Teaching Young Learners

How To Engage Young Learners

We know that the essential ingredient that enables motivation to facilitate deep student learning is engagement. And as educators, we are very aware of how important it is for our learners to be engaged. Engagement has been defined as the extent to which students are connected to what they are learning, how they are learning it, and who they are learning from. Engagement can be behavioural – concerned with attention, effort, persistence and participation. It can be cognitive -concerned with values and goals, or emotional - concerned with belonging to a group or interpersonal relationships.

by Anastasia Spyropoulou, ELT NEWS Chief Editor


Engagement can be perceived as the “hook” that captures students’ attention so that the students feel that the experience has value and relevance to their learning and their personal goals and needs. It’s important to note that as engagement draws on behavioural, social, emotional and cognitive dimensions, engagement in one dimension relates to the level of engagement in another. It’s also important to note that one can be motivated but not necessarily engaged in a learning episode.

But there is another essential ingredient – Emotions! Learning is both cognitive and emotional. Emotions drive our interests, motivation, and engagement. Immordino-Yang and Damasio define emotions as the perception of emotionally relevant triggers – either real or imagined– that trigger a physiological response leading to a behavioural and psychological outcome.

Importantly they tell us that “the aspects of cognition that are recruited most heavily in education, including learning, attention, memory, decision making, motivation, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by emotions and in fact subsumed within the process of emotion.”

Emotions impact a range of cognitive capacities including attention, memory, problem-solving, decision making, information processing, thinking, and engagement. They affect interest, motivation, and social interactions. And so, emotions and deep engagement in learning are highly intertwined.

For example, when the emotional experience associated with the level of engagement to learning is positive, the outcome is positive. But when the emotional experience associated with the level of engagement is negative, the outcome is negative. As such, when a learner is not emotionally engaged with the learning experience, learning is negatively impacted.

Emotional disengagement or disaffection with the learning context often presents as withdrawal from the learning experience based on anxiety, boredom, frustration or apathy.

If the learner finds the content boring, irrelevant, distressing, too difficult or too easy, they may become cognitively disengaged, as is evidenced through inattention, day-dreaming, disruptive behaviour and absenteeism. If they are cognitively disengaged, they are most likely to be behaviourally disengaged manifesting in the physical withdrawal of effort and participation.

A key emotional driver for deciding to engage is ‘Interest’. If you're not interested in something you're not going to transfer that into long term knowledge and to actually be able to regather that information from your long term memory. If it's boring you'll do what you have to do and by the time you've walked out the door it's gone.

So it needs to be interesting, you need to approach it from lots of different ways and make sure that it stays interesting for them to keep learning and to actually want to ask questions and find something else out about it. Because if they don't ask questions then you know that they're probably not learning anything new. Or if they're not asking questions that are really relevant you know that they're off-task and not really taking on that learning. So interest is the key; anything hands-on kids really like. They like to be able to move around, they like to be able to work collaboratively, they really enjoy that side of things which helps keep them on task. You can tell if they're on task because of the noise level as well. It doesn't get really loud. There is noise, but you can tell that they're really focused on each other, they're kind of laughing with each other, they're looking at each other, and they're sitting upright, they're not slouching down on their desks.

They are really friendly with each other. It doesn't matter who they sit next to, they will have a chat. And there can be a boy with a girl, it really doesn't matter. They're really accepting of who you are and will do whatever you ask them to do.

You need to be fair and just, but you can't be their friend. You have to make sure that there is a boundary.  You are the teacher and they respect you for your position, but that you are open to anything if they want to come and talk to you, you're there for them.

When there is increased value and relevance for the learner, there is increased interest, and deep engagement. When enjoyment and interest are combined, the overall effect is one of fun or pleasure. The experience of positive emotions and an increased sense of fun has been shown to improve the capacity for creative and flexible thinking, increases persistence, supports the development of higher goals and aspirations, and opens our minds to a wider range of ideas, thoughts and actions.

Interest is essential to initiate and direct attention and exploration, and is fundamental to motivation. And interest is what predicts a learner’s decision to remain engaged in the task or activity. The experience of the positive effect associated with fun and pleasure enhances an individual’s capacity to broaden their perspective, explore possibilities and take creative risks. All are essential for deep learning!