Student Engagement is an Ecological Affair: Every Piece Matters

Student Engagement is an Ecological Affair: Every Piece Matters

Yvonne I. Larrier, PhD, LPC, NCC, NCSC, EAS-C
Associate Professor & Department Chair
Counseling & Human Services
School of Education
Indiana University South Bend
Founding Director of GCSCORED, Inc.

Vanessa L. Kelleybrew
Indiana University South Bend


Author Note

Yvonne I. Larrier, Counseling & Human Services Department, Indiana University South Bend.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Yvonne Larrier, Counseling & Human Services Department, Indiana University South Bend, South Bend, IN 46615. E-mail: or



In the USA, every 26 seconds a student drops out of high school, 7,000 students a day and over 1.2 million a year.  How students experience school influences their level of success. Ecological factors influence students’ engagement and dis-engagement in their academic journey. Dropping out is the result of a long-term process of disengagement and not a reactive, one-time event.

Helping students experience school success increases the likelihood of their college and career productivity, while simultaneously decreasing risky behavior. We posit that foundational to student engagement are the five core social emotional competencies (SECs): self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, social awareness and responsible decision making. We believe that students can become behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engaged when they are equipped with the knowledge, attitudes and skills to recognize, understand, manage, express and reflect on their thoughts, interactions, mindsets and emotions (RUMERTIME) as it relates to self, others and situations.

Keywords: student engagement; social emotional competencies; RUMERTIME Process

U.S. Student Dropout Rate is too high

The dropout rate of students from schools in the United States is staggering around 7,000 students drop out each day (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2010). This adds up to 1.2 million students who don’t graduate annually, about 30 % of those who should (Amos, 2008).  This has significant consequences on both national and local levels for the communities in which these students live and attend school, and will subsequently work and contribute as citizens.

Dropout Rates aren’t the Whole Story

But the dropout rates don’t tell the whole story. Attendance at school is mandatory and the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) mandates certain quantifiable measures for schools and schools districts. Student achievement, and the success of schools and school districts, is measured and evaluated through quantifiable test scores, graduation rates and adequate yearly progress. This is where the spotlight of the U.S. Department of Education is, on student performance and achievement.

But what about the quality of the students’ lives and interactions when they are present at school? How students perceive and experience school has a significant influence on their academic,  emotional, social and career/college development, readiness and outcomes.

We Need to Look at Student Engagement

The issues of high school dropouts in the U.S. and student engagement are closely related to student achievement and accountability education policies and practices.  Many researchers in the field of student engagement and dropout prevention agree that dropping out of school is not an instantaneous event. They consider it to be a long process of disengagement from school that ends with students ceasing to attend (Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007; Pinkus, 2008).  In a study by Bridgeland, Dilulio & Morison (2006), students who dropped out reported feeling a sense of alienation from school as early as one to three years before deciding to drop out.

Many educators, researchers, policy makers and government officials have begun to look at student engagement as a response to this education crisis.  Creating programs, practices, curricula and interventions are steps being taken to engage students with their learning communities.  

The Importance of Student Engagement

The 2016 report from the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE, 2016) confirms that a critical element to student success continues to be obtaining students’ full engagement in their own learning process. Of the students who participated in the 2009 study, 28% reported not being engaged (Yazzie-Mintz, 2009).

The study considered three building blocks of engagement: (1) students’ reasons for school attendance; (2) boredom in school; and (3) how often and why students considered dropping out of school.  Almost all of the respondents, 98%, had been bored at some time during their high school years, and over one quarter had considered dropping out. Boredom has been a consistent response in this annual study since its inception in 2006.

The results of the HSSSE study, and of other similar studies in the past 20 years, have identified student engagement as a critical factor in the education challenges facing the United States today. Numerous prevention, intervention and recovery programs have at their core structures for building relationships with students and their learning communities (Balfanz et al., 2007; Janosz, Archambault, Morizot & Pagani, 2008).   

Elements of Student Engagement

It has always been fairly challenging to succinctly and clearly define student engagement (Appleton, Christenson, & Furlong, 2008.) Researchers in the field of student engagement tend to agree that it is a multifaceted construct involving multiple factors, such as academics, behavior, cognition and affect (Finn, 1989; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Marks, 2000; Jimerson, Camplos & Orief, 2003).  In this article, we define student engagement using the tripartite concept: behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement (Fredricks, et al., 2004).

