What to do when your students have NO interest in your lesson – 11 classroom management strategies to increase engagement and involvement

A student who has no interest in lessons (i.e. anything you say and do) can have a terrible impact on the rest of the class. What you must remember however is that this student probably wants to succeed – most do, at heart – but has virtually given up due to a succession of failures, discouragement and low self-image. It may take time to reach this student and help them see life (including your lessons) differently, but there are definite steps to take which will help turn the situation round more quickly. 

 1. Look to sincerely praise anything and everything you can. Students with a very low self-image may be uncomfortable receiving praise in front of others so begin by using written praise. Send notes home, leave post-it notes or written comments in their books, send them cards or typed letters on school-headed paper stating how pleased you are with their efforts, and include anything positive you have heard from another teacher. This young person needs to know they have potential and that somebody is taking the time to notice. Sincere praise is one of the most powerful tools you possess and as long as they understand that you actually do want to help them – and not just get them to listen ‘because it’s your job’ – this student will respond.  

 2. Do some research. Speak to other teachers, their form tutor or head of year to find out if there are any underlying issues you should be aware of. A tutor who has a good relationship with a particularly hard to reach student can give you ‘insider tips’ to connect with this student as well as notify you of any issues to avoid.  

 3. Schedule a ‘1 to 1’ meeting with the student. Purpose: to ask why they are so uninterested, ask their advice on making lessons more engaging for them, and help them to see the relevance of what they are being asked to do.  

 If you feel they are unlikely to turn up for a 1:1 meeting, don’t worry – you can increase the chances by proposing it at the right time. There’s no point telling them you want to see them in your office when they’re in their ‘I hate you and your lessons’ mood; they won’t be interested. Wait, instead, for a time when they are going to be more receptive. A good  time  is  when  they’ve  done  something  well,  when  you’ve  praised them for a job well done, when you’ve just complimented them on their work,  or  a  new  pair  of  shoes,  or  a  haircut,  or  creative  use  of  smiling muscles – i.e. when they are more receptive.  

 For example, if they play football on the school team, try to find the time to go and watch the game. They’ll see you on the sidelines and will appreciate it. Next time you see them you can mention the game and talk about the goal they scored or their part in the brilliant teamwork. Now they’re listening, they know you have interest in them and they know that you want to help them. This would be a better time to suggest the meeting.  

 4. Change seating. Put them with a partner or other group members who will encourage them and help them.  

 5. Put them in a mixed ability learning team of 3-4 and give them a definite role or responsibility. Assign them a role that plays to their strengths or abilities. For example if they are good at drawing let them be in charge of graphics or illustrations. If they have trouble sitting still let them be a ‘runner’ in charge of collating materials, equipment and resources.  

 6. Involve parents/carers. Having parents on board is a big advantage dealing with any student problems – the more we can present a united front between school and home, the better. The problem, as we all know, is that some parents just don’t seem interested – or the student doesn’t think they are.  

It’s a huge problem when parents and other family members have deeply entrenched, negative experiences of school going back through several generations; they’ll be hesitant in dealings with teachers. If they themselves failed at school and now the highlight of their life is watching ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ it’s not surprising that they lack the faith in education that we expect and need them to have. If in addition their child has been a source of constant distress at school, any contact the parents have already had with staff at the school is likely to have been negative. They’ll have been told when he has been missing school, when he’s repeatedly failed to hand in homework, when he’s been in a fight and when he’s been abusive to a member of staff.  

They won’t have heard a word when he’s done something well. A good way, if not the only way, to start to get these parents ‘on side’ is to change their expectation that every communication from school will be a negative one. The more time you spend connecting with them through regular positive contact, the more they will get used to the idea that a call from school doesn’t automatically ruin their day.  

