Classroom Student Engagement

How to Keep Kids Engaged in Class

Ever sat in the back of an office chair while your colleagues, for lack of a better term, were not paying attention to what was being said in the meeting? Is it necessary to grade homework? Do you want to have a private conversation? Texting?

As we all know all too well, children aren’t all that different from adults in that if they aren’t completely absorbed by what is going on, they will find something else to occupy their time.

To get everyone’s attention, enthusiasm, and attention to the task at hand at the beginning of class is difficult enough. The act of watching them drift away from the lesson after you’ve gotten them focused on it can be equally frustrating. Nothing about this is out of the ordinary. Anybody who has to sit through a lengthy routine — such as a teacher’s presentation — is bound to nod off at some point during the process.

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However, unless you are successful in capturing and maintaining students’ attention, whether at the beginning of or midway through class, the engine of student learning that you are attempting to drive will not even be able to get started.

More information on student engagement is available at:

See all of Edutopia’s resources for Classroom Management.

Take a Look at This Video: “Thinking Outside the Box About Engagement”

Take a look at this article: Ten Simple Strategies for Re-engaging Students

From a state of inactivity to a state of active learning

This lack of engagement is referred to as “dead time.” Dead time interferes with students’ ability to learn, and it is contagious among students. People who are focused on their work are tempted to ask themselves, “Why should I pay attention if others aren’t?”

My perception of dead time has grown so pernicious that I will do everything in my power to prevent even the smallest hint of an outbreak from taking hold. It feels like a small betrayal, both to yourself and your students, when you strive to ensure that all of your students learn to their fullest potential while they are in dead time.

Passive learning and passive listening — in which students are thoroughly and thoughtfully engaged with one another or with their teacher — are the polar opposites of passive learning. Merrill Harmon and Melanie Toth present a motivational ladder in their book Inspiring Active Learning, which describes four levels of student motivation at different levels of achievement.

Students at Level 4, the lowest level, are referred to as “work avoiders,” while students at Level 3 are referred to as “halfhearted workers.” Students who are responsible for their actions are near the top of the list, and then there are the fully active learners.

When I was a teacher and when I worked as a project-learning consultant, I paid close attention to these levels of student engagement. Having discovered that it is difficult to keep students focused when the lesson is delivered by the teacher, I decided to experiment. However, when they are working as project-learning teams, it can be just as difficult, especially if they are not used to the independence that project learning requires them to demonstrate.

There are times when it’s just one person on the team who can’t seem to get involved, and other times it’s the entire group. The strategies I’ve developed over the years to eliminate dead time and move students up the active-learning ladder have evolved as a result of my experience.

Putting Together Your Arsenal

The creation of a repertoire of routines and activities is the first step in eliminating wasted time. In addition to listening and recalling, they can be general-purpose activities that can be applied to a variety of subject areas or teaching styles, or they can be specific content-oriented activities that allow your students to learn by tapping into multiple intelligences in addition to the traditional listening and recalling skills.

Some are physical activities that allow children to release pent-up energy, while others are private thinking activities that encourage children to reflect on their experiences. Alternatively, they can be well-managed student-to-student communications that ensure that all students are thinking about the work at the same time.

It takes time to develop these activities at the beginning, but the payoff — in terms of classroom management and overall learning — is well worth the time invested. By accumulating a library of activities from which to draw, I’m never at a loss for something to do to get kids back on track.

Not surprisingly, students become familiar with and look forward to these strategies as time goes on. Students respond well to them at the beginning of class to calm them down, or at any time they require an energising method of refocusing.

10 Ground Rules for Participation

1. Begin class with a mental warm-up exercise.

A classic warm-up exercise is to ask students to identify the mistakes that have been inserted into the written material on the board. (You can apply this concept to any subject matter.) Instead of asking them to work silently and alone and then debrief in a traditional question-and-answer session with one student at a time (while the rest of the class sits inattentively), use a combination of collaboration and competition to eliminate what could otherwise be considered dead time in the classroom.

Here’s how it’s done: Set up groups of three students and instruct them to work together (quietly) to identify all of the mistakes before raising their hands. Provide some additional time after the first team signals that it is finished, and then have teams indicate with their fingers — together on the count of three — how many mistakes they discovered in their work. The team that discovered the most answers describes its findings until another team respectfully disagrees or until they are finished.

2. Incorporate movement into your lesson plan to keep kids focused.

Instruct all students to take a seat behind their desks and participate in a simple choreographed physical movement exercise. Because it is invigorating to the majority of children and because it is simple to monitor full participation, it may become one of your favourite ways to keep children focused and to pass the time when they are bored.

For the primary grades, here’s how to do it: Instruct students in the use of hand-clapping patterns to accompany a chanted verse or a set of mathematics facts. Adding foot stomping or hand clapping with a partner can add variety to the routine.

Here’s how to do it for middle school students: Finger snapping and hand clapping can be used to create a rhythm, which you can model and they will mimic. In intervals of 15-20 seconds, switch up the rhythm and pattern to make them work harder to pay attention and participate.

To do so, for any grade level, including high school, follow these steps: Provide a seventh-inning stretch or the cross crawl to your players. To perform the cross crawl, begin by standing up and marching in place while raising your knees extremely high. As you raise your left knee, reach across your body with your right hand and touch the left knee with your index finger.

After that, repeat the process with the left hand on the right knee. This pattern should be repeated for a minute or longer. To make it more interesting, you can have kids clap their hands over the tops of their heads between each set of knee touches.