How To Handle Students Who Don’t Do Any Work

Smart Classroom Management: How To Handle Students Who Don't Do Any WorkYou can encourage them. You can empathize with them. You can coax and cajole them.

You can gently ask if there is anything bothering them or keeping them from trying.

You can lighten their load, bribe them with incentives, or offer choices, accommodations, and a buddy to sit with.

You can work with them one on one and whisper assurances or gently convey the threat of consequences.

And you may get them going for a time.

You may prod them through an extra sentence or paragraph or persuade them to give half an effort.

But in doing so, you make a deal with the devil and do them more harm than good.

You see, by spending extra time with reluctant students, by coddling, appeasing, and buying into any of an unlimited number of justifications for their inaction, you create even more resistance.

You enable their behavior and make them weaker and less motivated.

You hide from them the realities of life and at the same time crush the development of a true work ethic—which is the only way to empower future success, no matter their circumstances.

So they sit there, subjected to the same doomed and disheartening strategies year after year.

Many have teams of professionals meeting about them, designing intervention plans for them, and assigning labels to them they don’t understand.

Meanwhile, these same students who are assumed to be too attentive-averse or ill-equipped to succeed rush home at the end of another wasted day and play the same video game for three hours without a break.

It’s all a bunch of hooey.

Yet, this failed approach, that merely acts as cover for students as well as those whose job it is to educate them, is promoted and recommended time and again by educational leaders and school districts across the country.

It’s baffling. But nothing changes. The same strategies will be trotted out again this year.

So what’s the solution? Well, providing the students are able to do the work—which, except in the rare circumstance of total misplacement, should be every student in your class—the best thing you can do for them is expect hard work.

Note: Within education, the word expect has been tremendously watered-down. For our purposes, it’s true meaning is to foresee, presuppose, and believe in strongly.

What follows are three steps to get reluctant students to start producing real work and making real improvement.

1. Teach great lessons.

This is your number one job and the very essence of being a teacher. Somehow, it’s been lost in a sea of less important or completely unimportant responsibilities.

You must produce clear, compelling lessons that students want to pay attention to.

Your classroom management skills must be strong enough to have the opportunity to capture their attention, and then you must be able to do so through your passion, your humor, your creativity, and most important your content knowledge.

You must be able to draw them in, absorb them in the moment, and maintain their state of flow—where time slows, mind-energy focuses, and concerns and worries of the past and future fade away.

You must set your students up for success by checking thoroughly for understanding. In this way, before you send them off to work independently they know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Being exceptional in whole-class instruction covers a multitude of potential learning and motivational problems, most notably those that cause students to struggle getting down to work.

Note: For more on how to teach compelling lessons, see The Happy Teacher Habits.

2. Let them be.

Once you’ve done your job, once you’ve provided your students everything they need to succeed, you now must shift responsibility to actually do the work over to them.

They need to know, and be reminded of each day, that it’s all up to them—every last bit of it—that you’re not going to turn around and reteach what you just taught minutes before.

This sends the message more than anything else you can do or say that they really can do it and that you believe in them and expect them to succeed.

Therefore, if after giving your signal to get started they just sit there, then let them sit.

Let them face the hard choice right now, in this moment, rather than when they’re 19 years old and it’s too late, to try and succeed or to do nothing and fail.

When you kneel down next to them to help, excuse, or placate, you let them off the hook. You allow them to avoid and delay this critical choice—to the point where they no longer believe in themselves or their abilities.

Forcing their hand is the change-agent they desperately need to upend their downward trajectory. When the decision to either succeed or fail comes so directly and honestly every day, the pressure to make the right one builds and grows stronger and harder to avoid.

It weighs heavily on their shoulders, especially combined with the intrinsic carrot of pride in success dangling just in front of them. Until, overwhelmed, the dam breaks.

You look over one day and find them immersed in their work. And when you do, you must seize it.

3. Praise the work, not the student.

Instead of rushing over with a huge smile and telling the student how wonderful they are because they completed a few sentences—which very effectively lowers the bar of expectation—point out their good work.

Focus on the content of their production, wherein lies the key to an untapped yet very powerful sense of pride. Just be sure that it’s true, quick, and subtle.

Avoid making a big deal. It’s embarrassing for the student—and not a little condescending—and just tells them they’re less capable than their classmates. Instead, point to something in particular in their work and tell them the truth.

“That’s a good sentence.”

“Smart word choice.”

“I like the direction you’re going.”

Tell them like it is, the straight dope, and then be on your way. Don’t wait for them to respond. Don’t stand there and enjoy their reaction or make them feel obligated to show their appreciation.

