8 Ways to Engage the Reluctant Learner

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by Kathy MacCarthy

How can educators, who are responding to the increased demands of politicians, administrators, parents, and students, find ways to engage the student who appears disinterested and unmotivated and who may be facing one or more of his or her own challenges?

As a school social worker for over 25 years, I see that teachers today face more hurdles than ever before. In addition to initiative overload, high-stakes testing, and ever-changing curriculums, teachers are confronted with an increasing number of students in their classrooms who seem to have greater academic special needs as well as social emotional deficits and behavior issues. The number of English language learners continues to increase, and the technology explosion has driven the expectation for immediate, if not always well thought out, responses to parents and administrators.

Many students face huge obstacles to their learning as well. They may be dealing with poverty and hunger, anxiety or other mental health issues, or family distress, such as divorce, illness of a sibling or parent, or emotional dysfunction. Domestic violence and parental alcoholism and/or drug abuse are also getting more recognition for the role they play in our students’ daily lives.

Here are eight effective strategies that can bring out the best in your students.

  1. Establish a Relationship with the Student and Family

Greet the student by name every day. Make eye contact and recognize what interests the student and work these interests into the curriculum as you can. Connect to parents with positive phone calls home. Contact each parent at the beginning of the year to introduce yourself and listen to any information that would be helpful in your work with the student. Follow up with positive phone calls as well. If you have to phone with bad news regarding behavior or performance during the course of the year, you already will have established a positive relationship with that student’s parent or guardian. You cannot solve each child’s problem, but you can listen attentively to student and parent concerns without minimizing or trivializing them.

Establishing a warm and responsive relationship with the student and maintaining positive contact with the family may be the most meaningful action you can take to involve the student in his or her learning.

  1. Identify and Name the Behaviors to the Child

Whether assessing students’ behavior in the classroom or their academic work, it is important to use clear and specific language. You’re not just “catching students being good,” you are catching them raising their hand, listening to others, and taking turns appropriately. They are not just doing a “good job,” but rather are focusing on their math, making the effort to write clearly, and adding detail to their story. Be specific in the actions you recognize and use clear language that the student will understand.

As the school social worker, I often meet with students who have been referred to me due to their misbehavior in class. When asked, these students often say they do not know exactly what behavior caused them to be sent from the classroom, or they report that they have been unjustly singled out. Was it when they got out of their seat as other students were getting up or asked a peer seated nearby for a pencil, or was it when they gave the incorrect answer out loud? Was it a single incident or a culmination of behaviors that resulted in their expulsion from class?

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Eric was not aware he was humming, and when the teacher said, “Quiet,” she meant his humming. Not realizing his humming was disruptive to the class and that the teacher wanted him to stop that particular behavior, Eric continued humming to himself. The teacher saw this as defiance and sent him out of the class. Once I brought the student and teacher together to discuss the expectations of classroom behaviors, the teacher and Eric agreed on a silent but clear signal the teacher could provide to let Eric know he was humming aloud and needed to stop.

  1. Respect the Student

Let students know you are there for them through your language and the atmosphere of trust and belonging you have created in your classroom.

Students are more likely to participate when they have a sense of belonging within the classroom. Rather than view the student as “lazy” or “inattentive,” consider that there is most likely something else going on, such as a fear of failing, a lack of confidence, or crippling anxiety. The teacher who indicates, “I want to work with you to help you to be successful, I am willing to help you achieve success, we are in this together,” has a greater chance of reaching the student who hesitates or downright refuses to engage in learning. Encourage any effort the student makes. By empowering students to take care of what they can themselves, you have increased their feelings of confidence and competence.

In their work Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum: Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers, Costa and Kallick (2009) discuss the “Habits of Mind” as a new way for students to learn. There are currently 16 Habits of Mind, a pattern of intellectual behaviors that leads to productive actions. One of the habits is taking responsible risks, which includes creating an environment where failure is analyzed, not punished. The reluctant learner can learn to thrive in any classroom where levels of respect and trust are high.

  1. Target the Behavior Rather than Blame the Child

Comment on the desired and undesired actions of the student. Identify precisely what the student is doing correctly and what exactly he or she needs to modify. For a student like George, who is disorganized, cannot find his books or papers, and doesn’t seem to know what he should be doing in the classroom at any given time, an individual visual schedule was what he needed to figure out which task he needed to complete next. For a student like Ben, who would sit idly for 40 minutes rather than ask for assistance from the teacher, a card on the desk, colored green on one side and red on the other, allowed him the opportunity to indicate when he needed help from the teacher (by flipping the card over to red) and when he felt that he was comfortable working on his own (by displaying the green card). This way, the teacher helps the student manage his/her own behavior without labeling the child.

  1. Allow the Student to Have Choices

As Carol Tomlinson (1999) notes in her work on differentiation, there are usually several ways to practice a new skill. Why not give the students a choice in how they will demonstrate what they have learned? Will they write a story, draw a picture, create a collage, or come up with their own ideas?

