Bring students back into the fold with approaches that help spark class participation.

Photo of two students and a teacher working in a classroom

The pandemic has come with countless challenges for school communities. Disruptions like school openings and closures, shifts between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning, new policies and procedures, and the loss of shared traditions have made things difficult for everyone. There's little doubt that these starts, stops, and shifts have taken a toll on students' motivation and engagement in school.       

As we regain some sense of normalcy, many teachers report that students are struggling to get engaged in learning. From screen-time habits to social and emotional issues, many students are struggling. And let's be honest: Student engagement is almost always a big challenge -- even under "normal" circumstances!

But teachers should consider both the challenges and opportunities of this situation. On the one hand, the tried-and-true strategies we've always used to engage students might not work as they did in the past, and may need a refresh. But on the other hand, we've probably learned some new strategies for engaging students during the pandemic that we can adapt to in-person learning. Read on for tips, strategies, and reminders to help bring kids back into the fold.

Tips to help students get engaged with learning:

1. Acknowledge students' social and emotional well-being


Regular check-ins with students are essential -- especially as pandemic-related stressors continue in one way or another. With so much change happening, students will need some extra time to reflect and process their emotions and state of mind. Fortunately, when it comes to addressing students' social and emotional well-being, a lot of resources and strategies are available. Here are a few to check out:

  • Address the impacts of digital life. Even while returning to in-person learning, we're all more connected to the digital world than ever. Common Sense's SEL in Digital Life Resource Center has CASEL-aligned classroom activities, conversation starters for families, and professional development resources to help. 
  • Set up structures for check-ins.  Whether virtually or in person, you can use individual check-ins with students and families. Personalized outreach like this can help students reflect on their emotional ups and downs, and can go a long way toward helping them come to class ready to engage. Just the act of acknowledging that things may be stressful can help kids feel seen and heard, and make your class a bit more approachable.
  • Be mindful of students' needs during times of transition. Common Sense's article 4 SEL Strategies for the Transition Back to In-Person Learning offers helpful advice on addressing students' challenges during moments of change.
  • Weave in SEL throughout the year. SEL shouldn't be a one-and-done type of activity, or something we address at the start of the school year, only to abandon. Common Sense's We All Teach SEL series looks at the ways you can incorporate SEL-friendly digital tools into various subjects, and this article from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine offers three ideas for weaving SEL into your curriculum.

2. Find balance with technology -- inside and outside the classroom

The screen-time struggle is real. Many of us have spent the better part of the pandemic glued to our screens, whether for work, school, socializing, or entertainment. Some students may be struggling to adapt to in-person social environments. And plenty of students and teachers are burned out from so many months of online lessons, videos, and assignments -- it's important to acknowledge this. 

But now that we're back to learning in person, there might be an impulse to overreact and abandon digital media and tools altogether. But simply throwing technology by the wayside probably isn't the answer -- it's all about finding a balance. It's most important to use the tools and routines that best serve students' learning, whether they're digital or not. Additionally, teachers can use this year as an opportunity to help students to consider the impacts of their media choices outside of school. Here are a few tips:

  • Be mindful of media balance (or "screen time") in your classroom. Just like we think about "screen time" outside of school, it’s important to reflect on this aspect of our classrooms. Don’t shy away from opportunities to use pen and paper, as a lot of students may appreciate slowing down a bit. It's fine to use YouTube or show classroom videos, but be strategic about it. If you found tech tools or apps useful during distance learning, great -- don’t necessarily abandon things that are working. Regardless of what you choose, make it transparent to students that you're thinking about this part of their learning experience.
  • Keep doing what's working. Learning Management Systems (LMSs), apps, and other digital tools have been essential for learning during the pandemic, and some are probably worth keeping, even if you're learning in person. This is a great time to reflect on your pedagogical toolbox -- keep using the digital tools that work, but also feel free to reconsider using anything that's redundant or unnecessary.
  • Teach some digital citizenship lessons on media balance. Common Sense Education has media balance and well-being lessons at every grade level. These lessons and discussions can help kids think critically about their media choices and the impacts that media has on all of us. Check out the full list linked above, or consider some of the standout lessons below -- each of which also offers a quick, 15-minute activity if you don't have time for a full lesson:

3. Jump-start class participation


For many teachers, getting students to participate during remote learning was a huge struggle. Now that students are back in person, it's time to reinvigorate the kind of excitement that comes from learning something new. Here are some tips on encouraging participation -- without necessarily putting kids on the spot.

  • Low-stakes strategies: There are plenty of ways to encourage students to chime in during class, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Tried-and-true strategies like index cards or popsicle sticks (aka "equity sticks") can help make class participation equitable, spur new voices, and keep students alert. Alternatively, if you're still using an online platform (like Google Classroom), you could ask students to respond to prompts with emojis, as outlined in this article from Edutopia
  • Student-led discussion: Even with in-person learning, consider how you might still use asynchronous digital conversations as a way to ease students back into regular expectations for participation. If your students aren't feeling ready to share out loud in class, consider holding a discussion online first, to scaffold a more engaged, out-loud version of the discussion later. For more on this, check out the article 5 Online Discussion Tools to Fuel Student Engagement. Remote learning may have made it hard to stray from teacher-led lessons. Students who became used to teacher-centered instruction may have been reluctant to participate. This article from the online discussion tool Parlay offers useful ideas on elevating students' voices so they can take more ownership over their learning.

4. Be mindful about curriculum pacing


There's been plenty of media coverage about students' so-called learning loss during the pandemic, and some of the concern is certainly justified. While you may feel pressure to help students "catch up," speeding through your daily lessons or curriculum probably isn't the best idea -- especially when it comes to supporting student engagement! Consider the following ideas:

  • Resist the temptation to reteach: Even though students need enough exposure and practice to master content, remediation may not be very beneficial for students. Consider focusing your staff collaboration or professional learning community (PLC) meetings on examining what curriculum wasn't covered, then work together to find new opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate understanding.
  • Focus on depth over breadth: Time is a finite resource, and many teachers might feel a pull to "cover" curriculum to ensure that students are exposed to the maximum amount of course content. This is rarely a sound strategy, though. As students, most people remember very little if they don't have adequate time to process, reflect, and apply anything new that they've learned. Don't fall into the trap of trying to cover everything; instead, focus on the larger concepts with more depth, which will help students develop more of an enduring understanding.

What research says about student engagement during the pandemic:

Research from Common Sense in March of 2021 showed that the number of teens reporting symptoms of moderate to severe depression increased by 25% compared with before the pandemic. Interestingly, this research also found that, for many teens, social media played an important role in helping them stay informed and feel connected during pandemic-related lockdowns. This positive outlook on social media may be something for teachers to consider as we're thinking about how to help students engage more with in-person learning.

According to data collected by the EdWeek research center in 2021, both students and teachers reported distressing levels of student morale and motivation compared with before the pandemic -- numbers that undoubtedly had a negative impact on students' engagement. As teachers, we may know our content inside and out, and we might even have access to the latest tech tools to help our students learn. But none of this will really help so much unless our students come to class alert and ready to participate in our lessons. Simply put, when our students are more engaged, they're better equipped to learn and do well in school -- now and in the future.

Images courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Paul Barnwell

A New Hampshire-based handyman, writer, and hobby farmer, Paul Barnwell is a freelance contributor to Common Sense Education. Paul lived and taught high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, for 13 years, where he embraced bluegrass music, barbecue, and horse racing. He's been published in the Atlantic online, Education Week, and Harvard's Ed. magazine, among other outlets. Paul and his wife, Rebecca, now reside in central New Hampshire.