Let them enjoy the feeling of receiving pure acknowledgement of their authentic work, untainted by you and unconnected from who they are or were, what they’ve done in the past, or how much or little confidence they may or may not have.

Simply acknowledge their good work and allow the natural pride in a job well done, which they’ve rarely had a chance to experience, propel them to greater accomplishments.

Be Better

The three steps above add up to the expectation that as a class they will succeed. They will improve. They will achieve and become better students than they ever thought possible.

And that’s just the way it’s gonna be.

But what if one or more continue to sit and do nothing? Then let them be. Let the pressure to want to work and try continue to build.

In the meantime, they’re a living and breathing reminder for you to be better. To learn the skills available right here at SCM to be an expert in classroom management and present better, stronger lessons.

Make success through your high-level instruction a foregone conclusion. Then dare your students to try. Challenge them. Believe in them.

And they will succeed, and be forever changed.

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52 thoughts on “How To Handle Students Who Don’t Do Any Work”

  1. Great ideas! But I have done ALL of the good and the bad you talk about. I had 2-3 students last year who fit this to a Tee. The only way they would work and participate is on computer games. I did create Nearpods and assign computer work, they would play the ‘games’ but that was all. It was also very time consuming and not something I could make and do every night for every assignment. I did just let them sit and earn their F’s on their report cards, conferenced with parents. Nothing worked. Then they passed the state assessment with flying colors, I dont get it 🤷🏻‍♀️

  2. Thank you for this article. This is a big area for me to improve on and as always you explain the way in a clear and practical manner.

    You frequently mention checking for understanding as an important tool. Sometimes it’s easy to do this. For example if you are teaching how to add fractions, have the students do practice problems on whiteboards. How would you quickly check for understanding in a lesson on writing a strong conclusion to an essay or a lesson on understanding the theme of a short story, when it’s not as straightforward? Thank you for any advice!

    • Hi Nick,

      Good question. I wish I had the time to answer it now, but I’ll be sure to cover it in a future article.

  3. Excellent advise! I feel so guilty when I let them be and then I feel guilty for threatening and bribing. Thank you for sharing this. I am going to stick to this method for my scholars’ sake.

  4. I do love your approach overall but was appalled to read ‘except in the rare circumstance of total misplacement, should be every student in your class’ because the majority of my classes every year in California at several different grade levels are always unable to do the work due to lack or basic skills. For the first time you seem very out of touch!

    • Hi Jennifer,

      The article is about not doing any work (i.e., because of low motivation, confidence, apathy, poor listening, etc.). Being at grade level isn’t a prerequisite, but does point to the critical need for improved teaching. When you get a chance, please read the article again. The idea and common acceptance that more than the rarest, misplaced student can’t do any work on their own, or even quality work, is a major reason why schools are failing and so many students fall through the cracks.

      • Hi Michael,

        Can I safely assume then that you aren’t referring to students with special needs in this article?

        I couldn’t agree more with what you say with regards to regular students, and even, commensurate with their ability, with regards to certain students with special needs.


  5. Our middle school places students who had failed 7th grade math into 8th grade math along with students who did pass. Suggestions? Do most districts do this?

    • Thank you, this is very timely for me. I am curious though, does this mean to leave the student when assessment is being completed as well? I have one student who did this perfectly and will not complete assessment. My other question is due to an expectation in my school that consequences are issued for not working (usually detention to get the work done). What is your opinion on this? I seem to have a big pile of work that still isn’t being done and losing lunch breaks.

  6. I am responsible for students’ scores ultimately. It all gets printed out on a spreadsheet and I am evaluated on it

    If scores are low, what then? Administrators don’t care to know about student responsibility; the idea is if if grades are poor, it is the teacher’s fault.

    Also, if students do no work, do I assign study hall as a consequence- or just let them have full privileges no matter what?


  7. Remember that different level students need scaffolding (such as ESL students) If your lesson includes scaffolding to support them (starting at whatever level is needed to reach the student(s), then your scaffolding can be removed bit by bit in subsequent lessons until they are able to accomplish the task on their own, without support. (ergo, the word “scaffolding”) There are so many things we teachers are expected to do well. It is overwhelming. It is a long process to become skilled in every single thing we are expected to do perfectly. Don’t give up. If you’re teaching because you LOVE students and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach all students, then you are in the right profession!

  8. I’ve been following this plan for two years now and have seen tremendous improvement in behavior in my class. This year I have very young K students who have just turned 5 and so are basically acting like 4 year olds who have never apparently experienced school or consequences. Any additional suggestions for K kids who don’t listen? I’ve been giving the one warning then the timeout, and the letter home but after two weeks they are still not following our simple class plan.

