Why some children don’t participate and what can be done

All of us spend short periods when we cannot concentrate and do not participate. Overcome by tiredness, boredom, irritation or distraction from more important events, we find it difficult to give our full attention. This article concerns sustained disengagement.

Why do some children not participate?

For most, the reasons for non-participation are obvious: they are tired by lack of sleep, skipping breakfast and preoccupation with other matters.  Without a breakfast, many children lose concentration mid-morning and resort to quick calories at break. The slump that follows the calorie high is worse than the original tiredness. Breakfast clubs have done a lot to support those who come to school hungry. The clubs give them a sense of being cared for as well as stamina for the day.

Older pupils may be suffering from late nights, even hangovers or chronic anxiety. Meet the parents if these conditions apply for a week or two.  Once, teaching in secondary, I had a sleepy young man who turned out to be working 3 mornings a week from 5am cleaning out the local squash courts.

Most children ascribe their disengagement to boredom.  This doesn’t mean that teachers should resort to a cabaret teaching style, but it does mean approaching subjects from an interesting angle and building in more activities that oblige children to join in, for example, through investigations, group discussion and drama.

A fair number who describe themselves as bored may be lost rather than bored.  Perhaps they are out of their depth or they have lost the thread of the lesson. Never underestimate the most obvious reason for lack of contribution: it’s because they don’t know what to say. It’s not the kind of reason that children admit to.

Some children sit it out because it feels easier and safer to do so. Even able children pursue this strategy. Indeed, able children sometimes withdraw because clever answers attract negative comment.  Silence can cause resentment among frequent contributors who feel they have their brains picked. Their high profile is resented in turn by the less garrulous. A complex set of social judgments governs classroom attitudes towards high-profile pupils.  The best you can do is to insist on an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect, and the freedom to take risks.

A significant number of pupils do not contribute because they lack self-confidence. They may be thinking of contributions but not voicing them because they expect them to be wrong or stupid. An open conversation with children who hold back is important to understand their motivation and manage their entry into class discussion. As a starter, you could ask a question to which they know the answer, and you know they know. ‘Lisa, you had a good idea about this. Can you tell the rest of the class what you think?’

A smaller number of pupils lack the social skills to speak clearly on demand.  When pinned down by a direct question, they may answer in a tiny voice or they may freeze up. This kind of problem can be resolved by a small amount of coaching from an educational psychologist to get over the moment.

What to do?

It always helps if children see the point of what they are doing rather than going through the motions.  A survey carried out a few years ago into children who did not progress found that almost all of them were bored and disengaged because they did not see the point of learning. It was something done to them rather than something of personal benefit.  These children need to feel more ownership of their own learning. They respond well to choice and to being told how a topic will be useful to them.

The second important point is that the learning should look achievable, built on prior knowledge and developed in stages which move confidently towards a goal.  To feel even more secure, each stage should be well–signposted and scaffolded so that pupils feel supported to step up.

Thirdly, it helps if the lesson is structured to expect a certain level of contribution, and organised to make sure that happens.  Take, for example, group discussion.  It is easy to sit out of discussion in a large group, less easy in a group of 3 or 4, and impossible in a pair. The choices we make affect what children do.

Ways of keeping all pupils engaged

1.  Allow wait time

Between asking a question and receiving an answer, allow a short time for all children to marshal their thoughts and prepare an answer.  Expect everyone to have an answer ready and choose the respondent.

2.  Invite pair or group response

This allows wait time and reduces personal exposure by making it a group response.

3.  Expect a response from everyone

There are several techniques for securing a simultaneous response from everyone – using number fans or letter fans to answer, for example, or writing an answer on a mini whiteboard and showing it at the same time. You can achieve the same goal sequentially: over a day, use a jar of lollypop sticks, each carrying a pupil’s name, and take their stick out after they have contributed. In the afternoon, start targeting careful questions or invitations at the non-responders.

4.  Give a leading prompt

Draw pupils into the answer by starting a sentence for them.

  • ‘We can find the square root by….?’
  • ‘We know that Trudy is guilty because….’

5.  Tell them in advance what you are going to ask at the end

It is amazing how this simple strategy helps pupils to focus on the key issue.

  • ‘At the end of the lesson I am going to ask you to…’

6.  Pre-teach

You spend hours helping weaker pupils to catch up when they don’t understand the lesson.  Use the time differently: pre-teach. Give them a heads-up on the lesson, introducing the big points. This way, they will get off to a flying start in the lesson and be able to contribute.  There is more dignity and more participation in this approach.

7.  Direct questions at particular pupils

If you always ask open questions or invitations to ‘think aloud’, you will whittle down your regular respondents to a few confident and quick thinkers. Research shows that boys are most likely to offer quick direct answers, and girls respond to follow- up questions that seek more detail and depth. Take care in choosing the questions for particular pupils, but don’t be afraid to ask open or stretching questions. If you reward silence with an easy life, they will take it.

8.  Have a repertoire of extension prompts

As a new teacher I was given a very good piece of advice by my colleague Ken Scott. He suggested I have ready a set of expressions to prompt pupils. These were expressions I would rehearse so that they would come naturally in class. These included extension prompts for short contributions.  The routine is always: praise, then ask for more.

  • ‘That’s interesting. Tell us more about….’
  • ‘Excellent! Why do you think that…?’
  • ‘You’re right! Tell us how you worked it out….’

9.  Set a hands-on puzzle that requires a solution

Children love puzzles.  Card sorts, categorisations, sequencing, working out the meaning of a colour or symbol, and filling in the missing element are examples of activities that appeal to the gaming instinct. If you can use desktop or physical activity to solve the problem, it is even more absorbing. Puzzles work well for individuals, but better for groups who explain to each other their opinions about the solution.

10.  Put reluctant contributors in a small, well-structured, well-briefed group

Effective groupwork depends on planning. Choose the most suitable size of group and the mix of people in it. Articulate the purpose of the group, give it a specific task to complete and tell pupils in advance how the group will feed back. Don’t forget to say how long it will last. If it is appropriate, allocate roles. These may be organisational roles such as chair, scribe or spokesperson, or they may be contributory roles such proposer, defender, summariser, challenger or supporter. Reluctant contributors can be introduced to more demanding roles as they gain confidence.

11.  Use feedback mechanisms that require everyone to contribute

If you ask groups to feed back to each other by allocating out their members to new mixed groups, everyone will have to give feedback. Knowing this makes pupils more attentive during the initial discussion, and obliges them to contribute prepared points to the new group. Known as a jigsaw, this is a high-participation strategy. Pupils are armed with points raised by their first group, so it is less stressful than improvised discussion.

Another approach is to invite each group to choose a moment to eavesdrop on the others groups (like spies) and bring back intelligence to add to their own findings.

A variation on this is to send out representatives (like envoys) half way through a discussion, to share initial findings with others. This strategy also means that groups improve their findings as they go.

12.  Teach participation to shy and reluctant contributors

Although some children are naturally shy, it is part of the English curriculum to help them become articulate and confident contributors. All subjects benefit, and the pupil gains the option to speak or be silent. Teach conversational strategies like gathering up things to say, supportive body language, how to cut into a conversation and alternatives to making statements e.g. ask questions, give summaries and express approval.

13.  Set personal objectives for participation

Invite pupils to practise one small challenge at a time. Examples:

  • ‘During each discussion, make a comment, ask a question or approve a point made by someone else.’
  • ‘During discussions, spend at least half the time looking directly at the speaker’s eyes and lean forward attentively .’