Throughout my years teaching middle school, I have had the experience of seeing many “work refusals”. These are the situations when kids, for a variety of reasons, just refuse to start the work you give them. They might shut down and rest their head on their desk or lash out in anger, shouting about how they just will not complete your assignment. This can be extremely frustrating for educators, especially when teaching a well-designed lesson that you thought would go so well! Let me say that sometimes our lessons themselves can have little or no impact on whether or not a student refuses to work. There are quite often bigger challenges at play that we’ll delve into. Quite honestly, even with a special education background, my college and training did not really prepare me for what to do when students refuse to work. These are skills and strategies I had to develop on the ground running while working with young adults. It’s an area I’m especially passionate about because all kids deserve to learn and feel good about themselves. It’s always important to remember that kids who are refusing are reaching out for help in some way, and you CAN be the one to help them.
Let me say that we ALL have bad days here and there! If a student puts their head down during a lesson and won’t finish an assignment because of a headache, it doesn’t mean you need to sound the alarm. This article specifically focuses on the students who repeatedly refuse to complete work and need specific targeted strategies to help them overcome these challenges.
What does work refusal look like? Really, it can be different for every student. Some students put their heads down and don’t pick them up, despite encouragement and prompting. Other students will look you straight in the eyes and say, “I’m NOT doing it!” while they are clearly expecting a response from you! Other kids might just ignore your directions completely and continue doing what they want to do, whether that is coloring, reading, or any other activity they are engaged in. All of these behaviors are work refusals because they are avoiding doing the tasks that the adult is expecting.
What are the reasons for work refusal? If a student is outwardly refusing to do work in the classroom, there is always a reason. Quite often, we don’t know the individual reasons. Some students have had a history of trauma. Again, we may or may not know about the potential trauma. Other students might be dealing with social or emotional challenges at home or in their personal life. Some examples might include a family divorce, a new baby at home, the death of a family member, and feelings of loneliness with a parent working increased hours. Those truly are just a few small examples. Sometimes, when the challenges in a child’s life become so difficult for them, they can have a need to control parts of their life that they can control (like doing work in school or not). Some learners might be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, while others aren’t. Other times, a child or teen may truly be bored and not interested in the topics. Regardless of the actual reason, it’s important to take a step back and recognize that the child or young adult is struggling with SOMETHING, whether or not we can see it. Thinking in this way encourages educators to be solution-focused, which is what really matters anyway.
Important note: This entire article is intended to be a bank or toolbox of strategies for teachers to consider when kids are struggling. I know that classroom teachers cannot do it all, and they shouldn’t be expected to. Schools need to support educators in these tough situations, and that includes support from admin and other support staff. Additionally, the biggest changes are made when the teachers, families, and the student work together. Please know that if you are dealing with these very challenging classroom situations, I want to have your back, not put more on your plate.
Strategies are meant as supports. They’re interventions and techniques you can put in place to try and work towards your goal of helping the student get back on track. However, strategies are not a magic wand. They might take time to work or some won’t work for your particular learner. And even the most perfect classroom management and support strategies won’t fix every problem or challenge. With all that said, strategies can make a difference for your struggling learner. When you’re not sure what direction to go, they’re worth a try. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it is about finding what works for you and your learners. With all that said, I hope you can find some of these strategies and ideas helpful.
Here are some simple do’s and don’ts for kids who refuse to do work:
- Don’t just punish. If a child or young adult is struggling with some social or emotional challenges at the moment, a punishment is only going to push them away further. Your punishment will appear as harsh, mean, and uncaring. I know that educators do not intend for punishments to feel that way, but for many students, they do, including those with trauma in their past. This isn’t to say you should “let the student get away” with any behavior. Instead, you can use logical consequences, which I explain below.
- Don’t send the student out of the room. I can’t stress this enough! As an educator, I know this is sometimes a preferred option because it deals with the situation swiftly. It does not fix the problem, though. In fact, it will most likely make it worse in the long-term. The student might feel anger and resentment towards you. The message you are sending is that you can’t deal with the situation and you need to send the student out to another teacher or the principal. If a student is just sitting at their desk and refusing to work, it should not be a reason to send them out of class. Kids and young adults are getting much more education being in your room and hearing the discussions than being in the principal’s office.
- Don’t get in a power struggle. No one ever wins in a power struggle! So much energy is wasted is wasted and even if the student eventually complies, it will be filled with resentment. Read up on more ways to avoid power struggles.
- Don’t just assume the child is lazy. So many times, it is often actually easier for the child to comply and do their work and refuse. So, it’s clear that there is something else in play. Reframe your thinking to remember that the child is struggling and needs your support.
