Although Ryan was being considered for gifted and talented services in second grade based on his
performance in reading and math, he greatly disliked in-class reading. He was disengaged in class
because he was forced to read books that he didn’t find interesting, and he felt he already knew what
was being taught. He stopped reading the books his teacher chose for him. He learned quickly that he
could do fine on the computerized reading tests without reading those “boring” books.
Several months after Ryan made this choice, his teacher
attempted to engage him in a conversation on yet another book
he had not read. It surprised her that Ryan could not answer
simple questions about the book, but had earned a high mark
on his reading test. After a little more questioning, she realized
that Ryan had also not read the other books she had chosen for
him earlier in the school year. Ryan’s parents received the phone
call that every parent dreads. The teacher informed them that
Ryan would be placed on a behavior plan for his dishonesty. His
parents accepted this consequence, punished Ryan by taking away
his video games for a month, and did not attempt to uncover why
Ryan chose to behave in such a way.
Like many well-intentioned parents, they did not realize
that uncovering why could prevent similar problem behaviors
from reoccurring in the future and help place Ryan on a path to
engagement in school.
What is Meaningful Engagement?
Research has shown that when children feel engaged with
learning, they are more likely to flourish socially and academically1 and less likely to exhibit problem behaviors.2 Researchers
have distinguished three different types of engagement: behavioral,
emotional, and cognitive.3 Behavioral engagement focuses
on participation in academic, social, and out-of-school activities.
Emotional engagement centers on how connected children feel to
their teachers, peers, and what they are learning in school. Lastly,
cognitive engagement occurs when children are invested in their
learning and put forth effort into understanding challenging
material. (see below).
(Fredricks et al., 2011)
Meaningful engagement encapsulates all three types of
engagement. In other words, children who are meaningfully
engaged willingly participate in learning activities, feel connected
to what they are learning, and embrace the opportunity to be
challenged in school.
Why Are All Children Not Meaningfully Engaged
Unfortunately, it’s not always so simple for teachers to support
meaningful engagement in school. First, teachers may not
recognize whether a particular learning activity is “meaningful”
for a child. Knowing if a child is feeling connected to what he is
learning or craving more challenge in a classroom of 25 or more
students can be diffi cult. This leads to the second issue, time. In
an era of high-stakes testing, it may not always be easy for teachers
to provide children with opportunities to meaningfully engage in
true learning for extended periods of time because schooling takes
precedence. Preparing children for material they will be tested
on may seem like more of a priority than allowing children to
dig deeper into content that interests them. However, there are
ways parents can support teachers in meaningfully engaging their
children at school.
The Path to Meaningful Engagement
Often, parents ask their children about their school day only
to receive answers that are not very telling like “good,” “fine,”
“I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to talk about it now.” Second,
well-intentioned parents often put “Band-Aids”—a temporary
solution— on children’s problem behaviors. A Band-Aid solution
to a problem behavior might consist of rewards for modifying the
behavior (e.g., I earn an inexpensive toy if I turn in my homework
on time for an entire week) or consequences for continuing to
engage in the problem behavior. Typically, problem behaviors will
continue to resurface if the underlying cause of a child’s problem
behavior has not been addressed.
The first step to placing children on the path to meaningful
engagement at school happens at home.
Help Children Identify How They Feel
Helping children identify their feelings is commonly referred
to as emotional literacy. Children may not always understand
how they are feeling or have the words to explain their feelings.4 Developing children’s emotional vocabulary provides them with
appropriate language that is used to articulate both simple and
complex feelings. Children with a strong foundation in emotional
literacy are able to explain why they engaged in a particular
behavior. With that said, it is equally important that children
are also able to identify and explain positive feelings (e.g., pride,
empathy). Ultimately, children need to learn that expressing
feelings with appropriate language is a powerful tool that not only
promotes healthy communication, but also helps them get their
individual needs met.
One way parents can help their child identify how he feels
about schoolwork he is not excited about and why he feels this
way is by using an Emotional Literacy Chart (see page 9). Parents
can model or act out these different feelings, brainstorm
examples of the different feelings, and even find “teachable
moments” throughout the day to explain their own feelings.
Parents can use the Emotional Literacy Chart during homework
time or downtime or whenever the child feels most comfortable
reflecting on his day at school.
Using the chart as a tool, children are encouraged by the adults
in their lives to use and grow their emotional vocabulary. Once
they master a basic emotional vocabulary, their parents can help
add complex feelings and advanced vocabulary. It’s important to
point out that complex feelings are described using more than
one word. For example, “sad” is a basic feeling, while “I don’t
feel confident right now” is a more complex phrase that might be
associated with sadness. Helping children accurately identify and
explain their feelings at home is the first step to meaningfully
engaging children at school.
Communicate with the Child’s Teacher(s)
Effective communication between parents and teachers is
essential. Ongoing verbal and nonverbal communication between
parents and teachers is the cornerstone of a successful partnership.
Communicating only when a problem presents itself is reactive and not proactive. When faced with a problem, blaming others—
or even ourselves—is very unlikely to lead to positive outcomes.
