How to engage the disengaged secondary student

Every school has them. Every teacher will come across one in their classroom at some point. They are a perennial ‘problem’ – but what can you do to engage a disengaged student?

The disengaged student. Of all the challenges that a secondary school teacher has to face, there can be few as frustrating or as difficult to deal with as a disengaged, disaffected student.

We all recognise the character traits – the refusal to complete (or even start!) tasks; the attention craving behaviour; the avoidance of challenges; the unwillingness to take risks; the quiet or loud open defiance; or – sometimes even more infuriating than all the other behaviours put together – a general nonchalant indifference towards anything and everything that you try to do to engage them!

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand here. There is no secret formula you can try out in the classroom that will miraculously convert the disengaged student into a model student. In 18 years in the classroom, I ‘cracked it’ with many, but I would never claim to have done so with all. I suspect nobody ever will. But the first step to engaging such students is definitely trying to establish what lies at the root of the disengagement.

What are the roots of disengagement?

Again, there’s no simple answer. There are typical causes, of course – difficult home circumstances never help; friendship issues will often have an impact; but in most cases, self-esteem (or lack of it), will be at the root of the problem.

The reasons for the lack of self-esteem will vary and it is often a complex combination of factors. But wherever there are self-esteem issues, disengagement often isn’t far behind.

Self-esteem might manifest itself with a young person feeling a lack of self-worth as a person, or it could be because of a perceived lack of ability in a subject.

Another factor that makes disengaged students hard to reach is the fact that most teachers actually find their feeling of disengagement difficult to relate to. They have not been disengaged students themselves. I have no weight of statistical data to back this claim, but I strongly suspect that the vast majority of teaching professionals look back on their own experiences as a pupil in an overwhelmingly positive way.

I was different. I know from conversations with some of my old teachers that, as a pupil, I was somebody that ‘divided opinion’ in the staffroom. To my English, Drama and History teachers I was seen as a model student. To my Maths and Science teachers, I was the spawn of the devil.

The reason? My own lack of self-esteem. I started secondary school in the top set for both maths and science. End of year exams soon coincided with an annual demotion to the set below. For 4 consecutive years. By the time I had reached the 5th Year (Year 11 as we know it today), I was your classic demotivated, disruptive and defiant, disengaged student.

I have recognised my younger self in many students I have taught over the years. I always do my best to act in completely the opposite way to how my maths and science teachers handled me back then. So how do you accomplish that tricky task?

Establish a relationship

Establish relationships

Disengaged students are sometimes actually quite unlikeable, if we’re being honest. But a teacher has to fight through that.

The more frustrated you become with a disengaged student, the greater their disengagement becomes.

The more you lose your patience or raise your voice, the less likely it becomes that you will ever win them over.

We have to recognise that disengaged students often feel like they are in a vicious circle, if not a downward spiral, of feeling frustrated, inadequate, confused and even ashamed. The arrogance or nonchalance they exhibit often masks their own deeper insecurities. Absolutely anything you can do to establish a rapport has to be done and you must give praise at every possible opportunity. Disengaged students often throw everything back in your face. If that happens, you dust yourself down and go again – no matter how hard it is to do so.

If you give up, they certainly will too.

How to re-engage disaffected students

Like I’ve already said, as a teacher you are never going to be handed a wand that will magic away the difficulty of trying to re-engage students that are disaffected. But understanding what causes disaffection – although it doesn’t solve any of the problems as such – is an important first step and really helps to give some perspective.

Accepting that supporting the most vulnerable students can be one of the most challenging and thankless tasks that you will ever face as a teacher, and learning not to take things personally when the strategies you try fail, are equally important.

These key ideas are built on in the ‘Re-Engaging Disaffected Students’ course. A course that empowers you to explore these issues in more detail, it will show you how to identify and anticipate problems. Most importantly, it will help you to develop individual practical strategies to take positive and proactive action in the classroom to help you engage the disengaged secondary school student.

Here are some of our other courses that you might find useful:

Mark Richards

Mark Richards has 18 years of experience working in secondary schools. As an English and Media Studies specialist, he has held positions such as Literacy Coordinator and Head of English – leading departments in two schools. With significant line management and senior leadership experience in three schools and having been an Assistant Headteacher in two schools, he has had a wide range of areas of responsibility. These include Behaviour, Attendance, Literacy and Teaching and Learning. With experience of working both in outstanding schools and a school in special measures, he is also an experienced examiner from KS2-KS5. An experienced presenter, he has written and delivered a variety of courses, training and professional development opportunities for teachers, teaching assistants and examiners – both face-to-face and online.