How to See When Students Aren’t Engaged: High School

By Scott Sterling

This is the final post 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: high school.

In the high school years, students undergo a metamorphosis. They enter as something that can still be reasonably referred to as a child and leave an adult that will need to somehow find a way in the world. During this transformation, it becomes harder to compete for the students’ attention. They think of themselves as more adult than they actually are. This causes friction.

A veteran teacher can cut through those generalities and make their classroom a model of educational efficiency, but the rest need a crash course on earning and monitoring the attention of a high schooler.

Rapport can be a weapon

Out of all the grade levels, it’s easiest to establish a rapport with high schoolers. They are closer in age to most teachers. They are concerned with some of the same issues that adults are. Their interests are more likely to align with a teacher’s.

That’s why building a class culture of mutual respect and openness can pay dividends when the going gets tough and you have to cover something important but is universally acknowledged to be boring. Building trust will help them listen when you say “I know this isn’t fun, but it’s important…”

For some teachers, building relationships is the easy part. Classroom management, on the other hand, can remain a challenge. By looking at the signs, you can quickly see who’s engaged and who is slipping.

Signs of engagement

  • When it comes to eye contact, your biggest competition is with a high schooler’s need for rest. It might mean some extra engagement and formative assessment on your part during the first period of the day and the class after lunch.
  • By now, high schoolers have matured to the point where you will plainly be able to tell if they aren’t listening. Plenty of listening checks help keep everyone on task.
  • Because of the tendency to organize in cliques, you’re more likely to fall into the rut of the same few people raising their hands (usually those not engaged with a group). Look into some random questioning strategies or backchannel communications.


Signs of keen interest

  • Lots of questions being asked. Naturally, high schoolers are more likely to ask where they will use the skills you’re trying to teach them because they are closer to the time where they’ll actually be asked to use those skills.
  • Attempts to connect topics to what they’ve seen in the real world. Even though their life experience is comparatively limited, they have encountered some things that can help form connections.
  • Wanting to modify tasks. It may seem like if they want to bend the rules on a task that they aren’t engaged with the original assignment. What it actually means is that they want it to fit better for their understanding and how they’ve developed their world view. It means they are taking the task seriously.


Reengagement strategies

The attention-grabbing strategies used in the earlier grades will either be ignored or laughed at in high school. Instead, leverage some of that rapport you’ve worked so hard to build. When something isn’t connecting with the students and they’re disengaging, pivot with a personal anecdote that can be tangentially tied to the topic at hand. All students, even those who checked out, will sense the change in the room and reengage.

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