who found the empty chair to be on their right would choose someone to come and sit there. I asked that this should be one of the opposite sex. As a chair became vacant it was the choice of the person to the left of it to choose the next mover. Children eventually became quite proficient at this and a singing game in music was adapted to incorporate it. Later if children needed to be dismissed one by one, for example to pick up a letter before going home, the same idea was adapted, although in this case the chosen person was the next to choose as they went out. After a while instead of boys always lining up together and girls likewise there began to be a more balanced mix. I felt that the recognition of being chosen by a boy or a girl was in some way affirming an acknowledgement of identity from an area where that affirmation had not previously been easily effected.
I felt I had only begun to scratch the surface of possibilities of circle time activities and with the new academic year will be looking to develop its use with the new class.
To find ways of improving self esteem based on a child's perception of its own achievement I looked first at methods of scaffolding work to provide a structure on which the child could make best use of his/her understanding. Resulting from the course I used the ideas of the Writing Frames produced by the Exeter Literacy Project.
Particularly effective were discussion genre sheets and report frames. These give example sentence beginnings on which to hang the child's own ideas. Each new sentence beginning acts as a prompt for the child to think of another aspect of what they heard, seen or discussed. The writing frame itself is like a rough working sheet on which the child is able to alter, cross out and generally make a mess in the process of organising ideas. The resultant text is then checked, either by the child alone or in collaboration with the teacher before being produced in a careful neat handwriting style. The results were effective. One child, previously given to starting work and running out of steam, was able to sustain attention on a number of occasions to produce work that he had not thought possible. This, even without the praise I was able to offer, did much to give him greater confidence in his own ability. Particular success in his case followed the visit from a Tudor Sailor (an actor) and a lady from the local recycling centre.
Following up discussion work using a writing frame combined the skills of cooperation approached through mind mapping with a way of organising both group and individual response. In these cases where co-operation was desirable the child with behavioural difficulties again found things a little harder to cope with. After a letter writing activity to Manchester airport the subject of the second runway was brought up. As a stimulus we had information from the airport outlining why a second runway was needed and a clipping from the previous day's paper showing Swampy, the environmentalist campaigner, in a tunnel protesting about it. The resulting discussion was interesting and in many, but not all, cases reached a cumulative or even exploratory level. (Mercer. see above) Again some of the low achievers were able to produce a written response that they were pleased with, and this part of the activity which individualised the response was in some cases more successful than the co-operative work.
Fisher outlines factors that make group discussion effective.
Certain moral principles underlie the successful working of group discussion. Without a moral framework group discussion cannot function. The moral principles that make discussion possible include:These moral principles would seem to be sound values on which to build an educational discussion but it would be wrong to say that having taken part in these activities the children were able to take them all on board. What was apparent was that a number of factors affected the likelihood of a child with behavioural difficulties going some way towards meeting them.
(Fisher. Teaching Children to Learn. p49)
- Orderliness; by observing the rules of discussion such as 'only one speaks at a time', not interrupting or shouting someone down.
- Reasonableness; whereby individuals are willing to listen.....and are willing to allow the arguments of others to influence their views.
- Truthfulness; speaking what they believe to be true, not deliberately deceiving others or pretending to believe what they do not believe.
- Freedom of Expression; being free to express an opinion, not subject to the restraint by the views of others, or by being ridiculed or embarrassed.
- Equality of Opportunity; with all having access to opportunities to speak and to have the attention of others, not having to suffer the dominance of the few.
- Respect for Others; respect for the rights and opinions of others, giving attention and thought to what they say, responding with care and respect for them as persons.
- Open mindedness; being open to the views of others, willing to change one's mind, being sensitive to the views of others and willing to suspend judgement.
Firstly, if the child was captivated by the content or stimulus of the activity he/she was more likely to keep to task during the session itself. Secondly, if a child was placed with particular others in the class who showed greater tolerance towards them then the quality of discussion was often raised. Thirdly, if the child had not been involved in trouble during break times or outside the school environment he/she was more likely to be tolerant of the group they were put with or chose to join.
It is not, in my opinion, good enough to respond to the first point with the statement that all lessons should be exciting. With all the skill in the world children have personal interests and disinterests that vary as much as our own. One man's meat will not necessarily hook all the fish! This can not be an excuse for disruption unless taken too far to the opposite extreme.
Secondly, it is possible to group children to avoid obvious conflicting personalities, but it is arguable that it becomes unfair for those children who do show admirable qualities of orderliness, reasonableness and so on to be continually saddled with the responsibility of working with highly unpredictable peers. One wonders how much the reasonableness will begin to wear off. Mercer comments on the ideas of Bruner.
...Bruner talks of how a 'more competent peer' can provide the scaffolding support for a learner, but this leaves the interesting question unanswered: What if peers are not more competent? (Mercer. Guided Construction of Knowledge. p90)Thirdly, although we have some control over the recreational periods at school there is no guarantee that children will avoid trouble with peers. Removing their playtime will not always be the answer as antagonism is merely redirected towards authority rather than another child. Communication with the home environment can do much towards consistent sanctions and a unified approach to underlying problems but in many cases it is difficult to communicate with the parents we most need to see. . Where possible well structured parent interviews such as those advocated by Ayers, Clarke and Ross (1993) will help to assess the parent's understanding of how their child is failing to conform and give parents a greater awareness of our ethos.
Working with parents to help a child means that we are in effect asking the parents to become part of our 'group' with common goals and purposes. Having seen the variety of 'norms' within a single class we will have to develop far greater understanding of each other, professionals, parents and social services if involved, in order that we can share common values and establish 'norms' which all are happy with.
Reflecting on the practises introduced as part of the course I can say that I have found most of the activities, and some not discussed such as text marking or working with picture books, invaluable and beneficial towards all children, not just those with perceived special needs. The advantages for these children in particular have often been striking in their effect on the quality of their work and as such have found themselves a place in my future planning and that of my school. Even if taken only at the level of curriculum they go a long way towards meeting most if not all of the speaking and listening part of the programmes of study for English. They do in my opinion have far wider implications.
I believe much can be achieved in the development of common values and 'norms' through a systematic use of group work and circle time throughout both keystages, however as society's 'norms' appear to become more and more diverse the task of integrating children with wildly variant personal values will be increasingly difficult. The way forward is arguably through greater understanding between home and school and greater appreciation of the personal values and beliefs of parents, teachers and all who share responsibility in providing the environment in which our children grow up. This might for example include the national media, particularly children's television and publications. If the role of schools is concerned with the preservation and improvement of the society in which we live then we need to look very carefully at the values we are asking children to consider and take on board.