- Don’t act out of frustration or anger. When you start to feel frustrated due to a child’s behavior, remember this phrase: “He’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time.” There is no shame in taking a deep breath and walking away from a situation. As adults, it’s important we are calm and collected so we can make the best choices in each situation. It’s okay to feel frustrated with a situation, just don’t act on that frustration.
- Don’t use threats. You might be tempted to say things like, “If you don’t do your work, I’m going to call your parents,” or “Finish this or you can’t go to gym.” Sometimes, these threats can only make a student dig their heels in deeper and you might regret what you’ve said later on. Instead, be mindful about what you say and make sure your consequences fit the crime.
- Don’t embarrass the student. Again, publicly calling the student out might result in a power struggle or escalating the situation. Instead, consider ways to privately support the student to help both of you get what you need.
- Keep teaching. Just because a student doesn’t lift their pencil up, doesn’t mean they’re not listening and learning. Continue teaching, talking, and even involving that student if they want to participate. Remember that the ultimate goal is to educate the student, not force them to work. If they are in the classroom, keep teaching them!
- Give wait time. When a student refuses work at first, sometimes all they need is a little wait time. It’s okay to let them have their head down or keep their arms crossed. Give some time and wait to see if they come around within 5 minutes or so.
- Ignore the small behaviors. If the student crumples up the paper, breaks their pencil, or scribbles all over it, avoid the impulse to tell the student they shouldn’t do that or give any further instructions. When things like this happen, the student is either agitated or attention-seeking. One intervention that will help in this instance is just giving space.
- Be reflective. Consider what you could be doing that might be triggering the student to refuse to work. For example, are you using a harsh tone? Did you embarrass the student by calling them out for something right before? Sometimes, there isn’t anything apparent, but it’s always worth considering first!
- Focus on the relationship. For many kids, relationship is everything. Put the work aside for a bit. Spend time with your student during lunch, talk with them after class, and really just get to know them. Teach them about you as a person, too! Once a relationship is built, many times your students will have a much easier time working for you because they know you care. This isn’t a quick process, but it’s always important and worth it. Read up on more ways to build relationships with kids and young adults.
- Consider learning challenges. Sometimes students refuse work due to social and emotional challenges, but other times it might be because they think the work is just too hard for them. Consider if the student needs interventions with reading, writing, or math. Sometimes learners might even need direction instruction with executive functioning skills to help them get started and work through challenges. If you are a regular educator, consider discussing the student with the special education teacher or interventionist to get some ideas and strategies.
- Meet with the student privately. It’s important that this is seen as supportive and not punitive. Talk to the student, ask them what’s going on, and problem-solve about how you could help. You might say, “I noticed your morning work isn’t being finished, what is going on with that?” When meeting with a student who is struggling to complete work, the most important thing is to just listen! Try to avoid interjecting your own thoughts about what’s happening or giving your point of view. Let the student talk and sometimes you might be amazed at what you learn. Perhaps the student shares that they hate where they sit because someone keeps talking to them, or that they haven’t been getting any sleep at night due to a crying baby. Be open-minded, listen, and be prepared to problem-solve with the student to help them.
- Use logical consequences (and consider them ahead of time). Logical consequences are outcomes from behavior that make sense. For example, if a student is refusing to finish their morning work, a logical consequence would be using some break time later in the day to finish at least 5 problems or sending it home as homework to be done later.
- Discuss those consequences with the student. Consequences shouldn’t be a surprise to your student. Let them know ahead of time in a positive way. For example, you might say to the whole class, “Everyone needs to finish their work so we can finish watching the rest of the movie.”
- Use de-escalation strategies to help calm the situation. In the moment, it can quickly become a power struggle when a student outwardly tells you they are not doing the work. It is critical to know how to de-escalate a situation. My favorite strategy has always been saying, “Let’s talk about this later.” It gives you the perfect way out of a heated situation with a student while letting other students around know you’re not ignoring the behavior, you’re just dealing with it later. Read up on more de-escalation strategies and use this free printable de-escalation strategy worksheet.
- Give choices. For students who struggle with work completion, consider giving limited choices for assignments. Limiting the number to two is usually best so that it’s not overwhelming, but it still gives control and choice. You might say, “Would you rather write about this prompt in your journal or draw a scene from the text and write a sentence about it?”
- Consider reducing work. Another one of my favorite ways to give choice is to allow the student to choose which 10 problems they will finish. Similarly, you might ask the student to complete only 1 of the 3 essay questions. Sometimes educators have argued that this is making it too easy on the student. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get the student back to completing all the work, without a doubt. However, when a student is outright refusing to do work, completing just one item over none is a success. We all have to start somewhere.
- Use student interests. Find out topics the student enjoys doing and learning about. That might be anything: soccer, dirt bikes, drawing, animals, dance, or even a certain television show. The topics and ideas are endless. Then, use bits of those topics in your instruction to hook the learner and help them feel more interested.
