What to do when a child REFUSES to work.

Let me start by saying that this does not happen very often – but it does occur and can occur and it helps if you know how to approach the situation.

I have asked this question in staff meetings and colleagues have been unable to answer.

“If a child point blank refuses to work – what do you do?”

There are 3 scenario’s when this can occur and I will deal with them in ascending order, however let me say that it is you as the Class Teacher that has to make the first judgement call when this happens as it is you that knows the children in your class.

Lets look at the first.

  • The child comes into class at the start of the day – to you, as the class Teacher, they don’t look happy and you recognise that something has happened either at home or possibly on the way to school. The child at this point is not, in your opinion, able to take part in class activities at that moment.
  • child upset

What should you do? – This should appear to you to be more than just a falling out with friends type situation, and you will be able to recognise it easily as you will know the character of the child. The amount of “investigation and talk” required to firstly calm and then tease out what is troubling the child is more than you can provide (as you have the class to take). As the teacher you must quickly speak to your T.A to remove the child and spend time finding out what has happened and deciding what we can do about this. The T.A will report back to you privately and decisions must be made as to whether the child can be integrated “softly” back into the class for the day or the matter is passed to senior staff. Should you not have a class T.A then your concerns must be passed to the Deputy Head or the Headteacher whoever has the time to spend with this child.

Here’s the second scenario

  • The class come in as normal and you start your day. You may notice (you may not) that an individual is louder or more disruptive than usual or just not willing to engage in whatever is being done. Perhaps you have to speak to him or her more than you normally would. When the lesson moves to pupil tasks this pupil is not interested in working and either continues to mess about or does untidy work and is generally not bothered about making any effort. He / she could also be louder than usual and act in a silly manner.

What should you do? – If this is a change from the pupils normal behaviour then something has caused this to happen. However his challenging and possibly disruptive behaviour should be dealt with under you classroom and behaviour management procedures. The “can’t be bothered” attitude is a small challenge to your authority but not in any great sense. I would imagine that the result of your management strategy will be that they miss either a playtime or lunchtime to either finish or re-do the work. When this occurs you should firstly talk to him/her and express your disappointment at the behaviour and ask if there are any reasons for it. I would suggest that this is not usual behaviour and you should say this. Its a calm, reassuring and encouraging chat to put things back on track!

The final and perhaps most challenging scenario:

Let me again say that this scenario does not often happen, when it does it can be unannounced or you may have warning signs. In my experience it is more prevalent in deprived areas where children’s lives are disorderly and unpredictable – however there may be times when it just happens anywhere!

  • The class comes in as usual and you may or may not notice warning signs that 1 or more pupils are unsettled for what may be a variety of reasons. In more deprived areas you will find though that children value the structure and order of school life so although more challenging to teach, classes are generally settled places to work. You start your lesson and then set the work. At this point the pupil will either verbally state that they are not doing it or just push the book away and sit back. When you ask them, they will tell you they are not doing it – any of it!

child not working1

What should you do? – Firstly you should try to encourage the child to attempt the work, ask if there is anything that they don’t understand or need help with? This is always the first thing to try although I would think that 8 times out of 10 you won’t get very far with this. Don’t linger encourage and walk away – leave the child to start on their own or not. Return after a few minutes and slightly increase the urgency by saying that the work needs to be done – and walk away again. In most cases nothing will be started and if you ask,  the child will simply answer “I’m not doing it!” Here we are at the crossroads of what we are deciding to do. Without prejudice I will say that the majority of pupils that will refuse in this way have lifestyles that are confrontational, argumentative and they are used to being told off or shouted at – so in digging their heels in here they are now braced for what they think will happen….and it will bounce off them like water off a ducks back!

Here is the only method I have come up with that works for these situations – possibly you have used others that are equally effective, but this is the one I use.

If you as the teacher don’t shout and don’t react in any of the ways the child is used to (outside) then that immediately confuses them and disarms their defence mechanisms. You should speak very calmly and purposefully and say that the work needs to be done.

You then take a piece of paper and put their name at the top in large felt pen and underneath write the work that they are refusing to do and pin this paper on the notice board where it is easily seen. Then say to the child that this is the work that you owe me and needs to be done. They can decide to do it now or they will stay in playtimes and lunchtimes until it is done – and then walk away from the child and deal with the rest of the class…do not return to the child.

Keep half an eye on the child as you deal with the rest of the class. They will either decide slowly to start the work…in which case as you move past them say a brief encouragement or they will not attempt the work…in which case they stay in to do the work.

Should the child refuse any other work during the day then it simply is added to the list – likewise if the child does not do the work in playtimes or lunchtimes then the work stays on the list and he/she stays in until such times as its done! Its non confrontational but its made clear it never goes away…it needs to be done. Once the child accepts that message and situation then the work will be done and we are back on track!

child not working 3

On a humorous note…if you find yourself in the classroom for a few sessions due to this, get your tea and biscuits sent to you from the staffroom!

Hopefully this situation will not occur in your classroom – but should it ever raise its head then you’ll now know how to approach it!

Keep smiling



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