Needs Focused Teaching

7 tips to manage pupils who have no interest in your lesson


A student who has no interest in lessons and a negative attitude towards anything you say and do can have a terrible impact on the rest of the class. But what you must remember is that this student probably wants to succeed – most do deep down, it’s just that he has all but given up due to a succession of failures, discouragement and low self image. It may take time to reach this student and help him see life (or at least your lessons) differently but there are definitely steps to take which will help turn the situation round more quickly.


1. Look to praise anything and everything you can – sincerely.

Students with a very low self image may be uncomfortable receiving praise in front of others so start off by using written praise. Send notes home, leave post-it notes or written comments in their books, send them cards or typed letters on school-headed paper stating how pleased you are with their efforts, and include anything positive you have heard from another teacher. This kid needs to know he has potential and that somebody is taking the time to notice. Sincere, heartfelt praise is one of the most powerful tools you possess and as long as you come from the position of wanting to help this student (as opposed to just using a ‘suitable behaviour intervention to try and get them to listen to you’) he will respond.

2. Do some research.

Speak to other teachers, their form tutor or head of year to find out if there are any underlying issues you should be aware of. A tutor who has a good relationship with a particularly hard to reach student can give you ‘insider tips’ to connect with this student as well as notify you of any ‘hot issues’ to avoid.

3. Schedule a 1:1 meeting with the student.

Purpose: to ask why they are so uninterested, ask their advice on making lessons more engaging for them and help them to see the relevance of what they are being asked to do.

If you feel they are unlikely to turn up for a 1:1 meeting, don’t worry – you can increase the chances by proposing it at the right time. There’s no point telling them you want to see them in your office when they’re in their ‘I hate you and your lessons’ mood; they won’t be interested. Wait, instead, for a time when they are going to be more receptive. A good time is when you’ve caught them doing something well, when you’ve praised them for a job well done, when you’ve just complimented them on their new hair style/shoes/grade/tattoo or when you’ve seen them doing something they’re good at and enjoy. You can use that time as a reference point to connect with them and start the conversation.

For example, if they play football on the school team, go and watch the game. They’ll see you on the side line and will respect you for that. Next time you see them you can mention the game and talk about the goal they scored or their part in the brilliant teamwork. Now they’re listening and they know that you want to help them. This would be a better time to suggest the meeting.

4. Change seating.

Put them with a partner or other group members who will encourage them and help them.

5. Put them in a diverse (mixed ability) learning team and give them a definite role or responsibility.

To get them involved this role should play to their strengths or abilities. For example if they are good at drawing let them be in charge of graphics or illustrations. If they have trouble sitting still let them be a ‘runner’ in charge of collating materials, equipment and resources.

6. Involve parents/carers.

Having parents on board is a big advantage dealing with any student problems – the more we can present a united front between school and home, the better. The problem, as we all know, is that some parents just don’t seem interested.

It’s a huge problem when parents and other family members have deeply entrenched negative experiences of school going back through several generations – they are apprehensive about dealing with teachers. If they themselves failed at school and consequently aren’t living the life of their dreams, it’s not surprising that they lack the faith in education we expect and need them to have. Added to that, if their child has been a source of constant distress at school, any contact these parents have had with staff at the school is likely to have been negative. They’ll have been told when he has been missing school, when he’s repeatedly failed to hand in homework, when he’s been in a fight and when he’s been abusive to a member of staff.

A good way, if not the only way, to start to get these parents on side is to change their expectation that every communication from school will be a negative one. The more time you spend connecting with them through regular positive contact, the more they will get used to the idea that a call from school doesn’t automatically ruin their day.

A 30-second update a couple of times a week – “Hi Maureen, just a quickie to let you know he’s been great this week; homework was in on time and he managed to keep it together in maths again.” – goes a long way towards doing this. And despite what anyone says, I’ve witnessed enough ‘hard’ fathers and ‘rough’ mothers breaking down in tears in my office when given news of a son or daughter’s good progress to believe that this is worth doing.

7. Give them a taste of success.

Students who are reluctant to take part probably see no value in learning because they never feel they’ve learned anything. Here’s a practical way to give them a sense of accomplishment and leave your lesson feeling they’ve actually had some success. When they leave feeling like that, they will return in a more positive frame of mind.

1. Ask them a question at the start of the lesson related to the lesson content. (They will probably refuse to answer but that’s okay – it’s probably their fear of looking ‘too clever’ or fear of making a fool of themselves).

2. Take the pressure off them by offering them to nominate a friend who can help them answer the question/answer it for them. (This is easy for them to do – but the key is that they will see themselves as being INVOLVED in the answering process).

3. Ask them to paraphrase what their friend said so that they answer the question themselves.

4. Later in the lesson when other students are involved in independent study coach the student further by getting them to answer the question for you again on a 1:1 basis. Encourage them to break the answer down into clear steps so that they are totally sure of the process. Offer a little extra ‘in-depth’ information to add to their answer and ask them once more to show off their new knowledge and tell you ‘all they know’ about the subject. Congratulate them and tell them you will be asking them at the end of the lesson to repeat their answer to help the other students remember (the extra ‘in-depth’ knowledge you’ve given them will give them the opportunity to shine if they wish).

5. At the end of the lesson let them leave on a high by answering the question again as part of your plenary session.

6. Get them to answer the question next lesson as part of your starter.

Remember that you don’t need to limit this strategy to just one student during a lesson. You can feasibly have four or five students all leaving class feeling that they’ve actually learned something.

Do you want to learn more about the Needs Focused approach?

If you want more useful classroom management tools and strategies then check out my FREE resources HERE. 

In addition, if you prefer to have all your tips and strategies in one place, be sure to check out my books on Amazon. Just search for any of the following titles:

Take Control of the Noisy Class

Motivate the Unmotivated

Attention-Grabbing Starters & Plenaries

Classroom Management Success in 7 Days or Less

The Cooperative & Active Learning Tool Kit

The Fun Teacher’s Tool Kit

Connect With Your Students

The Classroom Management Tool Kit