Helping the Disconnected Student

school, bored, girl

By Cindy Schwartz, Co-founder and executive director of secondary education

Let’s take a look at what educators refer to as the ‘disaffected student’ – the student, regardless of age, who has, in many ways, ‘disconnected’ from their teachers and the administrators in their school. This ’disaffected student’ has essentially checked out. You know this student – they are either quiet, inattentive, lost, frustrated or disruptive…they are the students we know we must find a way to connect with – but the question is how? 

Oftentimes, the ‘disaffected’ student used to be the one who excitedly screamed, ’ooh, ooh, pick me’ while waving their hand hoping their teacher would call on them. But sadly, over time, this student has lost interest in school and has left the room both literally and figuratively. 

And so we ask ourselves, what happened?

Why do some students become disengaged from school? Why do they ‘check out’?

Linda Graham, author of the 2016 book Challenging Dominant Views on Student Behaviour at School, asked 33 boys between the ages of 9 and 16 who were attending special schools for students with disruptive behaviors one question at the beginning of her study on ‘disaffected’ students – She simply asked  ‘Do you like school?”

And that got me to thinking. It’s really that simple. Why don’t many kids like school? 

Research suggests that there are a number of reasons why some students become ‘disaffected’ and uninterested in school. A study by The National Foundation for Educational Research entitled, “Three to Remember: Strategies For Disaffected Pupils” found that there are essentially three reasons why kids ‘disconnect’ or become ‘disaffected’:

  1. Individual Personality Traits or Pathologies – Perhaps the student suffers from a lack of self-esteem, poor social and peer relationships, a lack of academic ability, special needs, or ADD/ADHD
  2. Family Circumstances – Perhaps the student’s family does not value education, or there are domestic problems at home or inconsistent parenting issues. It’s even possible that the students’ parents/family and or/community condone absences from school for cultural reasons. 
  3. School Factors – Many students become ‘disaffected’ due to an irrelevant curriculum, poor relationships with their teachers or peers or a school ethos or environment that is either physically or emotionally threatening. Previous extreme sanctions of the student, what we call exclusionary measures like suspension and expulsion, can also exacerbate ‘disaffection’ and lead to continued disconnected behavior and ultimately non-attendance.

How can teachers tell if a student is a ‘disaffected student’?

adolescent, cool, rest

In a 2018 article printed in the Journal of Educational Psychology by the American Psychological Association, ‘disaffected’ students show behavioral signs that include passivity and withdrawal from participation in learning activities. Emotionally, these students can exhibit boredom, anxiety and frustration in the classroom. The article goes on to point out that these behaviors often lead to poor grades and low academic achievement. Ultimately, ‘disaffected’ students are often the students who drop out of school.

So, if you want to know if your student is a ‘disaffected’ student, look for these two basic signs:

1) Your student is not attending class 20% of the time.

2) Your student is regularly disrupting class.

Ok, I think one or more of my students is disconnecting. What do I do?


 Students who participate in classroom activities will become, over time, less ‘disaffected’, and more engaged. Use group work and collaborative learning to encourage students to work together and solve problems as a team. Three students is better in a group than two-because when there are two, one student might feel intimidated by the other– at least with a third student a competitive situation could be diffused and more collaboration could take place.


Share your own personal stories so that you encourage connection and discourage ‘disconnection’

Monitor attendance

Disaffected students are generally absent from school 20% of the time. Connect with parents to find out why and open up a conversation about the importance of school for their child’s emotional, social and academic health. Deal head on with parents why may be condoning absences from school. 

“Circle” with your students about discipline issues

‘Disaffected students’ can be those who are disruptive in class due to either their boredom, anxiety or frustrations. Have these students and their teachers come together to discuss behavioral issues – let these students explain themselves and be heard. Ask these students to help resolve discipline issues in the classroom. Being invested in how their classroom operates will create connection and lessen ‘disconnection’. Bring a restorative justice program to your school!

Try not using exclusionary practices like sending a student to the Principal’s office for routine discipline issues

‘Circle Up” and deal with it in the classroom. For the ‘disaffected student’ exclusionary practices like suspension and expulsion can lead to more intense feelings of ‘disconnectedness’ John Gomperts, CEO of America’s Promise says that exclusionary strategies only cause kids to feel, ‘silenced, undervalued and misunderstood.’ Certainly, creating those feelings in a student wouldn’t help us lessen their feelings of ‘disconnectedness’ it would only increase them.

Look at your curriculum!

Find ways to introduce more innovative and creative practices into your lessons – help students see the relevance of what you are teaching them! 

Incorporate SEL into your lessons on a daily basis

Here at Attentive Teaching, we believe that during any school day, you can find a creative way to weave in SEL concepts. Incorporate one of these concepts in your lessons over the next ten days – “Compassion, Honesty, Trust, Tolerance, Resilience, Kindness, Empathy.”

Finally, ask your school to consider alternative programs

Alternative schools within the mainstream school could address the needs of students that are chronically ‘disaffected’. Offering ‘schools within schools’ can address the needs of students that don’t fit into the mainstream traditional classroom. 

Let’s do all we can do to help the ‘disaffected’ student feel connected to school again.

Let’s help all of our students to feel engaged, heard and interested in the world around them.

I hope that today’s post has provided you with some doable tips on how to address the needs of the ‘disaffected’ student in your classroom. Let me know if any of these tips work for you or if you have any suggestions on what you have done to help ‘disaffected’ students become more connected in your classroom.

This blog post has been adapted from this week’s Attentive Teaching podcast, available on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and other major podcast platforms.

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