Every teacher wants their students engaged, motivated, and involved in the learning process. Sometimes, though, students can become reluctant to engage. These are the learners who won’t answer questions, put their heads down, or refuse to complete work. Sometimes, they just don’t appear interested at all. Understanding reluctant learners and how to re-engage them is critical for their success.
The idea isn’t to force kids and teens into working, since of course, we can’t force others to do anything they don’t really want to do. Instead, the idea is to support, encourage, and empower learners to the point where they want to contribute.
This starts with educator strategies. If we want kids and teens to change their behaviors, we often need to change ours first. Once we provide the right supports, students become more available to learn and thrive. It takes some effort and time to figure out what the “right” supports are for each child.
What does engagement look like? Student engagement is being involved and participating in the learning process. That might look different depending on the class or activity at hand. For example, a student shows they are engaged when they are taking notes and answering questions during a lecture. But it’s important to remember that engagement isn’t one-size-fits-all. For example, a student might learn better by doodling and listening to the lecture instead of taking notes. The key is that they are still involved and learning in whatever way is best for them.
What does disengagement look like? If engagement is participating in the learning process, disengagement is the opposite. It is showing disinterest in the learning process, sometimes even to the point of refusal. Again, this might look different in different classes and situations. Here are a few examples:
- Refusing or avoiding to complete assigned tasks.
- Consistent poor school attendance.
- Ignoring questions.
- Putting head down in class.
- Avoiding assignments or activities that are perceived as challenging.
- Turning in work that isn’t completed.
Understanding Reluctant Learners
Why are students reluctant to learn or complete work in school? There are many reasons kids and teens might be disengaged and unmotivated in school.
- They are bored with the class, or feel the content isn’t important in their life.
- They are hungry or tired.
- They are coping with other social-emotional struggles in their life.
- They lack connection with the teacher and/or students in the class.
- They don’t want to look stupid in front of others.
These are just a few possible reasons. The truth is that we don’t always even know or understand all the reasons. The good news is that educators can still utilize the same strategies to engage reluctant learners, whether or not we understand the reasons behind it all.
Strategies to Engage Reluctant Learners
Focus on the Relationship. The single most important strategy in helping engage reluctant learners is building a meaningful relationship with them. This means showing that you care about them, not just as a student, but as a human. Some strategies for this include:
- Get to know learners as individuals. Find out favorite foods and cherished hobbies. Learn about families and hopes for the future. Commit these facts to memory and bring them up at later times.
- Talk about non-school related topics. Use these free printable questions to give some chat ideas.
- Share about your own life. Kids and teens need to see you as a human too!
- Laugh often. Find ways to have fun, whether it is through games or just meaningful chats.
- Be consistent and compassionate. Kids and teens thrive on routine and consistency. That also includes keeping high but fair expectations.
- Get involved in extracurricular activities. If a student plays basketball, consider joining a practice or heading to a game to cheer them on.
Meet Privately. Chatting with a child 1:1 in a private setting lets them know you care. An emphasis here is on meeting privately; don’t call kids and teens out in front of others. Not only does this damage the relationship, but it reduces the chance kids will open up and share strategies to problem-solve.
Use this time to talk to your student, asking them what is going on, and what you could do to help. When meeting privately, it is important to focus on solutions. Remember that the student is not the problem. They are struggling with the problem.
Create a Safe Learning Environment. Creating a safe learning environment isn’t just about the physical space, but more so the social and emotional space. Kids and teens should feel comfortable to be themselves, take risks, and share their ideas. Some points and questions to consider for your classroom:
- Students should feel comfortable making mistakes. How do I react when kids make mistakes? How do other students react? Are there ways that students can “pass” questions that are challenging to avoid feeling embarrassed in the moment?
- Students should feel that their voice matters. How I provide opportunities for every learner to share their thoughts both publicly in class and privately? How do I foster an environment where students respect and value each others’ thoughts?
- Students should feel comfortable being who they are. How do I foster an inclusive classroom where every child/teen feels they can be themselves?
Provide Opportunities for Positive Peer Interactions. So often, kids and teens are disengaged because they feel disconnected from the community. Consider adding opportunities for positive peer interactions. A few examples include:
- Set up a lunch group with peers and role models.
- Use morning meeting to provide adult and student connections. Start with this daily morning meeting set focused on social emotional learning.
- Plan partner and group work in class, selecting peers that may work well with the student.
- Encourage the student to sign up for extra curricular activities (art club, sports, etc.).
- Lead a social skills group with peer role models.
Give Unconditional Love. Kids and teens have a lot going on in their lives; they carry a lot more than what is in their backpacks. And even when we’re making progress with them, there are going to be bumps along the way. Not every situation, class, or day will go perfectly. We need to love kids anyway. We need to love them even when they don’t finish their work or bring the right binder to class. There are many ways to show this.
- Start fresh every day. No matter what happened yesterday or the day before, take each day as a new one.
