Needs Focused Teaching

Classroom Management Strategies For Dealing With Students Who Won’t Complete Work in Class


Do you feel as if you are constantly adapting your classroom management strategies to manage those students who show no interest in completing their work in class? Honestly, you are not the only teacher who is facing this problem but fortunately, there are 7 tried-and-tested classroom management strategies that I am going to share to help eradicate this issue!

Once a student has actually made a start on their work, it’s clear that at least two of the big de-motivators – fear (of failing or of appearing to be a ‘goody two shoes’ in front of under-achieving peers) and inadequacy (feeling they lack the necessary skills to bother attempting the task) – no longer have influence. If the student has made a start but not finished the work then clearly something else has gone wrong along the way.

It’s a bit like starting a journey and then deciding you don’t want to continue. You’ve gone to the trouble of packing your bag, getting in the car and starting off but then decide to pull over halfway down the motorway. Was there too much traffic? Did you forget something and decide to concentrate on that instead? Did something go wrong with the car? Did something at the side of the road distract you? Did you get too tired and need a snooze? Did you decide to pick up a hitch-hiker and go off somewhere else? Or did you simply decide the destination probably wasn’t somewhere you want to visit after all?

When students’ efforts tail off during a lesson after the work is started it’s probably down to one or more of the following:
  • Being distracted by other students or outside interruptions.
  • Losing interest in work that becomes repetitive or too easy.
  • Getting frustrated with work that becomes too difficult. (If they aren’t gaining a sense of achievement they will soon switch off – remember how important ‘empowerment’ is?)
  • Something going wrong with the equipment they’re using which breaks their concentration and takes them out of ‘work mode’.
  • Discomfort – is the room too warm and stuffy? Is it too cold? Is there a bad smell floating around? (If you’re teaching teenage boys it’s highly likely).
  • Waning energy, becoming lethargic.
  • Finding that other students are getting all the attention. (They may feel the need to switch off/act up to get some negative teacher attention if they see other students taking up the teacher’s time by doing so).

As you can see there are several possible reasons. This list is by no means exhaustive, but each of those possible reasons has one thing in common – they can all be alleviated or prevented with good planning. 

This is one area of motivation in which the teacher has a considerable amount of control. Getting them to start work is the biggest problem and once they’ve actually made a start, keeping them working can be achieved simply by pre-empting the reasons above. This is the key to classroom management success.

So how do you plan ahead for students who lose their motivation to work during lessons despite having made a reasonable start?

Classroom Management Strategy 1 – Take efforts to minimise and prepare for distractions:

Distractions can take many forms – some avoidable, some not – but there are ways we can reduce the chances of occurrences and minimise their effects. Here are a few common distractions and ways to deal with them:

Distraction #1 – Farting:

Boys will be boys (and girls will be girls) and some of them seem to take great delight in farting during lessons, usually when everyone in the room is silent – for extra comic effect. We can’t control what he eats beforehand but we can reduce the chances of this happening by giving the boy sufficient attention so he doesn’t feel as much need to cause a disruption. We should also have a good plan in place to deal with this particular distraction when it does occur. Iron-clad consequences are the best way.

Teacher: Tommy we don’t do that in lessons. Please pack up your things and move to the seat at the back. If it happens again you’ll go to Time Out (or come back at break time for five minutes – whatever sanction you have in place.)

Tommy: I couldn’t help it.

Teacher: That may be true Tommy but it’s something we have to learn to control. Move now please or, as I said, you’ll be going to Time Out.

The trick, as with any confrontation like this, is to show as little emotion as possible, not get drawn into a discussion or argument and to follow up EVERY time. 

If you don’t know who the culprit was you use a slightly different plan. Open a window, show as little concern as possible and tell students who are overreacting to be quiet and stop being silly. Have an activity on hand with which to re-focus them. 

NB: No matter how earnest the protest that they ‘couldn’t help it’ I would always assume it was deliberate and issue the consequence. Once you allow leeway for an ‘accident’ the rest have a perfect excuse for a repeat performance.

Distraction #2 – Asking to go to the toilet:

This is the favoured ‘work-avoidance’ strategy in many classrooms and you’re going to have to have a plan for dealing with it. My personal view is that anyone can hold on for an hour (the duration of most lessons) and if they can’t, they need to learn how to. I know there has to be provision made for some individuals on health grounds but unless they have a note from parents and/or the school has been made aware of this problem, all students should receive the same consideration. They are given the opportunity to go to the toilet before the lesson starts and then nobody goes during the lesson. If that’s too draconian for you, you can try being lenient on a student who claims they about to ‘wet themselves’ and then come up with another plan to deal with the five students who say they have the same problem ten minutes later. It is better to have one rule and stick to it.

