When we think about disengaged students, our minds usually run to the class clown or the violent bully. We imagine back stories that are full of abuse and neglect. However, research shows that the reality is quite different. At any one time, 20% of students are quietly disengaged. That means, they are there in body but not in spirit. 20% is an enormous number and you would expect that a finding like this should be rocking the world of education…but it’s not. It seems that as long as a child is quiet, then engagement isn’t perceived as much of a problem.

Tim McDonald is the CEO of Catholic Education Western Australia. He is also one of the researchers responsible for the study that shows our contemporary system to be so inadequate in dealing with the elephant in the room, the compliantly disengaged.

What do these disengaged students look like?

McDonald’s ‘compliant disengaged’ show four major behaviours:

  1. Uninterested in the school work
  2. Unprepared for lessons
  3. Quick to give up on tasks they find boring
  4. Inattentiveness

He believes we need to adopt a different way of viewing classroom behaviour. Whereas traditionally we worked from a perspective of ‘disruptive vs well behaved’ students, we now need to look at ‘productive vs unproductive behaviours’.

We all understand that if your child is not engaged in a lesson, then they are not learning. However, what was astounding about this study is that it found that the rate at which academic success is affected by quiet, disengaged behaviours is similar to rates in those students who are disruptive and often removed from the classroom. They are learning the same amount…not much. In fact, they are performing at about a year and a half behind their peers.

When we think about disengaged students our mind usually runs to the class clown. However, 20% of our students aren't like that at all. They are quietly disengaged and learning very little.

(Source: Angus, M. McDonald et al. 2009)

Other significant findings of the study were that boys are three times as likely to be quietly disengaged than girls. Why? With research pointing to the fact that there is no gender difference in the ability to learn information, it then becomes about how we teach, expected behaviours and cultural conditioning.

Another surprising result was that there is no change in the ratios of engaged behaviour over the course of time spent at school. In other words, the same percentage of students are disengaged at Year 2 as are at Year 11. That explodes a lot of myths about the performance of educators at different points in the school journey. Early Childhood centres and Senior Schools are producing the same outcomes.

What can we do about quietly disengaged students?

The good news is that the compliant disengaged are what are called ‘easy riders’. They can be worked with and their learning outcomes improved relatively easily. World-renowned education researcher Dr John Hattie looked at the study and said, “These ambivalent students should be the focus of teachers’ attention – and are perhaps the easiest to win back”. In other words, target the 20%. It’s a no brainer.

What do we target them with? Hattie’s research says that the greatest tools we can use in improving student academic performance are clear expectations and effective feedback. In other words, good teaching. McDonald says we need to have honest teaching. Principals and Heads of Departments need to talk to teachers about who is engaged and who isn’t and then why do we think that is? The answers might be about relationships in the room, home environment, attitudes to success and failure, beliefs about learning…anything. But we need to identify that problem.

Teachers, in turn, need to have honest conversations with children. McDonald proposes asking students, “How can I make this the best class on your timetable?” Kids will naturally come back with ‘No homework’, ‘No tests’, etc. And frankly, who blames them. But when it’s explained that the basic parameters have to remain, then we can have serious conversations about activities, time usage and forms of instruction. Something as basic as “Please don’t give us tests in the afternoons”, or “Please let us choose where we sit” can make all the difference.

This all sounds like common sense, because it is. The difference is in the language and the focus on disengagement. With this shift should follow great outcomes for lots of our kids.

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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.



Tim McDonald has a colourful background in education. After years teaching in Australia he spent 4 ½ years in England at a Pupil Referral Unit for students who had been excluded from school. This followed years working in drug counselling, Aboriginal youth centres, police stations, and prisons. He then went on to be Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University. His area of passion is classroom management and in particular, the ‘compliant disengaged’.

Angus, M. McDonald, T. Ormond,C. Rybarcyk, R. Taylor, A. Winterton, A. (2009) Trajectories of Classroom Behaviour and Academic Progress: A study of student engagement with learning. Edith Cowan University: Perth