Supporting pupil focus

FOCUS! Engagement! The countdown to exams…
The Woods are on Fire!

How can we improve focus and engagement in students who have been off the pace in the past so they can step up in the last phase of exam preparation…?
Bottom line up-front…This post is all about the sorts of conversations we want to be having with exam candidates, in the build-up to study leave…about building the right mind-set in order to detach from the safety of the attachment with the class and the teacher in order to move into a productive zone where the student can be present more independently, with the task of preparation, and the task of sitting down, alone, to confront the exam paper. 
This may, therefore, be less relevant to primary school practitioners – with the exception of those of you who may be gearing youngsters up towards performance challenges of one type or another.

As I write this post, I am in anticipation of  doing a motivational talk to Year 13 at a school, where I do consultancy days, but also work regularly as a coach. It’s one of my favourite days of the year – and also the one that I get quite nervous about. I love it because I’m going to try and generate some really positive energy around this last push to perform. I love it because I know the school well and am known by the girls with talks I have done for them in the past. I also love it because I have worked with quite a few of them as a coach – some in depth. So it feels very much like home turf – where I can push back at the audience, be motivational, and real.

What makes me nervous about it though is the fact that at this time of year, for a whole group of exam candidates, there’s a lot of anxiety in the air. There can be cynicism. They’ve had all the talks already. They’ve had guidance. They’re over-loaded with it…They know they should have done X, Y Z already. They still have that mountain to climb. Some of them have already got it all going on, and they’ll be sitting forward, leaning into the topic. Some will be sitting back, disengaged, blaming circumstances, teachers, life…wanting to be any where else, but knowing they are not able to get there without going through this damn process. So how to get them to choose life, choose work, choose to grasp this opportunity and steer away from the bad habits that are contributing to their beleaguered world view now.

Snowed under, overloaded…signs of burn-out…underprepared and ready not ready to leave…

I’m really lucky, because when I speak to teens, I do so not only from a theoretical background of psychology, science, and education, I do so as a coach, spending hour after hour after hour listening – both with private clients and the ones I work with at school. It’s a privilege to work as a coach. 
• To touch in with the back stories behind disengagement, distraction, performance anxiety, social anxiety 
• To focus in on the feelings that they are in – that keep them where they are…
• To name and explore the impact and implications
• To grow and embed the vision of what it is they really want.
• To scaffold them in spotting the gaps for growth, and encourage them to grow into greatness. 
It’s those stories that I am harnessing and garnering from my store…
You’ll have them too. We’ve all taught under-performers. And some of them – some of them – manage to pull it off at the end. Sometimes it’s at the very end. These are the stories to think about right now. These are the ones who grasped the precious opportunity, who right towards the end of their 2 year courses, managed to dig deep and turn their situation around. What is it that they do? What changes in them? And how can we bottle it and pass the essence on to others who might be languishing in anticipation of this final frontier?

I am minded of a former pupil who failed the mock exam at A Level. And further timed essays in my subject (English) were not much better. We all hoped for lift-off. Extra sessions, one-to-ones, further timed essay practice occasionally mustered a D or a C. But there wasn’t any secure progress. Massive effort and energy were going in – but not to much effect. She went off on study leave, we crossed our fingers. And it was the best result we EVER had to see her get a top A, borderline A* after the magic dust of study leave did its trick. Somehow, free of the monitoring and micromanaging that comes from being an underperforming student at an academically successful school, she did it. And she did it by herself. 
What made the difference for her and others like her? I’ve been doing some digging around with these ghosts of teaching past to think through what levers worked. 
So…here are some killer question stacks to use in order to take stock, reflect, secure engagement and commit to focus. Why questions? 
Yeah, yeah…because I’m a coach…
But in particular this is all about opening up that window for them to take responsibility, to be responsible. To do it for themselves. 
For a number of teens, there’s some learned helplessness out there. They are masters of getting EVERYONE else to do the worrying and monitoring, setting and marking extra work, they’re being mentored by SMT…the school is throwing everything at them…the SENCO is trying to get leverage for extra time…they don’t have lunch any more because they are ‘doing’ back to back ‘surgeries’…and they STILL aren’t doing the business…So for these dudes, it’s time to change tack and bring them to a point of choice. 
LESS of your effort is going to mean MORE from them. Work on questions. Wait for them to think and give answers. 
They are much more likely to carry out plans that they have created themselves. They are much more likely to invest when they have stopped to design a sense of purpose – if not a grand life plan, at least a vision of what they are doing in this mid-to-short term.


