Engaging Disengaged Students? 5 Factors to Consider

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As teachers, there is nothing more disheartening than when you are dealing with disengaged students in the classroom. One thing I always stress is that most times if you have a difficult student, their behavior has nothing to do with you; it is almost always due to an underlying circumstance outside of your control. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t actions we can take as an adult in their life to show them that your classroom is a safe place where they might actually be able to learn something through the journey.

We complain about disengaged students, and disengaged students complain that they are disengaged.  It is a vicious cycle that doesn’t seem to end in our classrooms. The truth of the matter is that we have no idea what these kids’ lives are like outside of school. We don’t know their problems at home, their struggles with friends, or the issues that they are facing each and every day. When you combine this with a disengaged student, you are just causing more problems for yourself and possibly your students by creating an environment that makes them uncomfortable.

As educators, our goal should be to disengage disengagement through positive learning experiences and building relationships with each of our individual students. There are many things we can do to help disengaged students feel like they have a purpose in your class and the school as a whole, while at the same time not making them outcasts because of their negative behaviors.

Relationships are key (even if it’s a struggle)

One of the first steps I recommend is taking time each day to get to know each student (or group/table of students) in your classroom. It is amazing how much information you can gather just from simple questions about their activities outside of school, but more importantly, it will show them that you are interested in who they are as a person and not just what they can do when given an assignment. This will help disengaged students to feel as if their actions are not centered on what they did wrong, but rather about their personhood.

Another mistake teachers make is to ostracize disengaged students in the classroom.  As I said above, students disengage because of behavioral choices that they have made; it has nothing to do with you as their teacher or your lesson plan. We are all in the classroom to learn together, and disengaged students have just as much right to be there learning with you as the other students do. Instead of ostracizing them or making them feel like they cannot learn along with everyone else, make your expectations for these students high so that they feel a sense of pride when they exceed.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that sometimes this is hard work. Often these students have a way of getting under our skin, and it seems like they have a tendency to thrive on that fact (right?). If you are able to, try to mentally remove yourself from the situation, look at what is going on, and try (your hardest) to not respond in the moment emotionally as you, but rather respond as an “outsider” attempting to mediate the situation. As I said, I know this is difficult (been there…failed at it a few times…no shame in admitting temporary defeat), but if you can make this the norm instead of the exception, you will be on much more stable ground to engage that disengaged student more quickly.

Looking at Content Differently

One other thing that disengaged students respond to in a positive way is engaging them with an understanding of the subject matter.  I know that I remember being disengaged as a kid in certain situations, and then when my teacher introduced something to me in such a way that I could apply it to what I was interested in (whether it was reading about space, or learning about how the pyramids were created), it made me more interested in the subject matter.  Engage these students not only through schoolwork but also by incorporating things that they are interested in.

Behavior modification should be a given; however, I can tell you from personal experience what disengaged students respond to is a challenge.  I remember a colleague telling me that his middle school history teacher told the class that if they did not do well on the next test, then he would give them a sheet of paper that was one foot by one foot and they would have to write their own essay while memorizing the entire textbook (I believe he said they were in sixth grade…that’s a lot of words to memorize!). Kids hate being made to feel stupid…especially if it is a perception held by their peers. Not that any teacher should ever intentionally make a child feel this way, but if an activity is given that will give that perception if it isn’t completed, regardless of the rigor or content, it will be a turning point.  These students will disengage because they feel like you are constantly judging them and making them feel like they are never able to live up to your expectations. Instead, challenge disengaged students by letting them know that you believe in their ability, but that it will take a little more work to reach the expectations that you have.

If you find that encouragement or “extreme” measures are making that student shut down more, dig a little deeper. Is there a learning disability that he or she is hiding? Often those who are struggling in the classroom to meet expectations turn into the kids who just shut down from participating. It is a lot easier to own a lack of completion than a lack of understanding. In the years that I taught high school, I can’t tell you how many students I ended up zoning in on that had an undiagnosed learning disability all those years. I often wonder how school could have been so much different for them had someone picked up on the signs earlier in their lives.

engaging disengaged students

Is it the content or something more?

