Strategies for Students Who Refuse to Work
Author: Francesca Battaglia

Classroom Atmosphere

+    Create an atmosphere in which there is an emphasis on effort rather than achievement and accuracy.  Take every chance to praise student attempts and progress so that they understand that you appreciate and are excited by their contributions to the class.

+    Encourage risk taking in your room.  Encourage questions and answers, even when they are inaccurate and off base.  This approach will let students know that your class is a safe place in which to take risks in the learning process.  It lets them know that you want them to be cognitively engaged in the lesson.  

+    Make all students feel welcomed, even if you are feeling frustration with certain behaviors.  Let all children know that you believe that they can succeed and that you will support them in the process.
Classroom Arrangement

+    Make sure that your student’s placement in the room is optimal for learning.  Perhaps the student needs to be placed in close proximity to the teacher so that s/he can be easily redirected onto tasks.  Certain classmates may distract the student who is having difficulties; others may be able to help by setting a positive example.

+    Establish a “Calming Spot” where students can go to unwind.  This place can provide frustrated students with a necessary escape from stress and provide them with the space to positively redirect their own behavior.  

+    Look for ways to lessen distractions.  Do not place  students who are having trouble doing class work in an area where they will be distracted, (e.g. facing a window or door, next to an equipment shelf).

Teacher/Student Relationship

+    It is extremely important to avoid negatively labeling a child.  Remember to dislike the behavior, not the student.  As was pointed out in the section on classroom atmosphere, pupils need to know that you believe in their ability to be successful.  They need to feel that you are “on their side” if you are to be able to develop a relationship that is conducive to learning and encourages a students to put forth their best efforts.

+    Spend some time getting to know the student.  What are his/her interests?  How does s/he feel about school, home, her social life?  Build a relationship so that the student begins to see you as someone who s/he can trust; someone who has his/her best interests in mind and heart.

+    Once you have established a positive relationship with your student, set up a “secret signal” that the student can use to alert you if she is experiencing difficulty.  This practice allows the student to ask for help without drawing the attention of others and “losing face” in front of her peers.

+    Share with your student the times when you have had similar experiences and emotions.  This revelation lets the student know that it is alright to go through hard times; and that she is not alone in experiencing these emotions.  Sometimes knowing that adults experience similar problems makes kids feel better.   

Teaching Strategies
+    Break tasks into small “chunks” or segments so that the student does not feel overwhelmed.  Add on another each time the student completes a chunk.  It may help to begin each chunk with the student and then exit when you feel that the student understand the task and can proceed on his/her own..

+    Incorporate your students’ interests into your lessons.  This technique, sometimes called “anchoring”, will help catch students’ interest.  It also lets them know that you are aware of the things they enjoy, and that you want them to enjoy classroom lessons.

+    Make sure students understand how the material that you are teaching relates to their lives.  Let them know how the information or skill will be useful to them in the future.

+    Set up your struggling student up for success.  Give her a task you know she can complete.  Perhaps the feeling of having succeed in the class, with your support and encouragement, will encourage her to do further work.   

+     Give the student choices.  For example, if you are working on writing paragraphs give him/her a choice of three topics on which to write.  Be sure the choices are of interest to the student.  

+    Make your assignments and lessons fun and interesting (including their interests, humor, hands-on learning, captivating demonstrations, cooperative learning).

+    Consider the learning style of all your students.  If one student has “shut down”, it is possible that you need to adapt the manner in which you deliver information and the manner in which you ask that student to respond.  Be sure to make your instruction multisensory, incorporating lots of hands on activities, so that all learning channels are addressed.  

+    Assess the student’s instructional level.  It is possible your student is not participating because she unable to comprehend what is taught or perform what is expected.

+    Get your students moving.  A program called Action Based Learning ( believes that letting kids get exercise during the school day helps in the learning process.  After each lesson, lead your students in a bit of stretching or cardio-respiratory exercise.  Or maybe, if you see a student losing motivation, suggest that she get up and walk around a bit, or go to the “Calming Spot” and do some stretching.

+    Introduce your student to stories (or literature for your older students) in which the main character is experiencing difficulties similar to the student’s.  
Behavioral Interventions

+    Conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment or an A-B-C assessment (see the page of this website titled “Figuring out why kids misbehave”).  Try to determine why your student is exhibiting the behavior.  What purpose does it serve?  What is the antecedent to the behavior?  What is the consequence that maintains it?  Try to make adjustments so that the antecedent is removed and work towards stopping the reinforcing consequence.  Are there other circumstances (e.g. trouble at home) that could be leading to the behavior?

+    Catch your students being good.  That statement means that you find every opportunity to let students, especially struggling ones, know that you notice their positive actions.  Focus on small achievements.

+    Reward positive behavior.  Rewards can range in level from expressions of happiness from a teacher, to food, to being able to make academic decisions.  The important thing is that the reward is motivating (more motivating than the original consequence for the inappropriate behavior) to the student.  Rewards systems can be made fun and engaging.  For example, you can spell out the reward with each letter on a different piece of paper.  Each time the student earns one of the letters for putting forth effort, s/he is closer to learning about the prize.  You might also use pieces of a puzzle for this reward system.  

