Schoolwork refusal and how to motivate kids
This is something we’ve all gone through. There are good days, but a lot of them seem dreadful, dragging on forever. You spent a lot of time planning and choosing the best materials, things seem to go well for a while and then you’re met with a schoolwork refusal.
Here are some possible reasons for it and some tips and tricks that might work for you if you’re in this situation. it’s worth giving them a try or use them as a starting point for your own research.
I’m constantly on the lookout for new methods and ways to motivate kids to do their school work so if you have any other ideas that worked for you, leave them in the comments below.
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Note: I am in no way a certified specialist in child psychology or education. I am just a homeschooling mom looking for answers. Take my research as a starting point and read more about it or seek professional help if you feel your child needs it.
Understand WHERE the refusal to do schoolwork comes from
Before going through some tips and tricks I think it’s important that we understand why our children behave in a certain way and what exactly are they trying to communicate.
Understanding how kids perceive the world around us and what tools they have or lack will help you understand why they respond to it in a certain way and this includes the way they learn and perceive schoolwork.
Kids that refuse schoolwork could be:
- communicating that something isn’t ok or they are overwhelmed or maybe even under-stimulated by the materials we chose.
- just going through a normal part of their development for which we, as grown ups, can provide the tools to navigate.
- attitude problem (that most likely stems from other issues or even their personality).
Before going into the solutions, we should try and understand the cause, but not before looking into how their brains are wired, how learning happens, what good habits (for learning) we can implement in our homes and what tools could help them succeed with becoming more independent and self-motivated in learning.
Kids Brains- prefrontal cortex
Kids brains (notably their prefrontal cortex) aren’t fully developed yet when it comes to managing their emotions or taking rational decisions. I won’t go into the science of it because I am not a specialist, but you can read more about this here, here or here.
“The development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex occurs primarily during adolescence and is fully accomplished at the age of 25 years. The development of the prefrontal cortex is very important for complex behavioral performance, as this region of the brain helps accomplish executive brain functions.”NCBI site- read more here
Neuroplasticity and Growth Mindset
Another thing we, as parents, need to understand about brains is how they work, and how we (all) learn. Neuroplasticity means that the brain is quite capable of learning new things at any given time. There is no such thing as “I am just not good at it”. You can learn to be good at it if you want to.
Here’s what science says:
Neuroplasticity is the study of our brain’s capacity to grow and change over time. Research over the last 40 years shows that at any age we can all get better at pretty much any skill.Learner lab
A Growth Mindset goes hand in hand with neuroplasticity and it’s based on it. It’s a change on how you look at things. It enables both you and your child to grow and develop in a harmonious and healthy way of looking at learning as a whole.
You can learn more about it here:
For more resources please try the following websites and books:
Your Fantastic Elastic Brain
A book for young kids that helps them understand neuroplasticity and opens the path to growth mindset.
Bookdepository (free worldwide shipping)
Big Life Journal
A site where you can find a LOT of resources for both kids and teens.
These are a set of skills that we, as grown ups, use every day without thinking about : reading a calendar/schedule, making lists of priorities, breaking the tasks into smaller chunks and getting them done in priority order, ignoring environment stimuli in order to focus to a task, and even regulating our response and emotions.
Executive function has 3 main areas:
- working memory (the memory you use actively, like the RAM in a computer, without losing track)
- flexible thinking (being able to adapt to new situations and information)
- inhibitory control (the capacity of focusing on your task)
“Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things.”Understood
For more about executive functioning in kids and how to help them:
Smart but Scattered Kids
An awesome book that will explain how to help your children (4-13) with executive skills. They have an edition for teens too.
Bookdepository (free shipping)
As you might have guessed already, our kids take time (and even proper modeling) to develop these skills. So when they see a pile of books on their desk they (you guessed it…) feel OVERWHELMED.
They don’t know where to start, which subject is most important. They never consider keeping a planner, organizing their day or prioritizing. Of course it’s overwhelming because they don’t have the tools that they need to succeed.
What can we do about schoolwork refusal?
Kids really can’t help the way their emotions manifest (they don’t do it on purpose, they don’t really hate us) so here are some strategies I gathered over research and personal trial and error that you might try.
1. Be understanding and show empathy.
Start by showing them you hear them. Start by validating their emotions (they are real even if they seem silly to you).
Encourage them to communicate and open up to you so they can slowly learn to verbalize their frustrations.
You can (model the growth mindset and) say something like “I can see that this math problem really frustrated you. Maybe there’s something we could try together? Do you need my help” or “Maybe you can try looking at it from another angle?” or even “Let’s take a break from that math problem for a while, we’ll come back to it later, with fresh ideas. What do you want to do instead?”
This is the implementation of the Growth Mindset! It’s mind-blowing, you guys. Just give it a shot at home, you won’t regret it.
2. Show them attention and reconnect with them.
We all know the modern motto “spend quality time with your children” and I think it’s true. I am home all day with M, he sees me next to him (I’m working on my laptop at the same desk that he is doing his schoolwork at). But I realized just being physically there, next to him was not the same as focusing my full and undivided attention on him.
