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Strategies for Reaching Quiet, Disengaged, Struggling, and Troublemaking Students

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A black and white closeup of the back of a young man sitting at a long table towards the back of a classroom. He's looking toward the front of the classroom, and there's one other student sitting two tables ahead of him to the right.

As a new high school history teacher, reaching a diverse array of learners posed my biggest challenge. Well into my third year on the job, I neither fully understood nor appreciated the unique strengths and challenges that my pupils brought with them. Now, after nine years in the classroom and learning from numerous failures, I still don't claim to have mastered the art of teaching or connecting with every kind of student, but I do have some thoughts on how to avoid my rookie mistakes.

The Quiet Student

I wonder whether teachers are right to encourage introverted students to "come out of their shells." Some time ago, I stopped grading for class participation to help the quiet students know that they can succeed in my classes. Any type of assessment is subjective, but counting class participation feels especially so. I still notice no clear correlation between how much an individual speaks, including the quality of what he or she says, and performance in all other aspects of the course.

To check my thinking, I spoke to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "I hear too many stories of children who are given the message by very well-meaning teachers that there's something wrong with the way they are," Cain says. "I think well-meaning teachers see their role as being to turn introverts into extroverts. We really need to understand that an introvert is a totally normal personality type." When assessing, I strive to take Cain's words to heart.

The Disengaged Student

Unlike quiet students, who may be interested in the material but don't often share their thoughts in discussion, disengaged students rarely see any relevance or usefulness in whatever is being taught. To address this, I give students the option of proposing their own essay or project topics, which enhances ownership of the learning. I also find that too many students are dependent on adults for guidance and direction. Often, I refrain from giving immediate answers not just to promote self-reliance, but also to spark a genuine sense of joy in learning something for oneself.

Will Richardson's short but insightful book, Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, suggests that teachers are no longer the only source of classroom knowledge -- much less the best. "We have access to so much more information, knowledge, and so many more people know that the key to becoming successful in the future. . . is if [students] can self-organize their own learning," he told me. "Can they find their own classrooms? Can they create their own classrooms and create their own curriculum?” In my teaching experience, this is when students become most engaged.

The Struggling Student

I want students to know that they can recover from failure. Too often, intelligent, capable young people feel a sense of futility after getting a low grade. Moreover, many of those students begin to feel that after a series of blows, even their teacher senses the uselessness in trying to offer any additional help. Accordingly, my students have a one-week window to retake most assessments -- and I count only the higher of the two attempts. If the student fails a second time, depending on the circumstances, I allow a retake only if she finds a time to meet with me.

Along those lines, few people have influenced my thinking more than Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. "I do whatever it takes," says Wormeli, who is also one of America's first National Board Certified Teachers. "The goal is that they learn the material, not that they learn it by one calendar date. That path is going to vary from student to student." In my classroom, I care less when a particular concept or skill is mastered -- just that it is in fact mastered.

The Troublemaking Student

It's important to help young people understand their misdeeds. I am less convinced, though, that consequences always cultivate a positive and lasting change in the offenders' behavior. I favor prevention and education as the best course of action, and I do my best to point out and model exemplary behavior. Moreover, I challenge students to follow healthy academic and social practices.

Curious for his input, I reached out to Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. "We know that when you model things, it changes the child's brain," says Kazdin, also author of The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child. "It's a very powerful tool parents have, and they kind of carry a hammer around not realizing it's a hammer." Kazdin also says parents and teachers are mistaken to put too much stock in the effectiveness of the "teaching moment."

"Three strikes and you're out -- the effectiveness is a myth. All these things don't change behavior. I wish they did," he says. With this in mind, I do my best to reassure students frequently that I believe in them, and that they don't need to cut corners to succeed. I acknowledge that I still feel conflicted about how to deal with serious repeat offenders. I support suspension or expulsion, but only as a last resort to help a student understand the severity of his actions, in hopes of helping that person change for the better.

How do you reach out to different kinds of students? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Annie Rutledge's picture

Thank you for sharing your views. As a recent high school graduate, I saw myself and many of my peers in the descriptions of the different types of students. While I cannot speak about teaching experience and how to reach out to different kinds of students, I saw parallels between your approaches and the experience of college students. While not all students attend college for a multitude of reasons, some of the reasons are based on their experiences in high school. A student's negative experience with schooling prior to university can shape their perception of higher education. It is important to address the differing types of students in ways that will encourage them to grow as learners, which will hopefully lead them to the less structured education experience at universities. The quiet, introverted student is not forced to participate in college classes, instead they have the power to determine their own level of participation usually without consequence. While the disengaged student may be uninterested by a topic, by giving the student the option to propose their own essay or project topic, they become more engaged and interested. This is an important skill to carry to college as well. Students have more freedom to determine what they want to learn. I commend your approach of allowing students to pick their own topics because it engages them, but also prepares them for the independence expected of them in college. The struggling student is category I am familiar with as well. The statement "too often, intelligent, capable young people feel a sense of futility after getting a low grade," is too true. This feeling exists from elementary school to college, as our education system has become increasingly fixated on letters and numbers to signify success. It is important to establish early on in a student's career that failure is acceptable and will happen at times. This is particularly true once students get to college. I have seen quite a few high performing high students drop out or transfer once they reach college because they were unable to deal with the lower grades they were receiving. It is more important to learn the material than maintain a perfect GPA. Once again, thank you for sharing your views. Speaking from personal experience, your practices truly benefit your students in the present and have the strong potential to ensure their success in college.

