Work Refusers: Strategies That Work


teacher classroom management blog


Work Refusers:
Remedies That Work



professional development trainer Ruth Herman WellsI bet you know some work refusers. This is professional development trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. and this student is my specialty. I have dozens and dozens of strategies for you.

Our Live Expert Help (click the icon at bottom right on any website page, or call 1.800.545.5736) gets more requests for help with this child than almost any other.

These days, every teacher, every counselor, every social worker, every principal knows students who won't do their work. Some of these work refusers often fail to show up. When they do show up, they often say little, and some may be nearly mute. Some may not even make eye contact, or even look in your direction.

Typically, adults consider two options: pushing the child or backing off. All types of "pushing" can fail, whether rewards, consequences, pressure or logic are used. Backing off can't ever work because if you back off then you're not offering the child an education, or whatever your service is.

The world demands skills from every one of us. No exceptions are made for those who endured abuse or neglect, or have a good reason to seize up. We spend hours thoroughly covering work refusers in our workshop, and can't fit all that comprehensive, step-by-step guidance here, but we'll give you some key tips. Consider coming to our workshop if you want more than just the starters offered here. Learn more about our professional development workshops here. Start reading a few of our best insider tips and tricks for work refusers below.

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Strategies to Help Work Refusers


It's Pain, Not a Game

Many work refusers face enormous challenges from severe family problems like violence or verbal abuse, to challenges like disabilities and emotional disorders. Work refusal can appear to be a game, but especially with victimized youngsters, it's not a game at all. Getting "stuck" is the only way they know to survive. It can keep them safe at home, and that survival mechanism comes in with them every day.

Few kids will ever say "I was beaten last night so math seems irrelevant. Can I skip the exam?" For distressed kids who don't wish to disclose the nature of their distress, simply allow them to say whether it's a "good work day" or "bad work day." How much work could you do after a beating? Deeply appreciative of accommodations, most of these traumatized students will work very hard on the days that they're able to.

You're a Life Line

You may be the only sane, sober adult some students know– a fact that you may want to keep in mind.

If you're a teacher, then you may live with on-going "testing mania," and other big pressures to produce results at school. It can be hard to remember that humanity is always more important than scores. Forget the humanity, you won't get good scores. Remember the humanity, you'll maximize your humans and their scores.


Tiny Increments

Traumatized kids have so little energy left for school: Surviving the beatings, homelessness, or neglect can demand all the child's resources.

Raise expectations in tiny increments. If a student says your goals are too easy, that's just right. Aim for lots of small successes rather than a big failure followed by seizing up and absences.

Understand: Work Refusal Isn't the Real Problem

Look beyond the work refusal to improve it. Work refusal is almost always a symptom of a bigger problem. It is not the cause. It is not the problem. You can't cure problems by focusing on symptoms, which are merely manifestations of the problem. Symptoms like work refusal are not the cause, they are the result. Focus on just the refusal, you will never get improvement. Focus on the refusal AND the causes, you can get improvement.

Strategy: Ask students why they don't work. When many say "I don't know," reply: "If you did know, what would it be?" This off- beat method can yield important answers. Be ready to arrange help for the serious issues students cite.


Listen for What You Don't Hear

Consider this true story as a way to understand your potential impact on vulnerable children who refuse to work: "Mom hasn't moved in three days. I'm worried," the first grader said when asked why he wouldn't work. Tragically, upon investigation, the boy's Mom had passed without any adult knowing. Looking back, would you want to have taken the time to ask, or would you be satisfied that you had only focused on getting the work done? Playwright Harold Pinter, who died recently, once said "The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear." For shut-down, withdrawn work refusers, it is critical that you listen for "that which we don't hear."


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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.