Your attention, please

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong's schools are often noted for their low levels of violent, anti-social and disruptive behaviour - the bugbears of secondary and even primary education in many industrialised, Western countries.

But many of the territory's students face other behavioural issues, which can have just as great an impact on their own educational progress and may even affect the pace of the whole class.

Elvis Tse Yau-tat, a teacher at Chan's Creative School in North Point, says the main problems are inattentiveness, refusing to engage in lessons and lack of sleep, often due to spending too much time online or playing computer games.

'Many live in their own world,' he says. 'Most Hong Kong kids do indoor activities rather than go outdoors playing sport. The result is, it's hard to get their attention.'

Wong Po-yee, another teacher at the same school, says there is a widespread lack of self-confidence among primary pupils, which is manifested in different ways but seems to start at home.

'Mostly it's their lack of confidence, and this goes across all children,' she says. 'Some don't even believe they can finish their schoolwork. They have no way to express their emotional problems at home. Some show this by being withdrawn or overactive.'

Chan's Creative is one of three local schools trying a new approach to tackling the spectrum of behavioural problems found among Hong Kong children that has been developed by the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Learning Behaviour.

The joint project, set up by the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) and the University of Warwick in Britain, aims to train teachers - and parents - in how to build positive relationships with children that will help them develop appropriate behaviour for successful learning in class.

It contrasts sharply with the traditional, punitive approach to bad behaviour, in which students who misbehave are made to stand outside class or sent to see the headmaster and given detentions or even corporal punishment.

In the pilot schools, teachers were offered a three-week course and parents a five-week course in how to foster positive learning behaviour in children.

The teachers' course focuses on techniques for promoting positive classroom behaviour, such as designing a code of conduct and developing the '4 Rs' - routines, rules, rights and responsibilities.

As well as looking at traditional techniques such as the use of praise, rewards and sanctions and how to address serious misbehaviour, it looks at new theories of emotional intelligence and how to use emotional skills in the classroom.

The parents' course covers how to listen to your children, how to understand and manage their feelings - and your own, the importance of play and techniques for encouraging positive behaviour. It also reviews three behaviour management styles: authoritarian, permissive and assertive.

The partnership, which has secured a donation of HK$1.5 million from the Fuk Tak Ian Foundation, has ambitious plans to roll out the programme across the territory. In the roll-out stage, teachers will be trained to run the programme for parents, with the aim that schools will then lay on their own parents' courses, thereby getting the message to more people.

Professor Chris Forlin, head of the HKIEd's department of special education and counselling and co-director of the partnership, says: 'Children spend half of their lives at school and half at home. To ensure that they are able to effectively engage with learning, we need a consistent approach to supporting their needs in both situations.'

Training both the teachers and parents using the same programme - designed to foster children's relationships with themselves, others and the school curriculum - provided such consistency.

'The course doesn't specifically focus on categories of misbehaviour,' she says. 'It focuses on developing positive learning behavioural relationships for the child with the teacher, parents and others. It has been adapted to the Hong Kong context for the cultural needs of parents and students.'

A team from Warwick University recently visited Chan's Creative School and attended a session to see how the course was going and talk to parents about the issues they face.

Stella Tse Chi-lee and her husband, Tse Wai-wah, have busy working lives but carve out three hours a day to spend with their daughter, Jamie Tse Tak-po, 11, who attends Chan's Creative School.

'We do dinner and tutoring and revision of what she learned,' says Stella Tse, a working mother. 'Jamie's very obedient, but she is stressed, so I want her to be able to relax more.'

Part-time restaurant worker Lam Ting-ting says she feels solely responsible for her son Kwok Ip-tin, 11, because his father, driver Kwok Wai-kit, works very long hours.

Lam says she wants Ip-tin to be happy and do better in his academic work, but it's a struggle because he prefers to play on his computer rather than do homework.

Forlin says the lack of time spent with children and the pressure of homework's impact on family relationships are the most common issues faced by Hong Kong parents.

'The main thing the parents have problems with at home is the children not wanting to do their homework, and that becomes a very unsettling focus, which introduces a negative focus on discipline into home life,' she says.

'In the course, parents are encouraged to converse with their children and play games with them and spend time talking about the children's interests.

'Parents need to establish an agreed set of positive routines and rules for their child that cover things like the amount of time spent on the computer, homework, watching TV, bedtimes and even doing household chores. Parents also need to set aside some quality time with their child every week to build a positive relationship.'

Chris Gittins, director of the Warwick Centre for Learning Behaviour, who co-directs the partnership with Forlin, says schools in 17 countries are running the programme.

'Our programmes are designed to create learning environments which continue afterwards,' he says.

Teacher-parent networks created a powerful culture of self-help among parents and the partnership had found that parents ended up wanting to work together to support their children's learning behaviour.

Chan's Creative School has adopted the '4 Rs' as part of its school behaviour plan, and teachers who took the course were asked to talk one-to-one with at least four students during break times.

Principal Cheng Wai-ki says: 'I have seen basic improvements in children's self-confidence and ability to learn independently since we joined the programme. The students co-operate with each other better in class without arguing, and I have also noticed that children are talking more with their parents outside the school gate.'