Once in a while, we end up with a student who simply refuses to work.  There can be many reasons for the refusal, but it seems the no amount of negative reinforcers like missing recess or calls to parents have an impact.  At a Special Education conference a few years ago, I was in a session where they were presenting a simple strategy called dots.  While I was skeptical it would be effective for these very tough kids, I was surprised by the success that I have seen with this super simple strategy. 

The Strategy:

When a child is refusing to do work, you simply tell them that if they do one problem, they will receive a dot sticker.  They can place that on any problem that they do not wish to do.  This process is repeated until the assignment is complete. As they begin to develop the work habit, you begin to fade, for example, they now have to complete two problems before receiving a dot.

You will continue to fade gradually until they are completing assignments without the dots. 

Keys to Success:

  • Make sure the student has the ability to do the work. Often times the reluctance comes from the lack of skills to do something, so we need to ensure that the instruction and support are adequate so that the student can be successful. 
  • Include lots of positive praise when giving out the sticker.  The praise a student receives is just as powerful as the reward of skipping a problem.  Handing out the sticker gives us an opportunity and a reminder to cheer on a student for their success. 
  • Don’t fade too quickly.  The few times that this has quit working was when a teacher faded just a little too fast, and the child lost motivation. If this happens, it’s ok to take a step back to a point where the student is motivated. 

Questions from the Skeptics:

I want my students to finish the whole assignment; why does your strategy let the student get away with doing half of the work? 

This strategy is to be used for students who refuse to do any of their work, so you’re really choosing between no work and half.  I would take half of an assignment any day over nothing. 

It’s unfair to the other kids. Won’t other kids stop doing their work so they can get reduced assignments?

When I present this to teachers, this is often a concern but rarely a problem.  In reality, most kids get what adults often miss, and in that fairness is getting each student what they need rather than getting everything the same.  In practice, so far, with the teachers I have implemented this with, I have not had an issue with other students demanding the same thing. 

Come on, can this really work for my super defiant kids?

Since learning about this simple strategy, I have worked and helped teachers implement it dozens of times.  While our record of success is not perfect, it is highly successful.  At this point, I only remember one student it didn’t work for.