A 30-second update a couple of times a week goes a long way towards doing this – “Hi Maureen, just a quick note to let you know he’s been great this week; homework was in on time and he managed to keep it together in maths again.” Despite what anyone says, I’ve witnessed enough ‘hard’ fathers and ‘rough’ mothers breaking down in tears in my office when given news of a young one’s good progress to believe that this is worth doing.  

For a complete resource kit on harnessing support from parents see  one of our titles - ‘Get the Parents on Board’.  

 7. Give them a taste of success. Students who are reluctant to take part probably see no value in learning because they never feel they’ve learned anything. Here’s a practical way to give them a sense of accomplishment and leave your lesson feeling they’ve actually had some success (so that they will return in a more positive frame of mind).  

  • Ask them a question at the start of the lesson related to the lesson content. They will probably refuse to answer but that’s okay – it’s probably their fear of looking ‘too clever’ or fear of making a fool of themselves.  
  • Take the pressure off them by offering them to nominate a friend who can help them answer the question/answer it for them. This is easy for them to do – but the key is that they will see themselves as being involved in the answering process.  
  • Ask them to paraphrase what their friend said so that they answer the question themselves.  
  • Later in the lesson, when other students are involved in independent study, coach the student further by getting them to answer the question for you again on a 1:1 basis. Encourage them to break the answer down into clear steps so that they are totally sure of the process. Offer a little extra ‘in-depth’ information to add to their answer and ask them once more to show off their new knowledge and tell you ‘all they know’ about the subject. Congratulate them and tell them you will be asking them at the end of the lesson to repeat their answer to help the other students remember (the extra ‘in-depth’ knowledge you’ve given them will give them the opportunity to shine if they wish).  
  • At the end of the lesson let them leave on a high by answering the question again as part of your plenary session.  
  • Get them to answer the question next lesson as part of your starter.  

Remember that you don’t need to limit this strategy to just one student during a lesson. You can feasibly have four or five students all leaving class feeling that they’ve actually learned something. Multitask!  

 8. Use questions to grab your students’ attention and get them involved 

Before I present a near fool-proof way of getting a challenging group of students involved at the start of the lesson let’s look at something you should try to avoid: asking the wrong type of questions. It’s the most effective way to lose their interest.  

Many teachers will start a lesson with a question relating to the topic focus. For example, in a lesson on the circulatory system, the opening question might be: “How many of you can explain what a blood vessel is?” 

Questions like this may generate some participation but for every hand that goes up there will be ten more that don’t. Most of the students, particularly in a low ability or challenging group, will simply ignore this question because it demands something they don’t like to (or cannot) display – evidence of prior knowledge about the subject. Let’s face it, in a challenging group it’s not always cool to know the answers.  

A reliable way to get more of your students involved at the start of the lesson – particularly the non-volunteers who don’t seem to want to learn – is simply to change the type of questions you ask them.  

Let’s return to the circulatory system to illustrate what I mean. The average, challenging student doesn’t even care what a blood vessel is, so asking them about it will be in vain (sorry – I’m here all week!). If we’re going to grab their attention we need to ask them something they can relate to. See if you can spot the best question in the following sets:  

a. Who can tell me how blood gets round the body? 

b. Who knows what a blood vessel is? 

c. Can anyone tell me what a blood capillary is? 

d. Hands up if you’ve ever cut yourself.  


a. Give me five differences between Macbeth’s character before and after he kills Duncan.  

b. How does Macbeth change after he kills Duncan?  

c. What words would you use to describe Macbeth at the start of the play? 

d. When was the last time you did something really terrible that you later regretted?  

Can you see why a group of disengaged students would be most likely  to respond to ‘D’ in both cases? Those questions hook them in by giving them opportunity to think about events that are relevant to them or have had a direct effect on them. They appeal to the students because they present an opportunity to share their experiences.  

Once you have them hooked and they are animated and actively taking part – by now no doubt sharing tales of bleeding limbs – then you can lead them into the lesson content. From there, going back to our lesson on circulation, we could go on to ask:  

How long did it bleed for? 

How did you stop the bleeding? 