- Provide accommodations. Giving accommodations doesn’t necessarily make an assignment easier, it just gives more options for how the student approaches the task. Allow a student struggling with reading to listen to audio books. If a student isn’t writing, allow them access to a laptop. Give out a calculator to a student who gets fatigued with math problems (provided the math skill isn’t calculations themselves). Give a word bank, provide multiple choices, let the student use manipulatives, and so on.
- Take turns. In line with accommodations, one simple strategy to try (when you can) is to take turns writing and completing problems with the student. For example, you can complete the first problem and write it down on the student’s paper. It helps to think aloud while you’re solving the problem, as this models the behaviors you want to see. Then, have the student complete the second problem. Next, you would complete the third and so on. This is a more collaborative approach that sometimes eases kids and teens into working and finishing their assignments.
- Think about trends. Is the work refusal only happening during math? Or maybe during partner work? Maybe it’s only in the morning or in the afternoon? Think about these trends and really delving into the data can help inform your judgements about what’s really going on.
- Plan breaks. All kids and teens need a break sometimes. Consider adding a preferred activity right after the assignment you want your student to complete. Another option is to schedule meaningful brain breaks.
- Provide different writing utensils. This idea seems crazy, but sometimes it works! Give options for writing such as gel pens or colored pencils instead of just a plain old pencil. Sometimes, the freshness of a new tool can help kids get over that road block of starting. It’s worth a try.
- Consider interventions for task initiation. Our skills for task initiation are like the motor that starts us up. When kids and young adults lack these skills to get started, it can be extremely frustrating for everyone involved. Sometimes, kids don’t actually know HOW to start a challenging task or assignment. It’s important to consider if these skills are lacking when a child or young adult isn’t completing work, because they can be taught. Read up more on this blog post focused on interventions for task initiation skills.
- Create an incentive plan, if needed. Sometimes educators are opposed to incentives plans, and I agree they shouldn’t always be a first strategy. However, there is a time when they can a struggling student work towards their goals. You might develop a contract that outlines what the student is responsible for and what incentives the student will get by completing work. A contract sets the tone that you will stick to your word so you expect that the student makes an effort to do the same. Find out what the student would like to work for, remembering that each individual student is motivated by different things (I’ve had some students who want silent drawing time and others who want to help the custodian, for example). My favorite way to find this out is by using a reward inventory. You can visit here to see more about my reward inventories, behavior plans, and contracts.
- Collaborate with families. It’s important to note that the first time you call the family shouldn’t be to mention that the student isn’t working. I’m a huge believer in always calling to share something positive first. With that said, it is important to share concerns about students who are struggling to work in class. Be mindful of how you communicate this with families, too. Rather than saying the child is “refusing to work,” share that they are “struggling with getting started even on assignments that are at their level.” Collaborate to discuss if anything is going on outside of home with the child and if there are any other strategies you as the educator can try. Often, parents are more than willing to talk with their child and sometimes (definitely not always) this even fixes the issue from the start.
- Focus on your own self-care. This is definitely not stressed enough in the world of education. Working with students who are refusing to work can be emotionally draining. Take time to focus on yourself when you can. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
I am a special education teacher as well. I agree with everything in this article! Very well articulated, thank you for sharing!
I’m so glad this is helpful. For many years, these were my kids that I loved SO much! I seriously believe that all educators need a lot more training in the area of social emotional needs. It’s just something we didn’t get a lot of training or PD on in college or even beyond. So glad to share this information and hope it helps some teachers and students!
Great article! So far your suggestions are working on all but one student ( grade 6). Whenever I give the class short answer questions, she just writes ” I don’t know” on the line but has no problem explaining the correct answer to the class. At first I figured she just didn’t know how to word her answers in writing so I broke down her spoken answer and told her exactly what could write/ type. Yet she still refuses to write anything other than the words “I don’t know” and turn that in. She has been diagnosed with ADD but she does know how to write and spell. She is also pretty well behaved. Do you have any suggestions on how to convince her to write out her answers?
How does she do with typing? Is there a computer, laptop, or tablet she could use to record her answers instead? Another suggestion would be let her pick one of the short answers instead of having her write “I don’t know” for all of them. You might say, “Hey, I have an idea. I noticed you’re having trouble with the short answers. What about if I let you pick just ONE to write your ideas for and you can tell me the others out loud and that will count for your grade?”. I have also taken turns writing with students, but I know that can be more challenging in a regular ed environment without a paraeducator available. Does it help if she has a vocabulary bank or sentence starters? What about if it was a paragraph already written with some words missing and she had to fill in the blanks? Please let me know how it goes! -Kris
It might be hard for her to hold onto her thinking. Long enough to write it out. Try letting her record it on a device. You could also use speech to text software so she can print it out and turn it in like everyone else.
