Engaging with the Disengaged: Tips for Building Relationships with At-Risk Secondary Students - By Neil Workman

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is to develop relationships with students who rarely attend school or those who struggle to engage in their learning.

Here are 12 tips for engaging with “at-risk” students:

1.     Keep a light on and the door open

A very experienced Indigenous community counsellor used this phrase with me when describing the importance of letting students know that they are always welcome, even if they have completely disengaged. When students are ready to engage in their learning, they need to know that they will be welcomed back. For a classroom teacher, this simply means being open to the idea of “continuous intake.” When students attend, welcome them into the classroom, even if it is towards the end of a semester.

2.     Take your time and be genuine

Small, positive interactions are all that are necessary to start building relationships with disengaged students. Let things unfold over time and continue to check in using a gentle, calm and slow approach.  Be mindful that students are experts in reading body language, tone and can easily identify a disingenuous interaction.

3.     Less is more

When struggling students have missed a lot of school and then suddenly appear in class, it is very tempting to work on getting them back on track very quickly. We want to catch them up on missed assignments, learn where they have been and make great progress in a short amount of time. Despite having good intentions, this strategy does not always prove to be effective and could actually further distance the student. It is very possible to overdo it, go too fast, make too big of a fuss and ultimately overwhelm or even embarrass students without even realizing it. This is a very delicate balance – we want to acknowledge their presence and offer support but without overwhelming them, especially when they first return from a lengthy absence.

Instead, try a non-verbal acknowledgement of their presence like a subtle nod, a smile and then a quiet compliment about their arrival at school.  Eventually you could seek out an appropriate moment to have a very brief, private conversation about the fact that you look forward to helping them. Avoid the temptation to ask them about where they have been or what has prevented them from regularly attending school. Let this occur naturally as they re-engage. There needs to be some kind of existing, trusting relationship in order to discuss these potentially sensitive topics.

Go slow. No sudden movements!

4.     Provide Hope

When students have missed a lot of school and then begin to re-engage, it is very possible for them to feel completely overwhelmed, stressed and discouraged. Explain that you will continue to provide them with opportunities to demonstrate their learning and that some of the missed assignments can be completed and some may be forgotten.  Perhaps it’s possible to use alternate ways to assess their learning in the future or consider a complete fresh start. Avoid giving the impression that it will be impossible for them to catch up – no mark slips with a string of zeroes upon their return!

5.     One step at a time

Avoid handing students big packages of make-up assignments upon their return from a lengthy absence. Have one assignment available that is easily accessible for any ability level and will require very little instruction. Encourage students to fully complete the assignment when they arrive, hand it in and then provide positive feedback immediately. Continue to use this strategy for as long as it takes in order to establish some momentum and a routine for students.

6.     Approach with caution and concern

When working with students who very rarely attend, it might be helpful to assume that something important, very difficult or traumatic has recently occurred and this has contributed to them missing school. Avoid making assumptions about their personal circumstances as there is typically more to the story.

7.     Stick to the script

Be mindful of class discussions, literature and topics that could potentially trigger emotional distress for students, especially for those who you don’t know as well and have been disengaged from school.

8.     You will not “win”

Students who exhibit very challenging and unpredictable behaviours can make building trusting relationships extremely difficult. Try to avoid win-lose situations if possible. These are moments where the teacher imposes authority and exerts control over the situation. Instead, carefully consider what the misbehaviour is trying to tell you and what the student needs. Remain calm, insist on safety and give yourself permission to take time to process the situation in order to develop a plan.

Never try to “win” with an at-risk student as this implies that they lose. These students have already felt like they are losing at the game of being a student and this will simply contribute to yet another negative school experience. If you look at these tense moments as learning opportunities then it is possible for the relationship to be strengthened.

9.     The power of eating together

If you want to speed up the process of building solid relationships then eat together at school with students. There is something amazing that happens – instant feelings of family and community. The simple act of sitting down and eating together provides an informal moment to get to know each other.

10.  Use humour with caution

There is no doubt that using humour is another powerful tool when developing a meaningful relationship but tread lightly with disengaged students. If something gets misinterpreted or a student somehow feels embarrassed then this can very quickly deteriorate the relationship. You need to wait until there is an established relationship in order to use this strategy and remember to avoid sarcasm all together.

11.  Set boundaries

Teaching at-risk students can be very challenging, frustrating and exhausting. Consider making your own list of strategies that will ensure your well-being remains intact. Here are a few examples:

  • Clearly outline when you will be available outside of class time to meet with students – it can’t be every minute of the day!

  • Concentrate on teaching students strategies to be problem solvers – they can’t always immediately turn to you for help and expect that you can give them your undivided attention.

  • Schedule breaks for yourself throughout the day – try to get outside.

  • Give yourself time to make decisions or to solve problems. Use statements like “I need time to process this information and will get back to you soon,” or “I am not able to talk right now but I would like to schedule a good time to meet and discuss.”

12.  Celebrate even the smallest of moments

Relationships take time to develop, can be frustrating, exhausting, rewarding and they certainly do not always progress in a linear way. It is extremely important to take a moment to recognize even the smallest but great moments and to congratulate yourself on a job well done. Success looks different for each student so watch for something amazing to happen, however small it may seem. 

The difficulty is that there is no specific recipe to follow when working with disengaged students. They lead complicated lives and bring very challenging and unpredictable behaviours into classrooms. It can be very exhausting but rewarding work. Hopefully these tips will help establish a framework to follow as you navigate through relationship building with at-risk students. It will require extreme patience and very close attention to your own well-being – take care and good luck!

Take it easy,


David TranterComment