Do you think it would it have stopped if you had just left it? 

And then finally, to lead the students into the main content of the lesson:  

Where does the blood come from and how does it get to the cut? 

…and in this way, we adapt our questions and make them more relevant to our students so that we get their attention.  

 9. Make lessons both interesting and challenging 

Without sounding flippant, if you have disengaged students who look bored out of their minds, then you need to make your lessons more interesting. It really isn’t about the teacher’s level of confidence, but rather the curriculum challenge.  

There are two points to this: firstly, you need to find materials that are both more stimulating and more challenging. Secondly, you should be asking students what will help them, as they’re the ones who know best what works for them and what doesn’t. Have a discussion about it – they should tell you what they need to be engaged. Also, look at what other teachers are doing if their lessons seem more successful. You can even add entertainment into your lessons – something to get the kids laughing – but you do need to be careful with this too.  

When I first started teaching, I was intently focused on putting fun into my lessons. I had spent a few years in corporate entertainment and used to put crazy activities into all of my lessons just to get the kids laughing. Unfortunately, it led me to a situation where I felt more ‘the entertainer’ with his audience rather than an actual teacher. It was great for a short while and we had some real laughs together, but I wasn’t really getting them properly engaged in the lessons.   

It’s all about getting active participation rather than entertainment. So, one key is to make sure you have an activity that is set at the right level of challenge; something that they can do that isn’t too easy, but isn’t too hard.   

 10. Treat students like human beings  

This is one of those obvious pieces of advice, but it can largely go overlooked when teachers are focusing on making sure their lessons go exactly as planned. And it loosely ties back into that first point of praising your student wherever you can.   

If you have students who are losing steam, especially as they reach the middle or end of their studies, then you need to reign them back in and stoke their boilers to ensure that they have the best chance of succeeding. Sometimes all it takes is to treat them with as much dignity as you can. Pay attention to them and listen to them. Be as honest with them as possible. Set goals for them to achieve and do everything you can to help them reach those goals.   

This is an area that I think breaks many teachers. They give and they give, because they want the best for their kids, yet they see little – if any – improvement. I’ve seen teachers abandoning their jobs because they’ve simply been unable to help turn these kids around. It’s the same for some of the parents – in fact, perhaps even worse – because they do everything they can to help, but the parents or teachers are the last people the kids will listen to.   

Fortunately, we’re in a privileged position as teachers, as you’ll always find that these kids will trust a member of staff much more than a family member. However, it’s got to start with that relationship and if you are the one that can give your students the extra leg up, a shoulder to cry on, or a non-judgmental ear to listen, then you have a good chance of bonding with them.   

When the students are in an emotional state – distraught, fed up, and so on – then it can be the perfect time to connect with them, to be the person that they need. And this is exactly what I mean when I say you should treat your students as human beings. Pay attention to their emotional needs and need for support, as it could go a long way towards helping you when it comes to teaching them.   

 11. Spend less time talking at the class 

This is hugely important, especially with younger learners who have shorter attention spans. In the teaching world, we often call it TTT, or Teacher Talking Time. Too much TTT is a killer when it comes to maintaining the concentration and motivation of the class.   

If you’re trying to get a class to focus on what you’re saying for 30 minutes straight – or worse, even longer – then you’re going to have a bad time. So, what we want to do is look to break up those long, monotonous stretches as much as possible. For example, you could do something like a 15-minute mini-lesson, followed by a 30-minute break for a group or kinaesthetic activity, then bring the class back together for the final 15 minutes.  

This is why student-directed learning is so popular now; it’s much more effective at getting students engaged in classes. Replace Teacher Talking Time with activities in which your students become the teacher. Create group activities that involve a debriefing activity where the students report back to the class and to the other groups. Incorporate presentations where the students present back to their class. Essentially, do anything you can to make the students the directors of their own learning rather than sitting them in front of you and projecting at them for an entire lesson.    

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