Teacher Diaries 5 : Working with ‘Bad’ Children

The new job didn’t have a very auspicious beginning. It was going to be housed in a new building attached to a primary school and the work had not yet been completed. In the meantime, I was to work with a teacher in a tutorial unit in the town. This was a terraced house where children who were either ‘school refusers’ or who had challenging behaviour would be sent for some part of the day or week. The children were mainly boys and most of them had some behavioural problems or at least they gave the teachers the problems.I really enjoyed my time with them. Their ages ranged from seven years to sixteen. At that time it was not considered reliable to assess a young child and provide them with any specialised support which they needed until they were six years old. That and the long ‘short’ list for places in the tutorial unit meant that most youngsters were with us for a relatively short time. It also depended on whether their school signed up to this form of specialised help.


The children I remember well are those with the biggest problems. Duncan was seven when he came to the tutorial centre. He had a history of being in a violent family and his mother was also a prostitute. He had rages for no obvious reason. He was a lovely boy nevertheless and I did what I could to coach him to read and write. He had never spent much time at school because his mother needed him to be her pimp. During my time at the centre, I was able to observe his behaviour.

The older boys teased him mercilessly because they enjoyed the spectacle of his rages. One thing guaranteed to make him flip was to show him bare breasts. We used newspaper to cover the tables for art work and if the boys got hold of a particular paper which always had photos of women with bare breasts on page three and stuck it open at the page as Duncan was settling to do some painting. He would tear up the paper, shout and scream and look round for someone to punch.

On one occasion his temper took him too far. He picked up a glass milk bottle and smashed it so that he had jagged glass in his hands. He threatened the big boys who realised this could mean trouble for them. They ran off and I was left to try to talk him down. He was shaking with rage. Eventually he put the broken bottle in a bin and went on with his painting as if nothing happened.

We discovered at a later date that one of his jobs was to watch his mother have sex with a customer who would have insisted on an audience. Yet when this same mother was getting dressed in the morning, and caught her son looking in her direction especially before she put on her bra, she would beat him and shriek at him. The children and their mother all shared one room and would all be there when business was conducted. He was so mixed up by these double messages that he could only act out his confusion in this way.

At this time, sexual abuse of children may have been recognised by some professionals but it was not considered serious or damaging. At the time, the only text book (which mentioned this occurrence in passing) stated that it was likely that only one in one million children was being sexually exploited.

Nothing was done to help Duncan through this and I suspect he became an abusing or violent adult.


Another boy who I spent a lot of time with – Alan was a lovely boy. He had a happy childhood and did well in school. One day when he was about ten, he came home from school to find his father had hanged himself. He was so traumatised by this that he found it impossible to go back to school.

He kept trying, with the support of the child psychiatrist, because he really did want to be there. His mother bought a variety of different uniforms for the many schools they tried. Each time he felt he was ready he couldn’t get past the school entrance. I met him when he was fifteen. He had a wonderful way with the younger children and I don’t remember anyone disliking him. He was gentle and considerate. When he turned sixteen, he wanted to go out to work to help his mother. We were all anxious on his behalf, but he managed to go to work and this built up his confidence so he could then live a normal life.

I often wonder if when he became a father, he would experience the same trepidation when he walked his children to school. It was the coming out again that was the problem.


Mandy was the only girl to attend the tutorial unit whilst I worked there. She was a rough and ready sort of child but with a good heart and, if she liked you, she would work hard. She attended the centre while she waited to hear the outcome of the court case of neglect against her mother. She often came in smelling of urine and vomit. Because I was the female worker I was elected to be the one to tell her. She took the news well and between us we washed her clothes and she cleaned her teeth.

Her mother was another prostitute and there was some concern that Mandy was being groomed for the industry. Her mum took in ‘lodgers’ who gave Mandy more than enough attention. Before she came to the centre, her primary school headteacher had expressed her concern for this child’s safety when she had appeared at school with ‘hickeys’ or love bites on her neck and chest. Bearing in mind she was only eight at that time, the head rightly thought that the authorities would act. Instead they accused her of being a frustrated spinster who looked for problems where there were none.

Yet here Mandy was, several years later, waiting to see if she would be placed in the care of the local authority. The educational psychologist who assessed her came to tell her that the court had decided that she would be placed in care. Mandy was naturally very upset and threatened that she would run away. She asked me if I would go with her to the children’s home and we went together. She told me she wouldn’t be staying and I asked her to think again and gave her money to use the pay phone to call me later that evening. She called me, then ran away. Each time she was caught she ran away until she was placed in a secure unit.

