What to do when a student constantly refuses to work

There’s at least one in every classroom–yep, I’m talking about the kid who just sits there, and doesn’t work. The one who needs constant cajoling to put pencil to paper and get started. In some cases, there’s an attitude problem and the student is disengaged from school in general, and in other cases, the student just lacks focus or self-discipline.

Though it’s a common problem that happens in pretty much every classroom in America, there isn’t any clear cut solution.

Obviously you want to make the work as meaningful, authentic, and relevant as you can, and build rapport with students. But there are some kids who just aren’t going to focus and get their work done no matter how much of a personal connection you’ve tried to make with them, or how much choice you’ve given in the assignment, or how potentially fun it could be.

What to do when a student refuses to work

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The problem is not always related to rapport and meaningful tasks

A few years ago, I did some instructional technology coaching at a middle school in the Bronx with this fantastic, wildly energetic math teacher. He and I worked together to create an end-of-unit project for students that ticked all the 21st century learning boxes: we had developed it with student input, gave kids lots of choice in terms of topic and the tech tools they were able to use, documented everything step by step so every student was prepared to be successful and had accountability and purpose…it was simply a model project, probably the best one I’ve ever had a role in creating.

And still about a fifth of the class just did not want to do the work. They switched over to watching YouTube videos every chance they got, or messed with the computer settings so the screen would flip upside down, or renamed all the files something inappropriate the second we turned our backs.

There was nothing we could do to make calculating percentages as interesting to the kids as Googling photos of Nicki Minaj. We had made the assignment as engaging and meaningful as it could ever possibly be, and there were some kids who still just. didn’t. care.

So I want to say right up front that a student’s refusal to work is not always the result of a poorly planned or disengaging lesson, or the failure of the teacher to establish rapport. I know this directly contradicts what a lot of experts believe, but I don’t think student disengagement is a problem that can be 100% solved for every student if the teacher just works hard enough.

A great teacher can minimize the number of kids this happens with, and that’s the goal we should be striving for, but let’s be real–it requires a Herculean amount of patience, energy, and effort that frankly not everyone possesses. Teachers are tired. They have a lot on their plates.

And there comes a point where I think you have to accept that you’ve done what you can do to make the classroom culture and lessons as strong as you possibly can, and not blame yourself when a student doesn’t pull his or her own weight. I’ve just seen too many talented, dedicated teachers burn out trying to get a kid to care, and they have no energy left for the kids who do care.

Here’s what I do when a student refuses to work

I’m going to assume that you’ve already modified and/or clarified the assignment and considered the obvious interventions. There are million articles that have already been written about those things, so I won’t digress.

And of course the student’s age, personality, and root cause of disengagement all have a huge impact on the appropriate response you should take.

But, for the purposes of a 15-minute podcast here, I’m going to sum up my general response to a student who refuses to work in four basic steps:

1. Encourage the student in a light-hearted way: “Hey you can do this, let’s get you started.” Don’t make a big deal out of it and escalate the situation. Don’t tell yourself, Here we go again, this kid never does any work and get yourself all riled up. Stay upbeat, and don’t show that you’re frustrated or discouraged. Just say “Alright, great, you’re logged in, what’s the next step?” and point the student toward getting started.

2. If that doesn’t work, find out what the problem is in an empathetic way: “I notice you’re still not writing. Is this difficult? Can I help?” Say this quietly, while kneeling down or sitting so you’re at eye level with the student. Give the student a chance to express frustration or anything that’s bothering him or her.

3. If that doesn’t work, explain the natural consequences that will happen: “You need to get started, or you’re going to run out of time. Let’s go.” or “You need this paragraph finished by 10:15. If it’s not done, that’s going to affect your grade. What part can I help you with? Or are you ready to work on your own?” You’re not upset or showing frustration at this point, but your tone is very serious. There’s no more smiling now. You’re calm, but you mean business.

4. If that doesn’t work, let the student experience the consequences and talk to him or her about it: This is something that’s best done one-on-one, too, i.e. “I have to give you a zero for this and it’s going to pull down that B you got the other day, which is super disappointing after how much effort you put into it. What can we do next time to make sure you’re able to get the assignment done?”

And then you repeat. Every day.

Never stop returning to step 1 and encouraging without making a big deal, and #2 where you give the kid opportunities to talk. Beyond that keep letting the natural consequences happen.

I told you there’s no magic solution here. You can’t force a kid to care and you can’t force a kid to work. The only attitude you can control is your own. So let’s talk about that.

What about YOUR attitude?

I know you’re under a lot of pressure to get kids to meet the learning standards. I know it’s YOU who’s accountable for THEIR choices and THEIR test scores, and that’s massively frustrating. But if you focus on that, you will burn out, and you won’t be able to properly teach the rest of the class who does want to learn.

I want you to expend less effort on trying to force kids to care, and lecturing them about their futures, and nagging them to take responsibility for their work, because 95% of the time, it’s not effective and only serves to wear you out.

Instead, I want you to channel all that wasted energy into inspiring the kids who want to work, and create a trickle-down effect in your classroom.

Don’t plan a lesson thinking about the kids who hate everything you do.

Plan it for the five kids who love everything you do, and the 15 lukewarm kids who could be brought on board if they notice enough enthusiasm from you and the others. Hook in those five kids. Focus on them–that’s what keeps your energy level up and makes you a good presenter. Use their enthusiasm to draw in the majority of the class. Make it irresistible to do the work so the ones who choose not to feel like they’re missing out.

Does this work every time with every disengaged kid? Of course not. But it will keep the energy and interest level level high in the room so that students are more likely to participate, or at least not be disruptive in their lack of participation.

