Strain for the summit

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Sue Cowley suggests strategies to help the child who will not work


"How can I maintain my one-to-one successes in whole-class work?"

On my final placement I taught one Year 3 child who simply would not work.

The girl - for the sake of argument I'll call her Stephanie - had great problems with numeracy. She was struggling to the extent that she was often in tears during our carpet session.

Stephanie often received support from a teaching assistant, who perhaps helped her a bit too much. I never knew how much work in her maths book was hers and how much was the assistant's. Actually, I think it was mainly the assistant's because whenever Stephanie was left alone she didn't complete anything. She had no confidence in her mathematical knowledge because of her low ability, and I found it extremely difficult to motivate her. I got to the stage where I was almost at my wit's end with her.

I made a small breakthrough when studying division. During whole-class teaching, Stephanie could not - or would not - answer a single question.

I believed she could not grasp the concept of division. When all the other children had started their work, I got her to sit on the carpet with me and our class mascot, the "cat in the hat".

I told her we were having a tea party and that she had to share the cakes (multi-link cubes) between her, me and the cat in the hat. Once I was confident in her ability to share, I left her alone with a whiteboard and the cat in the hat. I gave her varying numbers of cakes to share and asked her to record the answers in the way I had shown her.

When I went back to see her at the end of the lesson, she had answered every one of the questions correctly, and had even got all the remainders right, too. She repeated the task with the same success the next day.

So, it worked in those lessons - but lessons don't always lend themselves to that kind of kinaesthetic approach, and I don't always have that much time to spare in a busy lessson. In this case, how can I keep up her interest in numeracy?

This is a problem I have had before. I wonder how, in the day-to-day running of a busy classroom, I can keep coming up with all-singing, all-dancing lessons to help struggling pupils?

Naomi Heard is an NQT at Hertford junior school, Brighton


"One-to-one teaching isn't the only way to give special attention to those in difficulty"

For some children, school work represents a challenge akin to climbing Everest. As they watch their classmates race to the top of the mountain, they are left straggling far behind and feeling increasingly frustrated and disaffected.

Part of the teacher's skill is to make that daunting summit seem attainable, whether this is by supporting the child as he or she climbs, or by offering an easier route up the mountain.

Misbehaviour will often come about because of a child's inability to gain access to the curriculum. "I can't do this," the child thinks - and rather than admit to a weakness or ask for help, he or she will start to cover up by messing around or develop other avoidance tactics when faced with challenging activities.

Some children will get upset and lose their motivation, while others will start to "act up", or perhaps even become confrontational.

Work avoidance can cause real problems for the teacher - a child who is off-task is not learning, and could disrupt other pupils in the class. It can be very frustrating to have to deal with a child who repeatedly produces very little work. But you should learn to keep your exasperation to yourself and look for the root cause of the problem.

Your first step should always be to check whether the child has special educational needs. Approach the special needs co-ordinator at your school.

If you find that no special needs have been identified, ask for an assessment to be made.

If there are special needs issues already, get hold of the child's individual education plan. Once you understand the background to the difficulties, you will be able to differentiate the child's work more effectively. The SEN staff at your school will be able to advise you on the most effective approaches and activities to use.

Children find structure very helpful, so aim to introduce activities in a clear and simple way. Before the class starts work, get a pupil to repeat the instructions back to you. This will help you to see where any misunderstandings might arise.

Get into the habit of setting specific targets, particularly for your weakest pupils - for instance, by drawing a line on the page and asking the child to write down to that point. Also aim to include a variety of activities in your lessons so that you cater for those with different learning styles. And maximise your use of reward systems to ensure high levels of motivation.

Clearly, Naomi has had great success in adopting two key strategies. She has taken the time to sit and work on a one-to-one basis with an individual pupil and explain how the task should be approached.

Children will often have trouble understanding the initial instructions and may need some clarification - whether from the class teacher or a learning assistant. Unfortunately, this is not always possible within the constraints of the busy classroom, particularly at secondary level where there is generally less extra support.

Naomi has also found a way to make an abstract concept (division) into a concrete activity (dividing up "real" cakes). Finding ways to link concepts to reality in this way is an excellent approach - both for individuals and whole classes.

Using "really real" cakes for the class to divide up would no doubt enhance this technique even further.

Children who are struggling to produce work will often get put in detention for "misbehaviour". But rather than always seeing detention time as a punishment, try instead to sit the child down and say, "Do you have a problem?" Without any classmates around, individual pupils may be much more willing to admit that they simply don't understand the classwork you are doing.

I once taught a boy who would spend every lesson wandering around the classroom. His bottom would touch the seat for a brief moment, and then he would be off on his travels once again. After talking to the special needs staff in the school, I realised that this was pure work avoidance. The boy's literacy skills were so poor that his self-esteem had hit rock bottom.

In this case, I identified key rewards for the child, set some achievable targets and offered him individual help whenever I could. In that way, I was able to help him to begin the climb up his own personal mountain - of learning how to read and write.

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


* Check for SEN. Approach your special needs co-ordinator to request information about specific difficulties. If the problem has not been identified by previous teachers, you may need to request an assessment.

* Mind your language. Avoid throwaway comments such as, "My goodness, this is rubbish" or, "You haven't made much effort." For the failing child, such remarks only do more damage to motivation and self-esteem.

* Set achievable targets and short time limits. Generate a feeling of success by giving realistic targets (write 10 words, answer three sums).

Keep time limits brief to ensure concentration.

* Give them a break. On occasions, find ways to give the child a rest. For a pupil with poor literacy, offer a tape recorder on which to "write" a story, or offer to act as a scribe.

* Identify key motivators. Find out which rewards the child is keen to earn, and use these to best advantage - whether this means merits, stickers or phone calls home.

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