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At-Risk, Creativity, Education, Students, Teaching

Re-Engaging the Disengaged: 5 Strategies

Noa Strupler

cc flickr photo by ND Strupler

When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” ~ Author Unknown

A common response, when people find out that I work with junior high school students, is an eye roll and a comment to the effect of, “I could never do that.”  The thought of spending five days a week with nine-hundred teenagers is enough to make most people shudder, but I love this age group and the challenges they present.  Our school serves a high percentage of students from low SES households–something that presents additional obstacles to the goal of providing every student with high quality educational opportunities.

Lately, our staff has struggled in their efforts to make connections with students who are disengaged from the educational process.  These are kids who are seemingly apathetic–they don’t participate in class activities; they don’t complete assignments; they frequently exhibit poor behavior and they are frequently absent.  For all intents and purposes, these students have lost hope in their educational future.

I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past few weeks, looking for suggestions, and thinking about how I might advise our staff in one of the most difficult challenges in the teaching profession: motivating the seemingly unmotivated.  While I don’t make any claims to be an expert in this regard, here are 5 suggestions I have for re-engaging the disengaged learner.

(1) Make it Personal – take time to visit with students and learn about their personal interests.  Better yet, give them opportunities to tell you about their passions (see Identity Day by George Couros).  If they don’t think they have a passion, help them find one.  Most importantly, allow students to apply what they are learning to their personal interests.  Allow school to be about them!

(2) Search for Celebrations – be constantly vigilant for celebration moments.  Trust me when I say that this isn’t always a personal strength and that I realize the school day isn’t all daffodils and candy hearts.  If we are looking for reasons to be frustrated or discouraged, we will undoubtedly find them.  Instead, search for the moments that making this profession rewarding.  Catch students making good decisions, using sound judgement, meeting expectations, working diligently, enjoying school…and take time to recognize these behaviors.  Make “celebration moments” the focal points of daily instruction.

(3) Give Every Student the Opportunity to Succeed – it is unfortunate, but some of our students have not tasted success for so long that they have lost hope–no longer possessing the self-confidence, or will, to invest in what they see as a wasted effort.  One way to overcome this sense of helplessness is to plan opportunities for every student to experience success.  This will mean different things for different students, but by designing lessons, activities, assignments and questions that will set students up for success we can begin to repair student self-esteem and open doors for greater challenges.

(4) Reflect on class assignments and homework – in spite of our best intentions, we frequently set our students up for failure by burying them in assignments that do not serve a clear purpose, or that students have little chance of completing.  The issue of homework has been widely debated in education circles (check out the post entitled Homework, by David Truss).  Regardless of your position on making homework assignments, I would hope that all educators recognize the importance of making ALL assignments purposeful and relevant.  If you are making assignments, be sure to ask yourself (1) what is the purpose, (2) is it a good use of time and resources, and (3) is it in the best interest of students?  (see 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework, from ASCD)

(5) Try something different – if things don’t seem to be working, do something different.  There are rarely easy answers when it comes to motivating struggling students and keeping them engaged, but doing the same thing over and over without results makes no sense.  As problem solvers, we have to shake things up, employ new strategies, and be on the lookout for opportunities to challenge students to be active participants in their own education.

There is no easy answer to the issue of disengaged students.  No magic bullet.  No single program or strategy that will be a definitive “fix” for every student.  As professionals, we must meet this challenge head on, maintain a positive attitude, and search for ways to instill confidence and hope in all of our students.  Our kids deserve nothing less.


About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


11 thoughts on “Re-Engaging the Disengaged: 5 Strategies

  1. I agree with your strategies. I have found that most of these students have dealt with negativity for so long that they can win every moment that begins or includes negative words / feelings / ideas. If presented with a smile or a success, however, they have no idea how to respond … it’s quite inspiring especially when it leads to a moment of learning they never forget. Thanks for putting into words what I have felt to be true – for all students, classrooms, and people.

