There may be some students you can't seem to engage—the seemingly “unreachable” students. But is it true that some students simply can't be reached or taught? I’d like to challenge that perspective—and put a new spin on some familiar teaching strategies.
How to Connect with Difficult-to-Reach Students
Think of a time when you put considerable effort into something even though it was difficult. Why did you go the extra mile? We do more for people we like. We try harder when it benefits us. We are more committed to the things we value. If you find yourself pulling away from or avoiding connection with hard-to-reach students, try leaning in instead by following these five steps.
1. Demonstrate genuine interest in the student as a person.
If you only interact positively with students when they perform to your standards, they are unlikely to feel valued in general. Noncontingent reinforcement is one way to provide attention that is not dependent on behavior or anything else; it is, literally, unearned attention. It’s not that praise should be given when it isn’t due, but rather that positive attention should be given in recognition of a person’s inherent value. Youth are constantly being told what to do, how they should or shouldn’t think, and whose rules they need to follow. Teachers who express genuine interest in their needs and preferences typically score major points.
Making it happen:
- Greet students at the door. Inquire about their day.
- Ask questions about their interests and hobbies, the music they listen to, the food they like, or their favorite video game or TV show. Listen to, and possibly record, their answers.
- Have them explain a song that holds significant meaning to them. Then listen to and discuss it.
2. Learn their backstory.
This one takes a bit more time, but boasts a massive bang for the buck. Show genuine interest in their personal history, take time to recognize their individuality, and honor their identity. How do they describe themselves? Which labels and categories are important to their sense of self?
Another angle is to consult with those who know the student best. Ask the student to list three people they consider to be “experts” on them. Who understands them and has their back? Many students will list friends, family members, coaches, and mentors. Even more telling is if they can’t or won’t identify anyone who fits that description. Insight is leverage. Who they trust—and why—is valuable information.
Making it happen:
- Ask how they define themselves (e.g., culture, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, family, community, religion, hobbies). How does that lens shape their lived experiences?
- Consult with the “experts” they identify, as well as family, prior teachers, and mentors. Be sure to obtain formal consent when appropriate.
- Have students respond to “I Wish My Teacher Knew…” prompts. Important: Be sure to actually read them and follow up.
3. Tell hard-to-reach students what you want.
It’s easy to rattle off all the things we don’t want them to do, but what do we want? Develop 1–3 positively stated expectations to start with, and then go out of your way to acknowledge desired behaviors. When someone is overwhelmed by things going wrong, it is difficult to notice what’s going well. A solution-focused approach will help both you and the student orient toward success. Try to provide at least three positive statements for every one correction or reprimand. Be sure to provide explicit feedback using labeled praise so the student is aware of what you notice.
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