Eliminate the negative

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Motivating disaffected pupils requires creative thinking, says behaviour management expert Sue Cowley


"I've tried using sanctions, but it makes no difference"

I have a bottom set science class who are proving to be quite a challenging group. Most of the time I have a good relationship with them but their lack of motivation is causing me some difficulties.

Although they have been loud and rowdy from the start of the school year, most of the time they have been getting on with the work and doing as I ask without too much fuss.

My problem is that recently several of them have shifted from silliness to negativity. When I set a task, most will get on with it after a bit of cajoling, but now there are a few who flatly refuse to participate.

I've tried a few different approaches to solve this issue, but so far nothing has seemed to work. I started by ignoring them and praising the others, hoping that would set them off to work in order to gain my approval. However, they just sit there and stare into space.

I've also tried being more assertive, using sanctions and telling them they will have to stay in at break if the work doesn't get done. It doesn't make any difference: they still just sit there.

I have tried being kinder, sitting down with individuals and giving them loads of encouragement. I've talked through what they're supposed to be doing, to make sure they understand the work. They stare at the page, which I suppose is a start, but they still don't really get on with the work.

I've tried the divide and conquer approach, where I move pupils who aren't working to different places in the room. This doesn't work either. I just end up with several miserable pupils dotted around the room, still not doing any work.

The work isn't too tricky: they've done similar stuff in the past. I want to sort it out now before the problem spreads. Other pupils in the class are easily led and if the situation deteriorates, I don't think I'll get any work out of the class at all.

I've tried to give this particular group of pupils more attention by sitting down with them once the others are stuck into their work.When I ask them why they won't work, they say things like, "What's the point?" and "Even if I try, I won't do very well."

I have given them loads of encouragement but the more encouraging I get, the more negative they get. The thing that stumps me is when they say, "I don't think I even want to do well."

Maria Selby teaches science at a secondary in Oxford


"Get their attention in an original way and they will approach work with more enthusiasm"

There comes a point at which some young people no longer wish to be in school, let alone in your lessons. In years past, many pupils would have left school at around this point, perhaps to go on to apprenticeships that better suited their needs. Now we must keep them in education, often long past the point at which they get much benefit from formal schooling.

Pupils in a bottom set will have many years' experience of being told "you can't do this". Put yourself in their shoes for a moment: it must be very frustrating to turn up at school day after day and struggle to achieve.

With exams on the horizon, the thought of working hard and still failing to get a decent grade will be adding to their negative attitude. It can be incredibly tricky for the teacher to encourage a "can do" attitude with these pupils. And where there are more disaffected than engaged pupils in a class, they soon start to put each other off the idea that learning is a good thing.

As Maria has found, there is not a lot to be gained by being overly assertive in this situation, applying sanctions if the pupils don't complete the work. These young people have perfected their "whatever"

attitude. You can threaten and do pretty much anything to them without making much of a difference. Many will even take punishments with fairly good grace, in preference to doing any work.

My first advice would be for Maria not to blame herself. Some young people choose to opt out: do all you can to make them opt back in, but remember it is not your fault and not necessarily a reflection on your teaching skills.

Maria's pupils feel there is "no point" to these lessons. It's her job to show them that there is a point; that there are many links between science and the world outside school. Teachers are often pleasantly surprised when their most disaffected pupils do really well on work experience. These young people respond positively to the "real life"

situation of being at work. They enjoy being in the trusted position of an adult, and Maria can capitalise on this.

She could try using the "role of the expert" - a drama technique where pupils are given an adult role to approach the work. For instance, she could give them white coats and clipboards and tell them they are "government scientists". They could then test vinegar from different fish-and-chip shops to check the relative strengths of the samples.

Where pupils are disaffected, try some "whizz bang" approaches to lesson delivery. Get their attention in an original way, and they will approach the work with more enthusiasm. Science is a great subject for this - there are lots of opportunities for amazing experiments. Maria might also try some really disgusting practical exercises: these particularly appeal to boys, who often form the bulk of the seriously disaffected pupils.

Maria might need to put the curriculum aside, at least for a while. Such disaffected students are not achieving anything in lessons anyway. Far better to get them re-engaged with learning than to plug your way pointlessly through exam topics.

Another useful approach is to use reward systems that appeal to older pupils: ones that push the envelope of what is "allowed" to its limits. She might let them listen to music while they are writing, so long as they stay on task. (Overcome the issue of inappropriate language by using a radio station rather than allowing them to bring in their own music).

Maria has a good relationship with the class, and this is a great starting point. Now she needs to show them that what they do in her lessons has relevance to the world of work: that it can be fun, exciting and engaging - if they only give it a chance.

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


* Link school with real life: This is worth doing at any age - school needs to have relevance for pupils to feel interested. It is never more important than with your older pupils.

* Make it fun: You can't make all your lessons exciting, but you can certainly balance the duller work with some imaginative and attractive activities.

* Reconsider rewards: Pupils change as they get older, and the rewards you use need to change too. Think about what motivated you in your late teens and early twenties, and experiment with some unusual rewards.

* Be realistic about the curriculum: Where a class is not achieving anything in lessons, there is little point in slogging endlessly through exam topics. Get the pupils back on board before you focus on what must be covered.

* Keep it relaxed: There is little point in taking a strict and authoritarian approach with older pupils - it will typically backfire and lead to confrontations.

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