Take a walk on the wild side to get challenging pupils on track
Children with behavioural issues are often shunted out of mainstream education, but simply taking them out of the classroom environment can be enough to turn their lives around, writes Georgie Sweet
Simon suffered from a pronounced stutter and was quiet and withdrawn. He lacked confidence. Staff struggled to engage him in lessons. But one day, he suddenly started taking every opportunity to read aloud in class, his stutter almost disappeared, and his confidence and enthusiasm for learning became obvious.
Then there’s Emma. She has a considerable track record of behavioural issues and has been at risk of exclusion. Bad decision-making and a failure to take responsibility for her actions often led to confrontations with staff members and students. Now she’s attending voluntary after-school revision sessions to improve her school grades. She’s more focused, makes better decisions, and is being polite to her peers and to staff.
What happened to these two individuals to change their trajectory? Quite simply, taking them outside of the classroom environment.
Every teacher recognises the young person who struggles to thrive in a conventional classroom. They might be very bright, but they can’t settle. They “bounce off the walls”, challenge authority, drown in distractions. They don’t see any point in school – or, at least, they claim not to. In these cases, schools normally resort to behaviour management or containment, but it rarely works and these children tend to exit the mainstream system and enter alternative provision.
There is a better way of helping these students. I am a member of support staff for children with special educational and behavioural needs. At our school, we’ve put in place interventions in which the most behaviourally challenging students are offered outdoor and expeditionary experiences, and it has had a significant impact.
Outdoor education is, thankfully, a growing element of many schools in the UK. Few now do not offer an outdoor education programme, even if it is purely extracurricular. We have tailored the curriculum at our school so that outdoor learning is a regular part of the timetable and we have seen some of our most challenging students thrive.
The outdoor experience comes in the form of six weekly sessions of climbing, mountain biking and canoeing, spread across the year and totalling 24 days. Children in care, those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those at risk of exclusion have an opportunity to take part in a weekly forest school throughout the year, too. Outdoor ed can be taken as a BTEC. We also run a very successful Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (Dofe) programme with an intake this year of more than 120 students for the Bronze award alone.
The first effect has been a reduction of students’ anxiety levels. Poor behaviour often stems from anxiety about the environment inside the classroom. By taking themselves outdoors, students often find this anxiety is lifted and they feel more in control. They also avoid falling into the typical behaviour patterns – which often become habitual
– that are triggered by their environment.
The second benefit has been a consequence of the first: with some of the barriers removed, the students become more engaged and involved. The group-based nature of outdoor activities encourages teamwork and communication, which helps develop the students’ confidence and self-esteem.
But while outdoor learning in school builds a foundation for growth, have you ever considered a real expedition for your students? You might see it as shock therapy, jolting the young person out of a behaviour pattern. I prefer to see it as an opportunity for them to change. Either way, what I’m referring to here are not trips or even outward-bound excursions. Rather, I am talking about hard, gruelling expeditions.
In my spare time, I work as a leader with the British Exploring Society – a charity that develops programmes to take 14- to 24-yearolds into wild and remote locations to support permanent change in their attitudes, skills and self-efficacy. Those with very challenging behaviour are a key target of the programme.
Leaders from many walks of life – scientists, photographers, doctors, members of the armed forces, those in outdoors education already, mountaineers, engineers and