Apathy as Coping Mechanism

Ever looked out across the classroom and seen a student with head down or cheek on hand, eyes glazed over? Ever had a student that not only didn’t do assignments or perform well on tests but also seemed genuinely uninterested in doing better? Of course you have, I know you have!

What’s Going On

A student in this mode is likely not angry. They aren’t doing poorly because of a fear of failure like students we discussed in previous posts. This mentality is more about being detached or apathetic. They might struggle to find energy or motivation to accomplish anything in your class.

This kind of mentality can stem from a personality type that doesn’t like change or a lot of stimulus. To protect themselves from all the hubbub, they close themselves off and literally desensitize by not listening to or looking at what’s going on. While this disconnect could look like a state of depression, it can really be about something different. It could be a coping mechanism for a type of personality who struggles with ping-ponging across different classes and subject matters amongst the chaos and din of crowded hallways.

What Can We Do?

It is super hard to look at one, let alone a handful, of apathetic students and not take it personally. If I make class more exciting or get that student’s attention by calling on them, maybe then I can wake them up! In this case, let’s take a step back:

  1. Help the student know what to expect. This kind of student might not do well with surprises, so try to provide them with as much stability as you can. For example, give them a full syllabus with expected assignments and units for the semester. You can also start class on Monday with a rundown of the week, or issue readings and assignments in advance to give them more time to warm up to it.
  2. Give the student time and space. It can be tempting to jar these kinds of students into paying attention by calling them out. But in this case, that might have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead, try giving the student other ways to participate that feel less intrusive or overwhelming. For example, let the student know that you won’t call on them directly but that you’d like them to write their thoughts down to hand in later. And, of course, we always think Pear Deck is a great way to involve students in the discussion without putting them on the spot.
  3. Be creative with scheduling. Obviously, not every school has this kind of flexibility, but if you can play around with the schedule, you might find that longer class periods and longer transition times can really help students engage more deeply in each class.

While a student’s apathy can appear defiant, sometimes on closer inspection we see a student who simply finds transitions and commotion overly stimulating. Instead of pressing them harder to engage, we can give them space to adjust and participate in ways they don’t find overwhelming.