Pupil engagement & behaviour

A pupil cannot benefit from a lesson if they are not present in the classroom, engaged in the lesson, and behaving appropriately for learning. Many schools take the view that good behaviour is a pre-requisite for learning, and that disruptive behaviour also distracts other pupils and negatively impacts on their learning.

This page describes the evidence on improving academic attainment by increasing pupil engagement and improving behaviour, presenting findings from the Teaching and Learning Toolkit alongside the results from relevant EEF projects. 

Evidence Summary

Overall, the evidence makes it clear that reducing challenging behaviour in schools can have a direct and lasting effect on pupils’ learning. However, school leaders should be aware that some interventions can be effective in reducing problematic behaviour without improving attainment.

Three broad categories of behaviour interventions can be identified, two of them focused on learning outside the classroom:

  1. Universal programmes which seek to improve engagement and behaviour, and generally take place in the classroom;
  2. More specialised programmes which are targeted at students with either behavioural issues or behaviour and academic problems;
  3. School level approaches to developing a positive school ethos or improving discipline which also aim to support greater engagement in learning.

Positive impacts are larger for targeted interventions matched to specific students with particular needs or behavioural issues, than for universal interventions or whole school strategies. School-level behaviour approaches are often associated with improvements in attainment, but the evidence of a causal link to learning is lacking. There is some anecdotal evidence about the benefits of reducing problematic behaviour of disruptive pupils on the attainment of their classmates, but this is an understudied dimension in evaluations of behaviour programmes.

The evidence on pupil engagement is more limited. For schools trying to increase engagement by targeting pupils’ motivation and aspirations, it is worth noting the evidence on this is very limited. Raising aspirations is often believed to be an effective way to motivate pupils to work harder so as to achieve the steps necessary for later success. However, the existing evidence suggests that on average, interventions which aim to raise aspirations, improve self-esteem or develop motivation appear to have little to no positive impact on educational attainment.

Mentoring is another popular approach to improving behaviour and engagement, but again the evidence in the Toolkit suggests the average impact on attainment is low. School-based mentoring programs have on average been less effective than community-based approaches, possibly because school-based mentoring can result in fewer opportunities for young people to develop more lasting and trusting relationships with adult role models. However, positive benefits such as improved attitudes to school, better attendance and improved behaviour have been reported.

An example of an EEF project in this area is ‘Increasing Pupil Motivation’, designed to improve attainment at GCSE by providing incentives to increase pupil effort in Year 11. Two schemes for incentivising pupil effort were implemented. The first provided a financial incentive, while the second provided an incentive of a trip or event. The research identified an improvement in classwork effort across English, Maths and Science for the group who received the financial incentive, but no long term impacts on GCSE results were identified for students on either scheme. It seems that material incentives might have increased motivation, but this did not translate into better grades. 


Our YouTube channel features discussions on the evidence presented in each of the Toolkit strands.