What do you do when a student won’t go to class? As a special educator in middle school, this was a problem I commonly encountered. The student might stay in resource room, hang down at the nurse’s office, or even worse, wander the hallways. Basically, they will do anything to avoid being in their scheduled academic class. This can be a huge problem, both as a safety concern of not knowing where the student is and having that learner miss out on academics. So, as educators, what can we do? I wrote this article filled with some strategies to try.
These strategies are written with a supportive mindset (more on that below). If your mindset is, “If they don’t go to class, they get a zero and fail,” then these strategies are probably not for you. The truth is that a solely punitive mindset does not work for many kids and teens. If it did, I wouldn’t need to write this article. Instead, these techniques are tried-and-true methods that have worked for me as a special educator in helping kids and teens problem-solve through their challenges.
Some important reminders about strategies before getting started:
- Strategies here are not one-size-fits-all. They never are. They are more intended to be a toolbox of ideas to help when a learner is struggling.
- Try some techniques and see what works best. You cannot do everything all at once, at least not with fidelity. You can always come back for more ideas if whatever you are trying isn’t giving the desired results.
- Give strategies time. Lots of times, strategies take time to work. Make sure you’re giving enough time to see what really works.
- Embrace the baby steps over time. We want change to happen a lot faster than it usually happens. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and see the progress over time.
- Teachers cannot do it all on their own. Educators need support from other staff, families, and school administration. The goal is that together, we can work to make positive changes.
Build a Relationship. We all know that educators are always building relationships, but it is for sure the most important point, so it needs to come first. Simply put, kids and teens open up more when they feel comfortable and safe around a supportive adult. As a bonus, they learn better too. Learn more about relationship-building strategies that work.
Remind Them of Expectations. Talk to the student about the expectations and why they matter. You might say something like, “You need to be in math class. It might not be your favorite class, and that’s okay, but you still need to be there and learn.” Even though there are going to be times when a student still doesn’t go to their class (I’ll get to more strategies for that below), the expectation should be that they go where their schedule says. This helps be concrete and give consistency.
Keep a Supportive Mindset. Let’s start with remembering that we cannot force kids and teens to do anything. We can guide them and we can encourage them (and yes, we can give consequences, I’ll get to that later), but we cannot actually force them. The truth is that trying to force kids to do something they are truly not comfortable doing usually only makes the situation worse. Aim for the mindset of: “I’m here to help you; let me help you figure this out.”
Let’s also remember that kids carry a lot more than what is in their backpacks. Students have all sorts of reasons why they might not go to class. Let’s be supportive and work together to find out why first.
Start the “What’s Going On?” Conversation. Starting a supportive conversation helps gather information. Be inquisitive rather than punitive. You might ask:
- I noticed you’ve been having a hard time getting to science class. What’s going on with that?
- I can see you really don’t want to head to math. Can you talk to me about that?
Talk with Other Specialists. Teachers can’t do everything on their own. Reach out to your school counselor, social worker, and school psychologist for strategies and support along the way. So often, these specialists are a wealth of information. Even just talking through the challenges may help you see the situation in a new way.
Have the Student Meet with School Specialists. Similarly, it might help to have the student chat with the school counselor to share their feelings, thoughts, and needs. Talk with families about this and provide a time to make it happen. Sometimes, students open up in a different way to an outside person and that’s a good thing.
Problem-Solve Together. Ask the student for feedback. What do they think would help? Sometimes, their answers will surprise you. Remember to be open-minded. Being flexible is going to be the name of the game here. That’s not always easy, but it is about finding what works.
Let’s say a student says class is boring and that’s why they don’t go. Give them classroom jobs to keep them occupied. Imagine a student tells you they can’t go in class because they hate sitting in the front of the class. Talk about where to change it to. Not every problem is going to have an easy solution, but it’s a good place to start.
Important note with problem-solving: This is not about making things easier on kids; it’s about working with kids to help solve their problem and reach their goals. The truth is that we all have the same end goal here: Getting to class and learning. Problem-solving can help us achieve that.
Consider Accommodations and Supports. Alongside problem-solving comes providing supports. Think of accommodations as baby steps moving in the right direction. Not all accommodations and supports listed below are going to be useful and/or appropriate for your student, but here are some examples to consider:
- Seat near a doorway or in the back of the room. You might use this for a student who feels uncomfortable in the front of the classroom.
