George Lucas Educational Foundation
Illustration showing disinterested students during class
Alex Green for Edutopia

Addressing Work Refusal in the Classroom

As educators grapple with the silent protest of student work refusal, research illuminates the underlying causes—and possible solutions.

April 26, 2024

In nearly every classroom, especially in middle and high school, there are a handful of students who simply refuse to do the work. They’ll listen to the assignment and maybe even nod their heads, but when the rubber hits the road, they don’t hand anything in—at best, they submit a couple of sentences instead of the essay you asked for.

“Often teachers react defensively to obstinate behavior, creating a situation where teacher and student may become locked in a power struggle or an ineffective pattern of communication,” writes special education teacher Nina Parrish. So how does an educator handle a student who simply refuses to turn in assigned work?

Teachers, it seems, are dying to know what’s behind the issue. When Edutopia asked our audience what topic they’d most want to see the research behind, “work refusal” was the top response—“Not kids who don’t understand or kids who present other behavioral challenges, just kids whose only perceptible issue is refusing to complete work (or hand in completed work),” explained Rebecca, an educator.

The research exploring work refusal, while limited, boils down to a central takeaway: Understand the underlying causes of a student’s failure to complete work, which might involve a desire for more autonomy, a fear of failure or judgment, or a sense that the assigned work is meaningless. There are no simple explanations: What motivates any particular student can be mysterious, and some will inevitably continue to refuse work regardless of your best efforts. But using these targeted, research-backed responses gives you a fighting chance of turning chronic work refusers into more frequent work completers.


While it can feel tempting to throw up your hands, seeking out root causes can lead to clearer next steps. “Understanding the antecedent of work refusal leads to the development of logical intervention strategies rather than those based on assumptions or trial and error,” writes Texas State University education researcher Glenna Billingsley in a recent review of the research surrounding work refusal.

While every child is different, Billingsley’s research review points to a few key factors that often operate just below the surface of work refusal.


Assignments and activities that students consider irrelevant or uninteresting may “trigger misbehavior that enables them to avoid these disengaging conditions,” Billingsley writes in her analysis—but adding “multiple opportunities for responding” that students can choose from, across modalities and at different skill levels, can improve engagement. Because Billingsley’s review found that work refusal was often at its highest when students were asked to “transition from a preferred task to one less enjoyable,” providing students with a range of academic tasks to choose from can help nip work refusal in the bud.

Billingsley’s analysis adds to a growing body of research suggesting that students are more engaged in their learning when given more choice and autonomy. A 2012 study, for example, found that second and third graders who were required to complete mandatory reading logs saw a marked decline in interest toward reading compared with students who voluntarily logged their reading progress. Similarly, eighth graders developed better reading habits when the curriculum allowed them to choose what they read, and in a 2010 article, researchers assert that giving students a say over disciplinary policies can “encourage a sense of well-being and comfort with the way a classroom functions,” while offering choice around assignments can “encourage initial engagement with learning activities.” 

How to address it: There are a number of ways to introduce more curricular choice at all grade levels.

Preschool teacher Oi Ling Hu has students vote for the read-aloud of the day—and even, on occasion, what activities the class will engage in. In later grades, education researcher Robert J. Marzano recommends that teachers allow students to present what they’ve learned “through debates, video reports, demonstrations, or dramatic presentations” (we’d add music, drawing, and coding, too)—not just essays or oral reports. “Choice in the classroom has been linked to increases in student effort, task performance, and subsequent learning,” Marzano writes. To help students feel like you respect their freedom of choice, you can also let students co-create their classroom norms, offer flexible seating options, or give English students a say over what books they’ll read (even at the AP level).


Billingsley’s research review lists “expectations and assignments that students perceive as too difficult” as another leading cause of classroom work refusal. “Students with a history of school failure may feel that the current assignment offers only another opportunity to fail,” she summarizes. On the same note, a 2018 study found that academic deficits accounted for a full 20 percent of classroom misbehavior: When students didn’t understand an assignment or found it too difficult, misbehavior was the outlet for their frustration.

Students with a history of school failure may feel that the current assignment offers only another opportunity to fail.

Glenna Billingsley, phd

Student concern over grades can exacerbate matters. A 2018 study found that letter grades “enhanced anxiety and avoidance of challenging courses,” while a 2019 research review suggested that students were more motivated by receiving written feedback from their teacher, or even no feedback at all, than by receiving grades.

