What to do when: Your student is sullen or withdrawn

When a student is sullen or withdrawn, they can develop behaviors in your classroom that need to be addressed. The student might not be ready to productively engage with the material, and you may not be able to hold their attention for long as they sink back further into their reserve. Their behavior may seem brooding and hostile, or may be morose and sad. Either way, they’re signaling to you that they may have other things on their mind besides what’s happening in class. Their behavior will require some extra attention and possible intervention.

When a student is sullen or withdrawn, they’re not able to participate in your class in an appropriate way. They might also be presenting a distraction for other students, leading to further disruptions for your class. They may not be paying attention to the material. On the other hand, they may be keeping up academically, but have bigger emotional problems to address. Your next step after identifying this problem behavior is to effectively manage it, and help prevent it from continuing to be a problem.

Meet them where they are

When a student is sullen or withdrawn, they’re signaling trouble. First keep in mind that a student’s problem behavior isn’t something you should personalize. The student is dealing with some kind of challenge that’s causing their troubling behavior. It may have nothing at all to do with you, their classmates, or school for that matter. Be sure to should respond in a way that’s supportive. The following helps to outline some ways to assess what’s going on and appropriately respond when you have a student who’s sullen or withdrawn.

Pay attention to the timing

When you have a student who seems extra down or reserved, especially when that’s out of character for that student’s usual behavior, try to isolate the cause. Do you notice the student starts shutting down when you transition from one activity to another? Do they show up at the beginning of the day seeming really withdrawn, then open up as the day goes on? Do they come back from a break signaling some new sensitivity or seem unusually down?

Consider: What is it about this time or activity that creates a problem situation or leads to these problem behaviors? Look at the conditions that are bringing about this behavior. Maybe they start to brood when you start talking about a certain subject matter. Maybe they’re uncomfortable with the material. Maybe they have a situation with a classmate, and they start to be withdrawn when you announce a group assignment.

Try to isolate the conditions that bring on the problem behavior. That way, you’ll have a better understanding of when it’s most likely to happen, and identify the root cause. Then, you can make more targeted adjustments from there that speak to what is causing the student to be sullen or withdrawn.

Consider function over form: attention or escape

You might have three different students who seem sullen or withdrawn for some reason. Their reasons for that behavior could be completely different. When you consider the function of the problem behavior, you’re considering: What’s the payoff for them? How does that behavior comfort them or work well for them? Try not to be as concerned with the details of what they’re doing, so much as why they’re doing it.

When a student is sullen or withdrawn, they may be outwardly shrinking away from attention, but they may also be seeking your attention. This behavior could be their way of asking for your help with something, because you need to pay attention and address the behavior. Try to determine the root cause behind the behavior before you determine where to go next. Is it related to the classroom material, or is it something interpersonal? The more clues you get about their motives, the better equipped you’ll be to effectively address the problem.

Encourage conversation

Even though a student who’s withdrawn and reserved seems like they don’t want to be bothered, there are ways you can try to get them to communicate about what’s going on. Students often struggle and seem withdrawn because they may not yet have the vocabulary or skills to effectively express themselves. They may not know how to ask for help or explain what’s really bothering them.

A good place to start is with acknowledging that this seems like a difficult time for them. Be open and non-threatening, but direct. Ask, “What about this situation makes it so you would prefer not to participate?” Consider offering them a chance to ask for a break, and let them know when you’ll expect them to come back ready to participate in a more productive way.

You can also empower them with a choice. For example, let them know, “You have these two things that need to get done, and you can decide which one you need to do first.” If they’re really withdrawn and reticent, you might also let them know they can write you a note. Give them permission to ask for help. Make yourself available after class or away from the other students, so the student is more comfortable to be candid. Again, getting down to the core of why they’re being disruptive will help you develop an appropriate response.

Implement behavioral interventions

These steps can help as you work through how to handle a student who is sullen or withdrawn:

  1. Stay calm. Stay neutral. Assess in the moment what seems to be driving this behavior.
  2. Verify your concern. Try to get your student to communicate about what’s going on. “It looks like you’re having a difficult time. What is it about this time/activity that is causing you to show these behaviors?”
  3. Ask the student to help you understand what they need. They might not have the language to say it on their own, so be ready to offer some suggestions and teach them how to ask for help.
  4. Give specific examples of support. Students thrive when they feel empowered and can exercise some choice.
  5. Provide an alternative for that student and get everybody else set up and go back to the student having the problem.

When to get more help

Your student might be sullen or withdrawn because they have a developmental or emotional disorder that needs diagnosis and further intervention. They may also be dealing with a serious issue that could require other resources to address. It’s not up to you to singlehandedly diagnose what’s going on with students who don’t respond to your efforts to manage their behavior. But, you can assemble and engage a team of people who can work together to help this student with what’s causing this problem.

It’s important to implement behavioral interventions in your classroom sooner rather than later. Don’t wait longer than a few weeks to address a student’s problem behaviors in your classroom. If you’re not seeing progress after a week or two, then it’s time to engage a team for more support. Your school psychologist or counselor, behavioral specialist, principal, along with the student’s parents can all start looking at the problem behavior and consider what variables they can control to create the best environment for that student to succeed. Early intervention is key to a successful outcome, and will help you manage your classroom better in the long run.