A New Way to Think about Apathetic, Unmotivated, and Defiant Students

In this episode of the Empower Students Now podcast, Amanda discusses how to handle apathetic and defiant students in the classroom. She shares her personal experience as a parent of a neurodivergent child and suggests a collaborative approach that involves building relationships with students and engaging them in conversation about their behavior. The host emphasizes the importance of explaining the purpose of classroom work and valuing students’ intelligence and bright spirits. She also encourages teachers to have heart-to-heart conversations with the whole class or specific groups of students to address the classroom environment and highlights how overloading students with constant work may be exacerbating the mental health crisis among students and adults.


What do you do when you have a group of students in your classroom, or maybe your entire class is completely checked out, they are apathetic. They don’t seem to care anymore about what you’re doing in your class, and they may even seem combative. I think every teacher who’s been in the classroom for an entire school year has experienced this. And I recently saw, uh, well, I’ve seen multiple Facebook group teacher Facebook group posts about this. What do I do? My students don’t seem to care anymore. They are defiant. All they wanna do is be on their phones or their devices. So what is a teacher to do? And I’ve even seen comments on these posts of well-meaning teachers giving advice about consequences for those students. And in my years as a teacher, consequences. And I even have, have blog posts about consequences and having really clear expectations and making sure that students know what will happen if they don’t follow these classroom rules or meet those expectations such as, you know, working productively or, you know, not chatting with their classmates when they should be doing their work or doing work from another class or sneaking on their cell phones.

Uh, all of these are very common behaviors in classrooms, and I have really started a shift in my thinking about how to approach these situations. And I wanna share that shift with you and hopefully help you start to shift your thinking about this kind of behavior, uh, and how you can, how you can handle it, and what to do when you see this and you are at odds with your students. Welcome to the Empower Students Now podcast, a podcast about equity, neurodiversity, mindfulness, and student engagement. There’s a lot that needs to change in our education system. The good news is teachers have the power to make these changes. Now,

If you’ve listened to a previous episode, uh, about my identity crisis, part two, you know, and if you haven’t, you should go back and listen to it. It is very personal and, uh, it was hard to publish this information, um, about what I’ve been going through as a parent of a neurodivergent child who is strong-willed. So spirited questions, everything incredibly creative and bright and so social and friendly, but also really quite outspoken and pretty defiant at times. And com combative, being the mom of a neurodivergent child has really, really changed me and my view of students’ behavior. And it’s really forced me to be creative in the way that I approach my daughter, and also the way that I approach students, uh, when they’re struggling and when they seem quote unquote defiant. Um, and I love this saying, I don’t know who it came from, but all behavior is communication.

The traditional way to handle these kinds of behaviors is consequences. Uh, so if you break the rules, then you have to, you know, do extra something or other, or you have to stay after class or your, you know, I’ll call your parents or we, we know all of the consequences. And in the past I’ve had kind of a sequence of consequences, you know, so first, this is what will happen. I’ll come and, you know, we’ll have a conversation and see what we can do about what, what the issue is. Uh, and then if it continues, if, if the problem persists, you know, if you keep chatting with your friend when you’re supposed to be doing your work, then I will move you. And then the third consequence was, okay, well this is getting out of hand. I’m gonna have to contact your parents.

I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to approach, uh, you know, misbehavior in a classroom. Um, but it doesn’t always work. And the behavior can continue. And often students aren’t always necessarily in control of their own behavior, especially if they have, uh, ADHD or anxiety or depression or autism. I mean, there are many, many labels and many, many students are not diagnosed with these things. There are so many students walking through our classrooms that are undiagnosed because there’s just la a lack of information, uh, or a lack of knowledge, um, a lack of insight into students’ behavior. Um, you know, fear of from, of parents, like finding these kinds of things out about their kids. And so I have learned a lot about the collaborative approach to solving problems with kids, really engaging them in conversation about what’s going on and naming what’s going on, and being really honest about how their behavior is affecting you in the classroom.

