How to Keep Students Focused: 10 Student Engagement Strategies for Teachers and Parents
Imagine a particularly dull meeting you've attended. You likely heard monotone speeches and saw black and white text for visuals. Did you spend your time eyeing your neighbor's coffee and daydreaming that you brought a cup? Although you care about your job and strive for success, staying engaged with the material is challenging without the right tools.
Students, particularly those in younger grades, have yet to develop a reliable attention span to stay focused on their academics for hours on end. Opportunely, teachers and parents can work together to create a healthy learning environment for students to thrive.
We've gathered some highly researched strategies for both teachers and parents to engage students in the classroom, plus additional tools to keep learners on track for success.
How to Keep Your Students Engaged Both in School and Online
Kids, and even soon-to-be high school graduates, struggle to silence outside distractions like noisy chatter, sounds in the hallways or at-home distractions for those learning in digital classrooms.
Luckily, you can do numerous things in your classroom environment to strengthen your students' attention span and earn their engagement. Starting with general student engagement strategies, consider these tips and tricks for ways you can transform your instruction both in the classroom and online:
1. Set Clear Expectations
As a teacher, you want to see your students succeed. But, "success" may look different depending on the teacher, their working style and the class objectives. Communicate your expectations with your students so they have the proper guidance to reach your class's definition of success.
Some ways you can clearly communicate your expectations are by:
- Reinforcing basic expectations: Some expectations are universal, but it's a good idea to reiterate them. These include being on time for class, showing respect to other teachers and students, working quietly or using inside voices, raising hands before speaking or asking a question, participating actively and respectfully and turning in assignments on time.
- Instituting a dress policy: Your school likely has a dress code. If your classroom is digital, you may find it harder to enforce this dress code, as students are more likely to opt for comfier, at-home attire. Communicate the concept of dressing for success and encourage students to dress in school-appropriate clothing.
- Describing your teaching style: Every teacher holds a unique teaching style. Describe your style to your students and explain why you prefer it — plus how you hope to achieve group and individualized goals.
- Talking through the average daily routine: It's time to get more specific. Outline your expectations of what your students should do from the moment they walk through your door — or join your online classroom — to the moment class ends.
- Giving things to do when there's "nothing to do": Squish the thought that there's "nothing to do" because there's always something. Students enter "dead time" when they feel like there's nothing to do. Outline things they can do independently — it's much harder to regain their attention once they enter the dreaded dead time.
- Explaining how to be successful: Directly explain different tips and tricks students can use to succeed in your class. Examples include using a daily planner to track assignments, actively participating in class and joining study periods outside of class time.
Setting this foundation makes it easier to keep your students focused and actively learning throughout your instructions.
2. Address Different Learning Styles
Teaching methods that work for one student may not work for another, and vice versa. Create captivating lessons for your learners by tailoring your teaching media to different learning styles, like:
- Auditory learners: Auditory learners value words. Use verbal activities such as discussions, storytelling, read-aloud sessions and group projects, as they allow auditory learners to verbally work through what they're learning.
- Visual learners: Wordy black and white lectures likely won't benefit visual learners as much as others. To aid these students, pair colorful visuals and infographics with text and reinforce your educational concepts.
- Kinesthetic learners: Kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. Within your lesson, try a hands-on activity where students can make physical connections between educational context and real-world experiences. Since these students are typically the first to lose focus, keep a watchful eye on them as a cue to change pace.
- Musical learners: Musical learners learn best through sound and rhythm. Incorporate concept-related songs into your lectures, or challenge your students to create and perform their own music!
- Interpersonal learners: Students naturally want to talk to their peers. And, for some, talking to peers is how they learn best. Take advantage of this natural tendency by incorporating group work and class discussions into your teaching methods, offering guidance where needed.
- Intrapersonal learners: On the flip side, some students dread group work and prefer working alone. Still, gently push their comfort levels by assigning group work. Give them a safe haven to learn by assigning independent work and self-reflection quickwrites.
- Logical learners: Last but not least, logical learners enjoy seeing cause-and-effect relationships and real-world applications for concepts. Problem-solving is in their nature, so assign critical thinking activities like experiments, puzzles and exploratory investigations.
Adding these different teaching methods on top of traditional styles keeps your material fresh, which students will find particularly captivating and intriguing to follow along with.
