How to engage students who see no point in school


Schools might be open again but not everyone is keen to be back at their desk. Some students are reluctant to engage in the classroom and others haven’t turned up at all. Dr. Pooky Knightsmith leads the discussion on how we can help them feel that school really is the place they should be.


  • Students must feel that they are truly welcome and wanted and that at least one trusted adult cares about them.
  • Try to look at the situation from the child’s point of view: What motivates them and can help them want to attend?
  • Find evidence of success and encourage students to celebrate their small steps. 

As we turn our sights to September, a significant concern is how to bring on board students whose experiences during the pandemic have left them feeling somewhat non-plussed by school.  Whilst many children have surprised us by the rapidity of their adjustment to face-to-face school following periods of lockdown, there has been a strong undercurrent of students who either won’t or can’t seem to engage with school right now. 

In this article, I’m going to invite you to see things from the point of view of your students and consider some practical steps that you can take to make sure that school is somewhere that they both want and feel able to be. We’re going to explore four ‘I’ statements – looking at things from the point of view of your students, exploring why each statement matters and some questions you can explore with your staff team.

1 I’m welcome and wanted

How can we ensure our children know that we are genuinely delighted that they are a part of our school community?

A warm welcome when they arrive on site, as well as reaching out and connecting when they are not, can help them realise that someone cares and that we’re glad they’re part of our community.  More broadly, we might also think about whether our school feels welcoming for children like this – can every child see themselves reflected in the languages on the walls, the images of people shared or the work displayed?

An instructive exercise here can be to imagine a student who is struggling with school lying in bed in the morning. The alarm goes off and they awake with thoughts of school.  What form would those thoughts take? What would be this child’s imagined first interactions on arrival?  Would they feel warmly welcomed and wanted and if not,
why not? 

Remember, when looking to engage or re-engage students, it is not just the situation that needs to shift but their perception of the situation too, so we have to fight the battle on two fronts.  We need to make any necessary changes and then we need to communicate and comply with them consistently so that the child feels those changes.  They don’t just need to be welcomed and wanted; they need to feel welcome and wanted too.

Question for discussion: Does every child in your community feel welcome and wanted?

“ Can every child see themselves reflected in the languages on the walls, the images of people shared or the work displayed? ”

2 I’m seen

Every child should be seen and heard by at least one trusted adult in their life.  They need to know that they are noticed, that they matter, that someone cares that they exist. Particularly when children are finding school a challenge, having at least one adult who stops and listens to their struggles and distress whilst remaining physically and emotionally present can make a huge difference. 

Many adults in school play this role without ever realising they’re doing it.  Our impact here comes not from being able to fix things or radically change the circumstances a child finds themselves in, but in enabling them to face their challenges with an ally rather than alone.  This is especially important for children who do not have a consistent adult in their home life; these children may find attending school post-pandemic especially challenging, but with the right support, they may have the most to gain from the school environment. 

Think too about the quiet children who fly by under the radar.  Children who don’t have meaningful connections either at home or at school might not cause a lot of trouble, but unless we take time to notice them and connect with them, they may just quietly stop engaging and slip away.

Question for discussion: Does every child have an adult upon whom they can rely, who cares that they exist and knows a little about what makes them tick?

3 I want…

When children are struggling with school attendance, we often try to fix things in a way that is driven by the agenda of the adults rather than the child.  Drilling down and discovering what might motivate a child to attend will help us gain some purchase and make some progress.  It doesn’t matter whether their motivation makes sense to us; if it works for them, roll with it. You might be thinking GCSE results whilst they’re thinking Lego club; that’s OK. If we have a common goal, our reason for getting there doesn’t have to be in common. 

All the time that a child is being expected to bend to adult motivations, we are unlikely to see meaningful sustainable progress. However, once we’re looking at things from the child’s point of view, things often begin to change.  Don’t judge their motivations; they may not make sense to you – but if seeing a certain friend or doing a particular activity is what helps propel a child over the threshold and into school, lean into that motivation. 

It’s not always easy to key into a child’s motivations, especially if school has become a real challenge for them.  If they find it easier to find negatives than positives, we can explore with them the negatives of the current situation and use this to drive change. For example, perhaps they are bored or lonely and that is what they’d like to change?

Question for discussion: How can we find out what might motivate a child to attend and engage with school?

  “   Our impact here comes not from being able to fix things….or change the circumstances a child finds themselves in, but in enabling them to face their challenges with an ally rather than alone ”

4 I can…

Especially when a child has ended up in a cycle of school-based anxiety and avoidance, it can feel like their life is full of failures and things they cannot do.  Flip this on its head and look for what the child can do, no matter how small.  Celebrate the small successes and watch how the ‘I can’ cycle helps a child slowly, but surely, make progress. 

If a child has not attended school in weeks or months, simply walking past at the weekend might be a good first step.  Once they realise they can do this, perhaps they graduate to standing outside during lessons, and then during breaktime and so on and so forth.  ‘I can’ cycles quickly build and there is always the possibility of reversing a step or two if needs be. 

It can help to keep a physical reminder of the things that a student has succeeded in doing; perhaps slowly fill a jar with ‘I can…’ or ‘I did…’ notes or encourage them to journal or take a photo to mark successes.  These physical reminders can act as a powerful prompt when a child is having a day where things feel impossible.  Reminding them of what they’re capable of can help them to feel that they can repeat and build on their successes. 

Question for discussion: How can we mark small successes whilst remaining curious about challenges?

Also remember to take note of your own successes with a child, no matter how small.  It can feel impossible to us as well as to them; but remember, small changes sustained over time can change lives. 

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About Author

Dr. Pooky Knightsmith

Dr. Pooky Knightsmith has a PhD in child mental health from the Institute of Psychiatry. She is the author of five books and is the current Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition. You can email Pooky on and her Twitter handle is @PookyH. Her YouTube channel is com/pookyh where she uploads new videos twice a week.

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