At a weekly club, fourth year boys are learning how to keep stress at bay in order to help raise achievement. Raymond Ross joined them at one of their sessions
Bellshill Academy. Seven o'clock on a Tuesday night. A dozen fourth year boys are sitting with their eyes closed, practising their breathing, clasping and unclasping their fists, learning to relax, learning to control stress.
Volunteer tutor Catherine Campbell, a former teacher and trained counsellor, is leading the "Tuesday Club" through a session on recognising "stressors" and handling stress as part of a new study support programme aimed at raising boys' achievement.
"We have specifically targeted a group of Secondary 4 boys, who are not particularly academically motivated but who we think would benefit from this experience and would reject a more traditional study support format," says Derek Goldman, Bellshill Academy's partnership officer.
The club, which is funded through the school's supported study budget and a grant from North Lanarkshire, has been meeting every Tuesday for two-and-a-half hours since October, with at least 10 of the 12 boys turning up each week. They work on communication skills, homework study, self-motivation and self-esteem and have just attended a residential weekend to concentrate on exam techniques, positive thinking, revision skills, improving writing and making plans for the future.
"It makes me try harder," says S4 pupil Thomas Nisbet. "It's given me the confidence to fail. If you know it's all right to fail, you'll be confident to have another go or try something different."
"I like the laid-back attitude," says classmate Colin McAlpine. "It's changed my attitude to teachers. They're nicer here - they're out of their stress zone."
English teacher Janice Casement, who runs the club with Mr Goldman, agrees. "It's helped me in the classroom," she says. "A couple of the boys I teach, I've bonded with better. I don't come here with my teacher hat on, and their guard is also down. They're opening out and they're more responsive to teaching as a result.
"You become more of a mentor. The club allows them to discuss their work together, an opportunity they wouldn't get working at home. You just don't get this closeness in a classroom with one teacher and 30 pupils," she says.
"So far the raw indicators are good," confirms Mr Goldman. "The main one is that the pupils come voluntarily week in, week out. They tell you they're more motivated, more focused.
"Adolescent boys often drift through school. They find communication more difficult than girls. They bottle things up, making the adolescent experience solitary. We counteract this by allowing them to explore feelings and problems with other people," he says.
Another measure of success is the growing interest among S4 girls. "The boys were targeted because of under-achievement," says Mrs Casement. "But now the girls are asking why the boys have this club and they don't. We're considering a separate girls' club as well as starting both of them up a year earlier, in S3, so that they can run for two years.
"Our motivation is to make the boys succeed academically and socially," she says. "The vocational goes hand in hand with the academic and this helps pupils who might otherwise get lost in the system."
The main point about the stress and relaxation session, according to Catherine Campbell, is to get the boys more open about being stressed. "It's a gender issue," she says. "Last week two boys admitted that they regarded saying they were stressed as tantamount to admitting weakness. This session gets them to identify stress and situations that cause it, and then teaches them how to deal with it."
During the session the boys split into groups to discuss "stressors", such as exams, problems at home and peer pressure. They brainstorm ideas, discuss the problems and how to deal with them and then they report back to the group as a whole.
"We provide a safe environment where they can express themselves," says Mr Goldman. They recognise that others share similar experiences and feel less isolated. They come forward and talk."
This they certainly do and that, too, he says, is a measure of success. "Six weeks ago many of these pupils would not have been able to talk freely," he says.
Two weeks previously two of the pupils - Thomas Nisbet and Colin McAlpine - addressed a conference on learning support at St Andrew's College in Glasgow. "They spoke about the club to over 20 teachers," says Mrs Casement. "It takes a lot to do that."
"I'm better equipped and more confident now," says Colin.
But wouldn't he like his Tuesday nights back to himself?
"What? You mean give up the club? Never!" he says.
Further information from Derek Goldman on 01698 841686