Booking a PSHE speaker? Read this first...

Written by: Anne Bell | Published:

When used appropriately, external visitors can be an excellent support or enhancement to PSHE. But how can you be sure their input is safe, effective and relevant? Anne Bell advises

They are often referred to as “visiting speakers”, but to see an impact on students’ learning we need external visitors to do more than simply speak – so let’s call them visitors to the classroom.

When used well, visitors can add interest and expertise to enhance your planned PSHE education curriculum. Outside agencies often have specialised knowledge, resources and personnel capacity which schools may otherwise lack. They are also a great way to introduce young people to important sources of support and encourage them to access that support if needs be.

But sometimes visitors don’t live up to expectations, or, however well-intentioned, may even contribute in ways that feel unsafe, or inadvertently have a counterproductive effect. It is therefore important to be selective about visitors and prepare effectively for their input. Below are some keys to safe and effective visitor input.

Avoid shock, fear and guilt

Of course we want our visitors or speakers to be engaging and make an impact, but sessions that are shocking, designed to create a feeling of guilt, or highly emotional – perhaps due to personal lived experiences – are likely to have the opposite effect to that which was intended (Jones et al 2014 and McWhirter 2009). This works in a number of ways.
Received wisdom suggests that fear is a negative feeling and one to be avoided, meaning if pupils are afraid, they will avoid the undesirable behaviour. But neuroscience suggests our responses to fear are far more complex than that.

Fear experienced in a safe context can be exciting. Many people pay and queue to watch a horror film, or enjoy the experience of increasingly frightening rides in theme parks. The classroom is a safe place, and “shock tactics” can seriously backfire by linking a risky behaviour with the emotion of excitement.

We also know that evoking emotions such as shock, fear and guilt reduces the brain’s logic and sequential thinking functions, meaning young people are unlikely to effectively process the intended learning (Jung, Nadine et al 2014). The paramedic’s images of stab injuries, or the bereaved parent’s account of their child’s fatal accident, may well grab our students’ attention at the beginning of a lesson – but will probably prevent the very learning we set out to deliver in the rest of the lesson.

Additionally, young people tend to disassociate from extreme examples, either because they are too close for comfort or because they are so far removed from their own lives and experiences that the session seems irrelevant. For example, a young person whose parent is a life-long smoker might “switch off” when faced with extreme pictures of the medical consequences of smoking; or a session on liver failure from binge-drinking is ignored as a student knows plenty of people who drink excessively and have fun doing it, seemingly without any negative consequences.

We therefore need to ensure visitors share a spectrum of possibilities and avoid overly focusing on worst case scenarios so that young people see the potential relevance of the session to their lives.

Trauma specialists highlight the risks of retraumatising people by sharing experiences which too closely mirror their own. This could force young people to relive difficult experiences – which could range from FGM, to involvement in a road accident, to witnessing domestic violence – in an environment where it is difficult for them to disengage.

Many suggest that young people see much worse via the media, yet at home young people can switch the channel or go into another room if they prefer not to watch. Removing themselves from lessons can prove more challenging for pupils who may not want to draw attention to their past experiences, and in any event, exposure to sensitive material may have already created high levels of anxiety. Inappropriate input from external visitors therefore poses a significant risk of harming our most vulnerable young people.

A further risk associated with the use of shock tactics is that using images that only focus on the most extreme consequences gives a false sense of security. Pupils often focus on and remember the images they see, more than the messages around them. So, for example, they leave the lesson on sexually transmitted infections or eating disorders thinking “If I don’t look like that then I must be okay”. This can delay them seeking help and lead to potentially damaging consequences.

Avoid teaching or inspiring risky behaviours

Visitors also carry the potential to teach or inspire the exact behaviour their session is intended to warn against, by giving too many or inappropriate details, or by unintentionally glamorising their experiences.

For example, research undertaken by Dr Pooky Knightsmith (SecEd author and vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition) found that a workshop on self-harm had had clear negative outcomes for some young people, with one young person saying that the facilitator “was really good, but she did give you ideas”.

“I’d been burning myself for ages and didn’t want anyone to know, and she shared all these different ways she’d hidden it and stories she’d told to explain her burns. I used some of them, and they worked.”

