Needs Focused Teaching

Five Ways to Discover Student Interests

We are determined to keep the blog going in the way we originally planned – with useful, helpful information – so Rob has instructed me to continue with the ‘Stepping Stones to Positive Teacher/Student Relationships’ series.

Remember, if you didn’t download your process map for this series you can get one here…

In the last post we mentioned that relationships are built on dialogue (once you know what interests them you can easily start up a conversation with them) but it can be difficult getting students to open up – particularly in front of other students.  Here are some non-invasive ways of discovering students’ interests…

1. Thumb Ball

The Thumb Ball is an interactive way to get students talking. Use it as a starter, energiser, getting-to-know-you or Circle Time activity to stimulate peer relationships and discover student interests.

The basic principle is to throw the ball to a member of the group and get them to respond to one of the categories under their thumb when they catch it – hence the name. 🙂

The ball is covered in categories relating to a central theme such as ‘skills’, ‘hobbies’ or ‘personal qualities’ and can easily be adapted to fit virtually any curriculum area. You can make your own thumball by writiing categories on a sponge ball or you can buy one from

Full instructions on using and making a thumball are included in our latest digital product ‘Relationship Builders’. Details will be posted on this blog in a few days.

2. Learning Chips/Cooperative Cards

These work in much the same way as the thumball. Questions are written on each chip/card and offered to students. The student takes one and responds accordingly. These are also a nice group activity – split students into groups of four and have them work through a selections of chips/cards by themselves to build team spirit and encourage students to discover more about each other.

Learning chips are available from

Cooperative cards can be made using index cards and are also available ready-made in the ‘Relationship Builders’ pack mentioned above.

3. Suggestion Box

Have a cardboard box on your desk and invite students at the end of a session to give you some information about their interests. “On your way out please write your favourite hobby/team/band/sport etc. on a piece of paper with your name on and leave it in the box on my desk.”

4. Computer time

Give students a reward of ten minutes free time on computers (with a firewall in place of course 🙂

5. Record Card Questionnaires

I mentioned these in ‘Magic Classroom Management‘ and you can get a sample questionnare to use as a starting point for your own version here…

Give the questionnaires out during registration or free time.

!!! WARNING !!!

There are three things to bear in mind.

1. All this extra effort in getting to know students’ interests and strike bonds with them is a lot of work. In fact, many secondary teachers teach several hundred different students every day and getting to know them all would be an almost impossible task. The point I want to make is that you don’t need to focus on EVERY student you teach. The students who cause problems are the ones to focus your efforts on – they are the ones who will benefit from the extra support and attention. (Obviosly this doesn’t mean ignoring the other students – it just means making sure those who really need to feel valued and appreciated by an adult do so).

2. Beware of the ‘Attraction and Rejection’ game.

We’ve all played this game – the more attention we give to someone, the more they back away.

All the strategies we’ve mentioned are powerful relationship-builders but… if you go in too hard, too heavy and too fast, you will find students running in the opposite direction. Relationships take time to build – particularly with very challenging students.

3. Attitude is everything

As we all know, kids are experts at reading our true feelings. They read our body language, our facial expressions and the way we speak to them and use this information as an indication of what we really think of them. If they conclude that we’re not intertested in them, find them annoying and would rather we weren’t burdened with them, no amount of relationship building is going to do any good.

Our attitudes and feelings drive our behaviour – the more negative we feel about a student, the more negative we will behave towards them – often unconsciously. So if we want to connect with challenging students, a good place to start might be a change in attitudes towards them. One of the best ways we’ve found to turn negative attitudes into positive is to remember that these kids are a ‘work in progress’ and try to see them as needing help. They may not have enjoyed the same supportive, loving family upbringing that other students in the class have. Indeed, many students suffer terribly – there is probably a very good reason for their poor behaviour and lack of social skills.

More tomorrow…


marcia says 14th June 2010


Nina Eriksen says 14th June 2010

This advice is the reason I have struck up so many rewarding student/teacher working relationships in my present school. I will miss the kids when I move to my next post. Indeed it was not an easy decision to give in my notice. It will mean starting all over again and I know that it takes time, but I know that if I stick tho the needs-focus approach I will achieve great things in the future and the students will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

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