Behavioral Engagement

Students demonstrate behavioral engagement by eagerly taking the risk of participating in class discussions.  They are also willing and able to comply with and follow school rules, attend school regularly and stay out of trouble.  Being involved in extracurricular activities is also an indication of engagement, and leads to feelings of connectedness to peers and school personnel (Finn, 1993; Finn & Rock, 1997; Finn, Pannozzo, & Voelkl, 1995; Fredricks, et al., 2004).

Emotional Engagement

Students develop emotional engagement and connection through the way they feel when teachers, counselors and other school personnel demonstrate respect, care and support towards them (Maddox & Prinz, 2003; Osterman, 2000). Students behave differently and exhibit positive behavioral engagement traits when they feel this sense of emotional connection (Balfanz et al., 2007). These positive behaviors affect everyone: it’s easier for adults to form emotional connections to these students; and the students respond by being respectful to adults, peers and property, and by attending school.  The students develop a level of connection to the people at their school and a satisfactory level of school pride (Goodenow, 1993; Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002; Jimerson et al., 2003; Murray & Greenberg, 2001; Wentzel, 1997).

Cognitive Engagement

A cognitively engaged student moves beyond performing academic work solely for a grade to mastery of the subject matter (Fredricks et al., 2004).  This student is fully committed to their successful academic performance through continual learning and mastering the knowledge. Students who are cognitively engaged positively affect other students through establishing a culture of achievement in their classroom (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Newman, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992; Maddox & Prinz, 2003).

Influences on Student Engagement

Researchers agree that student engagement is influenced by many factors and is operationalized and measured in diverse ways (Appleton et al., 2008).  Finn (1993) posits status predictor variables for disengagement risk factors that cannot be changed by educators – such as family and community – and alterable predicator variables for those that are readily influenced – including suspension and homework completion. The most frequently referenced engagement taxonomy recognizes multiple student engagement factors at various levels. Recognizing the factors that influence disengagement is as important as identifying those that promote engagement (Balfanz et al., 2007); Pinkus, 2008). Several researchers have suggested that individual, family, community and school factors all influence student disengagement (Christenson et al., 2008; Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992; Rumberger, 2004).   Rumberger (2004) proposed two standpoints – individual and institutional – for understanding student engagement. The individual perspective is that of the student’s attributes, including their values, attitudes and behaviors. The most commonly identified variable in the individual perspective is student engagement, the ultimate negative expression of which is the decision to permanently disengage by dropping out of school.

The institutional perspective covers the contexts or environments in which the student lives or works and which help to influence the student’s behavior. Families, schools and communities all fall into this standpoint.

Fundamental to Rumberger’s theory is the concept that culture, context and social interactions help to construct a person’s knowledge and reality. This subscribes to the theory of social constructivism and the bioecological theory of human development (Bowen 2009).

Factors from both the individual and in the institutional standpoints influence students becoming disengaged academically by not completing assignments or missing school. They may also disengage socially and experience difficulty in building and maintaining supportive relationships with other students and adults at school.

Students who are disengaged and alienated from school are more likely to drop out (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997; Rumberger, 2004) and engage in risky behaviors such as criminal activity, substance and alcohol abuse and becoming teen parents (Caraway et al, 2003).

Factors Contributing to Student Disengagement

The ecological systems theory explains a child’s development within the context of five environmental systems. Fundamental to Bronfenbrenner’s theory (1979) is the construct that we are all active participants of multiple ecosystems and that a change in one system influences changes in other systems. This speaks to the interconnectivity of the ecosystems in which we are all embedded and shows a bi-directional impact.

Given this framework, the factors that contribute to students’ disengagement can be found in each of the five ecological systems. The student is central to the microsystem and as the system impacts the student so, too, the student impacts the system. Therefore, a student’s biology, psychology, experiences, mindsets, and interactions are brought to bear on the process of disengagement and their interpretation and response to ecological factors impacting them.  In addition to the student being a core influencing factor in the microsystem, the family, home, school, peers, religious organization and neighborhood are some of the most proximal contributing factors to engagement and disengagement.  

The other four systems of the ecological system (meso, exo, macro and chrono systems) are inclusive of social settings (such as social services, parents, work settings, politics, media, etc.) and cultural contexts (for example, attitudes, mindsets, norms, practices and beliefs) that are embedded in the student’s contexts whether proximally or distally. The mesosystem provides the connections between the microsystems, for example between the child’s parents and teachers, and between peer groups and the family. The presence and quality (or absence) of these interactions directly affect the student and help to model the intra- and interpersonal relationships that should be present in the student’s life. The chronosystem adds in the dimension of time as the child moves through their life. Of concern here are both the change and constancy of the child’s environments, but especially of school and home. Changes in family structure, school environments and even wider societal circumstances can serve as positive or negative influences on the student’s development and well-being.