When I am very busy with work for weeks I notice a slight behavior shift on him. He is doing mostly whatever he wants all day and when we sit down to do some schoolwork he is whiny.
I realized he needs my undivided, focused attention. So I am trying to step back, take him away from the desk and just do something else together:
- go for a stroll and talk about whatever he wants
- play a board-game
- listen to music and just silly-dance together
- play football outside (or anything else that your children enjoy doing outdoors)
- start asking about his pets (or any other preoccupation they have)
All these bring us both back to present, they soothe part of that “ache” that we always have when it comes to “being too busy for anything” for me and “being ignored” for him.
In this way, once we reconnected, it’s easier for me to communicate with him and let him know what needs to be done for the day in regards to schoolwork. It’s easier for him to be compliant and accept that he needs to get some work done and he knows mom is open and listening to him when he needs to tell me something.
3. Set LIMITS.
Limits are healthy and very much needed when it comes to kids. You probably have limits in place for certain behaviors, screen time, sleep time and other aspects of their lives. Set some limits when it comes to learning, too.
Read more about limits here.
Don’t let distractions come in the way of learning. Some good examples of learning-time limits:
- no screen time before lessons are finished
- lessons happen between certain blocks of time (you don’t necessarily need an hour by hour schedule, but you can set morning time for learning for example, afternoon for arts and crafts or outdoors and so on)
- lessons happen within a certain space (some kids need that!)- have a designated space for learning with NO distractions around. Here is our learning space (we don’t have a dedicated room).
- timers – to make sure they stay on track and make sure you don’t forget to give them breaks, set a timer (according to their age and focusing limits) and give them breaks in between.
4. Set a SCHEDULE for them.
As far as limits go, a schedule or planner (especially one that is visual and easy to understand for their age) is helpful.
I designed my own and M keeps it on his desk every day. That way, I empowered him to know (and clearly see) what comes next and how many items he checked off the list. You can find it in my Resource Library for free.
He feels empowered by knowing he just has 1 or 2 subjects left and that his day has been so productive. Don’t forget to praise the effort and tell them how proud you are they completed another task.
He can visually see what it means to “waste time” and not finish your priorities on time, how they pile up the next day and the next until it’s impossible to get it all done in one day.
And please don’t fall into the trap of overdoing it. It’s not healthy for you or for them.
I know some of our examples can look overwhelming, but we already know what we can achieve in a day and we are flexible about certain aspects. Do what is right for your family in terms of planning.
We discussed clearly that the most important subjects that need to be done every day are math and language arts. Everything else is done according to whatever time is left, whatever mood we are into and other important things that can come in between.
Checking those boxes every day isn’t important, productivity and efficiency are! So aim for that by encouraging your child and making them see the big picture: “Look how many pages of math you’ve done this week by being consistent! I am really proud of the effort and diligence you put in”.
I do like tying things together and consistency comes as a natural flow of planning.
By having a schedule and a planner you can keep consistent and do the work that needs to be done in the long run.
It will become automatic after a while. Things will fall into place, kids will know what and how much to expect every day and you will have more “easy days” when it comes to school.
You’ll notice that long breaks and interrupting factors will make things a bit unstable again. But come back to your routine and everything will fall back into place.
7. Reward Systems
I know that some parents will frown upon reading this. I will elaborate, but adapt these according to your family views and values. This is my take on it.
We, as grown-ups do the things we do by being motivated internally or externally. We get money to do our jobs (even if we don’t like it), we like having a clean house because it makes us feel good (even if we don’t like washing the dishes or vacuuming).
I see schoolwork as the kids’ job. So as a natural extension, I feel that it’s ok to reward it in some way.
I agree you should not use rewards and similar incentives to get the kids to care for themselves (brushing teeth, combing hair, showering, dressing up, eating etc), so I thread carefully when it comes to rewards.
I occasionally reward the most difficult subjects and the ones M finds hard.
This is what we used so far:
- stickers– he LOVES stickers of all kinds. For math, he gets a mini sticker (that he applies himself) for every problem that he is doing correctly (and without much complaining). I need to see he at least tried his best.
- stamps – we used to do this for reading/writing or spelling. For each correct word he would get a small stamp next to it.
- points– we had a point system which M invented. For every exercise finished he got a certain amount of points, if the exercise was done correctly he got extra points, if he didn’t whine he got even more points. From the total amount of points that he gathered over a period of time he got either money to buy something he wanted (make sure to set clear limits here on the sum!) or screen time.
- lottery cards – this is something we have in place now. After every subject he finishes, he gets to pick ONE lottery card. Some have stuff he doesn’t really like (math online or his vision therapy), others have TV time, tablet screen time, game time with me, reading or other activities he enjoys.
- coins– we did this for vocab. He has a special words jar. If he uses the new complex words he learned in full sentences, he gets a coin per sentence. You should see how motivated he is to remember all that vocabulary!
To see more of what we are using as motivation check out this article.
8. Be funny!
Many times the curriculum becomes boring and it’s your job to make it fun again. Do something unexpected:
- Instead of reading the instructions, sing them.
