What To Do When A Student Refuses To Work

What To Do When A Student Refuses To Work

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There could be a number of reasons why a child is refusing to complete their work. Maybe they're feeling overwhelmed, maybe they don't understand the task, or maybe they're just tired. As a teacher, it's important to try to figure out what the child is trying to tell you so you can help them overcome the obstacle and get their work done.

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we look at what work refusal looks like in the classroom, why children might engage in work refusal and some practical strategies to use and address the underlying cause of that behaviour.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

When children are saying, I can't do it, even when you know that they can do it, what's driving that is the anxiety underneath. So when they're saying I can't do it, what they're actually meaning is, I can't do it now, in the state that I'm in. So they're not in that learning brain state and able to engage that learning brain.

Simon Currigan  0:21  

Hi, there. Welcome everybody. My name is Simon Currigan. And you're listening to the latest episode of school behaviour secrets. According to a recent Gallup poll, less than half of adults learned or did something interesting on the previous day. And I'd like to feel that this podcast played his part in keeping those numbers low. I'm joined here by my favourite co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:21  

Hi, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  1:22  

Hi, Emma. Before we start the show, I'd like to ask you a question.

Emma Shackleton  1:26  

So we're not locked into a repetitive ritualistic routine at all, then are we?

Simon Currigan  1:31  

I know it makes me feel secure. I'd like to ask you what are the most common reasons people put off doing hard things? Why do they procrastinate?

Emma Shackleton  1:41  

That's a good question. And we all do this, don't we? I think it's human nature to put off hard stuff because it takes energy and effort. And we'd prefer to do easy stuff or things that we enjoy. Not many people naturally choose a hard task over an easy one. Do they? We're basically intrinsically lazy, conserving energy and all that. Go on then, what's the answer?

Simon Currigan  2:05  

Is that answer based on watching teenagers? No offence teenagers if you're listening. Well, according to this web survey, the top answers that came in were, they just didn't feel like doing the task

Emma Shackleton  2:16  


Simon Currigan  2:16  

 Which is just kind of laziness, I guess.

Emma Shackleton  2:17  


Simon Currigan  2:18  

They weren't sure what to do. So we didn't have clarity about what they were supposed to do. They kind of put it off and then in equal third place. They felt like they had no time to do it, or they didn't perceive it as being urgent.

Emma Shackleton  2:29  

Ah, okay, that makes sense. So what's the link to this week's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:33  

So this week, we're going to look at the phenomenon of work refusal, we're going to look at what work refusal looks like in the classroom, why children might engage in work refusal and some practical strategies to use and address the underlying cause of that behaviour. So the behaviour goes away, and you don't have to deal with it in the classroom.

Emma Shackleton  2:53  

So proactive strategies rather than reactive ones.

Simon Currigan  2:57  

Absolutely. It's better not to be in a situation where a child is refusing, rather than try and handle it while it's happening.

Emma Shackleton  3:04  

Perfect. But before that, I've got a quick favour to ask, as always, please, can you share this episode with three friends or colleagues that you think would find it useful? It's a bit like sharing an article on Facebook or Twitter, all you've got to do is open your podcast app and hit the share button and tell the app which of your contacts you'd like to send the episode to. It's as easy as that and will take you as little as 30 seconds.

Simon Currigan  3:30  

So let's wait until nightfall set out a tray of delicious worms and meat scraps on the back lawn and wait with bated breath to greet the majestic badger we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:42  

Okay, let's get started then. So what do we actually mean by work refusal? Well work refusal is any time when you give a child a task, and they refuse to do it. So that refusal could be verbal, it could be flat out saying no saying I'm not doing it or worse, telling you that they're not going to do it. Or of course, it could be a physical indication that they're not going to complete the task. It might be things like putting their heads down on the desk, pushing their chair back, closing down their body language, walking out of class, perhaps or even refusing to come into class in the first place because they know that the work is going to be waiting for them.

Simon Currigan  4:30  

So that's flat out refusal, but you might also see task avoidance, which is slightly more passive, but kind of has the same outcome, the outcome of avoiding doing the task in the first place. So when you think about what this might look like, it might be kids that endlessly sharpen pencils or find the right pen it takes them forever to get prepared and get set up for the task because they're constantly putting that task of putting it back. They might spend a long time walking around the classroom, perhaps talking to other children. And the result is a complete very little work. And these are both different forms, I guess of work refusal, one is more active and one is more passive. And as a teacher in the classroom, this can be really frustrating because often these kids have real potential, you know, they're not achieving their best because they're not engaging with the work. And if we can get them to engage with their work, then they can start to make academic progress. But without them sort of getting themselves down into the task and sort of focusing on applying themselves, we never see that. And the result is often that you need to give the child constant attention or reminders or prompts and you have to sit next to them and support them with each part of the task, you're leading them toe by toe through the task and giving them constant flow of reassurance and reminders. And as a teacher, that can be really frustrating, because actually, overtime is a time sink. And it's drawing your attention away from other children in the class who are equally deserving of support.

