Saturday, 8 November 2008

Every year, 1500 children are suspended and excluded from school in the early years

How can as many as 1500 children under five be suspended from nursery and reception classes every year? On the radio news, commentators expressed shock that young children who are still just "babies" could possibly have such difficult behaviour. This struck me as yet another example of the unhelpful romanticisation of early childhood: it doesn't surprise me at all. I recently carried out a short piece of research into the role of the key person, which reminded me how very difficult it can be for staff to manage the feelings evoked when a child bites or hurts them and the other children.

Things have certainly changed: when the pioneers like Margaret Macmillan, Anna Freud and others opened some of the first nursery schools in England, they found the infants to be highly withdrawn and introverted, used to spending time out on the streets without adequate food or clothing. The children thrived in those early nurseries, experiencing freedom, space, good food, care and love. Some of those problems in early childhood have been greatly reduced; yet if anything there is more misery now. With the reduction in absolute poverty has come an increase in the miseries associated with relative poverty, with feeling excluded and depressed.

Children once suffered under excessive authority, denied love because it was conditional on impossible standards of behaviour, morality and industriousness. Some children now are suffering from a lack of limits to their behaviour, living with a too-permissive love that affirms almost everything they do. Many feel shut-in at home as they spend excessive time in front of the television and with electronic toys. Nurseries once existed to draw children out of withdrawn and depressed states. They are now much more likely to be trying to manage over-active children and introduce them to the values of tolerating others. Where nurseries once offered freedom to move and play, some early years provision in schools now is very formal, requiring children to sit still during long, whole-class lessons.

Times change: yet I am sure that the principles of the early nursery school pioneers are still relevant. I currently work in a nursery school where there was once extremely difficult behaviour, and I lived through the sometimes painful processes of addressing that. My own conviction is that when children are angry or violent, they are telling us something about their lives and themselves: that they are unhappy, or confused, or overwhelmed, that they feel uncared for. The helpful response to these feelings, is for adults to show that we do care. We must listen, and we must show that we believe in each child's potential to develop and grow. We need to put our trust in parents, to help them and strengthen their desire to help their children. Those children whose behaviour is most difficult, are the ones most in need of the loving but firm boundaries of a good early years setting. We must care for difficult children, not send them away.