Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

For many years as I taught grade school then transitioned into school administration we always seemed to talk about on and off task behaviour.  In fact, I can remember people coming into my classroom with a stop watch and timing the amount of on and off task behaviour a student displayed over a half hour period of time.  To this day, when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.

It hasn’t been until now, that a number of pieces of information, a few different books I have read, and the latest Professional Development I have been involved in did it become apparent to me that on or off task behaviour was not necessarily the fault of the child.  In fact, off task behaviour in most cases falls directly on the shoulders of teachers.  We as teachers cannot make a student be more on task, but we can design tasks that result in an increase in student engagement.  In fact, in most cases, when tasks consists of elements that engage students, guess what?  Students are engaged.

But why should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement?  Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  This visual clearly speaks to the role of the teacher and the requirement for effective teaching.  I realize there are many qualities that meld together to create a “high-performing” teacher but there is definitely no argument that one of the key qualities is the ability to design tasks that result in student engagement.

So just what are tasks that result in high levels of student engagement?  What are the attributes, components of these tasks? To answer these questions, I will include the information the staff at Erin Woods School recently compiled. In a two-hour work session, our staff came together to think, discuss, and synthesize the following information.

Here is the trick to changing off-task behaviour:

Lessons that are designed to engage students do just that!  Listed here are the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement.

Low Level of Engagement

Medium Level of Engagement

High Level of Engagement

  • Listening
  • Teacher telling
  • Watching the teacher do
  • Copying
  • Individual tasks
  • Memorizing
  • Not challenging – student finishes quickly and easily (low-level thinking)
  • The task is not easily differentiated (except by making less work or more work)
  • All students have the same task (no student choice)
  • Is teacher made (or made by a publisher)
  • Has right or wrong answers
  • Not linked to personal interest


Work sheets – pre-made

Yes/no tasks (one right answer)



Fill in the missing word

Write  a word 5 times

Word Search

  • Combination of two learning modalities (ex: visual and tactile)
  • Looking for information
  • Partner work
  • Students doing
  • Some self or peer assessment
  • Increased use of visuals
  • Combining some personal knowledge to the new information


Mad Minute

Personal Dictionary

KWL Charts

Any searching, finding, looking for answer

Making Words

Work with more than one right answer

  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Student generated/student created
  • Game-like
  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests
  • Working together with peers
  • Results in a piece of work the student is proud of
  • Challenges the student but is attainable
  • Considers learning styles
  • Allows for student choice – completed work looks different
  • Can be extended or broadened into further learning
  • More than one right answer


Games or challenges

Hands on or multi-modal

Solves real life problems (math, social studies)

Experiments (with a hypothesis and solution)

What this information tells us is task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.  As educator Phil Schlechty says, There is a 0% chance that children will learn from work they do not do.”  And we know they will not do boring, un-engaging, un-related, senseless tasks, would you?



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  1. profesorbaker

    I enjoyed reading this post. It’s a great post, informative, practical: lots of ideas to put in practice is offered.

    Thanks for this, it’s really useful, in a tomorrow-kind-of-way!


  2. David Kanigan

    Great post. And very compelling McKinsey chart which I will share. Thank you. (From a fellow Canadian!)

    1. Lori Cullen

      Thanks David!

  3. Shira Leibowitz

    Hi Lori,
    I love the examples of activities to engage students. Even more, I love the reflective process in which your teachers engaged to create the lists of learning activities.. Perhaps there is another level to add to your list engaged teacher learners lead to engaged student learners.
    Thanks for another thoughtful blog post to help me reflect!

    1. Lori Cullen

      Yes the piece about engaged teachers did come up in our discussion and it is so right! Thanks Shira!

  4. Christina

    Absolutely true about engaged teachers leading to engaged students. If we are excited about the activity/lesson then the students will be excited. Our students live in a world of hands on computers, ipads, ipods etc. We need to understand each students form of learning and in turn we will find the key to engagement for each student. Great post Lori. Thanks.

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