How to Connect with a Disengaged Student…

Updated: Nov 28


A disengaged student having his head down and eyes closed, siting at a corner in the classroom  while the rest of his classmates were looking at their teacher during the lecture.

When I reflect on my teaching career, I had my share of students who willfully, passively or emotionally would, or could not, engage with the assignments of the class. Some of those moments proved very interesting for both me and my student. Teaching and learning is filled with these junctures which have nothing to do with the content and everything to do with whether the student is ready, willing, and able to learn. I never doubted how important those moments were to the student and me. The communication we had with one another often had a lasting impact in the classroom as we tried to ascertain when, and how, things went awry and whether they could be repaired.

Teachers want their students to succeed and enjoy the process, not drudge through the daily work because it has to be “learned.”

Similarly, I have been interested in student apathy or lack of motivation in the wake of the pandemic caused by the dramatic emotional and mental tolls placed on them. I have friends and family who are still teaching, and I follow several teacher groups on my social media. I see conversations about the reluctant student bubbling up. It is well into the Fall season, homecoming is around the corner, and midterms are right in front of them. Is it any wonder this is the time of year students demonstrate some form of deviation from their normal self-motivation? Let’s face it–the grind of school everyday is wearisome! This is normal. The honeymoon of welcoming kids back to school is done. However, some teachers express on their social media a real sense of desperation trying to get their students onboard with the content and learning activities. Their questions are deep dives into the cyber teacher collective in order to find novel ways to make inroads with their students. Teachers want their students to succeed and enjoy the process, not drudge through the daily work because it has to be “learned.” I understand their frustrations–class sizes are still too large, disrespectful behavior is rampant, administration may offer less than the desired support, parents are a challenge, and time is in short supply.


On a good day in my teaching career, when I had a moment with a student who was struggling, I quieted myself and sat with the student. My other approach was to give him or her a pass to the bathroom for a brief change of scenery. The direction I chose depended on my relationship with the student–how well I either knew him or her, whether I was willing to learn more about them, and whether I was willing to listen. The qualifying factor was whether I was willing to invest the time this might take for the student.


The image is black and white. The student sits at his desk. His arm is raised to the side of his face so he is able to lean on it. He seems to not be paying attention and is zoned out.
My concern and consideration for my students were my first priority before teaching.

I once had a student by the name of Max; he was a student I’ll always remember. Max was a student; talented beyond his peers. On a regular basis, he chose to sabotage his efforts in class. This is a fairly typical behavior for some gifted and talented young people. One class period, the students had a time of reflection about progress in a process, and Max yelled, “I hate coming to this class!” I responded with a low key, “I see you have a lot on your mind. Would you like a pass to the counselor to work some things out?” He agreed, thankfully, to this opportunity for a change of scenery. Later, I made a point to pull Max from a class to talk quietly in the hall about what was on his mind. I began our talk with gratitude that he was able to confer with his counselor during class. I let him know that I respected his ability to choose to do so when it was clearly a difficult moment. I reminded him that he could drop the class, if he was still feeling such strong feelings about the class or me. But I encouraged him to make it to the end of the semester when he could easily shift into another class next semester without losing credit. I recognized his abilities as an artist and knew he felt restricted by what he felt were the basics. I let him know I understood how he felt, and that I'd support his decision either way. I think Max was surprised I took the time to pull him from a class to talk earnestly about the situation. I let him know that I would do that for any of my students because I cared about them as people. My concern and consideration for my students were my first priority before teaching. I think about Max a lot.


Teachers usually enter the teaching profession because they have deep care and concern for their students’ welfare and success. Learning how to express that care in meaningful ways includes creating relationships with each student (really getting to know them), modeling respectful behaviors, attitudes and language, and exercising trust in your students’ abilities and decision making capacities. In the

39 years I spent in the classroom, I learned, quite imperfectly, how to do this. I apologized to students along the way. I had many mentors: 1) a teacher of SPED students who taught me to practice a few kind, respectful statements with students having difficulties until they were automatic responses; 2) an art colleague who taught me all students were geniuses, capable of inventing tools and meaningful adaptations for artistic processes; 3) a Dean of Students, who taught me the power of applying “grace,” the application of mercy and forgiveness, and 4) my students, who taught me every day who they were and who they wanted to become.

As a teacher, creating relationships with my students, modeling respectful behaviors, attitudes and language were expected, and exercising trust was important to me.

As a teacher, creating relationships with my students, modeling respectful behaviors, attitudes and language were expected, and exercising trust was important to me. Therefore, at the beginning of the year, in each class, I taught a modified version of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The 4 Agreements, explaining the concepts for all of us to understand. We agreed to practice the 4 Agreements the best we were able.


  • Be Impeccable with Your Words

  • Don’t Take Anything Personally

  • Don’t Make Assumptions

  • Always Do Your Best

This chart shows the four agreements. The left top section says, "Be impeccable with your word." It goes on to explain speaking with integrity and saying only what you mean.

I had the poster just outside the class to remind us all as we walked in what we agreed to do throughout the year.


So, when you are faced with students who just aren’t connecting with your plans and goals for the class, here’s what I suggest:


  • Breathe: take a moment. Observe and gain a calmness before interacting with a student.


  • State What You Observe and Ask a Question: You seem distracted, how can I help you with (whatever is the subject at hand)?

Simple statements like, “I can understand how you might feel that way”, or “I get it” offered with a sympathetic nod and a few assignment instructions may get some students back on track.


Some may need a choice–”You can work with developing captions for the set of football photos with Jose or you may choose to complete 3 page spread layout designs for Homecoming. Thank you for getting on that. I know it’s tough when you’re not 100%. I appreciate it.”


Sometimes this may produce an emotional response which may require a pass to the counselor or to the nurse. Or this could become a hostile back and forth; don’t engage. Get these students the help they need asap; the classroom is not the right place for them at that moment in time. Keep your personal response as neutral as possible.


My son-in-law, who is studying for his master’s degree in education administration, and I chatted about student motivation, apathy and rebellion this past weekend. I appreciated his words,

If you accept a job working with our most damaged youth then you have to remember that your job is to teach them how to improve their lives first and your subject second.

“It is funny how kids have been rebelling at school since the moment all kids had to go to school. In the 60s it was the long hair. In the 90s it was piercing. Some schools have more damaged kids and some have less damaged kids. Both sets deserve great teachers. If you accept a job working with our most damaged youth then you have to remember that your job is to teach them how to improve their lives first and your subject second.”


And that’s the truth. Teaching and learning can not occur when first, a student doesn’t feel they are cared about, and second, doesn’t know if you are the one willing to care about who they are and where they come from. But if you are, then, maybe, just maybe…


Contributor: Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing from a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former visual art teacher and yearbook adviser. She received a Bachelors of Science in Art from Columbia College in Columbia, SC, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000, and in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy enjoys her family, making art and gardening.


Editor: Donna Ladner obtained a B.A. in Education and a minor in English from California Baptist University, and a M.S. in ESL from USC, Los Angeles. After she married Daniel, their family moved to Indonesia with a non-profit organization and lived cross-culturally for 15 years before returning to the U.S in 2012. Donna has been working as an editor and proofreader for TSE Worldwide Press and its subsidiary, United Yearbook since 2015.




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