Counselor’s Corner: Engaging the Disengaged Student

It’s crazy to think an elementary or middle school student would already be “checked out” of school, but I have seen this a lot, and this year is no exception.

I saw it for the first time in my first year as a school counselor, when an 8th-grade student told me she was dropping out. I was in shock. She had applied for our district’s career and technical school and did not get in. Her world came crashing down. She was in a panic. She didn’t want to go to the local high school, because she believed her only options there would be to “get pregnant, get locked up, or get shot.”

Teen Students on School Steps Teens on Steps © Signorina | Dreamstime.com

© Signorina | Dreamstime.com

The moment those words tumbled out of her mouth, I vowed to find something that she was interested in and to help her see the value of staying in school. I refused to let her drop out and give up. When I remembered her passion for music, I urged her to reconsider dropping out and consider auditioning for a local performing arts school. She sang all the time and was very good.

She agreed then and there to try out, and we called from my office to schedule an audition for a few weeks later. I anxiously waited to hear the results.

She came to me one morning and handed me a letter: She got in. She was ecstatic, and I was overwhelmed with joy.

She is now a 10th grader at the performing arts school.

Many students don’t realize what school has to offer them. In an effort to help students understand the connection between school and careers, I seek out programming to help them see how their interests can translate into a future occupation.

This is my second year implementing Career Café—I invite individuals from the community to talk to students about their career journey, what education they needed for their job, and how they became interested in their job. I host Career Café for 5th- through 8th-grade students during lunch (hence the “café” part). Students are invited to attend sessions based on their career interests.

This past Friday, representatives from the cosmetology program at the county career and technology high school came. They brought their cosmetology mannequin heads and hands with painted acrylic nails. The students were full of questions. Surprisingly, the student with the most questions was the most “checked out” student in 5th grade. She was sitting inches from the front table, her hand constantly raised to ask questions. I had never seen her this way before. She was engaged and excited.

I must tell you some background on this student. She hates school, avoids going to her class, and leaves the classroom anytime she is frustrated. She does not understand the meaning of school or how she could benefit from it.

The cosmetology students explained that the cosmetology program is one of the most demanding programs at the school. There are only 12 slots in the freshman class each year. It is very competitive. They said students must be at school every day: Attendance is huge for the cosmetology program because class time equates to hours toward applying for a state license. Students’ grades must be good, too, especially in reading and math.

I’m hopeful that this information sank in for this student. I plan to reinforce the message to her on Monday and for the rest of the school year. I hope that she found something she is passionate about that will help her see the reason and meaning for school.

Tips for engaging disengaged students:

  • Help them find their passion: Maybe they love art or fixing their bike. Whatever it is that they enjoy, you can help them see how the skills and abilities they use relate to school and to a future career opportunity.
  • Administer career interest inventories: There are tons of career interest inventories out there. Even a simple Holland Code interest inventory gives students a general idea of how their interests relate to careers.
  • Expose students to higher education and careers beginning in elementary school: It is my philosophy that you are never too young to start learning about careers. Whether it is a lesson, a career day, or a tour of a local college, exposure in elementary school creates passion and excitement about future opportunities.

How do you engage disengaged students? In what ways can providing students information about careers and career development help them find more meaning in school?


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Suggested Resources
The Teenagers’ Guide to School Outside the Box by Rebecca Greene
What Do You Really Want? by Beverly K. Bachel


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About Danielle R. Schultz

School Counselor blogger for Free Spirit Publishing Blog
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