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From Controlling to Connecting with Students 

I am writing all week on student empowerment. How do we fully engage students in a classroom, an athletic field, a work team or at home? I believe we must first realize this is a process of four steps. Progress evolves one step at a time with our young.

Four Levels of Participation with Students

1. Attendance

Some administrators talk about BOBs and BIBs. This represents Bodies Out of the Building and Bodies in the Building. Too many schools and organizations struggle with getting kids to even show up. They are apathetic. Their agenda trumps yours. With little sense of duty or respect for their leaders, they lack the discipline to even attend. They may be on the school property, but fail to be where they’re supposed to be. They’re absent. When students show up for class, practice, or any meeting they’re supposed to attend, you have an initial level of success. They are present. You’ve reached the goal of getting their bodies in the room. This first victory is achieved through both negative and positive reinforcement. The benefits of attendance are high and the consequences of failing to do so are tangible.

2. Involvement

Forward progress means moving a student from attendance to involvement. At this point, their bodies are not only in the room, but they are participating in activities, assignments or discussion. Now, you not only have their body present but their will. They show up both physically and volitionally as well. They may only be going through the motions, but at least they are involved. They’re active. To achieve this second level, the student must perceive the activity to be interesting and relevant enough for them to participate. It is deemed either fun or has something to do with their life, their interests and their future. Today’s adolescents have 8-second attention spans. This does not mean they can’t pay attention for longer, but rather they’ll divert their attention if what’s happening isn’t interesting enough.

3. Engagement

This level improves upon the first two and is what most educators strive for in their classroom or learning community. In the attendance level, you get their bodies in the room. In the involvement level, you get their will. At this level, you get their minds. They engage and actually think about what they’re doing, feeling the subject is intriguing enough and the teacher is engaging enough to be “all in.” Educators who engage students usually use unorthodox pedagogies to grab the attention of students or they utilized creative elements such as video, experiential learning, outside guests, role-playing, music, imagery, games and competitions. Student engagement has been the objective for anyone leading students in today’s crowed world of information.

4. Empowerment

I believe this is the highest level of interaction with students. Whereas student engagement gets students invested in OUR subject and curriculum, empowerment shifts the ownership to the student, where they passionately pursue a goal because it is THEIRS. Now, they get to use their ideas to achieve their objectives based on their interests. We get interested in them, rather than vice versa. The teacher becomes a consultant, rather than a commander; the student becomes an owner instead of a renter of their education. You move from having their mind to having their heart. This requires educators to identify what learning objectives are essential, then creatively allowing students to come up with projects that (even if they don’t fit the subject or they seem unorthodox) meet their criteria for learning.

How Do We Share the Control?

Empowerment is tricky because it requires a different lesson plan from us. The dividends are crucial, however, because it offers students a higher sense of control. Let me explain. The standard measure of the sense of control is a questionnaire created by Dr. Julian Rotter, called the “Internal-External Locus of Control Scale.” He gave pairs of questions to students, then asked them to respond by indicating whether they felt the answer was “externally” determined or “internally” decided. In other words, if the issue was determined by fate or by the person involved. If they feel empowered, students strongly lean toward “internal” answers; they felt their success was in their control. If they don’t feel empowered, students’ answers tend to lean toward external factors. They feel as if success is beyond their reach.

Dr. Twenge and her team found that over the decades, average scores shifted dramatically—for young teens as well as for college students—away from internal locus of control to external. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more “External” than 80 percent of young people in the 1960s. Sadly, the rise of Externality on Rotter’s Scale over a 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.

It may sound both counter-intuitive and ironic, but in short:

  • Adults have dictated the lives and agendas of today’s students.
  • With such prescriptive leadership, students don’t feel in control of their lives.
  • The less control they have, the more they depend on external factors.
  • The more they’re driven by external factors the more angst they experience.
  • In the end, we often end up with helpless young adults who feel like victims.

The Bottom Line

So what can we make of this?  And…what can we do?

  1. Students do not feel they’re in control of their life. Some adult or some other factor in in charge. We need to empower them to take charge of their life.
  2. Students are overwhelmed and no longer feel they can make choices that matter or they are afraid of choosing. We must help them take those risks.
  3. Students are overwhelmed and somehow drift into a “fatalistic” attitude where they abdicate their right (responsibility) to choose for themselves. We must equip them to know how to make wise and independent decisions.
  4. Students must be encouraged to try new things; to risk failure; to explore new horizons without thinking they’ll lose out on future opportunities.

So, the next time you see a student who’s afraid of making a choice or taking a risk, I encourage you to do something counter-intuitive. Begin to empower them, giving them control over their choices. Remind them they have what it takes to make a good decision and to follow through. Then, let them do it. It is imperative young people today believe that success is within their reach and responsibility. Someone did that for me thirty-five years ago—and I believe I owe it to the next generation.


Order Now: Marching Off the Map
Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World

Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

From decades of research and hands-on experience, Dr. Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak collate their conclusions into one resource that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
  • Lead students from an attitude of apathy to one of passion through metacognition
  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and mentally, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

Order Here

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From Controlling to Connecting with Students