Tackling the common problems presented by challenging students

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Daniel Sobel reflects on the challenges often presented by our more difficult students, and how as a whole-school team we might be able to overcome these problems before it is too late

In many schools you will find the head and deputy and possibly other senior leaders fire-fighting the most challenging student cases, spending up to 80 per cent of their time on the same five to 10 students. This article draws on a recent conversation I had with Michael Purches, who is a former headteacher of a special school (for 19 years) and a real expert on supporting schools to manage their toughest cases. This article lays out some of the principles of good and bad practice when dealing with the hardest student cases in your school.

Common challenges and frustrations

In many cases that I have seen as an expert witness in tribunals and court cases about students who are permanently excluded, I notice the same unfortunate patterns:

  • There was a lack of early identification – if only they had picked the challenges up sooner and planned meaningfully, all this could have been prevented.
  • There were one or two teachers with whom the student was successful – if only they had shared the good practice with the teachers that struggled.
  • There was a moment in time, a specific occurrence that tipped the balance, and instead of it being treated as a one-off it became the excuse for the ultimate fall – if only everyone had taken a breath and worked out how to prevent this extreme, one-off event from happening again.

In addition, referral times to support services such as CAMHS are woefully inadequate and social services change their key person seemingly regularly. As a result, you resent sitting at yet another team-around-the-child table playing pass the buck and blame. If only there were an acknowledgment by everyone that we all have a role to play and if we pull together we could achieve something.

On top of this, the same teachers who don’t seem to “get” a challenging student provoke this child into responding with anger and then you have to deal with the consequences, coaching the student to see their role in this while knowing that the teacher is equally to blame.

I doubt there is a head or principal in the country that hasn’t encountered most of the above problems. Of course, the real challenge is getting all the key players in your team to be coordinated and consistent in implementing the clearly outlined plan. This means: whole-staff buy-in, attitude shifts, quality first teaching, helping teachers to breathe, and hitting the refresh button with the same students that are causing them grief.

Here follows some specific actions to address these problems. None of them will replace the need for good ol’ outstanding teaching but, if you can get that up and running as well, this will absolutely help.

Two reams of paperwork

You need the paperwork for the referrals, for building a case and for ensuring that you have everything tracked in case something happens. Don’t fault on this, be thorough and record everything. Get an HLTA or someone in the office to ready your file for as and when you need it.

Two tips: use folder dividers so that you can quickly reference which agency has said what, and get someone from your pastoral team or the SENCO to write a summary page at the front which looks like a timeline of incidents, support and impact of that support. Having this ready and in order means that if you suddenly need to take action you are ready.

The other type of paperwork you need is exactly the opposite: it is one page, it is bullet-pointed and as succinct as can be. This is “the one page” that all of your staff are going to be on and features three columns: Identified Issue, Action, Impact.

Focus on just three specific issues – not all 50 that the student has. Be specific and limit the challenges to just those that with some concerted effort you could solve, which would then allow you to move on to the next level of problems. An example would be starting with helping a student to positively settle in the class. Or it could be getting a student to stop swearing at staff.

Be brave and think first about what the teachers can do rather than the student, because you can probably bet that the student isn’t going to do anything different unless you and your staff do. The actions need to be simple and clear and, most importantly, consistent. The impact measure needs to be evaluated most lessons and you need to review them at the end of each week to ensure they are beginning to work.

Stop looking at the student to change

Think of the student as a simple mechanism of action-reaction. Ask not how you can change the student, but rather what you (and staff) can do that will initiate change in the student.
“Insisting”, “forceful persuasion” and “appearing cross” are all strategies that have, until now, failed. You and your staff’s actions are the ways of rewriting the rules of the game. Here are two examples:

  • Instead of calling home to complain about the latest incident, pre-emptively call home to praise the student for something wonderful they did. Do this repeatedly. Your action is changing the game.
  • Instead of the teacher expressing frustration at the student in front of the class, the teacher should go over to the student during break and have a gentle chat with them. They should ask about something they really like (a computer game, football) and express genuine fascination. The dividends of this will become clear.

Shift the attitudes of staff

Staff opinions make and break students. For example, instead of not choosing them for a class role or responsibility, they could actually promote their engagement in positive leadership. One of the best examples I have seen was with a boy who was on the verge of permanent exclusion. He was given an opportunity to raise some money for a boy in the community who could not walk and had other significant disabilities. He organised football competitions in the school and also went around the form rooms seeking donations. After three months he raised money to buy a special chair for the student. Aside from the obvious dynamics that contributed to the student feeling wanted, worthy and that he had something positive to give the world, it was the sheer quantity of staff who went up to him throughout the three months saying how impressed they were. He was showered with praise, but most importantly it changed what the teachers thought of him.

Success breed success

One approach is to reduce the student’s timetable in order to hit the refresh button and start again with just a few school-based activities. A starting point as low as simply coming in to do an activity with a teaching assistant could be a good first step (from which to build one successful step after another).

The purpose of doing this is to help the student re-imagine school from being a place that is out of control and a consecutive series of failures to one that is built up slowly, each step being understood and clearly accomplished before adding the next – and it becoming a place where a sense of achievement happens.

Failures, mistakes and stumbling blocks should be expected to arise and these can then be tackled in isolation and amid a process that is full of “well dones” rather than trying to eke out a candle flame of positive achievement in a never-ending thunderstorm of failures.

