Engaging the Disaffected – Written with Rachel Jones

We’ve all seen disaffected pupils in our schools. There might be frequent low level disruption, poor uniform, delaying tactics, lack of equipment, truancy or just general work avoidance. How do we help to bring these students back the point where they want to engage with their learning? Teachers need to work so that students are not only engaged, but able to make the kind of progress that will pay off come exam time. The greatest service we can do for those who have become disaffected, is make sure they don’t remain so in their adult lives.

The simple answer is creativity. Some would argue that making learning ‘fun’ is all it takes. In reality, that isn’t necessarily a workable solution. There are plenty of times at school and in life where you need the resilience to deal with potentially dull tasks, and we do students a disservice by pretending that every moment of every day should be fun and exciting. What can also have a massive amount of potential impact is being consistent in the expectations and sanctions that are applied to those in our classrooms. Students who have few effective boundaries at home will act out at school. I always think of it like this: it is when our children’s behaviour makes them most difficult to love, that they need the love most. The same is true of those in our classrooms, and making the time to be a consistent figure in their lives is massively important.

Re-engaging disaffected pupils requires time and a genuine desire to help students to turn things around. Rather than becoming an all-singing, all-dancing entertainer, we should take the time to treat students as people first, and learners second. This might be as a classroom teacher, a form tutor, a year leader or perhaps as a mentor or coach. Often the best relationships are forged when the pressure of targets and results are removed, so for example, when you are not their class teacher. Teachers are under massive amounts of pressure to demonstrate student performance and improvement in terms of data, however to really fundamentally connect with our learners we need to bear the data in mind, but teach them without the negative labels it can entail. Each learner has before them a lifetime of possibilities and potential; let’s not curtail that at the classroom door by making assumptions based on test scores.

When considering building positive relationships with others in school, whole school mentoring programmes are useful. Having staff sign up to mentor students that they perhaps have no prior relationship with gives students a clean slate. A mentor can also approach things from a whole child perspective, rather than focused on the specifics of a single subject. They can also be objective when helping students to address particular issues they might have with subjects or certain staff. It is also worth considering implementing a peer mentor scheme, where children can support each other and feed back to adults about the best type of support that can be provided. Peer mentoring is powerful. It invests in relationships of trust within a school, and also places the power to make change happen in the hands of our learners. The message that education is not a game of individual wins, but of team triumphs, helps to build classroom cultures of respect and cooperation.

As a class teacher, there’s still plenty that can be done to help re-engage students. Greeting them by name, getting to know their interests outside of your lesson and just having a general conversation with them can have an impact. Genuinely listening to the stories they tell you (even if you’re trying to do six other things at the same time) can be the basis of turning disaffected students around. Meet the children at your classroom door, remember if one has been absent and ask them why, show that it matters to you that they are in school learning. Senior Leaders can also do a great deal here to make each child feel welcomed and their presence is valued. It isn’t rocket science to think that children who feel like they are part of a community at school are more likely to be engaged, not only in their learning but also in the other activities a school provides.

Sometimes it’s about planning learning around their interests. Finding resources based on their interests can be a great way to help engage students. The right choice of novel to be studied in English, for example, can have an impact. The “Tomorrow When the War Began” series by John Marsden is fantastic for this, as it is about a group of teenagers who go camping in the wilderness, and who, following an invasion of foreign soldiers, engage in guerilla warfare to win back their town. Even reluctant readers enjoy this series as it’s easy enough to imagine themselves as the heroes of the story – far more so than if they were studying, say, “Goodnight Mr Tom”. Rather than expecting learning to be inherently interesting, teachers need to embrace the struggles that many learners have accessing the curriculum. From specific learning difficulties, to cultural and social deprivation – every classroom contains a spectrum of not only ability but also potential blocks to learning. Be willing to accept that you might not hold the key to helping every single disengaged learner and know how and when to ask for help from others in your school or other agencies.

Sometimes engaging disaffected learners can also be about taking part in extracurricular activities with students. There is an added bonus when these are outside of your own curriculum area, and you see students succeeding when they might not be doing so in your lessons – even better if they’re better at it than you are! Anything from Lego club, Mine Craft Sessions, or building a drone can capture the imaginations of the children that are in your school, and help to gradually integrate them into completing meaningful work in the classroom. Often this approach can be a long game, but immensely rewarding when you are able to gently encourage a child to accept learning as part of their routine, rather than demand it.

Mostly it’s about reaching and teaching the whole child. It can be difficult, with the pressures of SATs, exams, targets, Progress 8 and so on, but the payoff is immeasurable. When you retire after a long career, you won’t remember the times you spent stressing about reports, you will remember the lives you touched and the difference that you made.


Rachel Jones – @rlj1981 – Create Innovate Explore

Teacher- geekness, creativity & music. . ITL Associate, GCT, MCE,. Huffington Post blogger. Curator & author


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