Finally, socio-historical factors, such as incarceration or divorce, and major national traumatic events, such as 911, Katrina, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria of 2017, all have influence.  At each level of the five ecosystems, we find factors that are facilitators or barriers to student engagement and disengagement.

Effects of Student Disengagement

Not being engaged can result in students actively disengaging from their school environment. The effects of disengagement can be seen in each of the behavioral, emotional and cognitive elements as students engage in risky behavior.

According to Feinstein (2002), an individual is considered at-risk for a specific event or condition “…if they are suitably susceptible to that event and if it has not yet occurred,” (p. 328). In today’s society, many negative factors affect children and youth at various stages of their lives. Risky or negative behaviors at the early stages of a child’s life, including aggression, antisocial attitudes, poor academic performance and achievement, and truancy, can be curbed or prevented with the help of family members, the school, and the community’s involvement (Bierman et al., 2003).

Terzian, Andrews, and Moore (2011), state that, “risky behaviors can be associated with serious, long-term, and – in some cases – life-threatening consequences.” Simple disciplinary incidents of behaviors, when not addressed early in a child’s academic career, can lead to further risky behaviors such as poor academic achievement and performance, as well as intra- and interpersonal difficulties. This is sometimes externalized through poor academic performance and achievement, poor school attendance, bullying and other negative prosocial behaviors.

A lack of social emotional competencies (SECs) are at the core of bullying, substance use and abuse, domestic violence, poor academic performance and achievement, poor school attendance, and other negative social emotional behaviors. (Bierman et al., 2003; CASEL, 2015b; Payton et al., 2000; Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013). We argue that developing SECs is foundational to students staying engaged and becoming re-engaged in the school environment.

Tripartite Construct of Student Engagement and SECs

As discussed earlier, student engagement is, for the most part, a tripartite construct of behavioral, cognitive and emotional engagement. Similarly, the five core social emotional competencies carry with them these same tripartite constructs.  For example, in order to demonstrate self-awareness, social awareness, relationship management, self- management and healthy decision making skills, a person has to engage their cognitive abilities, their thinking patterns and their emotions based on the ability to recognize, understand and manage, express and reflect. Then, in order to become socially aware and to manage self and relationships, they have to be mindful of their behaviors.

Social Emotional Competencies

Social-emotional competences (SECs) are critical to children and youths’ intra- and interpersonal success, and contribute along with reading and math competences to academic and career success. Weissberg and Cascarino (2013) discussed five social emotional competencies that aptly fit under three broad domains: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral, the same elements as in student engagement. The five SECs are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills.


Self-awareness is the ability to recognize accurately the way one’s thoughts and emotions influence behavior. This ability also allows an individual to identify and label their feelings and further identify and develop their strengths and positive qualities. This competency can be seen as foundational to the other four competencies (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013; Weissberg & O’Brien, 2004).


According to Weissberg and Cascarino (2013), self-management is the ability to control one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in various settings and situations. It also involves setting personal, social, career, and academic goals, and working towards them.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is other-awareness. It is the ability to identify and understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals and groups, whether they are similar or different from one’s own (Weissberg and O’Brien, 2004).

Relationship Skills

Relationship skills is the ability to create and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with various individuals and groups by communicating effectively, actively listening, working together, discussing conflict productively, and looking for and providing help when needed (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013).

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making is the ability to make proper and respectful choices about one’s behavior and social interactions based on one’s ethical standards. This involves the realistic evaluation of the consequences that could result from one’s actions, concerns of protection, and the well-being of oneself and others (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013).

SECs and Individual Success

The literature is replete with studies on social emotional competencies and success in home, school and work settings (Whitley & Gooderham, 2015).  There is an interchange between those with higher SECs (self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, etc.) and their ability to establish and maintain inter- and intrapersonal balance with self, others and life situations, such as school, work, relationships at school and persistence through school and life (Larrier, Allen, & Larrier, 2017; Durlak, Weissber, Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011). Students with fewer social emotional skills tend to be at higher risk for disengagement and dropout (Payton et al., 2008; Snyder et al., 2009; Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2007). These competencies allow students to recognize and understand their strengths and weaknesses (self-awareness); learn from and work with peers, and build positive relationships with teachers and parents (self-management and relationship management); be empathic and stand up to issues such as bullying (social awareness); and to be able to not engage in risky behaviors, such as drugs and alcohol (responsible decision-making). All of these facilitate school success and engagement (Zins et al., 2007).