3. Start Your Lesson With a Captivating Hook
It's much harder to regain your students' attention once it's lost. Keep students engaged in your lesson by using one or all of these captivating hooks at the beginning of class:
- Begin with a warmup: Strategize a warmup to get your students accustomed to deep thinking and spark active learning. Quickly review the material covered last class as a brief refresher and strong foundation to build new information on, or spark meaningful conversation to prepare for group work.
- Start with an interesting fact: Grab your students' attention right off the bat with an interesting fact. For example, if you're teaching color theory, you can say, "Did you know that men and women see the color red differently?" Or, ask an attention-grabbing question like, "Who knows what the first color a baby sees is?" For the record, it's red!
- Set a communicative tone: The classroom environment is a two-way channel between teacher and student. Without proper communication, students won't feel as comfortable asking for help, and teachers won't know how to help their struggling students best. Start your classes with a teacher-student appropriate conversation. By showing your personality and conveying that you're a person outside of the classroom, they'll put more trust in you and be more willing to ask for help.
As the school year progresses, you'll become more familiar with your students' interests, and you can use those interests to create even more captivating hooks!
Strategies to Engage Students in the Physical Classroom
Teaching in a physical classroom allows for more control of your scholars' learning environment. It's considerably easier to facilitate group learning and provide hands-on learning tools to keep your students engaged. Here are a few ways to do so:
4. Promote Collaborative Learning
Practicing collaborative learning enhances your pupils' communication skills, which keeps students engaged while conveying new information.
Ways you can incorporate collaborative learning into your classroom include:
- Instituting "ask three before me": Your students are bound to have questions at some point. When they do, encourage problem-solving practices by establishing "ask three before me," where students should ask three of their neighbors for help before going to you.
- Assigning teamwork activities: Teach collaboration by breaking your class into groups. For one activity, give each group a pair of scissors, two sheets of paper, 10 paper clips and a piece of tape. Challenge each group to build the tallest tower in 20 minutes, and observe how well each member handles group collaboration to guide future lessons and activities.
- Adding team collaboration during warmups: Teamwork doesn't have to be a complex task. Instead, you can add controlled areas of teamwork into your classroom routine, like in warmups. For example, divide your students into groups of three and assign them the challenge of finding all the mistakes written on the board. The team who finds the most mistakes wins!
You can incorporate group work into your online classroom, but this requires some added structure and creativity, which we'll cover later.
5. Weave Minimal-Supervision Tasks Into Dead Times
Jumping back to the false idea that there's "nothing to do," you can avoid destructive dead time by providing minimal-supervision tasks.
Give your students options. If they finish their work early or can't participate in a class discussion for whatever reason — for example, if they missed a class or didn't complete their homework — offer them engaging alternatives to sitting silently, like:
- Reviewing vocabulary words.
- Looking over a neighbor's notes from a class they missed.
- Doing a quickwrite following a given prompt.
- Skimming the material for today's lecture.
These individual, quiet activities keep your students receptive to active learning, while avoiding disturbing others who are engaging with your instruction. You can also assign these dead-time-fighting activities while passing out papers, setting up an activity or working one-on-one with other students.
Promoting Focus and Learning in an Online Classroom
Compared to physical classrooms, online classes require teachers to use more technological creativity and advanced communication skills to keep students engaged and interested in learning.
Keep in mind that every student's home life, and therefore potential distractions, is different. Some work in a quiet workspace accompanied by a caregiver for added guidance, while others may struggle to find access to a reliable computer.
Every student deserves quality education, and one way you can offer that is by addressing their unique needs. Of course, it may not be possible to resolve every problem, but consider these online student engagement strategies to try your best at minimizing the effects of uncontrollable distractions:
6. Incorporate Movement to Keep Students Focused
As you notice your kids starting to get antsy in their workspace, assign a movement-oriented task where they can release their energy while staying engaged in their learning environment. The task doesn't have to be anything extravagant as long as they're moving and staying focused.
To learn how to keep your students focused online, consider these movement activities for various grade levels:
- Elementary school: Find a song that your students enjoy and make a fun, simple dance for them to follow along with. Encourage them to get out of their seats and use hand movements, light stomping and other full-body movements.
