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Classroom Management, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 18, 2016

What to do in the middle of your lesson when a student refuses to work

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What to do in the middle of your lesson when a student refuses to work

By Angela Watson

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, because the root cause is different for each student.

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.

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Building rapport with kids and giving them meaningful tasks is crucial, but it’s not a magical fix in every situation

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 respond when a student refuses to work

I’m going to assume that your first step is always identifying and addressing the root cause of the student’s refusal to work. t student. I’m assuming you’ve built a rapport and relationship with thaI’m also assuming you’ve already modified and/or clarified the assignment and considered the obvious interventions.

There are a million articles that have already been written about those things, so I won’t digress. 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 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 criticize the person who’s trying to help you and think of all the reasons 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 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 but 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 or 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 needs 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 being inspiring for 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.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I needed to hear this! Thanks for reminding me that it’s our attitude and enthusiasm to makes our classes more interesting and enjoyable.

    1. I needed to hear this message. Today was a doozie and I left feeling defeated. I’m grateful for coming across this message, today, when I needed it most.

      1. Me too! Deflated and defeated by 6th graders! I needed the tough love in this post so much! Thank you thank you! I need to print this out and tape it to my desk.

    2. Yes, This is an excellent post and encouraging. I think I have tried everything under the sun to inspire and help students engage and learn but some of them simply refuse even when I have built rapport with them.

      I am going to keep focusing on the positive and what I can do to be inspiring.

  2. 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.

    1. 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. 🙂

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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”

    1. 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.

  6. School just started for me two weeks ago. I teach kindergarten and I have a student who not only refuses to do his work but is oppositional defiant, in addition. I tried offering choices, counting down, and using a behavior chart where he is stamped for completed work, but nothing has worked. My boss told me that it is because I have not established a relationship with him, but with 21 other students, I can’t leave them to spend one on one time with this student. I’ve been feeling very alone and hopeless. I pray every morning for a change.

    Thank you for the reminder that I can only control myself, not anyone else. I’m trying to mindfully set the weather of my classroom and not let the the things outside of my control weigh on me. Your message was really timely and meaningful to me.

  7. If you have students not wanting to work, I ask you to find out if the child is being bullied at home or in the school. It maybe their way of dealing with the pain, and asking for help. My son was bullied, and the school did little to stop it. He hated going , and refused to do more than he had to, to pass.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that the school wasn’t able to help much in your son’s case. Unfortunately, that is often true. Many of the underlying reasons why students don’t work (such as bullying) are extremely complex and related to things that happen when the child is not under the teacher’s care.

      So while it’s critical that the teacher try to uncover the root problem, it’s rarely within the teacher’s power to solve that problem. The teacher can alert proper authorities, connect the student to a guidance counselor and his/her resources, and listen to the student with empathy, but that might be the extent of the teacher’s ability to influence the situation. In the meanwhile, the student is still showing up to class each day and the teacher has to focus on how to keep the momentum of the class going so that students can continue to learn.

      It’s a terribly difficult situation for both the student and the teacher, and I wish I had a magic solution that would solve it.

  8. Thanks for the article; I truly enjoyed it. You are so right about the teacher having the right attitude. I have had several students who do not want to work at all and whom I have been approaching the wrong way. Thanks for your tips.


  9. Great post! Wonderful ideas for a reality based problem. It is so easy to lose patience with these children. But your article gives teachers a framework, something that they can hang on to, as they address this issue. As you point out, persistence is the key to success.

  10. Thank you for your post. As a high school freshman English teacher, I have “been there and done that” probably every day of my teaching career. One day a student could be all enthusiastic about learning and the next, disengaged and distracted, and I learned not to take it personally. There are days where my morale is low but I try not to let it show because the teacher’s energy in the classroom can affect students’ morale. For the students who are not interested in doing work, I do follow the steps that you outlined above. I always have to remind myself to talk to my students human-to-human and to remind them that I care about their success in my class and redirect them back to their short-term and long-term goals. Whenever I talk to them, I always pull them outside of class to have a one-on-one conversation, a little pep talk without the eyes and ears of the rest of the class. I believe that the students appreciate the gesture and feel noticed that someone cares.

  11. What about undiagnosed vision problems? Even kids with 20/20 vision can have problems with keeping their place, following along, and visual teaming required for sustained, comfortable and single vision. What if they have poor visual memory and can’t remember the sight words or problems with visualization, so their comprehension is lacking. Parents and teachers often don’t know the child is having difficulty because little Johnny thinks it’s like this for everybody when they look at the board or their paper. And guess what the number one symptom is for poor vision skills in school aged children…AVOIDANCE. Teachers please educate yourselves in this area so these kids don’t slip through the cracks. I do appreciate what you do immensely, but we need to stay open to all possibilities.

    1. Exploring all the possible root causes of why a student refuses to work is outside the scope of the post (my assumption is that this would be the teacher’s first step.) But certainly teachers need to be mindful of vision problems and potential medical issues. Thanks for mentioning it.

  12. Thank you! I’m a new teacher and this post helped me extremely! I’m completely exhausted by the end of the week because I’m constantly trying to motivate and make the unwilling learn. I plan to implement this strategies.

  13. Thank you for those golden nuggets of wisdom. I am a student educator at Kansas State University and yet another great support piece I am going to take with me into the classroom! Thank you. Thank you for providing this advice to current and future educators.

  14. I have never commented on any post before, but this one really spoke to me! THANK YOU for this common sense approach that did not involve giving choices to the student other than natural consequences. Your suggestions are highly appropriate, maintains student dignity, and the teacher remains in charge, not the student. BRAVO!

