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Every teacher is told that they must teach to all learning styles, that they must follow 504 plans and Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and that they are responsible for differentiating assignments so that all students can learn equally.  What if a teacher does all of these things, but a student simply won’t learn?  Believe it or not, this happens a lot more frequently than one might think.  After teaching for seventeen years, I still start each new semester (I am a high school teacher) with the idea that I am going to be able to help all students be successful in my class.  I am an optimist at heart, and I imagine that if I teach the material to the best of my ability, that the students will likewise put forth their maximum effort.  I tell my students that if they listen, and if they simply do the assignments given, that they will have the opportunity to be successful in my class.  The students look at me eagerly and with confidence on that first day, but for whatever reason, there are always one or two who slip away and just refuse to work.  What is happening here, and is there a way to solve this problem?

The Realities of the Classroom

Early on in my teaching career, I took great offense to those students who refused to work.  I could not imagine what I was doing wrong that caused them to sit in my classroom day after day, twiddling their thumbs, staring at the walls, putting their heads on their desks, and just turning in blank worksheets (or turning in nothing at all).  I believed that the problem stemmed from some defect in my teaching or in my personality, and so I would try to think of different ways to try and reach these students.  I tried more group work; I tried less group work.  I tried peer tutoring, and I tried talking to the students individually.  I tried assigning work with options so that each student could choose a task that most appealed to him/her. I tried what seemed like every trick in the book; however, it seemed like no matter how I changed myself, I could never change the unmotivated student.  So, I decided to ask my class one day what they thought about this problem.  One of the students who refused to work said something that changed my entire outlook, and quite frankly, blew my mind.  He said, “You are doing everything that you can.  You are a great teacher, but I just don’t want to be here and I don’t want to work.  There is nothing that you could ever do differently that would change my attitude.”  I told him how much I appreciated his honesty, and then I did some reflection on his words.

The biggest question I had after this brutal bit of honesty was, “Do I give up on these students?”  These students have clearly given up on themselves (for whatever reason), but at what point do I also throw in the towel and allow them to fail?  I decided that I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, and so I thought that the most logical next step would be to contact the parents and see if the home-life was a factor.  I really wanted there to be a common factor that seemed to be causing these students to lose focus and interest in school, but I can honestly say that while there are a few demographics that tend to struggle with this issue more than others, that there isn’t one single unified cause that I could find.  My groups of students who can but won’t have included females and males, white and minority ethnicities, rich families and poor families, and kids with involved parents and kids with absentee parents (or students from alternative forms of families).  Regardless of the student’s background, there had to be something that triggered the academic apathy, but there certainly was not a one-size-fits-all reason or solution.  At this point, I took the blame away from my personal teaching style, which was a huge relief, and decided to see what other solutions might be out there.

[bctt tweet=”there had to be something that triggered the academic apathy” username=”EducatorsRoom”]

Moving Forward

First, I investigated how the students were doing in their other classes.  At the high school I teach at, kids are on a 4 x 4 block.  They have four classes each semester, and they change classes each semester, for a total of eight classes per year.  In our gradebook program, we have the ability to look up the grades for the kids in all their classes (current and past).  In nearly all cases, it became clear that the student was not only refusing to work in my class, but in the other core classes as well.  Many students were failing at least three of their four classes at any given time.  Also, most students were not only failing their current classes, but had also failed most of their classes in previous years.  After finding out this information, I started thinking about the dynamics of how our school and classes are set up.  Currently, the kids have the opportunity to earn 32 credits (8 classes a year x 4 years), but only need 28 credits to graduate.  Theoretically, students can fail four classes and still be on track for graduation.  This may lead some students to develop the attitude that they will just take the class again another time.

This leads to the next problem that I found that may be encouraging these kids to fail.  If a student fails English I his/her freshman year, he/she will simply be put right back into English I the next year.  If the kids fail Algebra 1, they go right back into Algebra 1.  They are not required to go to summer school to make up the missing credits.  We have students on our campus who have taken the same English course three or more times because they keep on failing.  At what point is there an intervention?

Another problem at our school is that we do not have a late bus for after school transportation.  If students ride the bus, they must go directly to the bus after school and cannot stay for tutoring unless a parent is unable to pick them up at a later time.  Many students find that if they aren’t getting the information during class the first time, that it is hopeless for them to ever catch up, and therefore, they decide to shut down and refuse to work.

Finally, as far as I can tell, these kids are not receiving the support that they need from the school itself.  The students on 504 plans, IEPs, or ELPs (English-Learner Plans) have procedures and safe-guards in place to ensure that they do not fall between the cracks; however, most of the kids who can but won’t are kids who have not been identified as any of the above.  These are regular-education students who simply do not qualify for any extra assistance, and so they are oftentimes effectively ignored.  I realize now that this problem is something bigger than any one teacher can conquer.  However, here are some final ideas about how to possibly find a solution to this problem:

  1. Don’t take it personally when a student won’t work. Every person who goes into teaching wants to and believes that he/she can and will reach every student.  Realize that you can do everything right, and there still may be that student who just won’t work despite that fact that he can.  It is not your fault.
  2. All incoming freshman should have an individualized education plan regardless of whether they qualify or not. Each student should be connected to a counselor (or teacher) who can sit down with them and discuss goals, strengths, weaknesses, fears, etc.  The student should know that they have someone that they can reach out to if needed.
  3. As soon as a student fails more than one class in a single semester, there should be a counselor, parent, and possible teacher intervention set up. Plans should be made with the student to show him/her how to get back on track.  Schools are often waiting until too late to identify the at-risk students.
  4. Summer school is a must. Quit allowing students to retake classes during the regular school year.
  5. Make sure that kids do have time for tutoring. If a late bus is not financially feasible for a district, then there should be study hall built into the school day.  One positive improvement at my school is the addition of homeroom time.  The kids will be in their homeroom 4 days a week for 30 minutes at a time.  Teachers will be talking to students individually about their classes and their grades once a week, and students will have access to reliable peer tutors (National Honor Society members).

Remember, these are only possible solutions that I have come up with on my own, and I am sure that there are many other great solutions out there.  I do hope that this article can be a start to a great discussion about how to motivate the student who can but won’t.

Join the Conversation


  1. Good article Cristy. I teach on the other end of the spectrum, elementary 5th grade. We also experience the “can but won’t students” at our level. I have seen those students as early as 3rd grade. If you get an opportunity to further check on your high student’s background you may find that this has been a pattern of behavior for years. During and at the end of each year adults meet about the issue. The parents, teachers, and admins all meet to develop a success plan for this student. Everyone signs off and the plan is implemented. The next year the student does not try again and the cycle repeats. By the time they get to you the pattern is embedded deep.

    The main intervention I have seen work is establishing relationships. If the student is able to bond with one adult on campus and constantly report to that adult, sometimes that adult can raise their level of participation and academic performance. I have been that mentor for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students and it works, sometimes.

    Even with all the meetings, parent calls, and student counseling, some still under perform. I believe those students do not see any value in the education process for them. Perhaps they need something in their lives that we cannot give them?

  2. I watched a video once from a high school.that had a mentor program set up. If i remember correctly, the incoming freshman were paired with seniors. I’m pretty sure they were paired as groups. There was a set time for them to meet with their mentors. If they just weren’t connecting they changed them to someone else. But this gave them someone to seek out for help.

  3. When I had students who can but won’t in my class I always had several one-on-one sessions with them in private to ascertain what the problem was. In each case they were brighter than average students who should have been able to do the work without problems In all of the cases, it seemed there was a POWER issue. The kids felt that they held no power over their lives. They wanted to make decisions and be able to say NO at times without repercussions. Once given power of some aspect of their school life, their attitude get better but never became “normal.” One child wanted to be able to do his work in whatever order he felt driven to do. I gave him a set of assignments each day to complete and he was fine with that. He was always pushing the envelope, but got the work done.

    My younger son was too smart for school. He had an IQ of 155 and tells me he didn’t learn anything in math until 7th grade. Even though he was in the Gifted program, it was not designed for him. He needed an INDIVIDUAL educational Program, not the blanket one they throw at gifted kids here. From 3rd to 11th grade we struggled every year to get him complete assignments that he clearly didn’t feel the need to do because he already knew the work. It wasn’t until 8th grade that he finally was instructed on his true math level (12th grade) and until 11th grade when we called in an Advocate to the IEP meeting and got him admitted to the local technical college for classes.

    Another student of mine was going through a terrible time in his personal life. There were multiple ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) in his short life and he just couldn’t cope. He found it difficult to concentrate and got easily frustrated. Most days he was totally shut down for at least half the day. With the help of his therapist, we devised a system of breaks into his day to allow him to decompress and shortened assignments for him It worked until his folks got a divorce. Sigh.

  4. I can usually get these kids to do enough work to pass (barely) for the year because I have a grnerous late work policy. It requires a huge one-on-one investment THROUGHOUT THE YEAR. At first, after an herculean effort, there would be some progress and I would think, “The problem is finally solved.” But that anount of effort is required for that studdnt pretty much EVERY TIME.

  5. I think that by their consistent behaviors, those kids are telling anyone who is working with them, that they do not belong in a standard school – it is obviously not working for them – they can’t put up with the program. Perhaps they belong in an alternative learning environment school.

  6. Thanks Cristy, sounds like an invaluable tips for one who has to handle children of each kind daily. Eager to read more in the coming days

  7. I had HUGE success with video games. It works on so many levels. The action adventure game I created (Dimenxian, 2004) to teach algebra grabbed and held the attention of some of the most hardened students. It also raised their grades 2-3 grade levels.

  8. Thank you for this honest article. I agree that there are students who just don’t seem to care. Do we make it too easy for them by giving them so many chances? Should we do them a favor by insisting they succeed by attending summer school? What about pass/fail classes? What about students who are not motivated by the subject matter, but are motivated to succeed at other endeavors – making money, art, music? In an effort to revamp our entire system of education, I believe there should be the following:
    1. strict standards and benchmarks beyond which one does not go unless mastery is demonstrated
    2. Multiple measures to assessment rather than the almighty state test
    3. Basic math, literacy, then career preparation
    4.School choice with variety of options
    What do my colleagues think?

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