Kathy W says
I mean no disrespect to anyone when I ask this, but if such a child is in your classroom, how do you balance this with the needs of the other students?
Hi Kathy- Thanks for this question! I don’t take offense to this at all! It’s definitely difficult. I would say the number one thing is to keep teaching and ignore if the student isn’t disruptive. Even though it might be stressful in the moment (because we all want our kids to be actually working), it doesn’t actually need to impact you. Other than that, a lot of the other steps have to happen during downtime, when other students are working, during advisory periods, study halls, lunch, or any other time you can meet privately with the student to help them. Sometimes really small things can make a big difference, like just asking them about their basketball game or how their dog is. The vast majority of times when kids don’t work, it can be improved when the relationship improves. I 100% know that’s not an easy task for regular ed teachers teaching a full class, but it should always be a work in progress.
What do you recommend when the refusal is disruptive or the more you accommodate, the more the behavior increases? I had a second grade student last year who I was directed to give breaks and allow him to play with putty. He would pound and talk the whole time and constantly want to show me or other students his creations. Then other students started acting out and wanting “breaks” as well. I do give PAT at the end of each day and try to incorporate a lot of talk time and hands on or whole body activities.
Hi Holly! Could that student have used another less distracting calming activity like listening to music or coloring? Or maybe he could have used the putty in the back of the room? I would also say it’s important to teach kids how to use the strategies. Sometimes, we tell them to use putty to calm down but don’t practice and show the “right” way to use it. You sound like you are doing an amazing job just by trying to implement some strategies right in your classroom. Hope you have a great year!
Ulrike Seckler says
Wow, great post. It came at a time when I really needed it. Question: What to do when the refusal to not work spreads like a little wildfire? I had that happen yesterday in my class. One boy on the table refused to participate because he wanted to draw instead. Promptly the whole table group decided that they were not going to participate in the game.
This is such a good question! A couple things to try: Make the activity even more engaging and fun than doing nothing, split that group up, include more positive role models, give simple praise to those who are doing what they are supposed to do, and maybe some incentives for those completing the work. For a couple of years, I did a “Fun Friday” where students had to finish their regular work assigned first and then they could participate in an activity of their choice for part of Friday. We normally did a movie (didn’t finish the whole thing but part of it) and other kids could color or listen to music. Those who didn’t finish their work had to do that first before getting to the activity. I would also talk with the other students who are “following along” privately and discuss what you expect of them. If they say, “Well why does so-and-so get to do nothing???!”, I would always say, “I’m talking about you right now. This is what I expect from you and sometimes we all need different things in the moment.” If all else fails, I would stop the lesson and do something else! If you can’t beat them, join them, rather than getting upset. Maybe you could turn the lights off and just have time to practice some mindfulness or a discussion about social skills. Good luck to you!
i,m wondering about when the child takes it further, without any intervention concerning his refusal and starts making noises, and moving his chair, desk and basically anything while I,m still circulating or returning to the whole class lesson?
Hi Ginette, great questions and thoughts. I am a big fan of planned ignoring, but you can only ignore so much if it’s impacting the learning of others. I would consider thinking about why the child is behaving in that way. Why are they trying to communicate? Is the work too hard? Do they hate the topic? Could you provide modifications to reduce the level of the assignment? I’d also consider a contract with specific guidelines and incentives. It’s important to make that WITH the child so they have input and buy-in. Brainstorm ideas with the child. Sometimes you can find out a lot from them. I’d think about what they want to earn and help them earn it. Start small! Give them control over the situation as much as you can. If they tell you the class is too loud, let them work where it’s quiet. If they say it’s too hard, let them choose 5 to complete instead of 10. So often, refusal to work can be a way for a child to control their environment. I often say that sometimes it’s actually MORE work for them to avoid the work than actually just do it.. so there is usually somewhat of a reason, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. My final suggestion would be to have a calm down area. If the student is agitated or dysregulated, they might need to place to chill out. Now, this is different from just a “fun” space. Activities like coloring, laying in a bean bag, or squeezing a stress ball might be in this calm down area. After they take some time there, they can return back to completing work when they are ready. Even though they aren’t completing academics in that space, they are learning to self-regulate and they are not distracting others. It’s a much more positive option. Hope that helps! -Kris
Shelley Houghton says
Thanks for the tips. I will be teaching a very challenging year 5 boy this year and, as I am a beginning teacher in my second year, am feeling a little anxious about how i will deal with him. Your article is very helpful and I will print it and keep it in my draw at school to read when I need to.
