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How To Motivate Disengaged Students

Many young people hit a patch where they lose interest in their studies. This might be due to any number of factors such as teenage hormones, faltering self-confidence or the dislike of a particular teacher. Students with special needs can experience this as well – some might say that they are even more susceptible to ‘turning off’ from education because of the extra obstacles they face.

It’s not uncommon for youngsters with SEN or SEND to become school refusers because of anxiety and overwhelm, for example, while others – such as those with ASC (autism) or ADHD, say – can find it challenging to focus on subjects that don’t interest them.

Naturally, this is frustrating and worrying for both parents and teachers. How can we support disengaged children and reignite their interest in learning?

Mainstream School Challenging for Many Students

SEN Tutor James has supported students with a wide range of SEN but has particular experience in helping young people who have been excluded. “So many of the kids I’ve worked with have had poor experiences at school,” he reflects. “Does it really matter if you don’t have the right pencil or the right uniform? There can be a lot of unnecessary wars in the classroom.”

He gives the example of John, a young man with an EHCP who was excluded for surly and uncooperative behaviour. At home, he was a young carer, helping to look after a severely autistic brother, and he himself exhibited some autistic traits.

“I started working with him when he was fifteen and he’d already been out of education for two years,” James recalls. “He was hanging round the streets with his mates, getting into fights. Everyone said he was ‘unteachable’ but when I looked into his background, I discovered he’d been so anxious at primary school that he’d hidden under the desk, crying. Why didn’t anyone at his secondary school realise he was too scared to engage? Did no-one think to ask him how he was feeling?”

Build a Relationship with the Youngster

In the first instance, James endeavoured to build trust with John, drawing up a contract itemising what they could both expect from each other such as respect, time-keeping and no shouting, a tactic he uses with all his students. “I use language they can relate to. I might say, ‘don’t d**k around’, for example. I also make it clear that my job is to work with them for a short while but I won’t be around forever. A lot of kids have been let down by adults so it’s important they know what to expect.”

He also maintains that it’s crucial to help a child to work out what they like and what their goals are. John expressed an interest in street art and graffiti so James helped him to pass a Level 3 qualification in art, at the same time creating bookmarks and knick-knacks to sell online and at a local market. John used the profits to buy new trainers and take his girlfriend for a meal – a massive boost for his self-esteem. Describing his wares and calculating costs also used English and maths skills for ‘real life’ purposes.

“But what was really interesting was that here was a young man who was causing trouble with his mates yet he was too anxious to go up to order a coffee in the café where we used to meet,” James continues. “He didn’t want to look silly.”

“One day, I told him he was going to go up to the counter, order a cup of tea, and take it to a lady called ‘Sue’ who was a regular in there. He was nervous at first but we practised what he would say and what might go wrong. When he gave it to Sue, she was delighted. After that, she always called him a ‘lovely boy’. John was an ‘ASBO kid’, no-one had ever said ‘lovely boy’ to him before.”

Parents Can Take the Pressure Off

It’s very easy, he points out, for parents and teachers to forget how immature and unfocused they themselves might have been as a teenager. Better to remain optimistic that the young person will also have a ‘happy ending’, he advises.

“But I would say the most helpful thing families can do if their child is disengaged is to ‘back off’,” James concludes. “Instead of pushing them to do their homework, ask, ‘How are you doing today?’ It doesn’t help if they feel their parents are on at them all the time. Give them space.

“Apologise if you’ve made a mistake and said something you shouldn’t and don’t sweat the small stuff – it takes time for young people to mature. If your child has SEN, be realistic about your expectations. One autistic boy I work with hasn’t left his bedroom for two years. His EHCP says his objective is to make eye contact but he’s never going to find that easy. But this lad makes amazing, wooden artefacts – why aren’t people focusing on supporting that instead?”

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