Increasing Student Engagement: The New School Year Begins Before this “Old” Year Ends. How to Prepare and What Needs to be Done

Increasing Student Engagement: The New School Year Begins Before this “Old” Year End

How to Prepare and What Needs to be Done

Dear Colleagues,


   My home is currently in a state of complete disruption, disarray, and destruction!

   Since returning from a two-week consultation trip, workmen have taken over the premises to renovate three central rooms. . . a project that has been in the works for well over eight months.

   And that is the point. . .

   Anyone who has embarked on a major renovation project in their home knows that, if everything is not well-coordinated. . . the permits and permissions, demolition and dumping, materials and machinery, contractors and crews, skills and skill-synchronization . . . what should have been finished in less than two weeks ends up taking more than two months!

   And so. . . planning and preparation is essential.

   And yet, how many schools plan and prepare. . . at the end of each school year for the beginning of the next year.

   I continue to restate and reinforce one of my many maxims:

   “The beginning of the new school year starts in April and May.”

Student Engagement and Disengagement: What are We Talking About?

   While I could reiterate all of the statistics and statements from experts around the country regarding the extreme number of students who are disengaged from their studies, classes, and schools, let’s focus instead on helping schools and districts to solve their specific, “local” problem. In other words, let’s stop “admiring” problem, and get on with solving it.

   Indeed, let’s be honest.

   It is not wise for districts and schools to assume that the student disengagement described in a national or state report accurately reflects their student disengagement problem. That’s like driving to an unknown destination without directions or a GPS.

   Instead, districts and schools need to evaluate their students, interacting (or not interacting) with their administrators, teachers, and support staff, in their schools.

   And the first step in this process is to define exactly what. . . for each school in a district. . . “disengagement” looks like.

   That is:

What are the highest frequency student behaviors that represent “disengagement”. . . that exist in your school, and that you want to change?

   Without this behavioral specificity, school administrators and staff members are figuratively “wandering in the desert.” They do not know what behavioral outcomes they are targeting, they cannot accurately determine why the problems are occurring, and they will be unlikely to successfully change or increase and then sustain student engagement.

   Said a different way. . . with the specific, observable, and measurable descriptions of the disengaged student behaviors that a school wants to change, its staff cannot accurately evaluate. . . after interventions have been implemented with fidelity. . . whether or not they have changed the behaviors and solved the problem.

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   Critically. . . note that the paragraph above pluralized “disengaged behaviors.”

   That is because most schools have students with different disengaged behaviors that need to be changed. Student disengagement is not a “one size fits all” problem.

   For example, Student Disengagement could be specified and quantified as:

  • Chronic or periodic absenteeism;
  • Non-completion of homework or class work;
  • Not participating in classroom discussions or project-based/cooperative learning groups;
  • Refusing to follow directions or cooperate with teachers;
  • Over-socializing with peers during classroom instruction, and/or Under-socializing with peers when those interactions are expected and appropriate; or
  • Just intentionally wandering around the classroom, leaving the classroom without permission, or not showing up to class at all.

   Critically. . . some of these behaviors represent not just problems or gaps, but symptoms that are occurring due to other underlying or hidden circumstances. . . that need to be addressed to change the original, symptomatic behaviors.

   And that’s why, in a multi-tiered context. . . groups of students and, sometimes, individual students need to be assessed to determine the root causes of their disengagement.

Determining—Now—the Root Causes of Student Engagement and Disengagement

   Returning to one of the “themes” of this Blog, we want to emphasize that districts and schools right now should be evaluating a number of student disengagement areas. These evaluations should occur before the end of this school year so that the information can be used during the summer planning days to organize the activities that will “kick-off” the new school year.

   These evaluations should be guided, as noted immediately above, by how each district and school has defined its specific, local student disengagement behaviors.

   For each district (and schools), these evaluations should, at least, address:

  • The current status of student disengagement (and engagement) based on the specific, local behaviors of concern;
  • What individual (and groups of) student(s) are involved—by name and demographic background;
  • What multi-tiered services, supports, and/or interventions were implemented during the 2023-2024 school year to address which specific disengagement root causes, and which interventions were successful, near-successful, or unsuccessful; and
  • Which disengaged students have the greatest current need for intervention, and which students have the highest probability of success—with the “right” intervention.

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   To assist in this evaluation process, a modified root cause analysis template is suggested. . . organized in the acronym “RIOTS.”