Hi Shelley! Good luck to you. I actually think the 2nd year of teaching is the hardest, so I’m sending you lots of love and encouragement! You’re doing the right thing by seeking out other strategies and ideas. The best teachers aren’t the ones who know everything, but the ones who are reflective and willing to learn. I’m so glad this article is helpful! -Kris
Jamie mitchell says
My son is in second grade and is refusing to do his work. He has a great environment at home, both mom and dad are available to help with things. He has no diagnosis of add, but we are quite certain he has focusing issues. We are trying noise canceling headphones because he says it’s too loud, his teacher is offering s prize if he completes his classwork, and she moved his desk where he can’t face the other students. He isn’t disruptive or disrespectful, but just won’t work. His teacher has help him with her during lunch and recess numerous times. She said it is because it is quiet during that time, so she is hoping to complete the work. He is now being carried to another counselors office several days a week to do work. I applaud the school for trying to help…gosh, it must be distracting to others, but it is just making him feel that his teacher doesn’t like him. I just don’t know what to do. He has low grades, but his testing is high enough that he doesn’t qualify for additional help. When we ask him why he won’t do the work he says it’s just to hard. I really believe him. Any ideas on how I can talk to the teacher? She is doing so much already, but it just might be clashing with what he really needs. I spoke to a mental health counselor that said he needs a more nurturing teacher. It is too late in the year for a change, and no other teacher would likely want him. ?My hands are tied. Ideas?
Thanks so much for writing in. I’m so sorry your son is having trouble. To me, it sounds like he’s having a lot of trouble with task initiation and attention skills, both of which can be taught and discussed explicitly with him. It sounds like he’s a smart kid who is struggling and needs intervention in this area. Our skills for task initiation are basically the motor inside of us that helps us to get started. I actually JUST wrote a whole blog post on this topic with interventions, strategies, and supports. You can find it here: https://www.thepathway2success.com/interventions-for-executive-functioning-challenges-task-initiation/ And I’ll link to it within the article so others can easily find it, too! I’m planning to add another post about strategies for kids who struggle with attention, too.
I’d also question if he needs more support in confidence-building. Does he do the work when he leaves the class and works with an adult? What about when the work is reduced or modified a little? If so, I would build on that. I’d also incorporate things he likes or does well into the classroom- make him the star in some way.
Finally, I’d encourage looking into outside counseling. Once a relationship is build, sometimes kids can open up more to someone who isn’t involved in their school and home life about what’s going on. Maybe that counselor can think of new strategies with him, help him build his mental toughness, and then collaborate with the school to provide strategies and supports.
I wanted to ask what do I do with students that do not do their work as a 7th grade teacher. I’m in my second year as a teacher and struggled with this in my first year.
I let my students know that it is their choice that they don’t do their work and that I am disappointed by the decision they are making, but they shrug it off and don’t seem to care. I don’t want to give them a zero on the assignment, but I don’t see any other option. Any advice on what I can do?
Hi Steven- I know from experience it can feel frustrating when kids don’t do their work. There are so many reasons why they struggle or outright refuse to do it, but there is a lot you can do. The number one thing is to focus on strong relationships (with all of your learners that’s important, but especially these students who don’t do their work). Have lunch with them, talk with them before/after class, visit them at their basketball game, etc. It doesn’t always make magic happen right away but I truly feel that kids will push themselves a little bit more if they know you are one of the good ones. Besides that, I’d meet with that student and just talk with them. See if they are feeling overwhelmed, if the work is hard for them, and brainstorm solutions. Another option is giving them more choice in assignments. Instead of writing an essay, can some students elect to write a poem or draw a scene from the novel? There are a ton of options but most importantly you have to try and think outside the box. Finally, find out what they are interested in earning and make a plan to help them get there! Maybe they want to get an extra period of gym or bring a friend to study hall. Make a point system or something to help them achieve that goal. You might want to reach out to the school counselor or another support staff to help brainstorm ideas, too. Wishing you all the luck!
Dang my teachers should read this…
Beth Cafarella says
Work refusal is very common in children struggling with PAN/PANDAS. Often in the area of writing and math. 1/200 children suffer from this nightmare. These approaches would be helpful especially the stay calm and work on building the relationship. It’s best to think of refusal as anxiety and stay positive while reducing demands.
I have a son with ADHD and a mood aggression disorder. He is in 4th grade this year and towards the end of the school decided any subject that contains reading or writing he wasn’t going to do it. Since he has the mood aggression the teacher just said fine then I will send it home for you to do or makes him go home.
So now my son knows if he says the right thing he can get out of work, which I find so wrong for the school to allow. This is basically teaching my son how to be a bully and get what he wants.
I have been trying to work with the school but it is a battle every step. He on a 504 plan but I am yet to see this school follow it in full and have tried to find outside help so my son can learn. When I question anything about the school and if there is anyone else available to help teach my son I get this defense response.
