Grown-up answers to tame college `bad kids'

Further education can be a place of last resort, but even the most difficult students will thrive if staff treat them fairly - and firmly

College students are self-selecting - or so people seem to believe. The perception is that the "bad kids" and the uninterested fly the education nest at 16, leaving behind only keen and well-behaved learners. But this is far from the truth. I know, because in some ways I was one of those wayward students.

After a frankly lacklustre school career, it was not until I met Ms Byers that my 16-year-old self, full of attitude, was given a reality check. She had the perfect balance of carrot and stick, hinting to me that I had more potential than I realised. Her pitch was sharp, factual and compassionate.

Working in FE, I want to be - and I want my staff to be - a Ms Byers to those students who arrive at our doors having not yet found their place in education. Sometimes this is because of behavioural problems, sometimes learning has just not clicked and sometimes the reason is obscure. Whatever the facts of the matter, when students like this decide to try college, we have to be ready with an answer.

Paul is a good example. He had been through hell at school and ended up in a pupil referral unit (PRU). He arrived as a negative ball of aggression. We asked him if he knew what he would gain and lose by changing or maintaining his negative behaviours. The three years of full-time college that followed, with consistent expectations repeated by all staff, led to a change in his behaviour and Paul achieved a level 3 qualification. He has now been in full-time work for almost 12 months.

Although turning a student like Paul around is more difficult than simply stating expectations, our approach is simple: work as one team, pilot ideas, fail quickly and develop the bits that have worked well into established practice. A selection of the elements that have succeeded are explored here.

Allocate responsibility

One of the biggest challenges for students trying to get back on the education pony is to acknowledge responsibility. Some young people will have been on severely limited timetables, home educated to avoid being excluded or attended a PRU; often, they will claim that any problems they encounter later are "not my fault". You can sympathise with them, but make sure they realise that they have contributed to their educational problems as much as the environment they have been in. Do not be afraid to be firm and honest.

Set consistently high expectations

At our admissions interviews, we ask lots of questions, we challenge and we give frank feedback. Learners are scored on attitude, preparedness, presentation and performance. If their score is poor, we explain why and they are given guidance before a second interview. If that interview goes badly, they are given one more chance. After that, they are referred to alternative providers.

This is about expecting the best from the outset: giving students the chance to reach our expectations, but being clear that those expectations have to be met from the off.

Once students enrol, the cornerstone of communicating our requirements is a cracking induction focused on destination, progression and the significance of English and maths. We teach learners that education is their right, not something that is done to them.

Model the behaviour that is expected

All staff here use the rock-solid mantra, "When you see me do that, you can too; when you hear me use that word, you can too."

Reward good behaviour

I have deliberated long and hard on this issue, as rewards can cause resentment among well-behaved students who sometimes feel ignored. The best way of avoiding this is to make sure that every student gets some recognition by applauding behaviour that exceeds the norm for each person, rather than conduct that meets preset conditions.

Our positive behaviour management starts when a young person walks through the door for an interview or a visit. The induction process details how the reward system works. Usually we start small: a "well done", a "thank you for your effort", a pen, a free lunch, being asked to share an opinion, to take responsibility or to support staff with an activity. These small, cumulative rewards are then celebrated each term.

React appropriately to slip-ups

Turning a student around is difficult and there will be slip-ups. All staff need to be confident in explaining - very assertively if need be - that they are in charge. Our site, our rules. If there is a "behaviour incident", the young person involved should be given the opportunity to calm down. They should be told to stop what they're doing, take a minute, observe their body and plan what to do next. Once a young person is ready to talk, I favour a structured discussion: reflection, honesty, reinforced responsibility and unconditional positive regard.

When they are given time to reflect properly, young people soon learn to think before they act. Sometimes this can take many months, sometimes it is quick. For young people whose development is ongoing, we have to teach the difference between anger, aggression and assertiveness - and how to use each of these appropriately in college.

Sarah Le-Good is assistant principal for social inclusion at Derby College

What else?

TES Connect behaviour expert Tom Bennett gives his view.


From making threats to taking poor behaviour personally, we detail six common discipline mistakes - and how to fix them.


Teachers share tips on what to do when adult learners play up.


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