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Strategies for Reaching Apathetic Students

Strategies for Reaching Apathetic Students

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An apathetic student in class

“I don’t care.” Those three words can cause the most experienced of teachers to grow frustrated: how do we reach students who give off the vibe that nothing matters? Use these questions to better understand and reach apathetic students.

Is it really apathy?

If your student has his head down, is nonresponsive, or won’t complete schoolwork, apathy is only one of many possibilities.

Is the student having a hard time at home? Struggling with mental or physical health? Do they have an undiagnosed learning disability, making it feel impossible to complete any task at hand? Have they recently experienced a trauma, or might be experiencing impacts of a past trauma?

Often, what looks like a lack of motivation can be a way to hide the underlying story. It’s easier to say “I don’t care,” than “I need help.” Spend time getting to know your student, reaching out to his/her family and guidance counselor, and assessing whether a lack of motivation is truly the issue at hand.

Is the behavior localized to your class or across the board?

Touch base with the student’s other teachers. Is the seeming apathy something that’s just happening in your class, or is this the student’s presentation across all of tbeir classes? Be sure to check in with extracurricular instructors as well: does your apathetic student come alive during basketball practice or chess club? Once you get a fuller picture of your student, you can then begin to refine your interventions.     

What’s the big picture, and can the student connect it to the daily details?

It’s difficult to stay motivated when we can’t see the connection between what’s in front of us and what we want out of life. What does your student want for themself in the long term? Is it a high school diploma? A college education? A career? A family?

When we know what students are working toward, we can help contextualize the daily work for them. If I know my student wants to become a chef, I can help them see how working on grammar skills will help them with menu-writing, or how chemistry will lay the foundations for expert baking. If my student wants a high school diploma, I can help them understand how each block of time in class or each completed project adds up toward their graduation requirements. When the little stuff clearly adds up to the big stuff, the little stuff becomes more important.

Where can you build bridges?

If an apathetic student is excited or passionate about even one thing, you have somewhere to start.

Challenge yourself to build bridges between a student’s interests and the skills or content you wish to teach. Can a passion for video games turn into an exploration of the scientific method? Can a talent for BMX biking lead to a skillfully written narrative?

Use problem-based learning, inquiry-driven methods, and real-world context to help your students create bridges, rather than feeling like they’re jumping off a cliff every time you ask them to do an impossible task in class.

Does your student know you care?

At the end of the day, you ultimately aren’t in control of whether your student succeeds or not. You can’t make them do work, you can’t make them learn, and you definitely can’t make them start to care. You can, however, influence all of those things through a caring relationship with your students.

Let your students know you care about them, and then give them the safe space to take risks rather than shutting down.

Finally, sometimes when a student says, “nothing matters,” what they really mean is “I don’t matter.” Be sure that your student knows they matter, no matter what.


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Gilmar Mattos's picture
Gilmar Mattos
English Teacher and Educational Technology Coordinator at CCBEU-Franca

It is indeed a great post and one I believe most of us (if not all of us) teachers, educators have had to face at one point or another in our careers. I have this situation now with a student and since I teach English as a foreign language is a Language Institute it's even more difficult to discover what might be behind the "I don't care" reaction because I see him only twice a week for a 90-minute-class. So, the questions you share here are really precious to help me try to reach and help him.

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Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price
Founder, Improve-Education.org

I don't think this article mentions some of the major points. Many children who can't read will say they don't like books or they don't care or whatever. What they mean is: "I can't read. Why won't you teach me to read?"

Another pattern I've seen over the years is that teachers seem to engage in weird literary snobbery. They will assign books and poems that they themselves don't want to read. I suggest taking advantage of the short books, the easy books, the fun books, the books that will make children think, maybe this won't be so bad.

A new bad pattern is that Common Core is full of little gimmicks that are bound to bore people to death. Close reading. Informational texts. Shades of meaning. All seem ill-conceived and indeed prejudicial to good instruction, especially in elementary classes.

I remember having an article on Canada Free Press and a woman left a comment to this effect: I raised my two sons on Tarzan books. We would read a chapter each day and then I would let my boys write what they thought the next chapter should be. And then we would experience what the author had actually written...

I remember thinking that this woman knows really knows how to do it. Tarzan! That's what kids want to read, boys anyway. Find the equivalent of Tarzan for girls. Then you won't have apathetic students.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Yes, reading deficiencies are a big problem. I feel enjoyment of reading is a major problem and yes, big time if the students do not find the material sufficiently interesting in their lives to use sometimes overtaxed mental energy to devote that leftover energy to some reading project. I feel this problem doesn't just begin but is accumulated in deficiencies over time. I feel these deficiencies begin very early through high average stress (high layers of mental work that that take up much mental energy) and usually a lower social vocabulary and lack of experience with sentence structure. I feel we need lower average layers of things in our lives to have more mental energy to decode and reach into one's hopefully large social vocabulary to learn new words in print and have experience with sentence structure; visualize, organize, and enjoy the process. I feel students will not learn those skills and enjoy the process if they lack sufficient social vocabulary and have higher average stress. I feel students even enjoying the reading process at one time, may find later with substantial higher average layers of mental work accumulating from their lives, not having the mental energy to read and enjoy the process. I feel we need to understand more the longer-term goals of understanding how many lower socioeconomic and acute family environments may really tax the mental energy of many students, especially boys today due to more aggressive less supportive treatment designed to make them tough, without regard for academic suffering.
While I am glad some teachers in higher grades such as middle school still believe in teaching reading, I feel in most cases, those students who are not given the proper home and school support in the early grades are so far behind in reading, comprehension, much less accumulated knowledge and skills due much stagnancy will be completely unable to make progress when they reach middle school. They would have to understand their present position in having lack of skills and be willing to allow the lower grades but slowly create a more stable, lower average stress (in learning theory through cognitive tools) to slowly create more reading time, progress and slow but improving mastery of reading over time. Our current system of simply teaching the lessons in the higher grades without helping student learn more reading skills only throw more dirt into their fast filling hole.
Students in lower socioeconomic environments who are taxed with higher layers of average stress will be forced to use that remaining mental energy for other essential areas of life. If they are boys, they may be forced also generate love and honor through outside activities having nothing to do with academics.
The problem with our schools today is we falsely believe in genetics (succeed by ability and effort) - not accepting how our individual environments greatly affect and accumulate layers of mental work or average stress that hurts learning new mental work. Also there the wrong idea of average stress -wrongly believing our average stress only occurs during some immediate situations, problems, or mental work and not an accumulation of many environmental elements that our minds are dealing with that take away real mental energy from enjoying the learning process. Another is the idea of simply more effort on a student's part despite the lack of support, lack of skills provided, and higher average stress that makes the higher pace to keep up with more middle class standards of support and stability even more unattainable due to improper pace and intensity from a student's lack of developed skills.
We must begin understanding how many "individual environments" create much slower accumulation of academic skills than those of a more supportive, stable, knowledge-rich environment. We must learn to create this understanding of equality of students but separate in terms of many support variables. We then must help students and their parents slowly begin to approach their lives more delicately to create more long-term hope for success in academics knowing they cannot compete "more immediately with the more supported, stable environments for those student who are able to have more immediate success.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price
Founder, Improve-Education.org

Well, let's just be a little bit specific. All the phonics experts say that virtually every child can learn to read in the first grade, and all of them can learn to read in the second grade. This is what we have lost because of all the idiocies associated with sight-words, etc. We've got to get back to a big emphasis on reading in the first few grades. Children must be reading little books that they have selected themselves. This must be happening routinely in the second grade. And then everything else will unfold smoothly. The sabotage of reading is what's killing us. Now, if all the adults in the room would agree to sabotage the saboteurs, we could get somewhere.

Chelsea Murphy's picture

I agree with Mike's comment above that students show apathy in a wide range of classes when they feel school is not relevant to their lives. One great way to get students engaged in your teaching is to connect current events to the curriculum you are teaching. Listen current has free podcasts for current events, science, ELA, and history - you can find so many topics that will engage all your classroom learners: https://listencurrent.com/ I've used this many times and found that students who don't normally engage in classroom discussions were energized to participate.

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Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Yes, being relevent is very good. I feel reading is a "very abstract skill", not a genetic quality, but rather a skill requiring more mental energy to decode, visualize, organize, reach into their already larger social vocabulary to discover new words in print (which students from lower socioeconomic/usually male students are raised with much less), and enjoy the process. By redefining our average stress in a much better way, as many layers of mental work: fears, experiences, problems, many or few SD's from rough experinces in school, real essential needs/fears: many areas, which remain in our minds as unresolved mental work - we can then see how these layers of mental work - a much better definition of average stress takes away real mental energy, leaving less mental energy to deal with newer mental work. I feel students with sufficiently higher layers of mental work (usually Male students from more aggressive treatment given) may be less inclined to enjoy reading due to many more and substantive hgher average layers of mental work, lower social vocabulary, skills remaining stagnant over time creating much less reading comprehension, and yes, also a real giving up by many students either presently or in the past, due to sufficient failure over time and lack of hope created by our current dogma of genetic permanence in ability they have been taught to accept. I would love to help students release themselves from that horrible myth of genetics in ability and help them slowly learn how to better approximate the stability that exists in more stable environments. Then they can begin slowly but surely catching up over time with more correct, slow but sure reading improvement over time. Mind you if that student's higher average "maintained layers mental work" is high enough, even if they already possess good reading skills, they will not be inclined to read anyway. This is the sad truth for many students in more anxiety-riddled environments.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Ann, interesting reframe for students around assessing their own levels of "mental work." So true that we need to support students to get their basic needs met - physical and emotional safety among them - in order for the best learning to occur. It's a great opportunity for students to build self-awareness and thinking about their thinking.

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Yes, but Maslow's approach is far from complete. Yes, there are many immediate needs for many students that create many more significant layers of mental work that take up real mental energy, thus leaving much less mental energy to think, learn, reflect, and have motivation or - mental reward received for mental work expended.
HOWEVER - We need to see far past Maslow as tools to help many more students continually improve their lives. This is a very new thought in that we are redefining average stress as "many layers of past, present, future - experiences (that create many unresolved mental conflicts, memories, and weights and values, which are maintained by our minds that take up real mental energy and create more "SD's for those many experiences to resurface. We need to show that our average stress is far more complex as many layers of unresolved mental work that take up real mental energy from many hosts of areas in a person's life along with the weights and values we develop over time. It may involve values of self, others, society; values of reliance on love, honor, respect from areas of their live that have been created from many past experiences and values given them over time. - In sum, for all of us, I feel we all fall on a continuum of many different "maintained layers of unresolved mental work (not just needs) that are maintained and take up real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health.
So by redefining our average stress in a much better way as many layers of mental work, both essential and "many non-essential (or solvable) unresolved layers" that can over time be resolved and with a change in some perceived "faulty weight or value we may correct", allow all of us to continually and more permanently reduce layers of mental work or our average stress. This shows how we cannot just relax or use meditation to lower our average stress, since it is made up of real mental work. When we relax or use meditation, we are only temporarily turning off the faucet to those layers. When we attempt new mental work, we simply turn the faucet back on so nothing is accomplished.
This theory is very valuable in that it shows very precisely how our individual environments greatly affect thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health, not genetics. I feel even small differences may create very large differences in accumulation of knowledge and skills over time.
What is also a second variable/tool is the improper pace and intensity in approaching new mental work such as academics. I feel as we approach any new mental work at a pace which exceeds our immediate knowledge, skills, and experience, we create much greater mental friction or exacerbate our layers of average stress. This flies very logically in the face of the old belief of simply trying harder. I feel also the higher layers of mental work or average stress in many students will flow naturally and improperly into approaching new mental work. For this reason, we must "teach students how to approach newer mental work more slowly at first, even to the point of simply reflection on the information and allowing those students to understand the need to develop mental frames for that knowledge first and allowing their confidence and experience to direct their pace and intensity. We want to create long-term motivation to learn. This is important for creating long-term improvement in students for all. For Male students due to improper treatment of more aggression given them from a young age to make them tough; much less kind, stable, verbal interaction for fear of coddling; and also important, the very false use of the word trying hard in school and falsely comparing it to physical work puts many Male students, especially those Males in lower socioeconomic environments especially at risk. The more aggressive treatment given boys to make them tough comes at the expense of much higher average stress in layers of much more anger, fear, anxiety, preparation for defense, distrust of adults, etc. The lack of kind, stable, verbal interaction also creates much much social vocabulary, more ingrained distrust/distance from adults, and much less knowledge of syntax and use of proper lengthy sentences. We need to look much more professionally into using many of these variables/tools to help many more students continually have hope of improving and changing their lives. By just showing students how our individual environments and not genetics greatly affect thinking, learning, and motivation, students will have a very weight of false feelings of genetic weaknesses in academics remove from their shoulders. By providing these tools for all students, we then provide avenues for teachers to continually learn to develop much better methods of teaching to help students continually improve. We are also providing all students with tools to continually change and improve their lives. This learning theory will go to all on request or can read from my home site http://learningtheory.homestead.com

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Durn, I forgot to add that our system which is built upon the genetics models of "just naturally good at some things and bad at others" along with the false belief of just trying harder (with no tools to improve their lives) is creating many many stagnant students who feel they are seeing the handwriting on the wall for failure in academics, so they when they are saying "they don't care", they really feel they have no hope.
For many students, including higher achievers, this can easily create much more exaggerated layers of anxiety, fear, hopelessness, thus raising and maintaining their layers of average stress to the point of creating both psychological suffering and a much shorter reflection time. This important - Try to see an upright rectangle, representing our full mental energy. As we grow, we accumulate various experiences, weights, values, conscience (actually creating more layers of mental work ) or even less conscience (actually creating less layers of mental work). Over time, we create many maintained layers of mental work, leaving less mental energy to think, learn, reflect, and enjoy learning. All of us fall on that continuum. When students reach middle school and high school, they are then faced with much more separation by present, ability levels and even more, some subtle, some not so subtle inferences to their ability or lack there-of. Yes, this may come even from teachers who may talk to those students with less care or consideration. The atmosphere in the lower achieving classes may then easily create a more powerful negative synergy of feelings of hopelessness for having a good future among the entire class. This can easily create from those students, more stagnancy, more drug/alcohol abuse, dropouts, and suicide.
The higher achievers are not immune to this. Some of those students may feel they are not able to keep pace with their higher achieving peers and may also escape into drug/alcohol abuse and suicide. So the myth of genetic permanence which offers no hope for students is responsible for many escapes and deaths each year from drug/alcohol abuse and suicide.

Caron Trout's picture

I think you are right - "balanced literacy "or whole language as it was called has terrible reading strategies. Once you know that 1 in 5 has some range of learning difference- most common being dyslexia - then Structured language programs like Orton-Gillingham become key to actually teaching reading. Understood.org is a great place to start to learn about LDs.

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