There are many paths a student can take to demonstrate that they understand a concept. By allowing students to use their strengths to show understanding of a lesson, the teacher recognizes the diversity of learning styles and interests. This differentiation results in varied instruction and assignments, which leads to increased student engagement and success.

Discussion between teacher and student works well for increasing positive behaviors also. For the student like Bryan, who demonstrates noncompliant behavior when asked to complete seemingly simple tasks, such as writing down the homework that is listed on the SMART Board into his planner, a teacher willing to allow choice will minimize the disruption that noncompliance can lead to. The teacher who makes the effort to understand what is behind this lack of cooperation and who is willing to problem solve with Bryan is able to provide an opportunity for Bryan to complete the task with success. The teacher can offer options, such as Bryan having a homework buddy who makes sure he has the necessary materials, working alongside a peer, or printing out a copy of the homework for Bryan to tape into his planner.

  1. Cultivate the Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck (2007) researched academic achievement and success and developed the mindset idea. She describes fixed mindset as the belief that our intelligence is determined at birth and cannot change. In contrast, growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can grow and that our abilities can increase by working harder and trying new strategies. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Joan Passarelli (2014), of Stanford University, reviewed Dweck’s May 29, 2014, presentation at Stanford and explained Dweck’s research:

If you have a fixed mindset …

  • your goal in the classroom is to not look dumb,
  • having to exert effort makes you feel dumb,
  • if you have a setback, you really feel dumb.

But if you have a growth mindset, then …

  • your goal in the classroom is to learn,
  • having to exert effort makes you feel like you’re learning,
  • if you have a setback, you see it as an opportunity to learn from it.

You might use the timer on your iPhone or SMART Board to motivate students as a challenge to complete work, allowing students who lack confidence to choose a count-up timer to reduce the anxiety of not finishing in time. By using a growth mindset and offering choices, you are providing opportunities for mastery of the skill you are teaching.

When teachers and students focus on a growth mindset, anything can be modified and nothing is fixed.

Dialogue with the student to see if she/he really understands what you are looking for and how the student can reach that goal. Comment on effort and growth in a tangible and specific manner. In alignment with Dweck’s interventions to encourage a growth mindset, change the way you praise a child’s work. As Dweck notes, instead of, “You’re so smart,” say, “You worked really hard,” or, “You’re willing to try something new and keep at it!” Help students see increased effort will increase their outcomes and result in a change of self-perception. “I am so am stupid” can become “My brain is growing” or “I am learning.”

  1. Utilize Available Resources

While budget cuts may have decreased some of our building resources, many schools have interventionists and reading specialists who can help assess and provide academic support. The school social worker provides clinical services, counseling, family, student, and staff support. The school psychologist and school counselors are another resource that can offer support for teachers and students. Response to Intervention (RTI) teams can provide tiered strategies and recommendations for students who are not working to their full potential. If the school team does not have the resources your student or family needs, seek outside support from local agencies. A recent community workshop on school avoidance provided several strategies for teachers to understand and permit the severely anxious student to participate in school in a way that allows for forward motion at the student’s pace. Share what you have learned with colleagues.

  1. Reflect on Your Use of Rewards

In recent interviews with teachers, a recurring theme for helping students who struggled was to create content that is relevant to students’ lives. Another is to provide extrinsic rewards. Students might receive tickets or stickers that lead to Friday shopping from the prize box, or check marks that could add up to a free homework pass. Candy and other treats provided to students who met expectations were not uncommon. In his article “The Risk of Rewards” (1994), Alfie Kohn concludes that “[c]hildren are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards—like punishments—are unnecessary when these things are present” (p. 5).

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (2011), Daniel Pink expresses his concern about the abundance of “if–then” rewards. He notes, “We’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement” (p. 185). He suggests several strategies for teachers, including helping students see “the big picture” by making learning relevant to the students’ world (p. 190).

What I found most interesting was that children in many classes at my school frequently chose to have lunch with the teacher as their reward, passing on the goodies and opting for time and special attention with someone they care about. This illustrates the importance of having a relationship with the teacher. Each of these eight strategies will help teachers. Utilizing all of them will greatly enhance one’s teaching, especially for the student who does not demonstrate an eagerness to learn.

Kathy MacCarthy is a social worker at Matthew Paterson Elementary School in Patterson, NY.


Costa, A.L., & Kallick, B. (2009). Habits of mind across the curriculum: Practical and creative strategies for teachers. Virginia: ASCD.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, Inc

Kohn, A. (1994). The risk of rewards. (ERIC Digest No. ?). Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED376990)

Passarelli, J. (2014). “Growth mindset” interventions. Stanford University, Teaching Commons. Retrieved from

Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Virginia: ASCD.