  15. Thank you so much! I emailed a lengthy comment to a previous podcast. Here was the answer.
    I feel encouraged.
    Thank you again,

  16. Thank you. Just thank you.
    I’m at the end of my first year teaching and it’s been rough to say the least.
    The entire year I’ve had my colleagues telling me “I’m sorry” and “next years students are much easier.” Because our third grade group has been tough since they were in kindergarten, so all of their previous teachers have said.
    I just want to remember what you said about not teaching to the students that don’t want to participate, but teach to the students who love everything that I teach. Yes! They give me a spark! They show me why I love my profession.
    I just have that twinge of guilt inside saying that I didn’t make a difference in my challenging students. And of course I care for them even though they’ve been tough.

  17. Thank you. So relevant. There is a lot of pressure to pitch everything to engage the non-engaged and I am exhausted trying. Great to see this and see that it is so relevant.

  18. As a 2nd year teacher I haven’t heard of this ‘trickle down effect’ you mentioned but it makes so much sense and is much more fair to those students trying to extend themselves. My school doesn’t engage in a rewards system in order to try and bring out students’ intrinsic motivation. I have always wondered how that could realistically work with the methods I’m currently trying but this is so good. I’ve signed up for the Podcast and grateful I stumbled across you page. Many thanks.

  19. I am going to be dead honest with you. Your article felt like a cop out. So, it appears that when your recommended strategies do not work… you do what has become the mainstream catch all. Blame the teacher! It is their fault, their strategy, or they actions that failed. Frankly, this was not worth my time. Harsh words for sure. But is the truth.

    What makes you think teachers haven’t already attempted these strategies? This felt like every workshop most teachers are required to attend. Every one rehashes the same info while degree’d, certified, and accomplished teachers are subjugated to the same information we have heard a thousand times. Most do not have real strategies, they just repackage the old. This article is case in point.

    I have the opportunity to work with amazing teachers every day. They stay late, dig into their own pockets to create worthwhile incentives and engaging lessons. They differentiate, plan, work in small groups, and utilize a plethora of other strategies. We do not have the time to read articles like this who blame the teacher yet again.

    So we look to teachers who tout their pedigree as if you have some thing to say worth hearing, but more often than not, it is just people wanting to say something to sound important, or feel important.

    I found better information on Ted Talks and grateful for speakers who give usable content rather than re-hash information that only works with a small percentage of students.

    I realize these are harsh words, but they are truthful words.

    1. Did you actually read the article!? And the comments from exhausted, grateful teachers who are at their wits’ end like I am? I noticed 99.9% of the comments were a ‘thank you’. I have also emailed the link to some of my colleagues who are mentally on the edge of a precipice. Thank you Angela for reaffirming what I have known all along – that, as a dedicated, hard-working, caring teacher, it’s not my fault.

    2. Like you, Gail, I think it is important to push back on what the author said. It was well-meaning but misguided in some ways. From my perspective, some teachers have a tough time because you are expected to be so regimented. There’s no fun in school anymore. It’s day after day of strict lesson plans and no spontaneity. (Planned field trips are nice but do not count for spontaneity.) I don’t blame some kids for tuning out or blame some teachers for burning out due to the tedium. When you said the kids like to watch videos and flip the screen upside-down, maybe work those in to the flow of the work? Maybe let them do their work upside-down? Could work. I am not a teacher but I have school-aged kids and I am an adult learner and, for me, it is a slog to be a student. I do so appreciate teachers because they are present, they put in the time, they give so much of themselves. Though I think that the group-think and ham-strung methods they are saddled with makes going to school difficult for some.

  20. This is extremely good advice and helps me to remember not to get caught up in one little incident but to keep on being the best we can be

  21. Wow. I really needed this reminder. I have been struggling to connect with a few of my students lately, and I have felt myself start to give up. Instead of giving up, tomorrow I will kneal down beside them and walk them through each step of my lesson if that is what it takes. They may not have someone in their life that cares, but tomorrow I will be that person.

  22. Thank you so much! You described it so well. My Thanksgiving break started today and I should be enjoying and relaxed but I guess I felt I’m failing as the last two days one of my student was having a difficult days. I was planning and looking for different ways I can make lessons even better and interesting. I was doing everything possible I could do to help this student. In this process my focus was shifting more on one who is not ready to learn instead of the rest who are giving me their 100%. I have built that connection with this child but like you said some days no matter what I do the student may still choose to make poor choices. Your message validated the things I do to help this student. I just need to keep doing that instead of feeling like a failure. Your message definitely helped me to stand up tall again and re-energize. Thank you so much.

  23. via the link Wow. I really needed this reminder. I have been struggling to connect with a few of my students lately, and I have felt myself start to give up. Instead of giving up, tomorrow I will kneal down beside them and walk them through each step of my lesson if that is what it takes. They may not have someone in their life that cares, but tomorrow I will be that person.

  24. Just re-read this for some inspiration. I was getting discouraged about one student, and you really helped me put it all into perspective.

    I wanted to also thank you for this blog in general. The past couple of years I’ve been super close to burning out, but you really helped me prioritize things in a way that brought me back from that. I decided to go for a new position at a new school, and now I’m doing much better, but I think what I learned from you definitely helped get me there without giving up!

  25. That is a bogus way of handling things Angela,teachers should never force students to do anything but if possible deduct the marks and reduce the grade as it’s like putting more burden on someone who’s been already burdened

    1. I’m not clear on what you mean–what part of the article encourages teachers to force students to do something?

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