What to do When Students Won’t Work in Your English Language Classroom

I see many teachers exasperated at the utter lack of effort put forth by some of their students.  It seems that virtually every class has at least one student (and most have more) who is described as indifferent and even polite but who won’t work.  Well intended traditional consequences like phone calls home and zeros that may be effective with “achievement motivated” peers, are not only ineffective, they add frustration to parents already feeling helpless at their inability to get their child motivated or are so preoccupied by other issues that this one simply fails to make their radar.  While these consequences have a place, alternative methods are needed if we are to be successful with these students.

As an “expert” on motivation, I am often asked how to get kids motivated.  The answer: You can’t GET anybody motivated.  In fact, you can’t really get anybody to do anything.  Nobody has the power to MAKE someone do something.  The best way to motivate is to let go of the need to get or make and instead think about how to influence.  A salesman can’t make you buy his product and a politician can’t force you to vote for her.  They have to convince you that buying a certain product or casting a vote will bring you closer to what you think will make your life better.  There is a lesson and a challenge in this for educators when working with unmotivated kids: to get them motivated, they must derive pleasure out of doing their work and/or see how doing their work will make them more successful.

Some students shut down to school because they feel disconnected and see being unproductive as a pathway towards acceptance.  For example, a newly arrived ESL student who is angry at being removed from familiarity and already in a funk, may find easier acceptance from peers struggling to find their way.  Others who find learning difficult, may stop working to hide feelings of inadequacy.  For most students, being viewed as “unmotivated” or “bad” is better than being seen as “stupid.”  As well, some kids find that being unproductive gives them a lot of control since the frustration it engenders within their parents and teachers makes them feel ‘in-charge.’ They are trying to assert their independence and unfortunately have found a self-defeating method to accomplish that goal.  We need to minimize the use of overused consequences like phone calls home, time-outs, detentions, rewards and grades which rarely work because these students have stopped caring about them.  For example, earning a sticker or losing a privilege is only effective if you care about the sticker or privilege.

Strategies that are effective rely primarily on ‘persuading’ students that doing better in school leads to success, prestige and/or pleasure.


Acknowledge learning despite non-production – Is it better to have an unproductive student present in your class than not there at all?  Like a college student who audits a class, an unproductive student may well be learning despite their refusal to acknowledge it.  Put your primary focus on the student’s presence rather than his lack of effort.

For example:

I know I hassle you a lot about not doing your work and I’ll probably keep doing that because I respect you too much to expect anything less than your best.  Most students who won’t work are either afraid of failing or need to feel in charge.  I hope as you get to know me and this class, you’ll be brave enough to take a chance.

Set students up for success – Make it hard for students to fail your class.  Throw roadblocks in the way of failure. Let them know they will be successful if they follow five guidelines:

1-Show up.

2-Prepare, plan, practice and persevere.

3-Focus on each play today.  Yesterday is done and tomorrow hasn’t yet arrived.

4-Shut down the failure noise. Make it unacceptable to say or think “I can’t,” “I’m unable,” and “It’s too hard.”  Students are only allowed to think or say these things if they add the words “yet” or “so far.”

5-Get a little better every day in some important way.  For example, craft assignments based upon incremental improvement.  For example, if Jack struggles in writing but wrote two complete sentences yesterday, challenge him to make it three today.  Base a significant portion of each student’s overall grade on improvement rather than by comparison to an arbitrary standard.

Consider making homework a bonus rather than a requirement – Since lack of productivity often leads to failure even among quite capable students, make knowledge a requirement and productivity a choice with rewards.  For example, provide a grade based on performance with the opportunity to earn extra credit for doing homework.  Those who do the homework earn bonus points that can be used to improve a grade.  If a student is able to achieve a passing grade or better on a test without doing homework, is it really necessary to do it?  It might be desirable, but is it necessary?  If I can hit a home run without practicing as much as the next guy, should I really have to practice more?  With the incentive of bonus points rather than penalties, knowledge and performance are emphasized without diminishing the benefits of practice.

Resist the temptation to give up – I was recently at a school conference that included Tim’s grade 8 Math and Science teacher in an effort to explore how we could reawaken this student’s interest.  It soon became apparent that the teacher had developed an unwritten ‘If you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you’ contract with Tim as evidenced by his utter lack of knowing virtually anything about Tim’s life outside of class.  At one point, the teacher said, “I’m not going to spend my time with him when I have others who want to learn.  He shows no effort and as long as he doesn’t disrupt the class I leave him alone.”  This is the equivalent of a doctor thinking, “As long as that patient doesn’t disturb my other patients or bother me, he can stay in the office but I won’t treat him.”  As frustrating as it can be to have a student repeatedly show-up without interest or effort, it is our professional responsibility to never give up.  Keep in mind that no child is born unmotivated.  In fact, the desire to learn and explore is so strong that parents of toddlers block entrances, lock cabinets and plug electrical outlets to keep eager youngsters from potential dangers.  Kindergartners can’t wait to go to school yet by the time they are in grade 3, most covet a snow day.  Since kids learn to be unmotivated, with proper intervention, they can re-learn how to be motivated.  They need to know that they aren’t a hopeless, lost cause.  For example, some students need to hear the following expressed in a spirited tone several times:

Tim, your effort is lacking and that worries me but what bothers me most is to see you giving up on yourself.  You are too good for that.  I will not stand by and accept that and neither should you: not today, not tomorrow, not ever! Even champions need practice to get better and so do you.  Before you leave class today, I expect to see either the first three or the last three done so that I can know how to help you get better.

Give power to gain influence – Most able students who refuse to work are fulfilling their need for power.  They have found a way to frustrate adults which makes them feel in control but ultimately at a great cost to themselves.  A powerful antidote is to offer appropriate ways to feel in charge (line leader, classroom greeter, supplies collector etc).  On a daily basis, it can really help to: show excitement in their interests; acknowledge their insights in a conversation; ask for their opinion; ask about and listen to their experiences and stories.  With older students, especially if this behavior is relatively new, a screening for drug and alcohol abuse is in order.

Pay attention when you see flashes of the behavior you want to encourage – Even the most difficult student will have an occasional good day or partial day in which you will see at least a glimmer of the behavior you’d like to encourage.  It is important to notice these moments and get the student to notice as well.  Be careful to avoid a lecture.  For example, Tim, I really appreciate the effort you made today when you asked a question and participated in the discussion.  I know this is not usually your favorite class, yet you made some good stuff happen today.  What did you do to make that happen?………Just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your involvement.  Thanks.

Please share your comments or strategies that you find often influences this very difficult population of chronically unmotivated students.

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