Refuses to Engage


Managing students in your classroom is challenging, even under the best circumstances. You prepare your lesson plans, organize the material, and make the most of some increasingly limited resources. Managing students with behavior difficulties can derail your efforts, and can also affect the rest of the class and overall progress. All teachers have students who can make things harder on you and their classmates.

What should you do when you encounter a student who presents you with different kinds of concerning behavior? There might be any number of issues going on with that student. Also, students who exhibit a behavior problem could have very different underlying causes for it. Your first objective is to keep calm so you can stay in control of the situation. Then, you can be objective as you work to formulate a plan that will keep your class on track and get the student the help they deserve. Helping students experience a sense of being understood and working to achieve a sense of personal control is central to your work in the classroom. Doing that job with compassion and respect is the other side of the coin.

The following outlines some scenarios that arise in the classroom with students who give you different kinds of behavior challenges. We’ll walk you through what the behavior presents like, insights to help you understand what’s motivating that behavior, practical steps to help you manage it, and how to consider what’s next.

What to do when: Your student refuses to engage

When a student refuses to engage in class at all, they may present as either really quiet or really boisterous. Either way, they’re not interested in participating in the material or activity you want them to pay attention to at the moment. The student may seem quiet or extremely timid, like they want to shrink into their chair, or become invisible. They hope you don’t call on them, and they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.

On the other hand, you might also see a student refusing to engage by actively increasing verbal behavior in every other direction besides the task you want them to do. You might find it very hard to keep their attention or keep them on task. Their refusal to engage comes with a different kind of behavior than a student who’d rather not stand out, but the bottom line is the same.

Both of these behaviors mean your student is refusing to engage the way you want them to. Whether they’re on the quiet or not-so-quiet end of the behavior spectrum, your student is choosing not to productively participate in a given classroom activity. Let’s say you’ve asked students to direct their attention to a certain page while you go over some directions. A student who refuses to engage might not get out the book at all, or might be engrossed in a completely different quiet activity, like doodling or reading a different book. Or, the student could be loudly talking with another student or trying to keep your attention away with other active distractions.

Make your expectations crystal clear

Students need you to be specific. When you speak in general terms, like saying, “I need you to pay attention,” you’re not being specific enough. Students don’t necessarily have the comprehension skills to understand what you mean by that and how you’re expecting them to adjust their behavior. It will be more difficult for students to respond to your direction until they know exactly what you expect them to do.

If you’re struggling with a student who refuses to engage, try giving them very direct steps like, “I need you to close your other book now. Put it away in your desk. Keep your eyes on the board, and follow along.”

Pay attention to the timing

When you have a student who’s not ready to engage, you need to determine what’s triggering that behavior. Do you notice the student starts refusing to engage when you transition from one activity to another? Maybe when you move from math to reading, your student gets unplugged somehow. They don’t want to pay attention, they don’t want to participate, and they’re creating some classroom challenges for you to manage.

Consider: What is it about this time or activity that creates a problem situation or leads to problem behaviors? Look at the conditions that are bringing about this behavior. Maybe this student really doesn’t like reading and needs some extra help. Maybe they’re uncomfortable with the material, and that’s why they want to either actively or passively disengage.

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 not engage.

Consider function over form: attention or escape

You might have three different students who refuse to engage, and the reasons why they’re doing it could also be completely different. Pay attention to what that student is getting out of this problem behavior. When you consider the function of the problem behavior, you’re considering: What’s the payoff for them? Try not to be as concerned with the details of what they’re doing, so much as why they’re doing it. You need to figure out the root cause behind the behavior first before you can best determine where to go next.

For example, a student may refuse to engage because they’re trying to get attention. Do you find that you’re giving them undivided attention more often when that happens? They might consider that a payoff. The function of refusing to engage, in this case, is to get more access to your dedicated attention. You wouldn’t want to accidentally reinforce the problem behavior by continuing to reward it with more attention.

If it looks like the student wants more attention, consider how you can encourage use of more appropriate behaviors to get it. You might minimize or remove all of your attention from that student until they behave the way you need them to. You might also use differential reinforcement, which is to increase your positive feedback with other students who are appropriately engaging. Your challenging student isn’t receiving attention. When you increase the level or quality attention to other students, you’re sending a message that appropriate behavior is rewarded with the attention that your attention-seeking student is after.

The student might be refusing to engage because they’re trying to escape. Do you see they have difficulty with the subject matter, or struggle with the material? The function of refusing to engage for this student may be to avoid having to struggle. Maybe they don't want to be singled out in front of peers.

If they’re trying to escape, try to get them to communicate about what’s going on. Acknowledge that this seems like a difficult time for them, and start with where they are. Ask, “What about this time or activity is creating this situation where you don’t want to engage?” Consider offering them a chance to ask for a break, and let them know when you’ll expect them to come back ready to engage.

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.” You might also let them know it’s ok to ask for help, even write you a note, and make yourself available. Again, getting down to the core of why they’re refusing to engage will help you develop an appropriate response.

Implement behavioral interventions

These steps can help as you work through how to handle a student who refuses to engage:

  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 refusing to engage because they have a developmental or emotional disorder that needs further intervention. You are a teacher, and not a diagnostician. 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.

That’s why it’s important to implement behavioral interventions sooner rather than later. Don’t wait longer than a few weeks to address problem behaviors. Then, 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.