There is always one

There is always one teacher who seems to have absolutely no problems whatsoever with the student. Of course, they are an outstanding teacher who knows their craft exceptionally well. They rely on that good ol’ outstanding teaching, replete with personalised, differentiated and intelligently adapted learning in a background of firm but very positive language. They – more than any educational psychologist, specialist or CAMHS expert – are your source to support your other teachers.

‘Us’ not ‘me’

Years of school leadership can take its toll and the teaching profession does nothing to recognise the drip-drip effect of exposure to the painful circumstances of vulnerable children on your stress and, ultimately, your mental health. I have met way too many stressed out school leaders who are burdened with the personal stories of children in distress.

There are two key problems when it comes to trauma management in a school: first, psychological trauma is contagious and can spread through a staffroom. Second, stressed and emotionally challenged people are not in a position to manage the emotional pain of others in a healthy way.

The elegant solution is simply to work as a group. This makes sense particularly in larger settings which can benefit from a range of personalities and experiences around the table. Simply talking in terms of what “we” are going to do removes the burden from any one individual.

This group is best made up of those who know the students differently, including, for example, a teaching assistant, SENCO, teacher, counsellor, social worker, educational psychologist and even CAMHS experts.

Meet at the same time each week and bring tea and biscuits and make it a sacrosanct time that is respected and even enjoyed. Each of your staff should be encouraged to talk about their experiences of your top 10 most challenging students and how you are all struggling and working together. This can turn the burden into a valuable and even enjoyable experience.

Learn what behaviours mean

The most common behaviours that staff misinterpret are either autistic spectrum, Attachment or hyperactivity. Yes, there are loads more behaviours you need to be savvy about, but you can bet that pretty much every state school in the country has students that present with these specific conditions and these students will be in their top 10 most challenging. You need to understand the behaviours and make sure your staff do.

However, it’s difficult to persuade highly educated and experienced school leaders that their level of knowledge of child psychology and related behaviours is inadequate and, sometimes, ignorant. You are simply not given enough guidance and support or training about these matters. Please spend time and money on CPD around these issues as it will ultimately save you that time and money many times over elsewhere.

Be creative, be brave

Whatever you do, don’t seek off-the-shelf solutions. They don’t work – if they did, you would have heard about it by now. Similarly, don’t wait around for whichever service to eventually see the student for 45 minutes and hope that this going to do something. Don’t try and make up for a lack of good solid teaching when the experience of turbulent and badly managed classrooms has real damaging impact. A simple questioning of motivations and barriers can result in some insightful ideas and your own in-house solutions.

One boy I met in a school, who lived in the poorest area in the country, told me he loved gardening but that his housing estate didn’t have any greenery. We worked out that the school would reward him with seeds, a trowel and an area of the field. It was linked to SMART targets including attendance, preparedness for learning and classroom engagement (and it did not cost much to implement). Long story short, the student ended up going to horticultural college as opposed to risking NEET status – the more bespoke your solutions, the more likely they are to work.

Common success factors

Michael and I tried to answer the not so simple question: what do we know about the schools that are successful in managing really challenging students?

  • First and foremost they “get” troubled young people. They appreciate that such young people “are distinguished by their regrettable ability to elicit from others exactly the opposite of what they really need” (L Tobin).
  • They work hard at working with parents and families.
  • Teachers reinforce consequences for the things young people get right as well as when they get it wrong. They help young people to understand their responsibilities, make the right decisions and not blame others.
  • Their feedback is specific (e.g. you made the right choice there by walking away from that situation, I like the way you asked me for help with that first task in the lesson, etc). This also helps decision-making.
  • Staff don’t let troubled young people push their buttons – they maintain control and don’t “lose it”. They maintain professional responses rather than emotional ones.
  • Teachers use “time in” rather than “time out”. Banishing young people may only compound any sense of worthlessness. Imagine how being sent away might affect someone who has already been rejected and abandoned numerous times in their life. The message of keeping them close is that while their action is unacceptable they are not.
  • During a crisis time staff remind them of when things went well to give them a broader perspective of the situation.
  • Staff help young people express their emotions so they don’t have to rely on negative “acting out” behaviour.
  • Staff carefully watch and listen to the young people. By doing this schools can predict “flash points” and prevent them.
  • Young people are prepared for change and transitions. This reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Lessons are suitably differentiated so that learning is matched to needs, interests and aspirations.
  • Teachers provide choices to young people. Of course, this is not whether to complete the task or not, but offering a choice of tasks or ways of doing it.
  • Teachers develop and use peer support networks. This benefits all young people with regard to personal development.
  • Schools that are successful with the most troubled young people are great at building relationships with them. Students are treated respectfully and are championed.

Final thoughts

I want to end with a final point: be guided by one key question, which you need to ask yourself, your colleagues and agencies – is this student a danger to themselves or others? When you meet with social services and especially CAMHS, ask this question and minute the answer, because this is the basis of your decision about whether to keep the student in your school or not.

This is not just your last resort and vital evidence you may need for exiting a student out of the mainstream, but also your legal duty to your staff and students. But don’t use this nuclear option without fully exploring positive behaviour management and techniques for de-escalating challenging scenarios.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via http://bit.ly/2jwoKP8. Michael Purches is the head of Inclusion Expert’s Northern Team.


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