Seven Tips for Engaging Distracted Students

An article by Richard James Rogers

Illustrations by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati

The events in this article are based on actual occurrences. The names and, in some instances, the genders of individuals have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy. 

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone only to suspect that they were not listening? In a half-daydream, the other person hears you say “What do you think?”, to which they sheepishly reply “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening”.

Here is a video summary of today’s article:

Today’s kids are more distracted than ever before, thanks, in large part, to technology. One only has to sit on a bus or a train to see swathes of people, young and old, consumed by a digital trance as they dance their fingertips across brightly-lit handheld screens.

new doc 20_5

But technology, and dependence on technology, is not the only thing that causes kids to switch off.

Students may simply be bored with what’s going on in class or may find the subject matter dull. They may have things on their mind (such as missing their chat time on the latest app) or may even not be feeling good that day. They may have pressures at home that they are dealing with, or social problems at school that are causing anxiety.

with-ukedchat
“The perfect book for NQTs”

The first important point to make, in defense of all teachers, is that quality of teaching is only one factor that can cause students to switch off. I feel that this is often overlooked by school inspectors and some so-called ‘experts’ in the field. It’s impossible to solve or transmute all of the personal emotional problems of your students within the framework of a taught lesson. This is why good pastoral care, mentoring and counseling are such a vital part of a child’s care and education. 

In this article, we will focus on bringing students back from the abyss when they begin to drift. If, however, you’re looking for more strategic tips for behavior management, then this blog post of mine here will help. We will also touch upon some holistic strategies for dealing with problems beyond the parameters covered through direct teaching. 

Tip number 1: Find out what they’re interested in

Using the interests and hobbies of your students to inform your teaching can be a very powerful method of getting students to engage with the lesson content.

Let’s examine a real example of this technique in action. Here follows a short extract from my book:

Charlene was an experienced and well-liked teacher of secondary science. She got on very well with her students, and parents would often mention that they appreciated her ‘special attention’ to their children. She was liked by her colleagues, and she enjoyed her work. One day, her physics student came to school with a broken arm in a plaster cast. John, a keen gymnast, mentioned that he had fallen very hard in a training session two days ago. Charlene immediately knew that this was golden information for her lesson planning.

always learn

In John’s next physics lesson, Charlene was teaching the class about forces and motion. As John entered the class, she presented him with a starter activity revolving around the forces that act upon a gymnast when taking off and landing on a springboard. She also asked John how he was doing (and she was sincere in asking). He said he was healing well, and Ms. Charlene mentioned that “We can use your experience to help the class today, would that be okay?” John said sure.

After completing and peer assessing the starter worksheet, Ms. Charlene asked John to tell the class what had happened to his arm. He gladly told his story, and Ms. Charlene asked for everyone to clap after he had finished. Using humor and good teaching practice, she said, “So using John’s story to help you, what do you think one of today’s objectives could be?”

One student mentioned a funny comment about how you should always land on your feet and not on your arm like John did, which Ms. Charlene responded to with a smile and a giggle. After this, and with some prompting from their teacher, some students spoke about the importance of gravity in determining the force upon impact, and the speed of free fall. At the end of a very interesting and varied lesson, Charlene allowed her students the opportunity to sign John’s plaster cast, if they hadn’t done so already.

Let’s examine what Charlene did that made this lesson (and her rapport/relationship with students) so special:

  • used the hobby of her student to generate a lesson activity (the starter worksheet)
  • showed a sincere care and concern for her student
  • was genuinely interested in the whole life of her student (as she was with all of her students)
  • used student ‘expertise’ to enhance the lesson content (she asks John to talk to the class about what had happened)
  • was tasteful in her humor, and made sure that John is happy to share his story before she asks him to do so.
  • rewarded the class for their good work by allowing them a few minutes at the end to sign John’s plaster cast; not only did this subtly reveal her caring and ‘human’ nature, but it also bonded the class together as a whole

Being interested in the holistic attributes of our students can do wonders in terms of rapport, which can help a lot when engaging students. I often refer to the goals and dreams of my kids to get them focussed. “John, you must learn about this if you want to be an engineer. All engineers must be good at using mathematics”

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Even a short conversation in the lunch queue can work wonders in terms of rapport building. “What are you guys having for lunch today?”. “How’s everything going?”. “How did last night’s football match go? I heard that you were playing against Grange Hill”

Remember the info you extract from these conversations, and use it to compound your rapport with your students. Refer to it when needed for motivational purposes “Miss Claire tells me that you produce beautiful homework in History class, so I know that you have the ability to produce great work. I know you can do this!”

be enthusiastic

Whilst this is a long-term technique that takes time to produce significant results, it is one of the most powerful. Students tend to be more focused in class when they like their teachers, and rapport-building is the key to getting students on your side.

