Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Practice what you teach

Children bieng taught

"Let me get this right: you want some of our disruptive secondary students to act as positive role models for your Key Stage 1 pupils with behavioural problems? What could possibly be in this for you?"

This was one response Eithne Leming received when she approached local high schools about setting up a cross age tutoring project. Two years later, she answers the question.

The idea for this project came from a SHA conference presentation by Dr Carol Fitzgibbon a few years ago.

She gave overwhelming evidence about raising achievement with cross age tutoring projects, where older students worked with younger students in mathematics.

Her talk inspired me to start a similar project, but working specifically with challenging students.

I am head of First Base, a pupil referral unit for children aged 3-8 which also provides behaviour support outreach for the southern area of Suffolk.

Pupils admitted to our unit attend small group sessions only one day a week for two terms. This means we have several groups per week and a turbulent in-centre pupil population.

Our main curriculum focus is PSHE and so it seemed that this area, along with communication and social skills, would be a logical basis for a tutoring project.

We started in January 2003 by partnering with Copleston High School in Ipswich.

They identified students from the end of Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 who had challenging behaviour and who staff felt might benefit from a nurturing environment.

First base training

Our first group of six student volunteers started off with one full day's training at First Base.

This included observation and communication skills, the role of the cross age tutor, its limits and boundaries, knowledge of policy and practice on child protection and approaches to pupil discipline.

I aimed to develop their skills in how to listen to children, ways of managing distress and anger, assertiveness and negotiation skills and ways of getting their message across and helping others solve their disputes effectively.

At the end of the day, I left the decision to the students as to whether they went ahead with the project. It was important that they wanted to do this, rather than felt coerced.

The students come in once a week for a morning or afternoon session and form part of our flexible support team. They supervise lunch and play time and join in our circle time.

They help by making observation notes on individual pupils and they sometimes work one-to-one with a child who is having difficulty on a particular piece of work.

We spend a lot of time coaching them on how to listen and how to give positive feedback.

For some students, it takes a while to assume the role. Some initially revert to children's behaviour themselves, for instance playing in the sand or painting.

Depending on their background, it may be an experience that they didn't have as a child. Where we can, we let them have a period to act out those behaviours. Gradually we remind them that their role here is to be an adult.

Because these are students with behaviour issues themselves, we try to be aware of any concerns they may be dealing with at their own school.

I spend a lot of time talking through strategies that they've learned here for communicating or negotiating with adults and help to apply them to what's bothering them in school.

Confidence booster

Although no formal evaluation has yet been conducted on the outcomes for the first cohort of teenagers, informal feedback from students and staff has been very positive.

"The benefits are there," says Janet Osborne, head of year at Copleston High School. "These are children who were constantly defying and challenging authority, stopping teachers from teaching and other students from learning.

"We gave them this opportunity to be trusted and heard. They were closely supervised and only two went at a time, but they were given responsibility, they gained in confidence and got praised."

Since then other schools have joined the project. Students who volunteer do so for a number of reasons, but usually they are seeking to use their experiences to help others.

One student remarked to me, "If I can help a child avoid some of the trouble I have got myself into, I will do it."

I am told that now the project has attracted considerable kudos amongst other students, so much so that there are no shortages of students ready to volunteer as tutors.

We currently have eight volunteers and are planning to take on another four next term.

Mirroring behaviour

Unlike many other forms of support for students with challenging behaviour, this project works on the principle that the best way to help oneself is to help others.

Anthony Fleming, head of Year 9 at Thurleston High School, believes that the secret lies in a developed sense of self-awareness by students.

"To some degree, it has been like a mirror. They have looked at these young children and realised what their behaviour has been like.

"They have realised that there is a right way to behave," he adds.

"It is a fact that these pupils are now more polite and cooperative," says Geoff Reynish, a form tutor at Thurleston.

"In their daily interaction with other pupils and teachers they request more frequently, rather than demand, and they know how to go about things in a non-confrontational way. They have become more tolerant."

To make a project like this work, communication between the high schools and the early years setting needs to be excellent. I have one link person in each high school who coordinates the volunteers and deals with any issues.

I provide weekly email reports on each student and receive feedback from the schools as well.

So, finally, in answer to the question posed initially, what is in it for the younger pupils who attend? They get to have a positive relationship with a young person who wants to be here for them.

For some of our young children, these students might be the only people in their lives who are not paid to be there helping them. They particularly value the fact that the students are volunteers.

It seems therefore, that there is something in the project for everyone - a good example of a win-win situation for all concerned.

Eithne Leming is head of First Base, Ipswich, a pupil referral unit and behaviour Support service for children aged 3-8 years.


Thirteen year-old Tuesday, one of the student volunteers, gives her perspective on the cross age tutoring project.

When you play with the children here you give them praise. You don't put them down or say, "That is not very good, that is wrong." You say, "You have tried your best. Maybe next time it could be even better."

I have to show the children how to do things nicely, like how to sit nicely. If one person is sitting and you say well done, then everybody else sits up with their legs and arms crossed.

If you are helping a child and another one wants your help, you say, "Wait a minute I'm helping him and then I will come you." The children learn to be patient and when you help them, they really respect you.

At school people used to wind me up and I would get stressed and shout. Now I know how to say things instead of shouting. I think before I speak.

I wish the teachers at my school could come here and learn. Instead of shouting at you, teachers should talk to you like they do here, and explain things so you cool down.

I think it has matured me being here. I was shy about speaking to new people. The children here have confidence to speak to older people like me, and that has given me confidence too.

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