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How do you work with a resistant student?

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

I recently got this question from a member of the Executive Function Coaching Academy during one of the live calls for our certification course:

For the students who do not engage, who sit with arms crossed and some minimal yes or no answers, what are your steps? I work with HS students now. I need them to want to engage. I imagine you try and not take on hesitant students. But what about when things start to go south after beginning to work together?

Every educator, coach, or parent knows the frustration: you're standing before a student who, despite all efforts, remains seemingly unreachable. Their arms crossed, eyes averted, answers curt and non-committal.

This is the face of student resistance, a hurdle that poses a significant challenge to many educators across the globe. Whether in a physical classroom, a coaching session, or an online learning environment, resistant behaviors can hinder a student's potential and create a significant barrier to their success.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology reveals that student disengagement is linked to lower academic performance and increased dropout rates.

For educators and parents alike, it's a pressing issue that needs effective strategies and tools to address.

This article dives into the signs of resistance we often see in students, from the overt - camera off in virtual sessions, consistent excuse-making, or outright rudeness - to the more subtle, such as closed body language or minimal engagement.

More importantly, it explores actionable strategies to address these challenges, providing educators and parents with a roadmap to transform resistance into engagement.

Engaging the resistant student may seem daunting, but it's far from impossible.

Through understanding, patience, and effective strategies, we can reach these students, unlock their potential, and set them on a path toward success.

How does student resistance appear in executive function coaching sessions?

Camera Off During Virtual Sessions

In a digital coaching environment, a significant sign of resistance could be consistently turning off the camera during sessions. Despite being asked to switch it on, the student may keep it off, thus reducing their visible engagement and non-verbal communication. This barrier might prevent the coach from gauging the student's reactions and emotions effectively, leading to a lack of connection and hindering the coaching process.

Minimal Engagement

In a one-to-one coaching scenario, a resistant student might display minimal engagement. When the coach asks open-ended questions or seeks input, the student could provide very short, monosyllabic answers or respond with generic words like “yes” or “no.” For example, if asked about their feelings regarding their progress, they may reply with a simple "fine," devoid of any detail or explanation.


Resistance can often come across as defensiveness. The student may become argumentative or defensive when presented with feedback or suggestions. They might dismiss new approaches before even trying, asserting they've already tried everything and nothing seems to work.

Closed Body Language

Non-verbal cues such as body language can be an insightful indicator of resistance. Students might display closed-off postures, avoid eye contact, or appear distracted by consistently looking at their watch or phone. These signs show a lack of openness and engagement in the coaching process.

Reluctance to Commit

A clear sign of resistance is a reluctance to set goals or make commitments. When asked to establish an action plan or goals for the future, the student may be non-committal or vague, avoiding the setting of specific targets. They might reply with vague promises such as "I’ll see what I can do," without making any concrete plans.

Making Excuses

Consistent excuse-making is another sign of a resistant student. Despite failing to achieve goals or complete tasks, the student might constantly offer reasons or excuses, blaming external factors rather than accepting responsibility or seeking to understand the underlying issue.

Strategies to address student resistance

Addressing Camera Off During Virtual Sessions

If the student consistently keeps their camera off during online sessions, communicate the importance of visual engagement for effective coaching.

Assure them that the coaching space is non-judgmental and safe. If they are uncomfortable due to privacy concerns, suggest alternatives like using a virtual background.

"Having your camera on really helps me understand your reactions better. If you're concerned about privacy, we could explore using a virtual background."

Addressing Minimal Engagement

To combat minimal engagement, make an effort to ask open-ended, engaging questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer. It could be as simple as saying, "Tell me more about that."

Offer positive reinforcement when the student provides more extensive answers to encourage them to open up. For example, you could say, "I appreciate your detailed response, it gives me a better understanding of your viewpoint."

Establish an agenda before the session with a checklist of topics to cover. This approach gives the student a sense of what to expect, reducing any potential anxiety that may be the source of the one-word answers.

