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Boy sticking out his tongue at the camera. Photograph: Inspirestock Inc./Alamy
Behaviour in the first few weeks of school can fix a child’s reputation among teachers, parents and classmates for years, according to research out today. A five-year-old labelled “naughty” after a handful of incidents could find it hard to be seen as “good”, no matter how they tried.

Inability to sit still, disrupting queues or failing to comply with requests, could result in a poor reputation, and teachers sometimes made assumptions based on a child’s family background, said the researchers.

“Reputations can start to solidify within the first term,” said Maggie MacLure, professor of education at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of the study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. “Teachers will have decided in a broad way what kind of child this is. Is it a good child? Things that contribute to reputation are often very public. A lot of what happens is in whole class settings – so if children are disciplined others see it happen.”

The result, said MacLure, was that other children and their parents started to view the pupils in a similar way. She said teachers were well-intentioned but “the views form quickly in quite a nebulous way. If children go on to another class, their reputation could transfer with them just because one teacher writes a little note saying ‘This child has difficulty concentrating’ or ‘This child won’t sit still’.”

Siobhan Freegard, founder of the website Netmums, knows of many children who struggled to shake their reputation. “One little boy in my older son’s class found it really hard to sit still and control himself. Then, when they were 10, somebody snapped someone else’s pencil and all the children said he did it. Soon all the parents were talking about it, but it turned out he wasn’t even in the class at the time.” Another boy had earned the label of class clown and still could not shake it at 13.

Freegard said it was particularly tough for “summer babies” born in July and August. They can be a full year younger than others in class and significantly less mature, so are more likely to act up in the first term and earn a poor reputation.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the transition from home to school could be very difficult, and he had also seen pupils develop reputations. “It does happen. Someone is talking in assembly and you immediately look for Sean because it is usually him.” But forging a strong link with a child’s parents could turn pupils from being seen as “troublemakers to being contributors to the class”.

The study finds that adults have a notion of what a “proper” child should be, but learning to behave in a way appropriate for a classroom was tough for four- and five-year-olds. “Being good is not a simple matter,” it concludes. “Children need interpretative skills to decode and comply with requirements such as ‘sitting nicely’. They must be able to compete for teachers’ attention and approval according to the rules and handle disappointment when they do not win… They must learn to perform the emotions and moral qualities valued in the reception class, and accept that other, less ‘appropriate’, emotions may not be equally recognised.”

Some found it more difficult than others to be a “proper” child, and there was little tolerance for varying behaviour, partly because of the pressure to ensure pupils performed academically.

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