How to Help Student Work Refusers Stop Avoiding Class Assignments


article on work refusers


Wonderful Ways to Help
Wanderers and Work Avoiders:
Stop Students' Work Refusal and Wandering



help with work refusersHello from Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I'm the one penning this article for our Behavior and Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog. We get lots of calls and questions from teachers, counselors, principals, juvenile court staff and social workers. We try to answer them all, and to post the best questions and answers in this blog.

Other than violent teens, no subject generates more queries than student work refusers. No population other than violent teens, seems to be more frustrating to youth professionals than work refusers. Lucky for you, work refusers are a real specialty for us in our books and workshops, so you're in good hands.

Leticia, who is a middle school teacher, is the source of this blog article's  topic. Here is her question:

How do you get kids to stay in their seats and complete their work? These are the ones that need to get paper, or sharpen their pencil, or get a book, or any other excuse to get out of their seat so they don't have to do their work!

Here are some suggestions for Leticia and anyone else who has wandering, work avoidant, or unprepared students.

Leticia, as you well know, kids are not born "instant students." Any behavior that you want a child to do, you have to first teach that behavior to the child. Just like you have to teach math skills before students can do math, you have to teach those basic school skills before you can reasonably expect the students to have those skills.

Schools have elaborate curriculum guidelines for teaching math, but usually no guide at all for teaching the foundation school skills so that students can take advantage of math instruction, and other academic offerings. So, before you can teach math or any other topic, you will need to train your kids to be students. Ideally, in the early elementary school grades, students would learn to be prepared for class. That would eliminate all your problems with students getting up to sharpen pencils or locate paper. Since many elementary schools don't thoroughly provide this preparation, here are some suggestions to provide this training to students of all ages.

work refusersWonderful Ways to Get Work Refusers
to Finish Their Work



First, as we have been discussing, students will seldom perform skills that haven't been taught. Second, students may need "wiggle time" if they get tired of sitting still at their desks. Third, students may want to do anything besides their work, so getting up to do something can look pretty attractive. Let's tackle each of these areas. I will only be able to give you a peek into each area, but I will make suggestions to locate the additional interventions you will need.



Teach students how to prepare for class– and motivate them to use these new skills. To teach students how critical preparation is, have them name all the jobs they may wish to do, then identify the consequences of being ill-prepared. For example, what happens if the surgeon forgets her scalpel or the trucker neglected to buy gas. Have students look for other humorous or compelling examples then discuss: "Where are job preparation skills offered to you for free besides school?" Answer: Nowhere.

Once more motivated to learn how to arrive prepared for class, have students identify exactly what they must do to be prepared for your class. Include responses like "sharpen my pencil" and "locate paper." List the help work refusersresponses in a column on the board, then ask the students to identify the best and worst times to perform these tasks. So, "sharpening a pencil during class" might rate as a "worst time," but "before the class starts" might rate as "best." A fun follow-up is to have a poster contest with students competing to best illustrate the concept of "Arrive Prepared or Be Impaired." Put the posters on the wall to serve as an on-going reminder.

This handful of interventions is just the start. Youngsters seldom change long term behavior based on just a few interventions, so be sure to plan to use more of the hundreds of additional strategies that we have. For example, our Turn On the Turned-Off Student book has a wonderful handout called "Rate How Well You Can Learn When You Miss Class." This powerful device is part of an interactive experiment that vividly convinces students that they miss a lot very quickly, even if they only left to sharpen a pencil.

Article Continues Below


how to help work refusers


Schedule Your On-Site Inservice Workshop Now

It's More Affordable Than You Think

Learn 100s of Strategies for Work Refusers, Violent,
Uncontrollable, Unmotivated and Withdrawn Students

1.800.545.5736 or Email

One Click Can Solve It All



Article Continues Here



Look around at your next staff meeting. Few staff members sit as still as statues. Children make lousy statues. If you require students to "sit still," some will do almost anything to be able to get up and move about, even if just for a minute. Remember how you felt crammed into that airline seat for hours? Students can feel the same way. Especially if you have 90 minute long periods, build in wiggle time. Plus, at the start of the year, have your students establish a "Wiggle Rule." For example, the rule may be that it's not okay to be out of your seat, but it is okay to quietly tap your foot or a pen.