If you’re worried about denying students their rights and receiving formal complaints from parents there are other alternatives such as issuing ‘toilet passes’ or setting a limit of one toilet visit per lesson per student, and recording visits in a file or the back of the student’s book. In each case, the student should be given a definite time by which they should be back in the room (written in their book/on the card) and they should take this with them. This will enable other staff such as tutors and other teachers to monitor trends – as well as preventing the student from being wrongly accused of wandering if caught in the corridor.

Distraction #3 – Peers:

This is easy to prevent and deal with. Separate students who are likely to distract each other. Move the liveliest students to the front of the room so you can keep a close eye on them. Have back-up/alternative lesson tasks on hand to re-focus students who lose concentration. 

Classroom Management Strategy 2 – Plan for students getting bored or frustrated:

Have frequent changes of task (every 15-20 minutes – less with low ability groups) and/or increasingly higher levels of challenge for able students, with simpler alternatives for less able. Prepare tasks that meet different learning styles and know your students so that you can offer them targeted work which is likely to introduce quick ‘teach-back’ and discussion activities to break monotony. Remember, once they switch off, it’s going to be tough getting them switched on again – you must plan ahead and pre-empt boredom. As soon as you detect the warning signs act quickly to keep them on task. That’s the time to change the activity, have a quick energiser or just offer them some quiet encouragement or support.

Classroom Management Strategy 3 – Make sure equipment is working properly and that you can quickly remedy it if something goes wrong:

Have spare photocopies, pens, a back-up demonstration (or a technician on stand-by), calculators, batteries, discombobulators (applicable only in lessons on discombobulation) – in fact, spare versions of all the materials and equipment the students are going to be using. When something goes wrong you want to be able to hand them a solution without a pause.

Classroom Management Strategy 4 – Make sure the room is comfortable:

Ensure that you can control things like temperature; ie that you know how to alter the lighting/use the air conditioning.

Classroom Management Strategy 5 – Have a resource bank of energisers and fill-in activities:

You need a stock of these – good, fun fill-ins and active energisers which students enjoy – as a means to get them on their feet and quickly inject some oxygen into their lungs. You have no control over their sleeping habits or the fact that Jonny was up until 4am playing on his Xbox and can barely keep his eyes open… but you can inject some energy and liven him up a bit every fifteen or twenty minutes with a quick energiser. You can find plenty via Google or in some of our other titles – ‘The Fun Teacher’s Tool Kit’ & ‘The Active Teaching Tool Kit’ – both available on Amazon. 

Classroom Management Strategy 6 – Keep them on task with encouragement and praise:

I’ve mentioned this a lot elsewhere on the Behaviour Needs website so I’ll not go into it too much here, other than to repeat that this is one of your most powerful tools – when it is used properly. Remember firstly that your words of encouragement must be sincere and that many of your students respond better to quiet, private encouragement. Enough said.

Classroom Management Strategy 7 – Give them a Target:

Targets are so important for re-engaging a student who is just starting to waver. Let’s say you have a student who’s messing around, off-task being mildly disruptive. It may well be that he’s just not clear about what he’s supposed to be doing, he may be confused, he may have misheard or he may just be a bit bored. An excellent tip for getting this student back on task is to define a very clear work target for him to achieve, and a set time in which to do so… 

“Tony, this is your target – I want you to get to number 6 by half-past ten.”

(This is said very quietly so as not to disrupt the pace of the lesson or raise the attention of other students).

The target gives them something to work towards and reminds them you’re supporting them – it shows them that you’re interested in them and care about their progress. It gives them very clear instructions as to how to succeed in your lesson.

Boys in particular, work much better when they know exactly what is expected of them and some students can only cope with small chunks of work at a time. Target setting is perfect for achieving both these aims and can have a magical calming effect on most students who are starting to play up.

I use this method with all my classes. Once I’ve given them their tasks I go round and put a pencil mark where I expect them to get to in a set time. 

“By ten past 11 Sarah you need to have completed the work to this mark – that’s your target.”

It’s best to do this quietly because some students are self-conscious about having smaller targets than others and for others, the fact that I give them more work as their target can lead to quarrels.

Once you’ve done this a few times they get used to it and accept their individual targets quite happily. In fact, most lessons I have students actually asking me to give them a target!

In every class, there are very badly behaved students who are, in fact very capable. With such children I explain, in private, that I’ll be giving them a bigger target (more work) than anyone else. If I did this without explanation there would be an uproar, but by taking the student to one side before the lesson and quietly saying something along the lines of …

“Shaun, I’m going to set you a high target today because I know you can excel at this. I wouldn’t be doing my job right if I didn’t give you the chance to show me what you can do. – OK?”

I normally get a very focused, hard-working student from then on. Try it for yourself.

Want more help with managing student behaviour and student engagement? I offer three main resources for teachers:

  1. My range of books on Amazon: You can find them here or by entering ‘Rob Plevin classroom management’ in the Amazon search bar at
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  1. My Facebook page. Here you’ll find tips and strategies as well as questions and support from like-minded teachers. Come and join us here!