  • Review existing Data/Complete a Relationship Map;
  • Interview Students in Strategically-Selected Focus Groups;
  • Observe Student-Staff and Student-Student Interactions
  • Talk with Selected (or Entire Classrooms) of Students
  • Survey Students and Staff

We will briefly describe these data collection and analysis approaches in two clusters.

   Review/Relationship Maps and Observing Students’ Interactions. We have long known that, when students have at least one caring adult in their school, they feel a greater sense of belonging and acceptance, show better academic and social-emotional outcomes, and demonstrate lower rates of bullying and other antisocial interactions.

   Given this, we recommend that every school create a Relationship Map for all of the students in a school—identifying the “caring” adults that they are connected to (or not connected to) before the end of this school.

   To complete a Relationship Map, school staff (teachers, administrators, related services and support staff) need a list of all of the students in the school that they interact with. They use this list to identify those students with whom they have a positive and trusting relationship (3 points), a reasonably positive relationship (2 points), a peripheral relationship (1 point), or no relationship at all (0 points).

   This can be done in a whole-staff meeting, a grade-level meeting, or electronically by entering the information above, for example, on a Google-Doc on a shared drive. Critically, given the rich discussions that typically occur, we strongly recommend some type of face-to-face meeting.

   This is especially true as schools want to do more than generate a list of students who, based on their definitions, are disengaged. . . they also want to identify the broader, contextual information that includes (a) where, when, and with whom, and (b) how often and how intensively specific students are disengaged.

   Moreover, it is important to identify the times and conditions when apparently disengaged students are appropriately engaged. This information provides a broader context and may identify possible student-specific solutions.

   Clearly, most disengaged students will be identified based on the observations of one or more staff people. And while there is not enough time to do extensive observations right now—at the end of the school year—some observations could still occur if schools are going to complete Relationship Maps in two to three weeks or at the very end of the school year.

   If this is the case, staff could be told (a) that a Relationship Mapping meeting will occurring soon, (b) what student disengagement behaviors to look for—in their classrooms and across the common areas of the school—during the next week or so, and (c) that they should create a list of students who appear to be disengaged.

   During the Relationship Mapping meeting, staff can also use the student list to identify the two or three peers (if they exist) with whom each student has their most positive relationships. This information can be used to create a Sociogram of the peer support networks in the school.

   Based on these two activities (i.e., the Relationship Map and the Sociogram), a school can identify their “engaged or connected” versus their “disengaged or unconnected/disconnected” students. During this process, some of the reasons for specific student’s disengagement may emerge.

   Interviewing, Talking with, or Surveying Students. These three root cause analysis activities all involve getting information, actively or more passively (as with a Survey), from engaged and disengaged students.

   Clearly, interviewing students in a strategically pre-selected focus group differs somewhat from an open discussion with students in an already-existing classroom setting. . . which differs from asking students to complete a survey on an individual basis.

   The “common theme” across these three approaches, however, are the questions that schools ask so that the underlying contexts and reasons for students’ disengagement can be discerned.

   Significantly, some schools begin with a student survey, and then conduct classroom and/or focus group discussions to “drill-down” the survey results. Thus, more specific clarifying questions are asked so that a “granular or molecular” understanding of why different students’ disengagement is present can eventually be determined.

   In order to help schools generate the survey, interview, or discussion questions, we have modified and reorganized the questions from the U.S. Department of Education’s ED School Climate Survey (EDSCLS) for students.

   The EDSCLS is a suite of survey instruments that collect and report multi-factored school climate data from students, teachers, non-instructional school staff, and principals. The surveys all focus on three content domains: Engagement, Safety, and Environment.

   Below are the questions from the Student survey that, once again, can be used or modified in whole or in part for a school’s survey, interview, or discussion activities. Once the root causes for selected students’ disengagement from school, studies, staff, or peers are determined, strategic services, supports, and interventions can be linked to the results.

ED School Climate Survey--Student Survey Questions

Safety—Physical Safety

  • I feel safe going to and from this school.
  • I feel safe at this school.
  • I sometimes stay home because I don't feel safe at this school.

Safety—Emotional Safety

  • I feel socially accepted.
  • I feel like I am part of this school.
  • I am happy to be at this school.

Environment—Mental Health

  • My teachers really care about me.

Safety--Emotional Safety

  • At this school, students work on listening to others to understand what they are trying to say.
  • At this school, students talk about the importance of understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others.
  • Students at this school get along well with each other.
  • I feel like I belong.


