Session 142: Top tips for re-engaging disengaged students

Thursday 14th March 2013

Session Title: Top tips for re-engaging disengaged students
Date: Thursday 14th March 2013

The discussion was opened with a question about how disengagement can be identified, in other words, how do we know if a student is disengaged. @Lianne_Allison commented that disengagement can manifest in poor behaviour and / or poor learning. Others reiterated this point and added that negative attitudes towards school and learning as well as disrupting others are also indicators. Later in the discussion, some people debated whether the term ‘disengaged’ was an appropriate way of describing students who are not reaching their potential and suggested that as teachers, the way we describe the problem of the ‘disengaged’ can be rather ‘disengaged’ in itself. I posted a link to a discussion of the construct here:

Ideas for re-engaging students who seemed disengaged acknowledged that disengagement is a mutli-dimensional construct and that it does not simply refer to behavioural engagement, but emotional / relational engagement (including relationship with peers, staff and home) and psychological and cognitive engagement (how challenging and relevant the content of the lesson is). Therefore, suggestions to improve engagement ranged from using music or movement at the start of the lesson to set a tone / pace and expected participation, to demonstrating your own enthusiasm or passion as a teacher, showing them ‘ you are there for them not the job…knowing them as a person” (@TheBenHornbury)

In acknowledgement that not all students who are disengaged are ‘naughty’, there was some discussion relating to how to identify if a student is fully achieving their best, or fully ‘switched on’. There was some concern that those who are ‘silently’ disengaged are not picked up on or seen as less of a problem because they are not disruptive. @JCPiech commented that teachers are often unaware that disengagement is a reflection of a bigger mental health problem which teachers can miss, or worse, exacerbate because of a lack of training in the area. Some people commented that disengagement usually stems from teacher actions (indicating it was unhealthy to make the ‘problem’ the student’s ‘fault’ and pointing out that students don’t like to ‘be preached to’ from someone who they feel doesn’t value or understand them’ – @tmeeky), whilst others (who were also teachers), blamed themselves for failing to engage all students, which, as others pointed out, is unhealthy in itself as the issue is more complex. Disengagement can happen for one or a number of reasons, complexly linked from internal, emotional and mental factors to wider contextual factors of past experiences in school, relationships to staff and peers and home life.

As @Eslweb suggested, personalisation is key, as well as relating the content of the lesson to student’s own lives (@Jobinatwigg @day_tom, @jivespin). Relevance of the topic to ‘the real world’ and student’s own lives was explored further and suggested that if work can be linked to something the students enjoy as well as their lives beyond school and in the future , there will be more value to the work for them. It is my opinion that in addition to this, the work itself can hold intrinsic value if it is expressive or creative in any way and therefore a reflection of the student’s own thoughts, personality etc.

@Bussinessangmeri suggested that the expectation on students could be said to be a factor in student disengagement, when the expectations are just too high and students become overwhelmed. Some agreed and others added that a lack of expectation or challenge could have the same effect. It was agreed that a balance of boundaries and clear expectations, along with flexibility, showing interest in the student as a ‘whole person’ and differentiating the tasks step by step was the answer (proximal zone of development).

Some links were provided to blogs with top tips such as and and specific ideas that other schools are currently trying out were suggested such as surveys with your class to reflect on the relevance and challenge of the work, letters and postcards (@aslweb also made the excellent suggestion of postcards featuring student work) and calls home to share relevant praise with home, and ‘friendly competition’ that avoids apathy in class and by passes some of the peer pressure ‘not to care’.

There seemed to be very few comments about actually identifying a list of disengaged students, trialing interventions with these groups or tracking any data about student attitudes or engagement. There was a sense that it was difficult to put into quantitative terms but talking to students, allowing a degree of choice over content of lessons and flexibility (adapting lessons, subtle us of behaviour management that means teachers seen as ‘human) were seen as vital. Something to avoid (as noted by @kevupnorth) was assuming you know why a student is disengaged and that you know how to ‘fix’ this.

