Last lesson lethargy

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises on getting through those Thursday afternoons


"Their mood is a strong defining factor in the productivity of the lesson"

My first year is in an inner-city state school with a wide mix of children from different cultural, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. On the whole, behaviour is good and I rarely have any problems with any of my pupils or classes. So my problem is an interesting one.

I have a class of about 20 boys for English three times a week. The whole class is low ability and a significant number have special needs for literacy andor behaviour. Normally, they work hard, enjoy the lessons and make good progress.

However, our lessons on Thursdays, in the fifth and last period of the day, can prove difficult. They often turn up lethargic or hyperactive, and on many occasions they have arrived significantly late from previous teachers.

The boys are in different groups in period 4 (some with me for drama), and most come from practical lessons. Their mood is a strong defining factor in the productivity of the lesson. Also, this is the one period I don't have a teaching assistant working with me.

The boys tend to be chatty, easily drawn off-task, fidgety, sometimes physically tired, and unresponsive to tasks or questioning - contrasting to their enthusiastic tone in the morning.

So far, our most successful lessons on Thursdays have been ones where we have moved the tables out of the way and had discussions, used drama techniques, had big bits of paper, big pens and made mind-maps and so on.

I'm a drama teacher so I feel very much "at home" with practical lessons like these, but we have a lot of work to get through and it is important that they do not feel that their Thursday lesson is just an "easy ride" at the end of the day.

Their behaviour is never defiant, and they are a pleasure to teach, but the Thursday lessons can be like getting blood out of a lot of very sleepy and drained stones, or trying to quell the giggles and silly behaviour.

What suggestions could you give to motivate and energise a lethargic class, or to calm and focus the hyperactive class at the end of the day? They are a lovely, willing bunch and their lethargy or hyperactivity is not really their fault, which is why I don't come down "heavy" on them.

What methods, tasks or routines could I plan to try and help them get the most out of their lesson on Thursday afternoons?

Colin Ward teaches drama and English at a secondary school in Coventry


"I'd be tempted to try bartering as Colin seems to have a relaxed and positive relationship with this class"

There are a whole range of factors that can impact on a class's behaviour, and at first it is tempting for newly qualified teachers to blame themselves when a lesson goes wrong. But you soon realise that the children's attitude and behaviour will vary according to the time of day, day of the week, the previous lesson, the weather, what they ate for lunch, and so on.

As Colin has discovered, his pupils are in no mood to sit and write in silence last lesson on a Thursday. Wisely, he has put himself in their shoes. He is willing to be flexible to accommodate their needs rather than fighting a battle he is unlikely to win.

There is nothing wrong with the "active learning" approaches that Colin is using. They play an important part in helping his pupils engage with and grasp the subject. This is especially so because some of them struggle with literacy. Speaking and listening skills play an important part in the English curriculum, and these will feed into the writing that the class does in his other lessons with them. Although the children might feel that this style of lesson constitutes an easy ride, they may well be learning more effectively than in a traditional "chalk and talk" type of lesson.

This class presents Colin with a Jekyll and Hyde character. Sometimes they are lethargic and barely awake; other times they are hyperactive and fidgety. It's important for new teachers to learn how to "read" a class and to adapt their teaching to suit the mood of the children in front of them.

I'd suggest that Colin is quite flexible with his lesson planning and delivery - if he sees that an activity isn't working, he should feel free to abandon it and try something else.

With some of the pupils turning up late from other subjects, this means the start of the lesson is a bit disjointed. I'd recommend that Colin puts his foot down and insists that any latecomers bring a note saying why they are late. This has two advantages: it ensures that the pupils don't try it on, falsely claiming that they were kept behind; it also sends a message to their other teachers that it really isn't acceptable to send children late to their next lesson.

I'd be tempted to try bartering as Colin seems to have a relaxed and positive relationship with this class. When they seem hyperactive, he might offer half an hour of exercises to wear them out in return for 20 minutes of focused writing. He could leave the last five or 10 minutes of the lesson open as "golden time" - where they can relax and do as they wish (within reason). They must hold on to their golden time by showing a good attitude during the lesson.

A useful approach for lethargic pupils is to chop up the lesson into short, highly structured activities. Boys seem to respond well to short-term target-setting - "write 10 words in two minutes", "come up with three ideas in five minutes". Using targets and tight limits is a good way of keeping a class on task. Colin might combine this with some motivating music - the soundtrack from Mission Impossible gives the right kind of driving pace to the work.

I once worked at a school which operated a six-day timetable. Although confusing at first, it meant that the dreaded last lesson of the week was different every time. This school also incorporated an after lunch "nap time" for nursery and reception-age children. Sensible schools make an effort to understand and adapt to the children's body clocks. And sensible teachers understand that flexibility is the key to success, particularly with Jekyll and Hyde classes.

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


* Read your class: Respond to your children as they actually are and not as you'd like them to be.

* Be realistic: High expectations are important, but don't expect the impossible. You are probably tired by the last lesson of the day, and so are your children.

* Be flexible: Taking a rigid approach will only lead to confrontations, so know when flexibility is appropriate. View lesson plans as flexible and adaptable, rather than as "set in stone".

* Use a range of approaches: Not every lesson has to involve lots of reading and writing - more active approaches to learning can prove to be a real winner.

* Relax!: Calm, relaxed teachers give across a confident, reassuring demeanour to the children. Don't feel that every single lesson has to be absolutely perfect. As the year end approaches, let your hair down and have a bit of fun with your class.

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