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As distance and hybrid learning continues into the new year, K-12 students and teachers cope with fatigue and disconnection.  Discover five ways educators can help K-12 students stay engaged and positive. 

Over the past year, K-12 education has experienced a monumental shift impacting how students attend school. While students navigate these changes, their self-discipline, organizational skills, and perseverance are being stretched beyond their limits. As engagement wanes throughout the distance learning experience, frustration has mounted for both teachers and students, impacting school communities’ morale. What are ways to help our K-12 students stay engaged?

As teachers, we set the climate for our classroom communities. Maintaining a positive outlook despite the pandemic’s difficulties needs to be a high priority. The educational world is engaged in teacher self-care conversations and the importance of sustaining teacher mental health during COVID-19. By taking care of ourselves, there are specific strategies we can implement to offer care and encouragement to our students. The following can positively benefit students’ mindset during this challenging time.

Five Ways to Help K-12 Students Stay Engaged


Young people reflect the words and actions of adults. As teachers, we will do well to remember that our students are always watching. No matter how we feel about the current learning situation, choosing our words and actions carefully to convey that everything is okay is essential. 

Many of my students have reported that the most challenging thing about distance learning is that their teachers have stopped smiling. If smiles, laughter, and fun are a part of our daily interactions with our students, it will have a positive ripple effect by conveying that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Choose your battles

As passionate teachers who care about students, we can sometimes become perfectionists. There is no such thing as perfect in the current learning environment. Letting go of the mirage of perfection can help us keep our sanity as teachers. Write yourself a permission slip to take frequent breaks, choose your battles, let go of a few details to focus on what matters, and do things you enjoy. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help from colleagues and find ways to socialize, even if it is a virtual coffee date over the computer.

How can this help our students? When we let go of the idea of perfection and prioritize our happiness, we can breathe life into students. Teaching with impeccable pedagogy is not the priority during COVID-19, and students may not remember much of what they have learned. They will remember our smiles, our humor, our care, and our concern. As we let go of our need to be the ‘perfect teacher,’ we let students see that we are human beings and that we are all in this together. They need us to be a source of comfort right now, not necessarily a source of content.

Acknowledge the struggle

Students are increasingly expressing their desire to return to in-person school. However, this is not currently feasible in many parts of the nation and world due to the prevalence of COVID-19. It is natural to feel frustrated and withdrawn when circumstances are undesirable, and we have no power to change what is happening. 

Helping students to accept the situation for what it is can be a valuable exercise in supportive practice. Acknowledging the struggle with statements such as, “I know online learning can be challenging,” or “I recognize how hard it can be to show up for our class meetings online” can affirm what students are feeling.  

The next step is to reframe the situation for the positive. Statements such as, “You can handle these challenges, and I believe in you,” and “Thank you for continuing to show up” can help shift the focus from the negative to the positive.  

Avoid assumptions

As distance learning drags on, students may naturally become less engaged. There is a temptation to judge our students and their families as we wish for sustained participation. Instead of offering judgment, this is the very moment when students most need our unfaltering support and encouragement to push them through their struggles.   

I have heard colleagues make statements such as, “Students don’t care,” and “If they don’t want to learn, that’s their problem.” These complaints have no place in our hearts or minds right now. They involve unfair assumptions, and they only serve to dishearten us and, consequently, our students. 

Speaking of our students with kindness, even among our colleagues, can help us maintain a focus on our purpose and stay energized about our work. Students can sense how we feel about them. Empathetic and compassionate thoughts about our students help us convey genuine care and maintain the connection to help them grow.

Affirm successes — even the small ones

Students need affirmation for the good choices they are making right now. Distance learning demands that young people function at a level that can be difficult for most adults.  

For example, students are currently following a schedule with no adult prompting, bells, or passing time. The distractions of home surround them, and we are asking them to focus on their computer screens

We need to recognize the significance of student success at this moment in education. When they rise to the challenge, they need to hear about it. Our affirmation of their success will inspire them to keep going and sustain their engagement even as they feel the inevitable burnout that accompanies this seemingly interminable situation.  

Rachel Jorgensen

Rachel Jorgensen, M.A., is a special education teacher and coordinator of work-based learning at Anoka Hennepin Public Schools and professor at Bethel University who has an interest in empowering students through relationships. She is the author of the book Loving Your Job in Special Education: 50 Tips and Tools and current program director for the Teacher Coordinator of Work-Based Learning Program at Bethel University, which is an online program inviting educators to bolster their skills in supporting students as they transition from school to work. Rachel is working on her second book and parenting two teenagers. Much of her time is spent driving them to their activities!