Apathy: How To Approach The Student Who Doesn’t Try

As teachers we’ve had every sort of difficult student pass through our doorway and place themselves in our seats for the lessons that we put our blood, sweat and tears in to creating. We’ve had our fair share of grumblers, vocal complainers, smile-and-nod-but-never-do-work-kids, quiet resistors, and everything in between. As difficult as those students can be, they are nothing compared to the apathetic student.
The apathetic student feels like they have nothing to lose. They don’t fear not passing (or so it seems), and so they show up to class late with no pass nor any logical excuse. Being overly kind doesn’t elicit any sort of motivation to complete your classwork. Being stern or getting tough just causes them to shut down even more. They don’t complete work and have no explanation for why aside from a small shrug. Detentions don’t hinder them since they’ll merely attend and stare at the wall for the entire time. They tend to lose critical handouts, don’t have materials needed for class, and no matter how much you fret and pull your hair out to help them, they just don’t care about being successful in school.
If you are picturing a student’s face right now, here are some tips on how to cope with the apathy.

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

  • First and foremost, you need to take a step back from the student. If you have been pouring your emotional energy into this child every day, showing that you care and practically doing a song and dance to get their attention… Stop. Now. When it comes to an apathetic student, the issue does not lie with you. You, dear teacher, are going above and beyond for this child already. Please quit telling yourself the lie that if you just keep showing this child how much you care about them, that they’ll miraculously start to want to succeed in school. It is not your responsibility to convince a student to complete schoolwork. Remember – the amount of energy the student puts into the work should be equal to the amount of emotional energy you invest in the student for that assignment. Let’s say that a little louder for the people in the back.
  • Stop Coddling. No more cutting the student slack when they show up to class late. No more extensions on homework assignments, or additional lectures for why an education matters. This student has shown that, currently, they are choosing to not do as instructed. If this were a defiant child, you would write them up after refusing to do work. Handle this situation similarly. If the apathetic student shrugs when asked where their work is, nod that you understood and move forward with the consequences that are normal in your classroom. The student will immediately see that you no longer are going to bend over backward to get them to work, and they are now facing the full consequences of their choice.
  • Stay neutral in tone and body language. During this part of the process, it is important that you ALWAYS stay neutral with the student. Begging for the student to start completing work weakens your authority. Yelling at the student for not completing their work causes you to lose your calm control of the class, the apathetic student stops listening, and your blood pressure is now sky-high. By staying neutral you are signaling to all students that, “I place an expectation. I expect them to be followed. If you do not follow instructions as asked, then this is your consequence.” The student no longer gets an emotional response from you, and is left with only negative consequences for their actions.
  • If you haven’t already, contact home. Sometimes you will get support from home. Sometimes you will get accused of being a poor educator instead. Either way, you need to attempt to contact home about the issues in class. A phone call is a more personal way of communicating with parents about the issues with their child. Some parents have no clue that their child is struggling in school, and may be willing to offer support in the form of consequences at home for poor behavior in school. I would always recommend following up a phone call home with an email to the parents as well, that details what was discussed on the phone, and outlines the possible solutions that were talked about. This provides a written form of evidence that you have been attempting to help the student, in case the student does fail for the quarter (or the year) and a parent tries to call the school to blame you. Better safe than sorry.
  • Discreetly find out if the apathetic student has interests. Most apathetic students try to act like nothing interests them, even outside of school. Either by asking their friends or during the phone call to their parents, try to figure out some things that pique the student’s interest. While your entire class can’t revolve around one student’s interests, you can incorporate something every so often… and just maybe they’ll get involved despite themselves.
  • Give them a fresh start. Everyday. Yes, I know they’re frustrating. Yes, I know you’re tired. Yet, every single day, show back up for them. Greet them as you would any other student. Wipe the slate clean and start again. Always be optimistic when you ask them for their homework. Even if you know they still don’t have it done. Maybe the reason they have become so apathetic is that no one has ever believed in them before. Maybe your undying optimism will inspire them to get one homework assignment done.
  • If they complete an assignment, treat them as you would ANY other student. Do not make a big deal over the student completing the work. It was the expectation that they do the work. If you don’t jump up and down for Suzy who always turns in her work, then don’t jump for the apathetic student. Do not reward their past poor behavior with ecstatic celebrations now that they have decided to start following directions. Instead, leave encouraging notes when you correct their work. Smile when you hand back the assignment and congratulate them quietly on how hard they worked. The student may begin to see the benefit of completing work, and meeting classroom expectations. It may take a while, but you may be able to slowly coax them out of their apathy to join their classmates.
  • Accept that they may fail. Yikes. I know, this one hurts. I’m not sure why we teachers care more about a student’s grades than the student themselves, but we do. In the case of an apathetic student, we have to accept the grim reality that if the above tips don’t bring forth any change in the student, that they may have to be allowed to fail that quarter. This is the old-fashioned “tough love” that many of us faced as children. While this is a hard pill for us to swallow, some apathetic students have been pushed along from grade level to grade level so many times that they have never faced FAILING. Sometimes, failing a quarter (or even the full school year) is enough to get the student to start attempting to complete work and starting to care about the future of their academics.
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