  1. What do you want? How do you want to be and feel as an exam candidate? What would that look like?
  2. Visualise that sunny day in August when you go to pick up your results. How do you want to feel when you wake, when you walk into school? When you see your teachers? When you look at your grades? 
  3. Who are you being right now? Are you walking in the shoes of an A-Grade, B-Grade student? When are you? When aren’t you? 
  4. What happens if you do make a change? What happens if you don’t? How would you feel about that?
  5. When you are 80, looking back on your life, what would you say about your A-Level / GCSE years? How well did you use the opportunities and resources you had? How purposeful will you feel you were? What might an older you want to say to the you that is here and now?
  6. What are you learning from this? What are your choices?
  7. What is standing in your way?
  8. What are your peak experiences of having revised for something? When has the preparation you did paid off? What did you do?
  9. If you could grade your focus when you sit down to revise out of 1-10 (where 1 is total distraction, and 10 is complete absorption such that you lose a sense of time and self) where would you say you are at?
  10. Which subjects are your efforts closer to 10?
  11. Which subjects do you see that you have a lower focus?
  12. What makes the difference? 
  13. How can you dial this up – where a 4 becomes a 6 in a subject you’re not enjoying or engaging with, or where a 7 becomes a 9?
  14. What does this mean for when and how you timetable your work?
  15. What can you do to make yourself ready to put in 8+ focus?
  16. How do you know when you are learning something? What could you do to capture a sense of progress and efficacy at the end of your revision sessions?
  17. When do you play small with your revision? What sort of activities do you tend to want to do when you are tired or less confident in a topic?
  18. When do you test yourself? When you’ve covered all the material? How could you use testing yourself more strategically?
  19. What topics do you tend to do last? What opportunities open up if you try to do them earlier? 
  20. How can you hold yourself accountable for doing the small stuff – the little building blocks of your work? How can you do this so that it is visible, and obvious so that you can celebrate sticking to your plans and pick up on where you might be dropping off in your efforts or avoiding?
  21. Are there any people or situations that you need to avoid in order to stay focused on your work, your energy, your commitment to achieving your vision?
  22. What’s happening when you tell yourself you can’t do this? Or that this is really hard? What might serve you better?
  23. What are your typical distractions? How can you remove or reduce them? How can you make it harder to be distracted? 
  24. How can you make it easier to form the habit of focused work? What works for you as an incentive, how can you make getting down to work more pleasant / convenient/ feel more rewarding?
    Wellbeing and deepening focus
  25. Describe what your sleep patterns are like at the moment? How much sleep are you getting? How would you describe the quality of your sleep? What can you do about it?
  26. How do you tend to feel at around 10.30 / 11 – break-time?
  27. How much caffeine are you drinking? When do you drink it?
  28. How long do you work for? What do you notice about when your attention is at its peak? When do you start losing your pace and intensity when you are working?
  29. What do you do to rest? How can you make sure your rest breaks re-charge you and make you ready to go back to work?
  30. What drains your zest / energy? 
  31. What spurs your energy / zest?
  32. What can you do every day as part of a relaxation or calming practice to still your mind? So that you can access calm when you might find yourself under pressure?
  33. How does it feel when you have completed your work? What is satisfaction? How can you capture and savour that feeling as you build and grow along the way? How can your routine give you the chance to use relationships and connections to help wire in the good feelings around the building blocks of the work you need to do, as a counterbalance to a sense of looming threat
  34. How can you create a metaphor, a mantra, a talisman, a poster, some form of shortcut to inspire you to connect with the purpose of what this is all for, or your vision of how you really want to show up around this?
  35. How can you make yourself accountable – visibly – for the targets you meet – and those you drop – so that you can see the whole in overview and keep in proportion what you achieved and what you missed or did with less focus…?

Good luck – with those you are supporting and thinking about as the clock ticks down. Your calm, persistent faith in their ability to take responsibility – and the need for them to be ultimately responsible bestows choice & agency. These hard reflections are for them to do. For them to own and for us to gently back down so they can take off…
This is hard, this is risky. But we know ultimately it is right as they will face that exam paper on their own.

I was reminded of this last night after a Year 11 parent session on exams, pressure and anxiety. A mother of one girl I had coached very kindly came to say what in impact my work had had. But in particular to say that my decision to stop  coaching her and calling time on our sessions – despite the fact her daughter wanted more – and had more to do…had been absolutely pivotal in the biggest surge forward in terms of independence, responsibility and relationships.
Sometimes it’s the ones we hold onto the tightest, that we need to let go of the most…
With love and gratitude


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