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?