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Mad about the boy?

Sue Cowley advises on how to get that underachieving male pupil to raise his game


"With Simon, it was vital to avoid an alpha male-type competition"

A Neanderthal grunt is often the only sign of such a creature in an English lesson - if you're lucky. At the other end of the spectrum comes the kid who plays football with his book and dissolves the class into hysterics with a well-timed fart in the dramatic climax of your lesson.

Key stage 3 English in our school is blessed with only a few such specimens, and they are counterbalanced by a majority of focused and well-adjusted pupils.

The main culprit I taught, although there are several other candidates for the honour, was a boy I'll call Simon - classic, low-browed, monosyllabic, teenage male. The behaviour already encountered includes persistent swinging on chairs, farmyard noises, rubber-throwing and a persistent avoidance of any work whatsoever.

Fortunately, Simon disguises a moderate aptitude for English, which I seized upon. Having observed all-male sets before and seen the problems that male teachers can encounter, it was crucial to avoid an alpha male-type competition with Simon.

Instead, I adopted a silent tactic, delivering my lessons from a standing position immediately behind his table. As I was in his blind spot, he was always aware of my presence. Without speaking and, crucially, without moaning, I was able to indicate my awareness of his disruption tactics.

Every time he wandered off task I would point to something in his work and praise it. Initially, the shock value of unexpected praise distracted him from his non-academic pursuits. By adopting this as a regular tactic I began to make him aware that vocal attention was being paid to his good points. Over a period of weeks, this transformed itself into a desire to be seen as the leader of the academic pack.

I combined this approach with extremely short-term targets, tailored to the attention span of a teenage male. At first, this target-setting happened at every sentence, and was loaded with praise such as, "Great sentence - I'm really keen to read the next one now." Eventually, this progressed to the point at which Simon would seek approval about once every paragraph.

Without falling into the stereotype of teenage boys, Simon responded very well to an approach I borrowed from the area of sports psychology, in which the principal focus for those concerned becomes their own personal best.

In Simon's case, this strategy allowed him to have constant competition at his own level, and the simple reminder "Personal best!" couched in gently reproachful terms was often enough to spur him on to greater efforts.

Without claiming a miracle cure, these tactics have had some impact on his taciturn behaviour.

Ed Scrivens teaches English at a secondary school in Walsall


"Giving praise away from the group and gradually raising targets could help put Simon backon track"

It's incredibly frustrating when you encounter pupils who are achieving less than their personal best. You watch some of the least able children drag themselves to the finishing line, sweating blood over every step.

Meanwhile, some more able pupils lounge around for most of the lesson and then zip past their struggling counterparts in the finishing straight. "He could achieve so much more," you think to yourself, "if only he would just put in the effort."

Consider why a child might be underachieving. Some pupils underachieve because of a fear of failure, a fear of taking risks. Simon's immature behaviour appears to indicate a craving for attention, and Ed has used this to his advantage. The gentle reproach he adopts in his dealings with Simon is so much more effective than harsh criticism.

Sometimes underachievement is caused by a child not wanting to ruin his or her "image" in front of the peer group. In schools in which terms such as "boffin" are used derisively, it takes courage to go against the crowd and admit that you want to please the teacher.

In these situations, positive comments offered privately outside the classroom may have more impact than public rewards in lesson time. Of course, the reasons might be more mundane: boredom, laziness, tiredness, lack of ambition or a lack of interest in a subject.

In his search for new ways to work with his underachieving boy, Ed has tapped into many strategies that will work well with both male and female pupils. Rather than deal with poor behaviour in a public way, he positions himself in Simon's territory to show that he has noticed the problem. At first, he sets small targets for work, rewarding Simon with verbal praise when these are met. Gradually, targets are raised as Ed pushes Simon to achieve that little bit more each time.

Pupils sometimes underachieve because they fail to see how a subject has any useful link to the world outside of school. Try to find ways to show the connections between a topic and real life - it will help to engage your class. For example, in a languages lesson you might ask pupils to prepare a "welcome pack" for British footballers moving to play overseas. In a science lesson, you could ask them to test the acidity of various vinegar "samples" from local fish and chip shops to check whether they have been watered down.

A discussion of gender differences in this case runs the risk of falling foul of the "politically correct" lobby and of making sweeping generalisations. It's hard to deny, though, that there are some differences in the best ways of working with boys and girls. Teachers are not immune to the effects of gender either - a male teacher will inevitably bring different perspectives to his classroom from those of a female one.

My own experience suggests that boys like work that has an element of competition. They enjoy pitting themselves against their classmates, and the sensible teacher will take advantage of this. Boys also seem to enjoy the more "technical" side of a subject, whether this is plotting levels of dramatic tension in English or analysing statistical data in geography. Any topic that has something a bit "yucky" about it seems to go down well - the classic "slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails" referred to in the popular nursery rhyme.

Above all, make it clear to all members of your class that you refuse to let them underachieve. Like a coach shouting them on from the sidelines, you want every child to surpass his or her own personal best in every single lesson.

Sue Cowley is author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' (Continuum)


* Have clear expectations: Leave no doubt about what you want - in terms of work and behaviour. Insist that all children produce the best work they possibly can.

* Aim high: Set standards that make pupils work harder. Introduce some tricky, technical elements and watch how children respond.

* Gradually raise targets: Set short, achievable targets at first (three words, a sentence with a full stop) and build them up gradually, giving plenty of praise as you go.

* Set extension tasks: You are probably differentiating for the weaker pupils in class, but don't forget the more able. Have an extension task in mind for those who finish early.

* Make the work seem relevant: Link what you teach in the classroom with the wider world. Use formats borrowed from television, incorporate topical news events, and give them real "hands on" activities as often as you can.

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