Signs of Disengagement

Just as it is important to recognize signs of engagement in your participants, you must also pay attention for signs that your connection or their attention has begun to wane. The more familiar you are with participants and their typical ways of engaging, the easier it will become to recognize when they are starting to disengage. There are signs to look for that will help you notice the shifts in engagement that happen throughout a program.

The first sign is a shift in a participant’s presentation and later their level of participation. Where they were looking at you, the object you are discussing or other participants, they may begin to look away; where they were happy or smiling, their mood may change. Their body language may become uncomfortable or they may even fidget or wander away. Their conversation may become unrelated to what is happening in the program.

Over the course of the Artful Moments program, we noticed that one participant’s level of engagement fluctuated. By getting to know his usual way of interacting, we became more efficient at noticing when there was a change in his level of engagement and we developed an understanding of why these fluctuations may occur. With the facilitator having this kind of awareness, she was able to interact and reconnect with the participant.

Henry participates with his daughter each week while his wife takes time to rest. He enjoys coming to the program each week because he feels good when everyone remembers his name and listens to the things he tells us about his life. We have noticed in the past that he stays connected and active when we make sure to call on him regularly, as he doesn’t often share on his own. On this particular day, he spoke a lot during the conversation, even adding a story from his past. He was content and involved. When we switched to the hands-on activity he chatted with others at first, but then we noticed that he suddenly started worrying about his wife at home, and asking his daughter about her several times. This was a sign of becoming disengaged from a program that had held his attention well to this point. At the same time, we saw that he was having trouble keeping up with the steps in the activity. He was feeling confused and at that moment he disconnected.

We saw Henry’s disengagement through the shift of his attention away from the activity, instead focusing on his worry for his wife. He stopped painting, and was no longer watching the facilitator or her demonstration. He began speaking to his daughter, asking her questions about phoning home, and seemed like he wanted to leave.

As already mentioned, your best clue that a participant has disengaged is a visible change in their mood, appearance or actions. But here are some things to look for:

  • Eye contact – The participant stops looking at the facilitator, objects or other participants.
  • Facial expression – Participants who were once smiling are not, participants may look unhappy, sad or confused. Remember that some people may not show expressions of mood as strongly as others. Also, remember that you are looking for a change, not their usual presentation.
  • Body Language – Does the participant seem uncomfortable, or in pain? Do they lean away from the facilitator or others (showing discomfort)? Are they fidgeting or wandering away?
  • Mood – Participants will arrive at the program with different moods, often related to external factors. They may also sometimes show a range of moods throughout the program. Look for a change in their mood to identify disconnection.
  • Actions – Participants do not engage with objects or activities. They may walk around the room or wander away. They may leave, or ask to leave. 
  • Communications – Participants do not add comments or answer questions. They may ask questions, talk about unrelated things (like worries about home), or complain (to the group, facilitator or their friend or family member).