Testing and Work Refusers

A teacher’s guide to navigating through the perfect storm

08/21/2012  |  Dr. Ruth Herman Wells, M.S.

Teachers, can we talk? Just between you and me, if you’re going to be honest, you have to admit that one of the most frustrating students in your classroom is your work refuser. Yes, this student can be tough to engage on any school day, but when do they really shut down and zone out the most? On testing days. What’s a teacher to do? Read on to find out.

I understand that some of your work refusers don’t even make eye contact, some are mute a lot of the time, and others are like turtles when they “pull in” their arms and their legs and leave you talking to a hard shell exterior. To clarify, we are not talking about students who just don’t feel like working and appear to be free of major family problems, challenges and other serious concerns.

We’re focusing on well-intentioned children and teens who appear to be weighted down by a burden or challenge that leaves them little energy to care about school or to work in class. These youngsters generally don’t tell you what the problem is, but you may suspect that they have past trauma, current crises, emotional disorders, or big family issues that are commanding all their focus and energy. Remember the saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink?” Every school day you experience something similar when you lead your work refusers to education but you can’t make them learn.

In my workshops with teachers, some educators admit that they just leave the shut down student alone because they don’t want to add to the child’s woes. Other teachers in my seminars say that they treat the shut down student the same as their peers, never making any accommodations or adjustments like allowing a redo of an assignment or exam. The reality is that neither of these approaches is correct. The balance between them is the only way to successfully work with work refusers. If you never offer the child education, then this youngster can grow up without learning to read or make change, and that makes for a huge disability to cope with throughout life. On the other hand, if you never make adjustments to help this student, then you will be adding more burdens to the shoulders of a child who is already carrying a very heavy load. The best tactic: On days that the child is relatively functional, increase your academic demands. On days the child is comparatively in pieces, decrease academic expectations. Your goal: to teach these children to work as hard as they can on days that they’re able. Is it fair to ask more of a human being than that? Besides, no one can force a horse to drink, and no one can force-feed education— but you can do a lot of damage by trying.

You may have noticed that many of your work refusers seem to particularly shut down whenever there is testing. Let me explain why. Many work refusers are awash in anxiety, whether it’s residual anxiety from past crises, chronic or acute anxiety from a current issue, or an on-going emotional disturbance or challenge. For children and teens who are already anxious, testing is the perfect storm. Testing is a guaranteed way to ramp up their anxiety to new highs. Many of your work refusers have learned that when they are unsure what to do, or they are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, to “turn to stone.” Freezing up may be an adaptive response for those youngsters who have faced beatings, sexual abuse, or verbal tirades. They have learned that by shutting down, they can stay relatively safe; that insight goes everywhere with them.

Here are some steps you can take to moderate the anxiety at testing times— and at other times as well.

  1. Offer Anxiety-Busters: Teach work refusers about their emotions and how to manage them. When these children have no name for anxiety, that feeling rules their world. Once you’ve taught them to recognize this emotion and its impact on them, you improve the chance that these students might better manage the emotion— rather than the emotion managing the child.
  2. Use Humor: Humor is to anxiety what kryptonite was to Superman. So, when you teach about anxiety, you could use characters named Tommy Calmly and Tammy Clammy. It’s harder to stay anxious when you’re smiling. Be careful about using too many purely verbal methods with these students who are often pretty sharp, and have brains that are hyper-alert for things that threaten. That’s why you will probably have more success relying on humor and other modalities that aren’t just talk.
  3. Teach the Behaviors You Want: Stop wishing these students could cooperate with testing. Teach them how to do those behaviors. Start with silly tests like the Animals That Have Feet Exam. The humor reduces the anxiety, and taking all these “tests” will make test-taking more comfortable and familiar, and will begin to break down their stereotypic negative thinking about testing.
  4. Show the Sense in Testing: Testing looks so arbitrary and unnecessary to some students. Make it have value by showing how testing is part of life. For example, discuss how school testing prepares people for driver’s license exams, college and job training exams, and employment and job licensing tests. If you can share stories about how you overcame your own nervousness about tests. that can help some of your work refusers to feel that you understand and are on their side.
  5. Sense of Urgency: It is never okay to push your work refusers. You can cause terrible harm. However, it is okay to convey a sense of importance or urgency to be delivered only at times that the student appears to be functioning well and relatively free of the usual problems. Our Poster #39 (pictured) does that. (Download the poster free from Youth Change Workshops at http://youthchg.com/strategies.html.)

In my live workshops, I spend hours teaching teachers about work refusers so the tips in this article are just a few of my favorite tools. Ultimately you may need a bigger arsenal if you want to be best prepared to help all your work refusers become willing, successful test-takers, but hopefully this article has given you a good start.

To learn more about how to help work refusers, read Work Refusers: Remedies That Work at http://youthchg.com/curriculum.html#1.Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the Director of Youth Change Workshops, www.youthchg.com. E-mail Ms. Wells at [email protected] or call 800-545-5736. For more interventions visit www.youthchg.com.
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