Keeping adolescents engaged at school

Disengagement is a significant issue for many secondary school students.

A Federation University researcher has drawn on her own experiences as an adolescent to learn how students have overcome their negative attitudes towards school to re-engage in learning.

Dr Sylwia Wojtaszek said she developed a negative attitude to study during her high school years in Germany despite being considered a high achiever. She found her passion for learning again after relocating to Australia and is now a secondary school teacher and researcher in student engagement.

Dr Wojtaszek said her research aimed to learn from students who overcame their negative attitudes and explore the success stories of positive attitude change. The key to this was examining how teachers and the broader school environment can assist students in developing positive attitudes to school and increase their engagement.

Unable to pinpoint when she developed a negative attitude to school, Dr Wojtaszek said it felt like disengagement slowly started creeping up on her during her crucial senior secondary school years. Like other disengaged adolescents, she began to skip classes, neglected her homework and generally felt disconnected from her school and peers.

“I was desperate for a change in scenery and a new beginning, driven by the desire to change the negative feelings I had regarding myself and my social and academic achievements,” Dr Wojtaszek said.

“Once I commenced my studies overseas, the negative attitude I had to school did not continue into the tertiary education setting as I felt content at my new university and my life turned around for the better as well.”

Reflecting on her school years, Dr Wojtaszek said she couldn’t help but feel like she needed a helping hand at school. She said her troubles seemed small in size and could have probably been overcome with a small amount of support to help her reflect on her circumstance to get a more effective perspective. However, despite having always been a ‘good student’, that support was never offered.

“I don’t think I needed any material things or time or special intervention. I would have benefited from some emotional support regarding my negative attitude to school. I needed someone to show me a way out of my negative situation at school,” she said.

“I needed to be exposed to a different perspective on my circumstances. Instead, I was left with just my own tunnel vision, which was counterproductive and at times made me a miserable young adult.”

Changing attitudes

Dr Wojtaszek said teachers have many anecdotes of students changing their attitudes for the better, including the positive impact on educational outcomes. But the area of adolescent students’ attitudes to school is under-researched and under-theorised. She said disengagement is a significant issue for many secondary school students.

“I conducted my research to capture and share these stories in the belief that good stories should never be left untold – especially the ones affecting young people’s education,” Dr Wojtaszek said.

“During the interviews, the students told me their whole story and how they had hit rock-bottom. Only at this point did they really consider advice from other people because they felt so hopeless themselves.”

Her research included a qualitative research study to explore the positive attitude change to school and two rounds of interviews with eight adolescent students to examine why they were becoming disengaged from their schooling. This research was undertaken in a regional Victorian Department of Education secondary school.

Dr Wojtaszek said the research aimed to examine how the experience had been lived out by the students, and what factors had influenced the change and the meaning that the students had attached to it. She said her strong belief in the power of attitude to drive personal success shaped the study.

“I discovered that all of these students’ negative attitudes were caused by personal problems. Everyone has personal problems, but that doesn’t necessarily result in disengagement with learning. However, all of the students said they hated school and didn’t want to be there – they knew they had to be there and wanted to do well, but they just couldn’t,” she said.

“These students never threw a chair or yelled at the teacher – they just suddenly felt alone with their problems at a place where they should have felt cared for and supported in finding a solution to be able to stay engaged in learning.

Dr Wojtaszek said the students did not feel supported at school. When they asked for support, there was often no resolution, making them feel their school didn’t deal with the situation well.

“When you have a student that says they want to do well but they can’t, that’s a real problem, and there’s very little research in this area. Students are taught many things, but we haven’t been teaching them how to deal with their problems, like a friendship break-up or believing they are being treated unfairly at school. This is a range of skills that they don’t have, and this isn’t something that’s in the curriculum – we’re leaving out things that we have all experienced, but some of us were luckier than others in how it resulted with our learning.” Dr Sylwia Wojtaszek

“Adolescents are the group least likely to reach for professional help, yet we expect them to be seeking out help with the wellbeing team or the support team. This led me to the concept of a ‘helping hand’ to actively offer support.

“A negative attitude to school does not necessarily equate to a negative attitude to learning. Students’ perception of the available support, both from the teachers and the services offered at school, is a critical factor in the transformation of their attitudes to school.”

Dr Wojtaszek said the students who participated in this study did not feel they were equipped with the knowledge and skills to manage their problems effectively to maintain their engagement in learning, despite wanting to do well at school, valuing their education, and being supported in their academic pursuits by their families.

“Only after having hit rock bottom and having sought help from outside the school environment were the students able to apply a different perspective to their circumstances that were associated with positive attitude change to school,” Dr Wojtaszek said.

“The school as such had disappointed them. They felt as if they simply had to continue with their learning and the schoolwork, as if to say, ‘leave your troubles at the school gate, it’s time to focus on the lesson content’. This was an impossible task for these students – their problems became all-encompassing, not unusual for the developmental stage of adolescence, and the negative emotions students experienced when being at school led to an absolute disengagement with school and thus with learning.”

Providing emotional support

Dr Wojtaszek said positive attitudes to school are crucial in addressing students’ disengagement. The students’ narratives collected during the research strongly highlighted the relevance of emotional engagement to learning and crystallised the many missed opportunities.

“Adolescent students’ attitudes to school and learning matter, and the stakes are high. This research study has made it clear that negative attitudes to school are associated with negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, disappointment and loneliness, which lead to low wellbeing at school that cannot be ignored,” Dr Wojtaszek said. “If students feel more negative emotions at school than positive emotions, the outcome will never be good, not even with the best teaching instructions.”

“Perceived negativity at school is linked to low engagement and or complete disengagement from learning to the point where a student is absent from school, having fallen to the emotional and academic rock bottom due to their limited ability to manage negative emotions effectively and their inexperience to approach personal problems constructively.”

She said it became evident that emotional support within the school environment played a significant role in developing positive attitudes to school.

“Positive attitude change is further significantly associated with the successful resolution of personal problems and the provision of different perspectives crucial to a successful schooling journey,” she said.

“The school has a duty of care, and thus the secondary school support framework must address students’ wellbeing of the quiet, disengaged students just as much as with the students who are considered ‘at risk’ and have a red flag next to their name. Otherwise, we are missing out on great potential with students who want to do well but simply cannot overcome their personal problems to remain engaged in learning.”

Dr Sylwia Wojtaszek’s research was awarded the Graduate Research School’s 2021 Dean’s Award for Excellence in a PhD Thesis.

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