Engaging disengaged students

Author: Aly Spencer
Published: 01/10/2019

Engaging with disengaged students

“How can I engage those pupils who just don’t seem to respond to anything?”

Holly, Maths trainee teacher

I was supporting one of my SCITT trainees with this dilemma last term. She was teaching mathematics in a good school and making excellent progress in her teacher training year, but there was one boy in her year 9 class who wouldn’t engage. Despite her best efforts, he wouldn’t make eye contact with her or accept any help when she tried working one-to-one with him. She was spending more time worrying about letting him down than she was worrying about the students who had the potential to really disrupt her lesson.

The following advice may contradict previous guidance you have read or been given. I can’t guarantee it will suddenly awaken your disengaged student from their slumber, but it might be worth a try.

Here are three key commitments we made for our year 9 student:

1. Avoid spending too much time working out the ‘why’ behind the behaviour

Don’t assume the behaviour is personal. This will protect your own well-being. Students are often disengaged from most of the school experience as opposed to the person trying their best to bring them in. Undertaking an investigation into the student’s motives isn’t a good use of your time. This might be controversial, but I think teachers can know too much about their students and this can cloud their judgement. Other colleagues in school will know the situation at home and the context behind the register codes, but you only need to know enough to keep your students safe and to teach them well.

2. Use your lesson planning to create opportunities to find out what motivates them

Planning exciting and engaging lessons should be taking over your life right now! If you have low-energy students in your class, tailor your planning so that some of the activities are about them and their interests. In order to generate some basic information on motivators, my trainee gave the students in her class this survey



1. What is your favourite hobby outside of school? Why?


2. If you were stuck on a desert island, what three things would you wish for to keep you entertained?


3. What is your happiest memory?



4. If you could introduce something to our maths lessons, what would it be and why?


 Most of the findings were thought-provoking. But our low-energy student wrote the following:




1. What is your favourite hobby outside of school? Why?

Sleeping because I’m tired.

2. If you were stuck on a desert island, what three things would you wish for to keep you entertained?

A boat to get off the island.

3. What is your happiest memory?

Not being at school.

4. If you could introduce something to our maths lessons, what would it be and why?

Not doing any maths.

Although we didn’t gain much information about the him from this activity, it did confirm that he didn’t enjoy school in general and that he didn’t enjoy maths. We needed to change that but it wasn’t going to happen overnight.

The trainee then planned a lesson on percentage increase and decrease. Instead of giving students a list of questions to work through as a starter, she simulated a scenario where the disengaged student was in a popular clothes shop buying a new outfit in the 30% off sale. The trainee included the student’s name in the resources and on the slides, making him the centre of the activity, but not actually putting him on the spot or making him do anything.

It was risky, and you need to be confident that this kind of activity won’t push the student further away, but on this occasion he did crack a smile!

The trainee continued to plan lessons using the data from the survey to keep it relevant to students’ hobbies and interests. The whole-class engagement and energy improved as a result.

3. Find a way to communicate with disengaged students

Most disengaged students won’t communicate much, if at all. The year 9 student wouldn’t even make eye contact, so getting him to answer a question in front of the whole class was still a long way off. However, I was keen to help my trainee find a way to communicate with him before she left the placement. Whatever strategy you try, remember to be honest with the student. Explain that you know they find it difficult to talk to you, so you want to try something different.

One tip is to use post-it notes to exchange information. Try writing the student a note at the end of every lesson for a week to compliment their efforts and see what happens. Or explicitly say that you want them to write how they feel about their confidence or competence at the end of each lesson, so you can help them.

As a teacher, your job is to motivate your young people and to generate their curiosity. This is even more important with low-energy students. Persevere and you will find a way in.


Kettlewell, K., Southcott, C., Stevens, E. and McCrone, T. (2012) Engaging the Disengaged (NFER Research Programme: From Education to Employment). Slough: NFER.

Malone, T. W. (1981) ‘Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction’, Cognitive Science, 5(4), 333–369.

Sansone, C. and Harackiewicz, J. (2000) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance. Academic Press.


Aly Spencer

Aly Spencer is Head of ITT for the Fylde Coast SCITT and teaching schools, and co-chair of a network of ITT providers across Lancashire.