Ongoing communication through occasional phone calls, emails,
or a school-home communication notebook can prevent the
emergence of future concerns.5 These various means of communication
are simple but powerful because they promote the sharing
of ideas and feedback about the child’s level of engagement at
school and home—and keep both parents and teachers informed
about the child’s evolving interests and motivation toward
Parents might start a conversation with their child’s teacher(s)
by sharing the child’s Emotional Literacy Chart. In addition,
parents should encourage their child to share her feelings with
her teacher. The teacher might have a different perspective, so
listening is always important. Keeping copies of the Emotional
Literacy Chart and Feelings Tracker in the child’s folder, on his
desk, or in his school planner will help keep track of communication
over a longer period, The chart may be laminated and
reused each day.
Offering children a simple way to begin a conversation with
their teachers about their engagement lays the foundation for
self-advocacy in the future. Gifted children, especially, need to
learn at a young age how to express when they have learning
needs in a way that is appropriate and comfortable for them.
As children get older, it becomes increasingly more diffi cult for
parents to advocate on their behalf at school. Modeling effective
adult communication between parent and teacher, in addition to
giving children an opportunity to express how they are feeling,
are proactive strategies that support continued meaningful
engagement in school.
Collaborate on a Plan
Once a child’s feelings toward a particular subject are identified,
the next step is to brainstorm practical solutions. Brainstorming
solutions should always be a collaborative effort that includes
parents, teachers, and, of course, the child!
Shared input results in greater investment and buy in on everyone’s
part, especially if all voices are heard and honored during the
process. Conversations between a child, teacher, and parents begin
by using insights gleaned from the Emotional Literacy Chart to
complete a Collaboration Guide. The Collaboration Guide is an
organizational tool used to help facilitate a discussion around an issue and to brainstorm solutions that address the components of
meaningful engagement. The Collaboration Guide is comprised of
sections that align with the components of meaningful engagement:
Simply agreeing to try an idea is often not going to lead to
hoped-for outcomes. The child needs to reflect on why she wants
to try this idea and identify the steps she will take to implement it.
If a child is not invested in trying a particular idea, it is destined to
fail because he/she will most likely not put forth the effort needed
to make it work.
After brainstorming ideas for solutions, the team helps the
child complete the Meaningful Engagement Plan. This tool helps
the child understand why he is intrinsically motivated to try this
idea. Intrinsic motivation or buy in is a critical component.
With the help of his team, the child explains how he will try
this idea and how his team members will support him. Getting as
specific as possible with details is important.
Finally, the last piece is determining what should happen
if everyone does their part. These are the outcomes the child,
teacher, and parents can measure. For example, if a child is
resistant to reading a book, an Emotional Literacy Chart can help
gauge his feelings about the book and a reading assessment will
ensure he read the book and understood it.
Throughout the implementation process, it is important to set
checkpoints to ensure the child is on the path to reaching the goal
he set and to determine if adjustments need to be made. The team
can use a simple Progress Monitoring Chart. Checkpoints might
include mini-goals and deadlines, and could either be done by
parents or teachers—but shared with both.
If adjustments are needed to help the child achieve his goal,
the Meaningful Engagement Plan can be adapted at this point
with everyone’s input. The team can meet again in person, on
the phone, or over email. Typically, if the child does not make
a goal (as recorded on the Progress Monitoring Chart), then the
Emotional Literacy Chart, Collaboration Guide, and Meaningful
Engagement Plan tools may need to be reexamined.
When a child stops engaging in learning, parents and teachers
need to feel empowered to change the path the child is on.
Band-Aid solutions lead to frustration. A shared partnership
between parents, teachers, and the child, on the other hand, leads
to empowerment for everyone involved. Without a doubt, it takes
a village to help a child maximize his or her full learning potential.
High-potential children should never be considered the exception
to this rule. They, too, require the support of caring adults in
their lives and opportunities to feel meaningfully engaged in
Jennifer Ritchotte, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of special
education with an emphasis in gifted and talented education at
the University of Northern Colorado. Prior to this position, she
was a teacher of gifted and talented students at the secondary level.
Through publications, conference presentations (state, national,
and international), and workshops, she advocates for the needs of
gifted students, especially students at risk for adverse educational
Hasan Zaghlawan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and coordinator
of the bachelor program in Early Childhood in the School
of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado. His
area of research focuses on promoting social and communicative
skills for young children with disabilities, developing parent
and teacher-implemented interventions to increase children’s
engagement in naturalistic environments, and supporting families
in preventing and managing challenging behaviors.
Chin-Wen “Jean” Lee, M.Ed., is a doctoral student in the School
of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado.
Her research emphasis is on twice-exceptionality. She is interested
in teacher preparation, professional development, and program
evaluation. During her free time, she likes cooking, baking,
hiking, and visiting small towns in Colorado.
Copyright 2017 NAGC. Reprinted with permission of the National Association for Gifted Children http://www.nagc.org. No further reprints are permitted without the consent of NAGC.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.