Keeping pupils engaged and motivated remotely

Adele Bates suggests ways to stay connected with pupils, create routines and play to your strengths for learning online

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

There’s engagement, motivation, inspiration, and keeping distracting and disruptive behaviour at bay…

…and then there’s doing it whilst you’re not in the same building, let alone room, as your pupils.

We are all learning, and we will keep learning. Here’s a round-up of some useful strategies we’ve found so far.

Safety and understanding first

When lockdown first happened in the UK there was a belief from some that we would quickly return, go back to normal, pull our socks up and do some jolly good catch up. All would be well. This was reflected in the fact that exams, particularly in England, were set to still go ahead until many months later.

The reality is though, that we teach human beings, not robots.

Isolation is becoming an increasingly used word in our society

There is absolutely no point trying any form of catch-up or intervention-framework strategy if your pupils do not feel safe.

This might look like spending one lesson not on content, but instead helping pupils digest a bereavement, understand why they feel so anxious during a pandemic, or help them air frustration about not being able to get out.

Yes there is a balance, and learning needs to happen too – but without feeling safe, pupils don’t have the capacity to learn anyway. This will be in varying degrees depending on the child and their home lives.


Alongside safety is monitoring. As days turn into months, time can quickly pass before you realise that no one has spoken to Chay for six weeks – this can be a big safeguarding concern.

Ensure your own monitoring of progress and communication is kept up to date, and that it feeds into a bigger structure of monitoring across school.

Keep connected

Some days pupils struggle to engage. For some it’s a sneaky watch of a YouTube video while you explain Pythagoras; for others, they just won’t turn up.

It is vital that you keep connected. Isolation is becoming an increasingly used word in our society, and young people – especially teenagers – who are wired to begin creating their own communities away from primary care givers, will be feeling this.

Before trying to tell off or punish someone for missing a class, find out why. Connect with the reason – it could be something you could help with, to enable them to access the learning. It’s not like you can give them a detention anyway…

One of my favourite things about remote teaching has been the huge increase of contact I have had with parents and carers. Some parents, who we struggle to get into school, now communicate with me regularly, which can be of huge benefit, especially when working with pupils with additional needs. (For more on this, see further reading for ‘The one big thing…!’)

Don’t feel as if the only way to teach remotely is to become an internet whizz

Behaviour and sanctions when learning remotely

Stay in at break? After school detention? Isolation booth?

As a behaviour and education specialist, I have been pleased to see that we have had to get more inventive. Without the ability to ‘just punish’ or give a consequence, it is forcing us to support behavioural needs at the root. As Dr Shanker advocates: recognise the difference between stress behaviour and misbehaviour.

Issues around behaviour are a block to learning – and when we investigate and react to them in that way, we are more likely to remove that block. (For more ideas on how to do this, see further reading.)

Play to your strengths

You’re the ICT teacher? You understand how to whizzband the zoogle meets and screenshare a 3D-virtual mock exam? – Enjoy.

For the rest of us, we have had huge learning curves when it comes to technology. Whilst there are some basics that are useful to learn, play to your strengths after that.

  • You’re a great storyteller? Do it.
  • You usually use pupils’ work as a model for learning? Do it.
  • You love leading show and tell? Do it.
  • You have a gift for writing letters? Pupils will appreciate post now – do it.

Don’t feel as if the only way to teach remotely is to become an internet whizz. Play to your own strengths – then the pupils have more to learn.

Invite pupils to play to theirs

Whilst you’re using your strengths to teach, there will inevitably be technical things that go wrong. See if the pupils know how to do it!

Especially when working in PRUs, SEMH and APs, I have found the power of allowing a pupil to teach you something can do wonders for your relationship, and their ability to trust you with their learning.

Being able to see your pupils can be hugely helpful and comforting

It might not just be with the computer. Maybe now they’re ‘at home’ they can show you how well they’ve trained their dog or how they’ve arranged their mum’s DVDs in alphabetical order.

We are being given a very special space in a part of pupils’ lives they often don’t share with us – create the invitation for them to share their best bits with you.


As a sighted teacher, being able to see your pupils can be hugely helpful and comforting.

However, linking to the first point, not all pupils will be able to do this for all sorts of reasons: confidence, self-image, embarrassment of home, for hijab wearing girls it is not usual to have to wear their headscarf at home – and yet they’d have to if they put their camera on – boundaries are being blurred.

So here are some tips for managing cameras.

1. Is it vital for the whole lesson?

  • Some teachers make a game of it. They want to have seen the pupils for at least some time (for safeguarding reasons to check on wellbeing), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be for the whole session.
  • Maybe you could link it to the content you’re teaching? For example, it’s ‘Video 5’ every time it’s half past the hour – if you’re teaching how to tell the time.
  • Or they could be all asked to come on at once for a short amount of time, so that the focus is not on any one person.

2. Backgrounds

  • To get around pupils who may be ashamed of being judged about their home, make a game out of using the virtual background settings – or simply ask all pupils to be against a plain wall.

3. Differentiate

  • For some pupils, they may feel safe seeing you on camera, or a friend, but not the whole class. Consider doing ‘drop-ins’ for some sessions – so that you give the pupil the chance to build up their confidence gradually – in the same way as we would help a pupil who fears all-class reading.

Boundaries and routines

In the same way as your classroom needs boundaries and routines, so does your remote classroom. I advocate for always beginning with your three non-negotiables. Not only does this help expectations and behaviour (because pupils can feel safe knowing what will happen and what is expected of them) but also can help things run a lot more smoothly. Here are some examples.

  • First 10mins of a virtual lesson, you know you’re waiting for everyone to get technically sorted – have a starter activity that pupils can easily begin with little input, while you’re working out how to re-open the waiting room.
  • If you are dropping off and picking up work physically, ensure this happens in a regular slot. Use it as a chance to also set individual tasks that could spark conversation and learning on the doorstep (distanced). ‘When I pick up work on Tuesday, I’d love to know what you’ve found out about the Diplodocus – three facts please!’
  • If you ‘lose’ a pupil during a virtual lesson always follow up with a call – so they know that pressing the big red button does not mean they don’t have to learn! A follow up chat with them, or it may end up with the parent or carer, could reveal barriers they’re having to learning that they don’t feel comfortable to tell you in the group. Equally, they’ll learn that they can’t just press the button and forget about you. As in real school, it’s all in the follow up!

Goals and structure

Whilst the days can amble on and circle into one big blur, it is useful to provide structure and momentum to the learning. That could be:

  • three weeks of French grammar, then once a month French bingo
  • projects that pupils work on and build up to as new knowledge is acquired
  • Tuesday and Wednesday are English language, Fridays are English literature.

Communicate structures with your pupils, ask for their input, find out what would help motivate them towards a final project.

Keep sharing

Finally, as you learn extra tips and strategies yourself, please keep sharing with others – we’re all working this out together.

Further reading

Last Updated: 
11 Feb 2021