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Seven ways to tackle the primary student who refuses to do anything

There is no easy answer to tackling a refuser, but this primary assistant headteacher shares some strategies to help you win round even the most stubborn of pupils

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There is no easy answer to tackling a refuser, but this primary assistant headteacher shares some strategies to help you win round even the most stubborn of pupils

When it comes to dealing with a pupil who refuses regularly, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s no magic bullet. We’ve all been there – and if you haven’t yet, then at some point you probably will be. 

Every refuser is refusing different things for different reasons. However, here are some general strategies that might help you out the next time you find yourself faced with a refuser.

1. Embrace the power of ‘and yet’

I learned this one from our school counsellor and it can be effective when dealing with a pupil (or an adult!) who is stuck in a negative cycle and refusing to do something because they believe they can’t. You can use the phrase "and yet" as a sentence starter to remind them of a time when they did manage to do the thing they’re now saying they can’t. For example:
Pupil: I’m not going into maths because I can’t do it.
You: And yet, last week you completed every task.

2. Challenge thoughts using questions rather than statements

This strategy was shared with me on a course based around cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is the idea that our thoughts dictate our feelings, which in turn control our behaviour. The idea is that if we change our thoughts, we can change our feelings and ultimately change our behaviour. So if a pupil is refusing to do something, you might try to use questions to help them find exceptions to their negative thoughts. This is situation-dependent, but questions could be: "Is that really true?" "How can you be sure?" "When was a time when that wasn’t true?" "What other explanations could there be?" "Which of your strengths could help you?"

3. Make reasonable adjustments

This is a fine line. Sometimes making too great an adjustment can backfire. Let’s say, though, that a pupil regularly refuses to come into school in the morning, but is generally fine the rest of the day. In this case, having a designated adult ready to meet them or having a routine in place, such as reading first thing, might be all that’s needed to help them move beyond the problem. If you can make a simple adjustment, it might be worth exploring.

4. Distraction

Sometimes taking the focus away from the immediate issue for a short period of time can be more effective in the long term. Try talking to the student about something else in the vicinity or even what the weather looks like outside. Walking and talking at the same time can also be a useful strategy. Then, when you return to the issue at hand, they might be in a better frame of mind to face it and to listen to you.

5.  Know their soft spot

This leads on from distraction, but the key here is your relationship with the individual pupil and what you know about them. I have worked with pupils who, even in the midst of full-on "I’m-not-budging-on-this" refusal, will soften up if I ask them about their pet, for instance. That’s my way in to shift their mood, and put them into a better place to accept that they need to do what they’re refusing to do.

6. Limit the options

If you can and it’s appropriate, offer the pupil two options that are both reasonable to you. This can ease the situation because the pupil feels like they are retaining some level of control by being able to make a choice, while you are happy because either of the choices given will work for you.

7. Be prepared for there to be no quick fix

Ultimately, the key to really dealing with regular refusal is to unpick the situation and work out what the trigger is for that child. Often, this won’t be easy to solve with one action, but it will help you move towards a solution. It’s also important to share the load. Make sure that your senior leadership team are aware of the refusal and that you apply your school's behaviour management policy consistently. Last but not least, don’t take it personally: it’s rarely about you, even if it sometimes feels like it is.

Claire Lotriet is an assistant headteacher at Henwick Primary School in London. She is the Tes ed-tech columnist and tweets @OhLottie

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