- Independent work time. You might use this if a student struggles with working with groups.
- Listening to music during work time. You could try this if a student struggles to focus during work time.
- Finish work in resource room. You might try having the student be present for instruction, and then have them visit the resource room to finish the actual independent/group work.
- Shared responses only. You might try this if a student feels uncomfortable being called on randomly. Make an agreement that you will only call on them if they themselves raise their hand to share.
- Leave class early/late pass. You could try this if a student struggles with busy hallways.
Build Social-Emotional Skills. If kids are struggling, there is always an underlying reason. We might not see it at the time, but it is there. Consider working on strengthening social-emotional skills that help kids work through their challenges, use healthy coping strategies, and manage emotions.
Use this daily SEL check-in journal as a simple way to get started. The idea is really simple: Every day students complete one journal page, which targets a new SEL skill. It even weaves in important academic skills like staying focused, organized, and studying.
Create a Safe Space. When students continually won’t go to their scheduled space, it’s important to give them a safe alternative. This strategy might be necessary for students who continue to avoid class and wander (which is a safety concern). Of course, the goal is always to have the student head to where their schedule says. But if they are not going to go there, find a safe space as a backup. Explain to that student that this is a safety need while problem-solving through whatever is going on.
Some ideas of safe spaces might be:
- Resource room
- Nurse’s office
- Counselor’s office
Make sure that wherever you choose to send them, the other educator in charge is on-board and understands the expectations too. Of course, this shouldn’t be infringing into someone’s prep or disrupting class time either, so finding a safe space can be tricky at times.
One final note about creating a safe space is that thought should be put into how favorable a location is. This is going to be very individualized but worth considering. An example might be: You don’t want to assign a student’s safe space to a resource room where their best friend is. In that case, maybe a quiet corner in the nurse’s office might be best.
Get Input from Other Teachers. So often, other educators are a wealth of knowledge on a student and what works best for them. Chat with other teachers that the student has. Look for patterns. Does the student do well in the afternoon but struggle first thing in the morning? Does the student need to be up front near the teacher’s desk to stay focused and engaged? Talking with other educators can give ideas and perspective about what works and what doesn’t.
Have a Teacher-Student Conference. Have a more formal sit down with the student, including any support staff or teachers that can help. For example, you may want to include the special educator or school counselor, depending on who the learner works with.
Talk about Consequences. Logical consequences are part of life. They build accountability and responsibility. Talk to the student about what they think some logical consequence for not going to class might be. Perhaps they will have to make up the classwork at a later time.
Consider Incentives. Incentives are rewards for the student to earn when they meet certain expectations. Sometimes incentives are not needed if other problem-solving strategies are working, but they should at least be a consideration to help encourage the student to do what they need to do.
If you use incentives, it’s best to aim for activities rather than tangible materials. For example, if a student goes to class all week, on Friday, they may earn 15 minutes of free gym time at the end of the day with a friend. If the student cannot wait that long to earn a reward, you may consider 15 minutes of free time during resource room or study hall if the student joined class that day.
Develop a Contract. Create a contract together. The contract should include student expectations, teacher expectations, supports in place, incentives (if applicable), and consequences. A contract makes the plan crystal clear to all parties involved what their jobs are.
Keep Consistency Among Adults. Touch base with other adults, including teachers, paraeducators, and families to make sure the same consistent message is being given. If a student knows they can skip out on math class by sitting in with a favorite teacher’s study hall class, they certainly might try to do that. Touch base with that teacher and make sure they understand the expectations too. Sometimes using the same language can be helpful. For example, you might all say, “You need to be where your schedule says.” Whatever strategies you choose, be consistent among adults.
Discuss with Families. It’s always important to involve families. Sometimes, they can give valuable information as to why a student is struggling or they can be involved in providing encouragement at home. From my experience, it is helpful to start the conversation with a supportive mindset, rather than a punitive one. Let’s consider what that means.
If you were to call home with a supportive mindset, you might say, “Johnny is doing excellent math work in the resource room, but lately he’s been really struggling to get to math class when our time is up together. Has he talked to you about that at all?”
This approach is open-ended, supportive, and opens the door to solutions. It’s not focused on the problem, but instead the solution.
Work to Phase Out Supports. As always, the goal is that the student can go to class independently. Once you start seeing some success, consider phasing out supports over time. For example, if you are giving them a late pass, encourage them to try without it just one day a week. With time, you can build on that.