Before my training sessions, I’ve made a habit of chatting up participants, asking them to name their primary student behavior concerns. Turns out, teachers rarely come to behavior management seminars because their students chew gum or call out without raising their hands. Sure, there’s always that one kid, and nowadays, many of us have quite a few of them. But the real kicker, the one that’s hardest to break through, and the answer that comes up most often, is apathy.
Apathy and indifference go hand in hand with a lack of engagement, whether the disconnect is related to previous school failure, social or emotional issues, stuff going on at home, or the content itself. Nonetheless, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves to help shape our teaching to make the time students spend in our classroom more rewarding and engaging.
- Is the content meaningful? Connecting what we teach to something that fits with students’ experiences or interests gives the material relevance. Let’s take the time to learn a bit about who our students are and what floats their respective boats. Finding a “hook” to pique interest and make the material personally useful gives kids a reason to engage.
- Is success possible? For some kids, many classes offer the same experience as walking in in the middle of a movie. If assignments demand skills they haven’t acquired yet, there’s little incentive to jump in for what will simply seem like another shot at failure. (Keep in mind that most kids would rather appear “bad” than “dumb,” so there are behavioral implications here, too.) Impossible tasks aren’t engaging—even if they are required by curriculum mandates. Assessing and strengthening prerequisite skills students may lack can bring the possibility of success that much closer. Our patience and devotion also makes engagement harder to resist.
- Are we teaching the way they learn? I’m a “show me” person married to a “tell me” person. We have to adapt to one another’s processing styles or things can get pretty messy. With students, even writing the directions and saying them can eliminate some misunderstandings—not to mention numerous requests to repeat the assignment. Simple accommodations like changes in lighting or offering music during seatwork can go a long way. Meeting a variety of modality strengths, including the need for touch, 3-dimensional representations, or movement, for example, can reach a whole lot of kids who might otherwise be struggling.
- Are they being adequately challenged? I love a good content review, but if I’ve already demonstrated mastery of what you’re asking me to do, it’s hard to get excited about another chance to do more of the same. Let’s offer opportunities for kids to move on, or at least stretch beyond what they already know, going deeper or applying their skills and understanding in different ways. (Helping other students, including kids in other classes, is one of the best ways to reinforce learning and build confidence.)
- Do they have a chance to move and interact? Students of all ages are expected to spend way too much time sitting still and being quiet. Brains are engaged by movement. Opportunities to work with classmates, sit in a non-traditional place or position, work with something besides pencils and paper, or stand and stretch, for example, can help regulate alertness and attention.
- Are their needs for autonomy being met? In win-win authority relationships, teachers offer choices and options to meet students’ power needs within a structure that likewise encourages self-management and mutual respect. Giving choices and inviting student input when possible also reduces the likelihood of pushback or defiance. The moment the students select (or design) an available option, they have engaged.
- Is the environment emotionally safe? Kids who feel visible, valued, and heard are easier to engage than kids who don’t. When they trust that it’s OK to take risks, ask questions, have an opinion, and make mistakes without provoking anger, disappointment, impatience, or punishment, they’re less likely to shut down to self-protect.
- Do they feel connected? I once had a 16-year-old gang member in day treatment tell me, “I would probably do anything for a teacher I liked.” Kids know who’s got their back and which teachers like them. Any sense of personal connection ups the ante as far as the possibility of engagement and commitment go.
- Are we willing to not give up? That deer-in-the-headlights stare might suggest that the content hasn’t registered the way we’d have liked. Whether from a student’s lack of understanding or fear, our response can change everything. Let’s avoid expressing impatience, frustration, or blame. Responding to student failure with a willingness to simply shift gears and teach or explain a different way takes some of the pressure off the students, avoids making them wrong (or dumb), and invites kids to give the task another go.
- Are they having fun yet? Novelty and humor get the brain’s attention. Given the choice of two tasks that will teach me the same thing, I’m going for the one that looks like it’ll be the most fun. Students (and teachers) aren’t any different. Plus, if they’re enjoying being in your class, chances are, so are you.
Let’s keep it simple. Even the smallest changes—like moving to a different part of the room to teach for the last few minutes—can raise students’ levels of alertness. Put success within reach, connect content to their reality, and bring some fun to the party and see if even the most disengaged kids start wondering what you’re up to.
But of all the ingredients for successfully engaging students, the most important will always be the quality of the relationship and climate you can establish with them. Safe places are engaging places, and most kids really will do almost anything for teachers they like.