  • I have lots of chances to be part of class discussions or activities.
  • There are lots of chances for students at this school to get involved in sports, clubs, and other school activities outside of class.
  • At this school, students have lots of chances to help decide things like class activities and rules.
  • I regularly participate in extra-curricular activities offered through this school, such as, school clubs or organizations, musical groups, sports teams, student government, or any other extra-curricular activities.
  • I regularly attend school-sponsored events, such as school dances, sporting events, student performances, or other school activities.


  • If I am absent, there is a teacher or some other adult at school that will notice my absence.
  • Students like one another.
  • Students respect one another.
  • My teachers make me feel good about myself.
  • It is easy to talk with teachers at this school.
  • Teachers are available when I need to talk with them.
  • Teachers understand my problems.

Engagement—Cultural and Linguistic Competence

  • People of different cultural backgrounds, races, or ethnicities get along well at this school.
  • Adults working at this school treat all students respectfully.
  • This school provides instructional materials (e.g., textbooks, handouts) that reflect my cultural background, ethnicity, and identity.
  • Boys and girls are treated equally well.
  • All students are treated the same, regardless of whether their parents are rich or poor.

Environment—Instructional Environment

  • My teachers expect me to do my best all the time.
  • The things I'm learning in school are important to me.
  • My teachers often connect what I am learning to life outside the classroom.
  • My teachers give me individual attention when I need it.
  • My teachers praise me when I work hard in school.


  • Discipline is fair.
  • School rules are applied equally to all students.
  • Adults working at this school help students develop strategies to understand and control their feelings and actions.
  • Adults working at this school reward students for positive behavior.
  • My teachers make it clear to me when I have misbehaved in class.

Environment—Physical Environment

  • Broken things at this school get fixed quickly.
  • I think that students are proud of how this school looks on the outside.
  • The school grounds are kept clean.
  • The temperature in this school is comfortable all year round.
  • The bathrooms in this school are clean.

Environment—Mental Health

  • Students at this school try to work out their disagreements with other students by talking to them.
  • Students at this school stop and think before doing anything when they get angry.
  • I can talk to a teacher or other adult at this school about something that is bothering me
  • I can talk to my teachers about problems I am having in class.


  • At this school, there is a teacher or some other adult who students can go to if they need help because of sexual assault or dating violence.


  • Students often spread mean rumors or lies about others at this school on the internet (i.e., Facebook, email, and instant message).
  • Students at this school try to stop bullying.
  • Students at this school are often bullied.
  • Students at this school are teased or picked on about their real or perceived sexual orientation.
  • Students at this school are teased or picked on about their physical or mental disability.
  • Students at this school are teased or picked on about their cultural background or religion.
  • Students at this school are teased or picked on about their race or ethnicity.

Safety—Emergency Readiness and Management

  • If students hear about a threat to school or student safety, they would report it to someone in authority.
  • Students know what to do if there is an emergency, natural disaster (tornado, flood) or a dangerous situation (e.g., violent person on campus) during the school day.

Safety—Physical Safety

  • Students at this school fight a lot.
  • Students at this school damage or destroy other students' property.
  • Students at this school steal money, electronics, or other valuable things while at school.
  • Students at this school threaten to hurt other students.
  • Students at this school carry guns or knives to school.

Safety—Substance Abuse

  • Students at this school think it is okay to try drugs.
  • Students at this school think it is okay to get drunk.
  • Students at this school think it is okay to smoke one or more packs of cigarettes a day.
  • It is easy for students to use/try alcohol or drugs at school or school-sponsored events without getting caught.
  • Students use/try alcohol or drugs while at school or school-sponsored events.

Planning—Now—to Change Student Disengagement on Day One of the New School Year

   Once the Relationship Mapping, Sociograms, and the other problem identification and root cause analyses are finished, schools can plan and integrate the specific, needed engagement interventions—once again, before the end of the current school year—into the activities that typically occur at the beginning of the new school year.

   Usually organized by the School Leadership Team, along with the School Discipline/Climate Committee, we recommend that the first three to five days of every new school year be focused less on academics and more on:

  • Introducing students to other students, teachers, support staff, and administrators
  • Getting everyone excited about being together and the new school year
  • Building relationships, positive school and classroom climates, collaborative formal and informal teams, and prosocial grade-level teams, classrooms, grade-levels, and cross-grade levels
  • Identifying and beginning to teach the behavioral expectations in the classrooms and the common areas of the school (e.g., hallway, bathroom, cafeteria, playground/common areas, buses)
  • Identifying and beginning to teach the grade-level social, emotional, and behavioral skills in the school’s social skills curriculum
  • Identifying classroom and school incentives and consequences to motivate students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management
  • Introducing the school’s health and mental health and emotional support staff, and discussing relevant topics
  • Addressing the impact of social media, teasing and bullying, ChatGPT and plagiarism, dress code expectations
  • Discussing and practicing crisis management situations (e.g., fire drills, bus evacuations, lock-downs, etc.)

