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One Way To Help Students Who “Shut Down”?


I try to keep current on research studies on behavior because I don’t think teachers in general, and teachers in inner-city schools in particular, can have enough potential tactics in “their back pocket” to deal with the many challenges students face. Many are worth a try, and many might work with one student, but not the other. I’ve also found that explaining to students what studies say so they understand what I’m doing or suggesting makes a huge difference.

For example, the snack idea I wrote about in “Self-Control As A Limited Energy Resource” In The Classroom is working like magic with one student, helping a bit with another, and not doing anything with a third. In that post I wrote about studies showing that the brain uses up more glucose than it often can replenish when showing self-control, and that I was going to try giving snacks to a three students who have a particularly hard time in that area. Of course, there is no telling if the snacks themselves are helping with the glucose (and the explanation of the study to the studies) is what is helping, or is it just that students see that an adult cares enough to try is what is doing the trick.

It’s not unusual for some of my students to seem unhappy about their lives, or to “shut down” at times and not want to learn. In fact, when my colleagues and I did the lesson on sleep I wrote about last month (“Will Sleeping More Make Me Smarter?” — A Lesson I’m Trying This Week), a surprising number wrote that they “felt down” or “very unhappy” a large portion of the time.

A study might provide one tool that I’m going to suggest to some of them to help in the classroom — and out. The researchers write:

“The recipe is simple. If you are feeling happy, focus on reasons why those feelings will last, and if you are feeling unhappy, focus on reasons why those feelings will pass.”

It’s not rocket science, but on Monday I’m going to share this idea with one student who periodically “shuts down” in class when he feels unhappy or angry. I’m hopeful that, after explaining it, he might remember the tactic sometimes when he’s feeling down, or will remember and be able to act on it when I remind him. Suggesting to him something like, “Put your head down for a minute and think about times when you’ve felt happy and successful” sounds better and more helpful to me (and, I hope, to him) than “Get back to work.”

Anyone have other strategies or tactics that work when this happens in class?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. That seems a very reasonable suggestion to use with sleepers in the classroom. I’ve got one female student who finds it very difficult to keep her eyes open. At first, I thought it was all my fault, but very soon I found out that I was responsible for only a part of it 😉
    She is a professional footballer and trains really hard everyday, so she lacks sleep. I’m going to read the research studies and follow your advice.

  2. I have the class do simple calisthentics, things that everyone can do – touch your toes, turn in a circle, flap your arms, clap three times. There are days when they seem asleep in class, and it seems to at least communicate that I know they are feeling less than eager to learn, but I still want them as present and engaged as they can be. Plus, it usually makes them laugh, which also always helps.

    I love your post. The more that we can help our students understand themselves as learners, the stronger they will be. We take away the mystery and the sense that it is about the teacher, and we empower them to change their lives.


  3. I’m a French teacher, and if I suspect students’ energy levels are low, I have them all stand up. I toss a soft ball or bean bag to each of them and require they translate vocab from our current lesson; then they toss it back to me so I can throw it to another student, etc. It wakes them up and gets them excited about having the privilege of tossing a ball around the classroom.

  4. I teach gifted students in two elementary schools. A current strategy I am using with a “twice-exceptional” student was suggested by his mother. The student has difficulty with time management & completing tasks; when he doesn’t finish something he can do easily, he shuts down. The remedy? Use a timer to keep the student on-task & offer a reward for success in completing the objective within the allotted time. Suggested rewards (which appeal to this student): earned computer time, reading self-selected books, doodling or sketching time, all of which are free & worthwhile intellectually. My difficulty is in convincing the classroom teachers to try the same strategy…sigh.

  5. Exercise works for me too. I tried teaching juggling as a distraction from too much focus on class work. It went well for a while, then the students were so keen to juggle they pestered me continually to juggle instead of complete the course. There must be a balance I can find somewhere.

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