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School & District Management Opinion

5 Strategies to Combat Student Disengagement

How principals can tackle this silent crisis
By Michelle Singh — March 12, 2024 5 min read
Illustration of a bright vibrant school where students feel welcomed. In the background the sky is filled with enthusiastic raised hands.
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Envision a stroll through your school’s corridors. You peer into classrooms expecting to see a spark of engagement in the eyes of every student, but the reality is often a different picture. There’s the student in the back row, lost in thoughts far away from the ongoing lesson. Other students arrive late or not at all. These scenes all signify a deeper challenge: student disengagement at every grade level.

Student disengagement is a complex problem that demands more than a one-dimensional solution. It calls for a proactive approach from school administrators to understand and address the root causes.

Heaps of recent research shift the onus of student disengagement to school-level factors rather than individual student characteristics. Relationships between educators and students are foundational for improving student attendance, retention, and fostering a sense of belonging. Positive interactions between teachers and students can improve students’ overall educational experience.

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In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

School leaders, in turn, must adopt a holistic perspective that integrates students’ social-emotional and cultural well-being along with their academic needs. This approach isn’t just for the benefit of students; it helps educators as well. Teachers, as key influencers in the learning environment, need support to effectively mentor and guide their students.

When I teach educators how to combat student disengagement effectively, I focus on a suite of five adaptable strategies that I call the EQUAL method: evaluate, qualify, uplift, activate, and leverage.

Evaluate the school culture with a cultural audit.

Principals should initiate a cultural audit annually to evaluate the school’s cultural inclusivity. Send out a user-friendly online survey to ask students, teachers, and parents succinct questions about the visibility of diverse cultures in classroom materials and students’ overall sense of belonging.

Review the outcomes of this audit regularly, perhaps once every semester, to plan actionable steps. Based on the survey responses, you might implement monthly cultural celebrations or create a “wall of diversity” in the school.

Such initiatives not only showcase the diversity of the student body but also lay the foundation for deeper connections between teachers and students. By highlighting students’ backgrounds, a school can foster a more inclusive environment and strengthen the student-teacher relationships that are crucial for student engagement and success.

Qualify teacher practices with an inclusivity checklist.

Principals can play a pivotal role in advancing inclusive teaching practices by developing and implementing an inclusivity checklist. This should be a collaborative process, involving input from a diverse group of educators to ensure the checklist is comprehensive and relevant. This checklist can be used by each teacher individually to self-assess, enrich, and diversify their lesson plans.

The checklist should detail essential inclusive teaching practices, such as employing multicultural literature and exploring various historical perspectives, to guide educators in creating lessons that mirror their student population’s composition.

These practices are fundamental in building strong rapport across diverse student groups. Moreover, this tool can empower principals to monitor and promote inclusive pedagogy schoolwide.

Uplift student skill sets with ready-to-use SEL activities.

Principals can enhance classroom engagement by encouraging teachers to start and conclude each class with a series of concise, guided social-emotional-learning activities.

To facilitate this, principals can distribute SEL activity one-pagers. These resources can be tailored to different age groups and should include clear, step-by-step instructions for each activity. For instance, a one-pager for a primary grade might include a five-minute mindfulness exercise with illustrated breathing techniques like box-breathing, while one for older students could outline a quick, reflective journaling prompt about gratitude or empathy.

With the right support, teachers can use these exercises to help students develop skills like empathy, resilience, and communication. Furthermore, by creating a schoolwide exchange of successful SEL practices, principals will empower teachers to exchange their own insights and integrate SEL into everyday teaching.

Activate stakeholder relationships with community connections.

Principals can bring the vibrancy of the local community into the school environment by planning a “bring a community member to school” day, a “community project” day, or “local hero” talks.

To facilitate these events, school leaders should create a straightforward planning checklist or template to ensure efficiency and consistency in organization. Principals can appoint a leadership outreach team to enlist the support of local entities. That team might contact local business associations, cultural institutions, libraries, and service clubs to participate or contribute resources.

Family resource centers, local colleges or universities, and even alumni can provide valuable perspectives that help educators understand their students’ lives outside of school. These partnerships both aid in the logistics of the events and enrich the content, making these initiatives a true bridge between classroom learning and the broader community.

Leverage equitable assessments with flexible assessment frameworks.

Principals can empower student success by encouraging teachers to offer students a choice in how they demonstrate their knowledge at least once each term.

To effectively support teachers in this initiative, principals should give teachers the tools to apply these diverse assessment methods confidently, including resources like flexible rubrics and concise training videos. Principals should develop and provide teachers with a menu of assessment options that allows them to tailor assessment to students’ unique abilities and interests, broadening the ways students can express their learning. This menu might include a variety of formats like oral presentations, posters, projects, written essays, or digital portfolios.

Principals can also set aside space to display student work in school exhibitions, digital newsletters, or student showcases. Such recognition not only validates student efforts but also promotes a supportive, relationship-focused school culture. By highlighting these diverse achievements, the school visibly commits to valuing different types of intelligence and creativity, thus endorsing an inclusive and equitable approach to education.

In closing, school leaders have the unique opportunity to spearhead a transformative movement in education. It’s time to embrace this challenge and redefine schools not just as places of learning but as nurturing communities where every student and teacher can thrive.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2024 edition of Education Week as 5 Strategies to Combat Student Disengagement

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