Jen’s reflections: ‘challenging’ students – what do we really mean?

In an earlier blog I touched upon challenging students. Schools give us their ‘challenging’ students to work with all the time.  But what do we really mean by ‘challenging’?  Is it becoming an overused (or too readily used) word to describe someone who can behave in a way that is not accepted in the situation they find themselves? Surely each of us is challenging in one way or another; I know I’ve had my own challenges to deal with – confidence in presenting, taking myself out of my comfort zone, focussing.  When I look back to my own school days I shudder when I question whether I would have been classified as ‘challenging’. By some teachers? Probably. By most? Not at all.

But what is it that makes us categorise a student as ‘challenging’?

When I think of the students we work with and when I reflect on how I feel before we meet a new group, I realise I’m most apprehensive when a school says “we’ve given you some of our livelier or challenging students; those who display behavioural difficulties.” But actually, more often than not, it’s the kick off sessions with those groups that I find I most enjoy.  They are the sessions I leave with a huge smile on my face and feeling excited about the forthcoming programme.

By contrast to what I expected, they’re usually the students who are ‘up for it’. Alright, we might need to sell the programme to them but fair enough. Once they’ve bought into what it’s all about, they don’t mind taking a leap of faith and going with things we suggest.  It’s during sessions with students of this nature that we’ve lost time debating the most random of topics, which is great because it allows us to really get to know them. By taking this time out of the planned schedule for things like this, they see that we’re there for them and genuinely interested in their opinions – it’s why we build so much flexibility into our session planning.

By comparison, it is the sessions with ‘coasting’ students I find most challenging. The students who do alright; they do their time at school, sometimes that’s the minimum but they don’t give their teachers anything to complain about; they have potential to achieve so much more. The challenge with these students is livening them up enough that they are willing to engage, to take themselves out of their comfort zones and make the most of the opportunities presented to them. We get there with them, but it takes time and a different sort of effort to overcome the apathy displayed by some.

Then there are those who are lacking in confidence, the ‘wall flower kids’. Whether it’s natural shyness or as a result of past experiences, for some of these students, their lack of confidence blocks their development and potential progression.  We’ve worked with many students like this over the past few years. They aren’t usually reluctant to engage, they just go about things in a different way; most will hide behind their more outspoken peers in the hope that we won’t notice them.  It’s these students that tug on my heartstrings; whether it’s giving a presentation to their peers or even simply speaking loud enough for others to hear them in small group discussions, every milestone they reach makes me silently “woho” for them.

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In some ways I can relate to all three characters; an unfortunate combination of a peer that could lead me astray, a lesson I found boring, or a teacher I didn’t respect and I could easily be the ‘livelier, more challenging’ student. Equally, in certain situations like having to read out loud in English, I would clam up and become the ‘wall-flower’.  On the whole I was probably most like the ‘coasting’ students I work with now; participated in most things, did my time and did pretty well, but probably could have done better.

I guess it’s for this reason that I’m so passionate about what I do and the students we work with; I can empathise with most of them. Would I have turned out differently if I’d had something like Unlock at school? Quite possibly. That said, I also had incredibly strong and positive adult role models in my family and one or two teachers.  At 14 I had two jobs and socialised with the adults I worked with. Perhaps seeing adults as real people, getting to know them and benefitting from their experiences unlocked my potential. Perhaps this was my version of the programme I now run for students.

Whatever it was and whatever the type of student schools ask us to work with, I’m grateful for the opportunity to help them evolve and develop.  Over the last six years I’ve worked with some incredible students, have endless anecdotes of their development, personal successes and achievements. These experiences have shown me how much students are able to achieve – regardless of how they’ve been classified.  They have well and truly shaken my perceptions of any particular ‘type’ of student. Perhaps we all need time to reflect on the perceptions we form and whether they cause us to label, or predict what people can achieve – this is by no means limited to schools.  It’s for that reason and those experiences that I take on the ‘challenges’ students present us with and am confident in our ability to make a difference.

Jen Moran

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Related blogs:


Jen: questioning the impact we have on students


Jen’s reflections: what makes us different from teachers?

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