Strategies for Reaching Kids Who Don’t Care

Having spent the bulk of my music education career working in schools known for students with challenging behaviors, I can attest to the truth in the old maxim, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In the early years, I was often frustrated that my well-planned, exciting lessons were met with angry words or disinterest. How could that be? This was supposed to be FUN!! As I have developed my teaching skills, I realized that time spent building relationships with students wasn’t taking away from my music lessons, but rather giving me more time in the long run. When you work with students who don’t care about their learning, it really is a long game. 

Interest Survey 

Getting to know your students is one of the first things we all know to do, especially if you are new to a school community or have many new students each year. Interest surveys are a tried and true method of gaining insights into the likes and dislikes of your students. 

  • In addition to asking about musical interests and experiences, consider asking about favorite sports, teams, foods, colors, seasons. 
  • A colleague once told me that she always asked whether her students were the oldest, middle, youngest, or only child in the family. In her experience, there was a definite difference in the group work of a class of youngest or only children compared to a class with many oldest children. 
  • My school has a very transient population, so I always ask students what grade were they in when they first came to our school. Classes who had been together for more years tended to work better together than those with many new students. Group building activities and teaching of procedures are more important when there are many newer students in the group.

Reflect on the responses and plan ways to use the information. Songs about favorite subjects, favorite school-appropriate pop songs for rhythm practice, and sports-themed classroom games for musical review are some of the many ways to incorporate student interests.  Notice especially the answers from students with challenging behaviors. You already learned their name on the first day of class, right? (smile) Learn something positive about them so you have an item for conversation.

Outside of Class Greetings

Use every possible “free” moment to build relationships with your most challenging students. None of us have much free time in our day, but even a minute or two adds up when we are intentional about seeking these opportunities regularly. A quick, positive word, fist bump, or even just a smile with a student in the hallway can give them that minute in the day when no one is “fussing” at them.  This takes time to build, but the results will spill over into your class over time. When do we have time?  

  • Stand at the music room door waiting for the next class gives the opportunity to spot key students as they pass by.  
  • Make a circle through the lunchroom whenever you have a minute. Get in some steps and smile and briefly speak to students as you walk by.
  • Visit homeroom classes. Check with the homeroom teacher first to clarify that you wish to come in to “observe” a student. Bring in a notebook & pen to take notes and smile at everyone.  Sometimes these end up as nonsense notes or doodles, but sometimes you will notice a strategy or a seating arrangement that really seems to work for certain students. You also might gain insights into what they are studying that will connect with your lessons. 

Build Trust with Immediate Reinforcement

We all know that we must be consistent with our behavior management systems. Usually, we think of consequences for negative behavior. We must be consistent with positive reinforcement as well. This becomes difficult when my most challenging students could never earn enough points to complete any incentive chart.  I had to work hard to catch them doing something good! But when I did catch them with a great answer or following directions, we had to recognize that right away. It never worked to save the reward for the next class because more often than not they would come in already mad or in trouble with their homeroom teacher or worse, they had been sent to ISS, and my plans for rewards were thwarted. Positive reinforcement needs to happen TODAY, not later. 

One of the simplest ways is to compile a “Great Job List” that will get delivered to the homeroom teacher. Another strategy is to call home at the end of class and tell the parent what specific success the child had, however small it might have been. This is also helpful for building relationships with the parents, especially for those children who will also be getting their share of negative phone calls. Parents need to know that we can notice when their child succeeds!

Celebrate Success

Keep track of successes, then celebrate when you reach a goal that your students might not even have known that they had. These goals could be musical, such as learning a new song, procedural, such as participating in a class discussion without interrupting, or relational, such as helping a classmate. With hundreds of students, the celebrations need to be simple, no-cost rewards that can be repeated with many classes. 

  • Have your “dance break” song cued up in the background and dance for a minute. 
  • Print some mini “good notes” that students can take home. 
  • Allow a student to sit in a special seat or hold a stuffed animal. 
  • Provide a musical coloring sheet. 
  • Watch a favorite music video at the end of class. 
  • Definitely brag on the students to their homeroom teacher, the school counselor, the principal.  Good words are always welcome!

Working with students who are angry or disinterested is definitely challenging. They tend to have many walls built around themselves and getting through will take lots of time, patience, kindness, and perseverance, but it is totally worth it!

Sally Utley

With over 30 years of experience, Sally Utley incorporates a wide range of expertise in her resources, which includes Orff Level 1, GIML Early Childhood, and Elementary General, and Instrumental Level 1. She is national board certified and received the Tech Savvy Teacher Award. Sally creates resources to help busy K-8 general music teachers save time so they can be amazing in the classroom each and every day.