How to address it: A 2021 study found that grades and on-task behavior were highest in classes with the highest ratio of praise to reprimands—and while it might feel unnatural to track your language so closely, researchers at Vanderbilt University recommend roughly “six praise statements every 15 minutes.” Remember to praise students for specific actions (“This essay was really well-structured!”), not inherent abilities (“You’re so smart!”), to avoid reinforcing the same kind of fixed mindset that can lead students to feel anxious about their skills in the first place. Try to find opportunities to make your praise sincere and focused around ways that students have improved, even if that improvement is just turning in an essay on time.

It’s also worthwhile to foster a more mistake-friendly classroom. Model your own mistakes, and avoid being overly punitive about errors: Consider policies like dropping each student’s lowest grade, allowing students to retake some assessments, or reducing the amount of work you actively grade. One interesting study revealed that withholding grades until several days after handing back your written feedback can boost student performance on future assignments by up to two-thirds of a letter grade.


When a student consistently refuses to do work, “community and connection are usually the issue,” comments educator Emily Tarr on Edutopia’s thread about work refusal, and the research tends to agree.

Belonging at school—”that sense that we are part of a larger whole, that there is a kind of goodness of fit between me and my environment”—is really important socially and academically, according to the social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen. He points to a 2019 study suggesting that feelings of belonging are greater predictors of college completion than academic success.

An adjacent phenomenon—a lack of purpose—can be equally harmful. “Teachers often underestimate the importance of purpose and relevance in building motivation, and overestimate how good a job they are doing at making the purpose clear,” write education researcher Chris Hulleman and science teacher Ian Kelleher in an article for Edutopia. This shortcoming is sometimes at the root of a student’s hesitancy to work.

How to address it: There are a variety of research-backed interventions that can boost purpose and belonging. In one study, Hulleman found that having ninth-grade science students write brief reflections connecting what they learned in class to their personal lives boosted their grades and made them more likely to take science courses again in the future. In class, teachers should “deliberately and regularly state the purpose of assignments and activities,” Hulleman recommends. Teachers can also connect their lessons to the real-world issues that students care about; in math class, for example, dig into issues like personal finance and sports statistics.

Teachers often underestimate the importance of purpose ... and overestimate how good a job they are doing at making the purpose clear.

Chris hulleman, phd and ian kelleher, phd

To tap into students’ passions and interests, education instructor Rebecca Alber recommends sending out a survey at the start of the year that asks questions like “What is something or someone you personally would like to know more about?” or “Make a list of all the things that you don’t currently learn in school but wish you could,” then using student responses to inform your lesson planning and assessment options. (Vanderbilt University offers an example survey that teachers can adjust accordingly.) Hanging posters and incorporating learning materials that reflect the diverse interests and identities of your students signals that they’re “valued learners and belong within the classroom, with far-reaching consequences for students’ educational choices and achievement,” a 2014 study found.


Finally, it’s worth considering how trauma might factor into your students’ refusal to do work. “When you feel the weight of the world bearing down on you, or you simply don’t think you can take another step without imploding or breaking down, don’t you just want to get away from it all?” asks elementary school administrator Matthew J. Bowerman. “Imagine what children are feeling after the last several years.”

A 2011 study led by pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris found that traumatic childhood experiences are tied to a host of learning and behavioral problems, including defiant behavior, fight-or-flight responses, difficulty focusing, and impulse-control issues.

How to address it: “It’s unfair to ask teachers to be therapists or doctors,” Harris told Edutopia in 2020, but teachers can “deliver that daily dose of buffering care that’s so important for healing.”

Many traumatized students blame themselves for their academic shortcomings, Harris says, so teachers can help kids understand “that what’s going on in their bodies is actually a normal response to the abnormal circumstance that they find themselves in.” Then, teaching social and emotional learning skills—like calming oneself through simple breathing exercises, bringing oneself to focus, and bonding with others—can help get kids back on track. At Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, for example, every classroom has a designated peace corner with a comfortable chair and soothing toys where students can go when they need to self-regulate. Students who need extra social and emotional support are paired off with an adult (who isn’t their teacher) for two-minute check-ins at the start and end of each day, where they can discuss their goals and what they’re struggling with.


Do you have any insights about how to deal with work refusers? What have you tried—what worked, and what didn’t? Let readers know in the comments.

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