At risk of dropping out? How to turnaround a disconnected young person

Written by: Mark Goodwin | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We all understand the importance of re-engaging with disaffected students and those at risk of dropping out, but this is often easier said than done. Mark Goodwin – who does this for a living – offers his advice and a ‘turnaround checklist’


Some young people do not like school much. It saddens this teacher to write those words but I see evidence of it every day in the schools I work with and the young people I meet there.

Regardless of their home environment, they did not like school before the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, and they likely won’t like it much in the future.

In fact, they may be even more reluctant to attend school than they were before…

So, how do schools re-engage these young people? My role every day is to do just that, re-engage with pupils who have been non-attenders at school due to either illness or exclusion – or pupils who are still in school but deeply disengaged.

I regularly persuade young people that school is something worthwhile, valuable and, if they work really hard at it, even life-changing.

I help them to accept that school can work for them and education is something with which they need to engage. This reconnection happens through complex transformation work that involves rebuilding self-belief and self-confidence, as well as changing mindsets and behaviour.


Any teacher can do this

When you are able to turn around young people who have been written off by schools or others, people want to know how you do it.

In response I will often say Every Child Matters. Or Meet Them Where They Are. Or Throw A Wide Circle. Or Work At Really Seeing Them.

And although all of this is true, a simple mantra does not really cover the craft involved in turning around a disconnected child.

The following checklist is compiled from experience and lessons I have learned doing this work. I offer it here for three reasons:

  • Because it serves as a list of actions any teacher can take.
  • As a reminder that turning around a young person is a complicated and nuanced craft.
  • A list this comprehensive can serve as a reminder that there is probably (always?) something else that you can try with that “difficult” young person in your classroom.

However, before looking at the list, consider your answers to these vital questions…

  • Is the learning space you are offering more attractive to them than their comfortable, disconnected space?
  • “Why should I do school?” – Have you got a convincing answer to this question when they inevitably ask you?
  • Can you set aside your judgement, ego, status and emotion and “meet them where they are”?
  • Do you believe disconnected children are doing their best with the resources they have got?

Your answers to these questions will go a long way to deciding how successful your reconnection efforts will be.


The Turnaround Checklist

  • Show that you believe in them, however they show up, even if you are the only one who does. Speak and act in ways that show the extent of your belief. Regularly refer to their potential. Find plenty of ways to connect your belief in them to the values of the school and build a community around them.
  • Be real about the challenges of life and the universality of those challenges, but talk honestly, encouragingly and openly about overcoming any challenge, whatever their circumstances. Things will change and other people (just like them) have done it. Optimism and hope help to create a more positive future – first, help them to visualise this future, then recognise even the smallest steps towards writing the new chapters of a different story.
  • Use a “Cookie Jar” to collect examples of “esteemable acts”. Notice what they are doing well and positive examples of habit and behaviour change. “See the best part” and “Catch them being good”. Collect evidence in the jar of the changes they are making. When things are hard, remind them of all the things they have done well before.
  • Helping disconnected young people is incredibly rewarding but can also be challenging and draining work. Look after your own wellbeing and check your own emotions and mindset. Speak from a growth mindset of possibility, improvement and positivity. Respond rather than react to situations. Give the young people the time and space to do the same.
  • Be present. Speak less, judge less and listen more. Ask questions and be curious – you are the experienced, adult professional but be humble enough to admit that you are not perfect and things are sometimes difficult for you too. Offer solutions, give choices and positive ways forward. Break the next steps down into micro-steps – even focusing on just the next minute if necessary.
  • Be interested in the context of their lives and their experience. Show empathy. Understand their needs.
  • For the most part, avoid the language of power, control and coercion. Use the language of potential, responsibility and relationships. Be generous with final warnings and last chances. Be even more generous with fresh starts and clean slates.
  • Of course, exam success is important – but also help them to find their passion, meaning and purpose. Build connections to school, learning and themselves around these as much as you do around passing exams.
  • If you are not happy with work or behaviour in the first instance, have a quiet word – talk about consequences but do it with grace and understanding and protect the dignity of both of you.
  • Talk honestly about the difficulties of change – how we all have massive in-built resistance to change but it can happen, it just needs a change of belief and that vital first small step.
  • And remember, most young people have heard every threat from the adults in their lives and plenty have had them carried out – if they worked, you would not be reading this.


Conclusion

In essence, this checklist details the actions that help any teacher to really see a young person. The wonderful African expression “Sawubona” (I see you) encapsulates all the ideas on this checklist.

Sawubona means, approximately: “I see you, I am connected to you and in doing so I bring you into being.”

There is no doubt the difference a teacher can make when they are deeply connected to a young person as a fellow human being instead of just part of a data set, a behaviour point, member of an intervention group or a progress score.

Everything I have detailed above is a reminder of values and strategies from teaching wisdom of old. Reconnection work is not easy, but we don’t teach because it is easy – we are teachers and teachers absolutely can do hard things.

  • Mark Goodwin has 20 years’ experience as a teacher, school leader, trainer and coach. Mark is the founder of Equal Parts Education, a company that delivers a turnaround programme for permanently excluded students across the Midlands, as well as working in partnership with schools and universities to deliver training and coaching to staff. Mark’s passion is still the classroom and he can be found most days teaching across all phases, in mainstream, alternative and special education. Visit https://equalpartseducation.co.uk/


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