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. 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.
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. Use planned ignoring 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.