    • The most difficult aspect to master of Michael’s classroom-management plan is the leverage he talks about as being key to an effective plan, i.e, creating a classroom that students want to be a part of (through good rapport and engaging lessons) and that they therefore care about not participating in. Is there something there you might tweak?

      For timeouts, is there a fun game or activity that you could promise to do with students who remain out of timeout after a lesson segment or period so that, as Michael says, those in timeout will feel the weight of missing out?

      But you say you’ve been implementing Michael’s plan for two years, so perhaps you’re well aware of these points. In that case, could your students benefit from stories about how a school and classroom work and what the expectations are for students, what teachers are and how to interact with them, etc.? Short videos can be effective as illustrations of these social skills (YouTube, etc.). You might also have fun with this by having your students help a puppet learn how to behave in school.

  9. I would love to hear your response to some of the other posts, not just the one that was critical. There are some excellent questions there. I’m especially interested in your response to Nic’s question about checking for understanding. I completely agree with you that we need to build the lesson so the students can be successful when they work independently.

    • Hi Michael,

      I noticed you are highly skilled at pointing out several common classroom management issues teachers struggle with. In fact, it’s scary how dead-on accurate you are. But I must ask if you currently struggle with these issues, or are they issues you observe in other teachers’ classes? Is it really possible to make it through an entire year with zero classroom management issues if a teacher follows all of your advice? I notice a lot of teachers posting that they do follow your advice, but are still struggling. Can you shed some light on this situation when you get a moment? I ask that you please do not omit this comment, because I am asking for a lot of teachers out there who are probably wondering the same thing and want answers. Thanks!!

  10. I work with exceptional education students who have learning disabilities, severe ADHD, Autism, Language Impaired, or Developmentally Delayed. They are in the regular education classroom in an inclusion setting for the majority of the day. Many of the kids are hard workers, but a few get very frustrated by not being able to keep up. What are some suggestions of strategies that have worked for you? I work with students K – 3rd. Thank you!

    • Hi Sam and Tim,

      As mentioned in the article, not in a traditional sense. But there are certainly consequences that I’ll point out more specifically in a future article.

  11. I think this is your best article. I’m a special education teacher for students with emotional and behavioral disorders and I see this almost daily. It resonates when you mention how they can play a video game for three straight hours but not be attentive to a lesson for 3 minutes. I always let a child sit and do nothing and use my “point system” as a natural consequence. It is when they become disruptive by talking to others while also not doing any work when it gets frustrating. I remove the student in these cases. To play devils advocate on one of your points, though: not every lesson will be amazing nor needs to be. Isn’t that also a fact of life? Isn’t work ethic expected when the work itself isn’t always pleasant? Your relationship with the student should be compelling, but honestly not all my lessons will be, and I’m still extremely confident in my teaching practice.

    • Hi Kevin,

      You’re right, in that the lessons themselves don’t have to be amazing. This isn’t the same, however, as the act of teaching and preparing students for independent work, which does need to be top notch.

  12. Philosophically, I agree with you – except that when I’ve done this, often other kids stop participating as well. They see that kids sit there with no consequence – natural or otherwise – and wonder why they have to work so hard.

  13. This article made me remember last year when I received an email asking me to sign my child up for a “Mood App,” where ultimately it let the educators know when students were in mood/mind set to engage in learning. They would use this app in the morning and afternoon (time is precious, a lesson could have been taught during this time frame.)

    It saddened me, as like you stated, it is setting students up for failure by giving them this choice. In the work place ( or life in general), we are not greeted with a mood app, nor given the opportunity to dwell on our emotional state. It is expected that we do our best and work hard, no matter the situation or what the day has brought. I did not feel that this was a beneficial approach.

    I asked that my daughter did not participate and that she read a book instead.

  14. Michael,
    I love your work and have purchased several of your books.
    Please do respond to the many good questions that have been brought up.
    I am willing to let the child “fail” if she/he absolutely refuses to produce any work or show any effort, but problems arise with parents and admin who want to see teachers exhaust themselves trying to get these few students to do work, otherwise they say you’re not a good teacher.
    Please comment.

  15. This is an excellent article with even broader applications (i.e. parenting lol).
    I also appreciate that you letting us all “sit” in the tension it has created.
    Y’all, we’ve got this! Just like the kids. To those of you asking questions, listen to yourselves and re-read the article.

  16. I too would like to hear whether consequences for not working are appropriate. Bottom line is the work needs to be done!

  17. Some children who are very capable need to be told firmly to get busy. Reasonable consequences work well, too.

    A retired teacher.

