How to get disengaged students back on track

Dr Michael E. Bernard

Founder, You Can Do It! Education

Emeritus Professor, California State University, Long Beach
Former Professor, Melbourne Graduate School for Education, Melbourne University
Doctorate of Educational Psychology

disengaged students - getting them back on track

In a recent report from the Grattan Institute, 40% of students are disengaged from learning and falling one or two years behind their peers. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of disengagement from school due to health and wellbeing factors and challenges in learning from home.

Students are disengaged when they do not participate in their school life – academic, social and extracurricular activities. Students can feel excluded or not feel they belong in school and do not take responsibility for their learning, demonstrating limited time-on-task behaviour.

An additional concern to schools is the increasing numbers of disengaged students who are not enrolled, have low school attendance, and display behavioural problems leading to suspension.

What to do about disengaged students

To reduce disengagement, we have to do something about students’ social and emotional competence. Here’s what’s happened.

The result of the stresses associated with returning to school, COVID-19, at-home learning and social isolation means many students’ social-emotional developmental capabilities –resilience, confidence, frustration tolerance– have taken a step backwards. – Student capabilities need to be strengthened as quickly as possible through social and emotional learning (SEL). Higher levels of social-emotional competence are associated with greater degrees of school belongingness and engagement.

Social-emotional learning increases the likelihood of students’ sense of belonging and social and academic engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. These we teach in our Program Achieve curricula.

Social-Emotional Learning is essential for school belonginess

Here is what I think

If you want to intervene immediately to prevent/reduce disengagement and increase students’ sense of belonging, one great place to start is from the beginning of Term 1. Ensure that you have in place and timetabled in the curriculum for all students a best-practice, social-emotional learning program (like You Can Do It! Education recognised by Beyond Blue – Be You).

Here's why

For students to feel connected to school and want to be involved, they need to anticipate and experience success (academic, extra-curricular) and positive relationships (peers, teachers). Success and friendships are not automatic. They take time and work and require the ability to persevere and manage learning frustration, work in teams and different social skills. It is clear that for students to be successful and make friends, they need a well-developed array of social-emotional competencies -positive attitudes (e.g., self-acceptance, optimism, growth mindset) and social-emotional skills (e.g., resilience, confidence, persistence, goal setting/time management, teamwork). 

To cope with the stresses of COVID-19, including home-schooling social isolation, students need to continue to have opportunities through social-emotional learning to develop self-awareness/self-management of emotions and behaviour, social awareness (empathy) and social skills (conflict resolution, teamwork).

disengaged students need our help

While not the focus of this blog, school practices and teaching pedagogy can promote student engagement including but not limited to relationship building, finding the right balance between structure and student autonomy, enhancing student participation in decision making and employing technology to enhance instruction (

be authentic - how authenticity primes social-emotional learning

Being Authentic Primes Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning (SEL) can come across as insincere to students if their teachers are not practicing what they are teaching.
Read More →
The difference between Student Wellbeing and Mental Health

Student Wellbeing and Student Mental Health: Opposing Forces

What is the difference between student wellbeing and mental health? Surprisingly, these two dimensions don't necessarily go hand in hand​.
Read More →
Scroll to Top