What Do We Do With ‘Those Kids’?

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Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools....
Read more about Helen Woodley

What do we do about behaviour?

I work with ‘those’ kids on a daily basis and, to be honest, it is both the best job in the world and the absolute hardest. The sad thing is, it’s getting harder.

When considering the changes in education for young people, what do we do about behaviour? When I started working in a PRU (Pupil Referral Unit), life seemed simple. The excluded pupils we had were EBD (Emotional Behavioural Disorder) kids, those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Generally they were lively, reckless and challenging, yet their future in education felt more stable as their SEN needs were clear.

Mental Health:

Then, in 2014, the world shifted and EBD was replaced by SEMH: Social, Emotional and Mental Health. Even with my setting, the new areas of need caused contention. Were we equipped to label a pupil as having mental health needs? What did we do when we still struggled to get CAMHS (Children And young people’s Mental Health Services.) involved? What did we do with the continuing flow of pupils excluded for poor behaviour?

Nearly three years on and we have a better grasp of the world we work in. Within my setting, we quickly realised that behavioural problems would remain an issue. Instead of viewing that as the end label, we had to dig deeper and show where that behaviour had stemmed from; behaviour was a visible symptom of an underlying need.

Sounds straight forward enough …

However, at the start of this post I said that life was getting harder, and here are the reasons why:

  1. Trying to build a history of underlying needs that have led to challenging behaviour is hard when you don’t get a full picture from mainstream schools.
  2. Some pupils have attended many (or even all) their local mainstream schools and failed in every single one.
  3. Many pupils have families who are facing extreme challenges.
  4. Some pupils have never been referred to any outside agency.

Let me add some flesh to the bones.

Dear John …

‘John’ is permanently excluded in Year 8 for repeatedly breaking the school behaviour policy. His last act included ‘swearing at the headteacher and breaking a window’. He arrived at the PRU an angry and unstable young man. He doesn’t settle well in our provision and, as he has been on transfers to all his local schools, mainstream education is out of the picture.

John is working behind his peers, but this seems largely due to a lack of engagement with learning. His records from school don’t record any SEN, he has never seen an educational psychologist, nor had any additional support. Over the coming weeks, it becomes clear that John’s home life is chaotic. His father has recently come out of prison, he has witnessed domestic violence and his mother repeatedly threatens to put him in care.

So, what do we do about young people like John?

Does he have SEMH? Can we prove a history of need? Would he cope in mainstream if we could find one? Would his behaviour improve if his family was getting support? These are the questions faced by staff working in PRUs up and down the country.

So, I return to the question at the start of this post: EBD or SEMH? Just what do we do about behaviour?

Helen Woodley writes for Teacher Toolkit.

2 thoughts on “What Do We Do With ‘Those Kids’?

  1. All sorts of common failures of our schools and their systems – and, I know you could have gone much, much further Helen! Quite diplomatic in fact. The life opportunities of a significant and extremely complex minority of young people are stifled due to the failure of systems … not people it must be said for nobody in teaching wants children to fail surely. However, when the required information and assessments are not systematised, the downward spiral these young people experience simply reaffirms their negative self image and perception of worth. No surprise mental health becomes a prevalent issue. Combine the system failure with inadequate external agency provision (not just CAMHS) and we face a much more dangerous situation than we sought to address through Social Inclusion legislation in 2000 with excellence in cities, etc.

    Alongside the worrying trends sits an external accountability process which judges PRUs by the same criteria as mainstream. Imagine your A8 and P8 data without much in the way of a baseline! Some schools of course play the system and young people are excluded at data affecting times and they, quite frankly, should be ashamed. However, it’s worth pointing out that many, many more do not. Indeed, my experience is that when working in close collaboration with mainstream and agency partners, PRUs can get unbelievable results.

    We have in our grasp the solutions but are poorly resourced in human terns (especially external agencies) and in respect of professional support as the local authority mechanisms and support systems decline and funding realities are managed. PRUs are also a very cheap alternative to special education settings where the EBD/SEMH kids with an EHCP can learn to thrive in safety and security with intensive support. Unfortunately, along with the decline of LA support, I would guess most PRUs are seeing a reduction in Educational Psychology services?

    Sadly, with the fizzling out of the National PRU Network, PRUs don’t really have a voice either and if not represented on High Needs Forums, face a very difficult future with academy chains less and less inclined to sponsor – because it’s bloody hard work albeit for inspirational purpose and outcomes.

    Possibly a role for the Chartered College? Or, maybe someone or a small group of Helen’s need to reignite the National Not. Change will only come from a sector with a strong and unified voice.

    Great stuff Helen! Brilliant staff and passion maketh our fabulous PRU sector but with collaboration and appropriate support, it could become life affirming for so many complex young people.

  2. Some interesting points. We have the same access to services as any other – so we pay for an SLA for EPs at the same rate but have so many more cases than we can get seen! Many mainstream colleagues are surprised that we don’t have more time/resources than they do and the sad fact is that we are constantly firefighting. When you have no idea who will be coming next week, let alone next year, planning ahead is useless and we just have to be prepared for anything and everything. Having said that, working in a PRU is a genuinely fantastic job and I would encourage any teacher to visit their local one.

    Thanks for your comments 🙂

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