In my last post, I stated that I was going to write about some of the damaged children I have come across in my teaching career, explaining what support was given and the impact this had on them and their classmates. This is the first of these posts.
Tahira was in Year 2 when I met her, and although I didn’t teach her, she was frequently in my classroom.
The school had bright, airy classrooms arranged along the side of a very long corridor. As well as the main classroom door onto this corridor, each of the classrooms also had an interconnecting door between them, which functioned as the fire escape route.
On my first day there, whilst in the middle of the introduction to a lesson, this connecting door was flung open and Tahira rushed in, screaming. She ran around the room, pushed past the children at the front of the class, yelling as loudly as she could, before being swiftly removed by a TA from her classroom. Later in the day, it happened again.
Every day I was at the school, Tahira would run into my classroom. Sometimes she would repeat the first incident, on other occasions she would throw things around the room or rip displays from the wall. There were also times when she would hit the children in my class. It was impossible to prevent this as the interconnecting doors were fire doors, so could not be locked under any circumstances. They were designed to allow a quick escape from one room into another, which they did all too easily.
Tahira was known to have behavioural problems, and incidents involving her throughout the school were regularly brought up in staff meetings and staff briefings. She was assigned a part-time one-to-one TA in order to minimise these, but in reality it made little difference. Every day there was at least one report concerning her, usually two or three.
On one occasion, Tahira burst into my classroom and ran around the tables grabbing the children’s artwork and throwing it on the floor, before deliberately upending the paint trays on one of the tables. Some of my class started crying, before one boy, Robert, decided to take matters into his own hands and punched her hard on the side of her face. He explained afterward that he had done it because he was fed up of Tahrira hurting his friends and spoiling his work.
Unfortunately, this meant that Robert was suspended for a day, and a report had to be written about the incident. I had a meeting with both the Deputy Head and the Senco, and explained why it was becoming impossible to teach with repeated intrusions by Tahira. I asked why she was never removed, and explained the effect this was having on my class – some of the children would run to hide behind me as soon as she came in.
The Senco explained that Tahira could not be excluded, no matter how bad her behaviour, as it was suspected that she was a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. The local authority, via social services, had decided that school was the safest place for her, as they undertook investigations and gathered evidence. Whilst there, her abuser could not hurt her.
As the weeks went on, Tahira’s behaviour became more problematic. She began to remove her clothes in the classroom, and to ask the boys to touch her. Some of the parents approached me, worried about the things their children mentioned that had happened during the day. I couldn’t answer their queries, and had to direct them to the Deputy Head.
Her behaviour in the playground also deteriorated, and another TA accompanied her during all the playtimes. Unfortunately, this meant that the TA spent less time in her own class. Concerned that things were getting worse, the school asked for the local authority to supply a counsellor to have regular sessions with Tahira. They were told that an in-school visit could be arranged once every half-term. However, it was recommended that the Senco take additional training, in order to offer personal support to Tahira.
This continued for the ten weeks that I was at the school.
The impact of Tahira’s behaviour
I only had a TA for four hours a week, so when Tahira burst into my class, it usually coincided with a time when I was on my own with them. If I was working with a child on the opposite side of the room from the interconnecting door, I was not in a position to stop her before she entered the classroom fully.
As Tahira could be violent towards the other children, they were wary of her and often on edge, listening for clues from next door which might indicate she was on the way. When she did come in, I could not remove her as there was no other adult in the class with me. Equally, Tahira only had part-time one-to-one support, so very often there was no-one to come after her as her class teacher was on her own.
Is it right that children in two classes (both Tahira’s own, and the one I taught) were permanently uneasy? That they were always aware that they might be hurt or their work destroyed?
Robert was suspended for retaliating when Tahira caused problems, ending up with this suspension being noted on his school records. But he was only responding to the intolerable situation he and his friends were in. Whilst his actions were wrong, was it right that he was excluded when Tahira wasn’t? In the eyes of young children that seems unjust. The school rules stated that violence against another pupil resulted in exclusion, yet day after day they could see that rule being ignored by SMT.
