Paying attention. Listening. Following along. This is how many teachers and even students describe student engagement when asked. In reality, it is something far different. Student engagement occurs when young people have invested themselves, their energy and their commitment to the learning environment, both within and outside the classroom. They willingly put forward the required effort to find a level of personal success academically, socially and emotionally. They care about others’ successes as well, including both their peers and the adults around them. They contribute meaningfully to the school and classroom climate. They understand that their presence matters.

In the context of our work on dropout prevention, we have seen the essential role student engagement plays.[1] It seems common sense that the more students are engaged, the more they will see the relevance of their experiences, feel connected to their school experiences and develop more positive attitudes and attributes, both inside and outside of the school walls. In one study, half of students who drop out of school said they did so because they were bored, unmotivated and disengaged. (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morison, 2006)[2]

Applied broadly, many consider student engagement to be a driving factor both in the learning process, but also in holding adults accountable for ensuring success for all students. Student engagement must be part of a comprehensive strategy to have students fully develop their academic, social-emotional, civic and career knowledge and skills. Such an approach requires schools to focus on individual student engagement, group and social collaborations, family and community engagement and the school’s climate to ensure congruence among activities and stakeholders in support of student engagement.

What are we aiming for?

If we are to meet this tall order, it is critical to focus our efforts on common understandings that can shape and enhance effective policies and practices. We examined a multitude of resources on student engagement and identified central themes when students are engaged.

  • Students exhibit sustained commitment to achieving goals for the purpose of personal growth rather than as a measure of student achievement or for another outcome. External reinforcement can be a powerful motivator for some students but true engagement happens when students discover that learning is a personal endeavor. When students cross the threshold of true engagement, they understand that tasks are worthwhile because they help them meet personal goals they have set for themselves, not the teacher’s goals for them (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).[3]
  • Students continue performing a task until they have achieved the desired outcome, not just until the task is completed. When the learning environment shifts its focus to process and personal growth, young people understand that it is the learning and growing that matters. Their personal goals make the shift to what it is they want to know and be able to do.
  • Students demonstrate a willingness to persist even in the face of obstacles. Students who are highly engaged find that difficulties they may encounter along the learning path may present challenges but they do not halt process.
  • Students exhibit positive emotions during the learning process. Because student engagement puts ownership in the hands of young people, a higher level of autonomy, self-reliance and commitment follows. Engaged students display positive emotions, such as taking pride in their work, feeling confident in their abilities and understanding their roles in sustaining interdependent relationships with both their peers and adults.
  • Student engagement happens within the context of a supportive environment. To be truly emotionally, socially and academically engaged, young people need to feel safe, valued and supported by those around them. Fully committing oneself to growing and changing requires risk, which is both inherent in the engagement process and necessary for students to achieve new levels of success.
Moving from participation to engagement

Despite student engagement being part of discussions about school improvement, very few resources are available that provide guidance in developing an integrated approach to student engagement within the school setting and aligning policies and practices across the school and community. In our work, we use a framework developed by Anderson Williams, Understanding the Continuum of Youth Involvement (2008),[4] which focuses on the roles and responsibilities both of adults and students–a defining relationship too often missing in student engagement advocacy. This framework outlines the distinctions between various strategies for involving youth from the practitioner’s perspective, moving from participation to engagement, from externally driven youth activity to internally owned youth action.

When schools involve young people at the participation level, students are clearly part of the fabric of the school. However, their individual involvement has little to no impact on the tightness of the weave, as all control is in the hands of adults. As students become more engaged, the connections become more interdependent. Youth and adults work closely together to create and achieve shared goals. Like a piece of finely woven linen, each fiber touches on another to create a fabric that is difficult to pull apart. Individual snags get addressed immediately because they are seen as important to the collective. Each thread within the school, from policies and procedures to classroom practices, integrate the philosophies and beliefs of effective student engagement. Within this context, the school climate reflects the efforts of each member of the community, young people and adults alike.

Taking action

To achieve engagement, school staff need to structure classrooms and the wider school environment as equitable, student-centered places of learning. Each student should have leadership experiences in formal and informal settings, including such responsibilities as determining how to achieve learning goals, assess personal progress and collaborate with other to measure and create change in the school climate.

Schools can successfully interweave these principles with the following practices:

  • Provide staff development to help teachers learn how to better support the emotional, social and academic needs of each student in culturally responsive ways.
  • Adopt policies that support equity and inclusion throughout the school environment.
  • Develop structures that ensure each student has caring adults that support and nurture their growth and development.
  • Include measures of school engagement in accountability systems.
  • Emphasize student-centered learning and engaging students as partners in the instructional process.
  • Develop caring and trust between teachers and students.
  • Allow students to have an appropriate degree of control over learning.
  • Ensure course materials relate to students’ interests and experiences, highlighting ways learning can be applied in their daily lives.
  • Integrate projects and activities that offer young people opportunities to use knowledge and skills in meaningful, real-life situations.
  • Assign challenging but achievable tasks for each student. Tasks that seem impossible and those that are rote and repetitive discourage learners.
  • Provide opportunities to work collaboratively as a community of learners that share meaningful interactions in a cooperative rather than competitive environment.

It is critical that each student feels respected and valued. This happens when students tap into personal skills and abilities to make meaningful contributions, not only to their own success but also to the success of the entire community. Activating this sense of personal agency in young people is most critical given their stage of social, intellectual and identity development.

