Engaging Apathetic Students

Each time I present at conferences I get new questions on the same topic. The following are some new questions attendees asked:

How can I engage students who are capable but apathetic?

Apathy can have many origins.  What might appear as apathy, might be insecurity and a fear of failure. It might be a feeling of "been there done that, tell me something new." Sleep deprivation could be another. A student might lack an awareness of the importance of learning a subject that is not interesting to them.

Or, the student might have an incorrect definition of bored. When we help a student identify the reason behind the feeling, it often opens doors to engagement. The following is a discussion I had with one of my students regarding his lack of enthusiasm for a language arts activity we were doing. Nick had his head on the desk and wasn't getting started with his brainstorming. When asked what was getting in the way of getting started, he stated, "Writing is boring."

"Oh, I see. Please share with me a subject that is not boring for you."



"I really like it."

"Why do you really like it?"

"Because it is easy." (this is the typical response to this questioning)


"So what I am hearing is you like math because it is easy, could it be the writing process is something boring because it is hard for you?"


"Please share the hard parts of writing? Is it that you don't have any ideas? Is it hard to get them on paper? Is there anything that would make it easier?"

He thought for a few minutes, "I can get ideas, but I don't know how to put them together. Then when I go to write them down, I forget half of them, because it is so hard to write fast enough. My mom said I should be able to write better, because I am so smart, but It's harder when I am tired.”

“How about I show you some ways to organize your ideas and different strategies to make it easier for you. One thing you need to be aware of is you are working with “puppy dog paws.” Like a puppy that is going to grow into a big dog, you, too, will grow into your hands when you reach middle school and the writing will come easier for you. Until then, there are some things you can try to help you get your ideas out of your head and onto the paper. Would you like me to talk to your mom about the sleeping situation?”


What looked like apathy and what was called boredom was a few challenges he needed to work through. He needed strategies for organizing his ideas. He needed opportunities to try different strategies to make the writing easier. He also decided to try recording his ideas into a recorder, so he could then write it down by listening to it. He found standing up and writing helped him. He later admitted that he was afraid of the dark and wanted to sleep in his brother's room. Once his father agreed to that, Nick seemed to find writing much easier. Writing still wasn't his favorite subject, but he now realizes that if something is hard, he just needs to ask for support.

I did have to speak to his parents about the expectations for perfection in all academic areas. Sharing the neuroscience behind stress and its impact on learning, seemed to be enough to have them take the pressure off of Nick.

Relieving him of that pressure, actually helped him shift his attitude when he began feeling what he used to describe as boring, and is now comfortable admitting for support when it is "hard."

“One can take a horse to water, but one can't make them drink. We can offer an education to a student but we can't make them become interested. They have to find something in it for themselves.” Author Unknown

In my next post, I will discuss how we can encourage them to drink.




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