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What to Do When Kids Stop Working

bored student

Spring might be on its way, but this time of year can be problematic for students and teachers beyond pesky seasonal allergies. Especially as the school year marches on, teachers often become understandably frustrated at a clear decline in student motivation. Depending on the situation, some kids do the minimum possible to get by, while others stop completing work entirely even when they are still physically present in class. While addressing a lack of assignment completion that stems from absenteeism likely rests beyond a teacher’s immediate circle of control, there are ways to help the students who are in the room to improve their performance before it’s too late.

Determine Barriers to Success

For each student, there is a different reason (if not several) that they do not necessarily demonstrate an outward desire to succeed. While teachers might make educated guesses about what these causes for apathy might be, getting more concrete information about what is happening is a better way to proceed than forming hypotheses. It may be more time consuming at the outset to meet with students and ask them what is preventing them from completing tasks, but we can save a lot of false starts and mistaken pathways by finding out why work isn’t being turned in by opening the dialogue. If for some reason a personal conversation is not possible, a slightly less ideal approach is to ask students questions in writing while they are with us in class, such as, “What is getting in the way of you completing work? What can I do to help?” In either case, students will see that their teachers care about them, which goes a long way toward making strides in the right direction.

Create a Plan

Once barriers to success have been identified, the next step is to create a collaborative plan for improvement. Students often wish to change their behavior, but they can’t do it alone; they need adults to hold them accountable. Creating a specific list of behaviors for change helps students see a more concrete pathway forward. For example, instead of being content with a promise to do more work each day, develop a plan with tangible steps, such as:

  1. At the end of the period, I will try my best to complete the exit ticket even if I cannot finish it.
  2. When I am confused, I will write down my questions and give them to the teacher.
  3. I will visit my teacher at lunchtime on Thursdays so that we can go over my assignments together.

While the steps above act as potential items to include in a collaborative plan, the idea is that both the student and teacher work together to make sure that each action is doable and relevant to what the student needs, and that the plan meets the requirements of both parties.

Follow Through

Developing a strong plan is only a start. To increase the likelihood of success, teachers must also follow through with students individually, even if that level of attention is difficult to achieve from a logistical standpoint. Otherwise, nearly every student will conclude that the plan was only a box to check, and that it didn’t really mean anything. Once there is agreement about what should be happening next, a useful next step is to create a calendar for checking in with kids. The mutual date and time selected should be both convenient and continuous, which means that the teacher and student are both able to commit in the foreseeable future to getting together. Once students show improvement, these meetings (and the plan itself) can gradually be cut back, but the idea is to get students accustomed to interacting with their teachers regularly, which both strengthens relationships and improves academic performance over time.

Get Help

For teachers, time with students is limited to the instructional period, which only gives us so much to work with. Sometimes, kids need help outside of classroom walls, which is when school counselors and parents or guardians become even more necessary partners in bringing about positive change. For concerns that extend to social or emotional wellness, school counselors are key to helping connect what is occurring academically with how students are faring personally. They can also create a dialogue with families that is helpful in determining what is happening at home, and how constraints or demands on students that aren’t visible within school walls are creating problems that limit productivity and focus.

Ultimately, there are reasons that students sit in classrooms with their heads down, turning in nothing and appearing not to care. However, most students do not want to fail; they have just been discouraged or disenfranchised in the past to the point that their work suffers. By working with kids directly and showing them we care, teachers can help students turn things around. While it might be naive to assume that we can help everybody, making the effort in every case is the only way to make a positive impact, and it certainly beats giving up on our students when so many of them are crying out for help.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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