Give me a child until he is seven…

Today I finished my first week; my partner teacher was not available so I was teaching for three and a half days this week. Many teacher friends have been telling me that children have changed over recent years. It is about eight years since I last taught full time and from the limited experience of this week it does seem as though children are different. This manifested itself in different ways: I asked a five year old boy to come and work with me – “I’ll come when I have finished this,” he replied, playing with a toy garage. There was a three minute ‘conversation’ before he eventually came to work with me. Another girl got up and walked across the carpet to talk to her friend about something which was apparently much more important than what I was saying. These were not isolated incidents; the major focus of this week has been learning to line up, to sit still and quietly on the carpet and to listen. Admittedly these children had a disturbed year in reception with three different teachers over the year but I do wonder why they behave in this way. They are lovely delightful children and we have had some good times and some real fun experiences with significant progress being made during the week but there have also been some battles and I have had to be firm and assertive for most of the time.

These children appear to be used to deciding for themselves what they do and when they do it. They find it bemusing that somebody else should be in a position of authority over them. They are happy to conform if it is interesting or ‘fun’ but only if it does not interrupt something they are doing. They are articulate and confident and generally give valid reasons for everything they do. They have lived, to date, in a genuinely child-centred environment. They are surprised that sometimes they have to be quiet and listen and sometimes even have to do things they might not want to do!

I also have an unusually large number of children with real needs who are supported by a range of different agencies. There are usually three of us in the class and that is really not too many people. A couple of the children need continuous one-to-one support. Despite all this support there have   been incidents such as turning over all the chairs in anger, throwing a book across the classroom, shouting out loud during input and even stripping completely naked and urinating on the classroom floor. These are five year olds. I must emphasise that the head teacher has been wonderful and support structures are being built up daily. Nonetheless it has been a challenging and stressful week. Just one of the ‘special’ children would be challenging enough but there are three of them plus another twenty-five who need a lot of focused support as well.

I have been teaching for many years and I have never known children behave in such a way. For most of my classroom career I was on my own with a class of 30 children and did not think anything of it. I am experienced but could not have coped on my own this week. Why have things changed? What has made children behave so differently? It might well be that my class is unusual but I do not think it is unique. I would love to hear what others think.

Behaviour management has become a strong focus and the government appointed Tom Bennett as the so-called behaviour tsar; guidance for ITT has been specified and behaviour management strategies by the hundred are available on the click of a button. My question is more fundamental – why are children like this and why has the number of children with special educational needs in classrooms increased. What impact does this have on learning? My question is not about the value or otherwise of inclusion but rather why children are behaving in the way they do? One little boy in my class went home at lunchtime because he was feeling unwell and had a high temperature; another child in the class walked all around the edge of the classroom because he would not walk across the carpet where N had been in case he caught anything. Where did he learn that from? Who taught him to be so afraid of catching something?

The well-known saying says, ‘Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.’ What sort of adults is society creating? When will these children learn that individualism and personal fulfilment is important but so is a sense of community and the greater good? The mental health of children is becoming a real issue (Dowdy et al 2015) and real needs are often unrecognised. Why is this? As a society, what are we doing to our children? What are the implications for the future for society?

It may well be that my class is a microcosm of society or it may be that my class is the exception. Whatever, there are children in that class whose behaviour and/or emotional needs are hindering their ability to learn. Myself and the school are doing everything we can to support and address those needs and I am confident things will improve. As an experienced teacher this last week has been fun but challenging; I am so glad I have years of experience to draw on and the confidence that experience gives me – I am not sure I could have coped without it.

 

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