Vulnerable pupils: When students cannot relate…

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Continuing his series offering practical solutions to common difficulties experienced by vulnerable pupils, Daniel Sobel looks at the varying ‘relating’ challenges we might encounter

I recently asked a pastoral leader to describe the types of encounters she had with the students in their school during a week. She described four students who presented with a range of concerns that could all be loosely described as “relating” challenges.

  • One student presented as being solitary and often choose to be alone. Staff looked at the student and worried for them.
  • The second student was seemingly very difficult to like and they were simply not being accepted by any other students.
  • The third seemed to have some positive peer relationships but had difficulty forming working relationships with staff.
  • The fourth horse of this apocalypse presented with a stubbornness around possessions and sharing.

We talked about the significant concerns for staff regarding these issues and what we could do about them. This article is a record of that discussion.

Teacher attitude

People ask me if it is merely a generational thing when school staff argue that: “Teachers shouldn’t have to deal with students’ emotional and psychological problems.”

I don’t know, but I do think that the most emotionally and psychologically wise generation of teachers are definitely my elders, but perhaps these are the handful I clung to in order to learn. This is perhaps a purely academic discussion, but you could posture that this is what underpins some teachers’ attitudes towards the most challenging of students.

If you think your role is to flex to the emotional needs of the students and build a relationship with the most challenging students then this has to be a recipe for at least a positive starting point.

Conversely, if you expect certain rigid standards of basic compliance then infractions of this nature are going to annoy you and will lead to the breakdown of relationships and, inevitably, these student will not be accepted in the classroom.

Consequently, regardless of cause, the heart of the pastoral matter boils down to relationships – and dealing with those can be sticky.

The underlying teacher attitude will manifest itself in the corresponding level of patience or frustration they show the student: fobbing off the challenge, showing an eagerness to learn through the challenge, accepting that they can influence the student, and so on. All of the students above could thrive with staff who are open to the possibility that they themselves can succeed with these students and who appreciate that, without them on board, the student really doesn’t stand a chance.

The parents

The other major stakeholder in all this of course is the parents. The very first thing to tell them is: part of growing up is learning through the challenges.

Reassure them that it is okay to have negative relationships, as long as we get there. A bit of reassurance and positivity can go a long way with parents (I speak from personal experience on both sides of the divide).

As a good rule of thumb, always get a parent to check the following three things with their child: a sight test, a hearing test, and a chat with the GP about the presenting concerns (which may indicate autism or other issues that we don’t yet know about). The outcomes of these three actions can significantly contribute to an understanding of any of the above behaviours.

What can we do?

Let’s now consider those common recurring inter-relationship challenges and work out some more nuanced understanding of the presenting concern and what we can do about them both in and out of the classroom.

Student one: Solitary

The first step is to get a slightly more detailed understanding of this presentation. Often, when staff describe a student as “solitary” it can present in any of the following ways where the student will:

  • Rarely join in with others in the class without being instructed to by staff.
  • Walk around by themselves at break or lunch times, often walking close to the wall or fence.
  • Answer others with limited detail, being rather shy and withdrawn when around peers.
  • Be reported by parents/guardians to remain in the house, mostly using their time playing on the computer or console.

Social withdrawal could be a neurological indicator such as autism, a psychiatric concern such as anxiety, a indication of home abuse, a combination of those things, or even something else entirely. Either way, seeking to understand more is the first step and don’t assume that this will be accomplished in one simple chat.

The obvious longer term solution here is to encourage participation in a gentle and unimposing way. A first step could be to ask class teachers to ensure that your student is always included in pair work, but as a third member of an empathic pair.

A common mistake is using a teaching assistant to be the other member of a pair, which reinforces social isolation even though it presents itself as a useful temporary stop-gap.

The common way of supporting such a student outside of the classroom is to establish a buddy system so that your student is encouraged once or twice a week to become involved in a break or lunch time activity of their choice. Try to team up your student with another student with similar interests, be they a member of the same year group or otherwise.

Student two: Difficulty being accepted

This is often a tragic scenario that can really pull at your heart strings. You desperately want the student to thrive, but you bear witness to how they are rejected. Commonly, this happens in the following ways where your student may:

  • Appear to be eccentric to their peers.
  • Irritate their peers by saying inappropriate things at the wrong time.
  • Touch other students in an unacceptable manner.
  • Appear overly friendly and not pick up the social cues of their peers when they become annoyed or vexed by unwanted attention.

