One of the most common issues teachers chat with me about is how to support the disengaged. Of course, that’s no surprise; these students can, superficially at least, seem like they’ve ‘called our bluff’ and discovered we cannot control them. However, that really isn’t important. What is important is for us as educators to recognise is that there is a lot we can do to support change. Disengagement can happen for a million reasons; are there attachment issues? Do they feel inferior, or not stretched enough? Are they skilfully flying under the radar? The trick is remembering this: Understanding is hard; once we understand, action is easy.
So first of all, let’s seek to understand. We need to take into account the age of the child, their personal circumstances (home life, etc). The reason for this is simple. If we say, ‘that child is just defiant’, then we struggle to come up with a solution, as this is a judgement. We’d probably look to use sanctions and consequences to ‘win’. Even a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder can only be a helpful start point, remembering that a child is much more than a label. So in our quest to understand let’s adopt a technique from the thought provoking book Lost at School, by Ross W. Greene; rather than make a statement of this kind, we’ll use a framework beginning with ‘has difficulty with…’ So, the child might ‘have difficulty with maintaining focus’, or ‘difficulty with managing emotional responses to staff instructions’. these would be what Green calls ‘lagging skills’. From there, we can identify ‘unsolved problems’, ie specific when and where issues; ‘Difficulty returning to class after break time’, or ‘Difficulty joining in with literacy tasks’. Now, we can go somewhere with these. Solutions start to appear. We can put routines in place to support them, differentiate in our planning, cane them…(no, not that one…flippant moment, sorry).
Once we’ve got that awareness and understanding, we’re travelling in the right direction. So let’s look at a range of possible approaches, which you can then filter according to your new perspective and better understanding (free of assumptions, remember).
Planning-can you incorporate their interests into the lesson? Can they support another learner? Do they need an alterative curriculum? Will it help if you emphasise the ‘real world’ value of the topic you are discussing? Do they become ‘overloaded’ by content?
If long periods of sitting is a cause of disengagement, can you incorporate movement breaks?
Relationships can be key; ensure that they are solid and certain; your student may be the sort that will follow you long before they follow a set of rules…
Having belief in their own future can help with older students. Careers guidance is vital here, but if you know what they want from life, could you use that info to help?
Analyse-when are the engaged? Are there any common denominators here that could help you to see a way forward; perhaps they are better at a certain time of day, or day of the week, or with certain topics.
Some people advocate giving them their own personal whiteboard and marker to help them to focus; attach expectations and routines to pre-empt misuse-doodling!
Try paired activities that gently ‘force’ them to engage-so perhaps a ‘turn and talk’ activity. But be cautious of setting tasks for larger groups, as they can melt into the background at this point.
Practical activities are worth a try, as is the use of tech-tablets, etc.
Is there a diagnosis that can help? So (taken from the Behaviour Ninja App), with an ODD child:
- Clear rules and routines-cause/effect, delivered without emotion (Super Nanny style);
- Calm staff (fight fire with water);
- Offer choices;
- Use scripts to maintain a calm environment, including de-escalation scripts;
- Firm, fair and friendly communication at all times;
- Sophisticated use of public praise (maybe Remote or Triangulated); admonish privately where possible;
- Recognise you are in it for the long haul! Patience is vital.
OK, I hope that’s helpful! Thanks to Sharon, a colleague that asked the right questions that led to this advice. There’s much more advice in the app, and you can always contact me too!
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