Page last updated at 01:21 GMT, Monday, 6 February 2006

School where parenting tops syllabus

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

Diane Gower
The emphasis is on helping parents rather than telling them what to do

Tony Blair placed huge emphasis on parenting when launching his Respect agenda, promising support in the form of classes but warning that some parents would be forced to accept "advice".

In a week-long series on respect in one English town, the BBC News website looks at a school that uses two-way mirrors and other pioneering techniques to help parents deal with troubled children.

A seven-year-old boy is playing with two plastic pigs with his mother.

They move onto some colouring in, and then a boisterous game of "one potato, two potato".

It could be a scene from any living room, but the mirror in the corner is a window through to an observation room where a child and family therapist from Maplefields School is sitting.

Two-way mirror
A two-way mirror and concealed video camera help experts observe parents with their children

The school in Corby, Northamptonshire, has 30 full-time pupils, mostly boys, but is now trying to deal with children from mainstream schools from across the county with emotional and behavioural problems. Many have been expelled.

This boy has not been excluded but frequently runs out of classes.

He and his mother are working through a series of tasks, contained in a pile of brown envelopes.

Nothing seems untoward until, following one of the task sheets, his mother leaves the room.

Instead of amusing himself in her absence, the boy seems stressed and goes to stand flush with the door, as if to be as close to her as he can manage.

Watching this behind the glass is Diane Gower. She is observing almost imperceptible details of the interaction between mother and child.

My son used to be very violent, swearing, out of control
Sam Payne

After analysing video of the session, she will discuss it with the mother and send it to the US for further analysis.

The school has imported the American concept of Theraplay, where activities done with parent and child in close proximity are used to improve bonding, and consequently behaviour.

Sam Payne, from Kettering, is one of those who believes the school has changed her child.

Son Kieran, who suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), spent five years at Maplefields from the age of six but is now in a top mainstream school.

Toll on mother

"My son used to be very violent, swearing, out of control. He would take clumps out of my hair, he would bite, he would kick," says Ms Payne.

"If you were to ask him to not do something, he would blatantly do it."

Kieran's behaviour took its toll on his mother.

"I had to go on Prozac at one point to cope with him.

Sensory room
An array of lighting in a 'sensory room' is used to calm children

"I started to question myself. You do start to blame yourself, you start to believe what other people say.

"You feel sometimes you are the only one in the world. You feel that kids are all good kids and yours is the only one acting up. They stick out like a sore thumb."

Clutching a stuffed toy given to her by her son on the last day at Maplefields, Ms Payne said there had been changes from the very beginning.

"Maplefields worked on his behaviour and we followed it through.

"There was a routine structure - he had the same boundaries that applied in school.

"You all work together. We tried to cut down on his swearing, him grabbing people, hurting, kicking, punching.

"The school gives them confidence. A lot of them here have low self-esteem because they have always been told off."

New calmness

Now instead of a Kieran heading towards troubled teens, there is a transformed boy.

"He still kicks off like normal children, but he manages his anger. He is not so impatient.

"If there was a massive queue, he used to jump to the front of it. Before we went on this I couldn't even talk on the telephone - he would be into everything. He doesn't do that any more. He is quite calm."

If you met my daughter now you would never believe she was the same person

When Isabelle adopted her two daughters, the eldest, then six, was already due to attend Maplefields and had been diagnosed with ADHD.

"We knew she had problems, but no matter what they told us, we didn't think they were as bad as they were. You think a little bit of attention and love will improve all the things that are happening, but it doesn't.

"When she used to kick off she would bite, spit, kick, head butt, snot down her nose.

"When she kicked off, you knew it would go right through, if you couldn't deviate her into something else, until she had absolutely exhausted herself.

"She came here and had to do as she was told."

Cuddle 'hold'

At the school, although rules and rewards schemes are established, the emphasis is on non-verbal contact.

Parents are never instructed to physically punish the child, although Maplefields recognises a need to "regulate" the behaviour of the child to prevent them harming themself or others.

Isabelle continues: "Maplefields gave us a technique where we could cuddle into a hold where we could avoid her hurting herself. The school helped her to control all that.

"All children have to have barriers, but with our children they have got to have that to feel loved. If they haven't got that barrier it is like nobody is really bothered about them.

Sensory room
Many of those who come to the school are violent

"Basically there is no point in saying one night you can't watch television after six and then the next night saying you can't be bothered with the fuss they are going to kick up and let them watch television."

Her daughter's behaviour in the early days made Isabelle question whether she had made the right decision to send the child to Maplefields.

"They try their hardest to make you hate them because they don't like themselves. When someone is kicking and spitting at you it is hard to love them.

"Every day I would dread to pick her up, but by the last two years the difference in her was 200%. If you met my daughter now you would never believe she was the same person."

For Diane Gower, the school, which has a full-time counsellor as well as visiting psychiatrists and social work students, is a cost effective way to deliver a range of treatment that could cost as much as 30,000 a year elsewhere.

It offers support groups for parents and behaviour management plans for use at mainstream schools.

It is a set-up that could have much wider applications than for the 30 full-time and handful of visiting children it currently helps.

And for many of those it is helping, families are saved from a grim future.

"It could possibly lead to Asbos [anti-social behaviour orders] and orders," says Diane Gower.

"I believe there is hope for every family, if they are willing to change. That inspires me."

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