A Reflection on “Strategies to Reach Students Who Don’t Care”

Today’s post is a reflection on Ms. Sally Utley’s article “Strategies to Reach Students Who Don’t Care.” Ms. Utley begins by outlining the frustration

Strategies to Reach Students Who Don’t Care

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The Student Comes First

Today’s post is a reflection on Ms. Sally Utley’s article “Strategies to Reach Students Who Don’t Care" from The Music Crew Blog. Ms. Utley begins by outlining the frustration that she and many other educators encounter when they prepare for an exciting and well-planned out lesson just to have students meet them with disinterest and negative attitudes.  What kind of kind of experience is this? Certainly not one music teachers want to repeat.

Why do you think that some lessons are met with hostility? Perhaps the lesson did not have a good hook or draw the students in. This is possible but perhaps it is also something that has nothing to do with the lesson content itself. Ms. Utley goes on to point out that she prescribes to the saying that “kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

I feel that several experienced music educators would agree with this expression and would make it a priority to invest valuable class time to fill this student need. Because that is why we are here, right? We are teachers, first, to make a difference in our student’s lives. Note, it is easy for the performance spotlight, fame, money, and all those little professional expectations that society places upon us to get in the way but the kids must come first. Consequently, if you make your students your #1 priority then you will find that, in the long run, you will have plenty of time to teach.

The Interest Survey
Student Survey

If you are new to a school or have new students, Ms. Utley recommends giving students an interest survey. Not only do you learn of certain trends in your class, but you will also get to discover the little things nuances make your students tick.

Ms. Utley recommends you do the following when conducting surveys:

  • Survey students about their musical interests and experiences, however, ask them more about what other types of interests they have. These could include sports, other groups they are involved in, colors, foods, and video games.

  • Ms. Utley recalls a colleague recommending that she should ask students where they are placed in terms of youngest, middle, or oldest child in their families. She noted that there seemed to be a clear difference in group work. The most notable differences were between the youngest children in a family in comparison to those who were the oldest or only child. Why might this be and how could you instructionally strategize knowing this information?

  • Another question that should be asked includes how many years a child has been at your school. Teachers may find out that those students that have been at one school may work better together because there is a better understanding of the rules and procedures. This familiarity to what is expected in a class may assist in group work efficiency. In addition, teaming a new student up with a group of students familiar with these expectations could bring up the effectiveness of the new student.

Consequently, giving out student surveys can also communicate to your students that their opinions do matter. This leads to more of a buy-in to what you are trying to teach and the team-oriented culture of your music program.

By learning what students like it can give you some insight into certain types of music you might want them to perform. My recommendation is to start simple by trying to learn their names on day one. Keep it positive and try to make a personal connection.

Student Greetings

Building relationships with your students is so important if you want to make a meaningful connection with them. This becomes even more important when trying to connect with the more challenging students. Ms. Utley recommends that you should use every possible free moment to build relationships with these students.

A free moment may include saying something positive to them or doing a fist pump. Regardless, one or two of these conscious positive reinforcement efforts could put a smile on the face of a child. This is in contrast to what other adults may be saying to the child. This simple positive gesture may take time to take root in a child’s general behavior however the results will eventually spill into your classroom culture.

Additional ways you can greet your students include:

  • Stand outside your classroom door and greet students as they come into your classroom.
  • Walk throughout the lunchroom and briefly smile and greet students as you walk by.
  • If you are able, ask homeroom teachers if you could observe a student in their class. Smile and act like you are taking the notes. Ms. Utley states that you might gain insight on a child that you may transfer into your class.

Most importantly, keep these interactions brief and positive. Remember a single smile could brighten up someone’s day.

Build Trust with Immediate Reinforcement

The next recommended strategy that teachers can use to reach students who don’t care is to build trust with immediate reinforcement. Ms. Utley stresses the need to stay consistent with our educational behavior management systems. These consistent learning environments allow students to not only know what to expect but also provides the "space" for them to focus on the academic material being taught.

Positive Reinforcement

Often, we think of imposing consequences when rules are broken, or a child demonstrates negative behavior. But do we always consider an equally balanced set of positive reinforcement tactics? Often the answer is no, and the positive reinforcements are necessary if you plan to reach a troubled child.

Unfortunately, sometimes troubled, or distracted children often lack the motivation to complete assigned tasks. Observing one of these children may be somewhat exhaustive however, when you catch him or her engaging in a positive act, following directions, or even providing a correct answer you must recognize the action right away. This will positively highlight the significance of the action. For struggling students, this action must be accompanied by immediate feedback if you want to reach them. If you wait until the next day, the significance is often faded or forgotten.

Believe in Yourself

One neat strategy that Ms. Utley recommends is to compile a “Great Job List” of items you have seen a specific student accomplish in the recent past. Next, ask the child’s homeroom teacher if they could deliver the list to the student during the homeroom period.

Additionally, you could call the student’s parents and report on the child’s success he or she had in class for that day. Even if the highlighted success is small, the parent will more than likely be thrilled to hear the positive news. More importantly, you would have created a positive communication conduit with the parents and planted the seeds for a positive relationship to grow.

Celebrate Successes

Make it a point to celebrate student successes. Often students may gauge achievements too harshly and these positive reinforcement opportunities are needed to build a challenging student up. As a music teacher there are all types of content-oriented opportunities you could choose to celebrate a student’s success.

Consequently, success celebration should not be just limited to the classroom content. Make it a point to celebrate things that lead toward the feeling of intrinsic reward. Utley recommends additional no-cost celebrations that can implemented in classes include:

  • Have a “dance break” cued up to music.
  • Create and print mini “good notes” students can physically take home.
  • Have a student sit in a special seat, use a golden stand or hold the token stuffed animal mascot.
  • Give a student a musical coloring sheet.
  • Watch an exciting video at the end of class.
  • Or brag about a student or students to the principal, counselor, or other highly regarded individual.


In conclusion, Ms. Utley has clearly identified that working with troubled and challenging students is difficult for teachers. Ultimately, these students will often be unwilling to participate in class activities and tend to build up a psychological wall. They will need lots of love and patience to make a positive transformation. Fortunately, with the power you possess as a teacher, you can make this momentous positive change in disadvantaged child.


Utley, S. (2021, February 7). Strategies to Reach Students Who Don't Care. The Music Crew. https://themusiccrew.com/strategies-to-reach-students-who-dont-care/.


Sally Utley











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