Top tips on re-engaging disaffected young pupils

Fleur Sexton, joint Managing Director, pet-xi, leading provider of intensive results-based interventions for young people at risk of not achieving their academic potential, outlines the support which schools, teachers and learners need to re-engage with disafected youth.

My team and I give practical support to disaffected young people and have seen at firsthand how it makes a difference to their life chances.   

Whether it’s a quiet and withdrawn child, uninterested in lessons, or someone who is generally non compliant and causing low-level disruption, it’s important to act quickly before the situation culminates in truancy and eventually exclusion, antisocial behaviour or petty crime – all of which makes low academic standards a given. 

Varied and  complex reasons lay behind disaffection, but groups of consistently low achievers across the Key Stages include boys, pupils eligible for Free School Meals, some ethnic minority groups, pupils with EAL, pupils with Special Educational Needs, pupils with high mobility between schools and Looked After Children.

Most children are disengaged because they have not found their own particular road. If they don’t get it we have to try another way! There is always some way and it is down to us to find it. We also have to acknowledge that unfortunately 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, no amount of lecturing will make a difference. These youngsters have bigger issues to think about than English and maths, which simply won’t seem that important to them. 

Supporting disaffected young people is not easy and schools need effective and consistent strategies to re-engage pupils, maintain their progress and instil a sense of hope and aspiration for their futures.  It’s hard work, like mining for gold you have to chip away at all the obstacles to create an environment where engagement with education is possible.

  • Never give up hope - disaffected students have simply stopped believing in themselves. So it’s all about getting that sense of self-belief back. 
  • Help them master the basics – often missing out on the basics means students are not able to follow enough of the lessons to become or remain engaged and they start becoming disruptive. Mastering the basics is key.
  • Stop focussing on bad behaviour –that doesn’t mean being a soft touch, it just means being consistent, realistic and practical.  Troubled children need fabulous role models, mentors and high energy support. They must feel there is hope for the future. If the path is too narrow for them to stay on, find them another path.  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.
  • Acknowledge that change won’t happen overnight, but with sensible targets it is possible to re-engage with young people and instil them with a love of going to school, having a routine, working with their friends and having positive relationships with their families.  People generally want to feel loved and looked after, which can only come through inclusion. We must overcome the barriers, whatever they may be.
  • Use a mix of motivational and practical techniques to fire them up with enthusiasm and get them engaged. If there is a problem with homework, set up a club, or talk to their parents or carers.  If they have a problem understanding their work, sit with them until they get it - tracking elements that they don’t understand and nailing the basics is vital. The devil is in the detail.  Every last child needs support. Nothing is impossible. I don’t believe in barriers - they are there to be overcome. 
  • Make it fun – an engaged child will usually find learning pleasurable. But when they are disengaged you need to work hard to help create that enjoyment by making it fun, engaging and kinaesthetic  
  • Celebrate every success, however small, so that success becomes a habit and the students see themselves in a different light. 
  • Be patient, it’s like moving mountains, not a single linear journey and for every three steps forward there may be two steps back.
  • Remember the task is very time and labour intensive and needs people with boundless energy.

Our duty is to integrate and support all young people into a society where they can take their place and have a positive impact – as a society we have a moral obligation to help and support those young people who most need it.

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