Because here’s the thing with the kids who refuse to work: they will cause YOU to get jaded and refuse to work, too.

In fact, there are some of you reading this right now who are already tuned out: you decided before I even said a word that the suggestions I was going to give aren’t going to work with THAT kid. You’d already decided that I was going to give you the same suggestions you’ve already heard and tell you to do all the things you already tried, and none of it was going to help.

You’ve turned into that kid: you’re checked out, you’ve already decided you’re not going to learn anything and there’s no point in trying. Instead you’re going to sit there and mentally criticize the person who’s trying to help you and think of all the reason why what she’s saying is irrelevant.

You have more in common with that kid than you think. And as you’ve seen from the results that she or he has gotten, this is a dangerous path to go down. It’s not just the student who’s negatively impacting the whole class’ learning, it’s you.

It’s your unwillingness to enter the room each day with an open mind, that same open mind you want your students to have, ready to soak up wisdom and try things even if they’re hard or you seem unlikely to be successful with them.

You can’t control anyone by yourself. And if you spend your day trying to control another person instead of inspiring them to control themselves, you will get nothing but frustration. The key to getting kids to work is NOT giving them more serious consequences or bribing them. 

Here’s why there’s no cute little trick you can do to flip the switch of motivation

Motivation is not powered by electricity.

It’s like a fire, and it starts with a tiny spark.

You have to be watching for it with these disengaged kids and protect that spark like their future depends on it.

Breathe life onto that spark.

Shelter it from anything that would keep it from growing.

Add fuel to the fire.

And then fan the flames.

Tend that fire daily so it doesn’t go out.

That’s your job. That’s why you became a teacher.

Not to write referrals and assign detention and hold back recess from kids who hate school and refuse to work.

So stop looking for the magic punishment or reward. And, don’t depend on trying to make your curriculum so authentic and exciting that kids want to buy in. If you can do that, great, but the reality for most of us is that we have to teach things that aren’t particularly exciting and that students aren’t going to be particularly interested in, no matter how we dress it up.

It’s you that has to be authentic and exciting. An inspired teacher can make calculus or history or grammar or any other topic engaging just by their own energy. When I think back on the best teachers I had, the subject they taught was irrelevant. I thought spelling was boring, but my high school ELA teacher used to make the craziest sentences up when he gave us spelling tests, and I couldn’t help but look forward to those tests just a little bit. It was him. It was his personality and enthusiasm that inspired me to work.

So stay focused on inspiring your students. Don’t focus on whether they are actually inspired. Remember, you can only control yourself, not anyone else. Do whatever it takes for YOU to be inspiring, and let the energy of your classroom be such that students who don’t buy into the lessons are missing out.

In your room, it’s going to be the norm to have a good attitude and work hard. YOU are the magic solution you’ve been looking for. You have that magic inside you. Now go share it.

This episode is sponsored by Kiddom, a standards-based platform helping teachers personalize learning. With Kiddom, teachers gain access to an unlimited library of content, with beautiful, actionable reports. And the best part? Kiddom is free! Visit www.kiddom.co to learn more.

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rose Warrell September 18, 2016 at 3:07 pm

I needed to hear this! Thanks for reminding me that it’s our attitude and enthusiasm to makes our classes more interesting and enjoyable.

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2 Lora Siehr September 18, 2016 at 8:52 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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3 Ruth September 18, 2016 at 9:16 pm

I really needed this. It’s either change my attitude and focus on what I can do to motivate and inspire, or focus on the frustrating students, feel helpless, and eventually quit my job. Thank you for changing my perspective.

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4 Angela Watson September 21, 2016 at 10:27 am

That’s it in a nutshell–focus on what you CAN control and the positive impact you’re making so that you have the energy to go into the classroom each day and keep giving your all. :)

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5 Cathy September 18, 2016 at 10:12 pm

Yay! Validation that sometimes, it really isn’t our “fault,” and that it’s ok to focus on the kids who want to learn instead of spinning our wheels to motivate the few who don’t. Never give up, but redirect our energy and enthusiasm back to where it will have the greatest impact. And above all, we have to remember not to take student apathy personally: that’s something I struggle with daily. Thank you!

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6 Angela Watson September 21, 2016 at 9:53 am

Not taking apathy personally is a really important point–most of the time, the root cause of disengagement has very little to do with us.

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7 Reagan Tunstall September 19, 2016 at 7:51 am

Angela, this is fantastic! I am sharing!

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8 Kathy September 19, 2016 at 9:09 pm

I have “that” student and today was exceptionally trying! Thank you for sharing. I feel like I have something new to bring to the table tomorrow :) Perfect timing!

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9 Danielle September 19, 2016 at 9:51 pm

I shared this post via email with my colleagues today. I hope it inspired them as much as it did me! Thank you!

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10 Janice Cafarelli September 20, 2016 at 5:01 pm

You must keep in mind there are those students that through no fault of their own shut down if overwhelmed. They are unable to get started which frustrates them as much as teachers. These children sometimes have to learn a different way than the majority. A project can not be given to them in total but one step at a time.. These kids are most times very smart kids but have problems “putting pencil to paper”

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11 Angela Watson September 21, 2016 at 7:37 am

Yes, absolutely! I mentioned in the post that clarifying/modifying the assignment (which includes breaking a larger project down into manageable steps) is something that I presume teachers teachers know to try right away, and I linked to a resource with more details on how to do this just in case. You make such a great point about students often being as frustrated as teachers in these instances.

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12 Cindy September 23, 2016 at 11:18 am

Great information!

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