Powerful Ways of Dealing with Task Refusal

Dealing with Task Refusal in your Classroom

I received this email from one of my members who was dealing with a student suffering from a bad case of task refusal. My members is asking for help.

Task refusal is not uncommon in any classroom and is annoying more than destructive.

Although if task refusal catches on, you could then be dealing with mutiny.

Anyway read the letter and follow my response.

task refusal


Can you help me with this behaviour management situation, please?

My last CRT day was at a new school as the ICT teacher. All was going well (prep,1 and 2) until my grade 6 class in the final hour.

The class came in with a project to continue working on so I had no lesson to give. I was simply managing the class and helping anyone with questions. This girl decided she wasn't going to do any work. The worst case of task refusal I have come across..

She looked bored and would shrug and roll her eyes. I encouraged her to get on with her work.

One of the proactive behaviour management strategies I tried included sitting with her and getting her excited about the project.  She showed no interest .I left her alone for a few minutes and when I came back she had done nothing.  

I asked her why she hadn't started and she said it was because I was always in her face. She was quite rude and I made the mistake of explaining my actions.

I think I should have told her that she was being rude then and maybe asked her to sit outside the computer lab. Instead I continued to insist she begin her work and she continued to dig her heels in, look bored, speak in a rude voice and do nothing.

I told her that I would have to inform her teacher at the end of the lesson if she refused to work. I gave her a final chance to do something in the last 5 mins and I wouldn't talk to her teacher. She did nothing and was rude to the end.

Even two children sitting beside her looked on with open mouths. I told her teacher who sounded surprised. I need some behaviour management ideas on how to handle this situation.


Many thanks for your scenario, AE.

This is a common behaviour management problem and needs to be dealt with carefully. The best strategy is to be pragmatic but my thoughts are below. I hope you find these helpful. I have tried to respond to the key situations in this interaction.

If you are like me, you want to learn from every situation. It is a shame your day was spoiled by this one situation. Teachers often beat themselves over the rough 10% of their day when 90% of their day was great. Sometimes we lose sight of the forest because of the trees.

Anyway, here it goes.

This girl decided she wasn’t going to do any work. She looked bored and would shrug and roll her eyes.

This is the classic confrontational reaction of students. If you are a new teacher to the student, this type of behaviour could be the testing of waters. The student wants a reaction but the important part of this type of behaviour is that the student wants the reaction on THEIR terms. They want to be the protagonist and the controller. The worst thing you could do would be to take the student on with a confrontational statement like, “How dare you look at me! Blah! Blah!” The student now will be thinking, “Got you!”
Ignore these behaviours. Better still, if a nearby student sees this interaction, give them a knowing wink.
This says to the class, “I saw it and I’m in control. It is not significant.”

I encouraged her to get on with her work.

There are two aspects to any teaching situation which develops the best behaviour management protocols.

All teachers, especially relief teachers must show (1) An unwavering expectation of learning and (2) Authenticity.

If you are going to encourage her to work, you need to manage the situation professionally by determining the aspects that hinder her learning environment and working on the best situation to improve it.
Encouraging can’t just be, “Do it!” I understand sitting with the student might make you feel better, but it may not be an incentive to the student. In fact, it won’t be until you have built a relationship with the student and that takes time.
If you want to set up the best learning environment, you might need to stand back. I know teachers hate to stand back. They always want to be in control. But I have been in this situation plenty of times. To some kids, you are just another flit-in-flit-out teacher. They don’t want to expend any emotional capital in you. You have to deal with this.
Here is a possible interaction.

“I see you need a bit of support to get going Mary. (Address the whole class). Put your hand up if you are completely on top of this task. (There will be a few hands go up. If not then you need to take a class lesson.) Select another student of the same gender. Jenny, would you please sit with Mary just to get her started? Mary, just let Jenny know when you can handle the task by yourself so she can get on with her work”

Peer Tutoring is a fabulous option for this type of situation and puts the onus on Mary not you. You have just managed the learning situation. Mary is unlikely to play up for Jenny.
If she does, then repeat the process. “Susie, would you please sit with Mary just to get her started?”
Mary is going to lose face with the class if she doesn’t participate in the learning game now.

She was quite rude and I made the mistake of explaining my actions.

I hate to say this, but I agree with you. This is a mistake. This is the same behaviour as the initial confrontation. It was a mistake to explain your actions.

You never have to explain any behaviour management strategy to a student.

These are secondary behaviours. You must focus on the PRIMARY behaviour of getting Mary on task. Ignore any secondary behaviours because they are designed to distract you from the PRIMARY goal.
Unfortunately, the confrontational nature of the interaction did not really let you prove that you are

  1. only interested in improving their learning and
  2. doing it with authenticity by caring about them.

Don’t mistake caring for liking. You don’t have to like them – just care about their success.
The situation as you described is like an avalanche. It escalated to a win-lose proposition. Either Mary was going to win or you were. Either way, someone loses and that is not going to be the best scenario.
I hate to be blunt, (and please don’t be offended) but it sounds like Mary won. If your main goal was to develop a learning environment, you didn’t?

I gave her a final chance to do something in the last 5 mins.

This sounds like an ultimatum. You have set yourself up for failure. Mary is in control now. Her behaviour (or misbehaviour) is going to determine your success.
You have just left your KING in the middle of the chess board, unprotected. You are no longer in control – Mary is. Guess what? Mary is going to take it. Checkmate!
Did you notice early on when I asked Mary, “Just let Jenny know when you can handle the task by yourself so she can get on with her work.”

The best behaviour management strategy is to place learning responsibility on the student.

Behaviour Management is about creating Win-Win scenarios.

You put the responsibility on Mary. She is the one in the middle of the chess board because she has a lot to lose. But you haven’t created a WIN-LOSE situation either. You are not going to win if Mary learns. She is.
Most of the peer tutoring scenarios I have used have been successful. They seldom fail to get a student learning. And when they do, “Big tick for you.”
A great leader takes 90% of the blame but only 10% of the credit.
But guess what? You have created the best possible learning environment for your kids, even if you didn’t do the teaching. You did the MANAGING.
Make sure you go back very early and HEAP praise on Mary (and Jenny). “That fabulous Mary. Your project is coming along nicely. Thanks Jenny for your help. Well done, guys.”
If Mary maintains the momentum, ask the class, “Mary is going ahead well here. Is there anyone who needs Mary’s help?”

I told her teacher who sounded surprised.

Unless there is a specific reason you have to share negatives with the class teacher, DON’T.
The responsibility for the class was YOURS for that period. The teacher is not likely to follow up with Mary, because she is not fully aware of all the circumstances. If she did, Mary is going to bag you out and the teacher can’t respond because she doesn’t know. Don’t give her the opportunity.
At the end of every relief day I thank the teacher either personally or by a note for allowing me to take their class. I select a couple of great situations to talk about but omit any of the bloopers.
I suggest that this will encourage the teacher to talk positively about you to others; hopefully the boss!
Consider how the teacher feels. They have two options.

    • “I want this relief teacher back because he/she makes me feel good about my class”
    • “This relief teacher can’t handle my good students and expects me to handle the situation because they couldn’t.”

Many thanks for sharing your scenario. I hope I have helped outline some behaviour management alternatives.

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