How do you define student engagement? When you think of student engagement, does a visual of every student raising their hand or every student smiling with their computer screen turned on sound familiar? I’ve been working with many school districts on authentic engagement and what it looks and sounds like.

Please consider that if the only way to check whether students are engaged in learning is whether their screens are on, we may be missing a lot of opportunities! Engagement includes excitement, motivation, and students immersed in work that has clear meaning and immediate value to them. We see persistence, self-direction, and driving the content for deeper understanding and interconnectedness with the world.

It’s important to note that there are many reasons that students may disengage. Perhaps some students may disengage because they have lost hope, school is too boring, they don’t know how to ask for help, they have personal “stuff” happening outside of school, the teaching doesn't match their learning style, they don’t feel capable, and/or they don’t feel connected to the group.

Regardless of the reason, inclusive practices can help us with increasing student engagement. Inclusive practice refers to the instructional and behavioral strategies that improve academic and social emotional outcomes for all students, with and without disabilities, in general education settings. These are my top seven inclusive principles to engage all learners:

  1. Foster a positive learning community
  2. Activate background knowledge
  3. Tap into student strengths and interest
  4. Infuse (VAKT) visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile sensory elements
  5. Utilize equitable brain-based strategies and celebrate effective effort/growth
  6. Connect to real world and inquiry-based application
  7. Differentiate instruction and provide access into academic discussion

Let’s look more deeply into three of these principles.

Foster a positive learning environment.

Real learning happens when there are real relationships between teacher and students. This principle is the foundation for meaningful learning to occur. Students might not remember everything about “The Scarlet Letter,” but they will remember how you made them feel as a human.

Strong relationships pave the wave for risk-taking, being vulnerable as a learner, and perseverance in reaching academic goals. TeachTrainLove published a great article with 33 ways to build connections and relationships as a classroom community.

Activate background knowledge.

Unlike teaching students how to make predictions or solve math problems, background knowledge cannot be taught. We have to build it. Before students jump into a new concept, content, or reading selection, we can analyze vocabulary, people, places, and events that students might not know.

By using a critical eye, we can anticipate language and learning barriers and activate background knowledge. Three of my favorite resources to build background knowledge are Google Arts and Culture, National Geographic GeoStories and the Literacy Shed. These three sites provide visuals, diagrams, and videos for every person, place, and event across our curriculum.

Connect to real-world and inquiry-based applications.

As you plan and teach content, our goal is to ensure that curriculum is relevant to the world and our young people’s lives. We want to guarantee that children from all backgrounds can see themselves in the curriculum daily. As you lesson plan, there are three questions our students should be able to answer:

  • Why is this important?
  • How does this connect to the real world?
  • How can I use this new knowledge/skill in the outside world?

Inclusive practices increase student engagement, student outcomes, and the integration of social emotional skills. For more resources and strategies on student engagement, I provide interactive virtual and in-person workshops. How are you engaging students? Tweet out @SavannaFlakes to share ideas!