How to Engage Non-Responsive Students

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration
Young boy looking frustrated surrounded by school supplies.

The importance of education was instilled in me at a very young age, and as the child of educators, school was the common denominator in our household. Everything revolved around the business of school. If the building was open, I was there, typically because one or both of my parents had to be there for performances, athletic contests, and/or special events. My perspective on school was always positive, so when faced with classmates and peers who did not enjoy school, I could not relate to them.

Years later, after making education my profession and following in my parents’ footsteps, I realized my genuine love of education was not shared by the students in my classroom. I struggled with trying to engage students who did not want to be in school, and only after realizing my own inherent biases was I able to successfully meet the needs of my students.

Why Might Some Students be Non-Responsive?

As I quickly discovered during my early years in education, not all of my students shared my love for education or the content I was teaching. Great educators build positive relationships with their students, and in the constructing and forming of those relationships, students provide clues as to why they don’t like school or won’t engage. A closer look at these non-responsive students reveals multiple factors leading to a dislike and even distrust of school and school leaders. Factors such as volatile home situations, poverty, abuse, lack of understanding, and mistrust lead students to exhibit feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, negative attitudes, and a complete shut-down mentality.

How to Engage Non-Responsive Students

When engaging non-responsive students, understand there is no one correct tried-and-true method. It takes hard work, time, and commitment to the student or students in your classroom who simply won’t connect. However, our duty as educators is to bridge the gap and provide purpose, connection, and a sense of accomplishment to all our students, particularly those who don’t respond to traditional methods of classroom instruction. Engaging non-responsive students can be done through a multitude of strategies, which involve creativity and trial and error.

Provide Student Choice

As a teacher in my early years, I planned lessons, activities, and events inside the classroom that I would enjoy. I quickly realized my level of enjoyment and my students’ levels were vastly different. As teachers, we must provide levels of choice to our students. Student choice creates empowerment, critical-thinking skills, and increases awareness of the content for students. Student choice can also help those who are non-responsive to previous activities become more engaged in topics or lessons of interest to them.

Can We Just Talk?

It sounds simple, the idea of talking with students to gain a better understanding of where they are. However, the art of conversation has been lost with the number of hoops educators have to jump through. Now more than ever, thanks to COVID-19 protocols and a spring semester of school closures, conversing with students is paramount. Many students across the country and world did not receive personal, individualized feedback and conversation in person. Students crave interaction, and a simple gesture such as a lunchroom conversation, a hallway chat, or a conversation at an afterschool event can go a long way in the classroom.

Culturally Relevant Lessons/Materials/Projects

As I mentioned earlier, my inherent bias in my own teaching arose from my personal experiences with education, which were all positive. In today’s society, schools are on the frontlines for social justice movements, and students are faced with a myriad of obstacles and problems before them that can weigh on them in their educational journey.

Choosing culturally relevant lessons and projects can further help to build community and trust between student and teacher. A lesson that is built on trust, relevance, inclusiveness, and openness is a lesson more likely to impact a non-responsive student that may be labeled as such because they have never felt connected to a teacher or lesson. As teachers, we must put our personal biases aside, take risks, and present content outside of our own comfort zone.

Winner, Winner

As a former coach, I believed that competition between players led to improvement. Players would work harder when drills or activities were scored or made competitive. The same can be true when using games in the classroom. Although some students may shy away from competition, the creativity behind the actual lesson or event can cause students who are traditionally not engaged become more active and involved.

Great teachers use video game principles as well to connect with students who may be seen as non-responsive during the school day, but have an active gamer profile at home, where oftentimes a truly different personality exists. Creative, challenging projects where students can “win” at something allows for more walls and barriers to be broken down, and where non-responsiveness turns to active engagement. 

Ultimately, are we labeling students non-responsive because it is easy to identify students who just don’t do what we as teachers want them to do? Have we tried reaching students on a deeper and more personal level? I believe that all students inherently want to succeed and do well. They want to please and crave positive words of encouragement and affirmation. As educators, we must consistently challenge ourselves and our own ways of thinking to provide opportunities for students to connect. If we do this, we get to see students evolve, grow, and shine before our very eyes. And that, my fellow educators, is why we do what we do.


*Updated September, 2020
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