How To Handle A Student Who Does Zero Work

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The culture of teaching says that you must support, support, support.

You must do more, give more, talk more.

So when you notice a student who you know has the ability just sitting there, producing zero work, you get nervous. You pace, tap your toes, walk by a couple of times.

But inevitably, you won’t resist the pull.

You kneel down next to them to have a chat. You ask why. You gently prod and poke for information. You offer extra help. You encourage and cajole and urge.

You may even mention the possibility of staying in for recess or losing privileges.

And if it continues beyond a few days, you’ll consider putting them on a carrot-and-stick contract or referring them to the counselor for more talk.

But all those interventions, all that focus and concern and hand-wringing, only make things worse. They only make the student more entrenched and resistant.


Because students who don’t work are seeking control, first and foremost. They’re feeling as if they’re losing their ability to make their own choices. And not doing their work is something they alone can decide.

Whether nature or nurture, some people have a stronger need for freedom and self-determinism. They bristle when this need is threatened—especially when coming from all around them. Home. School. Life.

So they resist. They push back. They refuse to budge.

So what should you do about it?

Nothing. Yes, really. I know it sounds blasphemy, but letting them be is the best thing you can do for them. The choice to work must be theirs. Only then will they start focusing, producing, and progressing.

And not in the phony way we can sometimes get them moving by offering rewards or threatening punishment—which doesn’t last. But in a way that is real and sustaining.

Remove their need to resist and give them their control and freedom of choice back. It’s that simple.

In the meantime, and this is key, do your job well. Be of good humor and build trusting rapport with every student using SCM principles. Protect their right to learn and enjoy school without interference by following your classroom management plan.

And most important, teach compelling lessons.

Give your students a reason to want to listen, learn, and do their work by being an expert in your content area. Go deep not wide. Allow them to draw conclusions and think for themselves instead of tarnishing it with your own opinions.

Tell stories. Dramatize. Build things. Get them up and moving. Create confidence through longer and longer independent work sessions.

Stop coddling and start challenging. Provide context. Quit focusing on individual students and start focusing on better direct instruction for all students.

And you’ll draw them in.

They’ll forget about their outside world and inside angst and the experience of being in your classroom will be one long flow, where time flies and they lose themselves in learning. In this way, you’ll never have a student who doesn’t want to work.

It’s not the student.

It’s us. We have to do better. We have to know and understand what really motivates students instead of assuming that they’re the problem.

No, I’m not blaming you. Public education and its culture of coddling and excuses is failing and infecting everything we do.

But you have the power right there in your classroom to change lives.

And it isn’t so difficult. Decide to take full responsibility for teaching great lessons and shift full responsibility for listening, learning, and behaving over to your students.

Make them care through your compelling content and delivery and then hand it over to them to do the work, solve for x, write the essay.

Combined with the freedom to do it or not do it, and the natural consequences therein, is what causes them to want to move. —Even the most stubborn student who feels as if they’re confined to a wardrobe box.

They’re waiting, you see, for somebody, anybody, to take charge and stop treating the class like helpless new-born puppies. They’re dying for inspiration and purpose and maturity.

They want to be stirred and challenged, if only you’ll give it them, along with the one thing what we all desire deep down.

The freedom to succeed or fail all on our own.

PS – Our new e-guide, The Smart Exercise Plan for Teachers, will be available on Tuesday, March 1st right here on the website.

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