Teacher tips for 'challenging' pupils

Elle Mc

I am a Year 6 Teacher and English lead teaching in a Catholic Primary in South Yorkshire. This is my fourth year of teaching and I have always worked in Upper Key Stage 2. Outside of English, my teaching interests lie within behaviour management, wellbeing and SEMH and reading for pleasure.

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I moved schools this year, and was told the class I would be teaching were challenging. It is only after eight weeks that I’m beginning to understand their very complex and significant social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) and behavioural needs. I have by no means ‘cracked’ them, and each week is like a rollercoaster. However, I’m here today to report back on some definite dos and don’ts I’ve learned.

The context

This class of 25, over recent years, have had a run of bad luck. Their teachers have either been off sick, left, or been job shares. In between that they’ve had supplies who unfortunately haven’t done them any good. Due to this inconsistency, they have developed an ‘us against them’ mentality. They’ve heard other adults call them the ‘worst class in school’, and they’ve taken that as a badge of honour. They expect adults to leave and give up on them because that’s all they’ve known. They don’t know how to learn effectively, they don’t know how to regulate their emotions and manage conflict and, above all else, they don’t know how to compromise and behave in a civil manner to one another.

Our school behaviour policy is based on ‘When The Adults Change’ (Paul Dix). We use scripts as behaviour reminders and follow the restorative approach to conflict resolution. The truth is, this is difficult to enforce in my classroom. At the moment, I’m working towards relentlessly applying this behaviour management system, but this is only one part of a complex tangle of needs and approaches I’ve had to try in 2 months of trial and error.

Circle time

For the last 2 weeks of half term we have been facilitating 1-1.5 hours a day of circle time. This is structured in such a way that we check-in and discuss how we’re feeling, share things we did successfully the day before and then reflect on next steps. In the first one we discussed what the classroom felt like then and how we wanted it to feel. From that we’ve identified 8 behaviours, or words, that we strive for and these form the foundation of each session. After half term we’ll adapt these sessions and focus on one of these words per week to fully embed their meaning for the children. The words are:

  • Responsibility
  • Safe
  • Generosity
  • Caring
  • Considerate
  • Positive
  • Acceptance 
  • Inviting

Educational psychologist

I appreciate this resource is dependent on individual schools’ situations and budgets, but I wanted to mention it. I’ve had a couple of sessions over FaceTime with our EP in which I explained the situation and she offered her advice. This included creating a ‘team’ along with a team song, motto, mascot and establishing myself as the leader – a crucial step toward eliminating the power struggle in the group. Some of this worked well, but other parts, such as ambassadors of key behaviours, didn’t work as well. I have kept some aspects of this, but I am continuing to work with the EP on what we’ve been doing and getting guidance on how to manage it going forward.

Praise, praise, praise

Some days are easier than others! However, I truly believe that positive emotion beats negative every time. It’s the way in which I’ve been delivering this that needs attention to detail. General, whole-class positive feedback and praise features regularly and is something the class needs to hear. We use postcards and phone calls home to target specific children, which always works well because it involves the parents. There are one or two children who benefit from 1:1 pep talks at least once a day. These children struggle with managing their behaviour, many with their temper, and they need consistent adult praise and recognition for every little thing they do well. To the point of praising them for tidying away efficiently and being ready after one lesson in the entire day. These small wins stack up over time, and are crucial to building relationships with the most vulnerable of my children.

Label the behaviour, not the child

I witnessed my headteacher do something amazing that I would never have had the guts to do before (for fear of an angry parent phone call later in the day), but it was done in such a compassionate yet ‘matter-of-fact’ manner that it really worked. A child gave an inappropriate response to a question in circle time to get a laugh from their peers. My headteacher had come down to be present and to support me. He challenged the answer, asking the child to explain their reasoning, and when they couldn’t, simply said he believed the child gave that answer because the child feels uncomfortable addressing these difficult emotions. After a few kind and encouraging words, he asked the child the original question again and they gave the most sensible and practical suggestion of the whole session. I am now building the confidence to call out and label behaviours. Using them as teaching opportunities to support the children and ensuring that I always follow-up with the specific child/children afterwards.

I appreciate a lot of the content here is more strategy than resource-based, so I have linked some useful reading below which has helped me in understanding my complex class over the last half term. I hope you find some of this useful:

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