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Classroom Management, Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Feb 15, 2023

A fresh approach to supporting students who are disengaged and task-avoidant

By Erika Walther

5th Grade ELA

A fresh approach to supporting students who are disengaged and task-avoidant

By Erika Walther

In my travels and conversations with educators from coast to coast, there is a resounding panic from teachers feeling unprepared and ill-equipped to support disengaged students.

The following three scenarios are the most common based on my observations as a teacher coach and literacy specialist:

Scenario One: Students are sleeping, moody, or completely disengaged in class.

Scenario Two: Students have a hard time staying in class. They are always in the bathroom, hallway, locker, or constantly asking for breaks during instruction (even right after a “break”).

Scenario Three: Students struggle to control emotional outbursts, resulting in verbal and physical altercations with adults and other students.

If any of these three scenarios are happening in your classroom, I’m going to dig deep into each one and discuss the context for each type of behavior, along with some tried and true strategies to re-engage students and keep them engaged in their education for the rest of the school year.

All the strategies I will be sharing are rooted in SEL (Social Emotional Learning), Restorative Practices, and Equity best practices for K-12 educational settings. If you’d like to learn more about these three frameworks, links are at the bottom of this article.

But first, two reminders:

Reminder #1: Stay student-centered

Before we start, you’ll probably notice my student-centered language in each scenario. This is part of the process of re-engaging students. Checking in on our own mindset toward students is a critical step that a lot of educators tend to skip because they honestly don’t think they need to do it.

However, think about how you describe students who fall asleep in class to another colleague, for example. Which of these descriptions sounds like you?

Teacher A: “Jonathan is ALWAYS sleeping in class. He never does any work and he’s going to fail my class! Sleepers never prosper. If he’s going to sleep in class every day, I’m just going to let him. His parents must not make him go to bed on time.

Teacher B: “Jonathan has really been struggling to stay awake in my class lately. I’m concerned that he is falling behind with his assignments and grades. I’m going to have to figure out something I can do to support him and get him back on the right track.”

You may think to yourself that you’ve been both Teacher A and Teacher B at different points this year, or in your career. You may think there’s no harm in venting about Jonathan the way that Teacher A did, if we come back around to addressing the issue like Teacher B.

The issue with the words used by Teacher A is that by the end of that statement, the teacher has already made a handful of assumptions about Jonathan and his family. They have also already decided that Jonathan’s situation can’t be changed for the better and they will not be going out of their way to try.

Teacher B, on the other hand, admittedly does NOT have the answer to the problem in this conversation. Supporting students who are struggling is a year-long process that will require the teacher to be proactive, communicative, and supportive to both the student and their family at various points in the year. Teacher B understands this and yet understands that there are some things they can try to help Jonathan get re-engaged with his education.

I should also note here that in some cases, students will need more support than you provide just within your classroom. Lean on your school social workers, psychologists, and special educators to give you suggestions and referrals when needed for students who have needs beyond what you can provide.

Reminder #2: Don’t take it personally

For all the students described below, it’s almost NEVER personal towards the teacher. More likely than not, you are NOT boring your students to sleep or chasing them out of your classroom!

Teachers who come to me with questions about students who sleep or refuse to do work often have already tried a plethora of things to get students motivated. They’ve usually already implemented class-wide systems to positively reinforce student behavior with team points of some sort, and there’s one or two students who are still not responding the way the teacher hoped.

If you already have a supportive classroom culture in place but you still have students disengaging from the learning, the first step is to look for patterns in the behavior:

  • Are they going to sleep as soon as they come in in the morning, or are they waiting until it’s time to complete an undesirable task in class?
  • Do they leave class at the same times every day, or does it depend?
  • Do they put their head down ALL day, or are they up and participating during activities like Physical Education or recess?

These types of questions will help you narrow down when and how often you need to step in with your additional support.

Now, let’s look in-depth at how to address each of the scenarios I identified at the beginning of the article.

How to motivate and engage reluctant learners

What to do when: Students are sleeping, moody, or completely disengaged in class

There will certainly be cases where a student sleeping is due to something serious going on in the home, and if you suspect this is the case you should reach out to your administration for the appropriate next steps before you do anything else. Student safety and care comes first. However, I caution teachers often on assuming students who sleep are doing so because they aren’t getting enough sleep at home.

Most of the time, disengaged students are often simply craving connection.

They may not feel like they are truly part of your classroom community for one reason or another. They may be experiencing bullying. They could be struggling with their own mental health and are unsure how to ask for help. They may be struggling academically and are embarrassed to be “found out.” Once you know what is hindering your student from feeling like part of your classroom community, you can make your plan for support accordingly.