Using individual student’s names (especially in secondary) was identified as important and easy to apply, as was the idea that contacting home in one form or another each Friday was good practice to prompt staff to consider who they could engage further via praise each week, although @eslweb disagreed and said that, from experience, the less the school had to do with home the better, in order to have a clean slate and ‘be the best version of themselves’. @Kezmerrelda and others stated that knowing the whole child and taking time to form a connection with them means that the student will want to meet expectations and do well.

A link was made between student behaviour and teacher attitudes. The inference was that whichever party a negative behaviour / attitude originated from, it would be reflected back by the other and perpetuated, until both teacher and student held negative views of each other, causing the relationship to break down and therefore disengagement on the student’s part. ‘putting yourself in the student’s shoes’ and ‘breaking’ this negative cycle was seen as a change of mind set by the teacher initially, with people suggesting finding something positive or shared interest as a ‘way in’, with responsibility for student behaviour gradually being introduced as the relationship gains in strength. The difference between initial engagement (surface) to deep engagement is discussed here

@Jivespin noted how giving set roles or responsibility in lessons can engage students quickly and provide purpose and most agreed that praise (where actually deserved) was very positive as a way of building relationship and trust, a ‘wow’ board was mentioned, but participators acknowledged that at times, it was not appropriate to do this explicitly and that it was better done discreetly. @Jivespin also commented that ‘learning spies’ are used as ‘secret shoppers’ in lessons to look for progress of groups or individuals. @chrischivers2 commented that programs of study should build on student strengths and interests and towards a set goal. Promoting competence is a big feature of this interesting article which I linked to:

The use of older student (for example sixth form) mentors, or ambassadors, was seen as engaging for the older and younger students, and also reduced the potential hierarchy /authority of a staff / student dynamic. Responsibility, ownership and mastery / competence were common themes in this period of the discussion in which modeling your own investment in the learning process as a teacher was also vital in expecting the same commitment from students. @ClareBrunet simply suggested that two words: “I care” were key to engaging learners. This was backed up by @rapclassroom who stated “I hear you say you’re giving up, but I’m not giving up on you”. Both in terms of the importance of encouragement, positivity, personal relationship, and the distinction between behaviour and the student as a person, this concept was central to the discussion.

The session ended with lots of people saying they has some ideas to take back to class the next day – especially writing or calling home as it was Friday!

Notable tweets:

@rapclassroom: If you don’t know about your pupils’ interests and their lives, is it not you who is disengaged?

@ChrisChivers2: Ask yourself, would you want to be a child in your class?

@Ukedchat: Engagement is the result of a successful relationship- to learning, to teachers, to peers, to content.

@milkallaane: respect respect respect As a teacher you make what your class is. U need to have humour & amp; rapport with pupils

@TheBenHornbury: To engage anyone you need them to know you are there (f)or them not the job! Enthusiasm and knowing them as a person!

@Cacophony_Boy: Find topics that actually matter to your students. Be creative with modifying schemes or lesson plans.

@day_tom: Make it relevant, try and make them see why they need it. Link it to outside the classroom and solve a problem.

@@Educ_job_please: Of course not all disengagement caused within the school gates. Schools need to understand what’s in the child’s life generally.

@postfilm: Many factors in disengagement are outside the classroom and are at root non –academic. So teachers, don’t beat yourselves up.

@JCPiech: I think if more teachers had better understanding of children’s mental health, that would solvea lot of problems.

@Jivespin: Also the weekly phone call. – make one a week to one parent of a student to celebrate good work.

@Lianne_Allison: Keep acting in the same way towards disengaged students and they will keep acting in the same way! Break the cycle.

About your Host
I, @UKCreativeed, teach Drama at an 11-18 comprehensive in West Sussex.

I’ve been teaching for 5 years and have developed my role in the last two years as a result into my own MA research into factors influencing student engagement in a project called ‘Lost Boys’, focusing on Year 9 boys who had disengaged from school culture. I now teach Drama and run a program called Inspire, delivering creative arts workshops to students at risk of underachievement, low attendance or disengagement. The blog for Inspire can be found here:

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About @ICTmagic 780 Articles
Martin Burrett is the editor of our popular UKEdMagazine, along with curating resources in the ICTMagic section, and free resources for teachers on UKEd.Directory

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