The Difference Between Compliance and Engagement in Kids' Learning

May 4, 2017

It’s easy to look at a child who has perfect school attendance and turns in their work on time for higher-than-average grades as one who loves school and loves to learn.

Alternatively, it’s also easy to label a child that doesn’t enjoy going to school and doesn’t turn in their work as “checked out” and unengaged in school and learning.

However, it’s really not so simple.

While these two descriptions address a student’s behavior, they don’t actually address the underlying need for the child’s engagement in their own education. One child is obviously compliant; they do all that is required to move through the school system with ease.

But compliance is not the same as engagement, and engagement is critical for any effective learning to take place.

As the bombardment of information online and elsewhere shows no signs of slowing, it is becoming abundantly clear that we must instill the importance of continual learning and critical thinking in our young people. Autonomous thinking is a must, and passivity is a handicap.

As we make this shift towards a more engaging educational setting, students will require different understandings and motivations from the educators and adults in their lives. Children must get the sense that their educators are caring people who are able to look past grades, attendance, and appearance and get to know the person underneath. We all want to engage and learn; it’s how we engage and learn that varies from person-to-person.

The understanding that the educator cares if you’re there, and that this person is working to understand your feelings and needs. In short, empathy is the first step towards engagement in students of all types. To this end, I invite you to ask your students and children these two questions regularly:

How are you feeling today?

What are you looking forward to?

These simple questions work to let your students know that you care about where they’re at today and where they want to go. At first, your students may reply with pat answers, such as “good” or “fine”. If this is the case, reiterate that you care about all of their feelings, not only the ones that are safe to communicate.

Finally, be ready to listen and take their answers seriously and reply sincerely. Otherwise, this exercise is empty.

I’ve written about helping students engage with their interests before. I think the ideas I offered in that post also work here. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Jade Rivera

For nearly ten years, Jade Rivera has made educating, writing, and coaching for marginalized, neurodivergent children her mission.