The Focused Student: Ideas for boosting student engagement

Up until now, we've been talking in this space about how to use some accountability techniques to help students focus on their schoolwork. But, as I wrote earlier this year, there's more to a focused student than handing in homework on time.

Does anyone remember the days of dictionaries, those big thick books named Barnhart and Thorndike? Well, I was thumbing through them to see how they describe “engagement” other than “about to be married” or “fight a battle.” The definition I thought most appropriate was, “to be an active participant.” And that's what we're going to start talking about today: getting kids actively involved in their learning.

Engaging students requires that teachers and parents find something in a subject, topic or discussion that can relate — or have relevance — to the student's world. Believe me, there are times when this can be a difficult task but the best teachers — and parents — find a way.

I remember a history teacher at La Cañada High School: I stayed glued to her lectures because she would always add some sort of offbeat or odd tale about some historical figure. For example, she explained how Queen Mary became known as Bloody Mary: the executioner was not on his game that day. (Well, it did appeal to the boys and the boys were the most engaged).

Now, all children will not be equally engaged with every subject, but with a little detective work, a conversation with the teacher and some effort on your part you can help to recharge your kid's interest in a subject they may have ignored before.

Playing detective. Of course you know what your kids are interested in — music, video games, clothes — but it's at this time, adolescence, that their interests change quickly and may go unreported to their parents. If you wish to help your children become engaged with their learning, the more you understand what makes them excited, the easier you'll find it is to relate their interests to a school subject or lesson.

The teacher talk. Helping your child become a more focused student takes a team. Talking to your child's teacher about engagement issues, where your kid needs help and bouncing a few ideas back and forth can be the key step in moving a teen toward the love of learning.

A few idea starters:

Remember Bloody Mary! If your student is struggling with a subject filled with personalities, a weird, gross, unusual, or funny anecdote can pique a kid's interest and sometimes be all that's necessary to humanize a distant or intimidating subject.

Say your child is having trouble in math but has a real interest in psychology or art, finding a fact that relates the subjects can work. Like, “Did you know that scientists can track the decline of Van Gogh's mental state using mathematical principles buried in his artwork?”

Change the learning process. Turn homework into a game, encourage study groups. Do whatever can make an assignment seem new in a student's eyes. There are numerous ways to change the process of learning to engage student interest.

Helping your children become focused and successful students is a worthy goal, but remember there will be times when kids will “just have to grind it out.” Students will have to establish a base of knowledge and sometimes building that base won't always be a game.


ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at

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