Defining the extent of disengagement in education and its many forms

What does student disengagement really look like in the classroom?

Defining the extent of disengagement in education and its many forms

Although historically we have always had pockets of disengaged students in society, in recent years disengagement has emerged as a concerning aspect of school life within most schools across all socio-economic areas. Disengagement among students is presenting in many different ways, in a variety of behaviours and symptoms.[1]

Based on this escalation, do we need to re-define disengagement and cast a wider net to understand both its source and what it truly is?

In this article, we propose that the behaviours associated with disengagement can be displayed as either an inner or outer disruption. Some students may present with shutting down, withdrawal, or isolating behaviours, whilst others may erupt with very physical displays of anger.

However, regardless of how it is displayed, all disengagement starts with an inner-disturbance, a tension, an unsettlement in the body. It is this inner-disturbance that either remains and churns in the body, manifesting in socially isolating states such as anxiety, or explodes outwardly in outbursts such as anger, which overtly disrupt the group. Hence the disengaging behaviours we see have a common source – inner-disturbance. It is merely the expression of this inner-disturbance that differs from student to student.

Students who present through externally disruptive behaviours call for our immediate attention because of the obvious disturbance they cause to the group, the class and the school. But the ones who carry the tension and disturbance on the inside don’t typically cause such an outer disruption for others – they don’t ruffle any feathers. The existence of this inner-tension may be registered by teachers through such behaviours as withdrawal, a student shying away, isolating themselves, shutting down or not being their usual self. Although teachers notice these behaviours and discuss them with both colleagues and parents, systemically these behaviours are assigned neither the same value nor the equal immediacy of the big-ticket external disruptions.

Whether we ignore, or are aware of, the fact of any tension and disturbance within a child, regardless of whether it manifests in an inner or outer manner, it is still nonetheless disengagement. This disturbance is always felt on some level by everyone in the classroom.

Thus, are we not sending the message that it is ok to ignore a quiet body in tension?

However, such unaddressed tension does not go anywhere and will at some point come out and be physically evident later in life. As we know, any undealt with issues in our childhood still remain with us in our adult life.

If we do not assign the same and equal value to these quieter behaviours, we are creating a greater scope collectively to bury and not address these issues. Managing these issues and getting cleverer with how we ‘manage’ them will never address them. If we look at this from the bigger picture, is this approach not going to cause much greater long-term disruption for the individual, and then for society at large, in terms of expense, complication and the creating of an ever-increasing group of people who will feel isolated because they do not understand how to disclose, to reach out, to seek support and deal with what they are feeling?

In the 2012 to 2013 financial year, Australia had a population of approximately 23 million people. During the same financial year ‘over $7.6 billion was spent on mental health related services, $330 million on specialized mental health services in private hospitals and $906 million for Medicare subsidised mental health related services. Each of these figures shows a significant increase from the previous 2008 to 2009 report. (AIHW 2014. Health expenditure Australia 2012-13. Health and welfare expenditure series 52. Cat. No. HWE 61. Canberra: AIHW)’[2]

Our current management strategies are based on a sliding scale where we tend to view the external disruptions like anger as being more obvious and so more immediately serious. At the other end of the sliding scale are the more concealed and less intrusive behaviours and states such as isolation, depression and anxiety. Children in this group tend to fly under the radar because they present as more compliant and passive, with their distress often being managed with solutions such as medication and an array of therapies. However, their numbers are rising; in 2013- 2014, 1 in 7 young Australians between the ages of 4 and 17 experienced a mental disorder.[3]

The effectiveness of our strategies gives us an excuse to become complacent and to not be fully aware of, and responsible for, what is going on in front of our eyes.

Has the sudden escalation in disengagement over the last decade made us ill equipped to address such a ubiquitous and recent issue? Does this explain our current ad-hoc band-aiding approach, therefore potentially holding us back from truly dealing with the root issue?

To start an honest conversation about what is truly going on is a great step forward.

Have we, as a society and as a profession, asked, “Is there a common thread in what is presenting as disengagement?” We are currently taking the view that these behaviours are exclusively attributable to individuals rather than to the common underlying cause of why there is an inner tension. This perspective effectively blinds us to what is truly going on across the board in our schools.

Would it not be wiser to develop a working relationship with the tension and its associated behaviours as the first step forward?

What we are seeing today is an array of behaviours, which are simply differently expressed reactions to a system that does not support connection and the quality of relationships first.


  • [1]

    School Students 40% Disengaged – online: Accessed 12 August, 2018

  • [2]

    CURTIS TANYA, 2017, The Body Life Skills Program, Sunlight Ink Publishing, pg. 7

  • [3]

    Youth Beyond Blue – online: Accessed 12 August, 2018

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  • By Johanna Smith, BA Education, Grad. Cert. Early Childhood, EPA Recognised, Teacher, Mother, Wife

    A woman with a love of truth, people and community health and well-being. She knows that how we live directly contributes to how we feel.