Schools will find greater success in their efforts by ensuring that student engagement is interwoven throughout the fabric of the school—by implementing policies which promote shared leadership among staff, students, families and the community; by setting challenging expectations within an environment that supports learning and innovation for each student and staff member; and by maintaining a culture that supports high levels of connectedness and belonging.

Four Elements Critical to Student Engagement

Research shows that schools striving to graduate each student fully prepared are more likely to be successful when four elements are integrated into policies and practices.

  1. Meaningful learning with authentic choice. Research indicates that autonomy is instrumental in ensuring motivation and engagement in learning (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Grolnick, Gurland, Jacob, & Decourcey, 2002).[5] When students participate in a classroom that is interlaced with shared leadership, respectful discourse and real choice in meaningful decision-making, levels of engagement soar. Engaged students more often show behavioral traits such as persistence, effort, sustained attention to tasks and a greater propensity to take on challenges and achieve mastery (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, 2004).[6]
  1. Supportive environment. Being surrounded by a supportive community in the form of nurturing relationships from peers and adults is predictive of motivation and engagement in the learning process (Akey, 2006; Cohen & Ball, 1999).[7] Young people who feel supported by important adults in their lives are more likely to be more engaged as learners (Bundick, Quaglia, Corso, & Haywood, 2014).[8] Students’ beliefs about themselves and their abilities are shaped by the extent to which they perceive that the adults in their lives care about them and are involved in their lives (Blum, McNeely, & Rinehart, 2002).[9]
  2. Suitable pedagogy and expectations for each student. Studies consistently show that holding students accountable to high but achievable standards is critical to success (Baker, Terry, Bridger, & Winsor, 1997; Evans, 1997; Lambert & McCombs, 1998; Lee, Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999).[10] Students are more likely to be engaged when content is relevant and personally meaningful in their lives, when they have the skills to be successful, and when they are surrounded by supportive community of teachers and peers (Akey, 2006; Cohen & Ball, 1999).[11] High expectations coupled with a supportive learning environment and belief in students’ competence are critical to student engagement.
  3. Systemic focus. Student engagement needs to be intricately tied to how the school functions, supported in the context of a positive, safe, caring and equitable school climate. Effective school climates tend to foster stronger connections to school and higher levels of student engagement (Blum, McNelly, & Rinehart, 2002; Goodenow & Grady, 1993; Lee et al., 1999; Osterman, 2000; Wentzel, 1997).[12]


Citations[1] Dary, T., Pickeral, T., Shumer, R., & Williams, A. (2016). Weaving student engagement into the core practices of schools: A National Dropout Prevention Center/Network position paper. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. Retrieved from

[2] Bridgeland, J., DiIulio, J., & Morison, K. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Civic Enterprises, in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

[3] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

[4] Williams, A. (2008). Understanding the continuum of youth involvement. Retrieved from

[5] Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2002). Self-determination research: Reflections and future directions. In E. Deci & R. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination theory research (pp. 431-441). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. Grolnick, W., Gurland, S., Jacob, K., & Decourcey, W. (2002). The development of self-determination in middle childhood and adolescence. In A. Wigfield & J. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 147-171). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

[6] National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school studentsmotivation to learn. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

[7] Akey, T. (2006). School context, student attitudes and behavior, and academic achievement: An exploratory analysis. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from Cohen, D. K., & Ball, D. L. (1999). Instruction, capacity and educational improvement. Philadelphia, PA: Consortium for Policy Research and Education.

[8] Bundick, M., Quaglia, R., Corso, M., & Haywood, D. (2014). Promoting student engagement in the classroom. Teachers College Record.

[9] Blum R., McNeely C., Rinehart, P. (2002). Improving the odds: The untapped power of schools to improve the health of teens. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Adolescent Health and Development, University of Minnesota.

[10] Baker, J., Terry, T., Bridger, R., & Winsor, A. (1997) Schools as caring communities: A relational approach to school reform. School Psychology Review, 26, 586–602. Evans, L. (1997). Understanding teacher morale and job satisfaction. Teaching and Teacher Education, 13, 831–845. Lambert, N., & McCombs, B. (1998). How students learn: Reforming schools through learner-centered education. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Lee, V., Smith, J., Perry, T., & Smylie, M. (1999). Social support, academic press, and student achievement: A view from the middle grades in Chicago. Chicago Annenberg Research Project Report. Consortium on Chicago School Research.

[11] Op. cit.

[12] Blum et al., op. cit.; Goodenow, C., & Grady, K. (1993). The relationship of school belonging and friends’ values to academic motivation among urban adolescent students. Journal of Experimental Education, 62(1), 60–71; Lee et al., op. cit.; Osterman, K. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70, 323–367; Wentzel, K. (1997). Student motivation in middle school: The role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 411–419.

Terry Pickeral
Terry Pickeral is president of Cascade Educational Consultants in Bellingham, WA, where Teri Dary and Anderson Williams are partners. Robert Shumer is a research fellow with Clemson University and the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. They are the authors of Weaving Student Engagement into the Core Practices of Schools: A National Dropout Prevention Center/ Network Position Paper (Copyright 2016) from which this article is adapted. Pickeral provides leadership in: youth engagement, school climate, social inclusion, civic development, education policy, state and district leadership and other practices to sustain quality education reform focused on equitable student and community engagement. He is a National Dropout Prevention Center/Network Research Fellow and a consultant to the National School Climate Center.