Emma Shackleton  5:52  

I think frustration is the key word there is in it, particularly when a child is refusing to do a task because it you absolutely know that they can do. So maybe it was something that yesterday, they did it without a problem. But for whatever reason, today, that very same task that you've seen them do. They're now refusing, and we all look for the logic and we all look for, you know the reason behind and the why. And it can be really frustrating when we can't work out what that reason is. But that is where we've got to start, we've got to start by being curious, we've got to look for the deeper cause we've got to scratch the surface and look at what is going on underneath. That means that in this moment, even if it's a task that we know the child can do in this moment, they are refusing to do that. And of course, we're assuming that you've covered the basic techniques, like making sure that the work is pitched properly, you've tried having a little quiet conversation with them doing a little bit of coaching or coaxing, you've tried maybe offering rewards or encouragement, particularly with younger children, and none of this has worked. So the work refusal is the result of a deeper cause. So the refusal is what we see. But we need to dig into why the child is refusing what is driving that behaviour, if we can deal with the root cause, not the visible behaviour on the surface, the problem behaviour, which in this case, his work avoidance, that work avoidance goes away if we can deal with the root cause. And in most cases, work refusal comes from anxiety. 

Simon Currigan  7:35  

And that anxiety can be in two different directions. And both of those directions end up with the same kind of behaviour. So let me explain what I mean by that and sort of unpack it. The first kind of anxiety can be about the child is worried about making a mistake. So that running from the anxiety of mistake making. And this is the simplest kind of anxiety to understand, essentially, they're worried about getting the work wrong, making mistakes, so they don't dare try. And this is really common in pupils who have low self esteem issues, or have learning difficulties or have low resilience. So when it says they're looking at a piece of work, and they're thinking, you know, I'm going to fail at this piece of work. And what they kind of do is they reject the work before it rejects them, because they find it hard to cope with potentially failing at something we can give them speeches about, you know, making mistakes is all part of the process of learning. But for them, they feel that failure at a deep emotional level. And they just don't want to risk experiencing that they might feel rejected, they might feel that not being able to complete the work is more evidence that they're a failure. Some kids with trauma, or ACEs, they have this deep seated underlying belief that they are a bad person who's unworthy of love, they might not be able to put that into words, but they'll feel it at an emotional level. And when we put a piece of work in front of them that might risk them being exposed to failure or making the mistakes or not getting the work right, then actually, they'll be looking at that thinking, well, that's evidence that I'm a bad person. And I don't want to be put in that situation. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to sort of run away from that situation, I'm going to engage in behaviours, where I don't have to be in that situation. 

Now at the other end that's moving away from failure. But the child might also be anxious that the work isn't perfect. So in the one instance, we've got people running away from failure. On the other side, you've got people running towards perfection kids who want their work to be absolutely perfect. And if their work isn't perfect, if they know they can't get it 100% Correct. They'd rather not commit pencil to paper in the first place. And this is really really common in kids with autism, who have ASC now you see the same kind of behaviours but wrong causes. One is running away from something the other child is running towards something and not getting in the race if they can't have the perfection that they're seeking. In both cases, the kids are putting themselves in a situation where they don't have to face that fear face that danger. So what they often do is they engage in behaviours like refusal or disruption, that increases their status in the group. So if they start messing around with boys anyway, in the class, they'll sort of look at that. And that will move up their status in the group, because boys look up to that kind of thing, maybe to some extent, rather than being in a situation that exposes their weaknesses, if they have difficulty with learning, well, where's the social status in that? You know. If they get really stressed and anxious about their work being perfect, where's the social status? And that those are experiences that are going to move them down in terms of their social status. So these kinds of disruptive behaviours? Well, there's a certain group of boys that we'll look up to that that's going to move them up, instead of being moved down in the sort of social hierarchy.

