Curriculum PSHE - Close to the bone now

17th July 2009 at 01:00
PSHE topics cover everything from anorexia to domestic abuse. How can you build trust and encourage debate without touching a nerve?

Most teachers would give anything to spark a personal interest in their pupils. To find the poem that resonates, the historical figure they especially relate to, or one activity that lets them fully express something they've never been able to articulate before.

The very content and nature of PSHE classes means that pupils will always have a very personal interest. But sometimes the lesson content will be so topical that pupils may find it too close to the bone.

The PSHE curriculum covers a range of topics within the two broad strands of personal wellbeing and economic wellbeing and financial capability. Everything from sex and relationships to dealing with debt will be covered at some point, meaning that you may end up teaching about divorce when a pupil's parents are going through one, eating disorders when you suspect a pupil has anorexia, or managing a budget when a pupil's parent has lost their job.

Although PSHE lessons should better equip pupils to cope with all the problems life throws at us, this will only be learnt if pupils feel in control of the situation and comfortable with what's being said.

Teachers need to establish a safe environment for pupils to work in from the start, says Boo Spurgeon, head of PSHE at Wisewood School and Community Sports College in Sheffield.

"Central to that is establishing ground rules before you do anything, which include not having to say things you don't want to, confidentiality within the group and how far confidentiality can extend in school," Ms Spurgeon says.

A range of techniques that "distance" pupils from the specifics of a situation are used to prevent them from divulging something that they would regret.

"They're not allowed to say `My mum's Aunty Gladys on this street'," says Ms Spurgeon. "We teach them to say `I know someone who' instead, so that they're not breaking any confidentiality. And they check each other on that and say `no names' if someone starts something."

Within the ground rules, there is also the proviso that if a pupil has a problem that they do want to talk about personally, they can go to the teacher about it outside of the group.

"Pupils are told to think about whether they want to share it in class or if it's something they want to talk to someone about individually," says Ms Spurgeon. "Sometimes I manage to catch them before they say something that they might regret. I say `just think a moment before you share that' - sometimes they'll carry on, sometimes they won't."

This might be preventing the pupil from sharing information at the time, but Ms Spurgeon is keen to point out that she doesn't intend to "squash" children's emotions and actually wants them to recognise their feelings; just not necessarily to share them if it's not appropriate and would lead to regret.

"I will often say to them `please notice if you feel upset or anxious or if it triggers things for you,' and then they know they can come and talk to me about it."

Last year, the Year 9s at Wisewood School covered domestic violence in their PSHE lessons. Because this is such a sensitive subject and one that often occurs behind closed doors, the ground rules were reiterated before they started the module to make sure that everyone was comfortable. The lessons obviously struck a chord with the pupils, who this year chose to support local refuges which house victims of domestic abuse.

If someone chooses to share something personal in a group, Ms Spurgeon points out the significance of that to the others. "I'll say: `Some people have shared some very personal information, and we have to respect that'," says Ms Spurgeon. "`Whatever's said in this room, stays in this room'. By and large, I have not come across any instances where children have broken that rule."

When it comes to dishing out practical advice for dealing with difficult situations that pupils have been in, role plays can be another effective distancing mechanism. They enable children to explore their own experience without explicitly expressing this personally.

Sheila Fulford is a consultant with Personal Finance Education Group (Pfeg), who ran workshops with teachers and pupils for My Money Week earlier this month. "It may get close to the bone when they're doing role plays," she says.

"I saw some really interesting stories coming out with a group last week, but they weren't saying `that's me'. We saw quite graphic things about bailiffs coming in, a family on their knees, somebody shooting themselves in the head."

This kind of role play can also lead on to meaningful yet depersonalised discussion. "There were discussions about how they got into that debt. What would you do? What are your options? Where would you go and who would help you? It was a good way of pointing pupils towards somewhere they could get help, but not necessarily saying, `you need that help'," adds Mrs Fulford.

After working as a PSHE teacher for 23 years, Ruth Kelly has a lot of experience of dealing with these situations. She recalls having to teach about cannabis to classes where some of the pupils might have parents who've smoked cannabis in front of them at home.

"It's a delicate balance you have to strike," she says. "You want the children to feel free to talk, but equally, you don't want to make the children who aren't using substances to think it's normal. It takes skill and experience to do that; to keep everyone feeling comfortable and respected."

While distancing is an effective way to teach potentially sensitive subjects, there are some things that can be dealt with openly, but within the safe environment provided by the PSHE lessons, says Mrs Kelly.

"We would encourage the young people to talk about any issues they wanted to, so they (had an option to) set the agenda," she says. In one instance, a girl who was always called skinny was able to say how much she hated it when her peers always pointed it out.

Another boy's friends always made fun of his hair and just didn't realise the impact it had on him. "It's quite powerful, but it has to be dealt with sensitively. If you've got the bully and the victim outside, the perpetrator might deny it . but (in class) you've got two people involved and 15 of them say `no that's not true, you're always doing it'.

"They can hear directly from the peers, but not in a destructive way. Again, it takes experience and confidence to deal with that," says Mrs Kelly.

Being aware of pupils' emotional and familial background is the best way to be sensitive to their needs. But in a subject such as PSHE, teachers need to do their own "distancing" and make sure that they don't colour their perception of pupils' needs with their own judgment.

Sheila Fulford has come across situations where teachers think they are being sensitive to pupils' background when, in fact, they are making presumptions that aren't always accurate.

"A common mistake will be a school in an area of high deprivation, asking us to go in to support them, and one of the things they want us to do is budgeting," says Mrs Fulford.

"Well actually, people on lower incomes are very good at budgeting (and) teachers are probably worse at budgeting, because they have got a relatively higher income and may have two salaries coming in at that level . there is a danger of making assumptions that people who live in areas of low deprivation aren't very good with money, when actually, they just don't have enough of it."

Part of the training provided by Pfeg challenges teachers' opinions and personal bias, allowing them to better suit their pupils' needs. "When I work with teachers, I ask them what they want their children to know, and tease out any prejudices they might have so that we put together a good programme for the kids," says Mrs Fulford.

"There is an expectation in any school that the curriculum reflects its local context, so I think they're right to do that in principle."

There's no easy way to tackle topics that trigger such powerful emotions. But if harnessed in a sensitive, meaningful way, pupils' own experiences can give them the motivation to learn and fully engage.


  • Establish clear ground rules about keeping any personal stories anonymous and the extent of confidentiality to create a safe environment.
  • Reiterate these before covering any particularly sensitive topics.
  • When you cover something that struck a nerve with the class, talk to their other teachers to see if the topic can be covered in these classes. For example, through role plays in drama or writing letters in English.
  • Remind pupils to have respect for each other, particularly if someone shares something personal.
  • Be aware of how other pupils may feel if exposed to topics or scenarios that are raised, which they have no experience of.
  • Carefully assess whether any of your own personal judgments are having a bearing on what you choose to teach.


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