Observing vulnerable students during lessons

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

For teachers with challenging or vulnerable students in their lessons, observations can become all the more stressful. Daniel Sobel looks at how we must observe the pupils in question and not the teachers...

Colin has been teaching for seven years and is a good teacher. Ryan is a student with a variety of needs including being a looked after child, having SEN and a history of challenging behaviour.

Colin is anxious about the lessons he teaches Ryan; there is a new principal in post and he is worried about making a bad impression. Colin feels unsupported, especially by the SENCO who is too busy. He begins to doubt whether being a teacher is good for him. An observation is coming up and he gets the doctor to sign him off sick.

And so it begins for Colin – a good teacher with all the potential to be great is now experiencing that which many teachers encounter. There is a debate to be had about lesson observations. They can be useful, challenging, damaging, inspiring, pointless, tick-boxy, a façade and many more things. But I am going to side-step this elephant and hone-in on a different story...

The new principal meets with Colin to establish which students he would like her support with. She reassures Colin: “Every teacher in mainstream education has experienced challenging students and that’s okay. Part of my job is to help out and one day soon you will do the same with other colleagues.

“There is zero reflection on you as a professional but only if you engage with me in this process of being open about the challenges and then work with me to do our best to overcome them, together.”

How is Colin feeling now? How have Ryan’s chances changed? What is the impact on Colin now that we have shifted the focus from his teaching onto how one or two of the most challenging/vulnerable pupils are learning.

I spoke to my good friend and colleague Robin Street, co-principal of the well-known UCL Academy in north London. Staff there are committed to reflective teacher self-evaluation and with their diverse cohort are always asking questions of themselves about how they can better support students and staff in the classroom. Together we have been developing a programme to rethink how we support class teachers with the most challenging and vulnerable students. This article is a summary of our discussion.

What can we observe?

If we have established that the purpose is to help both Colin and Ryan, this observation needs to dig into things other than simply the quality of work. We know that one observation and feedback cycle is not going to change much.

We are looking for incremental steps towards enabling Ryan to engage with the lesson. Put any aspirations around Ryan’s grades aside for one moment, success here is getting him to participate and engage. “Incrementally” could mean lessening the negative behaviours and upping the engagement for one bit of the lesson at a time.

Let us also put aside the notion that either Ryan has a good lesson or he does not. We are looking for elements of success and how to build on those as well as to pre-empt the negative. So, here are some guidelines for successfully carrying out such an observation:

  • You, the observer, must be kind, compassionate and genuine. Make sure you acknowledge that these students and classes are a challenge for any teacher. This compassion must also seep into your phrasing about the students themselves: “Ryan has some really big challenges in his life and he’s evidently suffering a lot inside. I can appreciate why he’s struggling to manage himself inside any classroom.”
  • Make the feedback informal but authentic. Meet over a sandwich rather than in a performance-style meeting and make it about how “we” did. Keep your eye on the prize – helping Ryan to engage in the class and making Colin feel bad in anyway is probably going to have a detrimental effect. Even if the class is a disaster say: “It’s really tough teaching Ryan and we do have a mountain to climb and I completely admire you and I want to support you every step of the way. We will get there together.”
  • Get back to basics. What are the routines in place for Ryan that create a safe and predictable environment for him? Does he know them and are they stuck to? It is easy for any teacher to lose the perspective of this when we feel dragged into conflict and distraction. This is how observation is a benefit – to see that which is hiding in plain sight.
  • Many challenging behaviours relate to different aspects of “I can’t”. The student will shift the focus away from learning to a conflict with a peer (typical avoidant behaviour). Ask yourself: what is Ryan feeling now? Does he feel like he belongs in this classroom? Does he feel like he could do this work and participate?
  • Understanding. It is difficult to know if this is the chicken or the egg but, along with the above issues of routines and encouragement, it is the fundamental question: to what extent does Ryan understand any bit of the lesson?


As a school leader, you need to be clear in your mind as to what a lesson must feel like for Ryan. Furthermore, whatever you come up with has to take little time and effort for our teacher Colin else it will become unsustainable.

Below is an observation checklist for students who present as being difficult to include because of their challenging and negative behaviours. Notice that the focus is hardly on their behaviours at all – the priorities are about enabling them to feel like they “belong in the classroom”.

You can use this checklist as the basis for your own version and I would recommend that you attribute some kind of measure out of 10 so you can compare to see if there has been any incremental change week-to-week.

1, Are they ready for learning? (Routines)

  • Are they sat in the best place?
  • Is the student comfortable so they can focus? Lighting? Line of sight? Sound?
  • Are they ready with the right equipment?
  • Are they thirsty or hungry?
  • Are breaks and movement planned for?
  • Do they have a role in the class?

2, Encouragement

  • Are they welcomed and greeted with warmth and a smile?
  • Do they feel like they belong?
  • Are the students’ successes however big or small celebrated regularly with praise?
  • Is there evidence of student interest or enthusiasm, positivity or joy?
  • Do they leave the classroom in a positive frame of mind? Have they been praised and encouraged?
  • Are they spoken with about their challenging behaviours calmly and without negative or disparaging comments about the student themselves?

3, Positive interaction

  • Does the student have (any) positive interactions with peers?
  • Where appropriate, was the student asked to share their views?

4, Do they understand?

  • Does the student know what this lesson is about, the context and purpose of the tasks?
  • Does the student fully understand the key words and the tasks?
  • Is the work too easy or too hard?
  • Can the student easily find help if they need it?
  • Are there moments where the student is clearly adrift or bored? Why?

Try this approach

Observing students is not new but perhaps it is under-valued as being the lesser useful version of the “Teacher Observation”. I hope this article has given you some pause for thought about how powerful it could be in both supporting teachers but also including and engaging some of the more challenging and vulnerable children.

You could choose two teachers, each with one particularly challenging or vulnerable student, and have the initial chat with them focused on support and working together. Spend a bit of time in the lesson using the checklist above and chat it through with the teachers. Do the same a week later and see if anything changes. And just in case it is not obvious, speak to the student after the lessons and find out how it was for them.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND and Pupil Premium reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via http://bit.ly/20YDhq5
  • Robin Street is the co-principal of the UCL Academy in north London and deeply committed to teacher-coaching and improving pedagogy. He is currently advising on a teacher development programme with Daniel Sobel and the Inclusion Expert team.

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