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What to Say When Kids Won't Participate in Music

Updated: Aug 20, 2021


You've done it! You've thought of, planned, and prepped an awesome learning activity for your elementary kids. You just know they're going to have a great time and you are SO excited! And then there's just one kid who says no. "I don't want to." "I'm not doing this." Or just *head shake.*


In this post, we'll talk about 3 things to say to students who won't participate or don't want to participate in music class. We'll also keep in mind that what we say and how we say it is a model to help students self-regulate and be self-reflective. Kids are small people learning to navigate the world, and our example matters!


So, first.


Breathe. Staying calm is key- even too much positivity can keep them on the fence. So keep those emotions in check!


This has happened to me many times. It's not personal (that took me way too long to learn). For some reason or another, the student just doesn't want to participate.


This is a problem for a few reasons.

One, learning activities are important ways for you to check for understanding and assess skills so you can modify your instruction in the future. They're called learning activities for a reason.


Two, if you let one kid sit out, that might cause a domino effect. One kid sees their friend sitting out and suddenly they want to as well.


Three, maybe it's frustrating for logistical reasons. You've set out just enough chairs or instruments or rhythm sticks. Or this is a partner activity and without this kid, you'll have an odd number.


No matter what the reason, here are three of my go-to phrases for encouraging participation in kids who just don't want to, PLUS what to do after you communicate them to the student.


NOTE: There are other more serious and deep issues for non-participation that I have not gone into here which would require a different set of interventions. Emotional distress and mental health, for example, could play a role in non-participation, and it's important for you to know if those are or aren't situations that apply to your students before implementing certain strategies. Causing more harm is the last thing you want to do!




1. "This is our work for today."

I like this one because it reinforces your class as important to a student's learning. It helps them see music as not just a break from their classroom routine, but as another important part of their school day. Work happens in your room! It just looks different.


A variation on this is, "This is the work we are doing today." This version is slightly more firm and doesn't give the student a set of options. Giving can be good in certain situations, but if a student is whining or doesn't seem to have a deeper reason for not wanting to join the class, I rely on this one.


After you say this: Walk away and let the student simmer for a moment. They might need time to process their feelings. And remember, their feelings are valid. You might not understand them, but to the student they are real. It's not your job to judge their emotions- it's your job to help them to confront and handle emotions, and in this case, time is your helper too. Come back in a few moments with an open-ended follow-up question ("Where are you going to stand for this activity? Who did you choose as partner?), and not a yes or no question. Assume they've made the choice to participate and go from there. More often than not, this can be a trigger to get them to stand up and join you.



2. "Hmm, what makes you say that?"

This is in response to a student's justifications for not participating, like "This is a girl activity" or "I hate dancing." Rather than brush off their comment, you can try to understand where it's coming from. Young kids might not be able to articulate exactly why they feel that way, but asking them about it will at least show them you care about how they feel.


Sometimes this will sort itself out. A friend will encourage them to join or they'll say, "I think pink's a GREAT color!". But if the wall the student's created around themselves still stands, listen to their reasoning. Again, it might not make sense to you. You might be tempted to tell them ten different counterexamples to prove them wrong.


After you say this and they respond: This is a toughie. My typical follow up phrases are usually complimentary. If you've seen them do a similar activity before, mention how great they were. Point out that they'd be a great role model by participating. Offer to share their success with their teacher or family. Or (and this is a judgment call) give them a manipulative, like a baton or a small stuffed animal, to use during the activity, if possible. For example, students are supposed to move to match the mood of the music, let them conduct or use scarves- either the individual student or the whole class. "Props" like these can be the incentive students need to fully commit.




3. "I'll be back to check on you in one minute."

Have you ever had a student just voluntarily remove themselves from your activity? I've gotten better at noticing but not responding to this right away.


I try not to interrupt my instruction to immediately address the issue. I finish what I have to say, then head to where the student is while the class is practicing or assembling. I ask what's going on, and sometimes my response is simply, "Okay. I'll be back to check on you."


There could be reasons students don't want to participate that you do understand. And maybe a nurturing response is what's called for. If a student seems sad or in pain, for example. Empathize, then ask if they want to be left alone and say you'll check back in soon.


But the student might also be angry or frustrated. Again, empathize ("It looks like you are upset. Feeling that way is no fun.) and say you'll come back to check on them shortly.


Another reaction for this phrase? Indifference. Say you're passing out rhythm sticks and they don't accept them. Don't wait too long- try again, and if the student doesn't take them, say you'll come back to check in with them and move on.


After you say this: When you come back, try to get to the bottom of why they're feeling that way. Depending on what it is, they might just need support. But you might ask why they left the circle and encourage them to come back- "I hope you will give this activity a try", or "I think you'd be great at this!". Maybe there is a peer mentor or partner you could assign them to help with accountability and motivation. Even more assertive is (encouragingly) handing them the things they need to participate and telling them where their spot is or who their partner is.




If a student just flat out refuses, even after you try these?

The last thing you want to do it draw attention to them or embarrass them. Try to talk to them one-on-one and keep your tone encouraging. For young kids you might say, "It's too bad you'll be missing out on the fun. You are welcome back into the circle any time." For older elementary kids it might be more firm: "You may watch us try it once, and then the second time I expect you to join us."


*There are other more serious and deep issues for non-participation that I have not gone into here which would require a different set of interventions. Emotional distress and mental health, for example, could play a role in non-participation, and it's important for you to know if those are or aren't situations that apply to your students before implementing certain strategies. Causing more harm is the last thing you want to do!


What NOT to do

Ultimately, your goal is to get the kid back into the activity. And communicating expectations looks different for different age levels. But a few things that are probably not going to help you out are using a scolding tone, brushing off their emotions, or pointing out their lack of participation to the class.



You can't win them all. And every situation is different.


But I hope these strategies help you manage your non-participators and get them excited to learn in your classroom again!


If you used any of these, let me know how it went! Drop a comment here or reach out to me at sarah.l.mauro@gmail.com. I love hearing from colleagues near and far!


You can also follow me on Instagram @ADifferentMusician where I help teachers empower students through meaningful and joyful music education.




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