Emma Shackleton  10:44  

Yeah, I think it's about not wanting to be exposed and not wanting to be vulnerable, isn't it. So kids learn lots of little tricks to cover over the fact that the work they feel is too difficult. And one thing I've learned as well, when children are saying, I can't do it, even when you know that they can do it. What's driving that, as we've said, is the anxiety underneath. So when they're saying I can't do it, what they're actually meaning is, I can't do it now in the state that I'm in. So they're not in that learning brain state. They're not calm and relaxed and feeling safe and able to engage that learning brain. So the behaviours that come out, are similar, but there are opposite motivators, if you like one away from making the mistake, and one towards wanting it to be perfect and not being able to accept anything less. So you do see children who get very upset when they make a mistake, the teacher might say, well just put a line through it with your pencil, or they might allow them to use the rubber, and the child gets very, very upset or overwhelmed, maybe they screw it up or scribble on it or push it away, because they really can't cope with the fact that it isn't absolutely perfect in their eyes. So it's really important, then that we dig into the causes to make sure that we can then match up the right solutions. If we approach all task avoidance and work refusal, in the same way, we might end up using the wrong strategies for the wrong cause.

Simon Currigan  12:17  

Yeah, I think one thing I've noticed over the years as well, that there are three things that have to be in place for kids to be successful in the classroom. The first is they have to be sort of happy and secure. The second is they have to feel confident with the work, they have to know what they're doing. And the third is they have to be emotionally calm. And it's like a three legged stool. And if any one of those legs are missing, then you get problems in the classroom with behaviour and avoidance. And in this case, what we're doing is we're taking away two of those legs. So let's think about supporting kids who are moving away from failure, kids with self esteem or low resilience issues, there was a school of thinking for a long time I've been guilty of this is a very seductive idea that's presented to us in the media, That if you have someone who's having difficulty, who has low self esteem, low confidence, the way we get them past that barrier to do difficult things is to give them some sort of speech that puts a fire in their belly. So you'll often see in films, there's a coach or a mentor. And there's the hero who is like they haven't found their confidence yet, there'll be a montage or training sequence with a mentor built them up with speeches, and they suddenly become able to do things they weren't able to do in the past. That's a really seductive idea. And it turns out, it's complete nonsense. What the research shows is, we don't start with confidence. And that encourages us to take action, actually, what improves confidence is taking action first, that builds our confidence, which encourages us to take risks and do more difficult things. And when we achieve those that increases our confidence again, and that encourages us to try even more difficult things. It's called the confidence competence loop. 

So what does that mean in school? Well, that means what we're not going to have success with is telling the child that they've managed a piece of work like this in the past, or they can do it, they just have to believe in themselves. What we need to do is get them working on something today that they feel confident doing already. Now this might be a piece of work that's well within their zone of competence. But there is a value on being on task, there is a value on working independently, there is value on completing work and creating the sense of pride and achievement even if it's things you can do already. So the way we're going to help get them past these worry issues is by getting them working on something that action taking the research shows will increase their confidence. So over time, then we can present a slightly more difficult things. We get them to experience success with that, that increases their confidence. So getting past the self esteem and resilience issues is about getting them to take action rather than firing them up with confidence. Another point to make here that I think is really worthwhile. It's about differentiation, how we pitch the work. Sometimes I speak to teachers and they say I've looked at the child assessments. I've looked at what they've been able to achieve in the past and the work on the table is accurately differentiated for them. Now that may be true, but that is different from the child perceiving, they can complete and do the work. So when we're looking at improving confidence and getting them to take action, we have to be pitching the work not at a level that is accurate in terms of that academic ability, that we might have to pitch the work slightly lower than that, that's within the child's perception of what they're able to complete and be successful with. And then over time, as we've got them taking action, we can gradually increase the difficulty of the work.

Emma Shackleton  15:31  

So what do we do then about those children who are moving towards perfection and their anxieties around whatever they produce having to be absolutely 100% accurate? And again, perfection is a perception, isn't it, what the teacher might think is perfect, and what the child might think is perfect, could be two really different things. So that's interesting to note as well. But when children are very worried or anxious about starting a piece of work, because they don't think they can finish it to what they perceive to be perfect, what they're actually doing there is overestimating the consequences of what will happen if the work doesn't turn out perfect. So they're kind of catastrophizing, the outcome of that piece of work not being absolutely spot on. Because really what is going to happen if the work isn't absolutely perfect? The world isn't going to end, it's not going to stop turning. But for that child, it feels like a really, really big deal. Or it could be that they are underestimating their ability to cope with the feelings that they get if the work isn't perfect, that feeling of disappointment or feeling of letting other people down, letting themselves down, embarrassment, humiliation, they are all normal, healthy feelings that people have some times but some children feel very vulnerable. And they would rather avoid having to experience those uncomfortable feelings by work refusal or task avoidance in the first place. So we need to use questions to help promote more realistic thinking about the work. So one really good strategy here is to ask, if you were to get this work wrong, how would you cope? What that question does is prompts the child to accept the possibility that the child is concerned about but opens up a conversation about it not being the end of the world. So yes, it is likely that the work might not be 100%. Correct. Or 100% Perfect. And how then are you going to handle that? And this is like coaching really through those difficult feelings? Isn't it? If the work isn't perfect? Or if you don't feel like it's perfect when you finished it. What are you going to do to manage those strong emotions that will be evoked? Because it's not the end of the world. Another good thing to get things into perspective is thinking, you know, in the moment, it feels like the end of the world. But another good question is, will this matter next week? Will this matter In three weeks? will this matter in a year's time? Will this matter in five years time? Usually the answer is no. And helping the child to get perspective might help them to be able to reduce their fear of making mistakes, and be more open to having a go at the work and recognising that everybody does make mistakes sometime.

