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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Engagement - Winning Classroom Management

Engaged students rarely misbehave. Playing to win the classroom management game means keeping this truth front and central. All behavior is communication, and oftentimes the message students are sending with their misbehavior is, “I’m bored!”

Engagement lies at the intersection of student motivation and instructional design. When teachers intentionally craft lessons, or adapt their required curriculum, to leverage students’ motivational needs, engagement flourishes. When teachers focus solely on the content and ignore the motivational needs of students, they find that student interest fluctuates wildly and unpredictably.

Learning is built into students’ brains. It’s a need that students are driven to meet naturally. One could say that students crave learning, with the five letters of the acronym CRAVE standing for each of the five facets of student motivation.

The first facet is competence. A question that students internally ask themselves when given a task is, “Can I do this?” When assessing their abilities to accomplish a task, students usually evaluate two separate factors: current abilities and future prospects. Students rate their perception of their current abilities against the task demands. The closer the match, the greater the feelings of competence. Students also think of their future prospects. When completion of the task depends on internal factors, such as effort or ability, motivation increases. If external factors, such as task difficulty or random chance prevail, students feel less competent and can lose interest.

The second facet is relationships, discussed extensively in the previous chapter. This aspect embodies the social nature of students and answers the question, “Does this connect me with others?” Learning is a social event and humans are designed to have deeper, more nuanced learning in groups than in isolation. Relationships include not only teacher-student relationships but also peer relationships. When students feel deep belonging with a group of peers focused on learning, led by an empathetic teacher, misbehavior almost becomes a nonissue.

Next is autonomy, or a desire for choice and freedom. This motivational need answers the question, “Do I have to do this?” Teachers unknowingly oppose this innate desire in students when they control most or all of the elements in the classroom. Many teachers rule their rooms as benevolent dictators, making all the decisions and inadvertently causing some of their students to rebel. Students who feel both competent and have some degree of autonomy lean toward intrinsic motivation. This is much more desirable than externally-controlled motivation that more often than not results in coercion.

The fourth facet in the CRAVE model of student motivation is value. This motivational need answers the question, “Why am I doing this?” Tasks or activities that students find meaningful, whether to accomplish a goal or because of personal relevance, are more engaging than disconnected, meaningless tasks. When students can find the connection between a task and a larger picture or goal, the task gains significance and engagement increases.

Finally, emotions play a key part in student motivation. They serve as the gatekeeper of learning and answer the question, “How do I feel about doing this?” Emotions are not separate from thinking but are instead an integral part of cognition. They play a key role in reasoning and memory formation. Students in a positive emotional state are primed and ready to engage, while those in a negative mood find it difficult or even pointless to engage with a learning task. Of the many desirable emotions for teachers to cultivate, interest is one that directly impacts student engagement and achievement.

Taken together, the five facets of CRAVE serve as a theoretical model to understand student motivation. This, however, is only half of the story. The other part of the engagement equation is instructional design. When lessons are constructed to leverage the motivational needs of students, engagement flourishes. When those needs are not planned for, teachers find that lessons can derail due to disengagement and misbehavior.

Every child is different and has a different motivational map. While a task might be just the right fit of difficulty for one child, it could be too difficult for a different child and too easy for a third. These last two students might easily disengage and find more interesting ways to spend their time if their perceptions of competence are not a fit. Likewise, teachers that try to control every aspect of a lesson, from how students interact with materials to how they complete a worksheet, can drive even the most compliant students into a state of rebellion.

There are many ways to engage students, some of which are discussed in other books (Solving Student Engagement, Take CHARGE of the Classroom). Here are three strategies to get started on this engagement journey.

  1. Scaffold lessons to include multiple entry and exit points. It’s a stretch to assume that one lesson can meet the competence needs of every student in the classroom without any modifications. Students subconsciously perform a Goldilocks ritual with most lessons, looking to see whether or not it’s the right fit. If it’s too easy or too hard, they can easily disengage. To combat this, teachers can focus on the entry and exit points. The entry points include how students enter the lesson. Not every child has the requisite skills, so some might need a short reteach right before or some type of aid (e.g., outline, reference chart, vocabulary notebook, worked examples) to assist in the cognitive demands of the lesson. Additionally, the exit point should always be considered. The demonstration of learning students produce to show knowledge of the content can easily vary to meet the needs of each student. Teachers who customize the learning task by adding or removing layers of support or demands ensure a best fit for a wider range of students. Giving students choices in how to show their learning also addresses autonomy needs.

  2. Provide leadership and choice. Humans want to feel in control. All students are humans. Thus, students want to feel in control. Teachers can saturate students with autonomy by designing opportunities for them to demonstrate leadership in the classroom. This might take the form of classroom helper jobs (e.g., materials manager, zookeeper for class pet) or maintenance jobs (e.g., sanitation engineer [a.k.a. trash collector]). When students feel responsible for a part of the classroom, it satisfies their need for control. Additionally, providing choices also feeds into the motivational facet of autonomy. From selecting where to sit to complete a task, whom to work with, or even whether they want to complete the odds or evens in a practice set of problems, more choices means more engagement.

  3. Lean into fun. As stated earlier in this chapter, emotions are the gatekeeper to learning. Classrooms should look more like a disco than a funeral parlor. Instead of distracting students, high energy and enthusiasm are like nitrous oxide (NOS) to their learning engines. Students learn through play, so gamifying lessons and introducing a low level of competition increase engagement. Positive emotions increase attention and memory formation, so fun should be something sought after every day, not just on party days and during the last week of school.

Find all the episodes in this web series (and the free eBook) here.


Daffern, A. (2017). Solving student engagement: Designing instruction to motivate every student. Aaron Daffern Consulting.

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