- Take your kid outside and start reciting that poem while skipping rope.
- Take them out for an impromptu walk.
- Be silly! Make faces, connect to your inner child, blow soap bubbles while repeating the multiplication table.
- take out a card deck and dice and learn math operations like that :)- you can see more math ideas here.
- You’re both drained and tired of science, go find a documentary on that water cycle and some wow facts and watch it while eating popcorn.
- When they are down, do something unexpected! Hug them, kiss them, tickle them, drag them next to you and cozy up reading a book together, talking, giggling and having an unexpected break.
- Open Netflix and watch they cartoons or favorite shows with them. Show interest in them!
The possibilities are endless here. Just remember that kids (and parents, too) need a scenery change from time. Don’t be afraid to let your inner child out for a day.
9. Find another approach!
If you’ve tried everything and it’s just not working, it’s time to look at the way you teach it, the way the curriculum is laid out and if it all fits with the way your child learns a certain subject.
I know you might have spent weeks organizing hands-on materials… but they won’t work if your child is auditory! Pay attention to the way they learn best.
And yes, the learning styles can be different according to subjects!
M learns better if he hears the history text rather than read it himself, if he reads the science text rather than hear it, if he “touches” the math manipulatives for a hard-to-understand concept, if he does that science experiment himself, if he sees that documentary about geography.
So… all the types of learning in one kid? Totally. We learn different subjects differently so don’t box them all into a single approach. Really look and see how your child learns best for every subject then choose the curriculum accordingly.
I always advise against changing curricula often. But if the signs are very clear, go ahead and switch to something else!
If you can, stick with the curriculum you chose for this school year and when you’re done, look behind. Did your child evolve? Did he learn new things? Is he able to remember the most important of the concepts and apply them? If YES, then it’s not the curriculum.
Signs that the curriculum doesn’t work:
- your child isn’t enjoying the lessons over a long period of time and he isn’t learning anything new.
- It’s a struggle to have them understand and remember a concept.
10. Check for attitude
If the curriculum is too easy, boredom can manifest as attitude. Make sure you don’t overwhelm your kids with busywork.
Really check and see if they already know everything or they are very fast learners and get them a curriculum that’s challenging enough for them.
Don’t go overboard with picking something too hard because they won’t be able to do it and you’ll end up in the same point.
Sometimes it’s just the attitude of the child. If that is the case, my only advice to you is to keep working.
Both you and your child need to understand that homeschooling isn’t all honey and milk every day. That there’s a big responsibility both on the parent and the child when taking the decision to stop sending them to school.
Sometimes we have hard days (that’s life) and we have to get through them. Help your child see things positively and enforce growth mindset practices until these “attitude flare ups” don’t interfere with your work anymore.
You can solve attitude problems by checking on these points (and implementing the ones above!). Communication is key. Sit them down and talk to them (calmly) about what’s wrong. DO NOT JUDGE! Just listen and nod, take all the information in.
- WHY do they feel like that?
- WHAT do they want to change in order to feel like they can do their work? Sit down and discuss every aspect of their school until you find a solution.
- Could YOU accommodate their wishes? Switch things up a bit? Compromise on some things if they are overwhelmed?
- Help them until they can do it themselves! Andrew Pudewa from our favorite writing program said in one of his webinars that “there’s no such thing as too much help” and in that moment I realized I’ve been looking at things all wrong! I CAN help my kid.
- Maybe the attitude stems from feeling inadequate/stupid or overwhelmed. Look at the points above and work things with your child to change this attitude into a positive one.
What we did with refusal to do schoolwork?
We struggled and still occasionally do from refusal to do schoolwork. What I noticed works for us:
Those of you that “know” about us a but know he hates writing. He just can’t get it yet, and it’s ok.
I step up and help him every time! That doesn’t mean I do his work for him, it means that I analyze where he really struggles and start breaking things down for him by asking questions for example to get him where he needs to be or reminding him the parts of a composition, one by one.
I also chose to work at his level and I picked a program for writing that suits him.
Act before they are overwhelmed.
Again, composition writing is hard for him. He said he doesn’t know where to start, that he has pictures in his head but they just last a few seconds and it’s hard to grasp them all.
I told him to start with a sentence… ANY sentence in ANY order. And he did. After that I told him to write the next sentence and so on.
At the end, we spent time arranging them in order, linking them and developing them together. I praised his effort at every turn and he did it without complaint.
Set a timer
Some kids benefit from this… knowing that the timer will ring and they can take a break :). Or when to come back to their desks from a break.
Let them choose
Empower them to choose what they want to study next. I have the planner on his desk, but the subjects don’t need to be done in order.
Sometimes, when M is tired, I let him choose whatever he wants to do next. Usually he picks something he is comfortable with and that’s ok.
We still use rewarding for the things he finds difficult and it’s working for us.
I am not saying our methods and findings will work for everyone,but I hope this article has been useful and has given you some ideas or starting points to try your own methods. Do let me know what methods you tried and what worked for your family
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