Geoff Petty - Affecting the disaffected

Geoff Petty suggests some ways to get to the root cause of disaffection in students, and how 'FATE' could help them find the answer. Geoff is the author of Teaching Today and Evidence-based Teaching.

Disaffection is a symptom of a million ‘diseases’, which is why it is so difficult to treat. It’s not always the student or apprentice who has the problem, either. It can be the design of the course/apprenticeship, or the teaching.

Let’s probe for the most likely solutions. Then if they don’t work, I’ll describe a ‘silver bullet’. First, a checklist:

Are the students/apprentices studying at the appropriate level?

Do they have the necessary prior learning?

Have you actively sold the value of your provision to the learners from the point of view of progression, and the careers, lifestyle and earnings it might open up to them?

If the course or apprenticeship is not appropriate, can the learner change to something more suitable?

If that’s not found the problem, then what about the teaching? However difficult the student(s) might seem, everyone needs attainable tasks that are reasonably interesting and challenging, and everyone needs some recognition for their work.

Students enjoy creative work, presentations, choice, meaningful activities, and expressing their own opinions. Yes, I know disaffected students don’t behave well when they are given such tasks, but they behave even worse if they are not.

If the work can be exhibited or presented to peers, that is a bonus. Can you photograph the work, or put it on a website so the learner can show it off to their family and friends? Sadly, peer and home attention often trump teacher attention.

No such problems with the teaching? Okay, consider putting the student into ‘intensive care’. By giving special attention: show you value the learner as a person by asking them questions not related to the content of the course or apprenticeship.

Show interest in their views by eye contact, smiling, and nodding. Try using their name more often and in a positive way, and giving them special duties. Do not be judgmental. This is not easy! Some students are demanding to turn around, but they will be even more demanding if you don’t turn them around. If we don’t give them attention for what they do well, they will demand it for behaving badly.

It might help you to remember that NSPCC poster: “He drinks, he smokes, he spits at his teacher... What he needs is a damned good cuddle.” Still no solutions? Okay, here comes the silver bullet, but it takes time: diagnose the particular problem that the student has, and then get the student to fix it.


1. Find the real problem

Ask how the student feels about the subject/course/apprenticeship, or for the reason for their behavior or poor work. Do not criticise them and, if you can, avoid criticising the behaviour in detail. Use empathetic listening. Even if your first instinct is to blame the student, assume in the first instance they are willing and able, with help, to understand and solve the problem by themselves.

Do not jump in with advice or judgements. You may give another’s point of view, but without implying that you yourself hold that view. Show acceptance and interest non-verbally. You are looking for the reasons for the behaviour you want to change.

Useful questions are:

“What do you find most difficult?” For example, “What do you find most difficult about working with the other students in your group?” “Why do you tend to?…” “How do you feel?…” For example, “How do you feel about working in your group?”

Show empathy by listening without interruption; nod and use eye contact to show interest; and show concern about their feelings.


2. Agree a solution

Avoid blaming them or anybody else. Don’t collude in their blaming either. The student must see how they can solve their own problem. Say that you are only interested in making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Look forward. Ask the student for a way of avoiding or solving the difficulty. Give them the problem, and ask them for a solution: “So if that’s the problem, what could you do about it?”

Offer support in implementing this solution if you can: “Is there anything I could do to help?” If a solution is not forthcoming, ask the student to go away and think about it, then tell you what they have decided. If this doesn’t work, suggest a solution yourself, but ask the student if they can think of a better one: “Would it help if I?…” Ask if they are prepared to carry out the solution.


3. A target is set

For example: “So we agree that you will talk to Jess about your disagreement before the next lesson?”


4. An evaluation follows, to see whether the target has been reached

The student is made aware of the fact that the agreed solution is to be checked: “Good, let me know before the next lesson what you and Jess have agreed between you.” Find, Agree, Target, Evaluation creates the mnemonic FATE. If the first solution the student suggests doesn’t work, ask for another.

This is a powerful strategy, but it will not always work. For example, some students misbehave because they are under stress. Everyone has a short temper and behaves irrationally when under stress, and the cause of the stress may be beyond your influence.

In these circumstances, a counselling service or other referral agency may be able to help. Don’t blame yourself. Teachers cannot solve all difficulties. We would all do well to remember the following: “God, give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can – and the wisdom to know the difference.”