Brain Based Teaching

How to Boost Engagement and Effort in 3 Simple Steps (Part 3 of 4)

Starting up after the holidays can be a bit of a challenge. But this month’s newsletter has answers for you. This will be the 3rd of a four-part series on the real “how to” for student engagement and effort.

The Research

Before we get to your 3 powerful strategies, I ALWAYS want you to know WHY you are using each one. Every single item has far MORE research than I have provided, but to prevent the “glazed eyes effect” you get just a taste of the evidence.

As you know, there are SO many reasons why students do not “work up to their potential” in class. Here are 3 more strategies for you to consider adding to your exiting repertoire.

  • Appreciative Inquiry (affirming for better questioning)
  • Make it Safe to Fail (so that students will take risks)
  • Teach Self-Regulation (teach students how to run their own brain) 

Getting Started with Actionable Strategies

Most teachers (you are not “most”) are unaware of all the things THEY can do to make the magic happen. Just to move forward today, here is the third set of tools for you. There is a reason that some students might not be working at “full-throttle” in your class. Save this list!

Appreciative Inquiry

This first one simply says, “Reward what you want to see more of!” If you want participation and contributions, reward them with appreciative inquiry.

There are two types of teachers: those that consistently focus on the good and those that focus on the mistakes. Remember to take what students are already doing that you like and appreciate and reinforce it consistently. Then, invite students to apply the same (effort, insights, strategy, attitude, etc.) to deepen the results. Examples include the following:

  • “You started off well. Tell me a bit more.”
  • “That makes good sense. Now, that would be in contrast to what other view?”
  • “I like how you put some of your personal life in the story. Can you add even more detail so I can get a better idea of what you’re trying to say? It will strengthen your message. Thank you!”
  • “Thanks for your answer. You seemed to calculate it quickly. Tell me how you came up with that, please.”

Make it Safe to Fail

When a student makes a mistake, give them a pep talk; “We are in this for the long haul. This was a glitch, keep learning!” When you focus on embedding positives in your comments, students are willing to take more risks. Why? There’s a reward for them every time they raise their hand: approval!

Use “Mistakes OK” language such as the following: “We are all human. We all make mistakes.” “Let’s give this a try. See how close you can get.” “Everyone makes mistakes in my class. All you have to do is to tell how you would do it differently next time.” “Failure is not falling down. Failure is when you don’t get back up again.” Reframe failures: Call them “discoveries, learning, rough drafts, lessons” etc.

Share your own mistakes to role model the power of humility:

“I’m sorry I did not prepare this lesson very well. I will be roaring back tomorrow.” Or, “I ignored a student that I should have smiled at and asked how she was doing.” “Oops. You can see here I made a mistake! Now, what can I learn from it?”

Students learn from their mistakes with the following:

“Find this athlete’s mistakes: Clue is: ‘missed 26 game-winning shots…’” “Make a Failure Resume: Find the Princeton professor’s CV who published all his failures.” Student’s exit pass: “What I got wrong and how I will do it differently next time.”

Teach Self-Regulation (how to run your own brain)

Do your students do any of the following?

  • Show up to class in a bad state for learning?
  • Fail to show kindness, empathy, gratitude or calm?
  • Lose focus by over-reacting to simple gestures or words?
  • Allow other students to trigger poor states within themselves?
  • Are they rarely “ready” to learn?

If so, their brains are not “self-regulating”.

Focus on the things that are disruptive first. That allows your classroom to function more smoothly. First, we begin with the more explosive behavior triggers. Here is your starter list of student skills to teach:

  • What to do when angry
  • How to deal with bullies
  • What to say when an adult is ticked off
    and is critical of you

Next is the set of “soft skills”. It helps daily functioning.

  • How to ask for help (from a teacher, parents and friends)
  • What to do when you are sad, have bad news or have had a loss
  • What to do when you need to get up and move around in class

Then, there are the interpersonal skills with support relationships

  • How do you share an emotional hurt with another
  • The best way to ask for and give an apology
  • Why “Please” and “Thank you” are so important

Many of these issues can be solved with simple programs that foster mindfulness and social-emotional skills. Foster mindfulness with:

  • Physical activity/team sports
  • Meditation practice
  • Learning to play an instrument
  • Detailed hobby (computer coding, drawing, building or fixing broken items)
  • Martial arts or yoga
  • Classroom role-plays & theater

Subscribe to Mindful magazine and discover tools to manage stress, focus, work smarter, and enjoy teaching more. Two of the best social-emotional programs (based on evidence) are the PATHS program and the Caring School Community program.

One last thing; if you mess up and don’t have a great day, DO NOT beat yourself up over it. Do not make up an excuse as to why you are unable to “do” a certain item or process on any given day. Guilt is a terribly unproductive emotion. Forgive yourself and recommit to the next day. Do not expect perfection of yourself; expect constant effort. Every day, do something. Every day, put one foot forward.

Again, I mention a great quote by tennis legend Arthur Ashe. He said, “Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.” You can’t get any more profound (or useful) than that. So… you are about done reading. Go ahead and select the strategy to start NOW!

Congratulations! You’re on the way to a great day!


Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education


Appreciative Inquiry Evidence
Whitney, D. & Trosten‐Bloom, A. (2003) The Power of Appreciative Inquiry. San Francisco: Berrett‐ Koehler.
Ludema, J. D. (2000). From deficit discourse to vocabularies of hope: The power of appreciation. In D. L. Cooperrider, P. F. Sorensen, Jr., D. Whitney, & T. F. Yaeger (eds.) Appreciative inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change (256‐287). Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing.
Ludema, J.D., Cooperrider, D.L. & Barrett, F.J. (2000) Appreciative inquiry: The power of the unconditional positive question. In Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (eds.) Handbook of Action Research (189199). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Make it Safe to Fail Evidence
Chapell, M. S., Blanding, B., Silverstein, M. E., Takahashi, M., Newman, B., Gubi, A., et al. (2005). Test anxiety and academic performance in undergraduate and graduate students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 268-274.
Hong, E., & Karstensson, L. (2002). Antecedents of state test anxiety. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 348-367.
Hyde, J. S., & Durik, A. M. (2005). Gender, competence, and Seipp, B. (1991). Anxiety and academic performance: A meta-analysis of Findings. Anxiety Research, 4, 27-41.
Teaching Self-Regulation Evidence
Bohlmann, Natalie L.; Downer, Jason T. (2016). Self-Regulation and Task Engagement as Predictors of Emergent Language and Literacy Skills. Early Education and Development, 27,18-37.
Zimmerman, B. (2008). Investigating self-regulation and motivation: Historical background, methodological developments, and future prospects. American Educational Research Journal, 45, 166-183.
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