And asking them, like, truly asking them, like, what, what do you think would help you to become more motivated to do this assignment? Or How can I help you get your work done in class so you don’t have to take it home for, for homework? Or, um, you know, just students are very, very intelligent and bright and, and when they have a teacher who they know cares about them is and isn’t just going to dole out, you know, punishments, but like really truly wants to help and wants the student to learn and grow and, uh, and, and, and really, you know, love the, the subject area that they teach, then the student is more willing to change their behavior, is what I’ve found. I’ve found that building relationships with your students and your children, uh, you know, mothers, fathers, and their children, that’s the key.

It really is. It truly, truly is. When I take the time to spend time with my daughter, like real quality time where I’m doing what she wants to do, and I’m listening to her and I am just adoring her and, and really talking about her strengths more than her weaknesses and naming those strengths and, and, and complimenting her in in authentic ways, her behavior towards me is very, very different. And it’s the same thing with all kids. This isn’t just neurodivergent kids. This is all kids. When they have an adult in their life that they really, really sense, has their best, best interest in mind, they want to please, they want to do the right thing. Kids are beautiful, beautiful spirits. And when I see these Facebook posts about kids and how horrible they are these days, and they just, all they care about is their phones and, and they just, you know, they’re just so lazy and they do the bare minimum.

And I don’t think any kid is lazy, and maybe you disagree with me, but I really don’t. If they’re not doing the work in your classroom, it’s because they don’t care about the work or they don’t see the purpose of the work. They don’t understand why you’re making them do what you’re making them do. Maybe they see it as busy work and you know, you really have to kind of hand it to the kids when they they, their behavior shows you that, you know, wait, maybe I didn’t fully explain, like, why is this important? And I think that’s another component of this. You know, we have to explain like, why, why is what we’re doing in, in our classroom? Why is this she important? How is this gonna help them? You know? And I, I think that teachers really undervalue that, uh, answering that question.

You know, it, this is good practice, you know, for, for tests. And I don’t think that’s a good enough answer for some kids. For some it is. Um, but just, so basically to sum this up, I think that when you, when you have students in your classroom who are just defying you, uh, there’s a relationship problem there. There really is. There, there might be, you might feel a little bit of tension when that kid walks through the room, walks through the door into your classroom. And, you know, I felt this too as a teacher, and it’s hard, it’s really hard to have that tension and to, to have that, uh, in your life every day. And it’s hard for the kid too. Uh, you, without even saying a word, you can really, really sense it. You can sense it in yourself. You can sense the tension with that student or with that group of students.

And I’m here to tell you right now that it’s a relationship problem. And relationships take time and talking and being honest about, about, you know, how this is, this is a, this is a problem. Let’s figure out together what we can do about it. And I know that sometimes that is just, some teachers might feel like that’s super unrealistic to pull, like, to have these like individual conversations with students about their behavior and like solving these problems together and hearing a student out about like why they might be, why they think they might be struggling to do whatever assignment it it is, or struggling to stay off their phone when you told them many times that they need to keep it in their backpack or whatever the problem is. Um, but like I said, relationships take time. So sometimes we have to put the lesson plans away and talk to our whole class about, you know, having a heart to heart with students about the environment of your classroom or having a heart to heart with a group of students.

Give the other students free time and have a conversation with those group of students. I think students deserve more free time in our classrooms. I think that schools are really, really busy and our society loves being busy. And I just, I really think that we need to question that as teachers. Is that really good for us to constantly pile on work for our students or for ourselves? No, in my opinion, it’s horrible. And we can see it. We can see it in the mental crisis, mental health crisis that’s going on right now with our students and with adults. There is a crisis. So we gotta slow down and focus on relationships. I hope that you enjoyed this episode. I hope you got some insight, some inspiration. I hope this really spoke to your heart. And maybe you can change some things at the end of the year.

Have these conversations, you know, really get vulnerable with your students. I know that it can be uncomfortable and hard, but vulnerability is bravery. Breen, Brene, brown, , I’m all about her. And vulnerability is bravery. It takes guts. Um, and I think that all teachers have that. They have guts cuz they’re teachers and teaching is a tough, tough, tough job. So I really hope this episode has been helpful to you. If it has to go to this episode, go to Amanda right now.com. Click on the episode title, and leave me a comment. I would love, love, love to hear from you. Thanks again for listening.


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