What Works with Students Who Avoid or Refuse to Work


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What Works with Students

Who Avoid or Refuse to Work



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What Works with Students


Who Avoid or Refuse to Work


work refusal articleThey are without a doubt among the hardest students to reach and teach. I’m talking about students who avoid school tasks or refuse to work entirely. Some may become almost mute, others won’t even make eye contact, but the common thread is that the student is drastically underperforming when it comes to accepting, completing and returning assignments. If you’re like most teachers, you never had a class in college called Introduction to Helping Students Who Avoid Work, but you probably wish there had been lots of courses exactly like that. You don’t have to go back to college. Help is right here in this how-to article.

If you want even more strategies and information that can produce improved results from students who avoid or refuse school work, come to our Seattle Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop on April 18-19, 2019 and get hours of detailed, step-by-step instruction on how to maximize your impact on these difficult to teach students. Hello from the course instructor, Youth Change Professional Development Workshops director, Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. That’s a picture of me teaching in Seattle a couple years ago. I hope to see you back there in April when you can actually list out for me the student problems you want me to cover. You’ll leave with 200 use-now, more effective strategies.


Innovative Strategies for Students


Who Avoid or Refuse to Work

students who don't finish their work


Stop the Power Struggle

Most teachers know that is very easy to end up in a power struggle with students who don’t do much school work or none at all. As a mental health professional, I really need to point out that no adult ever won a power struggle and not adult ever will. So, if you have to admit that you do feel a bit like you are in a power struggle with some of your work refusing students, Step #1 has to be to acknowledge that to the youngster, declare a truce and back off for a moment.

Here’s why many or most students refuse work: Much of the time, these children and teens are terribly weighed down by some type of problem. Perhaps a parent is violent or missing. Perhaps they have an undiagnosed or diagnosed learning disorder that makes school work miserable. Maybe they are distracted or unmotivated. In this short article, we’ll focus on the first students mentioned above, the ones that are struggling with some type of emotional, social or learning problem. There are dozens of  free expert, how-to articles our site covering poor motivation that you can read. Building motivation in work refusing students can be a good help but if a student is too busy trying to stay awake after all-night domestic violence, motivation is only going to take you so far. Instead, being sensitive to what the child may be living through, may be a much more effective approach. Remember: You may be the only sane, sober adult in some students’ orbit. You definitely don’t want to add burdens. You want to be on their side as much as you can. Stopping any power struggles and explicitly talking about how to manage the work refusal is a great place to begin again.

students who don't finish their work


Ask the Expert

Who you think just might be the best expert to help you figure out how to best work with a student who is avoiding or refusing to work? That student. No one else may know why they are doing so little, so ask then listen carefully to the response you get when you ask for the reason for not wanting to start or complete tasks. If the student answers that they don’t know why, then ask “If you did know why, what might it be?” If that unexpected strategy fails, switch the focus to a friend or someone in popular culture and ask the student why that person might refuse to work. That switch may yield important clues and by shifting the focus to someone else, you may get more truth than the student would tell you otherwise.

Whether or not you succeed at getting more information, use the students’ expertise to improve the situation. Ask the student to help you understand what to do and what not to do to assist them. Tell the student you are on their side and don’t want to add to any problems they may already have. Tell the student that with their guidance, perhaps they could do less work on days they are struggling and more work on days they feel more able. Next, cooperatively develop a step by step plan that features tiny, tiny increases. If you aim for bigger increases, that creates the possibility of a big setback if the student fails. If the increase is tiny, and the student is saying that’s “too easy,” that’s perfect. You want the student to have some small successes but without the risk of a big fail. When this youngster fails, they often disappear from school or lose a lot of ground in other areas. This student is all about anxiety. Everything you do must decrease the anxiety because when the student experiences anxiety, that’s when they refuse work or disappear from school or class.

students who don't finish their work


It’s About Control

Typically, students who refuse to work are very anxious. They are struggling to cope. When they refuse to work, they are trying to take control over one of the few things in their world that they have any say over at all. You can struggle with them over the control but that is never going to go well. Instead, hand the control to them and you will see improved results. I suggest explicitly talking about control and anxiety with them, and reassuring them that you don’t want to add to their worries. Tell them you want to give them as much control over their work as possible. That can help them be a little less anxious. Their anxiety is the best guide. When it is high, reduce expectations. When it is relatively low, incrementally increase expectations for work. Let them know that you will give them slack when they are struggling, but in return, ask if they could work as hard as they can on days that they are feeling a bit better.

