We’ve all heard about the new focus on internal truancy. First there was external truancy where pupils skipped schools in unauthorised absences. Then we noticed they were dawdling between lessons, going to the toilets a lot – internal truancy, so we’ve cracked down on that and had numerous debates about locking toilets. This blog isn’t about those issues. This blog is about an avoidance of paying attention – for whatever reason.
Barriers to school attendance (school refusal is not the preferred term) is a complex area. Many schools have a designated teacher who liaises with parents when their child meets barriers with attending school. Often, a child has to go through a series of escalating sanctions before they access support. One of the most common areas for this is Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA). It’s far more common than you might think and Covid has amplified the numbers (7.5% of possible sessions were recorded as absence in Autumn term 2022/23, an increase from 6.9% in Autumn 2021/22 according to the DFE). Each child is unique in their reasons, but a good example is that they suffer extreme fight or flight anxiety about an aspect of school which leads to a reduction in their school attendance because there is a natural reluctance for anyone to want to be in a state of fight or flight for too long or every day. This blog is not about those children.
This blog is about the child that can, but avoids, offering the attentional control required to make learning happen effectively. That avoidance can be space physical (a pre-school child might not want to move from one zone to the carpet zone), it can be subtle physical avoidance (a child might make getting ready to work take so long that the “Do Now” activity time has finished before they started) or it can be mental avoidance (they sit quietly, look at the teacher, track, nod, but make no effort to focus on the actual learning). One of these three things happen in pretty much every lesson I’ve ever observed. It’s incredibly common. However, I want to focus on attentional control avoidance because this countermands everything we are doing as teachers.
Using Baddeley’s model of working memory, the central executive brings together the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop to form memories. However, this happens at a variety of levels. Imagine I am walking down the street thinking to myself. I don’t pay that much attention to the environment around me or the familiar route I am taking. However, I then get to a point where the road is closed blocking my normal route. I then need to find an alternative route in order to continue, it is the central executive that enables me to do this as it ‘switches’ attentional control
In the classroom, a pupil uses attentional control to learn. They suppress their other thoughts and instead focus wholly on the thing being taught. Well, that’s the idea. Unless they don’t. And we’ve all been there. Sitting up, listening, tracking the speaker, nodding and wholly zoned out. We are as guilty as any other when it comes to not offering attentional control from time to time.
There are a variety of reasons pupils do this. Sometimes they are quite open about why they are doing it. ‘I’m tired.’, ‘It’s boring’, ‘I already know this’, ‘It’s too hard’ and ‘It’s too hot’ are all things pupils say to us. Sometimes they are discreet about it. They are are slow to get ready, slow to write, only answer questions in simple terms, make little effort in their spoken or written work. They are not paying attentional control. They can do it habitually in every lesson, or only in some lessons and indeed sometimes only for one teacher. There is a ceiling to how much behaviourist approaches to learning can improve this situation. But an issue it is. Because every educator you know will say they see this lack of attentional control on a regular basis from pre-school to post grad. And I want to personally honest here. I’ve been in meetings and talks where I am sitting up, listening, tracking the speaker, nodding and I’m actually away with the fairies. Sometimes my thoughts just go off on tangents. Sometimes I have other things on my mind. I’ve written before about anxiety and the way this affects our working memory and capacity to provide attentional control. If it affects us as adults it most certainly affects children. I have to be clear. I’m not focused on children who are trying hard to provide attentional control despite challenges. Those who have anxiety or other needs which are impairing their attentional control are not the subject of this blog. It is the many who could, but don’t. They waste time, they work slowly, they participate less than they could and they don’t focus their executive function on the learning happening.
And are there answers? Well, yes.
I’ve written before about episodic curiosity. When a pupil wants to learn in your subject they apply maximum attentional control to every aspect of learning in your lesson. It absolutely supercharges their progress. You could take the same child and move them to a different teacher or school and they would still be making awesome progress due to that level of attentional control. I recall a pupil bumping along at sub 4 for all of Year 10 and at the end of the academic year they told me they wanted to be a solicitor and asked what English grade they’d need to make this dream happen (needless to say, my answer was a shock to them). What happened next astonished me. They started paying attentional control to every aspect of every English lesson. They asked for and completed extra work. In the exam they scored an 8. I can’t take credit for that learning. But it taught me about the power of having a pupil motivated to learn in my subject. It taught me about epistemic curiosity and how important that is. When I really want to learn something, I really pay attention and the same is true for pupils!
We seem to be focused on cleaning up the cognitive landscape to remove extraneous load. We are using knowledge of studies from psychology to make remembering easier. We are very focused, rightly so, on behaviour. And then we watch child after child, in lesson after lesson, not pay attentional control. And we, as teachers, see it very often. There is a ceiling to CLT in lessons and a ceiling to behaviourist approaches. Those ceilings are that a child can simply withdraw or mute their attentional control. They might as well have 60 days a year off school instead, because that is the impact on the learning of some of those with the most reduced attentional control. There are lots of answers already out there and each pupil is unique and their personal solution might be complex. But until we start focusing on this area, then we are consigning a huge amount of learning hours to the dustbin of internal school avoidance.