Tip number 2: Ask the students to help out with something

Ask disengaged students to help you with something, even if it’s small. I’ve used this consistently with some of the most notorious students of the moment, and it works like a treat.

My most memorable, and most celebrated example, is that of a boy called Billy.

I’d just started working at a high school in northern England. I was taking over a class from a teacher who had left the school. That teacher left me some handover notes, in which she had said ‘Do not confront Billy under any circumstances”

I asked my HoD to elaborate, and he repeated the message. This was before I had even met the class, so naturally, I was a little nervous!

My first lesson with this class started normally. The students were seated and attentive. Then, a kid walked in late – it was Billy. He walked in, and said “Hello”. Since I’d been warned about him, I responded with a friendly “Come on in young man. Take a seat. Nice to meet you.”

There was a giggle from some of the students in class. They expected me to shout at him. But I knew better. I knew that I had to build up a good rapport with this student in order to be effective and use sanctions later on if necessary.

Billy then took out a can of cola and began drinking it in class. A big no-no in the Science lab.

I set the kids some work to do, and I walked over to have a conversation with Billy.

As I approached Billy’s desk, I noticed that he had a beautiful display case of felt-tipped pens in front of him. I said to him “Wow! You’re so well-prepared. I wish that all of my students were as organized as you”

He was stunned!

2 stars and a wish

This was a kid who was on detention daily, getting into arguments with virtually all of his teachers. Now he was being recognized for something of value that he had. The effect was utterly transformational.

“Err, well yeah, I always like to be ready for my lessons”

We had a nice conversation in which he told me that he wanted to be a tattoo designer. I then drew his attention to the artistic design of the cola can, and reminded him that he could not drink it in here. He smiled. 

After allowing him a few minutes to drink it outside, he came back in. I gave him the unofficial job title of Class Presentation Chief, and his job was to walk around the class on occasion and check the presentation of people’s work. I’d also ask him to help out in class demos.

The effect was transformational – he loved the responsibility, and he loved the sincere praise and encouragement he was getting. He was like an angel in my classes, to the point where staff room conversations about this kid were abruptly stifled when someone would ask me ‘How’s Billy doing in Science”, and I would say “He’s great”. 

At the end of that academic year, I saw Billy on GCSE results day. He’d achieved a grade C in Science – his highest score out of all of this subjects. He was chuffed.

High five

Giving students tasks to do, whether on a long or short-term basis, can really have a massive effect on their sense of empowerment and importance, which can lead to extra motivation and a determination never before seen. 

Tip  number 3: Use body language and keys
Where possible, it is always best to stop low-level distraction in its infancy, before it manifests itself into something bigger. One of the best ways to do this is to use subtle, low-key expressions using your physiology. Some examples include:

  1. The ‘look’: When I hear low-level chatter or disruption, I often pause mid-sentence (or I pause the video or slideshow if that’s the media I’m using at the time), and I simply look at the student in a way that says “We’re all waiting for you to be quiet”. This immediately draws the attention of all of the students, and it can have quite a large impact. I often accompany ‘the look’ with a half-grin, so as to not appear too aggressive or antagonistic. I also accompany this by opening my arms as if to say “Come on, you know that’s wrong”.
  2. Maintaining proximity: Being in close proximity to the disruptive student can be a very effective, non-invasive way to keep him or her on-task. I may also tap on the student’s desk and point to their work, to remind them that they need to stay focused.
  3. Stimulus actions: These are particularly helpful when there is a lot of whole class disruption, but you may need to give the kids a little bit of training beforehand. In the past I have used the following:

Clapping twice, after which the students all clap three times (this is a ritual they have memorized)
Singing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” and all the students clap

Raising my hand, after which all of the students copy by raising their hands
These low-key, non-intrusive behavior management techniques are highly effective at stopping distraction before it manifests into a confrontation. This works particularly well if it’s done in a light-hearted, happy way.

Tip number 4: Move the students to the ‘action center’

Basically, if kids are persistently distracted, then move them.