- Always focus on the relationship. Get to know kids as humans (and not just students). Keep bringing up topics that are important to your student. Ask about their hobbies, important family members, and hobbies. Learn about topics that are important to them, and let them teach you.
- Let the little things go sometimes. That means not calling a student out when they skipped two problems on the homework. It means seeing a student with their head down during morning work and not immediately going over there to tell them to get to work. You might ask them how their sports game was instead, though.
- Focus on the positives. There are always positives in every situation. Working with kids and teens who are struggling can be challenging and stressful. Remind yourself the positives your student has to offer.
Give Meaningful Responsibilities. Providing chances to give back to the classroom and school community lets students know they are valuable. It’s a great way to boost confidence, build responsibility, and create a positive climate.
When choosing responsibilities, try to focus on student strengths. You can use those strengths to build your student up and help them connect with the school community as a whole. Here are a few responsibilities to try:
- Technology expert – The student will check that laptops and other technology are charged, turn overhead on, and other tech responsibilities your classroom needs.
- Classroom helper – Have the student go into a younger class to help them with their work.
- Class organizer – The student can mark attendance, lunch choices, and other clerical duties for the day.
- Librarian – Have the student tidy up the class library and look up future suggestions for class books.
Consider Physiological Needs. Research tells us that humans require certain physiological needs for optimal learning and development. Of course, educators cannot control everything, but we can provide extra supports when we understanding what our learners are lacking. The six physiological preconditions for optimal learning and development include:
- Adequate sleep.
- Physical activity.
- Social relationships.
- Cultural Well-being.
- Feeling safe.
Daily Emotions Check-In. In order to do their best, kids and teens need to understand and manage their everyday feelings. Provide a daily emotions check-in time to help your students build self-awareness and self-regulation skills.
Provide a daily emotions check-in and build SEL skills with this daily SEL check-in journal.
Use Student Interests in Lessons. Find out the interests of reluctant learners and use them in your lessons and activities in class. This doesn’t mean you need to re-design all your classroom lessons; it’s just a way to capture the attention of your student, reminding them that you know them and care about them at the very same time.
If you are working on averages in math, consider highlighting batting average if a student has an interest in baseball. If you are teaching reading strategies, add in an article on tigers if a student loves wildlife. The options for adding student interests in lessons are really endless.
Use Student Strengths. Highlight student strengths during lessons and activities. This reminds kids and teens that they are capable before starting the hard stuff. Keep in mind that highlighting student strengths needs to be genuine. Here are a couple small examples from the classroom:
- “You are a great storyteller. Today, we’re going to use that to work on writing.”
- “I know you have a fantastic speaking voice. Let’s use that while we practice reading.”
- “You are my technology star! Let’s put those skills to use with some math problems on the computer.”
Use Peer Tutoring. Peer tutoring is a research-based effective intervention that is sometimes under-utilized. The idea is that a peer helps tutor and teach another student. This technique can be beneficial with reluctant learners for a few reasons. First, it provides necessary peer interaction. Second, it means someone else is teaching the content besides you as the teacher.
Consider what content area your struggling learner might need the most support in (reading, math, etc). Train another strong student how to teach and tutor that content. Then, provide time to make it happen.
Another way to use peer tutoring in this case is to have the reluctant learner be the teacher themselves. This can be helpful if your student is strong with certain content, but struggles to produce the work. Your student will learn more through teaching and will feel more connected with the classroom community.
Sometimes it can help to give a set of choices (2 or 3), so that making a choice isn’t overwhelming.
Provide Accommodations and Supports. Meet struggling learners where they are to help them get where they need to be. Accommodations are small changes to the way students learn, but they can have a big impact. Keep in mind that accommodations are not about making work too easy on students; they are about making it just right.
Some examples of accommodations in the classroom include:
- Providing a graphic organizer for writing assignments to provide more structure and organization.
- Breaking down long-term and larger assignments into more manageable chunks.
- Listening to audio books.
- Use of a calculator while solving word problems.
- Speech-to-text for writing assignments to help get ideas out without the physical need of writing.
Celebrate Small Wins. Changing habits is hard for anyone, but especially kids and teens working through their own challenges. With that, it’s all about the baby steps. Make it a point to celebrate small wins. This lets students know you care and support their progress along the way.
Give Students Time to Shine. Building confidence can go a long way for kids and teens. Of course, math or reading (or any other core content area) isn’t necessarily a child’s best skill. These can be extremely challenging for them to work on. With that, find ways for your student to shine and show the skills they are good at.
Give Choice. So often, kids and teens refuse to complete their work simply because they feel they don’t have control in their lives. A small bit of control we can give kids is through choices in class. When working on reading strategies, let the student choose which book or story to use. When working on writing, let the student choose the topic to write about. During independent study hall or work time, ask your student if they would rather start their science or reading work. Small choices can make a big difference.