How to Deal With Students Who Don’t Seem to Care About Their Grades

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am struggling with high school students who don’t care about their grades. I have never had so many students who get “F”s on their tests and then laugh about it. They flat-out tell me that they don’t care. I tell my students about how they won’t get into college if they don’t learn the material, and how they won’t be able to get a job without a college degree, etc. What do I do if my students refuse to do any studying at home because they don’t care? -Eunice, Middletown, New Jersey


As a former high school student who got terrible grades, and who told his parents and teachers that he didn’t care, let me tell you this:

They care.

Having worked with thousands of kids and educators, I can tell you that the “They don’t care” fallacy is one of the most common misconceptions in schools today (and there are a lot of them). The truth is that humans care about their successes and failures. It’s part of our DNA to want to succeed, and to give at least minimal effort to do so.

The problem is that humans can’t focus on long-term goals when they are busy trying to fulfill short-term needs for control and avoidance of pain. Humans have a need to control their immediate environment. Until this is accomplished, they can’t focus on anything else.

Due to these factors, when faced with the pain of failure, the student will often say and outwardly show that he is not feeling the pain and that he “doesn’t care.” This is a defense mechanism. Furthermore, when a teacher lectures him, often angrily, it gives him the opportunity to place anger on the teacher for being the source of the pain, instead of placing the blame on himself and his lack of studying or hard work.

The problem is compounded when the teacher also accepts that the student doesn’t care as an excuse for no longer trying to educate this kid. This is an understandable means of the teacher protecting herself from the pain of not being effective in helping a student.

I call this the “I Don’t Care/They Don’t Care Armistice”: if everyone accepts that the student doesn’t care about school, the teacher can’t do anything about that, so that student not learning isn’t anyone’s problem anymore.

Here is how I deal with failure on assignments as I give a test or paper back with a failing grade to a student:

Kid Whisperer: (whispering) Oh, man. Let me know if you need help on this.

Kid: I don’t care about math!

Kid Whisperer: I hear you. Just let me know.

That’s it. Instead of lecturing, which takes lots of time and energy, I can reapply that energy and time to enthusiastically teaching the math concept in another way and maybe differentiating instruction at some point in the future. These efforts will be more likely to be successful because I now have the time and energy to do them and because I didn’t spend five minutes making this student hate me by having him endure a meaningless lecture.