My job is to instil discipline in my pack

1st April 2011 at 01:00

As FE staff know, the first half-term of the academic year is a social experiment to rival any conducted by universities in San Francisco in the 1970s.

These newly formed groups are an amalgamation of students whose previous education was largely conducted within their own local areas. Suddenly to find themselves in a new "gang", with members from different postcodes, where their hard-won reputation means little, can be unsettling at best.

In my September sessions, what the majority have in common is resentment at being back in a classroom (a place to which they vowed never to return), having English, maths and ICT imposed upon them. And who better to vent their displeasure at? The one standing at the front, banging on about something they consider insignificant.

The ease of my working life depends to a great extent on the behaviour of complex, occasionally angry, often funny young men. Teaching hundreds of students whose main vocation is in construction trades, one gets used to the exploits of lads.

Teenage boys from lower socio-economic backgrounds are traditionally viewed as the biggest threat to the safety of the rest of us. Working with groups who, at first, exhibit unruly behaviour, I find it useful to think of them as a pack of adolescent German Shepherds - they could grow up to be valuable resources to society, or they could rip your arm off with their teeth. I am of course, still referring to the dogs, whose learning outcome depends on their own innate skills and on the skill of their trainer.

Though the pack mentality often unites a group, we have to ensure that we are pack leaders, rather than its victims. I use standard behaviour management techniques, such as positive reinforcement, clear consequences to actions and "house rules" part defined by the students, as well as physical elements such as getting lower than the aggressor and showing the palms of my hands to avoid confrontation. These strategies usually work, probably since the more extreme behaviour - involuntarily following impulse and lack of regard for consequence - seems entirely animalistic.

In a recent report, the Harvard Medical School explained that teenage brains mature from the back to the front. The early maturation of posterior regions of the brain primarily responsible for motor control accounts for movement and quick physical reaction times. Many spatial, auditory and language functions are also well developed.

The final areas to fully mature involve the frontal lobe, the portion responsible for cognitive processes such as planning, risk assessment and consequence, as well as the amygdalae, which are associated with emotional learning. This brain circuitry isn't fully connected until well into the twenties - some findings suggest as late as 30 - with girls in general peaking approximately two years before boys. Teenage students, like dogs, are indeed creatures of instinct.

As their vital processing links may not be fully formed, we can help them make the right choices by gaining their trust. The more trust they give us, the more open they become to sharing ideas and achieving success both academically and personally.

If our mettle as pack leaders is challenged, we can try to look for explanations for negative behaviour with patience and empathy. As complex teenage brain chemistry develops before our eyes, it can be exhausting to remind ourselves that these occasionally ferocious individuals are not always capable of reacting in a socially acceptable way. But the triumph of a leader is in providing an environment where everyone understands the consequences of their actions. In the classroom, this is known as discipline, but once our pack is released into the wild, it's called survival.

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in an inner-city FE college.

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