Disengaged young female student

There’s something magical about a child’s first day of elementary school. The bright colors of new backpacks. The woodsy smell of sharpened pencils. The little desks with student names. And shining over it all: the sense of possibility. On the first day of elementary school, it seems every child can succeed. But, of course, that’s not always true.

Some children eventually fall short of academic goals, and almost 20% never graduate high school.* While this number has been going down, it’s still too high. Fortunately, there are ways we can lower it. And our efforts can begin right there in elementary school. The solution? Pay more attention to students’ emotional engagement, which research by Gallup has shown can be one of the most direct ways to increase achievement and promote student success.

What is emotional engagement?

Simply put, emotional engagement is a student’s involvement in and enthusiasm for school. When students are emotionally engaged, they want to participate in school, and they enjoy that participation more.

What is the effect of emotional engagement?

Students who score higher on emotional engagement are likely to score higher on achievement tests. In fact, Gallup found that schools with an engagement measurement just 1% higher than the mean have 6% higher reading scores and 8% higher math scores. As engagement scores rise higher, achievement scores follow. The top quartile of schools as measured by student engagement are 50% more likely to be above average in reading and 82% more likely to be above average in math as compared with the bottom quartile of schools as measured by student engagement.

How is emotional engagement measured?

Gallup measures student emotional engagement by asking students to rate five statements from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). These statements are:

  • I have a best friend at school.
  • I feel safe in this school.
  • My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important.
  • At this school, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • In the last seven 7 days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good schoolwork.

How can elementary school teachers help improve emotional engagement?

Of the five statements that measure emotional engagement, students scored “I have received recognition or praise” the lowest. That makes “recognition and praise” the best place for elementary school teachers to begin their efforts to increase emotional engagement.

Unfortunately, a lot of modern education practices aren’t geared for praise. Systems of standardized tests and assessments typically lead to a negativity-based approach where students are regularly told how they are falling short and made to focus on their failures. Despite how common this approach is, it goes against years of research showing positive correlations between praise and achievement.

As Gallup notes, numerous studies have shown that positive feedback raises test scores. Additionally, neuroscientists have discovered that positive words activate parts of our brain that help us feel enjoyment and satisfaction. Given this science, it makes sense that teachers should move away from a negativity-based approach and embrace positive feedback, working to make sure their students regularly receive praise and recognition. As simple as it sounds, kind words can lead to better student engagement and, ultimately, better achievement.