How to See When Students Aren’t Engaged: Elementary

By Scott Sterling

This is the first in a series about noticing when students aren’t engaged with a lesson and what to do about it. Each installment of the series corresponds to a grade level. This week: elementary.

Let’s just get this out of the way first: every student has a waning attention span at some point. Even your best, most polite, straight-A angel finds themselves thinking about something other than what’s being taught. And that’s okay. The same thing happens to adults. But it is crucial for teachers to be able to recognize disengagement and to be able to remedy the situation quickly.

Teachers at every grade level think their students are the hardest to keep engaged. The elementary teachers may have a strong case, but the effects are the same whether the student is 7 or 17 – lost learning time. Here are some ways to notice disengagement in elementary students.

Always be moving

Teaching is an aerobic profession. That means the dedicated practitioner should always be on their feet, circulating the room. A popular mantra is “teach on your feet, not in your seat”. It just makes sense.

First, it shows that you yourself are engaged with the material. If you look disengaged, the students will think it’s okay to disengage themselves. Second, it’s a simple matter of line-of-sight. Your point of view changes when you’re looking at things from above rather than from the side. This is true even if you’re tall and your students are small, as is the case in elementary.

Signs of engagement

  • Even young students are taught to maintain eye contact when someone is speaking. A lack of eye contact shows disengagement.
  • Even if students don’t quite understand what you’re saying, they tend to nod their heads. If they aren’t listening, they don’t.
  • You have to be engaged to raise your hand (although it’s pretty funny when a student who wasn’t paying attention volunteers just because everyone else was raising their hand).
  • Promptly getting on task.


Signs of keen interest

  • A lot of class participation and hand-raising.
  • Enthusiasm in voice and action. In elementary, it’s always a good sign to see students bouncing up and down. If you see that, take it easy on correcting the students to stay in their seats. If they’re going to be reprimanded because they’re interested in what’s going on, they will tend to be less interested in everything else.
  • Lots of questions being asked. Elementary students, when engaged, often want to extend the learning past what’s being covered in class.
  • Engagement with other classmates. Sometimes students get “tunnel vision”. Getting rid of that is a true sign of engagement.


Reengagement strategies

There are many, many strategies to use when you need to refocus the students’ attention. Most of them have some sort of call and response. Your chosen method should be modeled and remediated starting on the very first day of school.


Give Me Five – The teacher holds up their hand and calls “give me five!” The students call “Five!” and count down to one, getting progressively quieter.


Engagement Cards – Each student has access to a green, yellow, and red card on/in their desk. Periodically during a lesson, ask students to hold up the card that corresponds to their engagement level. Green is fully engaged, yellow is sort of engaged, and red is completely lost or distracted (although just the practice of asking for the cards should fix that).


School Spirit Cheer – This is an easy one. The teacher simply calls out the name of the school and the students answer with the school’s mascot.


These are all effective in the elementary setting. In fact, training students on more than one makes sure the strategies don’t get stale or easily ignorable.


Next Week: Middle School

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