Disengaged students need the adults in their life to not only create safe spaces for them, but also to encourage and invite them into those spaces daily.

They need to be reminded every single day that they are an important part of your classroom community, that you care about them and their ideas, and that you will be there to support them if they start to struggle throughout the day.

You can do this easily during morning meetings when students are typically still awake and alert. Build in a daily affirmation routine that all students will benefit from, but particularly the students you are focused on supporting. A quick online search for “daily affirmations for students” will get you started with videos and activities that you can choose based on the age of your students, but the idea is simple! Spending just 2-3 minutes each day engaging with affirmations will help students understand and see their own value within the classroom.

Beyond your morning meeting routine, your students will need proactive, planned check-ins with you or another trusted adult. They may be motivated to try to stay engaged, but become quickly frustrated and shut down before you get the chance to offer them redirection or encouragement. Their learned habit of shutting down has protected them from feeling frustrated, but that means they don’t have much in the way of coping skills to work through challenging tasks.

Conference with these students individually about growth mindset to help them understand that they may not be able to complete the task independently YET, but if they keep working at it, they will be able to soon!

Share with them things that you do when you get frustrated by something, such as take a few deep breaths, take a short break, or ask for help from someone else (identify peers or adults who can help).

You may feel like everything you are doing stops working when your student comes in and goes right to sleep one day after a few weeks of working hard. Don’t be discouraged!

This doesn’t mean your student has given up all over again, but it does mean they need more check-ins and possibly additional coping strategies. This type of student support is a “roll with the flow” kind of support that will change and evolve throughout the year in response to what your students need.

What to do when: Students have a hard time coming to class or staying in class.

Students may seem to always be in the bathroom, hallway, or locker, or constantly ask for breaks during instruction. With older students, they may even cut/skip classes altogether.

Many of the strategies described above for students who sleep or refuse to work in class will apply to students who leave class as well. Students who have built a habit of wandering the school building when they are frustrated or faced with an undesirable task can be challenging to re-engage, but with the right level of pro-active planning, you can help your students see the importance of staying in class and engaging in the learning with the rest of their peers.

For students struggling to stay in class, a little bit of positive attention goes a LONG way. Students will often leave class to seek out something that they would rather do instead. They want to feel successful, challenged, or validated more so than the rest of their classmates.

I find that having a direct, respectful, open conversation with students (yes, even in elementary school!) about their actions is the best first step. In the conversation, you will want to ask at least these three questions, and pay careful attention to their answers:

  1.  I’ve noticed you ask to go to the bathroom every day when it is time for word work. How do you feel when it’s time for us to do our ____ lessons?” Make sure you name the behavior that you’ve noticed, without judgment. This lets students know that you are aware that their actions are intentional, and it allows you to have an honest, non-defensive conversation.)
  2.  When it’s time for us to do our ___lessons, is there a place in the room that you would like to sit?” This won’t work for every student, but often a preferential seating change for the part of the lesson or subject that students struggle with the most can offer a quick fix.
  3. I want to help you stay in class so that you can learn the same ___ as your classmates. What do you think we should do to help you stay in class during this time? “This lets students know that you are still holding them to the same expectations as their peers, but that you are willing to take extra steps to make sure they feel supported. Most likely they won’t know exactly what they need you to do (they will probably shrug or tell you they don’t know), but the point of this question is to let them know that you have some ideas to share, and they are part of the process of deciding which strategies to try. I let students know that whatever strategy we agree on together will be used for at least two weeks, and then we will check in again to see if it’s working for them or not.

What to do when: Students struggle to control emotional outbursts, resulting in verbal and physical altercations with adults and other students

First things first: If students are a danger to themselves or to others, you will need to go through your administration team to follow the appropriate protocol for keeping yourself and your students safe. Once any immediate safety concerns have been addressed with the support of your administration, then your work on supporting students experiencing emotional dysregulation can begin.

It’s unclear yet whether we are seeing an increase in emotional or physical outbursts from students, or if we are just hearing more about it from our collective media and social circles. Regardless, many of the strategies described from the first two scenarios can be used as first steps for students struggling emotionally as well!

If you have worked through those strategies and still find students struggling to regulate their own emotions appropriately, you may need some slightly more sophisticated systems in place.

I like to think of support for emotional regulation in four stages:

Stage 1: Name it

In this stage, students need language to describe the emotions they are feeling. This stage needs to be proactively planned out, ideally WITH the student, like the conference in Scenario Two. Together, decide on the emotions that most OFTEN lead to an outburst (usually anger, frustration, or even sadness). They need a sentence to say out loud to you or another trusted adult to let you know what they are experiencing. “I” statements are a great tool we can teach children here.

“I feel _____ when _____ happens in class.”

“When we ______, I feel ______.”

