How To Reach Students Who’ve Shut Down

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Amid the pandemic, we’re seeing more and more students shutting down.

Refusing to work. Rarely speaking. Staring off in the distance. Often hiding under a hoodie or hair shading their eyes.

They need help.

But the way most teachers (and counselors) engage these struggling students makes reaching them all the more difficult.

And how is that?

By asking questions:

“Are you okay?”

“Is there something bothering you?”

“Why aren’t you doing your work?”

“Do you want to talk to someone?”

“Is everything okay at home?”

Tired of the day-after-day mumbles and lethargy, teachers often end up trying a more forceful approach.

“If you don’t get to work, you’ll have to do it during lunch.”

“You may flunk this class and not graduate.”

“Okay, stand up right now and go sit over there.”

“I’m speaking to you.”

“Nod your head if you understand me.”

“I guess I’m going to have to call home.”

The questions and threats only push students deeper into themselves and all but ensure they’ll never emerge from their shell.

Yet, this is how it usually transpires. The teacher tries. The counselor tries. Admin tries. All using the same failed strategies.

Two months later, nothing has changed. The student still haunts the hallways like a ghost and everyone ignores them, secretly hoping they’ll transfer and become someone else’s problem.

All the while, sadly, tragically, the solution isn’t so hard. And it’s a solution that works, if you’re patient, with every student.

So what is it?

It’s little by little, and starting as small as a fleck of dust, to build a trusting relationship with the student. It can be a brief smile. It can be a low-key hello. It can be a passing fist bump or a subdued “Good to see you.”

But if it comes from a teacher who proves to be genuinely and consistently kind and pleasant, to all students, then one day—and often the very first interaction—you’ll get a wee response. A glimmer. A spark. The slightest acknowledgement.

Which is all you need to open a line of rapport between you.

It grows slowly, mind you, like a cactus in the Mojave. But as they start opening up, making eye contact, smiling more, one day they’ll approach you to say hi.

You in turn must react normally, no big deal, with a hi back.

In time, you’ll have short and then longer interactions. Then talks—about life, struggles, cars, poetry, music, family. But here’s the thing: You must never mention your concerns.

No questions. No threats. No flattery, fakery, or cajolement. No talk of motivation or work habits or even school. There can never be strings attached.

Their mental health is more important at this time than anything else, even their academics. It’s a process that they decide how long it takes.

And be forewarned: They can recognize a phony from a mile away.

Done right, however, it doesn’t take long. Yes, their fears and troubles may still be there. But having one person they trust can be enough to come out of their igloo and have a look around. To begin healing. To gain confidence.

To get back to work.

In the meantime, once trusting rapport is established, and the student becomes more engaged, you can gently and ever-so casually ask those questions to assess needs you might be able to fill or refer to someone who can.

But it starts as a seedling. A small, tenuous morning-light strand of spider webbing making the scantest possible connection, growing thicker only through time and patience.

And your loving kindness.

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