Engaging Teens at School

As high schools work to improve their graduation rate, a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute highlights how teens engage with their schools. The report, What Teens Want from Their Schools, presents the results of a survey of over 2,000 high schools students. The authors of the study have also provided a short video summary of the results of the survey and a five-question quiz to find out how engaged your teen is at school.

The survey results indicated that nearly all students report being motivated to work academically, but found that they engaged with school in different ways. The study identified six subgroups that engaged with their school in specific ways. Those groups are:

  1. Subject Lovers (19%): These students are more likely to be white males and place in the top quarter of their class. They are more likely than their peers to report that academic classes and clubs are their favorite things about school; they are more likely to take AP, Math, science, and technology classes; and they are least likely to say they are bored in class.
  2. Emotionals (18%): These students are equally divided between male and female, but are more likely to be white, urban, and from a high-poverty home. They express a strong need for connection at the school level, and if given a choice, would prefer a smaller school with fewer students who all know each other. Compared to their peers, they report they are less likely to follow the rules at their school or feel safe at school. They also report that they are not doing as well as their peers academically and report being less motivated than them as well. This places them in danger of falling through the cracks if their school doesn’t engage them emotionally.
  3. Hand Raisers (17%): These students are more likely to be female and less likely to come from high-poverty homes. They are engaged, work hard, and participate in class, but report that they don’t spend much time on homework or extracurricular activities. They are the least likely among their peers to say that they pretend to work, zone out, or let their mind wander in class. They are least likely to engage with after school clubs. In focus groups, these students said they were engaged in the classroom, but tended to unplug from school life once the final bell rings. They enjoy active participation in class, but tend not to form deep personal relationships with teachers and staff.
  4. Social Butterflies (16%): These students are more likely to feel that they belong at school and enjoy the social aspects of school (e.g., watching or taking part in sports, catching up with peers). The majority of them say their favorite things at school are “hanging out with friends” or “lunch time.” Among students who reported really connecting with an adult at school, these students were most likely to identify a coach as that adult.
  5. Teacher Responders (15%): Similar to the hand raisers, these students are slightly more likely to be female and not from high-poverty households. They differ from the hand raisers in that they value close relationships with teachers and other adults at school and do best when they feel teachers are invested in them both academically and personally. They are most likely to really connect with an adult at school, and that adult is most likely to be a teacher. They are group most satisfied with their school. The potential concern with these students is that if they don’t connect with a teacher, they can check out in class.
  6. Deep Thinkers (15%): These students are more likely to be female, and half are non-white. They are the most cognitively engaged group of students, but unlike those in other groups, has no other primary engagement method. They listen carefully, like to figure things out on their own, think deeply when taking tests, and complete their assignments. They are the least likely group to give their current school and “A” rating. They also report being dissatisfied with their teachers and the structure of the school day (e.g., starting too early or block scheduling). About one-third report that they have considered dropping out of high school.

The study provides further proof that there is no one way to engage students, and that using any specific approach is likely to disengage other students.