August 27, 2014 by

Engaging Students (and Families) in a New School Year

Back to School Banner

It’s back-to-school time for many students and their families this month. My turn came this morning, in fact, when my niece left for her first day of her junior year of high school. My niece is a good student, an athlete who hopes to play soccer in college, a member of the orchestra, where she plays the double bass, and an all-around great person. Going back to school for her and our family is an exciting time filled with conversations about what classes she’ll be taking, which of her friends will be in her lunch hour, and, most importantly, what she’s going to wear on the first day.

Most students, like my niece, start off the year excited for a new beginning. But how can we keep them motivated and engaged in school and learning throughout the year once the excitement of going back to school has waned?

In a recent study in Education Week (PDF), teachers and administrators deemed student engagement and motivation to be the most important factor in student achievement. ASCD SmartBrief conducted its own ED Pulse poll on student achievement and had similar findings, namely that student engagement/motivation is the most important factor, followed by teaching quality and parental support/engagement.
SmartBrief EdPulse

Engaging Students and FamiliesKnowing the importance of engagement and motivation in student achievement, the Education Week study asked teachers to identify their most effective strategies to engage and motivate students:

  • Use a variety of interactive and hands-on activities
  • Build personal relationships with students
  • Make curriculum interesting and relevant
  • Use feedback, praise, and incentives
  • Create avenues for student choice and autonomy
  • Establish clear goals and expectations
  • Explain course purpose

The UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools, a whole child partner organization, also advocates starting the school year with a strong focus on engaging (and re-engaging) students and families and shares a set of continuing education units (PDF) that provide a perspective on motivation that goes beyond enforcing and reinforcing behavior to emphasize student engagement in the context of school improvement and school climate. Try out one of the Center’s suggested activities below in your teaching team or professional learning community to discuss student motivation and engagement using observation and feedback.

Unit 1 MotivationUnit 2

Unit 3

Find more resources for heading back to school on ASCD’s website.


ASCD continually seeks to provide solutions to the challenges that face educators at all levels.  The survey question was included in ASCD SmartBrief, a free daily e-mail news service that provides summaries and links to major education stories and issues and has 208,000 subscribers. Using ED Pulse, SmartBrief’s weekly online poll, data was collected from 745 readers, starting on July 31, 2014. Online surveys do not provide a random sample because participants are self-selected, meaning that a margin of error cannot be calculated. In addition, the population and sample are limited to those with access to computers and an online network. However, online surveys have been shown to produce results that have proven to be reliable predictors of outcomes, including election results. If you have a question on education that you would like to see addressed in a future ED Pulse poll, feel free to submit it in the comment section below, along with any other comments.



Klea Scharberg is project manager for Whole Child Programs at ASCD where she works to build awareness and perform outreach for the Whole Child Initiative. The initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.