Promoting Engagement in Preschool Classrooms


“Student engagement is the product of motivation and active learning. It is a product rather than a sum because it will not occur if either element is missing.”  
– Elizabeth F. Barkley

This article originally appeared in START Connecting in January 2020. 

Do some of your students have difficulty being actively engaged in classroom activities? Do interfering behaviors prevent them from achieving the learning outcomes that you’re hoping for?  

Engagement is critical for all students, whether they have disabilities or not, but it can be especially important for young students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) since these children may not readily learn from observing others, and often have challenges related to motivation, attention, and understanding expectations. Research suggests that engagement results in better learning outcomes for students (Ruble & McGrew, 2013). So how can we support student engagement in preschool classrooms?  

Universal Supports to Increase Classroom Engagement

1. Use motivating activities 

  • Rotate toys and materials to increase novelty and exposure to new items, materials and concepts
  • Incorporate preferred interests within classroom activities; for example, teach math using Legos, incorporate train stories during circle time, or create learning units that involve special interest areas 
  • Incorporate preferred interests within social activities to promote interaction
  • Offer choices throughout the day

2. Structure the classroom environment

  • Use pictures and visuals during activities to increase student understanding and participation
  • Mini schedules of activities can keep students on task
  • Keep interesting items in sight, but out of reach, this will encourage students to seek out adults to request items
  • Create well-designed spaces so that students know where to be and what to do in each area

3. Involve peers in activities 

  • Set up interesting and meaningful activities where peers work together on clear and common goals
  • Intentionally train all students to use visual supports, mini schedules, and strategies to help each other stay on task

4. Provide many learning opportunities within activities

  • Embed learning opportunities into all activities, which includes an opportunity for students to actively respond and a follow up with acknowledgment of a correct response or prompting to successfully respond
  • Follow through – if the student doesn’t respond when an instruction is given, prompt them to success
  • Differentiate instruction so that students receive learning opportunities that are targeted to their level

5. Schedule for engagement

  • Establish classroom routines and systems so students know what to expect and can respond independently
  • Alternate between movement and sitting activities
  • Explicitly teach students the skills of waiting and transition

Although universal supports will benefit many students, it may be necessary to observe individual students to determine what is interfering with engagement.

Example 1

Eli struggles to stay on task during small group centers. The teacher notices he does not understand the expectations and has trouble completing multiple steps. Based on this observation, the teacher creates mini schedules for the activities and teaches the peers and Eli how to use them. The group all uses the mini schedules and the peers help remind Eli to mark the steps as he completes them. 

Example 2

Aliana is often distracted and not attending during group story time. The teacher has a second copy of the book and pairs Aliana with two peers to look at the story together as the teacher reads. After adding this additional support, the teacher notices that Aliana is able to be more engaged and she decides to use the strategy for another student who has similar struggles. 

Finally, consider collecting Classroom Engagement Data to assess the general level of engagement for students in the classroom. This data can help you determine if specific children are less engaged, and whether there are whole group patterns of engagement that might warrant changes to classroom routines or activities. 

Written by: Amy Matthews, Ph.D., BCBA and Jamie Owen-DeSchryver, Ph.D.

Resources and References:

Autism Speaks Preschool Inclusion for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Toolkit for Training and Program Development. Retrieved from https://www.rchsd.org/documents/2017/04/alexas-playc-preschool-inclusion-toolkit.pdf/

Division for Early Childhood. (2014). DEC recommended practices in early intervention/early childhood special education. Retrieved from https://www.dec-sped.org/dec-recommended-practices

Hart, J. E., & Whalon, K. J. (2008). 20 ways to promote academic engagement and communication of students with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive settings. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(2), 116-120. Available through Research Gate

Ruble, L., & McGrew, J. H. (2013). Teacher and child predictors of achieving IEP goals of children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 43(12), 2748-2763.