Re-framing Conversations About Disengaged Students

At a recent a professional learning session focused on re-engaging the disengaged learner, we greeted each participant and asked them to describe a disengaged student on a post-it note. After the completed post-it notes were attached to a white board, participants were invited to have a coffee and a morning conversation with their colleagues.

Here’s what it looked like:


As participants had their early morning coffee and introductory chats, we arranged the post-its on 2 sheets of paper and made copies for the participants.  Here’s what it looked like:

Left side comments included: gets distracted a lot, always late for class, work is incomplete,  disruptive to others, not focused, can’t read, work is incorrect, interrupts teacher by making a joke, not working, in conflict with classmates, goofs off, frustrated, leaves classroom, no sense of pride, never asks questions, goes to the bathroom a lot, frequent tantrums, has ADHD, poor writing skills.
Right side comments: thinks in abstract ways with strong communication skills, works well in a quiet environment, easily engaged in everything).

The number of comments on left side (focused on a student’s problems) outnumbered the comments on the right side (focused on a student’s potential). It was a clear illustration of how we  tend to view disengaged students with through a lens of “can’t” or “won’t” and we wanted to  change that perspective to “can” or “will”.

That lead to our Essential Question: How do we re-frame our perception of a disengaged student  from a student with a problem to a student with potential?

Thomas Guskey’s (@tguskey) words provide a powerful entry point to the solution:


First, we remember that students of any ability may be disengaged.

Next, we revisit the assessment data. Well designed and responsive formative assessments provide essential information about student learning, but only when the information is viewed from the perspective of building on the known, not fixing what’s wrong.  So we search the data for evidence of what’s been accomplished. Once we know what a student can do, we think in terms of how we provide feedback to the student and link feedback to next steps instruction. Then set high expectations for progress, monitor actual progress, and rethink instruction when progress falters.

Shifting from the perspective of student with a problem to student with potential requires more information than assessment data. To really know a student, there’s a moral and professional imperative to include information about who the student is as a person.

Building on Student Interests

Observations of the student and teacher-student conversations provide information about a student’s interests and the student’s community funds of knowledge.  Units of study, linked to all areas of the curriculum, can be developed around these interests. For example: If a student’s interest is hockey, the possibilities for curriculum linked, interest-based lessons include: counting the numbers of players on the ice (kindergarten), examining the physics of a body check (high school), determining the economic impact of hockey on the family budget, comparative studies of sports throughout the world, reading fiction and nonfiction accounts of hockey players . . .  the possibilities are endless.

For an example, click here for the story of T, a disengaged high school student who was repeatedly reminded and therefore firmly believed that he couldn’t read – until we discovered his interest in boxing and proved otherwise.

More examples of how to link student interests to the curriculum are available in Engaging the Disengaged. 

Creating Responsive Learning Environments

Teachers face a lot of pressure to have vibrant, busy, and conversation-filled classrooms where small groups of students rotate through a variety of learning activities. For some students, this is a wonderful learning experience; for others, it is a nightmare of too much noise, choice, and visual stimulation. So, design your classroom and instructional choices to be responsive and flexible. Here are some thoughts:

  • Small group work is only effective if every group member contributes and has an opportunity to demonstrate learning.
  • Whole group instruction doesn’t have to mean “stand and deliver”. Whole group instruction can be an opportunity for the class to share what they know and set directions for further small group or individual study.
  • A quiet classroom doesn’t have to impede sharing; times of silence can be focused on contemplative thinking that leads to individual or small group learning.

(NOTE: This is not meant to be a criticism of an educator’s practices. We know that wonderful things are happening in many classrooms. But, what’s wonderful for many is ineffective for some, so, as Guskey points out, we have to be willing to adjust our practice. )

Monitor Progress

Excellent teaching includes maintaining high expectations for progress, so a regular check in with accompanying feedback provides the teacher and the student with information about progress and next steps.  If progress isn’t noted, instructional format content and must be revisited.

Maintain a focus on learning, not helping

To offer help may send the message that we think the student can’t do it alone. So, rather than offering help, think of providing prompts.

  1. ask the student to tell you what he has completed thus far and exactly what he needs to know.
  2. provide lessons in how to develop questions
  3. teach students a variety of ways to search for more information
  4. be willing to reteach the content in a manner different than the original lesson
  5. ask the student to report back when he has gathered the information needed

This may sound like a lot of work – it is – but it’s the type of work that will make a significant difference to our students who are most at risk.

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

About Beyond The Apple

Beyond the Apple provides everything a Professional Learning Community needs! Designed to follow Beyond the Apple's Tenets of Adult Education, our videos re-ignite the excitement of professional conversations among educators in the classroom, university, colleges and professional training. Our free teaching and learning resources provide a follow up with more information that is current, research based and practical.
This entry was posted in Appreciative Inquiry, Assessment, Culturally Inclusive Classrooms, Educational Change, Stories From the Classroom and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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