How To Handle A Student Who Won’t Take Responsibility

Smart Classroom Management: How To Handle A Student Who Won't Take ResponsibilityThe title of this article comes straight from a reader’s question.

It assumes that taking responsibility is something that you, the teacher, must secure from the misbehaving student.

It assumes that it’s something the student must verbalize to you.

It isn’t.

In fact, if you try to draw it out of them—by way of questioning, pressuring, or forcing assurances—you all but guarantee that they won’t take responsibility.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t have a say in the matter.

You do, most definitely.

But taking responsibility is something your students can only decide for themselves.

Your job is to create the conditions that make it highly likely that they will own up to their mistakes.

And learn from them.

So what are these conditions?

Well, the first condition is that the student must know that their behavior was indeed against the rules.

Because if they’re unsure, if there are gray areas or ambiguities embedded within your classroom management plan, then they’ll resist taking responsibility.

They’ll latch on to loopholes. They’ll make excuses and try to justify their misbehavior. They’ll point the finger elsewhere and conclude that they’ve been wronged or that you’re picking on them.

This underscores the importance of teaching, modeling, and defining your rules so thoroughly that it eliminates any question as to what is and isn’t okay.

The second condition is that the student must know the purpose of the rule they broke.

Like the first condition, this must come ahead of time, as you’re laying out your plan during the first week of school.

When your students know the logic of why each rule is in place, and how it protects them and their learning and enjoyment of school, they become far more likely to accept responsibility.

They also become far less likely to break rules in the first place.

The third condition is that your classroom management plan must be faithfully followed.

If you’re inconsistent, if rules are enforced (or not) based on your mood, what’s going on in the classroom at the time, or who the student is, then the response is more likely to be denial than acceptance.

Because it isn’t fair.

Even if the student knows they’re in the wrong, they won’t take responsibility if others have gotten away with similar behavior in the past.

The final condition is that you must deliver your consequence with impartiality.

If you glare, scold, lecture, or lose your cool, then the student will never come to a place in their heart where they can take responsibility.

Because they’ll be filled with hurt and resentment. They’ll be defensive and primed to argue, lie, and deny. They’ll blame you for their troubles.

They’ll also desire to misbehave again ASAP. This time, behind your back.

The four conditions—understanding, purpose, consistency, and impartiality—cause misbehaving students to look inward and search themselves.

They cause them to reflect on their mistakes and empathize with those they’ve affected. They cause a natural progression of thought that leads predictably to accepting responsibility.

So, if happens internally, do you ever really know if a student takes responsibility?

Yes, you do.

But not always in the moment. Although when all four conditions are met, students often voluntarily admit wrongdoing, apologize, and show remorse, you only really know when their behavior improves.

You only really know when they appear eager to please you and more determined to do well.

You only really know when they’re better students and classmates as a result of your accountability.

Not worse.

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32 Responses to How To Handle A Student Who Won’t Take Responsibility

  1. Sydney Shykowski October 8, 2016 at 7:44 am #

    How do you have a consistent set of rules as a substitute?

    • Michael Linsin October 8, 2016 at 9:44 am #

      Hi Sydney,

      We hope to tackle this topic and many others in a future e-guide for substitutes.


      • dee coles October 8, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

        I will be looking forward to this guide.

    • Vee October 15, 2016 at 9:23 am #

      Hi Michael,

      I have a student has very little care for school and consequences. Parents are at a lost of how to reward or give consequences to the child because it will work once or twice and then the child no longer cares. Needless to say I don’t have much support from home. The child puts very little effort into work accommodated to his independent level, wants attention all the time no matter positive or negative, and most days wants to do nothing in class. What would you recommend in this situation? Also what are 2-3 consequences you’ve found to be most effective with 3rd to 5th students. Thank you!

      • Michael Linsin October 15, 2016 at 11:08 am #

        Hi Vee,

        I wish I could just give you a few tips, but you need a comprehensive approach. Please read through the Difficult Student category of the archive to get an understanding of how we handle difficult students as well as the consequences we recommend.


