12th February 2010 at 00:00
I teach in a new mixed ability group and one girl, who came over from what used to be the bottom set, is struggling and has started acting up. What should I do?

This can be a frustrating position for the classroom teacher and it is easy to feel like you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Writing on the online TES forums, one classroom teacher said that no matter what happens, the pupil will always blame their teacher: "If you don't help, she won't like you because you don't help. If you do help, you're treating her like a thicko and being patronising. I think that she is, consciously or subconsciously, using you as a scapegoat for the fact that she's struggling in class."

However, there are some approaches that can alleviate the pupil's negative attitude. As with any reluctant child, the teacher should try to make the lesson engaging and rewarding so that she is drawn in and able to let go of her concerns.

David Miller, who teaches English at St Ninian's High in Glasgow, has come across many pupils who act up because they feel inadequate for a number of different reasons. "To win the battle against the sulky pupil, the teacher has to make that often elusive connection between the learning, meaning and enjoyment," he says.

"As much effort needs to be put into enjoyment of the process of learning as the final learning outcome."

Whatever subject you are teaching, Mr Miller recommends teachers encourage a sense of connection between the classmates by setting activities in pairs or groups such as role plays, puzzle-solving, storyboarding or even just group discussions. No matter how much a pupil is sulking, they can be gently nudged into being an active learner.

"Without a sense of ownership of the experience, learning becomes passive and understanding less enduring," says Mr Miller. "It can be a lonely place, the land of miscomprehension."

The issue here is as much to do with the broader classroom dynamics as how the pupil feels about her own ability. If a new child is starting at the school, lots of effort is put into making them feel welcome. But when a pupil is moving classes and not schools, it is presumed that because they might know their classmates, they will settle in automatically.

Victor Allen, behaviour consultant at Mirror Development and Training, which specialises in emotional response and behaviour management, says the teacher should be aware that the pupil needs time to establish herself within the class and its own dynamics.

"So often, those who tend to be unsure get in first; attack is the first form of defence," he says. "It is imperative that any new person in a class be made to feel safe, secure and comfortable. It may, on occasion, be wise to warn the group that they are going to have a new arrival and he or she should be made to feel welcomed and helped."

There is a risk that the pupil will think she is being singled out because she needs more help, particularly if she is already sensitive. But Mr Allen says that if done in the right way, and if it's just for the initial settling-in period, it can help them feel part of the group.

"It is very important that during the first few lessons they can have special treatment regarding how they are feeling," he says. "Listen to how they respond to situations and even have a debrief with them after a few lessons."

Unless the pupil's behaviour continues, every effort should go into making the adjustment run smoothly before moving her back to the lower set. This will only undermine her confidence and the bad behaviour won't go away.

In the meantime, Mr Miller advises "using your own humour and humanity to release the child from her anxieties"

Next week Bright but bothersome


- Help to make the pupil feel secure and comfortable in the new class.

- Plan lessons with lots of interaction so that she gets to know her classmates.

- Be patient: it will take time for her attitude to change.


- Give up: teaching the pupil how to deal with this period of adjustment is crucial.

- Be confrontational or tackle the problem head-on during class time, as this will draw attention to the pupil's issues.

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