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What to Do When a Student Won’t Learn

What to do when a Student Won’t Learn

We all have them – students who don’t seem to care one bit about learning anything. They may give us the blank stare, turn in an empty worksheet at the end of class, or scribble unintelligible answers. You know who I mean – you’re picturing them right now.

When I first started teaching, I have to admit this problem took me a bit off guard. I could hardly believe that a student simply would not do his work. Of course I knew students forget or miss assignments here and there, but when I had students missing 10, 15, even 20 assignments a quarter, I was dumbfounded. And when I saw my students just staring off into space during work times, I was stunned.

And I had no idea what to do.

What I learned, however, is that these students really need us to not give up on them. They need us to motivate them, encourage them, and help them grow. They need us to be insistent and consistent and not allow them to just skate through school and graduate with a diploma in social promotion.

Even when we want to beat our head against the wall and moan Why won’t you just do your work?? we must not give up the fight.

Those students who just don’t seem to want to learn desperately need us. In particular, I’ve found they need us to…..

1. Believe in them. It’s just natural to walk into class thinking Ugh, I’m going to have to fight with Randy today to get him to work. But if that’s our expectation, it will become the reality. Instead, we need to believe in our students and their potential. Did you catch that last word – potential. Believe in what they are capable of becoming, even if they are miles away right now. Believe that they can and will become a successful student. When you believe in them, it changes how you respond to them. And it just might change how they respond to you.

2. Get the parents involved. Don’t wait to get the parents in the loop and try to get their support. Some parents will be more supportive than others. And some will say they’re supportive but never follow through. Regardless, keep trying to involve them as much as possible. And give them specific ideas for how they can help their student. Some parents don’t know what to do, but a specific suggestion such as “Review his multiplication facts with him once a day” may be more manageable. (If you find yourself getting frustrated with the parent check out my post What to Do With the Parent Who’s Driving You Crazy.)

3. Expect them to participate. Don’t allow an unmotivated student to just sit in your class and do nothing. Expect them to take notes, work on assignments, answer questions, and do everything else the class is doing. When he doesn’t, quietly approach him and get him back on task. Be patient and consistent in your expectations, and he should start getting the idea that he doesn’t have a choice but to stay involved.

4. Encourage them. Often students acts lazy because they are actually extremely frustrated that they cannot figure something out. Or, they may have tried and not have seen success as quickly as they thought they would. In either case, they need encouragement. Talk to them about the potential you see in them and how you believe in them. And when you see improvement or even the smallest of successes, praise them and encourage them to keep it up.

5. Require them to complete their work. Don’t just give up and start accepting the fact that Nicole never completes her assignments. Require your students to complete their work, even if you have to think of creative ways to make this happen. If we allow our students to simply not do their work, we are allowing them to cheat themselves out of their education. We cannot let them make such a damaging mistake.

6. Be patient and consistent. Growth takes time – and by time I mean years. Yes, years. We (just like the kids sometimes) want to see progress now, but often it takes years for students to improve. Remember that the consistency, compassion, and effort you put into helping them now is not wasted – even if you aren’t the one who sees the results. I had the privilege to teach at a K through 12 school, and it was amazing to see students who were a bit of a mess in middle school succeeding and even excelling in high school. So don’t give up – the seeds you are sowing won’t grow overnight. (I write more about this in my post What to Do With the Kid Who’s Driving You Crazy.)

Have you found these strategies effective in your classroom? What else have you done to help students who won’t learn?