  2. Melissa putman October 8, 2016 at 7:56 am #

    I am loving reading these article and suggestions. I was wondering if you had any advice on how to get a relevant student to do their work. They are able to do the work when something they want is on the line but otherwise simply refuses and doodles all over the page or destroyed workbooks. We do give him the punishments and speak to guardians but with no change. So looking for more suggestions. Thanks

    • Michael Linsin October 8, 2016 at 9:46 am #

      Hi Melissa,

      We’ve covered this topic in the past, here on the blog and extensively in The Happy Teacher Habits, but we’ll be sure cover it again in the future.


      • Rozana boukarroum October 8, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

        Hi mr. Micheal. I always read your articles and try to keep them in mind. I started working a month ago and im facing a trouble with the classroom management. I set rules in the first week about taking permission before talking or moving in class, respecting the school and others and listening to the speaker. However, my students are breaking the rules and unfortunately giving me hard time which is affecting their learning and reputation in school. Moreover, the school i teach in gives priority to classroom management and not flexible with the teachers. I need your advice.maybe it’s late after one month to fix it up.
        Thank you in advance
        Looking forward to seeing from you soon.

        • Michael Linsin October 8, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

          Hi Rozana,

          I would have to speak with you personally in order to diagnose the problem and give reliable advice. There is a cost involved, but we do offer personal coaching.


          • Rozana boukarroum October 11, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

            It’s my pleasure. how can we talk personally? Ans when

          • Michael Linsin October 11, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

            Hi Rozana,

            Please click on the Personal Coaching tab along the menu for more information.


  3. Judy October 8, 2016 at 8:50 am #

    While I have followed the principles set out in Smart Classroom Management, I have not seen any help for how to handle the unmedicated ADD/ADHD child who cannot focus, who only tilts his/her chair back and forth for extended periods, plays with/breaks pencils, cannot read, cannot participate in a small group. I have worked this child/children through my management plan. This results in calls home every day. This isn’t a good plan either. It ends up that this child/children never follow the rules.

    • Michael Linsin October 8, 2016 at 9:48 am #

      Hi Judy,

      Although we’re considering an e-guide on the topic, we feel strongly that the very best thing you can do for them is have expert classroom management, which we provide here on the website.


  4. Jonathan October 8, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    When students apologize, what should my response be?

    1. No problem. (But it was a problem.)
    2. I forgive you. (This seems a little too strong.)
    3. Don’t do it again. (You have warned us many times against lecturing the students.)
    4. Thank you for apologizing. (This seems like it may be best, but I would like to hear what you say.)

    • Sue October 8, 2016 at 9:48 am #

      Jonathan, I tell my students that “an apology means you are sorry for the behavoir, so if you are truely aplolgetic then you will stop the behavoir. An apopogy is not just words that you say. They are words that you will not continue with the action.”

    • Michael Linsin October 8, 2016 at 9:48 am #

      Hi Jonathan,

      A simple “thanks” is best.


  5. Joanne Naylor October 8, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    How do you handle an oppositional /defiant child who glares at you and takes his sweet time going to time out? I can’t physically move him there and he’s keeping my class from learning. I’m talking 2nd grader too. He has a one-on-one aide too. I’m the music teacher so he’s just meeting me for the first time this year.

  6. Denise Heisinger October 8, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    Should students be allowed to ask a question of their neighbor when working on an assignment? I struggle with that because sometimes I am busy with another student or working in another part of the room. Just want another opinion. I do use your classroom management plan.

    • Michael Linsin October 9, 2016 at 7:36 am #

      Hi Denise,

      If you want them to, then yes. If not, then no.


  7. Abbie McCracken October 8, 2016 at 6:56 pm #

    Your posts are a little rainbow of sensibility and kindness at the end of each week. Thank you!

    • Michael Linsin October 9, 2016 at 7:36 am #

      You’re welcome, Abbie. It’s my pleasure.