Another young person said: “So I’d been self-harming for ages and had been on all the forums so there was nothing she could teach me about it, but I seriously had to control myself not to stand up and scream at her. It was like some kind of twisted ‘how to self-harm workshop’ and seeing as she worked so hard to ‘break the stigma’ and make us realise it was okay to self-harm, loads of kids tried it after that. A couple carried on for ages too.”

It is therefore important that before bringing someone into the classroom you consider the likely nature of the intended session, the types of resources which are going to be used, and the skills of the visitor in avoiding harmful content. Are you inadvertently presenting students with a role-model for a risky or unhealthy behaviour? Will their input directly teach students how to self-harm/restrict food/hide unhealthy behaviours, etc?

Avoid inappropriate bias

The Education Act 1996 requires that lesson content avoids political indoctrination, and indeed, PSHE lessons should avoid inappropriately biased input on any issue. PSHE is not, however, “value free”. It should be influenced by, reflect and support the school’s agreed ethos, be clear on the law and promote healthy, safe behaviours, while encouraging young people to question and explore issues in a way that develops their values and beliefs in as neutral a way as possible.

It is therefore important that teachers check the backgrounds of their visitors, their organisations, or funding sources to consider whether there is the potential for bias. In some instances, this can be lessened through providing visitors with competing viewpoints. However, it is important to ensure that young people are not exposed to extremist or offensive content, for example.

Promote active learning strategies

Regardless of who is working with your students, you, as their teacher, are responsible for managing the learning. It is important to consider how skilled a visitor is likely to be in this arena and adapt the session accordingly.

It is also important that pupils actively engage with their new learning. A didactic “talk” from a well-meaning expert is likely to have much less impact than an interactive session where students are encouraged to prepare questions, take part in activities which encourage reflection on their own views, and share ideas with the “expert” who challenges or extends their thinking.

Embed the learning

Non-specialist staff with limited time to plan PSHE lessons may be tempted to create a programme full of guest speakers, in the belief that such experts will have a strong impact on learning. Research suggests, however, that one-off events – however engaging and memorable – have virtually no impact on long-term learning or health and wellbeing behaviours (Jones et al 2014 and Ttofi & Farrington 2011).

It is therefore important that external contributions are not one-off, standalone sessions that replace planned, regular PSHE learning. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to support it. Sessions should be part of a scheme of work which allows young people to prepare for – and debrief from – the visit, allowing for deeper exploration of key themes and for the learning to be embedded.

Visitor checklist

While it is not always possible to plan for every eventuality, good visitor research and preparation can ensure students learn safely and effectively. When selecting visitors, consider the following:

  • Will this input enhance your planned programme and provide learning that you cannot provide yourselves?
  • Who is, or are, the people you are inviting into your session?
  • What skills, needs, expectations, experiences or specialist knowledge do they bring?
  • Are they happy to work with you to ensure they meet your learning objectives (or are they coming to fulfil their own objectives)?
  • Does this visit fit into and build on current schemes of work?
  • Is there interactivity in the session which supports students to learn effectively, or do they intend to just deliver a talk?
  • Might any young person be upset by this session? If so, do we really need the input? If we do, are there ways to manage such eventualities to minimise the potential for harm?
  • Do they intend to share any images or experiences that are likely to induce shock, fear or guilt?
  • Do they need additional support in understanding best practice in PSHE lessons?


  • Anne Bell is a subject specialist at the PSHE Association. A charity and membership organisation, the association provides teachers and schools with resources, training and support to improve their PSHE provision. Visit www.pshe-association.org.uk

Further information

  • For more help on confidently assessing and arranging visitor input, get in touch with the PSHE Association via email (info@pshe-association.org.uk) or search for further guidance online at www.pshe-association.org.uk
  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith writes regular articles for SecEd on issues of mental health and wellbeing. To read her previous articles, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. You can contact Pooky via www.inourhands.com

References

  • A Systematic Review of Effective Youth Prevention Education: Implications for internet safety education, Jones, Mitchell & Walsh, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, 2014.
  • The Theory and Practice of PSHE Education, McWhirter, PSHE Association, 2009.
  • How Emotions Affect Logical Reasoning: Evidence from experiments with mood-manipulated participants, spider phobics, and people with exam anxiety, Jung, Nadine et al, Frontiers in Psychology, 2014.
  • Effectiveness of School-based Programs to Reduce Bullying: A systematic and meta-analytic review, Ttofi & Farrington, Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2011.


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