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  • Ok, I tried to do a spaced lesosn this morning. As I have 8 years old students and as the gymnasium and our classroom are on different floors, I have decided to have the history lesosn in the gymnasium, sitting on the floor. I alterned 8 minutes lesosn with 8 minutes PE for three times. At the end I monitorized the lesosn with my students. Surprisingly they remembered all the details of the history lesosn and they told me that they have loved the lesosn. We succeeded in doing more physical exercises than we usually do. The reason is in the organization that pupils improve during such a lesosn. In the meanwhile concentration is better during the study part. The only thing I have to tell is that probably I have had a good experience because I have only 15 students in a class. What about a class with 28 students? And logistically speaking, it would be better to have the classroom just in front or, anyway, near the gymnasium. What do you think?Anyway, my students asked me to repeat the experience

  • I have tried all of the above, we simply have kids who do not want to do anything. I could have Beyonce come in to teach the lesson and they would ask why it wasn’t Kanye. They don’t to do anything but socialize or comply minimally just to pass…*sigh*

  • I would like to share something that some teachers are missing….do you ever ask yourself what is the home life for this child like. Does he have food to eat, does he have parents lie about him just to get SSI (government help), does he have a bed to sleep in, does he have someone to give him a huge or talk with him about his feelings, did he take a bath last night, does he have paper/pencil to do his homework, does he get abused because he had a bad report from school, does he have parents that don’t have good parenting skills, does he have a father/mother in his life?
    I can go on forever, but we forget that all children are not the same and don’t come from the same families….families are different by choice or lack of making good choices. I don’t believe for one minute that a child wakes up to say that he is going to make peoples lives miserable…don’t we all say that a child needs a good foundation….that comes from home….what if he has no guidance, encouragement, love, consistency in his life…how is he going to know any different.
    He can get some of this at school…a child is in school on an average of 6 hours a day… 30 hours a week…we can make a difference…we can make change with these children…it’s not giving up on them…who else do they have?
    Folks talk about crime and how the crime is coming from young children….its because folks are giving up on them…they have a bad reputation in school…no one wants to get involved…it’s putting them in reform schools and throwing away the key…hoping they make it out ok. There is not enough state/federal money going to these schools that really need it….they need counseling on a daily basis…they need to focus on the emotional/safety well being of the child.
    Again, I can go on for days…I used to teach at a private school and I saw first hand of privileged children and the ones not so privileged. I had a dad who worked as a house painter for 80+ hours a week just to keep his child at this school…he wanted better for her…the child was going through a really tough time…I picked up on it…I reached out to her dad…he told me of things going on in the family…such as, his wife was in prison and he worked so much he never had time for his daughter…he couldn’t help with homework, she cooked her dinner and ate alone, she stayed home alone (no siblings), she had no one…her dad knew this, but what was he to do…he was thinking about her future getting a good education…the trickle down effects was his daughter started showing the signs of him not being at home…missing assignments, she didn’t care about her appearance…she was loosing interest by the day…I decided that day I would do ANYTHING for ANY child…I started going to school earlier and staying later to help a child struggling in academics or just being a friend (all free)….to this day I have never regretted that decision…I do know first hand about the good, the bad and the ugly about being a teacher…if you don’t have the love of children you definitely don’t need to be a in the classroom…you will get burned out and hate your job…you will be miserable and make the lives of others around you miserable.
    Sorry so long…I read this article…and was so touched by what we should and need to do for all students…we can make a difference…one day and one child at a time.

  • I love your optimism. After 20 years in the classroom, I’ve developed a pretty good tool kit, but there are some students who simply refuse to engage at the high school level. I cannot pick up a pencil for them. They refuse academic support of any kind.
    Usually there are far deeper issues going on than what I can solve in a classroom. Perhaps at home, perhaps mental health.
    Teaching can be a tough gig, but so can being a kid. We can’t solve all the world’s problems.

  • Being unrealistic about the expectations of a kid who won’t engage in any activity is just denying that are forces beyond a teacher’s will power that can be controlled. At the end of the day, you have a family to go back to nurture and cherish. Sometimes that extra effort can definitely be of better use at home.

  • I can give another angle on this. One of my most frustrating experiences was a nearly adult student who ostensibly wanted to ‘improve English’ but actually had no interest in the language whatsoever, and just wanted to clock up a few more ‘points’ to be eligible for medical school.

    Every single word I uttered would be met with a refutation. It was chilling.

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