Engagement Saves the Day

Last night our family went bowling—7 adults and 7 children. We had one lane for adults and one for kids, nachos to munch on, soft drinks, French fries, and cheese curds (we’re in Minnesota, where folks eat these things). The kids ranged in ages from 13-3. Willy, the 9-year-old, fell in the middle of the pack. It wasn’t his first time bowling, and he knew he wasn’t good at it yet. He’s a slim, delicate boy—throwing that big ball isn’t easy for him. But the adults decided we were bowling and having family time, so he was bowling. After a few times at the line, and knocking down only one or two pins every time, Willy was ready to quit. Uncle Joe, however, decided that a little extrinsic reward might keep Willy playing. He bet Willy that if he made a strike or a spare, he’d give him a dollar, and if he didn’t, Willy would have to give Uncle Joe a dollar. Uncle Joe confided in the grownups that he was looking for a way to make it more fun and challenging for Willy.

Willy at the bowling alley

Willy (left) at the bowling alley.

Most of us were playing and having fun, and didn’t pay much attention to Willy. At one point, I noticed he was sitting at one of the tables, intent on every frame, waiting his turn, watching his score and the speed of the ball when he threw it. This surprised me because he’s usually a sociable, somewhat distractible boy; he’s the boy on the bench in little league who’s having fun talking to everyone, doesn’t know who’s winning the game, and isn’t worried about it.

I asked him how it was going. That’s when he told me about the bet. “Uncle Joe will give me a dollar if I get a strike or a spare. Then I’m going to play a video game with the money.”

“Oh boy,” I thought. “This could end badly.” Willy isn’t well-coordinated. He learned to ride a bicycle late, and needed some physical therapy as a kid to help with body balance issues. He’s smart and a reader and a thinker, but sports will probably never be his strength.

I could see this really mattered to him. Somehow, he’d decided that he had to win this insignificant amount of money. As we came to the end of the second game, Willy told me, “I have three more turns to win the bet.” Up to that point, he’d still not had either a spare or strike. I told his parents about the bet, thinking they might want to intervene. They chose to let him play it out, probably mentally preparing to help him handle failure. Soon all the adults knew the stakes, and watched the next two turns, when Willy continued his lackluster throws.

Finally it was the last try, the last chance. We were all watching, but pretending it was no big deal, trying to dial down the pressure. Willy stood up, threw with his usual overhand, dropping the ball with a little push style, and we all watched the slow roll down the lane. The ball hit the first pin just about right, down the middle, but with no speed at all. One by painstaking one, the pins fell, and finally the very last corner pin fell. A strike! Two lanes of children and parents broke into cheers, Willy threw up his hands saying, “Yes! Yes!” He walked up to Uncle Joe, hand out, and Uncle Joe, who already had the dollar out, handed him the money. Willy and his older brother Tom walked to the arcade, ready to spend the winnings.

As adults, we breathed a sigh of relief and happiness, too, at seeing a boy succeed in a small way at something that seemed impossible.

This blog is about engagement and its power for keeping kids in school. Every two weeks we’ll sift through the latest information, suggesting good resources on the topic, and providing some commentary.

We believe engagement, writ large, is the key to keeping kids in school. Yes, they need to attend school, but we want them to engage, get involved, care passionately about some things, maybe less so about others, but to be interested in what goes on in school. And yes, we’re going to talk about engagement as a psychological construct, but note that we think it should be a value, too—schools ought to keep all kids engaged in learning and school most of the time.

So what does Willy’s story have to do with engagement? Well, a boy who wasn’t athletically inclined and was probably behind in physical development, was forced to go bowling. He attended, but mostly threw the ball and walked away, not expecting to do well. Then, because of an extrinsic reward and the challenge and attention associated with it, became intensely engaged in something he wasn’t particularly good at—he had a goal. He paid attention, took his turn, kept track of how he was doing by watching the score, the other players, and the speed of his throws. He made adjustments in how he was throwing that bowling ball and kept working toward that goal. He focused on his efforts and attended to feedback.

The adults had a role, too. They set up the “curriculum” and put the kids together to play the game. One of the adults, Uncle Joe, noticed that Willy wasn’t having much fun, so he tried to up his interest with a challenge. Later, all the adults realized what was going on, and also that Willy could very well fail, and they started thinking about how they might help him in that eventuality. Meanwhile, the adults and other children cheered him on.

In this case, Willy succeeded. The story ends happily, as we hope all learning experiences do for students. Willy experienced the power of goals, feedback, and persistence, and the support of caring adults in his life who want him to succeed. Our challenge here is to provide experiences like this every day to all children—or at least enough such experiences that children and youth want to be and stay engaged in school and learning.

See more about Check & Connect’s approach to student engagement at Check & Connect’s Emphasis on Student Engagement, and more about engagement in general at School Completion and Student Engagement: Information and Strategies for Parents (PDF)

About the Author: Karen Stout, Ph.D. provides training nationally and internationally on Check & Connect, serves as an investigator on several Check & Connect research projects currently underway, and is one of the authors of the 2012 Check & Connect manual, “Implementing with Fidelity”.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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