Internal School Avoidance- how pupils avoid paying attention

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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.

Teacher well-being: it’s not about the doughnuts!

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Back in 2008, Gwyneth Paltrow started sending out a newsletter for her Gloop empire. It was founded on a simple premise: ‘being well’ was no longer defined by ‘not being unwell’. Being well means actively preventing harmful things from entering your body or mind as well as actively undertaking behaviour which leads to a healthier body and mind.

Dial back to the message being sent out to teachers in that 2000s era and it’s about ‘resilience’ and preventing snowflake teachers from wimping out of the hard yards of being a teacher. It was only when they noticed huge numbers of teachers leaving the profession that they started to really take these things seriously and we started to see initiatives about well-being and workload being brought in. And some of these initiatives have had an impact. Certainly the ‘deep marking’ years of triple coloured pens seem to be finally behind us. The ‘verbal feedback stamp’ has been ground down to a pernicious stubborn nub. But all of these things are not really getting to grips with just what we need to do with our profession.

If wellbeing is no longer ‘not being unwell’, what alternative definitions are there? Cambridge University’s Wellbeing Strategy and Policy offers “Creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organisation”. The DfE offer an Education Staff Wellbeing Charter which says wellbeing is “A state of complete physical and mental health that is characterised by high quality social relationships” saying soberly and perhaps presciently “it is critical in recruiting and retaining high quality education staff now and in the future”.

When a teacher has to work extraordinarily long days and weekends, sacrificing time that could be spent with their family or on their health – the effect is not just tired teachers. It’s teachers without well-being. Teachers unable to achieve well-being directly because of their profession. It’s effectively like being unwell. These teachers know that their job is harming their personal physical health and they know it is harming their relationships with people important to them. In teaching, there’s little flexibility alas. You either work long hard hours or you move schools to a school that doesn’t make you work long hard hours, or you change profession. But don’t people in non-teaching jobs work long hard hours? Sure, but not every week, every weekend and week in and week out. And if they do, they’ve got a similar problem with well-being or it’s likely their employer are offering something else which people accept to offset the harm – such as a high salary.

When you see a school offering doughnuts, or well-being days – it is easy to think these are good things. However, it’s not really targeting well-being. A reduction in workload initiative which hands back time to a teacher to spend with their family is much more powerful as a well-being initiative. When teachers are stressed from work intensity, behaviour management issues or even toxic colleagues and managers then this causes cortisol levels to rise. Today, instead of having resilience to high cortisol levels, teachers are increasingly leaving the source of this stress and finding alternative places of employment. It’s why leadership and retention of staff is seen as so important. Whilst praise and appreciation of the hard work and sufferance undertaken by a teacher is sometimes well received, it does not remove the source of the workload or the stress. Teachers all pull hard on singular occasions – a school play or a parents’ evening. But when it happens every week the praise starts to wear thin.

In some trusts, the job descriptions and role outlines are clear – you are expected to have a worklife balance whether you are M1 or UPS. In some trusts, the job descriptions are the opposite. We all remember ”that” advert: “High energy and sacrifice are required to excel in this position. We cannot carry anyone. We need a commitment from our assistant headteacher to stay until the job is done.” The suggested hours of 7am to 6pm are beyond those with young children or upper pastoral care responsibilities. Should some roles really be exclusively for those without children or responsibilities?

That is not to say teachers cannot work hard without harming themselves. Going to see plays, visiting a museum, listening to a show on Radio 4, getting up early on a Saturday to travel to a ResearchEd event are all extra hours related to work, but they are not toxic hours. There is a balance to be had.

When I look at parts of the profession, I see harm to well-being and unwell teachers. We know that toxic people lurk in our profession. We know that no matter what Ofsted does to its inspection framework, its inspection process causes perpetual harm and a constant state of unwellness to those in our profession. It needs to rethink just how the process does this. Is it possible to protect children through safe-guarding and ensure high standards of teaching with less harm? The constant threat of inspection reduces well-being across the profession and some of Ofsted’s work clearly pushes teachers out of schools and out of teaching. It’s not about developing resilience and toughening up snowflakes any more. It is about cultivating healthy well-being and that means our profession is driving teachers away from teaching because these teachers want to be actively healthy and if they cannot achieve it in teaching they will leave and find a place where they can.

Teacher talk, pace, and behaviour management: symptoms or causes?

