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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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).
Other Resource: The Power of Strength-Based Instruction
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.
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
Larissa Napolitan is the Digital Content Creator for Branching Minds and the host of Branching Minds' podcast "Schoolin' Around." As a former middle school English teacher and instructional coach, she has over 13 years of experience building systems for improvement, training and coaching teachers in new technology and instructional methods, and leading efforts to build curriculum and literacy initiatives. She holds Masters's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Emporia State University. Not only is she passionate about using her experience and academic knowledge, but loves to use her writing and voice to make a broader impact on education, teachers, and students.