Gently call out their behavior, saying something like, "I notice that you're giving one-word responses. Is there a reason you're finding it hard to engage?"

Also, patiently wait for the student to respond and show cues that you're genuinely interested in hearing more from them.

You can also use activities like 'Rose, Thorn, Bud'. This activity encourages students to talk about positive experiences (Rose), challenges (Thorn), and potential positive events (Bud), allowing them to express both positive and negative aspects of their experiences.

Addressing Defensiveness

If a student is defensive, try to provide feedback and suggestions in a constructive, non-confrontational manner.

Use "I" statements to express your thoughts and make sure to highlight the student's strengths before offering improvement suggestions.

For example, "I noticed you excel in analytical tasks. I believe if you incorporated this strategy into your study routine, it could enhance your performance even further."

Addressing Closed Body Language

To address negative body language, try to create a more relaxed and comfortable environment. Break the ice with a friendly conversation or share a relatable story to build rapport.

Acknowledge their discomfort subtly and encourage open communication. "I can see you might be feeling a bit tense. Please feel free to share any concerns or suggestions you might have."

Addressing Reluctance to Commit

When dealing with reluctance to commit, break larger goals into smaller, achievable tasks to make them feel less overwhelming. Encourage the student to take responsibility for setting their own goals. "Let's discuss a realistic goal you feel comfortable with for our next session."

Addressing Consistent Excuses

To tackle the habit of making excuses, try to cultivate a problem-solving mindset in your student. Ask them to identify potential solutions to the obstacles they're citing. "I understand you've had difficulty completing your assignments due to distractions. What strategies could you try to manage these distractions better?"

Addressing Unfulfilled Commitments

Another issue arises when students don't follow through with tasks agreed upon during sessions. If a student continually forgets assignments or avoids speaking to teachers, consider these strategies:

Opening up

Ask them if there's something pressing on their mind at the beginning of the session, making space for any concerns before diving into the agenda.

Proactive Problem-solving

Ask questions like, "What do you think could help you complete tasks between sessions?" to get them to brainstorm solutions.

Failure as a Lesson

Allow them to experience failure as a learning opportunity. Propose an agreement like, "If this doesn't work, can we try something different next time?"

Managing Rudeness

Occasionally, students may be outright rude, criticizing the coaching process or refusing to participate in activities.

Strategies to navigate these situations include:

Avoiding Power Struggles

Stay calm and avoid getting drawn into an argument. Remember, the goal is to help the student, not win a debate.

Setting Boundaries

Clarify your expectations and standards for respectful behavior in sessions. You might say, "It's important to maintain a respectful tone during our sessions."

Empathy and Understanding

Remember that the student may be grappling with their issues, such as ADHD, and may project their frustrations onto you.

Behavior Management

If rudeness escalates, determine the level of intervention needed, which could range from redirecting the student's behavior to scheduling a Family Team Meeting (see below) for more significant concerns.

What if the student continues to resist, even after trying these strategies?

Utilizing Family Team Meetings to Engage Resistant Students in Coaching

When a student is resistant to engaging in coaching, involving the family and support system can be an invaluable approach. The Family Team Meeting (FTM) is an excellent strategy that brings together all the key stakeholders to create a united front in supporting the student. The agenda for FTMs is as follows:

  1. What is going well? (Everyone shares out)

  2. What is the goal we are working toward?

  3. Who does what and by when?

  4. Schedule the next meeting

Here’s how it works:

1. Positive Reinforcement - What Is Going Well?

In this initial phase, it's essential that everyone involved shares something positive that is happening with the student. It is an opportunity to provide positive reinforcement and validation, which is crucial for students who might be struggling.

For example, mentioning that the student has been punctual for sessions or has made a small improvement in a certain area can create a positive atmosphere.

If someone veers into criticism, the facilitator should kindly and firmly redirect them to focus on the positives first.