Be sure that these youngsters understand that they are going to need the skills taught in school, and if you two work together, they can accomplish that in a way that doesn’t put any strain on them. Once you are both on the same side, a general relaxation can occur and improvement can happen– but only to a certain extent. For example, students who are awake much of the night because their home is a battleground, will be limited in how much they will be able to do with little sleep and lots of worries.

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students who don't finish their work


To Push or Not to Push?

Do I push students who do nothing in school, or do I back off? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? You may feel that when it comes to students who refuse to work or avoid assignments, it’s lose-lose. If you push, these students tend to double down on their resistance. Many stop showing up for school or class. If you don’t push, then the fear is that you are not educating these youngsters at all. Here’s the solution to this mystery: Both pushing and not pushing result in big fails. “To push or not to push” isn’t even the right question. The better question is “What should I do to get more results from these youngsters? In our workshops, we spend hours answering this question. In this brief how-to article, I can’t fit in the wealth of techniques I’ll be giving in Seattle in April in our Breakthrough Strategies Workshop, but here’s a few key pro tips:

As a mental health professional, I can assure you that typically many students who routinely and seriously refuse or avoid work, are facing some type of emotional, social or behavioral issue that impedes their functioning. Even so, despite the significant (but often not readily apparent or visible) challenges these students may have, most of these youngsters usually have days that are better or worse. On days that this student is struggling, reduce your expectations. On days that this student appears to be doing a bit better, increase your expectations. For example, a girl’s dad is on the road driving a long haul truck 4 days a week. You may notice her functioning is markedly improved when dad is on the road. You may notice the girl’s functioning nose dives when dad returns. That’s the time to cut her slack. Make specific agreements with students that reflect this type of plan.

Students tend to be really grateful to know that you are not going to cause more burdens to be added to their shoulders at times they are already carrying a very heavy load. The upshot is that now that there is no more power struggling over classroom work, and the student realizes that you understand their situation, they tend to work as hard as they can on the days they are able. They also tend to develop a lot of loyalty for you and that helps fuel their desire to work when they aren’t weighed down by whatever they may be going through. As an aside, I have to be sure to remind you to be sure to report any concrete indications of abuse or similar, as you are required by your site.

students who don't finish their work


Your Goal

The goal for students who refuse to work can and should be shared with these youngsters. That means you will be sensitive to what trauma, crisis, disability, emotional problem or plight the child is dealing with, but not at the expense of education. There is a balance between being sensitive to what the child may be living through and your mission to educate. If you can find that middle ground between those two parameters, you can really maximize the results these students can achieve.

No, you don’t need to worry about these children taking advantage of you if you are using this methods with students who have a lot of anxiety. That is key. These methods will fail with other populations of students. These intervention methods are designed only for use with students who are anxious or struggling with problems like trauma, domestic violence or loss. Dealing with the anxiety and whatever is causing it, takes so most of this students’ energy and resources. They don’t have much energy or interest left to plot and scheme how to take advantage of your reasonableness and kindness so being manipulated while using these methods is not normally a concern with the target population. Yes, manipulation would occur if you employ these strategies with populations they were not intended for.

If you are using this method with truly anxious and troubled students, they are much more likely to develop enormous loyalty towards you versus expend energy to exploit the accommodations you provide. You may be the only kind, humane adult they interact with. They are unlikely to jeopardize their lifeline. That’s why the best goal is to help them learn to work as hard as they can on days that they’re able. Hearing about that goal can reduce the power struggles and bring relief to children who are awash in pain.


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About Ruth Herman Wells

Author/Trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops. In 2011, Ruth was rated as a Top 10 U.S. K-12 educational and motivational speaker by Speakerwiki and Speakermix. She is the author of several book series, a columnist, adjunct professor for two universities, and a popular keynote speaker and workshop presenter. Ruth's dozens of books includes Temper and Tantrum Tamers and Turn On the Turned-Off Student.