For the last 12 years, I have taught English at a large, city-wide PRU — or pupil referral unit. In our case, the PRU operates as a number of small centres spread around the city.
Our PRU is for pupils who are permanently excluded from mainstream school. Most of them are in this situation because of the impact their behaviour was having on themselves and others. Academic ability is not usually a particular issue, although some have fallen behind their peers because of the disrupted lives they lead.
Many of the young people we work with are the victims of poverty and chaos. Some are in the care of the local authority, or are well-known to social services. Most live in deprived areas where they may have been exposed to criminal activity, and some are known to be involved with gangs. Weekly, we see parents who will openly admit that they are struggling to cope with their offspring. In several cases, we know there are drug and/or alcohol issues within the family. Some of the children are dirty and/or underfed, and some of the parents are illiterate.
Our centre accommodates the most challenging of these pupils from year 6 and above. These are the kids that the other behavioural PRUs struggle to manage. As a result of this we usually have groups of no more than 6 pupils at a time —with a teaching assistant always present.
Some pupils have a statement for special educational needs, often for behaviour. Many have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). I know this is a hotly debated issue, but I remain utterly convinced that this condition is over-diagnosed. So often I’ve seen ADHD being used to justify the behaviour of the child. This can mean that we don’t get to the root of the poor behaviour and the conduct doesn’t improve.
Improving behaviour is absolutely central to what we do. We must encourage the kids to modify and improve their conduct if we are to break the damaging cycle of poor behaviour. Without good behaviour – there is no education. It is that crucial. We operate a system of certificates, stickers and phone calls home to reward good behaviour and work. We also keep pupils in at break times, as a sanction. We rarely exclude pupils, although there have been some exceptions.
PRUs are usually short-term education providers, with pupils attending for periods of between 6 weeks and a term. However, because of a lack of suitable provision elsewhere, or a shortage of appropriate places, many of our pupils stay with us much longer. Some are awaiting long-term provision at an SEN school, but the plan is usually to get the majority of pupils to a point where they are fit and able to return to mainstream school. Academically, therefore, we expect them to achieve as much as they would at mainstream school. It would certainly be counter-productive to the whole process were they to fall behind their peers during their time with us.
Thus, the second key challenge for us is to try to ensure that the kids are producing work at the level they should be — without resorting to dumbing-down or gimmicks. We follow the national curriculum, and try to ensure that the topics covered are commensurate with what the mainstream schools are delivering. After all, if the kids in mainstream school are studying the finer details of Macbeth or Oliver Twist, it’s an absolute travesty if our kids aren’t too.
Social and economic deprivation is a sad fact of life for most of our pupils. As I mentioned above, many of these kids are raised in circumstances that make their lives difficult from the outset. Educational achievement is so often low down on the list of priorities. I think the role of PRUs is to break down the barriers to learning, and try to put education back at the top of the agenda. Is there a more effective passport out of poverty than educational achievement? I don’t think there is.
It’s very important that each teacher develops their own methods for dealing with challenging behaviour, but I would like to share here a few examples of behaviour management techniques that have proved successful for me.
We should always remember we are their teachers: not their friends, councillors, family, social workers or any other group. It’s important not to stray too far from the brief.
Respect works both ways. It’s very important to give the same respect to the pupils that you want them to extend to you. It’s also advisable to apologise if you’re in the wrong.
It isn’t a bad idea to show the pupils that you’re human. If you make a mistake, or something goes wrong, be prepared to admit it.
Our Voice is arguably our greatest tool. I would suggest keeping the volume low and the tone light. Do try not to shout. Silence also has its place, I would strongly advise never to talk until the whole class is listening; just wait.
Don’t ever make a threat that you’re not fully prepared to carry-out.
Very few kids, in my experience, want to miss their social time. A few minutes shaved off a break or lunch time is sometimes all it takes to effectively make a point.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but always have high expectations. Know what each child is capable of and consider asking them do work again if it is below standard. Behaviour, also – make it clear that you expect the best.
Be consistent. I know it’s not always easy, but once pupils can see that you stand firm on standards, sanctions and rewards, they’ll be much more likely to respond positively.
Don’t be defeated. I know this is sometimes easier said than done, but do try to keep persevering — even with the most challenging pupils. It’s here where supportive colleagues and effective senior leaders can hopefully have a real impact.
Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot
*This blog post was written for the September 2014 edition of UKEd Magazine: