Is it surprising that some schools struggle to meet the needs of pupils with significant social, emotional or other behavioural difficulties? Of course not. It can be challenging, even for the most experienced and skilled teachers.
In fact, many schools tell me that the needs of some of their children are becoming progressively more complex, and teachers require an increasingly sophisticated set of skills to meet those needs.
However, it is still a failure of our education system that so many secondary students are being permanently excluded. So, how might we help schools support these pupils?
While you can’t write a perfect guide to working with people – after all, they’re not washing machines – I have outlined below several approaches that I’ve found useful in supporting pupils who are resistant or disengaged from learning, including those with social, emotional and mental health needs. The model is based on 15 years’ experience in educating looked-after and disadvantaged children, along with academic and professional research.
It is governed by four overarching principles, which must be wholeheartedly driven by senior leadership:
- One size fits nobody. We need a personalised, bespoke approach, reviewed regularly. Early intervention is vital.
- Intelligent analysis of “hard” and “soft” data is needed. This is to identify attainment gaps, barriers and the appropriateness of strategies, with specific interventions. clearly based on evidence of what works.
- Expert assistance should be sought. Where external agencies are involved, they should share knowledge and contribute to pupil support plans, providing crucial consistency and avoiding duplication.
- A joined-up approach is best. Collaboration is key to helping children feel more secure and connected.
So, what does all this look like in practice?
Students shouldn’t be viewed as passive receptacles that we as the “experts” must simply top up with useful information. This is particularly counter-productive if a child already feels alienated and disempowered.
Encourage pupils to become architects of their own learning by contributing to decisions that affect them. If a pupil helps to set their own learning objectives, for example, it should increase their motivation as well as knowledge retention.
“Authentic enquiry” is using a pupil’s own interests to drive their learning. It’s about generating enthusiasm by making education truly student-centred. Find out what makes them tick, use it, and if the light bulb goes on, seize that teachable moment.
The key adult
There should be a trusted member of staff to turn to when a pupil is struggling – someone who understands the pupil and equips them with coping strategies. This could be an inclusion lead, as part of their wider pastoral role, the designated teacher, or it might be a skilled teaching assistant, provided they’re given the right tools and support.
Resilience is the ability to cope with adversity and bounce back. It’s also about dealing with stress in a socially engaged way (taking time out to calm down rather than upending the desk, your chair and your mate’s chair).
Children can develop that “internal locus of control” through interventions at school, such as behaviour modelling, developing reflective skills, buddying and circle time. Schools can also introduce interventions to promote emotional literacy, through approaches such as Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning), Sumo (stop, understand, move on) and Thrive (practical strategies built around individualised online assessments).
Developing resilience also involves allowing young people to experience “non-critical failure”. If they can learn (with the right support and feedback) that it’s OK to fail sometimes, it can help them to reframe negative earlier experiences. As Thomas Edison said: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
Metacognition involves “thinking about thinking” and “learning to learn”. I’ve found huge benefits in helping disadvantaged students to develop their thinking skills and problem-solving strategies. Learning to regulate your thinking also helps with regulating your emotions. This can be informal: eg, the teacher talks though problems (basically thinking aloud) to model their own thought processes. Or they can ask pupils to reflect on what they learned at the end of the lesson, when they found the lesson most helpful and when they struggled or switched off.
Leadership and responsibility
Many disadvantaged pupils thrive when given the responsibility of, for example, supporting younger children. Dealing with another pupil’s presenting behaviours can help them to view their own actions more objectively, boost self-esteem and help them to build positive friendships with peers. Try to offer leadership opportunities: with guidance, you might be surprised at how well they rise to the challenge.
Consider using more ambitious differentiation for a vulnerable pupil, or putting them in a higher set than usual. Parental involvement and aspiration are critical factors also.
Consider getting a trusted parent or carer to accompany them to a college taster, or even set up a bespoke event for parents.
Darren Martindale is the virtual school head for looked-after children for the City of Wolverhampton council