Why your most challenging students need you the most

Astrid Schön

Monday, 10 September 2018

The most difficult children in the classroom are usually the ones who need their teachers to be supportive and genuinely invest in a supportive and understanding relationship.


Every teacher has a story about an incredibly difficult to manage student, a child who is an unholy combination of rude, uncooperative, disruptive and hell bent on sending every member of staff, from LSA to the Headteacher, to an early grave!

A child that has stopped caring about what anyone thinks of them, a child whose behaviour has been deteriorating rapidly since the moment they joined in Year 7, a child whose only raison d’etre has become to wind everyone up, stir as much conflict up as possible and be at the centre of every argument going-  be that with other students or a member of staff.

B+W sad girl


Most of us have had that sinking feeling when it’s time to teach your most challenging class led by a ringleader whose only objective is to make you miserable and destroy the lesson you have worked on for hours the night before.

"...these students are constantly on high alert, always in fight or flight mode, forever expecting to be attacked or have their position challenged by those around them."


Some teachers manage to find some sort of middle ground with this student and battle through. Some teachers even succeed to come to some sort of truce on certain days and get some work out of this class – usually when the ringleader is excluded or truanting.

Some even manage this type of student well. But many despair and are only too glad when this particular student’s time is up and they’re moved into a pupil referral unit or some other alternative provision.

But when we stop and bother to find out what this type of student’s background is, where he or she has come from, what kind of parenting they have experienced, what neglect or abuse they may have been subjected to– it is only then that we understand why some children have no other option but to deviate from ‘normal’, expected behaviour patterns and responses to stressful situations. 

  • Many students who have grown up under adverse conditions and have suffered trauma express this by withdrawing, closing themselves up from the world as a form of protection.

  • Some pretend that nothing has happened, lock their trauma away and seem to be coping fine with the demands of an ever increasingly challenging curriculum.

  • Others act out to seem strong and invincible, their loud acts of rudeness and disruption used as a way of masking their inability to cope, a way of scaring a possible challenger away and to always be on top.

These children cannot distinguish between a situation on the streets, a fight, a robbery, a beating by someone from another gang, a domestic violence incident at home, or a perceived challenge by a teacher who is asking them to do something they can’t do.

sad student


Being in this state all day, every day, puts school and learning, as well as a teacher’s request to complete a worksheet or answer a question to the bottom of their list.

Excluding a student after months of disruptive and destructive behaviours often seems like the only option left.


However, as a society with a conscience, a society that has a responsibility to care for our vulnerable children with the extremely challenging behaviours, we need to start looking at how we deal with the most needy, the most disadvantaged. We need to explore how we can support them to break out of the cycle of underachievement, mental health and poverty.

Schools need more support and expertise to deal with the most challenging children so that being excluded from school is not another rejection that these students have to cope with.

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About our Community Expert

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Astrid Schön
Community Expert

With 15 years of experience in mainstream schools and over four years in alternative provision, Astrid has worked with the most able as well as the most disadvantaged students in London.

She is currently the Deputy Head at London East AP, the pupil referral unit in Tower Hamlets, one of the largest in the UK, leading on many teaching and learning initiatives to address underachievement of students in both mainstream and AP. Astrid also leads on curriculum development, assessment and strategicdevelopment of the pupil referral unit.

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