You will probably find that most students are able to tolerate a certain level of “eccentricity”, but the few who are less welcoming may need to be encouraged to understand that there will always be a diversity of students in their classes and that they can benefit from the interaction with peers who may appear or seem different to themselves.

You can ask teachers to quietly broach with your student the inappropriateness of what they may have said in a non-accusatory way. Make sure to liaise with the facilitator of the social skills group (if you have this kind of facility) to ensure a consistent approach to phraseology and explanation.

If your student is not autistic, speak of how they might feel in a reversal of the situation. Would they like it if they were touched in a similar manner, what might they say and how would they respond? Draw attention to the attempts your student makes at being overly friendly with peers. Explain why peers may be upset by these advances.

There’s a self-awareness and understanding gap here that needs to be addressed in a quieter, more sensitive environment than the mainstream classroom so consider the following actions:

  • Inclusion in a social skills group to address peer relationships.
  • One-to-one sessions, at point of need, to address on a more personal level the need for appropriateness and the reasoning behind it.
  • A “circle of friends” set-up with your key student at the centre.
  • A buddy system to build the confidence of your student and to offer peer mentoring at times of need.
  • Role play within a social skills setting to establish the rules of friendships and the theme of “how to make friends”.

Student three: Difficult staff relationships

This may not be a specific event/incident, but rather be evident in an attitude you perceive when speaking with the student. But there are always signs – your student may:

  • Constantly “drag their feet” and arrive late to your lesson, usually to attention-seek on arrival.
  • Not accept constructive criticism without taking comments personally.
  • Respond negatively to a class instruction, as if it was directed only at themselves.
  • Answer back at the slightest request and then storm out of the lesson when challenged.

What you advise teachers is key here. For example, if your student arrives late to your lesson, accept them in with no comment, immediately “taking the wind out of their sails”, and address the issue, quietly and calmly at a more appropriate time. And never confront your student in front of the class.

The real work needs to be done outside of the classroom by trying to develop a trusted “go-to” adult that your student can access at times of stress or dispute. It is important to ensure that other staff know who this is, as too many people in the mix will confuse or exacerbate your student’s difficulty, allowing them to play one adult against another.

Student four: Difficulty sharing freely

Your student may present as refusing to allow others to use their equipment and become very protective of items, even if the peer is a friend or if a teacher asks that they share. Alternatively, other students may be sharing a snack or food item but your student chooses to isolate themselves away from others to avoid having to share their item.

This is almost definitely not a function of selfishness but rather self-protection. It could be that the items in their possession are the only things they feel like they have control over. The possessions also represent a personal trust boundary and the student may well be saying that they don’t trust another person – and that could also be a sign of a reaction to abuse.

But this is speculation and so the most important ramification here is that rushing to adjust their view on this would be the proverbial bull in a china shop and may do more damage than good. The difficulty is not for the student, but with their peers and how to manage their patience.

This is a broader issue of how we understand, accept and even welcome difference. It’s my guess that this student needs one trusting relationship and using an older student as a buddy may be a wise move.

In the meantime, a teacher could try any of the following steps in the classroom. The class teacher could gently remind your student that sharing is part of being in a class and that others will feel happy that they are willing to share too – and just monitor what happens. This simple, non-judgemental step is reassuring and focused on normalising participating in class behaviours. It could be enough encouragement in itself. Or it may engender a self-awareness in the students to their discomfort.

Alternatively, begin by asking if you can borrow an item of equipment and reassure your student that you will return it within a short space of time, maybe two or three minutes. Once trust has been established lengthen the amount of time that you borrow the equipment. Praise at every opportunity. Once you have established the “borrowing culture”, suggest that a peer may also like to borrow an item for a few minutes, repeat the exercise, again lengthening the borrow time.

This student could also be supported outside of the classroom by trying the following (depending on their age and appropriateness):

  • Social skills work to include establishing the idea of how others might feel if they have not been able to share items belonging to your student.
  • Role play to model acceptable behaviour around the theme of sharing.
  • Writing a “social story” around the theme of sharing.

Final comment

These issues are not easy to deal with. They take more patience than we have time for and our frustrations can stretch across everyone, from staff who don’t seem to get it, other students who appear to be cruel, parents who don’t do enough, and the student themselves – and yet, as a pastoral leader, you have to live with this and that isn’t easy.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. Daniel’s second book – Leading on Pastoral Care – is published by Bloomsbury Press. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via


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