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    MTSS Practice Tier 1 - Core Instruction

    Student engagement remains a consistent topic of interest for educators. How do educators and schools compete with all the other entertainment forms that captivate students? As a former middle school teacher, I often felt like I needed to be a circus performer to capture students' attention, standing on my desk and keeping a continuously high-energy environment. However, that isn’t the case. Engagement within the classroom often starts at a simpler level, by meeting the needs of students and building an environment they want to be a part of each day. 

    Brittany Shurley, Branching Minds Instructional Design Manager and former classroom teacher and administrator, previously outlined reasons for student disengagement along with strategies that teachers can use to intentionally engage students in learning. Here are six of those practices that could be especially helpful going into the last quarter of the school year.

    1. Student Wellness

    While stress and health are outside of the school's control, they are integral to students' participation. Stress, healthy eating, sleeping habits, screen time practices, and sickness all impact a student's (and teacher's!) ability to stay focused and engaged. 

    Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs coined the idea that our basic needs must be met before actualizing and learning (Huitt, 2007). Unfortunately, many students face food insecurity, homelessness, and other adverse childhood events. While as teachers we are limited in our ability to provide for all of these needs, we can ensure our classroom is a place of safety.


    • Create a trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive classroom. By incorporating a trauma-informed lens, educators consider alternatives, like trauma, for student misconduct or misbehavior. The educator intentionally cultivates a safe environment for trauma-impacted students by demonstrating and modeling empathy with students and teaching resilience when challenges arise. 
    • Example: Consider adopting routines of daily check-ins with students to assess their emotional or physical needs for the day. This can be adopted for the level of students, either using a simple paper method or even a quick digital survey. 

    Other resources: Spotlighting School-Based Interventions that Support Students’ Mental Health and Well-Being

    2. Choice and Relevancy

    Have you ever had a student engaged in your class and disengaged in another? The student likely felt the content, delivery, or activity was more relevant, relatable, or real. Students, like anyone, are more engaged in what they find interesting and relevant to their lives. 

    Student choice also empowers learners to define and monitor their own learning goals. Choice encourages learner independence by putting the student in the driver's seat to decide what and how they will learn various standards. Often allowing areas of choice in the classroom will give students ownership over their learning experiences. 


    • You may have content that doesn’t come to life as much as you would hope. If this is the case, pair the content with a learning activity that is more relevant and real to the student, like a video game, creating text messages, tweets, or TikTok. 

    • Encourage students to determine how the content is personally relevant; thus, collaboratively, you can determine activities that will enhance this connection.

    • Choice can be tricky because a disengaged learner may not respond to choice without having additional support. You can start small by offering choice activities that pair with learning standards, choice groups, or even choice seats in the classroom! These are all factors that empower students to be decision-makers in their learning.

    • Create a student interest survey to administer at different times of the year to gather information about their preferences in group work, content, and even ways they like to receive feedback. 

    Other Resources: Giving Students Agency With a Seat at the MTSS Table

    3. Trust 

    When discussing student-teacher relationships, we aren’t talking about friendships, fun, giggles, or "being cool" (though, as teachers, we are all cool). Student-teacher relationships refer to TRUST. To build TRUST with our students, we can use the old adage, "Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don't be mean when you say it." 


    • Greet students by name daily.
    • Honor your student's talents and interests.
    • Be a good listener; model active listening when your students want to talk to you.
    • Honor the commitments you make to students.
    • Show up and give your best self; let your students know that you genuinely believe that learning is fun and your time together is valuable.

    Other resources: Build relationships and trust with students using the 2x10 Strategy as explained in this blog.

    4. Opportunities To Respond (and Receive Feedback)

    Opportunities to Respond (OTR) is an effective, evidence-based teaching strategy in which students are expected to do, say, or write something very frequently as they learn, along with frequent feedback. Offering a high level of opportunities to respond is one of the best and most immediate ways to see an increase in engagement.


    • opportunities to respondAsk questions that stimulate interest. My favorite OTR was a "whip around," where every student had an opportunity to provide a quick answer to a question related to the content we were learning. I loved asking for a "summary tweet" of our recent lessons during whip around. Ensure all students are provided with opportunities to respond, not just volunteers (who likely already know the answer!) 
    • Use choral response to increase overall OTR throughout a class period.
    • Increasing Opportunities to Respond Instructional Strategy
    • Use technology tools to allow students to respond to questions or within activities in real-time, such as exit tickets or quick response tools, such as Nearpod or Google Jamboard.

    5. High Expectations and Recognizing Strengths

    A strengths-based approach to teaching and learning promotes an environment where students see their value and worth instead of focusing on negative characteristics. Sometimes students that struggle with a negative self-perception will continue unless someone helps disrupt the negativity bias they have about themselves.

    Strengths-based teaching and high expectations go hand in hand! Our perceptions of our students change the expectations we have for our students. Our expectations of student achievement account for nearly one full year of learning growth (Hattie, 2009). Meaning that when we have high expectations, students will more likely meet those high expectations. 

    Missing the mark on appropriate expectations can cause students to feel bored, defeated, and even hopeless. Hattie’s research also indicated that students could feel a “chilly” classroom climate, or one in which they know the teacher wants to avoid them or demonstrates certain students hold less value because the teacher has lower expectations of them (Smith, 2001).


    • We focus on student strengths and the development of skills through a strength-based lens, use positive language, and highlight growth areas. 
    • For example: Write a few Positive Office Referrals to highlight strengths for students. This is a great practice to help students focus on the positive.
    • Communicate high expectations and provide increased support to students to increase engagement, for example, proximal seating, lots of eye contact, and praise.
    • Provide feedback to all students; include constructive feedback for improvement so that all students understand expectations. Rubrics help all learners understand and meet the highest level of expectations.

    Other Resource: The Power of Strength-Based Instruction

    6. Structure

    Research has shown that students that experience consistency in their interactions with teachers and schools have a more positive learning experience. Consistent, explicit routines and structures allow ALL learners to access their learning within the classroom. In my experience, inconsistent structure and behavioral expectations cause disengagement. 

    How we structure our classroom should never be a surprise to our students. Structure can include expectations of how they will access their materials, how they can move about the room, and consistent routines for homework and assignments. Create environments where the challenges are placed on learning new content and not figuring out new procedures.


    • Create consistent, structured routines. How will students enter the room? How will students participate? Can students engage with peers? Establish guidelines and communicate them with your students.
    • Make the learner experience predictable. Students should know what to expect when they enter your classroom. They should know where to find their materials and explain this to others.
    • No surprises. If you want something specific, teach it! Don't assume that the older the student is, the less you need to teach them about these skills. The older a student is, the more teachers they have had contact with. Thus, it becomes even more important to be explicit about teaching YOUR structures and routines.

    Learn more about Engagement through these resources:




    Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. RetrievedFebruary 14, 2022 from, http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/regsys/maslow.html


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    Tagged: MTSS Practice, Tier 1 - Core Instruction

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