“When you or a classmate _____, I feel ______.”

This helps students start to identify their own triggers and be more aware of them as they continue to develop emotionally. Don’t assume that because a student is in High School that they already know how to do this! Teach them anyway. Even if they do “know,” just like adults sometimes, they may benefit from a reminder to embrace a healthier habit.

Stage 2: Express it

Imagine getting a distressing phone call in the middle of your workday (I’m sure many of us have experienced this). Now imagine that your principal or administrator knows what happened, but still expects you to pick up your next class on time from the cafeteria in five minutes. For students who struggle with emotional regulation, their emotions can feel as intense as that phone call. Expecting students to take a five-minute break and go on like nothing happened is unreasonable and can be more harmful for students who have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences.

Instead, students need a safe place and manner to express the emotion they are feeling.

Students may need to leave your classroom to meet with a social worker or psychologist when they are experiencing an emotional outburst, but there may be times when service providers are unavailable to them. My “cool down corner” is usually a relaxing space with cushions, a comfy chair, or even a couch where students can go when they need more than a minute or two to get themselves together.

Once you have the space designated, you’ll want to have a bin or a folder of age-appropriate activities or fidgets that students can use while they are in the corner. It will be important to norm the use of this space and those materials with your entire class (everyone has a bad day sometimes!) and make sure students don’t take advantage of the system.

While we want to give students the flexibility to determine when they will be “ready” to rejoin the class, there needs to be structure and parameters for the system to work long-term. Decide with specific students (ahead of time) whether they will need 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 15 minutes to rejoin class if they need an emotional break.

Explain that if they feel they will need more than 15 minutes to decompress, they will need to check in with you to see if another trusted adult is available (they would ideally meet with their social worker or psychologist if this is the case, but a “buddy teacher” could be just as effective if they have a good relationship with another teacher in the building).

Stage 3: Let it go

The goal of emotional regulation is of course to be able to rejoin class, feel calm, and ready to learn. Teach your class ways to welcome students back from an outburst with kindness and understanding. Teach them not to pepper the student with questions the moment they come back, but rather to give space when it’s needed. Explain to students that when their classmates come back to the group, they may need some support and that it’s okay to ask their friends what they need. Even with younger elementary students, I watch them support and uplift one another after the most disruptive moments – let them surprise you with their empathy.

Your students will most likely be ready to rejoin class in an unceremonious way. If their outburst did no harm (no one was hurt or verbally assaulted), I will allow them to rejoin class and move on. However, if harm was done, my students know that before they can rejoin class (or before the end of the day depending on the situation/student), they need to right their wrongs.

Stage 4: Make it right

If a teacher (yourself included) or a student was harmed physically or mentally during your student’s outburst, it is important for your entire classroom community that the harm is repaired in some way. If only one or two people were affected, a private restorative conversation is needed. If most or all of the class was affected, a restorative circle with the group is needed. During these conversations, you have three goals:

  1.       Establish the harm done
  2.       Decide how to make it right
  3.       Make it right

The student who caused the harm needs to be completely de-escalated before this conversation. Keep your discussion centered on the three goals above. If an apology is all that is needed (as determined by the person affected negatively), the apology can happen and the class can move on. If something was torn or broken and needs to be repaired, come up with a plan to fix it with the student. This is teaching students accountability for their actions in a way that doesn’t humiliate or shame them.

I always end conversations with students the same way. I remind them that they are a part of our classroom community and that they matter to me. I let them know that it is okay to feel the way that they feel, there is nothing wrong with having emotions. I also let them know that in school we must respect one another’s boundaries and it’s not okay to take out how you feel on another person.

Final thoughts

It’s my hope that at least one of these strategies helps you reach your students in new meaningful, supportive ways.

While the strategies above are meant to give you a place to start, you may need to come back to this list throughout the year for new things to try over time.

Remember that our students are not static characters in a television show.

They are complex humans with emotions, stress, and triggers just like adults. Most of all, they are children who need the adults in their lives to model appropriate responses to stress for them as much as possible.

Instead of looking at students in terms of their “problems,” we must look at students in terms of their needs whether they are academic, social, emotional, or physical. If we can embrace the idea of authentically supporting the “whole-child” sitting in our classrooms, many of the disengaged behaviors we are seeing will lessen or even disappear over time.


Fundamentals of SEL

Restorative Practices in Schools

9 Ways to Promote Equity in Our Schools

Are the kids alright? A deep dive into the pandemic’s toll on students

Erika Walther

5th Grade ELA

Erika Walther has worked for Baltimore City Public Schools since 2012. While working as a case manager for youth in the juvenile justice system, Erika realized that relationships between students and their school communities were a major indicator for student...
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