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Whether it’s a discussion about the value of lesson observations, learning walks or the new drift to instructional coaching, there’s been a real shift in the language people use for feedback now. One type of feedback that has caught our attention is the habitual tendency of observers to use nebulous terms which describe symptoms rather than cause.

Let’s take the term ‘teacher talk’. At one time (and early career teachers won’t believe this I’m sure), but OFSTED inspectors used to go around lessons in OFSTED inspections watching teachers teach and then not only would they grade the lesson, but they’d mark the teacher down for too much ‘teacher talk’. In a similar way, some enthusiasts, pushing back once OFSTED backed down from this position started promoting for more ‘teacher talk’. As if either side, with their stopwatches and clipboard are adding anything to a teacher in giving the feedback: ‘too much teacher talk’ or conversely ‘too little teacher talk’.

It is clear we need to stop focusing on the symptom of something like teacher talk and instead focus on finding the cause. Take a classic error from a teacher – not deploying questioning strategies effectively: involving all students, sufficient wait time, targeted questions, supplementary questions, social constructivist questioning, understanding if you are seeking recall of knowledge or if you are constructing new knowledge and so forth. There are many more questioning strategies, of course, but the point is that if you are not good at deploying an evidence informed range of questioning strategies effectively then the voice you’ll hear the most will be your own! The symptom is too much teacher talk – which is a valid observation, but a terrible target or feedback. Instead, you should be accurately identifying what particular aspect of the lesson is causing too much teacher talk and then undertake some form of coaching around that particular area. If, as an experienced teacher, you can see that one of the questioning strategies is being used ineffectively, then you can work with the teacher to bring a focus on how a particular approach to questioning is being used and how to use it more effectively and in keeping with the evidence.

Another key bête noir of ours is the ambiguous term of ‘pace’. If you ever want to ask a teacher to talk for an extended period of time to fill a gap, ask them to explain what ‘pace’ is in teaching. Setting pace as a target is similar to that of teacher talk. It’s a very loose, collective noun for all manner of things which could be done differently. Routines within the classroom is a common issue where an experienced teacher can observe a less experienced teacher and think to themselves – I’ve lots of very small but strategic routines which I use within a lesson, but I’m not seeing such routines here. But pace isn’t just about time spent and routines. Switching back and forth between student-led tasks and teacher-led tasks, or simply switching from one task to another leaves you with transition issues (in particular the running and the end of a timed activity). There’s a reason that teachers call timings through an activity and circulate feverishly at key points during segments within the activity. They are undertaking formative assessment, often allied with adaptation and monitoring progress to squeeze maximum learning from the time pupils are spending on an activity. When an experienced teacher observes a novice teacher they might see missed opportunities to adapt a task for a student to make it harder or easier, or even to drop in some key missing knowledge in a mini-teaching spell. All these things and many others all contribute to what we call ‘pace’. But setting pace as a target is really not helpful – it’s just a symptom. It would be better to focus on small sharp segments of a lesson and discuss individual students, strategies and when to deploy them because then you are focused on the causes instead. What does not work is when an observer can only see symptoms and even worse, when they think the cause is something else.

Even the often-used ‘behaviour management’ or ‘low level disruption’ are still symptoms. Children going off task might be seen as a behaviour management symptom, but the cause could easily be poor instructions, lack of challenge or inconsistent routines – all pedagogical issues (though I do not prescribe to the view that lessons have to be ‘entertaining’ or ‘engaging’ for good behaviour management. They should be cultivating curiosity but that’s another blog). They might not be caused by a lack of familiarity with the school’s behaviour management policy and more to do with routines, pedagogy or simply inexperience. If you’ve never worked or trained in a school that routinely undertakes group work and then you go to do it, then you might find it difficult to manage clear expectations. An experienced teacher knows to put into place for group work, structures such as timings, roles, agendas and very very high expectations about participation as well as ensuring the groups are well selected. As an experienced teacher, you might notice something missing within the pedagogy – the lack of an agenda or explicit timings. Telling someone that they need to work on low level disruption or better behaviour management during the group work isn’t the feedback that is needed. Instead, you would work with them to establish each component of the activity and which is contributing to the symptom of behaviour management.

What is left then, is a clear model. Feedback and coaching should focus on causes, not symptoms. The inexperienced teacher will often quite correctly identify the symptom and an observer communicating the symptoms in their class is not going to be great revelation to them. However, having that forensic focus on the cause of the symptoms is much more helpful for the inexperienced teacher who can then start to develop new strategies in order to target the cause of the symptom.