Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways to Connect With Disengaged Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 29, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Two readers have asked similar questions:

Science Eduk8r:

What do you do with the student who simply has refused to work?

Mary B:

I am a new teacher and have a position teaching in a high school. My question for you is how to respond to an apathetic student in my classroom?

Many of us have had students in our classrooms who are disengaged.

How can we turn that around?

Before I introduce guests who will be sharing their ideas today, I’d like to point out some additional resources that relate to this topic:

Daniel Pink, Dan Ariely, and I discussed it in my first post here, titled Several Ways To ‘Motivate’ the Unmotivated To Learn.

Two highly-respected educators and writers, Chris Wejr and Jeff Wilhelm offered their suggestions in Several Ways To Engage Students Without Carrots & Sticks.

And I’ve written about this issue elsewhere in Education Week, as well as in other publications. You can see a complete list of these resources at The Best Posts & Articles On “Motivating” Students.

Today’s guest responses are from Jim Peterson, who I consider one of my mentors, and educator/author Mike Anderson. In addition, I’m including several comments left by readers.

Response From Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson is a veteran vice principal at the school where I have taught for nine years, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. Jim is also a behavioral therapist and clinical hypnotherapist. You can learn more about his work at Alpha Mind Coaching:

Good teacher mechanics take care of a high percentage of challenges in the classroom. Being prepared each day with well thought out lessons, which include good instructional and management strategies, will ensure that most of your students stay engaged. A good net, however, won’t ensure that you catch every fish in the pond.

Relationships are another piece of the puzzle. How well do you know the student who is not engaging? What’s her story? How does she see the world? Understanding and connecting with a child at a deeper level changes the teacher-student dynamic. With all other factors being equal, a student will perform more for the teacher she feels a connection with.

One way to accomplish this is by doing walk-and-talk’s during your prep period. Walking side-by-side with another person is an extremely powerful rapport-building exercise. It gives you an opportunity to connect with the student in a way that you wouldn’t be able to in the classroom. I’ve posted detailed instructions on how to set up and execute a walk-and-talk, as well as the psychological reasons for its effectiveness, at “Walk & Talk Instructions.”

During the walk-and talk, you and the student agree upon an area of focus. If the student has done nothing in your class up to this point, discussing everything he needs to do to earn an A can be overwhelming. Staying on task during an entire five-minute assignment, in a class where he normally does nothing, though not your ultimate performance goal, should be recognized and validated as a success. Success breeds success. Highly-motivated students are a product of more successes than failures, which leads to a self-image, at some level, of their being successful.

Walk-and-talk’s provide an opportunity to help the student begin to create this image. The yet-to-be-successful student is not, by himself, going to plant the seed in his own mind that he can be successful. He needs your help. Trying to establish this idea with a recalcitrant student, however, can be like throwing the seed onto hardpan. When you establish a relationship with this student, you plow through the hardpan, allowing the seed to take root. We are more easily influenced by those we trust and feel we resonate with.

Walk-and-talk’s allow you to not only build a positive relationships but give you the opportunity to guide your students in painting, stroke by stroke, a picture of themselves as being successful. The dual motivators of a personal relationship and a budding sense of self-efficacy are a powerful combination that can kick-start even the most unmotivated student.

Response From Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson
is a consultant for Northeast Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization that supports teachers across the United States in implementing Responsive Classroom teaching practices. He has taught preschool and 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades; coached swim teams; and taught graduate classes at the University of New Hampshire summer literacy institute. In 2004, he was awarded a national Milken Educator Award for excellence in teaching. He is the author of several books about teaching and learning, including the ASCD book The Well-Balanced Teacher:

Of all of the different challenging behaviors that children exhibit, I find disengagement the most frustrating. After working so hard to create lessons and units that will help students learn, I feel like a failure when students don’t try. Here are a few ideas we might consider when challenged with a student who won’t engage.

Make sure work is purposeful: “Why do we have to learn this?” groans Mark, staring at his worksheet of fraction problems. In my experience, we most dread this question when we don’t have a good answer (like “because it’s on the state test” or “because you’re getting a grade for this”). What if we challenge our students to ask us this question more often? It might force us to make sure that work is meaningful from students’ perspectives. For example, we might create a class bulletin board of cool fractional designs. The work students do with fractions can be about creating an amazing display in the hallway--much more purposeful than practicing a skill for a state test.

Make work more collaborative: People learn more together than they do apart. We’re a social species and we’re hardwired to collaborate. So why do we so often require kids to work alone in school? I know that I’m more engaged with my work when I’m collaborating with colleagues. Partner chats, games to practice skills, and allowing students to work on an assignment together are simple ways we can leverage students’ need to work together.

Offer choices about how or what students learn: When students have more power and control over their learning, they are more engaged. Even the simple choice between using dice or cards when playing a math game can make a difference.

Make sure learning is fun: Put yourself in your students’ shoes. If you were a student doing the work you were assigning, would you like it? Would it be interesting? Would it be fun? Try building lessons and activities from the perspectives of your students. You might find yourself inventing games, creating class debates, or making music videos with your students.

Most of all, we need to not give up. Students want to learn. They want to engage. Students who put up the façade of boredom or apathy are usually disengaging for good reasons, so it’s up to us to keep working with them to find ways to get them fired up and excited about learning.

Responses From Readers


Start small; meet them where they are and try to build a relationship. Find something that they love, and teach through that. Don’t worry about what is “required” to teach at this point; if they are disengaged, the first step is bringing them back. Validate what they are feeling, keep your standards high, and let them pursue what they are interested in. Sometimes kids are disengaged because they feel teachers/parents are disengaged and don’t understand what they are facing. Show the student that they actually matter to you, personally, and hopefully that will help. There is no magic bullet, and it won’t work with every kid, but don’t give up.

Livingston Susanna

I think getting to know kids on a personal level and then showing them that you actually listen when they share private information about their lives... is the key. Some kids don’t get enough attention at home as many of us parents (myself included have to work so hard) and for those kids- they act out because they seek attention- negative or positive- attention is reinforcing in either form.

Benjamin Stewart:

Perhaps it starts with knowing yourself (strengths and weaknesses), ALL of your students, their parents, admins., community etc. Then based on that, begin focusing on the one student who is disengaged. Engaging that one student will involve the student’s entire personal learning network (its social, cognitive, and material dimensions).

Sally Ryan

Be sure explore and to rule out factors that may interfere with a student’s motivation like a mental health or attention problem, learning disability or social, family, substance issues. Some students shut down because they have to.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Jim and Mike, and to many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” tomorrow.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.