What to do When a Student Refuses to Work

Topic: Strategies
What do you do when a student refuses to work- TeamTom Education Teaching Strategies

Whether you're a new teacher, a seasoned veteran, or anywhere in between, you likely have the experience of trying to teach when a student refuses to work. In schools, it's sometimes simply called a “work refusal”. It's the scenario when a student, for some reason, just refuses to start the work you give them.

Sometimes when a student refuses to work, they just rest their head on their desk or act out in anger. At times the teacher might be told, "I'm not doing this." Other times, students just will not complete the assignment.

When a student refuses to work, it can be extremely frustrating. So what can you do? In this post, you discover:

  • Quick To Do / Don't Do List with Students Who Refuse to Work
  • 8 Brain-Based Strategies for Work Refusal
  • FAQ About Work Refusal
  • Classroom Climate Strategies
  • Suggested Resources

Let me say, that sometimes our lessons themselves can have little to no impact if a student refuses to work. So let's tackle this challenge with techniques and methods.

What to Do (and Don't) When Students Refuse to Work

If you're reading on your phone, you'll probably appreciate this quick list. And if this is all you read, you'll probably take away a few great ideas to help when a student refuses to work.

To Do

  • Break the task down to scaffold some quick success, then gradually release the full rigor.
  • Give choices.
  • Use humor (not sarcasm).
  • Think about function: Why is there refusal? Tired? Too hard? Self-doubt? Anger?
  • Consider physical activity as a learning method.
  • Plan a series of sincere and subtle positive affirmations for the week.

To Avoid

  • Raising your voice to intimidate or shame.
  • Demanding work that is too far above the student's instructional level.
  • Sending the out of the room (now there' no more work to refuse).
  • Demanding immediate compliance and creating escalation.
  • Threatening to give a zero.


When a student refuses to work, it can often take an artful balance of just the right techniques from the teacher. This is not easy, but a few tools in your teaching repertoire can help.

Let's dig deeper into a few teaching tools.

9 Brain-Based Strategies for Work Refusal

Thanks to Todd Finley for inspiring these eight strategies that focus on the whole child by enhancing student-teacher relationships and personalizing learning. They are:

  1. Learn What They Love
  2. Chunk Tasks
  3. Show You Care
  4. Increase Focus
  5. Be Consistent
  6. Diagnose Reading Problems
  7. Try Video Mentors
  8. Give Choices
  9. Praise Small Victories

Credit: Todd Finley, todd-finley.com

FAQ About Work Refusal

These are frequently asked questions that we've received about students who refuse to work in class.

Classroom Climate Strategies

Sometimes subtle changes in the classroom climate or atmosphere can impact students in positive ways. The follow classroom climate strategies may be all that's need to help some students who refuse to work in class.

  1. Emphasis on effort and growth over high scores and achievement. (More on growth mindset)
  2. Encourage risk-taking. Celebrate student attempts even when inaccurate, that's how we grow!
  3. Make students feel welcomed by greeting them at the door, giving high-fives, and hold conversations about student life.
  4. Ensure smooth and effortless classroom transitions.
  5. Create calm spots in the room for when students need to unwind or be alone.
  6. Minimize distractions (if they exists). This includes windows, other students, the door way, or noises.

Resources: When a Student Refuses to Work


Real Talk

Real Talk About Classroom Management: 50 Best Practices That Work and Show You Believe in Your Students

Buy on Amazon >>


Hacking Engagement

Hacking Engagement: 50 Tips & Tools To Engage Teachers and Learners Daily

Buy on Amazon >>


Hacking Management

Hacking Classroom Management: 10 Ideas To Help You Become the Type of Teacher They Make Movies About

Buy on Amazon >>

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Published/Updated on July 1, 2019  

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