    Posted by Sylvia | September 11, 2011, 3:55 pm
  2. Jeff your post came just as I have been noticing (bemoaning) the lack of engagement in my fourth grade students. This year’s class seems to be flat, no excitement for school or learning, not even in the first week. I have been mulling the cause…over-scheduling where school is “just another activity”, over-testing (the amount of baseline assessments I have to give makes me cringe, or over-pressured to achieve high grades at all costs. Truthfully, the cause may be one, all three, or none of the above. What I have to do is address and treat the symptom with these kids, this year.
    PS: Friday’s hands-on science activity (experiment) provided authentic scientific learning and produced some definite glimmers of engagement.

    Posted by Meg Griffin | September 11, 2011, 4:07 pm
    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Meg. You bring up a good point…if I was going to add a strategy it would be the incorporation of meaningful, hands-on activities and collaboration. Glad to hear the science experiment went well. Stay the course 🙂

      Posted by azjd | September 11, 2011, 7:52 pm
  3. Thank you for this refreshing piece. Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, we had writers like Gene Bedley and Gary Phillips who wrote and spoke on engaging the reluctant learners. In these times of high academic challenges we are likely to leave many behind or create angrier kids.
    Helping kids learn can be done in so many different and fun ways. It’s a shame so many programs specify “scripts” in order to do the “Program” right. Go back through the archives and find “67 Ways to Teach Anything,” or “D is for Discipline.” There are many good “old” resources from the days before school computers.
    With computers, the job of engagement should be much easier.

    Posted by Mike Duffy | September 14, 2011, 7:29 am
  4. I was so saddened by your phrase “some of our students have not tasted success for so long that they have lost hope–no longer possessing the self-confidence, or will, to invest in what they see as a wasted effort.”

    I had such fun today when one of my lower math students realized, without algorithms, that 19 – 0.1 was 18.9. Her smile was contagious – I’d never seen her smile during math. I started teasing, “You’ve been bitten by the math bug.” She tried to pretend that she would never like math, but she was still smiling on the way home.

    Then I sent her home to watch some YouTube videos on partial differences – and asked her to report back which video teaches it best (so that I can tell future students).

    Success breeds success.

    Janet | expateducator.com

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | September 16, 2011, 6:05 am
  5. Thanks so much for your post. Schools that celebrate children for being children are the places thriving and succeeding. These are the schools most children want to get into and can’t because their name wasn’t chosen in a lottery. When a child says, “I don’t want to go to school,” ask why. Get to the root of the problem; if a child says he’s just plain bored, what he’s really saying is he’s not engaged. And this means that teacher is the only person learning in the classroom.

    Posted by Veronica Bacigalupo | December 29, 2011, 9:19 pm
  6. I too work in a school that has low SES households. Motivating these students is a day to day struggle. As a teacher, sometimes we have to make up for the parent at home that is not motivating them and encouraging them to get the most out of their education. Calling their parents has no real threat and getting a hold of a parents is sometimes impossible. We try anything and everything, but at the end of the day I know that being a supportive and reliable adult in their life is far more important than their test scores. Once you establish a relationship, you start to see a change in behavior. Some are more difficult than others, which causes us to be more creative in our profession. While reading your five suggestions, I thought of what I have done in my own class and a ideas of what I am going to try first thing Monday morning. We all want our students to succeed. We can give them all the knowledge that is out there, but it is a waste of time if they lack the motivation. Thanks for the tips and have a great weekend!

    Posted by Anne Beck | March 2, 2012, 7:59 pm
  7. Good reminders. I think the kiddos are feeling the February slump – and I need to do some more personal conversing.

    Janet | expateducator.com

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | March 4, 2012, 6:11 am


  1. Pingback: Week of Learning (Sept 12) « Jen Clevette - September 12, 2011

  2. Pingback: Knox Professional Learning » Blog Archive » Re-Engaging the Disengaged: 5 Strategies - September 13, 2011

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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