+    Make use of negative reinforcement (as long as you’re also using positive reinforcement too).  A behavior is negatively reinforced when a student demonstrates a behavior in order to avoid something she perceives as negative and punishing (e.g. missing recess).

+    Establish an “Exit Ticket” that students earn for completing a minimum amount of work.  Let them know that they cannot leave class to participate in recess or lunch with their peers unless they have earned an exit ticket.

+    Teach problem solving skills to your struggling student so that s/he can analyze why she is having difficulty and devise a plan to solve the problem.  “The First Days of School” by Harry Wong has a student problem solving plan called “My Action Plan” which asks the student to answer three questions:  What is the problem?;  What is causing the problem?; and What plan will I use to solve the problem?  You can also use Gordon’s six step problem solving process.   
Step 1: Identify and define the problem of situation.
Step 2: Generate alternatives problem or situation.
Step 3: Evaluate the alternative suggestions
Step 4: Make the decision.
Step 5: Implement the solution or decision.
Step 6: Conduct a follow-up evaluation.
            (See the page on problem solving on the home page of this website).

+    Involve the struggling student in self-evaluation and self monitoring.  At the end of the day, or at the end of a period, she can evaluate how well she did at participating in class activities.  Give him/her a form on which s/he can mark at predetermined times whether s/he is engaged in the appropriate behavior.  These activities will help him/her become more aware of his/her own behavior and make it known that s/he is ultimately responsible for improvements. (See the page on problem solving on the home page of this website).

+    Work to increase the student’s self-esteem by teaching her the Pride and Progress exercise from Doctor Mac’s book “The Behavior Survival Guide for Kids”.  This exercise encourages kids to use self-talk to congratulate themselves for doing a good job and to set and monitor goals for themselves.  (See the home page of this website for more information on this book).

+    Use peer pressure to motivate unmotivated students.  Have students evaluate each other or create a buddy system in which students are responsible for helping their buddy meet classroom expectations.  Rewards that are earned for appropriate behavior by the group help motivate students to motivate each other.  (See the page on “promoting positive peer pressure” and “ways to catch them being good” on the home page of this website).

+    Use task analysis by breaking tasks into smaller chunks and rewarding the student for completion of the first chunk.  When the student is successful at completing the first step add on the next step.  The student must now complete both steps in order to earn the reward.  Keep adding another step to the requirement for reward as the student masters the assigned ones (See the page on “task analysis” on the home page of this website).

+     Sometimes the student may be refusing t
o work to gain attention.  In this case it may be appropriate to ignore the student’s lack of participation.  Remember, however, that for ignoring to work you need to follow through with your ignoring plan.  Be sure that the student is not finding the behavior to be self reinforcing and that s/he is not receiving reinforcing attention from her classmates, which would make your ignoring attempt ineffective.  (See the “What is ABA?” page on this site for more information on the use of ignoring)

+    Record how often a behavior occurs and use Differential Reinforcement of Lower Rate of Behavior (DRL) to decrease the number of unwanted behaviors.  For instance, if a student refuses to participate in class an average of ten times each day, provide the student with a reward when she only refuses to work nine times in a day.  After the student is regularly refusing to work only nine times, make eight the required number to receive the reward.  (See the pages on “behavior recording” and “differential reinforcement” on this website).  

+    Make use of a “Mystery Motivator” (random administration of reinforcement).  Write the days of the week on five pieces of paper.  With an invisible-ink pen, write an “M” on one of the papers.  Each day the students (if it is a class wide reward) or the struggling student (if it is an individual reward) checks each of the papers to see if the invisible “M” is on it.  If the paper shows the M, and the work was completed on that paper, a reward is received.


The Home/School Connection
+    Develop a strong home/school connection.  Establish regular communication about student behavior.  Work towards creating consistent expectations between the two environments.

+    Be sure that communications with the home are supportive and respectful.  Point out positive things as well as negative.  Offer your support.  

Look into Causes for the Lack of Motivation
+    Is there something going on at home that could be affecting the student’s ability to function in school?

+    Is the student experiencing emotional or psychological problems? Is s/he suffering from depression?  Low self-esteem? Being bullied or persistently ridiculed by others?

+    Maybe the student is unable to do the work you are asking her to do.  Does the student have an undiagnosed learning or behavioral disability?  Perhaps the student’s fear of failure is preventing him/her from working.

+    It is possible that your student really does not see how school relates to her life and how participating will benefit her in the present or in the future. Make the connection evident.

+    Perhaps the student is lacking in one of the four components of the Circle of Courage.  They are generosity, independence, belonging, and mastery.  Based on Native American philosophy the wheel depicts the four aspects of self that must be functioning in order to behave appropriately.  (See the link inside the page title “What is Psycho Ed?” on the home page of this website).

This page of suggestions was written by Francesca Battaglia when she was a student in the Graduate Program in Behavior Disorders in the Department of Special Education at Hunter College of the City University of New York.  It is used with her permission.

Thanks Francesca!

Posted 7/2/06 on