Moving in

When the building work on the child guidance clinic was complete I moved in.

I had a huge budget and what luxury to choose a desk for myself that would hold all my papers. I worked to an educational psychologist who was trained in the ‘old school’; he was a Freudian through and through. The set up was simple. Some days I would see groups of children with similar problems, for example, elective mutes or single children with specific needs, such as the overly anxious child. Some days I would see a varied group of youngsters who could not be categorised and on two days I would work with children under three years and their parents to show them how to play. I held parent groups and training sessions. I loved my work.


One of the children, Karen, came from a very impoverished family where there was no expectation of the children and where the parents could not be bothered to send their offspring to school. Karen came for stimulation and learning as it was suspected that she was quite able but had been held back by circumstances. She and my nursery helper got on really well. We bought her a toothbrush and she was so delighted she spent all day brushing her teeth till we had to stop her as her gums were bleeding. She did return to mainstream school and probably did well.

The families

We had a family of two children when I first started and they came every day. The girl Samantha was about five years old and the boy William was three. Their parents were very inhibited socially. Their father had been a tramp and their mother had been what we called a bag lady, wandering the roads homeless and often inebriated. How they got together no one is really sure but they did and they produced four children. They lived in a council house and the two older children were already in residential schools for children with learning difficulties.

I made a home visit to get to know the parents and met Mum. The room was dark and the curtains closed. I naively went to open the curtains so I could see the children better and Mum raced round to close them again. She was a woman of few words. In fact she didn’t speak. The children sat on the sofa all day. We arranged to have the children and they would be collected by taxi. Their mother was obliged to come along too so I could show her how to play.

The first session I got out some toys and the children just stood and watched me. I then stepped back and smiled at them. Samantha went to play while William and his mum stood and watched. I squatted down in front of William to encourage him to play and he smacked me across the face and smiled. His mum also smiled. After I had known the family for a while I understood that this was their way of playing.

William didn’t really speak much at all but Samantha blossomed. She was able to go to state school and thrived. William followed his siblings to a residential school.

At one time we had a family of four sisters. Joan was the eldest, Margaret and Veronica were the middle girls and Alison was the youngest. They were sent to the clinic because there was a suspicion that their parents neglected them.

Joan was very much the carer to her parents. She was a clever girl who felt a sense of duty towards the two people who gave her life. Her parents had limited learning. Both had been to special education schools as children. The father worked emptying rubbish bins and the mother stayed at home. She was the more needy of the two. She managed to look after babies very well but once the children became more independent, she could not offer them anything. The girls all raised themselves.

Eventually their case went to court and the outcome was that the girls were to be taken into care. Joan was to go to one family, Veronica and Margaret would go to another and Alison was to go to a third. Everyone was distraught when they had to leave home. I accompanied Veronica and Margaret to their foster home. Within weeks, the foster mother wanted to get rid of Veronica as she said her behaviour was too extreme. She had to go to residential school. Margaret thrived and refused to go home for visits. Joan did well but, when her father became ill, she went home even though her foster family had offered her a good life with them. Alison blossomed with her foster family. She began to talk and quickly caught up on her milestones. She also appeared reluctant to visit her parents. The sad thing about this was that the parents did love their children but had no real clue how to keep them safe and nourished.

Growing one’s own!

I worked closely with parents who had been suspected of physically abusing their children. It was obvious that when they were in the same space as each other, there was no bond or developing relationship. After my daughter was born, I returned to work and took her with me. It was amazing to see how these same women doted on my child and I was able to help them transfer some of that affection to their own children. In fact it was so successful I was quite disappointed when my child began to walk and talk –she was the best teaching aid I ever had!

I used my time well at the Child Guidance Clinic. I trained in drama psychotherapy and play therapy, still both very much in their infancy at that time. In fact Ginott’s book was to become my bible for the next few years

Play therapy is a particularly appropriate approach to counselling children because play comes naturally to children. Through the manipulation of toys, the child can show more adequately than through words how he [or she] feels about himself [or herself] and the significant persons and events in his [or her] life. (Ginott, 1961) http://www.beachpsych.com/pages/cc24.htm

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