Simon Currigan  18:44  

Another way you can explore this with children who are worried about perfectionism is exploring having them make deliberate mistakes with their work. So what you do is you get an anxiety scale, which is just a scale from one to 10, like a number line where 10 means that they're very, very anxious, very, very worried one means that they don't feel worried at all. They're perfectly calm. Five's kind of in the middle, and you get them to predict how making a deliberate mistake with their work a mistake that they are perfectly in control of that they're choosing when they make it they're choosing how they made that mistake. How will that make them feel when they do it? When they engage with the works, they're going to do a piece of work at some point, they're going to make a deliberate mistake. How will you feel when you make that mistake, or when you hand in the work? And then they go away and complete the work and they make their deliberate mistake, and then they go back to their anxiety scale afterwards. And they say how it actually made them feel you've got a prediction of before I do the task, this is how I predict it's going to make me feel which might be say a seven or eight and then after they've done it and they do their review. They might then say well, actually, you know that wasn't too bad, but it was actually a six or a five in some cases, the teacher might have to agree say not to mark the mistake to encourage them to experiment or they get the option to do the mistake in pencil they can have the book in they can write on their anxiety scale how they feel now and then we agree to rub it out afterwards might have to take baby steps towards making that mistake. And then we ask them questions like was making the mistake as bad as you thought it would be? And what were the consequences for making that mistake did anything bad happen? And were you able to cope with handing that book in? And remember being able to cope and being able to manage your anxiety is different from feeling happy. Happiness is sometimes described as having no negative emotions. And what we have to do with kids with anxieties is give them the strategies to cope with those anxieties. It's not very often we manage to make those anxieties completely disappear and go away. Now, there are lots of other questions you can ask to encourage realistic thinking. And if you've got our inner circle programme, look at the anxiety module because we go into this in detail and give you plenty of examples.

Emma Shackleton  20:50  

Okay, then. So let's sum up. What we've learned today then is refusal to work often represents a deeper anxiety about the work

Simon Currigan  20:59  

Pupils are rejecting the work before it rejects them.

Emma Shackleton  21:03  

A pupil might be motivated to engage in task avoidance to avoid failure, or they might be motivated towards perfectionism, and they don't want to experience failing to achieve that perfect outcome. 

Simon Currigan  21:17  

It doesn't matter whether a piece of work is perfectly differentiated, what matters is whether they believe they can achieve it

Emma Shackleton  21:25  

And using confidence competence loops, questions that provoke realistic thinking, and anxiety scales can help pupils learn to cope with that anxiety. 

Simon Currigan  21:36  

But you always, always, always need to dig into individual reasons for that individual child.

Emma Shackleton  21:43  

And if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help. 

Simon Currigan  21:50  

It's called the SEND handbook, and it will help you link behaviours you've seen in the classroom with possible causes, like autism, Aces and ADHD.

Emma Shackleton  21:58  

And of course, the idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. But if we link behaviours to possible underlying causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. That's a free download. So go to our website www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. click on Free Resources near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  22:26  

And if you've enjoyed today's podcast, then why not subscribe to make sure you never miss another episode subscribing is completely free. All you have to do is open up your podcast app hit the subscribe button or follow as it's called in Apple podcasts and your app will make sure you download every new episode as it's released and to celebrate. Why not set up your own insect kingdom and become Lord of the Flies. Put out some old rotting meat to attract your new subjects and then as they arrive for their tasty snack offer them positions in a fly Parliament made out of a series of yoghurt pots you've glued together, then set out your legislative programme and ask your fly MPs to vote according to their conscience, creating a new land of freedom and justice. You truly will be Lord of the Flies. I've never read the book but I'm guessing that's what it's about. Right?

Emma Shackleton  23:14  

And on that note then we're gonna fly off. You like that? And wish you an excellent week. And we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets.

Simon Currigan  23:25  


Emma Shackleton  23:25  

Bye for now.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)