5 Classroom Management Strategies to Use When Students Won’t Work Independently

classroom management Dec 06, 2023

Let’s face it, some students seem completely unable to work independently, either because of their own perceived self-belief that they can’t do it, or because they just refuse to work alone. Of course, not every activity can be a group activity, and you can’t be holding students’ hands at every turn. So, what can we do to promote independent study?  

1. Set small, manageable tasks and praise their success 

Ask your students what kind of chores your students do around the house. And if they say, Oh, I don’t have any jobs at home, then one of two things is true. Either they have parents that are missing out on one of the best things about having children – free child labour at home! – and have completely settled into the mindset that they can’t work independently; or they’re lying to you.  

Of course, this isn’t about finding out how useful they are at putting a load of clothes into the washer or cleaning dishes. But if they can perform these simple tasks, then you have an anchor point for telling your students that they can just as easily work their way through a set of questions, hang a display on the wall, or read a passage of text from a book. Parents ask kids to help out around the house because – aside from the obvious benefit that it saves them time – these are small, simple and achievable tasks that don’t require any great effort.  

Now, let’s assume that you’re dealing with the former type of student who just isn’t used to working alone. You’ll want to start slowly, one step at a time. Give them choices and have them commit to small, achievable tasks that they can complete by themselves simple steps that will build up their self-confidence when it comes to working independently. Keep them going and make sure that they feel successful whenever they accomplish something. 

2. Have them help their fellow peers 

If you’re dealing with a student that’s just abandoned the idea of being able to work independently, another good starting point is to have them help other students in your class; it’s surprising how effective this can be. Critically, this should still be tied back into the idea above of giving them small, achievable tasks at first, with praise when it’s done right.  

Start them off by setting them a target of working for five minutes independently, then praise them for doing so and acknowledge their improvements compared to a time when they didn’t work alone at all. Then, have them break out into a group activity helping other students in the class.  

The first activity could involve students working on different sets of questions, with the second activity being to pair up with a student who had a different question. This way, the student who worked alone to resolve their question will be helping the second student to answer that question and vice versa. 

3. Minimise distractions 

Of course, inability to work alone isn’t always down to the student’s perception of their own abilities. Sometimes, students are just more easily distracted by their peers or the environment when they’re expected to work alone, and this can work against them.  

You can’t drive yourself crazy over this. You can’t force a student to pay attention or stay on task every minute of every lesson. You can put all the necessary supports, equipment and materials in place, but if you focus all your time and energy on that one person, you’ll just neglect the rest of the class and drive yourself mad 

If you’re having real trouble constantly reminding a student to pay attention, one thing I’ve found really useful is having a ‘counter’ system in place. When you’re struggling with a student, place 5 counters on their desk and have a conversation with them about what they represent. Tell them how often you’re having to stop the class to remind them about their attention span and tell them that you’re going to take away a counter every time you have to come over and remind them to pay attention.  

I’ve found this really useful; once the counters go down on their desk, you’ll likely find that the student is much better at staying on-task. With that physical aid in place, disruption usually goes down and you can spend more time and attention on the rest of the classroom. 

4. Make them a group leader 

If your student is having trouble working independently because of their own perception of their abilities, then one thing I’ve found useful is to make them the leader of a group task.  

In most group activities, you have much more success getting engagement out of every member of the team by assigning roles; for example, one student as team leader, one as a researcher, one as the person responsible for documentation and writing things up, and so on. Your group leader could be responsible for making sure every person is doing what they should be doing, and that the group’s output meets the expectations of the task.  

Once your groups have successfully completed their task, you’ll have this achievement to refer back to when your student is expected to work independently: ‘Well, Jason, you did such a great job of coordinating a whole group, you should have no trouble completing this task by yourself.’ 

5. Help them overcome ‘learned helplessness’ 

Learned helplessness is what we’re talking about when I mentioned ‘giving up’ in class at the head of this section. It’s a concept that roughly defines somebody who suffers from a sense of powerlessness after persistent failures or, even worse, a traumatic event. It’s thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression, but even on a smaller scale – as a factor behind a lack of perceived self-ability – it’s a powerful demotivator in the classroom.  

One of the most powerful strategies for these kids involves giving them greater choices. If you stand over them and tell them to simply get on with their work, and you’re tapping your foot and leering at them, then there’s no way they’re going to succeed; it’s simply too oppressive.  

However, handing these kids choices lets them meet your objectives and simultaneously takes the sting out of your instructions. So, asking if they’d like to use a blue pen or a black pen to complete their work, or asking whether they’d like your help or a fellow student’s help makes clear that the only option is complete the assignment. But, crucially, it is handing them a choice at the same time, without the direct, scalding instructions.  

Another technique I use is ‘targets’; essentially, this is just marking a point on their work where you’d like them to get to independently within a specific timeframe. So, ‘you need to get to this point on the assignment within the next 10 minutes.’ Instead of lumping them with a huge mass of work that’s likely to trigger those panicked feelings of inadequacy, we are setting small, achievable tasks that will build up their confidence. 

However, you do need to be careful with this learned helplessness attitude. Often, the students can feed on that attention and worthlessness. Bowing to it can just make them more likely to rely on others to get things done. It’s all about striking a balance.  

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