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Staff development challenge: Best practices for dealing with resistant learners

Nurse education

Staff development challenge: Best practices for dealing with resistant learners

After reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Identify reasons for resistant behaviors 
  • Explain strategies for dealing with resistant learners

All staff development specialists face the challenge of motivating learners who are reluctant to participate in an education program. These learners’ reactions can range from mild annoyance to outright hostility. Their attitudes affect other learners, making it difficult to establish or maintain a positive learning environment, whether the setting is a classroom or a distance learning situation. These attitudes may make you doubt yourself and can affect your enthusiasm for education.

Start by recognizing and accepting three things about resistant learners. First, there will always be some individuals who are resistant to education. This is an ongoing challenge with which all staff development specialists must deal.

Second, don’t blame yourself for somebody else’s lack of motivation. You are not responsible for others’ desire to learn. Evaluate the effectiveness of your programming and make improvements or changes as evidence dictates. But don’t assume responsibility for colleagues’ behaviors, and don’t let anybody else make you responsible for them.

Third, don’t ignore or simply accept resistant learners’ behaviors. These can impede the effectiveness of the educational activity. 

What can you do to defuse resistant learners’ impact on education? Start by answering the following questions:

• Did you provide evidence that justifies the learning activity? In other words, was it explained to the learners why the education is mandated or important? Think about the principles of adult learning. Adults need to know why an education offering is important. They want to know how it will benefit them as an employee or help them professionally. When explaining the rationale for a program, use evidence-based terminology. What data indicated a need for the program? Explain how the education is designed to positively affect issues such as patient outcomes, job performance, and organizational effectiveness.

• Are the learners afraid of repercussions if knowledge is not acquired? Most organizations require demonstration of specific knowledge acquisition, such as ACLS certification for critical care personnel. If learners fail to achieve certain learning objectives, they may face termination. Or perhaps promotion depends on certain education achievements. Fear of adverse consequences can make people react negatively toward education in general and certain programs in particular.

Although you cannot alter consequences if they are employment qualifications, you can provide a supportive environment, ensure that the education is well designed and appropriately implemented, and provide tutoring to learners as needed. 

• Is the education offered in manageable increments? If too much information is relayed at one time or too rapidly, learners may not have enough time to absorb necessary knowledge. 

Is the content presented/designed by a credible educator? Is the content accurate? Learners resist, and may resent, unqualified persons presenting content. Adults expect to gain accurate knowledge and skills during their learning activities. 

• Are the learners comfortable in the learning environment? Successful learning environments must be supportive and nonthreatening. In a classroom setting, adults should not be embarrassed. They should feel they have the right and opportunity to ask questions and acquire knowledge and skills in a setting that is conducive to learning. For distance learning, learners should have access to necessary equipment and know how to use it. If problems arise, technical help should be available. 

If the answers to the preceding questions are yes, it would appear that you have done a great deal toward defusing learner resistance. However, there are still those whose resistance continues unabated, causing considerable disruption. 

Consider the following scenario: Alexandra, a staff development specialist with 15 years of experience, is asked to develop education to enhance employees’ communication skills. Data from patient/visitor surveys indicate dissatisfaction with the way staff members address patient and visitor questions and concerns. In fact, risk management data show there have been some patient adverse occurrences (e.g., falls, delays in reporting symptoms) due to inadequate communication. Comments include “They act like we’re a nuisance,” “The nurses are so busy they don’t like to be bothered,” and “The people at the information desk are really rude.” 

Alexandra includes representatives from all departments in the planning process. She is careful to explain why the education is necessary and how the outcomes are expected to improve patient outcomes. 

The education is mandatory for all staff. So far, most staff members have been respectful and enthusiastic learners. Today, however, Kathryn is angry and resistant. She is the assistant manager for several critical care units. She arrives five minutes late for the first class. She sits in the back of the room and mutters in a low voice about being too busy to sit in a classroom.

When class members are asked for examples of how communication could be improved, Kathryn raises her hand and says, ”I can tell you how to improve it. Stop wasting people’s time by making them sit in classrooms and insulting them by making them think they are causing problems!” Most of the participants look annoyed and rather distraught. A few, however, chuckle and begin to mutter that they, too, would like to leave. 

Alexandra acknowledges Kathryn’s concerns and briefly explains the rationale for the education. The class resumes, and all goes well for about the next 20 minutes. As the participants split into groups to prepare for role-playing, Kathryn uses the opportunity to make negative comments about the activity. The situation is getting out of control. What should Alexandra do?

She can’t allow this disruptive behavior to continue. In similar situations, try to defuse the situation and address concerns, as Alexandra has done. But if that fails, you must take action. You don’t want to embarrass Kathryn or belittle her in front of others. Use the groups’ preparation time to speak to her in private. Acknowledge her concerns and ask whether there is anything you can do to help her become more comfortable with the learning activity, but tell her she cannot continue to disrupt the class. 

If Kathryn refuses to cooperate, you may need to ask her to leave. This may be her goal, but if the education is mandatory and you have administrative support, she may suffer negative consequences. If she leaves the classroom, you must be proactive and seek her immediate supervisor. Explain, objectively, what happened and why you took the action that you did. Remember not to take Kathryn’s actions personally. However, you must not let one resistant learner disrupt everyone’s experience. You must also protect yourself and be ready to justify your decision to dismiss Kathryn from the activity. 

What happens when a resistant learner shows indications of becoming violent? This is a rare occurrence, but you must be prepared to deal with the possibility of violence. 

Suppose a nurse who has failed to achieve ACLS certification blames the instructor and approaches her in her office. She is obviously angry and her body language (e.g., clenched fists, standing close to the instructor) indicates a potential for violence. What should you do in this type of situation? The following are immediate steps you should take to defuse the situation:

  • Encourage the angry person to sit down. This action often has a calming effect. Position yourself at eye level with the person. Don’t allow her to stand over you, and don’t stand over her.
  • Speak in a calm, measured voice. Don’t raise your voice or let your body language betray anger or fear. 
  • Listen actively. Maintain eye contact. Tell the person that you are there to help her but can’t do so if she continues to shout or make threats.
  • Try not to take the anger personally. You may be the target of misplaced anger. This doesn’t make it any less frightening, but it does make it easier to maintain your self-control. Becoming angry and responding in anger will only escalate this situation. 
  • Offer the person options. For example, if extra tutoring is an option, make sure she knows it. Emphasize that you are there to help her achieve her educational and occupational goals. 
  • Know how to get help quickly. Have security’s phone number handy. If you feel you are in immediate danger, don’t be afraid to call out for help, especially if you don’t have time to use the phone or if doing so will only escalate the dangerous situation. If you have a preplanned meeting with someone you suspect may become out of control, don’t meet alone. Ask another colleague to be present. 
  • Never allow the angry person to block your exit from a room. Never trap yourself behind a desk. Always make sure you have a quick, easy way out.
  • Always report this type of incident. Never allow violence, whether threatened or actual, to go unreported. A violent or potentially violent employee is a danger to everyone who works at your organization. 

Remember, you cannot make someone want to learn, you can only facilitate learning to the best of your ability. By relying on the principles of adult learning and being an enthusiastic proponent of education, you can have a significant impact on the motivation of others.


Briefings on Evidence-Based Staff Development (formerly The Staff Educator), June 2010, HCPro, Inc.