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3 Simple Yet Effective Steps to Improve Your Students’ Emotional Engagement 

Kavyapriya Sethu

May 5, 2022

Image credit: Storyset

High student engagement is a goal for many schools, and they are actively trying to achieve it. To effectively augment engagement, it is critical to have continuous discussions and evolve our understanding of the concept so we can better help our students. Student engagement was once synonymous with just academic engagement. Lately, schools are also moving towards cultivating high emotional engagement among their students. 

Why emotional engagement at school matters

One is emotionally engaged when one associates positive feelings with a place, action, or person. But why is that important in a school setting? 

There has been much research conducted on this topic. The results suggest a strong correlation between emotional engagement and cognitive and behavioral engagement. Li and Lerner (2013) concluded that students (7-12 grade) whose emotional engagement decreased over time reported higher levels of depressive symptoms and delinquency. 

Wang and Peck (2013) reported that this correlation is less prominent for students with higher levels of emotional engagement but lower levels of behavioral or cognitive engagement. Another study by Pietarinen, Soini, and Pyhältö (2014) hypothesized that perceived emotional engagement constructed in peer groups and teacher-student interactions (together with school-related well-being) contributes to students’ perceived cognitive engagement. Further, it contributes to their school achievement. The result proved to be in line with their hypothesis. Gallup also found that schools with an engagement measurement just 1% higher than the mean have 6% higher reading scores and 8% higher math scores. It supports the idea that students who score higher on emotional engagement are likely to score higher on tests and assessments. 

All the different aspects of engagement are interlinked. Students learn and thrive best when all three areas are met. Emotionally engaged students exhibit higher levels of satisfaction and well-being. This facilitates increased productivity. They are more inclined to contribute to the school’s growth and success. In a nutshell, emotional engagement at school is imperative for both the school and the student. 

Markers of Emotional Engagement

As we speak about trying to emotionally engage your students, you might be asking yourself, 'how do I know if they are engaged or not?' Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (in their book: The Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12) suggest that educators reflect and self-assess these success criteria:

  • I can describe the characteristics of successful teacher-student relationships.
  • I leverage relationships to create environments in which errors are valued.
  • I recognize the signs of a chilly classroom and work to avoid that feeling.
  • I can design systems that increase touchpoints for students virtually.
  • I redouble my efforts to engage hard-to-reach students.

For the statements you have responded negatively, there is room for improvement. How specifically can you improve engagement is talked about in the next section. 

Achieving emotional engagement

“It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about.” — Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist.

We must facilitate an environment where students care about the school and their learning. It is the way to set them up for success and render schooling meaningful. Here are some simple yet effective ways to achieve emotional engagement. 

Cultivate healthy teacher-student bonds

Take the time to get to know your students and be empathetic. Check in on their progress from time to time. Ask questions along the lines of ‘How are you doing? Are you feeling good about where you're going?' 

When students feel confident that their teachers are taking the effort to actually understand their needs and challenges, they will be more open to learning from you, thus accelerating their success in school. With teachers’ guidance, students can also develop a positive sense of self, navigate relationships and feel connected to the school community. Teachers play a significant role in boosting student retention and helping them fully engage with their studies. 

“Students learn more and behave better when they receive high levels of understanding, caring, and genuineness, than when they are given low levels of them. It pays to treat students as sensitive and aware human beings.” (Aspy and Roebuck)

Acknowledge their strengths and what they did well

Children, as they navigate the woes of growing up, often question if they are doing a good job. It is crucial that we make them feel secure and feeling positive about their efforts and progress. 

Encouraging statements that acknowledge students' effort towards a task (like writing an essay) can boost their self-esteem. Here are some examples of affirmations (that even adults would love to hear as they go about their lives). 

  • I love your enthusiasm for this task.
  • I can see that you are working so hard on this.
  • All you can do is try your best.
  • I am so glad you asked for help when you needed it.
  • You can learn from your mistakes.
  • Your perseverance will help you succeed.
  • I am sorry you had a bad day. Tomorrow will be better.
  • You can’t always make everyone happy.

These statements help children believe in themselves and motivate them to try harder. It builds their levels of intrinsic motivation with their learning. 

By acknowledging and celebrating what students are doing well, you are augmenting emotional engagement. 

Give students a voice

For students to develop a sense of belonging within the school community, it is crucial that they feel heard and understood. The first step towards that is to ensure that all the voices are included in important conversations. Look for ways to solicit opinions and recommendations from your students. Then comes the critical part. It is not only about hearing what everybody has to say but also ensuring that action is taken on the same. Where possible, implement new practices based on what you learn. 

Share opportunities where students can express goals for the entire class and their own learning. Facilitate collaboration so students can work together to achieve them. 

Justine Wilson, an instructor at Moreland University, writes, “A student-centered classroom filled with discussion—students in dialogue with each other—creates a positive atmosphere with time for critical thinking, active listening, and the development of curiosity.” 

Teachers need to facilitate such an environment. 

Read more: Strategies to Help Your Students Feel Heard

Efforts to create emotional engagement in your students will not go unrewarded. You’ll find that you spend less time putting out fires as they spark and more time on what really matters—helping your students learn.

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Kavyapriya Sethu

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