Search form

[content block]

Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Completing Seatwork

The failure to complete seatwork satisfactorily can be caused by a variety of factors, including difficulty understanding the directions, an inability to do the work, distractibility, poor time management, or lack of motivation. A student might have mastered the art of procrastination and simply have trouble settling down to work. She might have learned to take the path of least resistance, and look like she's working while doing as little as she can. She might complete the work, but do so haphazardly.

Although the causes vary, the results often do not. A student might come to believe that her failure to complete seatwork will not catch up to her, however, almost invariably, it does.

When reacting to a student who has trouble completing seatwork, you need to figure out why she is not completing in-school assignments. That requires a problem-solving mode in which you identify the source of the problem and then, if it's warranted, adapt your expectations and tailor your instruction to meet her needs.


Help the student un-clutter her desk. Part of a student's difficulty in finishing seatwork might be the clutter on her desk, causing her to have trouble focusing. Instruct her to eliminate those visual distractions by putting away all materials except those needed for the current assignment.

Devise a way for students to get your attention. When students need help, you might have them signal you in a non-intrusive way by placing a visual cue on their desks. That might be a small flag stuck in a piece of clay, a 6" x 8" card folded in half in the shape of a tent, or a Styrofoam cup placed upside down on their desks. Using those types of signals allows students to let you know they need help while they continue to work until you can get to them.

Signal the student that she is off task. Arrange a private signal with the student to encourage her to focus on the seatwork assignment. That signal might be a nod of the head, a wink of the eye, or a tug of the ear. If necessary, call her name quietly to get her attention.

Problem-solve with the student. Talk with her in a non-judgmental way to try to determine why she is having problems with seatwork: Does she understand the directions? Is the work too difficult? Is it so easy that it holds little interest for her? Is she having problems concentrating? Are the assignments too long? If you can zero in on what might be impeding her seatwork, try to modify the task in accordance with her needs.

Have the student begin her seatwork with you. That way, you can assess if she understands what to do and how to do it. Once she successfully completes a problem or two with your assistance, let her continue on her own.

Provide the seatwork in chunks. Giving a student the seatwork in parts will make it appear more manageable to her, and she will be more likely to tackle it. Getting up after completing each "chuck" also gives her a short break. As an example, if the assignment is 10 problems, you might initially give her five. After she completes those, check them over to make sure she is on the right track. If so, give her five additional problems. As she does well with that pattern, you can increase the size of the chunks.

Arrange a seatwork buddy for the student. Ask a responsible classmate to help the student complete her seatwork. Tell the student to see her buddy for help before coming to you. Another source of peer support is to place the student at a table with others and make it clear that students are expected to assist others in their group.

Use a timer to keep the student on task. Set the timer to go off at varying intervals. If the student is working when the timer goes off, give her a token or sticker while praising her for her attention to task. After she has received a set number of tokens or stickers, allow her to exchange them for classroom privileges or small prizes.

Reward students who finish their seatwork. You might, for example, allow students who have completed their seatwork to engage in pleasurable activities of their own choosing. Or you might schedule a recreational activity at the end of the week for those who are up to date with their seatwork and homework. Be on the lookout for students who rush through their work carelessly in order to gain the reward.

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.