Re-framing Conversations About Disengaged Students

At a recent a professional learning session focused on re-engaging the disengaged student, we asked each participant to write a few words on a post-it to describe a disengaged student. The completed post-it notes were attached to a white board.

Here’s what it looked like:


As participants had their early morning coffee and introductory chats, we arranged the post-its in two columns.  Here’s a copy of 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. These comments far outnumbered the comments on the right side, which focused on a student’s potential. The contrast was sobering. Clearly, it was time to re-frame our perception of a disengaged student.

We know this, but in today’s overcrowded and diverse classrooms, how is that possible?

Here are some start points:

  • First, don’t make assumptions based on the student’s behaviour or past levels of academic success.  Remember that students of any background or ability may become disengaged.
  • Review the student’s assessment results. Rather than focusing on the score, focus on the student’s answers. Even with scores like 25% or D, a teacher should be able to find evidence of what the student can do. This information, referred to as “the known” is the foundation on which to build the next steps of instruction. It might not seem like much, but it’s a start point that provides a re-entry to engagement.
  • Provide feedback about what you noticed to the student. Be honest, don’t over embellish. A simple, “I looked over your work and I noticed that you can . . . The next step is  . . . ).
  • Gather information about the student’s funds of knowledgewhat does the student know about, what is he interested in, etc. Why is this information useful? 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 K-12 lessons or units of study include: counting the numbers of players on the ice, examining the physics of a body check, determining the economic impact of hockey on the family budget, comparative studies of sports throughout the world and reading fiction and nonfiction accounts of hockey players, and using hockey vocabulary as anchors for spelling lessons. The possibilities are limitless.
  • Once the unit of study is determined, design lessons that provide just enough challenge for the student to build on his known.
  • Remember that the focus is on re-engagement in learning. So, once the unit of study is established and lessons designed, set high expectations for progress, monitor actual progress, and when progress falters, rethink instruction, but don’t blame the student.

An example of how this shift in perspective actually occurs in a real school setting would be helpful. Interested? If so, click here. 

For more 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.
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