In recent years, student disengagement has been a growing challenge for schools. One factor that has exacerbated this issue is the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a sharp rise in feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression among young people.
Of the educators surveyed during a 2022 webinar by The Student Wellbeing Hub, 83% indicated they have significantly more concerns regarding school attendance than they did before the pandemic.
While the most disruptive aspects of the pandemic are now in the past, the pre-existing factors driving student disengagement are not.
Research suggests that 20% of Australian students are disengaged from school. Of this 20%, 10% have low engagement, 7% have very low engagement, and 3% have serious disengagement along with additional challenges such as mental illness.
Rachael Hedger, a senior lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Flinders University, says developing a sense of belonging is key to addressing student disengagement.
Hedger has conducted several projects focused on enhancing teacher education in South Australia, and prior to emigrating to Australia, taught in several primary schools and nurseries, teaching Preschool and Reception - Year 6.
“A sense of belonging is integral to human existence, and it is only when a child feels a sense of belonging that they will be ready to learn,” Hedger told The Educator.
“As a first step, we need to establish a clear pedagogy around belonging within a school, or early years setting, before we look to curriculum teaching and learning.”
Hedger said practical strategies for developing a sense of belonging might include creating safe and secure learning environments for children.
“School leaders need to consider the aesthetics of their learning spaces and how they meet children’s social and emotional needs,” she said.
“This might involve places where children can play with their peers or withdraw themselves to a quiet space when needed.”
Hedger said acknowledging each child as they enter the space can be such a small gesture but can have a strong impact on a child, especially vulnerable children who may not always have and easy start to their day.
“For these children, clear expectations, and routine at the start of the day can set them up for success.”
Lastly, said Hedger, educators need to ensure that they meet children at their point of learning.
“This will differ from child to child. Teachers need to consider how they deliver an engaging curriculum that motivates children to learn,” she said.
“Research suggests that children learn best through play. This is one of the easiest ways to meet all children’s needs as every child has an entry point to learning when they learn through play.”
Hedger said active, play experiences that are appealing and inviting for children are likely to engage children quickly and for longer periods of time.
“This doesn’t have to be limited to the early years of school, older children still need opportunities to play as much as possible. However, teachers need time to plan for play. They need time to set up welcoming spaces and prepare resources for children to engage in play experiences that meet curriculum outcomes,” she said.
“Offering teachers professional development, time, and support in this space means that we can engage all children in learning and help them to achieve their full potential.”