Disengaged students respond to teachers who allow them to disengage, and they disengage because disengaging is easier than working for something that they think is unattainable.  When students disengage, they often become aggressive, rude, or defiant.  This disengagement leads to a lack of respect for authority figures.

Disengaged students respond to teachers who show them that they care about their success, and they care because it gives them a feeling that someone is doing something different with the goal of encouraging and being successful with these students.  They are often frustrated when no one attempts to help them.  They disengage because disengaging is easier than trying for something unattainable that they feel like no one else can tell them how to reach.

For disengaged students, the hardest thing to do (and it’s not necessarily easy for anyone) is to be honest in an effort toward self-improvement.  Many disengaged students disengage because they don’t want to fail.  Engaged teachers seek out opportunities to help students learn how to be honest about their performance and team up with them toward gaining the skills necessary for success.

Disengaged students respond more to encouragement than punishment, however, I know that a teacher could go above and beyond in both areas to engage disengaged students.

I know that there are a lot of disengaged students out there, but I also know that there are teachers who have engaged in disengagement.  Many disengaged students come from disengaged parents.  A teacher can’t change what is happening at home, but they can help disengaged students disengage from disengaging in the classroom.

You may have disengaged students in your classroom now or you could encounter them next year.  It is up to you whether disengagement will win, but let me just encourage you by saying that disengaging with disengagement can be used for positive means as well as negative ones. There is no reason why disengaged students can’t become engaged in learning once again!

Regardless of their disengagement status, teachers should always do what it takes to find ways to engage disengaged students in learning.  Engaging disengaged students is hard work and requires energy and dedication on the teacher’s part, but at the end of the day, it’s worth everything you give!

The Actual Concept of Disengaged Students

By no means am I saying that disengaged students are a lost cause.  They aren’t.  Disengagement is common among many groups of people with varying levels of commitment (i.e.: disengaged students, teachers), but there is hope for the disengaged…if disengaged students disengage with disengagement and teachers engage in the learning process.

As a matter of fact, disengaged students may become your best teachers.  The disengaged students in my life, helped me to realize that disengaging can be done with negative or positive means.  It doesn’t have to be a choice between the two.  Whether disengaged students disengage by not trying or letting others do their work for them, disengaged students can become engaged in learning!  The choice is up to the student.

The key to treating our disengaged students and preventing future disengagement is to remember that disengaged students are real people. They may have disengaged themselves from others by not trying, but they are still human beings with feelings and concerns just like anyone else. Besides believing the ‘my disengagement makes me a failure’, as so many children do, disengaged students often struggle with family issues, peer pressure, and lack of motivation. Teachers can help disengaged students by believing in them and sparking their interest in learning with new, fun activities. I know I’m suggesting a lot, but disengaged students are our greatest resources to success because disengagement is something that anyone can disengage from!

Implementing Changes

Once disengaged students and teachers move from this, we can begin to implement changes in our classrooms that will allow us to achieve higher levels of engagement. This behavior is not something that needs to be a part of disengaged students’ lives. The choice is the disengaged students’. 

Becoming disengaged is a choice. It isn’t something that disengaged students have to ‘be’. 

The problem lies in the fact disengaged students choose this. Disengaging from disengagement will help our students become engaged and prevent future students from becoming disengaged, but they need support along the way.

The choice in disengaging from disengagement is up to the student. It can be done with pride and commitment.

Perhaps disengaging disengagement is the beginning of a new and positive world. If disengaging from disengagement sounds too good to be true, then try this on for size. Disengage from disengagement by disengaging yourself from disengagement and engage in something new!

The Best Option for Disengaged Students? The 4 Keys

There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge that releases twice per year. It is called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom. If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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