  18. In my sixth grade self-contained class, like many other teacher’s classes, I have 32+ students whose reading and math levels range from 2nd to twelfth grade. I appreciated this article very much, because it reinforces what I have been aiming to do for several years with great success. It has worked so well that my principal and some parents of low-performing students have been astounded that work is suddenly being completed. I have not had to defend myself for letting kids sit with this responsibility. I teach the lesson, provide intervention in small groups if skills are truly missing, and I allow some tools to be used regularly as perv504 Plans and IEPs: homemade dictionaries, word banks, multiplication charts, and copies of notes/PowerPoints. Clear directions, grading checklists and rubrics help so that kids know what they neeed to do. While circulating around the room I do not linger at any one kid for long. If they ask for help or they are just sitting doing nothing. I praise the work they’ve done so far, I prompt them to tell me what they need to do next, and then I leave. If they don’t know what comes next I direct them where to look on a hand-out or chart and ask them to read it or tell it to me. Then I give a thumbs up and walk away.
    (If they have not started I say something like, “I see you’ve got your book open to page ——. That’s a good place to start.” And I leave. Last year I had 19 special education students. No, they were not all at grade level by the end of the year, but most had shown at least 2 years of growth.

  19. I teach at a charter school. My classroom has three grade levels, K, 1, & 2. It is also full inclusion where we provide services mostly within the classroom. This means accommodations must be provided within the classroom as well as some students receiving that one on one assistance. I have a particular student re-doing kindergarten with an IEP who is very immature. He frequently refuses to participate even when lessons are going very well and all the other kids are enjoying their learning time. He just doesn’t buy in. I’ve been doing the time outs and sent a couple letters. Parents seem to want to help from home but I am at a loss. I did have a breakthrough using this method with another student who really struggled last year to even start to work on their own. I often keep my students for the whole 3 years. Any advice on my immature little one? He crawls under tables, throws tantrums, etc. HELP! Thanks!

  20. Hi Michael,
    On point as always!
    As your regular reader of your blog and a purchaser of all of your books, I I have a great deal of respect for SCM am hoping to get your opinion; It seems that restorative justice is gaining momentum in education. I was going to look at learning more about restorative justice but I thought I’d ask your thoughts on the topic ? (It’ll probably be something you’ll write about later).

    • Thanks Greg! Good to hear from you. Yes, it is something I’ll have to cover in the future. In the meantime, there are some things I like about it while others are incompatible with SCM.

  21. Hi Michael,
    Thank you again for this article! I read it a few times and feel that I understand your points, however, isn’t there a conflict between leaving the student alone for an indeterminate amount of time (however long they don’t complete the work) and upholding my promise to follow my CMP to a tee? I think that if a student is not doing their work, then they’re clearly breaking rule #1: Listen and Follow Directions. I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this and of course Michael’s too. Thanks again!

  22. What would one do with a student that I feel might have a disability, but has not been tested for one. I have a student that will just sit for the whole class and doesn’t do anything. He’s not a distraction and I am genuinely concerned. I also can’t get a bold of the parents.

  23. Great article again! I always try to remember when I’m teaching to try to teach great lessons, like it says in this article and and in “Happy Teacher Habits” and “Dream Class.” A lot of times the boredom in my class is simply because MY lesson is not that great on that day. It puts the power back on me to teach great lessons.

  24. The way it works in my classroom (3rd and 4th grade) is: whatever independent work they don’t finish in school goes home for homework. My question is, does this eliminate the “pressure to want to work and try” since they know they will be taking it home, and there they can possibly get Mom to help them do the assignment? Would it be better to take it away at the end of the period and give the grade for what was actually done?
    The difficulty with that method is that sometimes the child is working diligently but just needs a little more time than the amount allotted in class. Then again, I definitely have seen, and have this year, students who sit and do nothing. I don’t want to treat them differently than the rest of the class, but I also don’t want to be giving them a loophole to get out of that pressure which would lead them to improve and succeed. What is the best solution?
    Thank you for all your help and excellent articles. They really make a difference!

    • Hi Sister Mary,

      This is a topic I hope to cover soon. However, the key is exactly what you said. If the child is working diligently, then it’s perfectly okay to let them finish at home.

  25. As a 3rd grade teacher I inherited a student who in 2nd grade had been allowed to remain unengaged without working and then have an aide assist them with ALL of their work every afternoon!!! That came to an abrupt halt when she arrived in my classroom. She was a very capable A-B student who just wanted to lounge at her desk and play with her pencil and daydream once left to herself. She would participate in the lessons and even at the board, but chose not to work independently. Would you believe this girl chose to do this even throughtout the course of the year after she missed much of her recess, had notes home and took work home at times, had discussions with the principal, and had consequences at home? I kept trying to figure out the “positive reinforcement” she must somehow be receiving from it.
    Finally I tried after-school detention and that’s when she would work so she could go home. She was made to complete ALL work but the struggle was real.

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