Engaging the uncooperative student

Written by Gen

Every few rounds of Reading Recovery or tier 2 literacy groups, I work with a student who is just downright uncooperative. I’m talking rolling on the floor, falling off the chair, leaving the room, running away, knocking things off the table, yelling, giving me the silent treatment with a smile. You name it, I’ve had a student who did it. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s maddening, and all the while you’re thinking about the precious teaching time that is wasting away as the child growls at you from under the table.

Here are a few insights I’ve gained from my successes and mistakes with those uncooperative students over the years:

Acting angry accomplishes precisely nothing.

…or it makes the situation worse. I did not say, “getting angry,” because, let’s face it, in the wake of an uncooperative child, you will, of course, feel angry. Who wouldn’t? The important thing to remember, though, is that acting angry will only exacerbate the issue. Students who are uncooperative are letting you know loud and clear that they do not react well to authority. So it behooves us to avoid behaving in an authoritarian way. This means eliminating these phrases and others like them:

“Sit here right now or you will miss your recess!” 

“I’m counting to three and then you’d better start working!”

“You are not trying. You had better start doing your best or (insert consequence).” 

For the uncooperative student, this type of language will not work. I know this, because early in my career, I tried it this way. It never once had a positive impact on an uncooperative student. Here are a few things that did:

Find empathy. Dig deep if you have to.

I won’t lie. Sometimes it’s difficult to be empathetic when a student is being unabashedly uncooperative, but the uncooperative behavior can be due to a variety of very real, and very reasonable factors. Study the behaviors carefully, because sometimes addressing the root of the behavior can be a quick fix. A few examples:

The Problem: The child is experiencing disorganization in his home life and needs to feel in control of something.

The Solution? Allow the child choices. Some can be big choices such as, “Do you want your lesson to be at the beginning or end of the day?” or, “of these three books, which one would you like to read today?” You can also offer a variety of smaller choices such as, “what color marker would you like to use today?” or, “would you like to sit or stand while you read this book?” 

The Problem: The child has struggled in school for a period of time and is suffering from low confidence or fear of trying.

The Solution? Reevaluate the data from your lessons and ask yourself, “Am I truly working within the student’s zone of proximal development?” “Is there just the right amount of difficulty, or is it too hard?” “Have I designed a fail-proof environment where the only outcome is success?” If the answer to any of these is, “no,” go back to your Observation Survey and your recent running records. Think again about what the student controls and what the student does not control. In upcoming lessons, do not allow the student to try what you know is not controlled.

The Problem: The child is uninterested in working on something that is perceived as hard or uninteresting. In other words, it’s not fun.

The Solution? Find out what the child is truly interested in. This means going beyond the basic questions, such as, “what’s your favorite animal?” or “What do you like to do?” Interview former teachers, parents, family members. Find out what the child is really interested in. Then… learn about it yourself! In my most recent case of “uncooperative student,” the foot in the door ended up being Pokemon. I hadn’t the faintest idea about or interest in Pokemon, but now I know all the characters and what the signs and symbols mean on all the cards. I asked the student to teach me about Pokemon. This is an important step. Asking the child to teach you about a topic shows that you value what the student knows. It goes a long way to create a trusting relationship. Then I made books about Pokemon for him to read. Before I knew it, I was able to introduce published text to the student without a meltdown.


Okay, so my feelings on rewards are mixed. Intellectually I know that intrinsic motivation is best. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve also come across that one-in-a-hundred student who doesn’t respond at all to my very best attempts to change my language, be empathetic, or find what truly interests him. Perhaps this means that I need to get better at the things that elicit intrinsic motivation, but in the meantime, sometimes resorting to an external reward is what gets productive lessons to happen. Here are a few thoughts on rewards:

  • Make it the absolute last resort. Avoid jumping to rewards after only a short period of time. Or even a moderate amount of time. Really exhaust all other methods and techniques.
  • Link it to effort. Include simple effort rating scales for sections of your lesson. Have the child evaluate the amount of effort put forth for each section. Mention frequently the pride the student should feel for working so hard. Sometimes the pride is reward enough. So stop and evaluate the effectiveness of the rating scales before adding an actual physical reward.
  • Make sure the reward is actually rewarding. If you have decided that a physical reward is absolutely necessary, make sure the student is the one who chooses it. It helps if it is somehow tied to what the child has an affinity for. If you choose the reward and guess wrong, it may not have a significant impact on the student.
  • Allow for bouncing back. Make sure that your student has chances to turn around the behavior if an early section of the lesson goes wrong. If you’ve created a plan where the student can lose the reward early in the lesson, then the student has no reason to fix the behavior for the rest of your time together.
  • Have an exit plan. Reward programs should not last forever. Long-term reward methods tend to render compliance without building intrinsic motivation. I’ve often found that once a student feels compelled to work with me a while, he quickly realizes that he can be successful (if I have planned carefully enough!) and will no longer require the reward because he now enjoys participating. If you carefully analyze your data and execute precise lessons, all the while praising effort and reinforcing the pride that comes along with it, you can slowly require more and more from the student before offering a reward until no reward is offered.

Here is an example of a reward system with a built in exit plan that I have had success with for the occasional child during Reading Recovery lessons. Of course, the sections of the lesson could be changed to fit any type of instruction. The student and I agree upon how many 3s (maximum effort) would be needed in order to have the reward at the end of the lesson. In extreme cases, we start small, maybe only one or two, then increase the number as the child feels success.

Reward System with Exit Plan

Put it in a page protector and use it with a dry erase marker over and over again!

The best teaching begins with a trusting relationship between you and the student. Rather than taking punitive measures, which can undermine that positive relationship, take time to find the cause of the uncooperative behavior and work to solve it. You may be providing the relief the student needs more than anything but is unable to communicate to you.

2 thoughts on “Engaging the uncooperative student

  1. Pingback: Reading Support for Students Who Struggle with Social/Emotional Skills – Literacy Pages

  2. Pingback: “Suriously?…Just Sayin’”: YouTube Sensation & Educator Advocate, Gerry Brooks, Visits Western New York – Literacy Pages

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