  8. Laurie October 9, 2016 at 8:03 am #

    I have a very angry student who I believe is quite capable but refuses to put any effort into his assignments. He sits there and says ” I’m stupid” as an excuse. I’ve had some breakthrough moments with him and successes but he can flip on a dime and gets a LOT of attitude ( which I ignore with all my might) he fails all his tests on purpose and parents don’t seemed too concerned. The standard response is “oh, I’ll talk to him” which does nothing. I acknowledge his effort being careful not to praise expected behavior. What am I missing?

  9. Lyuda October 11, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

    Hi, Michael. I have a problem with one of my new students. When he doesn’t break any rules, he is very positive, he hugs me, smiles, gives me 5 and so on. But if he has a warning or even better time out, he becomes very agressive and says something like “I will kill you! I will never come back! It’s the other student’s fault that I got a warning!” If I’m not mistaken, he denies to take responsibility for his actoins. But how should I react? Give a warning for offending me? Or ignore? Or say that it is only his fault?

    And one more thing – I’m teaching English as the second language to 5-7 -year-olds. And we don’t use our mother tongue. Of course, I taught my plan and how all the rules sound in English. Is it okey that sometimes after the lesson I double check if a student understood why he got a warning? I just ask them “why did you get a warning?” and that’s it, without scolding.
    Thanks for answers)))

    • Michael Linsin October 11, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

      Hi Lyuda,

      Yes, you continue to follow your plan. However, if they’re upset, then you wait until they calm down and forget about the situation before delivering your consequence. We have a number of articles in the archive that detail how to do this.


  10. Gary October 15, 2016 at 12:17 am #

    Hi Michael,

    I have a six part direction that I give to students when they are taking part in an activity and I want their attention. I have written it, below:

    1. Stop what you’re doing.

    2. Stop talking

    3. Make no noise. (pencils being tapped on desks can be annoying)

    4. Sit up straight (How to do this has been explained)

    5. Look at the teacher

    6. Listen carefully

    As all my directions are rules, I enforce consequences if students do not follow this direction.

    First rule break is a warning. The second rule break is a detention.

    If a student is not looking at me while I am addressing the whole class I have given warnings or detentions depending on whether they had broken a previous rule or not. However, I feel a bit mean giving a consequence simply because a student is not looking at me. I tell students that eye contact is important because I don’t just teach with my voice, I use body language, gestures, props , the blackboard etc. I explain that they understand and learn more if they look at me.


    1. Do you think it is unreasonable and overbearing to give consequences to students if they are not giving me eye contact at a particular moment when I’m addressing the whole class (I feel a bit of a bully when I give a student a consequence because they did not have eye contact, especially if it results in a detention for them)?

    2. Do you or have you ever had such a rule in any of your classes which involved consequences?

    3. Would you advise teachers not to have such a rule that involves consequences?

    Your management system works well, because I have based mine on yours and have no real problems. However I want to feel sure that I’m doing the right thing regarding this eye contact rule and feel a little troubled about this matter and fear that I will show inconsistency in my enforcement of this rule if I continue with my doubts.

    Thanks for an excellent site!

    • Michael Linsin October 15, 2016 at 8:43 am #

      Hi Gary,

      1. Yes, I do.

      2. No.

      3. Yes, I would advise not having an eye contact rule. I do think it’s unreasonable and doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not listening.


      • Jonathan October 15, 2016 at 8:59 am #

        I had somehow missed this point previously. I think I am making the same mistake in my classes. So if a student is not listening to class (sleeping, reading other material, looking at a cell phone, etc.) but not disturbing anyone else, you wouldn’t enforce a consequence?

        I have to say that classroom management is going better for me this term, but I am stressed out about trying to make sure that everyone is paying attention to me all the time.

        • Michael Linsin October 15, 2016 at 11:05 am #

          Hi Jonathan,

          Gary is talking about enforcing a consequence for students who aren’t making eye contact with him while he is addressing the whole class. The behaviors you describe are purposeful and disruptive–as well as disrespectful–and I would enforce a consequence.


      • Gary October 15, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

        Thanks Michael. I know how to proceed now.

  11. Charissa November 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

    Mr. Linsin,

    You are a genius.

    A humble 2nd year teacher

    • Michael Linsin November 6, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Charissa. I don’t believe them to be true, but I’ll take them. 🙂