5 Tips for Connecting With Hard-to-Reach Students

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.

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.

Keep students motivated and create a positive culture with encouraging words and images. (Courtesy of Janice Mace)

Making it happen:

  • Write down clear sentence stems or look-for criteria so you remember to use them.
  • For nonverbal feedback, jot down your observations on blank address labels and share with students or family members.
  • Consider a modified version of the Rubber Band Intervention to track how often feedback is positive or negative. (I use extra-large hair bands instead because they don’t pinch my arm hair like rubber bands, and different colors allow for simultaneous tracking of multiple data points.)
4. Scaffold your expectations.

Instead of fixating on the outcome, try breaking it down into more achievable steps and focusing on the skills needed to achieve the goal. Even if students don’t succeed, you want to reinforce the value of practicing.

Unaddressed or ongoing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) tend to also require additional supports. ACE factors such as trauma, mental illness, family separation, or food or housing insecurity can render students especially vulnerable to changes and unpredictability. In particular, be on the lookout for events that may complicate your efforts, such as holidays, school breaks, standardized testing, and anniversaries of negative events. Be proactive about supporting students during these times.

Making it happen:

  • Write down your goal and list the steps needed to achieve it, like an instruction manual. Support the student’s mastery of each step before moving on to the next one.
  • Plan out tiered responses to use when the student is functioning at baseline, stressed, and in crisis. The more preventative you can be, the better.
  • Give it time. The majority of efforts that fail in the first two weeks of implementation simply weren’t practiced long enough! Give a new strategy 3–4 weeks of consistent implementation before writing it off as unhelpful.
5. Set yourself up for success.

This is the big one, perhaps more important than every other tip. Start where YOU are. If that means starting smaller, then start smaller. The idea is to find something you can commit to and feel successful about.

Pick a practical and realistic strategy, something that resonates with your style, and make a connection. You and your students will both be glad you did.

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Learn more about building supportive, reciprocal relationships with students to bolster social-emotional learning in your school or classroom.

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