What to do when you find a pupil ‘unlikeable’

Focusing on the positives is the key to building relationships with pupils who appear 'unlikeable', argue two PRU staff

Leanne Forde-Nassey and Ollie Ward

Behaviour: How do you get along with a pupil who seems 'unlikeable'?

Consider a pupil who, irrespective of the topic, always seems intent on trying to pick apart the lesson, taking inordinate joy in doing so.

Most days, you refocus them, guiding them to harness their effort for a more useful outcome; you don’t let their attitude or behaviour bother you.

But it’s late in the term, you’ve got another cold and, despite your better judgement, you can’t help thinking this pupil is just, well, not particularly easy to "like". In fact, you’re pretty sure they are unlikeable.

Sound familiar?

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There will always be certain pupils that will push our buttons, frustrate and infuriate, for a myriad of different reasons. I would imagine that at some point in the professional lives of all staff working in education, there has been at least one pupil who has had this effect.

And that’s OK. It’s normal, it happens. But we then need to improve our awareness of the impact that these pupils have on us and work out a solution.

Behaviour challenges

We function in a transactional relationship with pupils – if they frustrate us, it affects our ability to effectively cope and provide effective guidance to them; if we allow their behaviour to impact the way we think of them, it will soon change our behaviour towards them.

For the pupils exhibiting the most unproductive behaviours, usually the most vulnerable in our cohorts, without a change in our practice, the outcome could ultimately prove developmentally catastrophic.

So what do we do?

Trauma-informed practice

As a pupil-referral unit, we can on occasion witness a high frequency of unproductive behaviour from pupils, but our staff are afforded the opportunity to reframe their actions in weekly Attachment and Trauma Informed Practice (ATIP) supervision sessions. This empathetic rationalisation of the behaviour is not making excuses; instead, it seeks to understand, so we can more effectively provide the necessary support for that pupil.

What do we mean by that?

As described by John Bowlby in his work on Attachment Theory, all children are born with an inherent need to seek warm, secure relationships with carers as the catalyst for development. As children grow older, relationships with their peers become more influential, but the same key fact is true: "Relationships are the vehicles for social and emotional growth." (A quote from writer and psychotherapist David Taransaud.)

Whether they present issues over temperament or deficits related to self-regulation, pupils who exhibit traits or behaviours that damage social interactions will experience ramifications in terms of the quality of the relationship, further impairing the ability of that relationship to facilitate healthy development in the future: a pernicious and damaging cycle.

As the pupil grows older, we can witness a range of unproductive internalising and externalising behaviours associated with atypical development. Their actions leave their peers and teachers frustrated, leading to feelings of shame, sadness and frustration over their behavioural and social choices, further widening the competency gap with their peers.

The importance of language

So instead of thinking that the pupil has some form of preordained agenda, we assume that they had not acquired the skills with which to effectively cope with the situation: they lacked the tools in their toolbox for the job, akin to using a hacksaw to rewire a plug.

Once we identify such deficits, we can implement interventions with which to improve their functioning. As such, we ensure that the pupil is not the behaviour.

We are also very careful with the language we use when working with the most challenging pupils – they are not "aggressive" or "vile". They were involved in an incident in which they became dysregulated and made some poor choices.

The language that we use regarding the pupils, even to colleagues, is the language that becomes our "inner voice" and shapes the way we think about that pupil – negative language begets negative thoughts.

Positive outlook

As difficult as it might seem sometimes, adopting an unrelentingly positive stance not only shapes your language for the better, it also soon impacts your behaviour and eventually the pupils. We have a saying that we wheel out whenever this issue crops up, from Reuven Feuerstein – "If you are not prepared to look at your pupils' strengths, don’t touch their weaknesses."

No one is devoid of a positive – find that in the pupil, however small, and build on that.

It’s not easy. We had a pupil whom I really struggled to like. Despite having numerous interactions with him, I still found him "unlikeable". Unable to move past this feeling, I approached a number of team members and asked them to tell me their favourite things about him. Armed with this information, I took a different approach with him and tried to tap into the positives that others could see.

In the space of a day, I had changed my mind about him. Reaching out to others is such a powerful strategy when it comes to "unlikeable" children.

We have not yet perfected this process, to err is to be human after all, but we have made so much progress in the past 18 months; staff wellbeing and relationships with all pupils have improved, incidents of unproductive behaviour have reduced, and when they do occur, it is much more likely to be handled effectively by a staff member who is much less impacted by the challenge brought through any measure of "unlikeability".

Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher and Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire


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