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How to Engage the ‘Hiding-Out’ Students in Your Class

By Kara Wyman February 23, 2017

No matter how engaging we think our best lesson plan is, a couple of students won’t participate. How do we draw them out of their shells and get them to stop “hiding out?”

I’ve found the key is to approach each of them with curiosity and a desire to connect.

Why students ‘hide out’ in class

“Hiding-out students” have one objective: Stay under the radar so their struggles go unnoticed. It’s easy to lump these students together, but each one has unique complexities. We have to examine each one individually to discover why they want to hide.

Are they concealing knowledge gaps and/or social-emotional struggles? Some might want to keep a low profile because they are shy, socially awkward or struggling English learners. Others might be detached because of emotional issues like anxiety or depression.

And some students hide in plain sight. They’re often vocal in class in negative ways, saying they don’t care to cover up their secret struggles.

Step 1: Gather information

To get to the root of the problem, start by gathering information about your disengaged students.

  • Look in their cumulative files to find out their English fluency classification. See if they have an IEP (individualized education plan) or a 504 Plan noting modifications or accommodations to make in class.
  • Consult with colleagues to see what has worked for them with those students.
  • Ask the school counselor for helpful background information (without breaking confidentiality).

Step 2: Ask questions to dig deeper

Your research may show your reclusive students have certain similarities, but they can still have widely divergent motivations for wanting to slip through each day unnoticed. Now we have to get curious and ask a series of probing questions:

  • What are their home lives like?
  • What are their backgrounds?
  • What are their interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes?
  • Are they getting the academic support that they need (Have they been recently tested and given the proper accommodations and/or resources)?
  • Are they getting the social-emotional support that they need from school, home and the community?
  • How can I connect with them on a personal level?

These questions take time to fully answer. Yes, it’s difficult to dig deeper when you have so many other students to get to know. But if we don’t find even the smallest ways to connect with these students, they will achieve their goal of remaining invisible. That puts them at risk of falling through the cracks.

Showing we genuinely care and respect them as people enables us to build trust. Once they feel safe in our classrooms, they’re more inclined to take a risk, to step outside of their comfort zone and try to fully participate.

Step 3: Apply engagement strategies

If you’ve asked the right questions in Step 2, you stand a much better chance of understanding who your “hiding-out” students are and where they are coming from. The answers to your questions should give you a better idea of the right engagement strategy to try out.

4 ways to engage students

  • Try think-pair-share: This classic strategy can help a variety of students. It gives them time to think and discuss in pairs. Once they feel more comfortable about the answers they come up with in think-pair-share, they’re more likely to share on their own with the class.
  • Use technology: If students have laptops or iPads, you can create an online polling game. You can assess them in a low-risk way, since only you know who responded correctly and who didn’t. Message boards and other online tools also can help less-vocal students express themselves without having to speak out in class.
  • Provide choices: Giving students a menu of options for different types of projects can help even the reluctant ones find something that appeals to them. It can also help you incorporate their interests, such as assigning artistic students to create a comic strip instead of writing an alternate ending to a novel.
  • Analyze your structure: Take a step back and look at how you’re structuring each lesson. Look at the ratio of teacher-to-student talk time, consider breaking up lessons with more movement-oriented activities to get students out of their seats, and see if you’re providing enough visuals and hands-on activities to keep different types of learners engaged. You just might find that changing up one or more of your go-to structures encourages students to participate in different ways.

Of course, “hiding-out” students will rebuff some engagement strategies, but they might respond well to others. Keep trying till you find one that works.

Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and an MEd from University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a non-profit organization.

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