This post has been updated as of September 2018.
No matter how engaging we think our best lesson plan is, a couple of students won’t participate. Most of the time, it has absolutely nothing to do with the lesson plan — they could be dealing with something at home, have a quieter personality, or are scared of speaking up.
As an educator, you want the absolute best results for each and every student. So how do we draw uninvolved students out of their shells and stop them from “hiding out”? Read on.
“Hiding-out students” have one objective: To stay under the radar so their struggles go unnoticed. It’s easy to lump these students together, but each one has unique complexities. We have to examine each one individually to discover why they want to hide.
Are they concealing knowledge gaps or a trauma? Do they struggle with social-emotional issues? Some might want to keep a low profile because they are shy, socially awkward, or struggling English learners. Others might be detached because of emotional issues like anxiety or depression.
And some students hide in plain sight. They’re often vocal in class in negative ways, saying they don’t care to cover up their secret struggles.
I’ve found that it’s key to approach each of them with curiosity and a desire to connect.
To get to the root of the problem, start by gathering information about your disengaged students.
Your research may show your reclusive students have certain similarities, but they can still have widely different reasons for wanting to go through each day unnoticed. To help uncover those reasons, you can ask questions like:
These questions take time to fully answer. Yes, it’s difficult to dig deeper when you have so many other students to get to know. But if we don’t find even the smallest ways to connect with these students, they stay invisible. That puts them at risk of falling through the cracks.
Showing we genuinely care and respect them as people enables us to build trust. Once they feel safe in our classrooms, they’re more inclined to take a risk, to step outside of their comfort zone, and to try to fully participate.
If you’ve asked the right questions in Step 2, you stand a much better chance of understanding who your “hiding-out” students are and where they are coming from. The answers to your questions should give you a better idea of the right engagement strategy to try out. Here are four strategies you can try to engage students.
Of course, “hiding-out” students will rebuff some engagement strategies, but they might respond well to others. Keep trying until you find one that works, and come up with your own strategies!
Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and a MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder, and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization.