Working With Reluctant Learners
Dr Kathie Nunley, 2016
frequently receive questions from teachers and administrators asking
how to deal with “reluctant learners”. We are all familiar with
students who seem completely disengaged in school. They either slump
across the desk in a near coma, or spend class time disrupting and
disturbing their classmates. It is one of the most frustrating phenomena
in schools. And sadly, a classroom full of reluctant learners has
even driven some young new teachers right out of the field.
it’s no surprise that I’m asked frequently about how to deal with
student engagement (or lack thereof).
are two or three causes for a student to be inappropriately engaged
in school. The first thing you need to rule out of course, are health
issues. Serious sleep deprivation, depression and other significant
mental health issues can certainly lead a student to tune-out, sleep
or even act-out in a classroom. Health issues require support and
assistance, outside of the realm of teacher and we’ll save for another
outside of health issues, we find only 2 real causes for non-engagement:
Power/Control issues and self-efficacy issues. Both of these are
addressed and corrected for in a Layered Curriculum classroom.
perception of control is extremely important. Often times, a student
who refuses to work in class, is simply trying to establish control
boundaries. They have set up a “me vs you” playing field and they
are determined to be in charge of the game. If you are familiar
with Layered Curriculum, you already know that one of the big “C”s”
in the model is CONTROL. Set up your classroom so that students
feel very much in control of the room. What they are doing, how
they are learning, pacing, assignment choice - these are all factors
to give students a perception of control.
me remind you here, that just because you are increasing students’
control in the room, you are not accepting classrooms that our “out-of-control”.
Boundaries, limits, policies, deadlines, etc are setup and maintained
by the teacher. You set up the framework and let the students choose
how to work within that framework. So, increase a student's perception
of control and you have eliminated one of the two causes of the
The second most
common cause of the reluctant learner has to do with self-efficacy
and boredom. The student perceives the assigned task is either above
or beneath their ability. Regardless of whether or not the teacher
believes the student can do an assignment, if the student is not
confident, they fail to try.
On the other
hand, if the student perceives the assignment is of little value
to them or too easy for their current skill level, they too, are
unengaged. Students reporting boredom in school is on the rise.
Probably brought on by the increased exposure and use of electronic
media, this boredom is having a negative effect on student academic
So, this takes
us to another big "C" in Layered Curriculum: CHOICE. Make
sure, whenever possible, students have some choice in the type of
assignment, duration or sequence. By offering a variety of difficulty
levels and learning modalities, you increase the possibilities for
students to feel appropriately challenged and effective learners.
The bottom line
here is quit fighting the students. Well-running and self-running
classrooms require students to feel in control of their learning
and be actively involved with the scope and direction of that learning.
Off task behavior, non-participants and disruptive behaviors can
all be solved with a simple shift in the perception of control and
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and
author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's
Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High
School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered
Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and
educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly
environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing
Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC
her: Kathie (at) brains.org