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3 Ways To Help When Your Child Refuses To Do Schoolwork

child refuses to do schoolwork

What can you do when your child refuses to do schoolwork? For a variety of reasons, kids sometimes (or often!) are unmotivated to do what needs to be done. You know the importance of schoolwork, so it can feel frustrating when your child digs their heels in and flat-out refuses to do it.

You can bring more joy to your child’s educational experience. No matter what your schooling situation is (homeschool, private, public), here are some practical ideas to empathize, encourage, and empower (problem-solve). Before we dive deeper, it’s important to first check what’s going on in your own heart.

Check what’s going on inside you first

Effectively helping your kids starts with learning to navigate your own anxiety, so you can lead your children calmly. Ask yourself, “Why does this bother me so much? What is underneath my frustration?”

  • Are you simply overloaded with responsibilities, and you just want your child to do this without all the fuss? 
  • Are you frustrated that your co-parent isn’t as involved as you’d like them to be? 
  • Are you anxious about your child’s future
  • Or maybe your childhood experience of school impacts what you’re feeling now.
    • If you struggled, are you determined to prevent the kind of discouragement you experienced? 
    • Or if you were a high achiever, are you determined that your child has the same success? 

With that insight, what are some beliefs based in the rock-solid foundation of God’s truth? 

For example, you might be thinking, “If my child fails this class, I have failed her, and she may fail in life,” Instead, try to embrace this freeing truth: “If my child fails a class, it’s a class. That’s it. It doesn’t define either of us or limit God’s purposes for my child. “

Remind yourself and your children that there is plenty of grace for this struggle, God is with you in it, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Try to embrace this freeing truth: “If my child fails a class, it’s a class. That’s it. It doesn’t define either of us or limit God’s purposes for my child. “

Empathize when your child refuses to do schoolwork

It is important to empathize with your kids before you try to solve the problem. Step into their shoes as you ask yourself:

  • What’s it like to be them?
  • What are they feeling? 
  • Are there basic needs (nutrition, sleep, outside stress) that could be causing them to struggle? 

Your child might be experiencing overstimulation, boredom, low blood sugar, fatigue, or lack of exercise and/or sleep. Whatever the stressors your kids are experiencing, it’s helpful to express, “I get what it’s like to be you!” 

Some kids’ brains are like a microscope – easily dialed in on a specific focus, while others are more like a kaleidoscope of bright, distracting thoughts that are constantly changing. And remember, compared to you as an adult, your child doesn’t have the same maturity and development. Research confirms, “The development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex occurs primarily during adolescence and is fully accomplished at the age of 25 years.”  

The ADHD child refusing to do schoolwork

This is especially true of the child with ADHD: “there is a global delay in ADHD in brain regions important for the control of action and attention.” One blogger describes the jumbled thoughts of ADHD as being like a busy, unregulated intersection. Tough to concentrate on homework when there’s a “traffic jam” in your brain!  

Ever seen that glazed-over look in your child with ADHD? That’s the traffic jam. The child with ADHD refusing to do schoolwork especially needs your empathy! It’s not fun or easy to do things when you feel you’re not good at them. That’s something everyone can empathize with.

Whatever your child’s learning style or brain development, do your best to step out of your adult brain into theirs to sincerely express compassion for them.

Encourage your child 

Empathy helps kids open their hearts to your sincere encouragement. If discouragement is at the core of your child’s refusal to do homework, they might not feel capable of completing their assignments.

Let them know, “I see and enjoy good things in you!” The word “encourage” literally means “to fill with courage.” So fill your kids with courage about who they are as you dwell on what is good instead of focusing on what isn’t good. Fist bumps, humor, and thoughtful affirmation can provide needed encouragement. 

Remind your child of previous successes at persevering and working hard

  • “Let’s write down the things you’ve already finished today and cross them off with a big, black marker!! That’s such a good feeling.” 😉  
  • “Remember yesterday, when you got upset, went for a little bike ride, and then came back and worked hard? You felt really good about your work.” 
  • “You worked so hard at soccer this summer, even when your team lost. You’re growing in perseverance, and that can help you now.” Or even, “When you’re playing your video game, you are so determined to get to the next level! Even if it’s not as fun, you can also learn to apply that determination to homework.” 

Create a “just-right-challenge”

Maybe your child is good with the first three problems on the math sheet but loses steam or gets distracted by #4, or maybe your child just cannot get started with a large project. Some evidence-based strategies might include “chunking” a project down into steps or setting up an agreement with their teacher for them to complete shorter assignments.

This parent-teacher team used a novel approach to help a child with ADHD build resilience for complex challenges and even failure, and grow a sense of competence and accomplishment.  If your child’s teacher doesn’t want to go as far as this teacher did, that’s okay. You can try your own at-home variation with the same goal: that your child discovers the joys of doing something hard, even making mistakes, and finishing it.

Build a biblical identity

If your child is an out-of-the-box, creative, distractible kiddo, remind them that although school is an easier match for brains that like predictable sequences, their qualities will serve them well in the future in a creative-oriented work environment. Especially if they learn to work hard in the meantime. God created their brain in the womb in a unique way for His good purposes!

Empower: problem-solving together increases motivation

Once you have empathized with and encouraged your kids, they will feel safer and calmer with you. Then you can then work to solve the problem.