   As is evident, many of the topics above correlate both to the EDSCLS Survey questions and the typical reasons why students are disengaged from school.

   And yet, while some disengaged students may have their needs met through the whole-class or group discussions referenced above, many more disengaged students will probably require—in addition—smaller group or individual interactions with teachers, support staff, and/or administrators—especially given the more unique reasons and circumstances for their disengagement.

   Critically, while we have specifically targeted the beginning of the school year as an intervention “start date” . . . if the student disengagement identification, analysis, and planning recommendations in this Blog are truly followed, some of these strategic activities—for individual or groups of disengaged students—might actually start during the summer.

   These activities could include home or virtual “re-connection” visits, parent and/or student conferences with mental health support staff, restorative conversations with administrators at school, or even some social and relationship-building activities like barbecue luncheons or open houses at the school for disengaged students and their parents.

   The point in all of this is that schools—before this school year ends—need to:

  • Know what students are disengaged, to what degree, and why;
  • How they are going to strategically re-engage these students during the summer and/or the first days (weeks) of the new school year;
  • Who is going to implement the interventions, who else needs to understand and support these interventions, and what does everyone need to know and be prepared to do; and
  • How and who is going to evaluate the success of the interventions, whether they need to be modified or adapted, and when they need to be faded out because they are no longer needed.

   An additional point is that schools often need to involve everyone in the re-engagement process. . . not just administrators, teachers, and professional support staff... but bus drivers, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, extracurricular coaches and after-school club and activity leaders, and students.

   Relative to the latter group, the “power of the peers” should not be missed.

   That is, many successful school re-engagement initiatives use formal and informal student leaders, mentors, peer coaches, athletes, previously disengaged students, and others to connect with and support specific now-disengaged students. This, once again, could occur during the summer. . . or it could begin at the start of the new school year as a way to communicate with disengaged students that “you matter.”


   Disengaged students do not magically “get better” during the summer. In fact, if anything, there is a higher potential. . . during a summer away. . . that their disengagement strengthens.

   This Blog has applied the maxim. . .

   “The beginning of the new school year starts in April and May”

. . . and applied it to the need to identify, analyze, and plan interventions for disengaged students before the end of the current school year so that the interventions can occur either during the summer or immediately at the beginning of the new school year.

   We have emphasized that districts and schools need to recognize the importance of:

  • Defining and identifying disengagement relative to their own students;
  • Analyzing the root causes of individual and groups of disengaged students by using approaches embedded in the acronym “RIOTS”—

Review existing Data/Complete a Relationship Map;

Interview Students in Strategically-Selected Focus Groups;

Observe Student-Staff and Student-Student Interactions

Talk with Selected (or Entire Classrooms) of Students

Survey Students and Staff;

  • Interviewing or surveying students using some of the items in the U.S. Department of Education’s ED School Climate Survey (EDSCLS) for students;
  • Connecting the results of the root cause analysis with specific interventions that are integrated into the back-to-school activities that typically occur during the first days (weeks) of the new school year; and
  • Involving everyone.

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An “Education Talk Radio” Interview on Re-Engaging Students

   As a final summary, we would like to share a 30-minute interview on this topic that Howie Knoff did this week (May 21, 2024) with Host Larry Jacobs on Education Talk Radio.

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   We hope that this Blog has been both relevant and helpful to you.

   While I understand (and experience) the “ups and downs” of the typical school year, I also know that just as teachers need to teach “bell to bell,” educators need to maintain our focus and productivity from “Day 1 of the school year to Day 180. . . 185. . . or whatever.”

   I also believe that educational and strategic planning occurs within an ongoing cycle, and that we truly do need to plan now for the new school year that is coming.

   In this context, I am always available to you and your team to discuss any of the topics in today’s Blog. . . or in any previous Blog. Our first conversation is free, and many districts and schools take the recommendations from this “first” conversation and move “to the next level of excellence” on their own.

   I hope to hear from you. . . or see you at the Model Schools Conference, June 23-26, 2024 in Orlando, FL where I will be making two presentations: “Building Strong Schools to Strengthen Student Outcomes: The Seven Sure Solutions,” and “Successful Federal Grant Writing 101: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing U.S. Department of Education Grants that Get Funded.”