Hi Cindy- I can’t give specific advice for your son since I don’t know him personally. I would 100% encourage you to continue working with the school in a positive way as much as possible. Regular meetings might be a good idea. Does your son do the work when he is at home (even if he chooses to not do it at school)? Maybe you should share some strategies about how/why your son works better at home if that is the case. For example, maybe he does better in a private area or while listening to music (just examples). These are strategies that the school could try if they work at home for him. As an educator, I would say it’s extremely important for your son to see you and the school as a unified team. If it isn’t working, I would encourage you to seek a parent advocate in your area to help you work on those issues with the school team! Good luck to you!
My wife just received a call from my son’s teacher that he is refusing to do art work. He instead is choosing to read. My wife called me and she wants to ground him and take away video games. I’m not sure what the teacher has attempted to get my son to do his work. I don’t think grounding him and taking away privileges is the right strategy. Not sure what to do.
Great question! I would first talk with your son and figure out what’s going on. Be inquisitive first. Then, problem solve together and help him understand the expectations. I’m more of a fan of incentives than punishments. Also, just to put things into perspective, reading isn’t the worst thing to do instead of art work! Still, I would want to find out what is going on and what is causing your son to not do his art work. You might also want to call the teacher or have a conference to find out what else is going on in the class from her perspective. Most importantly, it’s critical that your son sees you, your wife, and the teacher as a united front. This often makes a huge difference! Feel free to send the teacher this link or share some of the suggestions as well. Good luck to you!
What do you do when you co teach in a middle school class with 25+ students and 6 have diagnosed behavior disorders, those plus 5 more have learning disabilities and everyone “feeds off each other”? At any given time, 2 are shouting at each other, 1 is spinning in circles or rolling on the floor, 3 are blurting random things across the room at each other trying to “one up” the other. Suffice it to say, no one is learning anything about anything, except maybe some different inappropriate behaviors they hadn’t thought of before. It’s like “whack a mole” with exploding moles.
Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Hi Barbara, I hear you. That is extremely frustrating. Something that has helped me in the past is “sometimes you have to go backwards before you can move forwards.” Perhaps you can spend some time on relationship-building and social skills in the classroom. If you are a general education teacher, I recognize this seems counter-productive since you should be able to focus on your content. Sometimes, though, the other skills need to come first. I’d also take some time to be reflective about your class structure, routines, and activities. The more routine, the better. Keep it simple if possible. For example, maybe you have a 5 minute warm up that kids silently do at their desks while coming in, then a 10 minute mini-lesson, and then an activity. I’d also do something to encourage kids to do their best. Many years, I had a “Fun Friday” where kids could watch a movie and/or color at the desks during our resource time if they were caught up on work. It might look different for you depending on your structure but incentives can be a powerful tool if used right. I would also encourage you to reach out to the special education teacher, school counselor, and any other support staff. Have them come visit your room and ask for suggestions! I think sometimes, as teachers, we get stuck in our own rooms and forget that we can reach out for help from others. Wishing you lots of luck for the rest of the school year!
T Jones says
Thank you so much for this article. My son is in 6th grade and he has Autism(ASD level 2). He is high functioning so he is in regular classroom setting, but he is constantly getting in trouble for refusing to do his work. I am going to pass some of these suggestions on to his teachers and maybe he won’t stay in trouble so much. Thank you for all you do as an educator.
I’m so glad this article was helpful. That’s a great idea to pass the information along. Still too often, kids with autism are really misunderstood. If you continue to have trouble, it’s always a good idea to call an IEP meeting to go over the supports in place and make sure the plan is working for him. Good luck to you and your son! -Kris
Do you have any suggestions for a 15 year old that just won’t get motivated? But she will help her friends with the same homework she refuses to complete herself. She does have ADD, anxiety, and Depression. She tends to deflect work, lack organizational skills, would rather sleep or watch Netflix . I would also appreciate a suggestion on some of your products that could possibly help. Any ideas would greatly be appreciated. Thank you for your time.