- Middle school: Create a list of common household objects aligned with your current topic, and challenge your students to a scavenger hunt. Publish your list, set a time limit and let your students move around their house and burn off extra energy as they locate the items.
- High school: At an older age, high school students are better at controlling their energy than younger grade levels. You might even find the opposite phenomenon where your students are often tired. Incorporate gentle movement, like simple stretches or yoga practices, to keep their energy levels comfortable, minds awake and stress low.
Set clear expectations when permitting students to leave their work area. Otherwise, they might get distracted by something else in their house and experience the opposite effect of what you intended.
7. Use Online Features
One advantage of digital classrooms is the unique features different platforms offer. Avoid a silent class and engage your learners by using these helpful features:
- Video polling: Most video conference platforms offer polling features, where you can control and prompt pop-ups on your students' screens for them to interact with. Ask simple questions and use their private responses to pinpoint specific areas where they can benefit from further explanation.
- Discussion breakout rooms: Breakout rooms allow you to separate your class into small groups for collaboration. As the host, you can separate students with the click of a button and hop in and out of different breakout rooms to facilitate their learning.
- Chat rooms: Some students may find it harder to participate in online class discussions. Or, some may struggle with audio devices and have a hard time participating, despite wanting to. Balance these obstacles by opening a chat room where students can engage in class-friendly discussion and respectful debate or ask questions when needed.
If you plan on using these features, consider publishing a guide on how to use them for students who aren't as tech-savvy as their peers. Additionally, address online courtesy in your classroom expectations to deter your pupils from taking advantage of added independence.
Online Student Engagement Strategies for Parents
A student's foundation for online learning relies heavily on the partnership between teachers and parents.
In a physical classroom, teachers have the advantage of managing their students' learning environments. Online, teachers have to work much harder to keep their learners' interest, relying on parents to create an equally beneficial at-home learning environment.
As a parent or caregiver, you can help hardworking teachers at home using the following strategies for engaging students in learning:
8. Establish a Daily Routine
The added freedom of staying home takes away the structural advantages of a daily routine that traditional, in-person schooling provides.
Avoid procrastination or mental burnout by breaking out a planner and establishing a daily routine for your student. Daily schedules will look different depending on your child's lifestyle and academic expectations. In general, it's best to include these daily habits:
- Dress for success: Dressing for success aids in keeping your scholar confident and ready to work. Changing back into comfy clothes after school will help them unplug from the academics of their daily routine.
- Incorporate learning breaks: You wouldn't want to work out for hours on end without any breaks, and the same goes for learning. Schedule times for meaningful breaks where your child can focus on other tasks and recharge for another deep learning session.
- Set time aside for homework and studying: After classes, it's natural for your student to close their computer and feel done for the day. But, like in traditional schools, they still have homework and studying to do. Set time aside after classes for students to complete their work. Talk to their teachers, as some offer after-school hours that you can plan these times around.
- Organize and plan assignments: Once lessons are over, encourage your student to spend some time cleaning up the day's clutter so their workspace is ready for the next school session. Also, they can use this time to review their planner and outline the next day so they're fully prepared.
Don't feel alarmed if your student doesn't follow the routine perfectly every day. The goal of a daily schedule is to help them feel secure and confident during learning. As long as they're putting forth the effort and prioritizing their education, they'll be successful.
9. Remove Distractions
At home, students are surrounded by familiar distractions that can strip them away from a productive learning environment.
Watch out for distractions like:
- Disruptive background noises.
- Other family members.
- Video games.
You understandably can't remove every distraction, but try finding a space within your home where these are limited. If you can construct a private learning room for your student, we recommend doing it. If not, that's OK, too! Try your best to temporarily transform your living space into a distraction-limited work area, and make adjustments as you see fit.
10. Use a Checklist
Even with a structured daily routine and limited distractions, some students may struggle to maintain enough motivation to stay engaged in lessons.
If your student is struggling, first talk to them about how they're feeling. Some adjustments may need to be made to their daily routine, which is bound to happen as academic expectations and lifestyles change.
You can also try other motivational and focusing methods, like creating a checklist. Keep a notepad or planner next to your student's work area, where they can break down assignments and to-dos onto a checklist. As they complete each task, they can feel the satisfaction of crossing the item off and advancing to the next assignment.
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