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.

Working memory of teachers – how anxiety affects quality of teaching

We all recall our first foray into teaching as a beginning teacher. Trying to manage the technology of SIMs for the register, meeting and greeting pupils at the door, remembering which childen have specific needs, checking for uniform, managing resources – it seemed to be there were so many things to remember and undertake. And then if you had behavioural issues as well – it could easily all overwhelm you. As experienced teachers, we know that behaviour, interruptions to our classrooms, faulty equipment and so forth, can intervene and make the basic job of teaching and adaptation exceptionally hard. But have you thought about looking at this from the perspective of cognitive science? In particular the focus on working memory?

Working memory has limitations. That’s readily established. It depends on a number of contextual factors, but regardless of those variables, it’s limited. Load it up too much with extraneous load and it stops the basic intrinsic task from being undertaken so easily. We think about this all the time for our pupils, but have we thought about it from the lens of a teacher?

There’s an interesting 2019 paper from Angelidis et al., on how acute cognitive performance anxiety increases threat-interference and impairs working memory performance. It starts from a readily established academic position that we all know about: if you stress about a situational context it affects your ability to do the task. Whether it’s public speaking or playing sport – anxiety can impair the execution. What the paper then goes on to do is to measure working memory using an established psychological test. They then cultivated stress through an established psychological method (ironically, for us as teachers, the stress is created by asking participants to perform a mathematical task whilst receiving scripted negative feedback. Maths anxiety really does need more focus!). What they discovered was that loading up the stress impaired working memory. Now to be clear, the paper acknowledges that it is established academically that some stress is helpful. Too little stress and you underperform. In particular, the focus is on anxiety, not just stress. The paper concludes anxiety is counter-productive to working memory.

Starting from this premise then, you begin to reflect on what teachers use working memory for and what things might impair this capacity. This is in no way comprehensive, but let us look at some basics.

Teachers use working memory to:

1.       Teach – the things we said at the start: managing resources, organising the lesson, asking questions, developing answers and so forth.

2.       To adapt. I separate this out because it relies on constant monitoring of students, how well they are undertaking a task and then intervening and adapting. It happens constantly and continuously as a teacher ensures that adaptation takes place and a feedback rich environment is present.

3.       Recall subject knowledge from long-term memory and apply it to the lesson.

4.       Monitor and manage behaviour. Again, there is a constant focus on behaviour as the teacher scans and ensures attention (and I use that term academically, e.g. attentional control) is maximised throughout the lesson. Very quickly we can see how too much overload, anxiety-related or simple overload could overwhelm working memory here.

5.       Follow non-negotiables. There will be tasks that always have to be followed regardless of the flow of lessons and we note that this is quite the debate in educational circles where they can be seen as unnecessary or interfere with a teacher’s ability to undertake other tasks.

6.       Ensure Ofsted compliance is being followed. I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t think about Ofsted and how they might ‘view’ the things that happen in the classroom. Writing, reading, marking – and if the school is expecting an Ofsted inspection there could be anxiety pushed onto teachers from SLT.

7.       Adult on adult bullying in the school workplace. Hierarchical, horizontal – it doesn’t matter. We all know it exists and is driving teachers from the profession. Half of the stories from that Facebook group for teachers that have left or are leaving the profession cite adult on adult bullying as the cause. That this stress can then impair teacher working memory and thus ability to teach shows that we have to be very careful in this area.

7.       Thinking about the observer’s thoughts before, during and after an observation. Anxiety about an observation can affect the very thing the observer is trying to observe.

8.       Non-teaching things. Let’s be honest here. Teachers are human. They think about divorce, children, bills, cancer, family, relationships, physical and mental health and so forth. These things could be very much related to anxiety and providing what the paper calls ‘threat-interference’ to their working memory capacity.

Quite quickly, we can all see that there are multitudes of stresses and anxiety-inducing factors that could reduce the capacity of a teacher’s working memory. There are also key pinch points in the year where anxiety and stress are high – parents’ evenings or during mock exam marking season for example. All these sources of stress would then have a direct impact on the positive things that we would like teachers to spend that working memory on. But not all stress is bad remember. Reviewing children’s access to learning and introducing adaptation is a healthy stress – it requires careful monitoring and intervention. Creating a feedback rich environment is helpful, but stressful. In a good way. Thinking hard about questions and questioning takes working memory capacity. Recalling subject knowledge really does need working memory capacity and focus and is eminently helpful for the lesson. But if you are trying to cope with poor behaviour then recalling subject knowledge becomes more challenging. If you have anxiety about poor behaviour, even when the behaviour isn’t present, it still affects working memory.

If we are to keep teachers in the profession then we have to focus on the working memory of teachers, not just pupils. We need to think about tackling things like poor behaviour. We need to question ourselves about the helpfulness and accuracy of observations as well as reflect on the impact of the anxiety produced in teachers by Ofsted and even things like non-negotiables. We should be focused on ensuring that things like providing support for teachers going through challenging times with family and health are readily available. Doing things such as these can free up capacity in working memory for the things that really matter in the lesson – the teaching and the adaptation. It’s time to focus on the working memory of teachers, not just pupils.

Dr James Shea

As part of our ongoing work we periodically undertake research into areas of neuroscience and cognitive science and their application to teaching. If you are interested in being contacted in the future with a view to being a participant, please email to be placed on a register of interested participants. If a suitable project becomes available in the future you will be contacted and offered an ethically vetted process to give consent to participate.