Hi Nicole- I do have a motivation workbook I created to help young adults improve some of these skills. You can find that here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Motivation-Workbook-2725265
I’d investigate a bit more as to why she won’t complete it on her own. Could it be a writing issue? Is writing challenging for her, either academically or physically? Could she try using speech to text for some assignments? I would also start really small and build her up. Sometimes, kids and young adults develop a sense of learned helplessness when there is too much homework that they can’t realistically complete. I’d also look into what time she could complete the work in school, maybe with adult or partner support. For example, maybe there is a resource room or guided study hall time where she could get it done and not have any homework for home. I’m also a huge fan of choice: You can complete ___ or ____ for homework. Even when we feel kids are not motivated by anything, it’s important to remember that they are often motivated by something. Just sometimes we haven’t found that something yet. Continue building a relationship with her and try to find what she’s interested in. If there is any way you can allow her to earn it with a little bit of extra work, that’s a good thing. Finally, last thoughts would be to make sure she has the academic skills to succeed. If not, teach them separately in a study skills class. Good luck to you! -Kris
What a truly amazing article! I stumbled upon it as I am currently writing an article about my blog, http://www.languageproject.gr. I am a foreign language teacher, located in Athens, Greece. The whole country has been under quarantine for more than a month as a means of prevention for covid-19 virus and all teachers are having Skype lessons. I have organised everything right, however I see one by one my students underperforming and being in denial to study. Usually, I am a demanding teacher but I have become more understanding, highly more encouraging and motivating teacher than ever before. Your article provides excellent advice on how to deal with our students now that circumstances are indeed unprecedented.
Thank you and please continue your amazing work!
P.S. I am also studying arabic and as a student myself I have been falling behind on my studying with no excuse. So, the psychological implications have an impact on everyone, regardless of age.
Any tips for a parent or ideas when we should be contacting teachers over incomplete work? My now 6th grader has consistently came home with over half of her classwork assignments still to complete, on top of the normal homework assignments since we started school 4 weeks ago. I thought just give her some adjustment time to adapt to the higher demand that 6th grade brings at first.. It’s 2-4 hours more at home and some times we are still on school work past bedtime still this far in.. I’m running on empty at this point because I don’t know how to motivate her to complete classwork during class time. She has admitted to getting “bored” sometimes and just reading a book instead of doing her assignments. Won’t tell anyone if she is struggling with something until specifically asked. It’s all gone to online, and now with the books requiring multiple reference pages its gotten more complicated.
Why would a student even think this is an option? In school in the 60s, I had classmates who were poor, some from single-parent households and one with a disability. Never ever did any student ever pull an, ” I’m just not going to do this work “attitude” because it would not have been tolerated. It was literally unthinkable. Thankfully there was no tolerance for such behavior. It made us better students and better people. So how did it become acceptable? I have never seen such coddling and excuses made for bad behavior. This is why teachers are burnt out and learning is diminished. This idea that discipline is cruel, or unkind or “mean” is destroying education.
Hi, This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this criticism and it certainly won’t be the last so I’m happy to try and respond. I think there are a couple things at play here. One is we live in a very different world from 10, 20, or 30 years ago. We can go along pretending everything is the same or adjust. I think, from an education standpoint, adjusting is critical to meet kids and teens where they are. The second consideration is that we know a lot more about trauma and challenges kids and teens face. Just because we tell a kid to work doesn’t mean they will. Just because we tell them they have to do something doesn’t make them listen. These strategies are all about problem-solving. Problems don’t get fixed on their own or because we tell kids to do the work. There’s no magic wand here. A lot of this is really rooted in relationships from the start. And if you follow me, you might know already I’m a huge advocate for meaningful and logical consequences. I couldn’t agree more that kids and teens need to be responsible for their behaviors. I actually highlight that in the article as well. I can definitely add it to my to do list to create an article just on logical consequences and how they are different from punishments. It’s worth of attention for sure. And finally, I agree with you about educators being burnt out. I have been there and have the most amount of empathy for that. That’s why the last point in the article is to focus on self-care. I’m a huge advocate for educator self-care in general. Thanks for your feedback. If you have other suggestions on how to help kids and teens when they refuse work feel free to share! I’m always open to hear suggestions and I’m always learning. Feel free to reach out anytime. -Kris
I had this behaviour as a kid and well I still have it actually even as an adult. But I have learned to swallow it as best as I can and produce a good work (I’m at uni now, masters degree in environmental science soon). In my case it has been due to one of or several of these factors, ever since I was a 6 years old:
1- I got super anxious because I did not wanna fail. I wanted it to be a great work and if I fared I would fail, I would not wanna start. But I was not aware this was one of the reasons before I became an adult. A child most probably does not know what blocks them or makes them scared/anxious.
2- I felt the teacher was unhelpful and not even seing me or validating me. I would find the teacher unfair for giving me tasks and it would turn into resentment and anger. If the teacher was walking aruond attending other classmates I would percieve it as her/him helping them but not me. Even if the teacher was spending the same time on everyone, I would not percieve it that way when I was amped up with anxiety and anger. Oh I can remember the EXACT feelings I would have during those moments.
3- There would be instances where I would feel I was in disadvantage and that it was unfair. I was not good with math for example. I knew I was not stupid. I just had a harder time with for example math and I remember I would refuse doing math assigments bc I felt I did not get the help I needed. I was very good with all the other subjects. I also had good memory and loved reading/writing. But math was my nemesis.
