11 Strategies for Dealing With Disengaged Students

Practical ideas for re-engaging disengaged learners

A disengaged student.

Do you know a child who struggles to engage with learning? Perhaps you used to be that child? A long time ago, I used to be a ‘disengaged student’. I personally slipped through some of those metaphorical cracks in the education system and possibly didn’t excel to the extent that I could have done during those formative years. I’m aware of the countless opportunities that education provides and want every child to have access to those benefits.

A student may be disengaged with learning for any number of reasons. It’s important to understand that some of the contributing factors behind these can be complex and beyond our control. But as educators, we have a duty to do what is within our power to help children reach their potential.

The purpose of this list is to give you a few strategies that might prove helpful. Some might be obvious, others less so, but hopefully they spark some helpful ideas you can implement with your children.

1. Incorporate active mini-breaks into lessons.

Sometimes referred to as ‘brain breaks’, breaking up lessons with quick mini-games, quizzes or even physical movement can benefit learning. These breaks can be tailored to both the students and the topics to enhance information retention or reinforce learning, or they can be completely unrelated. For example, a few minutes of mindfulness or a breathing exercise may help restore a sense of calm. Conversely, a quick burst of physical movement or a fun game can generate a sense of excitement and increase motivation if students are becoming lethargic. An action as simple as standing up for a moment before sitting back down might revitalize students and stave off stagnation.

2. Use hands-on projects.

We all learn in different ways, and for some a hands-on approach can be more engaging. Hands-on projects may also help engage those who find it hard to access learning because of language barriers. They can also be used alongside more traditional teaching methods to help solidify learning and reinforce concepts and ideas visually.

When studying history, creating physical representations of concepts can make them more tangible and relatable. For example, we constructed mini mud huts to introduce children to the types of structures that prehistoric societies might have used. This allowed them to develop a sense of empathy and a deeper understanding of what life was like for people who lived thousands of years ago.

In science, children can gain a real sense of anticipation and enjoyment in testing a hypothesis and seeing their project in action. By following a process from theory to a working model, they can overcome challenges at each step of the design process, leading to a sense of accomplishment and ownership upon completion.

3. Show them some real-world applications of what they are learning.

In some instances, the reason behind a student’s boredom can be that they fail to make the connection between the information being presented and how it’s relevant to them as an individual.

When discussing the importance of mathematics, consider framing it in terms of future career goals. For instance, jobs like chef, blogger, and video game designer all require a solid grasp of mathematical concepts to excel. To illustrate this point, you could show videos of people in these professions discussing or demonstrating how they apply these to their work. For instance, you might show a chef using ratios in a recipe or explain how a weather reporter applies percentages. These real-world examples can make the subject more engaging and relevant.

We are relentlessly bombarded with data and information and our brains naturally try to filter out that which is not needed. If we can make an observation that something may be useful to us personally, either now or in the future, it is more likely we will retain some of that information.

4. Create an environment of positivity, acceptance and tolerance.

Ensuring that the learning environment is positive and safe is crucial for student engagement. Setting clear boundaries and expectations for behaviour, work ethic and respect for others is an important component of this. Students should feel able to make mistakes without the pressure of personal judgment from others and comfortable that they have the respect of others. 

Starting the day with a positive quote or inspiring story can be an effective way of nurturing a positive atmosphere within the classroom.

5. Use educational web-based games.

Educational games can help make the learning process fun. They can also provide a platform to explore subjects in an open, non-judgmental way, with the freedom to make mistakes. This can provide a much-needed confidence boost for those who struggle with traditional learning methods. Many games also require a degree of strategy or problem solving which can nurture critical thinking skills. They can be played on an individual basis, but some games will lend themselves to being played collaboratively on an interactive whiteboard.

In a class without a teaching assistant, high-quality educational games can help children who are currently working below the expected level to work more independently. Simple games like our dinosaur eggs number bonds, for example, can be used in this manner in a classroom setting.

6. Create a physical environment conducive to learning.

The physical environment itself is another aspect to consider when trying to increase engagement. Seating arrangement plans and plants, along with carefully arranged furniture can all play an important role in the physical environment. Think about the levels of lighting, the ambient temperature and the comfort of the seating, as making adjustments to these could affect student engagement.

Although it may be tempting to cover classroom walls with stimulating visuals to enhance learning, some studies suggest that this may not be as beneficial as you may think.

7. Support student autonomy.

There are several ways a student might play an active role in their education. They might be given a degree of choice with a vote over which topic or lesson they will learn first for example. Students with stronger abilities may also be given the opportunity to actively participate in setting their own goals and assessing their work. Having a say in what they are doing may give a sense of ownership that helps them to re-engage with learning.

To establish clear boundaries and expectations in the classroom, it can be beneficial for children to participate in creating a class charter. This involves setting promises and rules that everyone agrees to follow, which not only establishes a solid foundation for expectations but also teaches children about citizenship, community, and student rights.

8. Set challenges and competitions & encourage collaboration.

Taking part in challenges and competitions can help tap into our natural desire to succeed and achieve goals. They can present opportunities for group work and collaboration. By working towards a shared goal students can interact and engage in meaningful social interactions that enhance their interpersonal skills.

As an example, students might be set a STEM challenge to design and race a balloon-powered car, to see who can go the furthest or fastest. Challenges like this can offer a chance to combine multiple academic disciplines by applying the scientific method to their work.

9. Find inspirational role models.

History is full of influential figures who have made their mark on society by excelling in their fields. Taking the time to introduce some of these people within the context of fields of study can motivate students and show them what is possible. It can also introduce children to a range of culturally diverse role models from all kinds of backgrounds, some of whom students may resonate with on a personal level.

In addition to historic figures, consider inviting guest speakers who work in fields related to the topic you are currently investigating. As well as talking about their roles, these guests may also be able to demonstrate an aspect of their work in a hands-on manner. Hearing real-world information directly from someone with experience can give a sense of authority and validity to what is being said. It also presents students with the opportunity to engage in question-and-answer sessions. If these guest speakers are also unexpected, the element of surprise may in itself help to engage and motivate.

10. Go on a virtual field trip.

Field trips can be incredibly enriching experiences for children. However, they can sometimes present a logistical nightmare for those who are planning them, with important considerations to make on costs, safety, timings and travel to name a few. There are obviously clear benefits to seeing something in person, but unfortunately, these considerations can mean it’s not always a viable option. This is where virtual tours and virtual field trips come in. Many museums, galleries and historical sites around the world offer at least partial access to their spaces and exhibits without having to leave your seat! For a truly immersive experience, some sites feature virtual reality tours. If you don’t have access to headsets though, many of these can also be viewed using a normal screen.

If you’re stuck for ideas and inspiration on where to start, check out Google’s fantastic Arts and Culture pages. https://artsandculture.google.com/

11. Do some gardening.

Gardening may not be your first thought for tackling student disengagement, but it presents many hidden opportunities for re-engagement. The act of gardening requires a degree of planning, responsibility and routine which can strengthen critical thinking skills and build confidence. Children can often gain a strong sense of ownership when gardening as they learn how to take care of plants. This sense of responsibility and ownership can be transferred and applied to other areas of their academic and personal life to facilitate their growth.

Summary

The reasons for students feeling disinterested or unmotivated can sometimes be difficult to ascertain. Try not to take it as a reflection of your teaching. Everyone can go through periods of feeling unmotivated from time to time, but if the problem persists, it is worth considering additional support from professionals who may be able to perform assessments and offer appropriate help and diagnosis.