George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

3 Ways to Activate Student Engagement

Waning engagement in lessons at the upper elementary and middle school levels can be remedied quickly with these simple strategies.

September 14, 2022
A small group of middle school students working together
kali9 / iStock

Across grade levels and multiple disciplines, academic research supports a strong correlation between student engagement and student achievement. Academic engagement is often defined as students actively participating by focusing on a task or activity. In Visible Learning, a meta-study of what works in education, researcher John Hattie writes, “No manner of school reform will be successful until we first face and resolve the engagement problem.”

Often as part of my coaching work, I’m requested to model teaching strategies with students, and I see disengagement that prevents learning. Colleagues frequently ask, “How do we engage younger kids who don’t want to be here or do their work?”

I think it’s deeper than selecting high-yielding engagement strategies in these cases. Individual teachers and teaching teams may need to strategize answers to the following questions:

  • How can I precisely identify the reasons why my students are disengaged and categorize which are within my control and which are not? This requires us to survey students and take stock of our classroom setting. Every teacher knows the distractions we can fix and those that need administrative assistance and wraparound services for challenging student behaviors.
  • What factors are proven to have a big influence on the engagement of students in my grade band? Factors may include communication, collaboration, positive interactions, and timely feedback.
  • What strategies support the factors that foster engagement, and how can I tweak and adapt them for my students? Visible learning strategies are an excellent place to start because Hattie uses the statistical measure of effect size to compare the impacts of various influences on academic achievement.

Given what I’ve gleaned about factors that boost engagement for kids in grades 3–8, here are three simple but powerful and customizable strategies.

3 Activities to Boost Student Engagement

1. Open your mail. This activity is similar to a wellness check, except it focuses on learning needs instead of how someone feels. It’s all about getting students to open up to the teacher and to one another. Teachers actively trying to create learning partnerships with students can use it to build engagement and empathy in the classroom. It also helps better engage kids who don’t typically express what they need to learn.

Use the strategy at the start of the instructional day or learning block as an opportunity for students who would like to explain to their teachers and peers in a safe space what they need for the block of work time to be effective.

Here’s how:

  • Have your students circle up, standing for about 3–4 minutes, but they can also remain at their desks.
  • Everyone doesn’t have to talk, but everyone participates by paying attention to those expressing their learning needs.
  • For third graders, I recommend that teachers use sentence stems—e.g., “For me to learn this morning, I need my teacher to _____ and my classmates to _____.”

Close the activity in an affirming tone that you have heard their needs and will do your best to keep the learning engaging.

2. Create positive vibes. This is an activity that I do to engage kids using movement in a fun, quick manner whenever I notice low energy for learning. I typically do it in a standing circle, which takes only 3–4 minutes. Again, we don’t have to circle up every time—students can do this activity at their desks.

Teachers need to explain that the purpose of the activity is to engage students and prepare them for learning whenever they need a pick-me-up. They should also teach students about the power of endorphins and how to create their own whenever they feel their energy fading.

Teachers can be creative in how they help kids create movement (e.g., jumping jacks, a stretch, running in place, smiling, walking over to a peer to greet them, etc.). I like to toss an imaginary ball with my learners. Some choose to throw it, kick it, toss it, etc. It always goes well and reengages kids.

You’ll want to close the activity by reaffirming its purpose—see step 1.

3. Engage kids using relevant question prompts. Good question prompts are great for helping learners to engage by getting to know each other better, safely, and with parameters. It can also be an excellent formative assessment when question prompts call for learners to explain a personal connection to the content.

To make the activity fun, I use this interactive wheel and have students pair up for about 3 minutes, reminding them to share the airspace. Teachers can edit questions on the wheel based on their lesson context and the ages of learners.

Here are a few question prompts I use to guide learner reflections and activate their prior knowledge for making authentic connections:

  • What is your favorite book and why?
  • Describe the attributes of a person you really admire.
  • Talk about an object that is special to you. What makes it so special?
  • How do you spend your free time?
  • What is your favorite school subject, and how did it become your favorite?
  • How do you use math strategies to solve problems at home?

Remember, creating engagement is both science and art. The former we can glean and adapt from the learning sciences, but the latter is our own personal style and way we do things. Coupling them can make all the difference that our kids need to prepare for learning.

My sincerest gratitude to Morgan Vien for teaching me the “open your mail" and “create positive vibes" activities. Thank you also to Gabriela Tavitian for sharing the question prompt wheel. Both of you have helped improve my facilitation skills.

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  • Student Engagement
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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