What Does it Mean When a Student says ‘No’?

‘No’ doesn’t always mean no

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

I’m sure you’ll have met a challenging student who has announced a defiant ‘no’ at some point in your lesson:

Do you understand the task?


Have you finished copying the title and date?


‘This is interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Ha! No!’

Whenever I had a student respond to me like this I’d panic, see them as stubborn or unreasonable and walk away with the consolation that I’d try again next lesson.

Growing up I had been taught that being nice was the key to building relationships. So in the classroom, being ‘nice’ meant being polite enough in order to not cause conflict. In my mind that meant saying ‘yes’. How was I supposed to engage with students who told me ‘no’?

This belief turned out to be death in the classroom because by ignoring their ‘no’ I actually wasn’t figuring out the students’ needs. It put them on edge and made them skittish around me.

I was only able to move my relationship with these students forward once I realised what ‘no’ actually meant. It wasn’t the student telling me go away, it was the opposite. The student was not ending the conversation, nor were they being stubborn.

On the contrary, saying ‘no’ to me showed they were listening and engaged with what I was asking. By responding in the negative they were establishing a boundary to feel safe. For a teacher they were right where I wanted them to be.

Whenever I demanded that a student get on task (or else!), they persisted in their standoff.

But ‘No’ gave them pause to really look at my proposal. And it gave me time to offer solutions:

Do you understand the task?


(Oh, what do you not understand?)

Have you finished copying the title and date?


(Oh, where are you up to?)

‘This is interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Ha! No!’

(Oh, what do you not like about it?)

I’ve started to take this one step further in lessons; asking questions with the intention of eliciting a ‘no’ response. ‘Have you given up?’ is now my favourite ‘no’-oriented question to ask when a student appears to have downed tools because after saying ‘no’ it asks the student to define their position, whilst giving them the space to safe, secure and in control of their decisions.

These days, when a student tells me ‘no’, I don’t walk away. And sometimes I don’t have to say anything at all before their ‘no’ is followed by: ‘Sir, I’m just not sure how to do it.’

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