Needs Focused Teaching

Dealing with students who have no interest in the lesson

A student who has no interest in lessons and anything you say and do, can have a terrible impact on the rest of the class. What you must remember however is that this student probably wants to succeed – most do, at heart – but has virtually 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 (including your lessons) differently but there are definitely steps to take which will help turn the situation round more quickly.

  1. Look to sincerely praise anything and everything you can. Students with a very low self-image may be uncomfortable receiving praise in front of others so begin 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 young person needs to know he has potential and that somebody is taking the time to notice. Sincere praise is one of the most powerful tools you possess and as long as he understands that you actually do want to help him – and not just ‘get him to listen because it’s your job’ – this student will respond.
  1. 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 issues to avoid.
  1. Schedule a ‘1 to 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 they’ve done something well, when you’ve praised them for a job well done, when you’ve just complimented them on their work, or a new pair of shoes, or a haircut, or creative use of smiling muscles – i.e. when they are more receptive.

For example, if they play football on the school team, try and find the time to go and watch the game. They’ll see you on the side line and will appreciate it. 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, they know you have interest in them and they know that you want to help them. This would be a better time to suggest the meeting.

  1. Change seating. Put them with a partner or other group members who will encourage them and help them.
  1. Put them in a mixed ability learning team of 3-4 and give them a definite role or responsibility. Assign them a role that plays to their strengths or abilities. For example, f 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.
  1. 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 – or the student doesn’t think they are.

It’s a huge problem when parents and other family members have deeply entrenched, negative experiences of school going back through several generations; they’ll be hesitant in dealings 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.  If in addition their child has been a source of constant distress at school, any contact the 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.

They won’t have heard a word when he’s done something well. 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.

For a complete resource kit on harnessing support from parents see one of our titles – ‘Get The Parents On Board’.

  1. 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…

i.) 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.

ii.) 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.

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

iv.) 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).

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

vi.) 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.

  1. Use Questions to Grab Your Students’ Attention and Get Them Involved

Before I present a near fool-proof way of getting a challenging group of students involved at the start of the lesson let’s look at something you should try to avoid: asking the wrong type of questions. It’s the most effective way to lose their interest.

Many teachers will start a lesson with a question relating to the topic focus. For example, in a lesson on the circulatory system, the opening question might be:  “How many of you can explain what a blood vessel is?”

Questions like this may generate some participation but for every hand that goes up there will be ten more that don’t. Most of the students, particularly in a low ability or challenging group, will simply ignore this question because it demands something they don’t like to (or cannot) display – evidence of prior knowledge about the subject. Let’s face it, in a challenging group it’s not always cool to know the answers.

A reliable way to get more of your students involved at the start of the lesson – particularly the non-volunteers who don’t seem to want to learn – is simply to change the type of questions you ask them.

Let’s return to the circulatory system to illustrate what I mean. The average challenging student doesn’t even care what a blood vessel is, so asking them about it will be in vain. If we’re going to grab their attention we need to ask them something they can relate to. See if you can spot the best question in the following sets:

  1. A) Who can tell me how blood gets round the body?
  2. B) Who knows what a blood vessel is?
  3. C) Can anyone tell me what a blood capillary is?
  4. D) Have you ever cut yourself?


  1. A) Give me five differences between Macbeth’s character before and after he kills Duncan.
  2. B) How does Macbeth change after he kills Duncan?
  3. C) What words would you use to describe Macbeth at the start of the play?
  4. D) When was the last time you did something really terrible that you later regretted?

Can you see why a group of disengaged students would be most likely to respond to ‘D’ in both cases? Those questions hook them in by giving them opportunity to think about events that are relevant to them or have had a direct effect on them. They appeal to the students because they present an opportunity to share their experiences.

Once you have them hooked, once they are animated and actively taking part – by now no doubt sharing tales of bleeding limbs – then you can lead them into the lesson content. From there, going back to our lesson on circulation, we could go on to ask:

How long did it bleed for?

How did you stop the bleeding?

Do you think it would it have stopped if you had just left it?

And then finally, to lead the students in to the main content of the lesson:

Where does the blood come from and how does it get to the cut?

…and in this way we adapt our questions and make them more relevant to our students so that we get their attention.

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I hope you enjoyed this post.  I took it directly from my new book ‘The Behaviour Tool Kit – Behaviour Solutions for Today’s Tough Classrooms’

If you’d like to have the BEST collection of PROVEN fast-acting solutions and answers to your most pressing classroom management problems, (for about the price of a cup of coffee), head on over to Amazon right now and get your copy. Just do a search for ‘The Behaviour Tool Kit, or search for me by name, ‘Rob Plevin’.