You may wish to set up some kind of seating plan (seating disruptive kids with a cluster of more focused students can sometimes help). You may even wish to bring distracted students to the front of the class, where possible.

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If two or more kids are chatting persistently, then it’s a good idea to split them up before dishing out any kind of sanction (e.g. a detention). It’s useful if this kind of rule is imposed since day one (Consistent chatter and you’ll be moved), otherwise, you may end up with a confrontation on your hands.

Tip number 5: Praise and encourage your students regularly

Praise is powerful if it’s used properly. Here are some tips:

Here are some tips:

  • Praise only works if it is sincere. Flattery loses its effect over time. Always find something genuine and meaningful to celebrate.
  • Use a variety of methods to praise and encourage your students. Comments written on their work, verbal praise in the classroom, multimedia-based praise (e.g. comments on blogs, stars on student-generated websites, ‘stickers’ in learning management system (LMS) forums, etc.) and informal chats outside of the classroom are all great ways to make your students feel appreciated and important.
  • If a student produces a really good piece of work, make sure you show it to the class as a good example to follow. This will make the student feel extra special and will encourage both the student and the rest of the class to work even harder. If your school has an LMS, a novel way to do this would be to scan the work and post it on your subject page. If not, simply projecting the work onto your interactive whiteboard or just holding it up in front of the class will have an uplifting effect on that student.
  • When you do have to reprimand or correct your students, make sure you praise them for something first. Every human being, no matter who they are, receives criticism much better if their inhibitions are overcome with praise first. A good rule is the “two stars and a wish rule”, where you praise two things that went well, and you suggest a target to make this work ‘even better.’

Tip number 6: Play games with your students and get them competing with each other

Friday afternoon of the 2013/14 academic year was a challenge for me at first. I had double Year 9 Science, and many of the kids were exhausted after running around like crazy on the school field at lunchtime.

However, things soon changed.

I used Friday afternoons as a competition and review time, where my kids would play learning games to earn House Points. It worked like a treat, with the students loving each lesson and going home for the weekend on a high.

Try playing these games with your kids:

#1: Splat

This quick game is so easy: all you need is a whiteboard, whiteboard markers and class of kids. It’s a great game for consolidating key vocabulary, and is perfect for E.A.L. learners.

Splat

Here’s a short video showing a quick clip of me playing ‘Splat’ with my students (I will include some more lengthy clips soon, but this is a good start):

 

#2 Mystery Word

Another easy game. This time, students randomly pick out written words from a hat (or cup, beaker, container, etc.), and then they have to explain their word to the class (without saying the word). The students who are listening have to guess what the word is.

Mystery word

#3 The Poster Game

Possibly the most fun and competitive game I’ve ever invented for teaching new content. You’ll need space for the kids to walk/run, and the game does take some prep. However, once you (and your students) become used to playing this game you’ll find that it’s a doddle to set up in no time at all.

Poster game page 1poster game page 2Poster game page 3

#4 Who am I?

A very simple game. All you need are post-it notes and a class full of energized students! Great fun. Perfect for reinforcing key vocabulary and concepts.

Who am I

# 5 Bingo

Got some equation symbols or mathematical problems to teach your kids? Perhaps the symbols of the periodic table is more your thing? Whatever it is, this simple game can be adapted to suit any subject.

Bingo

# 6 Vocabulary Musical Chairs

You’ll need a good rapport with your kids to use this one, as it needs to be controlled really well by the teacher (e.g. to avoid kids bumping into each other). However, it is simple, fun and worth the effort!

Vocabulary musical chair

# 7 Mystery Picture

This one takes some imagination on the part of the teacher and some training of the kids beforehand. However, it’s really, really good for encouraging higher order thinking skills.

Mystery pictures

Tip number 7: Have a one-to-one conversation

One of the key mistakes I made in my first few years of teaching was that I would sanction my students too quickly, citing whatever system was in place as my justification. This sometimes led to a confrontation, and a lot of extra work on my part (e.g. supervising detentions).

Sometimes students can get really ‘stuck in a rut’ with their behavior and lack of focus, often going on ‘auto-pilot’ for no apparent reason.

Giving feedback

Sit down with students like this and have a one-to-one conservation. Listen to them. Find out what their ambitions in life are, and reassure them that you are there to help them to succeed.

Refer any important information to a pastoral leader or school counselor if necessary (e.g. if a student is in danger). This website acts a good guide for gauging when this kind of referral may be needed, but always check with your school’s leadership first.

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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