Distracted, disengaged students? Possible reasons why.

There are many possible reasons for a lack of engagement in the classroom. Often these are non-school related. For example, not getting enough sleep, spending too much time with peers or screens, having too many extra-curricula activities, ‘issues’ at home, or simply being ‘lazy’.

However, school-related factors are among the more common issues reported by students during counselling about why they are unmotivated in particular subjects, or at school in general .

This post explores some school-related impacts on student engagement to help teachers tweak how they work with these students to increase motivation.

  • Does the child think the content is relevant? Assist your class to determine how the content is personally relevant. Incorporate the WALT technique. It is more powerful for learners to make their own connections between what is being taught and their lives, than to be told by the teacher how it is relevant. As you begin a topic or lesson, have students write a few sentences, or discuss with a partner, how the content or skills might be useful to their life now or in the future. Share ideas and review towards the end of the session. Doing this regularly, several times a semester, can lead to positive learning gains, especially for the child who has been a low performer.[1]Hulleman, C. S. & Harackiewicz, J. (2009). ‘Promoting interest and performance in high school science class’ Science 326, pp.1410-1412. Incorporate student interest areas (sport, music, or popular culture etc.) into lessons to also increase engagement and boost learning.
  • Are expectations high, but achievable? The child may feel bored if expectations are too low, or anxious or hopeless if expectations are set too high. Are appropriate expectations and supports in place for the child who has learning difficulties? For more on setting high expectations see page 10 of the Psych4Schools ebooklet, Working with children who are disengaged and unmotivated in the classroom.
  • Is the child regularly drawing on their strengths? Teaching to strengths can improve engagement.[2] Sternberg, R. J. (2000). ‘Wisdom as a form of giftedness’. Gifted Child Quarterly, 44(4), 252–259. Ask the child what content or activities they find engaging and energising. Try to incorporate some of these or a component of them into their learning and your teaching. For example, if playing team sports is a child’s strength, talk with them about what they like about it – the competition, working with their peers, or being outside. Incorporate aspects of your findings into your program. To gain additional information about themselves older students might complete the VIA Strengths survey.
  • Is the child receiving timely, meaningful feedback? Feedback has one of the most powerful effects on student learning.[3]Hattie, J. (2010). ‘Visible Learning, Tomorrow’s schools. The mindsets that make the difference in education’. Presentation Slides Retrieved ...continue To be most effective, feedback needs to:
    • Be timely – the time between the task and feedback should be as short as possible.
    • Be meaningful – use simple language, clear criteria and balance positive comments with constructive suggestions.
    • Provide suggestions – Outline specific actions describing how the student can improve their work. For example, ‘Great story. I feel sorry for your main character. When you proofread, remember to put a capital letter at the beginning of each sentence.’ or ‘Clear argument and information. Can I help you to add a linking sentence between each paragraph?’ or ‘I notice when you slow down and check your answers, you make fewer spelling errors.’
  • Does the child have an undiagnosed learning disability or other condition that may impact on their ability to learn? A recent study, [4] Snow, P. C. & Powell, M. B. (2011). ‘Youth (In)justice: Oral language competence in early life and risk for engagement in antisocial behaviour ...continue reported one third of students referred to school psychologists for challenging behaviours had an undiagnosed language disorder. Assess the child’s literacy and numeracy abilities. If there are concerns, consult with senior staff, and with parent permission, refer the student to a psychologist for a cognitive and educational assessment.
  • Is the child having difficulty coping with change or stress at home or school? If you suspect or know the child is having difficulty coping with change or stress at home, or school, or if the child is suffering from anxiety, enter into a dialogue with the child and/or their parents. If further help is needed, with parent permission, refer the child to a psychologist or school counsellor.  Major stress or anxiety may impede the child’s ability to concentrate and engage in the classroom.
  • Are health and lifestyle factors affecting engagement? Is the child hungry, sick or not engaging in enough physical activity? Is the child getting enough sleep, using screens into the night? A healthy lifestyle and feeling well are integral to being able to learn effectively. Without it children and adults will find it difficult to concentrate, learn, and participate fully in the classroom. Read the Psych4Schools blog Foundations for building resilience. Consider sharing this with your students, their parents and caregivers.

For more ideas on boosting student motivation see the Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children who are disengaged and unmotivated in the classroom.

Zoe Ganim, Psych4Schools Psychologist

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