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Dave's picture

I had to give a participation grade at a private school. I explained to my students that it was not based on their answering or asking questions, but rather on how they behaved in class. If they were disruptive or not doing productive work, it might affect their grade. My students all had letters behind their names, so I always gave them several chances and tried to find out what made them tick or not tick. Sometimes I would write a name on the board and the peer pressure would kick in. I would erase it before the end of class. I gained their respect by being fair. It did not work all the time 0f course, but it gave me a way to connect with them individually and maintain a good learning environment.

I was often asked to take over an unruly class for a session. I never had a problem because they knew I was firm, but fair.

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Leona Hinton's picture

Brilliant post, David, I think that we, teachers, should discuss these problems more often than we do. Classroom is not The Weakest Link game, we can't eliminate troublemakers or introverts but we can help them to overcome their problems and anxiety.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking is one of my favorite books, it helped to prove myself that introverted person (and introverted teacher) is absolutely fine and I can take advantage of this feature.
There is one simple technique that works for me when I meet difficulties in class - conversation. I always try to start the dialoque and find the root of the problem. Troublemaking students need teacher's help in solving their own problems. Even if they didn't ask for help, they definitely need your attention.
Quiet students should participate in groups, they feel much more confident when work together.
Talking about disengaged students, personally I use different online tools to motivate and inspire them. Imagine that you have to write an essay and you have two options: 1. Handwrite it, give to your teacher and wait until she brings it back to you. 2. Write it on your laptop, attach relevant videos/pics/graphs, check it for plagiarism using a high quality tool like this one: http://www.survivingateacherssalary.com/how-your-professors-can-double-p... , send to your teacher and receive a feedback within minutes. Which one would you choose? The answer is obvious, education technology makes studying process less boring.
Thanks for sharing these great strategies and techniques!

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Earth Wactor's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog, because it is important as teachers to realize that not all students are the same! Instruction has to be differentiated to reach all students in your classroom, and it is not always a simple task. As a student who always had an introverted personality in the school setting, I rarely participated in group work or volunteered to answer questions during class. However, I always managed to make straight A's. I like the idea of not making participation a part of the grade, because many of these quiet students are the most attentive, observant, and do extremely well. As far as trouble makers, in one of the classrooms that I observed, I noticed how one of my cooperating teachers would always show this particular student how much she cared about him! I noticed how over time it made a huge difference in his behavior. Thanks for sharing!

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Elean P's picture

Thanks for sharing your views. As a mom of 4, substitute teacher and an aspiring special education teacher, I've had experience with the different categories of students discussed. I actually have a child who is all of the first three - quite, disengaged and struggling and it has been a challenge getting him motivated in classes that don't interest him. Some of his teachers have been pretty considerate in the sense that they give him time even after an assignments due date to work on it and turn it in. However, in today's system of bench mark assessments and end of year testing, how does Rick Wormeli's plan of having the student learn but not necessarily by a particular calendar date work? The educational system is structured and students as well as teachers are expected to show progress oftentimes by a particular date.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

It's so painful to see quiet/shy/introverted students struggle to participate in a class discussion. When I first had my students use blogging as a way to discuss literature, I was amazed (and thrilled) to see how much my quiet students participated! And even for students who eagerly participated before, blogging improved their participation because they were able to take time to think about what they wanted to say, plus they had ongoing opportunities to respond to what other students said. And then my students use the blog posts (their own and their classmates') to prepare a written list of what they'd like to talk about in an old-fashioned class discussion. That way they are ready to join in, and although they might be quiet, they learn that with the right strategies and resources, they can learn to join in a discussion.

Mark Eichenlaub's picture
Mark Eichenlaub
8th Grade Reading/Language Arts Teacher from Flossmoor, Illinois

Very interesting post David. I am working on a piece related to this at http://prosperousteachers.com with some things that have worked for me.

I stole this idea from my sales background and something I'd read in a lot of books about relationship building, calling students by their first name EVERY day. Dale Carnegie (I think it was him) said that the most beautiful sound a person can hear is their own name. I've been amazed at how well this has worked. There is a way/time to do it as well that has compounded the positive impact for anyone interested I'll post this up soon at prosperousteachers.com

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Mark, I actually blogged about this a few years back, after watching a teacher do a masterful job of using student names. It really changed the atmosphere in the room in such a positive way! https://antiochcriticalskills.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/remembering-the-n...

HenryNNN's picture

Hi,
just give flipped classroom a try and
your above mentioned becomes engaged students :)

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