4- Instances where I did not understand the point of the assignment. this would automatically make me feel the teacher was incompetent. And I just did not wanna participate because I felt it was a pointless assignment and the teacher clearly did not know what she/he was doing. Believe me, even a middle school child is able to assess the quality of an assigment or the teacher, I know I did.
5- Or if the child has it rough at home or have a lot of anxiety and feels depressed etc, they will act it out with anger and frustration!
I believe I could go on and on about this lol
Reflecting back on it, whenever I felt above things about an assignment I would have been able to get over it if The teacher was warm and affectionat, showed me real care and that he/she understood me.
And made it clear that he/she just wants me to “do my best”. That would take the pressure out of it. Perfectionist kids puts so much pressure on themselves that they literally get a mental block. Relieving that pressure is key and some simple words and attention would most often suffice.
Make sure the assignment is interesting and as fun as possible. Also don’t dumb it down.
Make sure the child really understands how to do it, what steps to take and what the expected outcomes are. And why, why should the student invest her/his time and energy on this? Whats in it for him/her? And please don’t mention negative consequenses as it most certainly will fuel the students anxieties even more. Relieve the pressure and anxiety for the child.
I have no clue about teaching and the teacher profession, but these are my own personal experiences as that rebelling, assignment refusing nay saying child lol
Holly Gurgurich says
This made me so happy and definitely worked! So wonderful to see someone so dedicated to helping others realize that yelling is rarely the best solution :) Your tips saved my behind in class today and I couldn’t be more thankful. Hoping this year is treating you well!
My grandson was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5. He is in the 5th grade this year. In the past few years he was an
A & B student. This year he is refusing to do his work and is making Fs in 2 subjects. He basically started this behavior after Christmas break.
His mom had a stroke in May of 2020 and doesn’t spend a lot of time with him. She is not a hands on mom because of the stroke. As of recently she has been spending less time with him due to her symptoms getting worse from her illness.
He now has to do things for himself…such as picking out his clothes for school packing his bag and going to the bus stop by himself. He also puts himself to bed at night because she goes to bed around 7:00 pm every evening. Do you think the behavior he is exhibiting is due to his home life? His school is working to try and find a solution to his problems. Thanks
Hi Peggy, I can’t give specific advice about your grandson but happy to give some general insight. First off, I’m so sorry for all he’s going through. All those changes and then a crazy pandemic year on top of it all. It’s a lot for any kid to deal with. I’m glad the school is working towards a solution. Giving kids grace during a tough time is seriously important. Feel free to share this article with them (if you want) to give some ideas in a supportive way. Sending love and support your way. -Kris
Hi! Just wondering if you had any advice for a kindergarten who is very smart but is refusing to do work at school on a regular basis. Unfortunately I am a single mom that works a full time job. But still trying to keep a consistent schedule and work with him.
Hi Lisa, A lot of what I’d suggest is right in the article. I’d start small with routines and rewards. I would also suggest trying taking turns with work (I do 1, you do 1). I hope one of the ideas helps – and it’s important to mention that change happens slowly over time! Thanks for all you do! -Kris
Bruce Brailsford says
I have a Middle School new student who (after seemingly testing the waters since the beginning of school) is at the point where he does little or nothing in most classes and readily admits it’s because there are literally no consequences.
The number one thing is to build a relationship. I know that takes time. Find out what he likes, what he’s good at, what inspires him. And make a plan together to help him learn and do his best.
Nice article! I had a bright first grader consistently refuse to do his fact sheet of 20 math problems. I used movement to help him complete the task. I told him to just complete the first row of 5 facts. He was shocked! Once he completed that row, I told him he could walk around the room. Once he returned to his seat, he completed the next row. He continued working a little and walking until he finished the assignment. He appreciated breaking the assignment into smaller parts and permission to move about the room.
Kari Fomon says
I just found your awesome site and this article is just great! I can’t wait to explore your resources as well. I am a student teacher supervisor and have one class that has had so many behavioral issues from follow them from little up to now in an upper elementary grade. It’s the kind of class that teachers have ‘tried everything’ with. I think that this article will be so helpful to my student teacher and maybe even her cooperating teacher. Our student teachers have not been able to put any of these types of strategies into play/observe as they have not been able to be in classrooms prior to student teaching due to COVID restrictions. I plan to get them on your website and share as much as possible. They need all the tools in their toolboxes as they go out into the classrooms! Thanks so much for provide these resources!
Enedina Tannhauser says
Great article, great lovable ways to manage when students refuses to work. I complete agree with this article because one must not fight with a student, instead walk a mile in his her shoes since no one knows what is on their heads and one can’t assume laziness or other adjectives to describe the student.