How to Get Kids to Do Schoolwork

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a (generally) well behaved 4th grade class, but I have one student who has serious anger issues. He gets angry, especially when he has to do work. I can see it coming a mile away. I always tell him that he could do the work if he just tried. This has had no effect. When he doesn’t have a tantrum and just does it, he’s actually done before a lot of other kids, which I always tell him. He’s very smart. His parents have sent him to therapy because of his anger. It has not helped at all. In fact, things have gotten worse since the therapy started. How do I get him to not throw a fit and just do the work?

Amy, Kansas City, Missouri

Dear Amy,

So here is the second part to your question. I showed you how to get him to stop throwing a fit, and now I can show you how to get him to do the work. In reality, we have already spoken about this, but for the general public, I am going to re-post the following blog entry from 2011. Enjoy, everyone!

Thanks for the question. First of all, you are not alone. I get this question often from both teachers and parents. It can be so frustrating to try to get a kid to do his work. Be glad though that this child (let’s call him Darius) has put you through a quality, year-long training regimen aimed at making you fully understand an essential truism about teaching, management of human beings and about life: you cannot make another person do anything they don’t want to do (at least not legally). When a child is faced with work and they say “I don’t want to to do it and you can’t make me,”  they are absolutely right! You can’t. So guess what?

Don’t try.

Your frustration comes from trying to control something that you can’t control. So stop.


BUT, you say, I have to get this kid to learn the material! I can’t just give up!!!

I fully agree. We’re not giving up. we’re just going to start doing things that work instead of doing things that don’t work. Sound good? Here we go.

So here’s the bad news: what you did last year to get Darius to work was not just worthless, it made it less and less likely that he would do the work. It sounds like you made it a habit of getting into control battles to try to “force” him to work, which is an impossible task. Perhaps you lectured him about the importance of doing work, perhaps you bribed him, maybe you used anger or threats. I’m going to suggest that you no longer use any of these strategies. Think about how much time and energy this will save you!

First of all, when trying to create an environment where the optimal amount of learning takes place, we will start with the baseline assumption:

All kids have no interest in learning things.

Is this true? Obviously not. But instead of thinking ridiculous things like “all kids want to learn for the sake of learning and will work hard to achieve this,” we start with a more realistic expectation. That way we can create a quality learning environment without silly beliefs about child motivation that will ultimately lead to disappointment.

So instead of forcing kids to do work, which we agree is impossible, we are going to create a situation in the classroom where it will truly behoove him to do work, where he will have immediate, real-world reinforcement for hard work the moment he is done with his work, the same way you and I are reinforced to work hard. For example, when I get done with this blog, I am going to watch a movie while I eat ice cream. While I like blogging, I prefer to eat ice cream and watch movies, so I am currently working harder than I otherwise would if finishing this would only lead to more work.

By the way, we are not only changing the way work is presented to Darius, we are changing the way work is presented to your entire class.

Instead of doing activities or doing “centers,” whenever your class is to be engaged in independent work, you will have “workshop” time. Workshop is simpler, easier and more effective than any other way of managing independent work and, most importantly, the structure of workshop reinforces hard work, letting you be the neutral scorekeeper instead of the angry coach.

Here’s how it works: explain that every day after learning a concept, your students will have an opportunity to have workshop. They will have “Now” activities and “Later” activities written on the board. “Now” activities will be assignments that relate to a standard that has recently been taught. “Later” activities must relate to a grade level standard, but often are a bit more fun for kids: math or phonics games, an opportunity to write a letter to Justin Bieber, etc. The trick is that the students can only do their “Later” activities once they have finished their “Now” activities.

A couple of quick tips to create a quality workshop environment:

Start slowly: in first grade, I start the year with one “Now” and one “Later”. It looks like this:

Make an Alphabet Book: Letters A and B


Slowly add both Nows and Laters as the kids get more comfortable with the structure and they are more able to handle the additional responsibility and freedom that having more activities necessitates. By the end of the year the board would look something like this:

Finish your poem
Math pages 342 and 343
Write homework assignments in agenda

Play Chunks
Play Chunks Stackers
Play Tally Mark Challenge
Play Number Squeeze
Free Write

This structure can be used at any grade level. I even use it when I teach college courses!

A few tips to create a successful workshop environment:

Monitor Effectively: Make sure that kids aren’t doing Laters before they are done with their Nows. My students know that they have to “get a smiley face” from me before they can do a Later, which means that I have put a smiley on their paper and I have checked them off in my grade book.

Make sure that the work is truly differentiated appropriately: This is especially important with the kids who are the most stubborn about doing work. Often, kids won’t do work because they can’t do the work. This sounds obvious but a lot of teachers will be stubborn themselves by thinking “He’s in “x” grade, he should be able to do this”, when really, he can’t. What’s more, you should be giving the kids who are the most stubborn about doing work individualized Nows that are actually too easy for them so that you know that they will be able to feel that feeling of success. I have seen it over and over: I give a kid who has never done a lick of work in his life a Now or two that he can actually do, he finishes it, gets to his Laters at the same time or before most of his classmates, feels successful and becomes immediately addicted to that feeling of being successful. He then works to get that feeling for the rest of the year. Make sure the Now is easy, but not so easy that he is being insulted. As his confidence in his ability to do work grows, slowly increase the difficulty of the work. At the beginning of the year, specifically the first three weeks, everyone’s Nows should be relatively easy, thus building everyone’s confidence and comfort in the new surroundings. As the year goes along, you can experiment with private workshop folders for kids who need differentiated Nows based on ability level. Slowly increase the difficulty of the work as the child’s confidence increases. This is a good idea for kids who have higher ability levels as well. Regardless of ability level, scaffold appropriately so that the child doesn’t reach frustration level!


Up the Ante: Occasionally, put a question mark under Laters. At some point, as the kids move from Nows to Laters, erase the question mark and write in another extra cool Later. It could be something like “Get a Drink” or “Read with Keisha’s mom.” If you have another licensed staff member available, you could add “Recess with Mrs. Johnson” so kids can choose to go outside when they are done with their Nows, leaving you with just a few kids who need a bit more help.These kids can choose to go to recess once their Nows are done. By the way, how motivated do you suppose those kids are while their classmates are out playing kickball, they are working and they know they can choose to have recess when they are done with their Nows?

In short, workshop creates a real-world structure that reinforces hard work while teaching kids the inherent value of work without anger, frustration, lectures, warnings, or threats. The simple message: when you get done with your work, you can do things that you’d rather be doing!

Now it’s time for Transformers and butter pecan!

-The Kid Whisperer