Classroom Management Top Tips: How to manage unengaged students who refuse to start their work

If can often feel like you are fighting a losing battle when you’re attempting to manage and encourage students who refuse to start their work or maintain focus. When you’re trying to encourage and engage less than enthusiastic students to start work it’s important to make it easy for them to do so.

On my travels as a 1:1 coach in classrooms, I’ve watched teachers heaping attention and praise on the ‘good’ students whilst making it quite obvious that they don’t actually like the more challenging students – and then they wonder why these students don’t want to get involved. I have to point out to the teacher in question that they’re giving the clear message (however unintentionally) that they would rather these ‘difficult’ students weren’t in the room. Their body language, facial expressions, and attitudes scream “I don’t like you. I find you threatening/worthless/smelly (insert negative adjective of choice)”.

Kids, like all of us, can read body language. They notice facial expressions and they sense the attitude and general feelings we have towards them. Unengaged students will never join in if they feel they aren’t wanted; the hurdle is just too big for them. In this case, they will maintain their firm stance and will refuse to work. If I can be allowed to link back to psychological needs – it’s fairly obvious that they are going to gain a greater sense of empowerment by playing up or opting out than by getting involved in something where they feel unwelcome and unappreciated.

From a practical point of view we can try the following classroom management top tips to encourage reluctant and unengaged students to get started:

Classroom Management Top Tip 1: Targets.

Targets are so important for re-engaging a student who is just starting to waver. Let’s say Jonny is messing around, off-task, being mildly disruptive. It may well be that he’s just not clear about what he’s supposed to be doing, he may be confused, he may have misheard or he may just be a bit bored. An excellent tip for getting him engaged and back on-task is to define a very clear work target for him to achieve, and a set time in which to do so.

“Jonny, this is your target – I want you to get to number 6 by half-past ten.” (This is said very quietly so as not to disrupt the pace of the lesson or raise the attention of other students).

Giving targets gives very clear instructions as to how to succeed in your lesson. Boys, in particular, work much better when they know exactly what is expected of them and some students can only cope with small chunks of work at a time. Target setting is perfect for achieving both these aims and can have a magical calming effect on most unengaged students who are refusing to get started.

I used this method with all my classes when I was teaching. Once I’d given these unengaged students their task I would go round and put a pencil mark where I expected each of them to get to in a set time:

“By ten past 11 Sarah you need to have completed the work to this mark – that’s your target.”

It’s best to do this quietly because some students are self-conscious about having smaller targets than others, and quarrels can result if different students are seen to be given higher or lower targets than their peers. Once you’ve done this a few times they get used to it and accept their individual targets quite happily. In fact, most lessons I’d have students actually asking me to give them a target!

There are often reluctant workers who are, in fact, very capable and you may have to explain to these unengaged students that you’ll be giving them a bigger target (more work) than anyone else. If you did this without explanation an uproar would result, but by taking these students to one side before the lesson and quietly playing to their need to be noticed you can very effectively put them in a productive mood before they’ve even seen the task.

“Shaun, I’m going to set you a high target today because I know you can excel at this. I wouldn’t be doing my job right if I didn’t give you the chance to show me what you can do. Okay?”

Classroom Management Top Tip 2: Limited Choices.

It is more pleasing to be given a choice than to be cornered into making a decision, or forced to do something, which is why this is such an effective way to get students working. Limited choices are questions we give to students to ‘sweeten’ our instructions. It is far less hostile and therefore invites fewer arguments.

“Do you want to use a blue pen or a black pen to do the work?” “Do you want me or Jason to help you do the work?”
“Do you want to sit here or over there to finish the work?”
“Do you want to try this or that question first?”

“Do you want to finish the work now like everyone else or do you want to give up your break and finish it then?”

These limited choices still convey the message ‘you’re going to do the work’ but because they allow a certain amount of autonomy they are easier to swallow. Nobody likes being told what to do and when you’ve already made up your mind that you don’t want to take part, being given orders from the teacher can be too much to accept and is likely to provoke arguments. Giving these reluctant and unengaged students limited choices gives some control back to them; being able to make a choice for themselves, however small or controlled that choice is, often allows them to save face.

Classroom Management Top Tip 3: Get unengaged students interested with a starter activity.
  • Video clip
  • Puzzle
  • Set of questions on the last lesson’s key points
  • Cloze exercise
  • A ranking or ordering exercise. “Put these words/objects/pictures in order from easiest to hardest/best to worst/weakest to strongest/least important to most important etc.” For some reason, reluctant and unengaged students seem to really enjoy this type of exercise.
  • Any kind of challenge: “You’ve got five minutes to think of as many…. as you can. Write them down and share them with your partner. Pick your best ten between the two of you and then we’ll all share.”
Classroom Management Top Tip 4: Change the seating.

“You can work at the front until you’ve got down to question 5 and then I’ll let you move back to your usual seat.”

Classroom Management Top Tip 5: Partner them with a student who can help them.
Classroom Management Top Tip 6: Alter the work.

Speak to students in private to find out what they are struggling with. Whenever possible, remind students of past successes and capabilities or start by offering them support. They are more likely to listen when you start with something positive rather than nagging.

Classroom Management Top Tip 7: Have stepped consequences in place.

“What are you supposed to be doing? What happens if you don’t do it? Is that what you want? What are you going to choose?”

Want more resources to help you achieve Classroom Management Success? I offer three main resources for teachers:

  1. My range of books on Amazon: You can find them here or by entering ‘Rob Plevin classroom management’ in the Amazon search bar at
  1. My free classroom management tips service by email. You can sign up here!
  1. My Facebook page. Here you’ll find tips and strategies as well as questions and support from like-minded teachers. Come and join us here!

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