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The disengagement we see from and in our students can take a variety of forms. Students may choose not to volunteer information or respond to our questions. They may not complete assigned work or “complete” it by doing the bare minimum and providing insubstantial responses. They may even actively disengage by putting their head down, putting earbuds in while we are providing instruction, or taking it upon themselves to substitute an activity other than what the rest of the class is doing. Our emotional response to the behavior can range from mild irritation to frustration—even anger. After all, this type of student behavior can slow the momentum of a lesson or even interrupt the flow and focus of what we are trying to accomplish.

Of course, there are many potential reasons for non-participatory behavior, and unless we know what is causing the behavior, we are not likely to be able to correct it. Sometimes we can discover the cause simply through observation. Other times, we need to meet with the student privately and try to initiate a productive dialogue. Or we may have to be content with trying some things and seeing what happens. Here are six of the most common causes of students choosing not to participate, as well as strategies we can use to respond.

Students may fail to understand the relevance and value of what they are being asked to do and learn. It is true that students today are often less patient and compliant than even a few years ago. They want to know how what we are presenting and asking them to learn has a worthy purpose and is relevant to their lives. When they fail to see a relevant reason for learning, many choose not to invest in it. As educators, we may be quick to take the position that all learning is valuable and that students should choose to learn simply because it is expected of them. While this approach may have been effective in the past, for many students, it is no longer a persuasive argument. Students often ask, “Why should I?” or “How will I even use this?” In our responses, we can start by sharing the purpose and utility of what we are asking them to learn. Our approach may need to be proactive and explicit in that we might not always wait for students to ask “Why?” before answering that very question. We may occasionally even challenge students to make connections between what they learn in class and their personal lives. Of course, not everything students are asked to learn may be immediately relevant to them, but frequent, authentic connections can reduce the need for students to always seek the task’s immediate purpose. It can also increase the likelihood of sparking interest and stimulating participation.

Many students want more autonomy. Some students automatically push back when they feel that their behavior is firmly directed or overtly forced. Others may minimally comply but still feel a lack of ownership of their work. These students need another approach. We can sidestep many of these issues by offering multiple options or choices for completing the work and demonstrating understanding. Authentic choice can increase student effort, lift the level of their performance, and build their learning. For example, among the choice options we might offer for engagement and proof of learning are demonstrations, 3D renderings, debates, music, drawing, and even coding.

For a significant number of students, refusal to participate is driven by fear of failure. Studies have shown that as much as 20% of classroom misbehavior can be linked to fear or expectations of failure. Students often choose not to participate, to misbehave, or to engage in other off-task behavior to avoid the risk and embarrassment of not being successful after a genuine attempt. For these students, the consequences of misbehavior are often seen as less painful than being revealed as unable to succeed. We can counter some of that fear of failure by giving students foundational, low-stakes opportunities to engage and succeed. Over time, a pattern of success can give students the confidence to take greater learning risks. We can also find success with these students when we focus on feedback that helps them to connect their efforts to growing success. Delaying the assignment of grades to student work as long as possible can also free these students to take learning risks without the distraction of the grade they will receive.

Some students choose not to participate because of feelings of isolation and lack of belonging. The absence of social connections and sense of support from other students can be a significant barrier to participation; the source of these feelings may be the lack of social status, absence of friendships, or even a student’s personal appearance and characteristics that drive a wedge with other students. Feelings of isolation and separation can be even stronger if teasing, shaming, bullying, or laughing are allowed responses to lack of success. We can counter much of what these students experience by establishing and enforcing norms of respect and acceptance. We can also design activities that give students opportunities to make personal connections and form friendships that might not exist outside of our class.

There may be students who choose not to participate due to that absence of a relationship with us. Some students are challenging for us to connect with. Some students may have a history with teachers, or adults in general, that leave them reluctant to even want to form a relationship, let alone try. However, when we fail to connect with our students, we lose access to a powerful motivational force. Students generally want to please adults who care about them—and whom they care about. They are more likely to participate, even take risks, if they know that we have their back and will be ready to support, encourage, and coach them to success. When a relationship is missing, students are more likely to let things go, fail to invest, and maybe even disrupt the learning environment for disruption’s sake. As difficult as it may be, and as long as it takes, we need to do all that we can to form and nurture positive relationships with our students.

For a growing number of students, failure to engage and participate is driven by factors outside of school. For these students, stress, worry, and family disruption can make the ability to focus on and commit to academics a stretch. When students are not certain where they will be sleeping or eating that evening, when they anticipate disruption and chaos at home, and when they may even fear for their personal safety, school can be a secondary concern at most. Sometimes, the best we can do is get to know our students and understand what they are facing. We can make our classroom a safe, predictable, stable space in their lives. It may be that just communicating our understanding will be an influential counterweight to help our students engage and learn despite what else is happening in their lives.

We know that unless students choose to participate in the learning activities and experiences we design, learning is likely to be compromised. Understanding why students may be reluctant to engage is a crucial first step in countering the behavior and opening the door to full participation and learning success. Once we know why, we can use our experience and expertise to plan how to respond.

Thought for the Week

In response to the uncertainty and disruption in which we find ourselves, researchers and experts say that the number one skill for survival and success in today’s environment is adaptability.

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