Unfortunately, this meant that a number of pupils throughout the school felt that they were being treated unfairly. They often didn’t see their own misbehaviour as a problem, because they measured it against Tahira’s. In their minds, if she wasn’t disciplined for it, why were they?
Tahira was also violent towards staff, so her class teacher was sent on a course to learn safe restraining techniques. She still went home covered in cuts, bruises and bite marks, but did at least feel slightly more in control. One day she told me that she had started covering her arms whenever she went out, as people kept asking about the marks. Watching Tahira being restrained was difficult for the class though, and some of them would cry in response.
In order to support Tahira people were redeployed around the school. No other support staff were taken on, and I suspect that there wasn’t enough money to do so. As a result, other children in need had their support reduced. Were their needs still being fully met by this?
During the four hours a week when I did have a TA, she was usually looking out for Tahira, waiting for her to come through into the classroom. Due to this, she wasn’t really providing effective classroom support. Equally, I learnt I had to manage my lessons so that I was always near to the interconnecting door. Although I couldn’t stop Tahira by doing this, I could at least stand between her and the class. Obviously, this restricted how I moved around the classroom, and by extension, my interactions with the children.
Tahira’s increased sexual inappropriateness also caused problems. Some of the boys were very young and immature, and didn’t realise that they should not touch other children. They were being told off for things they didn’t understand, and usually, would not be exposed to. Was Tahira’s behaviour putting in place potential problems for those boys later on?
The expectation that Tahira would remain in the school at all costs was clearly having a detrimental effect on at least two classes, around 56 children. Was this really fair on them?
Then there was the impact on the Senco. She was under immense pressure, dealing with various agencies and acting as an unqualified counsellor. Although all Sencos have to deal with damaged children, I think the level of Tahira’s problems surprised her. She was sent on a number of courses specifically to do with dealing with children who exhibit traits such as those shown by Tahira. The number of meetings she attended was a problem in itself – when she wasn’t in the school, the Senco couldn’t support any other needy children or give guidance to staff on how to help them.
The Deputy Head would often take Tahira out of class, letting her play with toys, or on the computer in her office until she calmed down enough to return to class. Badly behaved children were sent to the Deputy Head as part of the school’s behaviour policy, but when Tahira was there they were sent back to their classes, no matter what transgression they had committed. Effectively, this undermined their class teacher’s authority – they could be rude or aggressive and there was a chance that they would ‘get away with it’ as the Deputy Head couldn’t deal with them then. For some, that seemed to be a chance worth taking, and behavior in general went downhill in the school. Was that fair on those children, their classmates or their teacher?
As for Tahira herself, how did keeping her in school benefit her?
She didn’t really take part in any lessons, so she wasn’t learning. Her frequent removals from the classroom meant that she wasn’t learning how to interact with her peers properly. Her poor behaviour at playtimes meant that other children avoided her as they knew she might hurt them. Those who did try to play with her soon ran off as they did not want an adult (Tahira’s TA) following them around. Her resentment at having no-one to play with often manifested itself as violet behaviour after lunch.
Tahira was turning up to a building where she liked no-one, and no-one seemed to like her. She used to scream that she wanted out, and that she hated everyone. When she became unmanageable in the class, she went off to play on the Deputy Head’s computer, which was the one thing she enjoyed. This damaged child was learning that aggression and violence got her what she wanted. Was that really the lesson she should be learning? What impact would that have on her as she grew up?
Whilst I accept that due to the suspected abuse Tahira could not be excluded and sent home, I really do not think that school was the best place for her. Tahira needed to be in a environment where fully trained professionals could give her the support and help she needed. Although the Senco did her very best, she was not a trained counsellor, and should not have been used as such. It is possible that her well-intentioned (but untrained) help may even have been detrimental.
Supporting a child like Tahira takes money, skilled professionals and time. Three things that a mainstream school lack.