Why This Is Important:

This helps in building the student's confidence and makes them more open to the process. It emphasizes the importance of recognizing efforts, no matter how small they might be.

2. Goal Setting - What Is the Goal We Are Working Toward?

This phase is dedicated to listening and understanding what each stakeholder, including the student, perceives as the goal. It’s important to arrive at a shared, specific, and measurable goal that everyone agrees on.

For instance, if parents want the student to attend classes regularly and improve grades, it’s important to ask the student if they are willing to work toward that goal. This should be a SMART goal - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely.

Why This Is Important:

Having a clear and shared goal ensures that everyone is on the same page and knows what they are working toward. This creates a sense of purpose and direction.

3. Assigning Roles - Who Does What and by When?

This part involves assigning specific tasks and responsibilities to each team member. Each person's unique strengths are brought to the table.

For example, a therapist could agree to send daily text messages for check-in, a teacher might track attendance and share weekly reports, and parents might reward the student for maintaining consistent attendance.

Why This Is Important:

It ensures accountability and allows each team member to contribute in a meaningful way to support the student's progress.

4. Scheduling the Next Meeting

It's essential to schedule the next meeting before everyone leaves. A good interval is one month between Family Team Meetings. This keeps the momentum going and ensures continued progress.

Why This Is Important:

Regular meetings ensure that everyone stays committed and that the student’s progress is being monitored. It also provides an opportunity to reassess and make necessary adjustments to the plan.


The Family Team Meeting is a collaborative approach that ensures that the student is supported from all angles.

Through positive reinforcement, clear goal setting, assigning roles, and consistent follow-up, it is possible to engage a resistant student effectively and work toward meaningful progress. This team effort can be vital in breaking through resistance and setting the student on a path to success.

When to consider alternatives to executive function coaching

Sometimes, despite best efforts and numerous strategies, a student might continue to resist coaching. Open communication is key in such situations.

Discuss the concerns, resistance, and lack of progress with the student and their family. If it's decided that ending the coaching relationship is best, there are several alternative resources that can be explored:

Individual Therapy

This provides a safe space for the student to express and explore their feelings and behaviors with a qualified professional.

Family Therapy

Involving the entire family, this approach can improve communication, resolve conflicts, and foster a supportive environment.

Residential Treatment Programs

These intensive, structured programs can be beneficial for students dealing with severe challenges, offering both therapeutic interventions and academic support.

School-Based Support

Schools often have support services like guidance counselors or individualized education programs (IEPs) for students who struggle academically or behaviorally.

Peer Support Groups or Youth Programs

These offer a sense of belonging and understanding, connecting students with peers who face similar struggles.

We suggest consulting a mental health professional or educational consultant when considering these alternatives to ensure the student gets the most suitable support.


The journey of motivating a resistant student can be a challenging one, filled with moments of both triumphs and setbacks. Engaging students who exhibit signs of resistance in their learning process is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a customized journey that meets each student at their level of readiness.

By choosing to work with an executive function coach, you're taking a significant step toward building a supportive environment for your child. Our coaches provide an individualized approach that helps students tap into their strengths, overcome challenges, and foster the essential skills they need for lifelong learning.

If you're ready to take the next step, we welcome you to reach out and learn more about working with an executive function coach. We're here to provide guidance and tools to help your child flourish in their academic journey and beyond.

In addition to personalized coaching, we also offer a free course, "Enhance Your Executive Function Skills." This course is designed to equip you with knowledge and practical strategies to support your child's executive function skills, even if you're not a professional coach.

Furthermore, to stay up-to-date with our latest resources, strategies, and insights in the field of executive function coaching, we encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. It's a valuable tool for parents, educators, and all who are interested in learning more about this vital aspect of learning.

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About the author

Sean G. McCormick founded Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.

He trains educators, parents, and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges through his courses in the Executive Function Coaching Academy.

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