Here's the guideline to offer students: If the wiggling behavior would be okay in the work world, then it is okay in the classroom. You are preparing students for the work world, where sitting still is seldom required. You can even use "Wiggle Time" as an incentive. For example, if class time is not wasted on pencil sharpening and locating paper, then we can enjoy some of the time saved by stopping instruction a few minutes early.



You know the feeling. It's been 6 months since you balanced your checkbook, and your taxes are now months overdue. All of us have things we like to do, and things we just rather never do. Some of your students would rather get a root canal than do class work just like you might prefer a root canal to finishing your taxes. A powerful dose of motivation could motivate students who don't finish their workhelp. For example, ask your students to review your local employment classified ads, searching for jobs that reference motivation and follow-through. They will find many ads seeking employees who are "highly motivated," but no ads seeking the "poorly motivated." Discuss that few jobs permit on-going work avoidance, then ask your class members if they will ever need to work.

Poster #7, shown at left, gives you a visual idea of these interventions that can really help work refusers and students who spend their day wandering instead of learning or working. Poster #007 is just $8.

Here are a couple of follow-up activities. Ask your students to name all the jobs that they can do and refuse or delay tasks whenever they want. (There are no jobs like that.)

Here is an additional follow-up intervention for older students only. Discuss the tongue-in-cheek classified ad shown on Poster #7, and relate it back to work acceptance and completion. This ad is quite edgy so tone it down as needed or remake it, however, this edgy version does tend to get noticed by students. Even so, you need to be very thoughtful about which groups of students you use this with. Be sure to restrict the use of this device to older youth who would do well with this hard-edged approach, and who also need exposure to a powerful intervention to understand that work avoidance and poor preparation won't be tolerated in the world of adult employment.

If you prefer to write the text shown on Poster #7, here is one example that can give you a place to start:

Work Avoiders Needed for High Paying Jobs. Must be highly unmotivated and able to avoid completing assignments. Should be able to arrive late and unprepared. Candidates who can leave in the middle of a task are especially encouraged to apply. Late and incomplete applications only please.


free teacher resources


Article Permalink


    Reprint or Repost This Article

    Bring the Breakthrough Strategies Workshop to Your Site

    Help Unmotivated, Failing, Troubled and Unmanageable Students

    teachermissYou have students who struggle. We have solutions for students who struggle…so your job doesn’t have to be so difficult. We have cutting-edge strategies to manage group and classroom management problems like behavior disorders, trauma, disrespect, bullying, emotional issues, withdrawal, substance abuse, tardiness, cyberbullying, delinquency, work refusal, defiance, depression, Asperger’s, ADHD and more.


    Schedule the Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Workshop to come to your site. This is the one professional development inservice that produces results, results, results. Call 1.800.545.5736 now. This surprisingly affordable inservice also makes a terrific fund raiser. College credit and 10 professional development clock hours are available. Your staff will finally have the more effective, real-world tools they need to work with today’s challenging, difficult youth.


    Contact us now, and begin solving your worst “kid problems” today. Call 1.800.545.5736, or email.


    Working with Troubled Students Doesn’t Have to be So Difficult

    Behavior & Classroom Management Problem-Solver Blog Articles

    Subscribe Unsubscribe/Change Subscription
    Contact Us*  *Not for Unsubscribing

    Library of Congress ISSN: 1526-9981 | Youth Change, Your Problem-Kid Problem-Solver | 1.503.982.4220 | 275 N. 3rd St; Woodburn, OR 97071
    © Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved | Permission granted to forward magazine to others.

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.