From education to employment

Keep lessons light, bright and positive

When pupils are disaffected with education, feeling hopeless about their future and struggling to revise, the fast approaching exam season is an especially stressful time – both for students and teachers alike. Fleur Sexton, a former teacher and now joint managing director of PET-Xi, provider of intensive results-based interventions for young people at risk of not achieving their academic potential, shares her thoughts on how schools and FE institutions can support and re-engage disaffected students and help them to feel good about their learning.

In all my years working in education, like many other teachers, I am proud to say I have never given up on anybody. Put simply – disaffected students have just stopped believing in themselves. In order to be receptive to learning and able to achieve academically, students need to have a level of self-esteem – help them get that and you are half way there.

Varied and complex reasons lay behind disaffection, but groups of consistently low achievers include boys, FSM, EAL and SEN pupils, some ethnic minority groups, pupils with high mobility between schools and Looked After Children.

Some students become disengaged from their education because they have not found their own particular road, or have for some reason missed out on the fundamental points of a subject and are consequently unable to follow enough of the subsequent course to remain engaged.

It’s also a sad fact of life that some young people in modern Britain lead chaotic lives – they could be carers or dealing with substance misuse, physical abuse, or pregnancy for example – and with such difficulties in their social situation these youngsters have bigger issues to think about than their GCSEs and A Levels.

The starting point is always to ensure pupils have mastered the basics – and, if not, to work like mad to make sure you provide this vital scaffolding as it’s absolutely crucial to all future success. If they don’t ‘get’ a subject or topic, keep trying to find them another way to understand. Keep explanations short and tidy– never longer than the typical disengaged learner’s attention span of two minutes will guarantee results. Keep frustrations at bay with high staffing levels so that feedback is quick, as well as concise.

In working to raise self esteem, keep everything light, bright and positive. It’s vital to praise students and celebrate any successes they do have, however small, so that success becomes a habit and the students see themselves in a different light. Frequent short “Aha – I get it!!!” moments are essential. When they get feel-good feedback, students are encouraged to continue. Work hard for their attention as often it is not freely forthcoming. You can do this by asking lots of questions and varying the input methods. Then praise them and praise them again – ensuring they associate feeling good with learning.

On that note – a reduced focus on bad behaviour can also work wonders. That doesn’t mean being a soft touch, it just means being consistent, realistic and practical. Students facing challenges must feel there is hope for the future. We have to be forgiving and use our energy to drive them forward until their own drive takes over. Often disengaged young people throw barriers in our way as a method of precipitating what they consider to be inevitable failure. It is important to overcome those barriers, whatever they may be.
When it comes to revision, work with them to break it down into manageable chunks. Once students feel a sense of achievement, it becomes self-fulfilling. Yes they should have the skills to arrange and organise revision by the time they come to take public exams– but they may not.

Look at specific barriers that may affect revision or completion of homework – for example they may have no appropriate quiet space available at home, or have a routine that precludes it. But by talking to them about their lives, you may be able to help them spot other times and opportunities.

One more vital, but frequently overlooked, factor is to help students develop resilience. A resilient student will be more successful in sticking at revision, realising that small failures are not a problem and that success is all about turning up and not giving up! Be sure to help learners maintain a sense of perspective so that exams don’t take over in a negative way – a holistic approach including good nutrition, exercise and even trips to the cinema and playing computer games are also essential elements of any good revision plan.
You may also need to be patient, it’s like moving mountains, not a single linear journey, and for every three steps forward there may be two steps back. But with sensible targets it is possible to re-engage young people and instil in them a love of learning.

Fleur Sexton is joint managing director of PET-Xi, the training provider

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