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For Teachers Updated September 17, 2018

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

By Kara Wyman, MEd February 23, 2017

This post has been updated as of September 2018.

No matter how engaging we think our best lesson plan is, a couple of students won’t participate. Most of the time, it has absolutely nothing to do with the lesson plan—they could be dealing with something at home, have a quieter personality, or are scared of speaking up.

As an educator, you want the absolute best results for each and every student. So how do we draw uninvolved students out of their shells and stop them from “hiding out”? Read on.

Why students ‘hide out’ in class

“Hiding-out students” have one objective: To 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 or a trauma?  Do they struggle with social-emotional issues? 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.

I’ve found that it’s key to approach each of them with curiosity and a desire to connect.

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 who have worked with these students before to see what worked for them.
  • 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 different reasons for wanting to go through each day unnoticed. To help uncover those reasons, you can ask questions like:

  • 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 stay 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 to 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. Here are four strategies you can try 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 until you find one that works, and come up with your own strategies!

Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and a MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder, and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She is now the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland.

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