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Encouraging Students Who Refuse to Work


Found in: classroom management; motivating students

We have all encountered a student who refuses to do school work. While we can do our best to engage the child and build a positive relationship, we cannot do the work for the student. But we can do ours. Here are some suggestions from veteran educators:

  • Note whether the student has the prerequisite skills needed to succeed at the work being assigned. Refusal can sometimes mean the student doesn’t know where or how to begin. Ask a few relevant questions to determine knowledge or skill level, and build from there.
  • When appropriate, differentiate assignments for students. This might include adjusting reading requirements, number of problems, or time provided for completion. Orchestrate success and then make a point to notice the student’s effort.
  • Pay special attention to the student. Say hello more consciously, ask questions and remember the responses. Never ignore a child who needs your help.
  • Find ways to connect your topic to students’ daily lives. Making the content relevant can be the motivation needed to jump start students’ engagement.
  • Engage students discreetly. When I notice that a child is not working, I walk to his or her desk and quietly say, “I notice that you’ve not yet begun the work. Is there anything I can do to help?” If the child says no, I respond, “Choosing not to work is a poor decision. I hope you will choose to begin working.” Then I move away without saying anything further.
  • Enlist the help of the school counselor, parent, or healthcare provider. If refusal to work is new for a student, this may indicate something affecting his or her emotional well-being such as a bullying situation or other traumatic event in this youngster’s life.
  • Allow the student some choice in the work to be done. For some students, refusing to work is a form of control. Perhaps he or she feels out of control in many areas, so taking control of this particular decision is the only way to feel right again. Making decisions helps to rebuild a positive approach to school work.

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