Saturday, 21 May 2011

A Teachers View

Like the vast majority of schools my school contains a mixture of pupils ranging from the conscientious and high achieving to the disinterested and in some cases disruptive.

Often the approach towards pupils who are categorised as “uninterested and disruptive” is the use of well meaning strategies such as an alternative curriculum or intervention lessons in the areas of the curriculum in which they are deemed to be underperforming. This tactic in many cases proves a successful one with pupils benefiting from a more targeted approach to their learning. However the obvious and all too common outcome for some pupils is that their interest in school and their self esteem is further damaged.

Whilst considering such a group in my school and through discussions with senior management and colleagues I decided to try another approach with a group of twelve year 8 pupils. I decided to run a Life Skills for Children program which I had previous experience of working with younger children. During this course year 5 and 6 pupils attended a workshop aimed at teaching numerous life skills including: dispute resolution, how to formally meet and greet people and perhaps most importantly how top spot and avoid dangerous situations.  For now the priority would not be exam results, CAT scores or GCSE options it would be communication skills, achievement, anger management and social awareness.

During the previous Life Skills course Key Stage 2 pupils were trained to deliver basic Life Skills material to their peers thereby reinforcing their own knowledge and creating the opportunity to develop other pupils as trainers. This method also had the benefit of creating a completely sustainable method of delivering important life messages to hundreds of pupils following only one day of training. We are all aware the power of peer to peer delivery and that empowering pupils provides them with a huge boost in self confidence.

Following the initial delivery of the course I was inundated with enthusiastic pupils either wanting to immediately teach their peers and pupils who had heard about the course and who were keen to take part in future sessions.

Having had such a positive experience I decided trying a similar program with the older children. Following consultations with colleague’s twelve pupils were selected.

The support of my senior leadership team was invaluable throughout the process. The group we selected was very mixed to say the least, indeed the group consisted of a combination of male and female pupils with very low self esteem yet academically very strong, pupils with highly disruptive and sometimes aggressive tendencies and the perennial underachievers. The group also included pupils who had a strong dislike for each other to such an extent it was affecting their school life on a daily basis.  

Gary from Life Skills for Children ran the course as twelve complete day sessions during which the pupils were taken off timetable. Prior to commencing we tried to ascertain what would make the course a success, the prospect of all pupils turning into model pupils? , changing the views of sceptical staff? We quickly came to the conclusion if we were able to get a positive response from at least three pupils it was worth doing and that the measure of success would be gathered from pupil, staff and parental feedback at the end of the course combined with observations of pupil progress on a weekly basis.

The Skills work shops were delivered through a variety of methods such as group discussion, written reflections, instructor and peer led presentations and physical training sessions requiring the pupils to work as a team. The main areas covered over the twelve weeks included:

Communication skills
Danger awareness
Actions and Consequences
Dispute resolution
Social responsibility
Target setting

Day one left me feeling rather uneasy to say the least. Pupils regularly stormed out of sessions particularly when they were asked to reflect upon their strengths and weaknesses. Pupil disputes that we were already fully aware of soon escalated whilst the feedback from the pupils regarding their teachers and others in authority painted a picture of total mistrust bordering contempt. Most notably their opinion of me as their head of year is perhaps best not repeated, I still wince at the comments I read following day one! I am pleased to say by the end of the course this changed considerably.

Day two was perhaps even worse with the aggression levels of the pupils increasing as they clearly did not enjoy expressing their private thoughts to be mocked by their peers. They certainly were not ready to accept that some of their behaviour was wrong and they could use an alternative method of getting their point across. My greatest concern at this point was the quiet withdrawn pupils had become even more withdrawn.

By day three the rules changed. Until now the pupils were allowed to express themselves anyway they wanted now they were only allowed to make positive comments, if someone insulted them they were told to respond “thank you”. To be honest by day three the pupils had actually got “bored” with swapping insults and acting disinterested. Gary gave them all opportunities to succeed each day and they began to “self police” the pupils actually began to develop a low tolerance to others negativity. At first I put this down to them viewing disruptions by their peers as potentially lengthening the time they would have to be there, by the midway point of the course disruptions appeared to be viewed as an affront to their enjoyment and learning during the course.

Over the next few weeks the workshops continued and I began attending and joining in the sessions. During one such session I watched pupils present their ambitions to other class members who had to ask questions, the mocking and constant sarcasm I had previously witnessed was gradually disappearing and the pupils were beginning to form a team.  One pupil who had point blank refused to speak in front of the other pupils on day one delivered a quiet brilliant presentation on his ambition to be an MP and did so with confidence. When asked what his next step would be he responded “I want to be confident enough to knock on a stranger’s door and explain what the liberal democrats can do for them”.  One pupil who had openly ridiculed him the previous weeks with the familiar “geek” jibe now viewed his ambition as “cool”!

Life Skills had a massive impact on the majority of pupils. I have no doubt that by the end of the program the pupils had been coached in some very important potentially life saving skills. The group had been coached in numerous strategies in order to help them get the best out of both themselves and others. I can confidently say through feedback from teachers and parents that for at least six of these pupils the Life Skills Course literally changed their life.

“life skills changed my sons life, thank you, I only wish this was available when I was at school” A parent

“I used to be scared of some of these pupils, now I know I can stand in front of them with confidence” A pupil

What about the rest? I thoroughly believe had this course been ran a year earlier for some of these pupils the response would have been just as encouraging. Life Skills is not a magic bullet it will not convert the masses but it will significantly improve the lives of many pupils.  

Running this course leaves me with a strong feeling of optimism there is an option for the thousand of pupils for whom school is not meeting their needs. For the countless number of children who year on year fall into the spiral of anti social behaviour I thoroughly believe through my experience Life Skills for Children would make a difference.

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