Social Emotional Competencies and Student Engagement

Social emotional learning (SEL) frameworks within which students learn social emotional competencies can provide positive engagement and cohesion within communities. Children and youth who present few protective factors and a higher number of risk factors can benefit from participating in programs that have, at their core, social emotional skills acquisition and training. These children tend to experience a reduction in risk factors and an increase in protective factors such as enhanced school attachments, increased academic achievement and performance, decreased behavioral referrals and decreased bullying reports (CASEL, 2015a).

According to Durlak et al. (as cited by CASEL, 2015b), within the school setting, the acquisition of social emotional competencies provides better adjustment and academic performance, which have been shown to improve attitudes and behaviors. These include a greater motivation to learn, an in-depth commitment to school, more time dedicated to schoolwork, and increased positive classroom behaviors.

At the individual level, acquiring SECs helps to equip children and youth with empathy, self-awareness and problem-solving skills. It allows them to be more focused and attentive in class, responsible, sympathetic, have a clearer life purpose and to have a sense of contentment that positively influences self, others, and situations within the home, school, community and future workplace (CASEL, 2015c; Jones & Bouffard, 2012; Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013; Zins & Weissberg, 2004).

The implementation of social emotional competencies has also shown fewer negative behavioral problems in children and youth (i.e. aggression, bullying, disruptive classroom behavior, delinquent behaviors and ill-discipline) and less emotional pain (i.e. depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and stress).

Within the home setting, acquiring social emotional competencies equips children and youth with qualities such as kindness, peacefulness, respect and openness (CASEL, 2015a; Fredericks, Weissberg, Resnik, Patrikakou, O’Brien, 2014). According to Albright and Weissberg (2010), children and youth SECs are enhanced when they are reinforced both at home and at school. The transition between home and school becomes more consistent and continuous and increases the likelihood of improved intra- and interpersonal relationships between children and their parents, teachers, siblings and peers.

The social and emotional needs of students are at the core of student engagement and inextricably connected to school success for all students at every grade level and within every ecosystem in which they are embedded. Therefore, it is imperative that schools systematically incorporate social emotional education for all students from Pre-K to 12th grades.  It is important that parents, all educators and community stakeholders be educated in, and personally and professionally adopt, the five core social emotional competencies if we are to reduce the staggering 1.2 million students dropping out annually.


Putting frameworks into place that support a social emotional learning environment will teach students how to develop social emotional competencies. With these skills, students have the personal resources, interest and support to remain engaged in the academic environment. One such strategy is the RUMERTIME Process™. RUMERTIME is an acronym. Individuals Recognize, Understand, Manage, Express, and Reflect on their Thoughts, Interactions, Mindsets, and Emotions as they relate to a triggering event of negative thinking, acting, and feeling patterns.

The RUMERTIME Process™ is a five step psychosocial, problem-solving, culturally responsive strategy that helps individuals move towards intra- and interpersonal balance from positions of imbalance (Larrier et al., 2017).   The RUMERTIME Process™ has two goals:

  • to show individuals how to address challenges they experience within themselves, with others, and across a variety of situations and settings; and
  • to help individuals utilize the problem-solving strategy in their daily interactions, thus leading to people becoming socially-emotionally competent students, family members, workers and citizens.

In working with social emotional competencies that will support the behavioral, emotional and cognitive elements of student engagement, the RUMERTIME Process™ teaches all individuals (students, educators, parents, etc.) how to Recognize, Understand, Manage, Express and Reflect on their Thoughts, Interactions, Mindsets and Emotions (RUMERTIME) (Larrier et al., 2017) as they actively influence and are influenced by the people, policies, places, programs and processes (Novak & Purkey, 2001; Purkey, 1991; Purkey & Strahan, 1995) addressed across the contexts of the five ecological systems (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) in which individuals are embedded. As students are taught to use the RUMERTIME Process™ to help them move from a position of disengagement to engagement, they become successful intra- and interpersonally.

Conclusion: Student Engagement through SECs

In conclusion, the acquisition of social emotional competencies is as critical to student success as are numeracy and literacy competencies. The acquisition of social emotional competencies is indisputably and inextricably central to the intra- and interpersonal success of children and youth at school. The skills that SECs develop – behavioral, emotional and cognitive – are directly the elements that make up successful student engagement in the learning process. The consequences of not engaging our students from Pre-K in their own education – rising dropout rates, risky behaviors such as substance abuse and bullying, and an undereducated population – have long-term effects for all of us.



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