3 Simple Tips to Engage with Disengaged Students

Simple things you can do to make your students love learning.

So… You’re a teacher working with students that don’t want to be there.

For many young people, especially those that are taking extra tutoring classes, they don’t really want to be there. There is a strong possibility that their parents have booked these sessions without their child’s willingness, and yet they still have to show up.

But for others, life at home maybe causing a lot of distress that is spilling over into their academic lives.
If this is the case, often many may be dissociating while in the classroom as a survival technique. I know for myself, that is something that I struggle with still to this day.

As educators, we can provide an environment for students which allows them to fall in love with learning. When we can meet our students where they are, encourage their effort, and foster a love of curiosity and learning then we leave a legacy that grows with every generation.

For my whole adult life, I have dedicated myself to helping those who find this world incredibly difficult to navigate. As a young person who faced a decent amount of trauma, I understand how hard it can be to meet the expectations of those around me. I know, with sn even deeper understanding, what it means to fail to meet those expectations.

Sadly, this is becoming more and more commonplace.

While completing my Social Sciences degree, I worked as a residential care worker. This entailed caring for Australian children in the welfare system who were not able to live in their own homes due to a lack of safety. For the nearly seven years that I worked in this role, we completed a huge amount of valuable training which I now apply to my tutoring every day.

Many students come from unstable homes that are not meeting their need for safety.

Others may come from families who are having trouble with their financial life. This may be impacting how much food they have access to. Rising prices are affecting a large percentage of the population now.

As I said earlier, there are a million and one reasons why our students may be struggling and becoming
disengaged with their learning.

In my opinion, we don’t have to know the reasons to do our best as educators.

We can work to provide an environment that allows students to feel safe, to be inspired, to be empowered to find their strengths and develop them further. We as educators, can show our students that no matter where we come from, we can always go further than we’d ever imagined if we put in the work and be kind to ourselves.

You might be wondering, “How am I supposed to do that?”

Well, that’s where I come in. Here are some simple tips that I have found to work wonders connecting and building rapport with the ‘toughest of cookies’.

Check your Expectations:

One of the biggest lessons that we learned working with children in the welfare system is that our expectations were setting the young people up to fail. Every single time.

It might seem obvious, but unsaid expectations will always be disappointed.

If we do not articulate what we expect of our students, how can we reasonably expect them to be able to meet them?

Have you ever thought to yourself, “So and so should’ve know what I was thinking.”

Really? I know that I am not an adept mind reader. Have you ever found yourself thinking that about your

When we came to this realisation, we were able to change our behaviour to empower the young people to succeed. We learned that we needed to state what we expected of them, so they had a reasonable chance of meeting them.

The second thing we needed to do was look at each individual young person and figure out what they were capable of doing. Trauma affects us all in different ways and is unique to every single one of us.

Look at your class as individual students, is there an expectation that you can set which will allow all of them to succeed?

Can you foster an environment where your expectation when a student is struggling is that they write their problem on a piece of paper which gets placed in a box for you to read at the end of each class/before recess/before lunch?

If they have nothing to say,that’s okay, but you are providing a chance for them to articulate their needs in a manner that remains confidential. They don’t have to worry about the other students ‘finding out’ and know that you’re there to help them if they need it.

Do you have a couple of students that become aggressive when they are overstimulated? Could you create a small area where overwhelmed students can take their work to complete it away from the rest of the class?

Perhaps a small tent with a couple of pillows. The expectation is stated for the whole class – this space is to be used by one student at a time for a set amount of time. It is to be kept tidy as a sign of respect for the rest of the class. If someone is using the space, students need to be patient while waiting for their time.

If these expectations cannot be met after providing reasonable chances to do so, then it can be reassessed.

Life is hard for us all at some point, I would’ve benefitted from having a place to go to during class. When we understand that we have an opportunity to be creative in empowering our students and this can inspire their creativity, we are empowered to provide the best educational environment that we can.

When we don’t set young people up to fail, we can eliminate much of the difficult behaviours that come from feeling like a failure.

Step back and create a new ladder for your tough cookies to climb:

An important thing I try to remember is this... children model behaviour. They cope with the world the way they see others cope. This can be healthy or unhealthy.

This is an extreme example butone that I believe will help you understand what I am trying to say.

As a youth worker caring for young people in the welfare system, we saw many unhealthy coping skills. One young person climbed trees. Whenever they felt anxious or overwhelmed, they would take to higher ground. They'd climb the roof or the biggest tree they could find.

This happened for months. Inclass, when they couldn't do the work, they'd get angry, flip some furniture and run to the tallest tree. It didn't matter if it was on school grounds or not.

Finally, we got to the bottom of this extreme behaviour. You see, every behaviour is meeting a need we have.

Whenever this young person felt anxious or overwhelmed, it equated to being in danger. They were climbing the trees/roof to be able to see if their parent was coming to find them. You see, this wasn't a good thing. They took to higher ground because it made them feel safe. They knew they'd see them coming and have time to run the other way.

When we were able to fully understand this, we could create a "ladder of success" for this young

We could meet them where they were and help them to create a healthier coping mechanism. We changed our expectations and stepped it back, one tiny bit at a time.

We started with an expectation. When they felt those feelings, they could go and climb the monkey bars.

After a few weeks, they could go to the edge of the playground.

After a few more weeks of this, they could go to the edge of the school building.

After a few more weeks, they could sit on the bench outside the classroom.

Finally, they were able to stay in class when these feelings were present.

As you can see, it took months to get there. But that's okay. We stepped it back from where they were climbing trees and created a unique ladder for them to climb to find that healthier skill.

How can you work with some of your tough cookies to find ways to help them succeed and meet the expectations you have for them?

Reinforce positive behaviour, not the negative behaviours:

One of the othermost useful skills we were able to develop, while working with young people
with challenging behaviours, was to reinforce the positive things that they did. If you think about it, we all do it at some stage or another. We will act out to get attention. However, this isn’t always the most effective way to get our needs met.

It’s the same with young people. As we reinforce their positive choices and thank them or
praise them for choosing that path, the negative behaviours will begin to dissipate. As those behaviours are being ignored, they young people aren’tgetting the attention they are trying for so they tend to change to more positive behaviours.

This is something that takes some wisdom and practice to achieve, but if you can enact it, you
will see remarkable changes in the overall classroom behaviours.


There you have it. Those are my 3 effective tips that I utilise for every session to engage with young people who are finding learning challenging.

For a more in depth look at my 5 simple tips to implement in your classroom, you can purchase my 15-page eBook for only $7 today.

You can contact me at bakerstreetttutoring@outlook.com or through the contact form on my website.