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8 Ways to Engage a Reluctant Learner: Baby Behavior Series

reluctant learner

What is a reluctant learner?

Whether you are working with students with autism or otherwise on an IEP or early childhood littles or your typical cray-cray preschooler, you have encountered a “reluctant learner.” Usually when we talk about reluctant learners and when we discuss strategies, we are referring to older students. What I want to talk about is the reluctant LITTLE. What does reluctance look like in the young child?

In my mind, I see a little who:

  • Moves away from you when you try to engage with them
  • Refuses with verbal or nonverbal language
  • Doesn’t want to participate in group activities that peers are doing
  • Doesn’t want to participate in teacher-led activities
  • Purposefully does the opposite of what is asked
  • Doesn’t seek out a partner to engage with, even for a preferred activity
  • Low affect, frowns, doesn’t appear to be having fun
  • Makes slow or no progress on goals

How do you engage reluctant learners?

Here are my 8 tips for engaging a reluctant learner, baby behavior version!

Build a relationship

Put the goal book aside for a while, especially in the beginning, and observe. What is the child interested in? What do they do when there are no expectations or demands? With that knowledge, now, spend time doing those things with or near the student! If he likes trains, so do you! If she likes to line up pieces of string, so do you! Spend time just sharing space, loving, and playing. This will go MILES later when you begin to add demands.

build a relationship

Provide a safe and supportive environment

Many of our littles within the special education field come from difficult backgrounds, be it an unstable home environment or simply the current state of life today! I mean, can we talk about how much impact COVID had on the development of our young ones? Sheesh!

With that instability and unpredictability, if we provide a safe and supportive learning environment, we are more likely to gain engagement.

What is a safe environment? It’s predictable, it’s calm, it’s organized, it’s peaceful. There's a place to move and play and a place to focus and calm.

What is a supportive environment? It’s a place where a student can express themselves, where if they have a big reaction, they’re not MET with a big reaction. It’s a place with trusted people who communicate if they’re going to not be there and when they’ll be back. It’s a place where affection is expressed REGULARLY!

Provide opportunities to DO things

First, when students are given assignments and things to do, they will be more engaged in the activity. What this looks like: a reluctant learner during circle time. Give that student the assignment to pass out the song prompts. A reluctant learner during morning set up. Give that student the assignment to take the attendance sheet to the office.

Second, let learners know what TO do as opposed to what NOT to do. What this looks like: a reluctant learner who is messing around in the line to wash up. Rather than correcting the behavior, start a game of Simon Says. A reluctant learner who wants to be all done and is expressing with their body, give them the words to say ALL DONE, and then let them leave!

give assignment

Find some circle time ideas here

visuals and timers

Use of visuals and timers

The positive effect of visuals cannot be understated. This helps provide that safe and stable environment! Helps the learner know what is expected, what is happening now and next, how long they have left. Ooo, the magic of the visual timer! Lets the learner see how much time is left before an earned reinforcer or how much longer for free time before learning begins.

If you’re going to err, err on too MANY visuals rather than not ENOUGH.

Use Movement

Remember that littles need to move! Their sensory systems are still developing; they need input. In addition, young development often comes through touch and interaction.

What this may look like: Working on matching colors? Set up color swatches on the wall and have the learner tape the match to the wall, moving around the room. Working on verbal sounds? Run to different toys around the room and ‘say’ the sound to each toy.

Also, sprinkle movement breaks throughout the day. One outside recess is not enough! Work a while, then dance break! Work a while, then yoga! Work a while, then make a human train around the room. 

preschool movement

Use preferences and strengths

Sometimes all you need is to take what you know your student likes or is good at and exploit it!

What this looks like: Learner likes mini cookies. Use them as tokens, one for each response. Learner likes toys cars but doesn’t want to come in from recess, have a special set of cars to choose from to use as a transition object to come in from recess.

Find some behavior supports here:

Provide Choices.... Always

Young students have so little control in their own lives. They don't decide their daily schedule, they usually have little input to what to eat, what to where, when to leave. Sometimes, the reluctance you may observe is just an effort to get back some control! You can give it to them! 

What this looks like: If there's flexibility in the schedule, allow the learner to choose what to do now and next. Reluctant learner doesn’t want to come to circle time? Offer the choice of sitting on the floor or in a chair behind the group. Reluctant learner doesn’t want to write their name? Offer the choice of writing with a pencil or a crayon. Reluctant learner doesn’t want to put the toys away? Offer to help and give the choice to do it fast or sssssllloooooowwww. Act silly!

provide choice
silly teacher

Be silly

Which brings me to my favorite technique.

Back during Covid shutdowns, when I was having to do Zoom meetings with my littles, it was HARD, to say the least, to get their engagement over a screen. One of the most amazing successes I had was face stickers. I would hold up some little learning task, and with their engagement or answer, I would put a sticker on my face. At other times, I’d have the student tell me WHERE to put the sticker on my face. Great for communication goals! By the end of our short time, I had a little pile of data that I could use to set up my next day’s plan.

Don’t be afraid of being silly to gain engagement from your littles. I mean, seriously, nobody cares. No one is going to come into your room and judge your dance moves with a, “I’m not feeling it, dawg.”

If you do something that earns you some good eye contact or laughs or other engagement, foster that! And enjoy the ride!

How to gauge student engagement with the reluctant learner?

Now that you’re actively trying to gain engagement, what does it now look like?

The engaged learner…

  • Moves towards you when you try to engage with them
  • Accepts with verbal or nonverbal language
  • Participates in group activities that peers are doing
  • Participates in teacher-led activities
  • Purposefully does what is asked
  • Seeks out a partner to engage with, especially for a preferred activity
  • Smiles, laughs, appears to be having fun
  • Makes progress on goals!
engaged learning in preschool

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