It’s important to watch for what your child naturally gravitates toward: What picks them up? What helps them? When it goes better, how does that happen? Teach them to advocate for themselves by asking for what they need to be successful.

Checklists can help with problem-solving

One mom, Julia, wrote Lynne about some helpful solutions she discovered with her 9-year-old daughter during a struggle over schoolwork:

“We had a couple of great victories recently. Last Wednesday, Ashley started falling apart because she was struggling with schoolwork. I made a little written list for her of what she might need in the moment to calm down:

  • Am I hungry?
  • Am I tired?
  • Do I need to switch subjects?
  • Do I need something to drink?
  • Do I need some ice water?
  • Do I need a break?
  • Do I need help?

My natural impulse was to get frustrated and anxious, but instead, I stayed calm and helped her in a compassionate way.”

In this list, Julia sent a new and powerful message to Ashley: “I care about why this is hard for you. With a little help, you can figure out what you need in order to be successful.” The tide had turned. 

“Ashley filled out the list by putting four checks by “I am tired.” So I suggested some ice water (which I hoped would energize her!) in a fun cup with the crazy straw and then tickled her back while she drank it. She returned to work, turned her attitude around, and did great!

A couple of days later, she started falling apart again while doing homework, but she didn’t want to put the work aside and do something different. I took out the list again and reminded her of how great we both did on Wednesday.”

Can you feel the difference? Julia’s approach became encouraging instead of discouraging. Ashley was still accountable for doing her work but in an environment of support instead of criticism.

The impact of laughter and fun

Julia’s note wasn’t finished.

“I snuggled with her, tried to make her laugh, and reminded her that she is ‘my sunshine girl. I also added some silly humor from a movie that we watched recently.

When we had a little playful momentum going, I said, ‘Let’s add to the list:

  • Do I need to tell my mom how awesome she is?
  • Do I need to do something nice for my smart, beautiful, awesome mom?

Then Ashley wrote:

  • Do I need my mom to sing opera and dance like crazy?

We turned it around again with a little dancing and singing, and she got through her schoolwork, with both of us really having fun and enjoying each other.”

This mom’s realization of what was happening beneath the surface of Julia’s behavior helped her to empathize with and encourage her daughter. This paved the way to empower her daughter to ask for what she needed to be successful. Notice how Julia also incorporated laughter and fun! In tension, laughing together releases serotonin and communicates, “Everything’s okay; we’re safe with each other.”

A key question: What helps schoolwork to go better?

Marilee, a homeschooling mom of five, was struggling with her 7-year-old son Timmy, who was very distractible and resistant to schoolwork. Every day he would run outside instead of doing his work. Thus began his regular morning power struggle with mom. 

In a coaching session, Marilee realized that the commotion of four siblings around him probably felt overwhelming to Timmy. When asked the question, “When does it go better?” Marilee realized that on days he was alone outside all morning, he was both regulated and motivated to get his schoolwork done quickly in the early afternoon so he could join play with his siblings. His “defiance” about morning schoolwork was actually his attempt to get what his brain and body needed to focus well. 

Timmy and Marilee problem-solved together and adjusted his schedule to put his schoolwork at the optimum time. Timmy also told his mom, “I really like rewards!” and chose rock tumbling. Marilee reported since these changes, Timmy is doing much better and has now lined up the rocks he’s earned.

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Practical ways to set your child up for schoolwork success

Whether you are with your child all day doing schoolwork or only a couple of hours in the evenings, there are many creative and practical ways to empathize, encourage, and empower your child. Here is a list of creative ideas from other parents: 

  • Start schoolwork with purposeful movement or something fun: a joke book, fun poems, singing silly songs together, big movement activity (60 Creative Ways to Get Kids Moving), or a short story time.
  • Plan a different activity each day to look forward to after work is done: a big coloring poster, puzzle, board games, obstacle courses, a half-hour classic TV show (i.e., Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, I Love Lucy), or a video chat with a grandparent. 
  • Occasionally hide healthy snacks or stickers in their work for kids to discover. 
  • If things start to get tense, line up and give back rubs for 3 minutes, and then switch directions
  • Use a timer, so kids know how long until a fun break comes. (60 Creative Ways to Get Kids Moving).
  • Put stickers on completed work and correct it together.
  • Kids can do their work in creative places! (Hammock, play tent, deck/patio, or even a treehouse!) 
  • Kids bugging each other? If possible, provide them with some private space in different corners or rooms. Be creative if you are in a tight area: try a big box or fort with pillows; under a table; behind the couch, your bedroom floor. 
  • Do math or spelling on the sidewalk or driveway in chalk. The bigger arm movements give more sensory input to speed up the visual motor learning process. Younger kids can make letters from masking tape and then drive toy cars or walk on them. 
  • Give kids more ownership. One mom invited her complaining kids, “Do you need to stop for the day?” Since they were reasonably motivated kids, that freedom was all they needed to decide they wanted to complete the assignment. 
  • Ask kids to make up their own “character report cards” and grade themselves daily for things like creativity, perseverance, focus, or cooperation. Ask questions about any successes to help them understand how they did it. 
  • Remember the importance of routine. Try to find ways of putting whatever ideas are most helpful into a predictable flow each day, so that empathy and encouragement are what your kids come to expect.

As you incorporate these ideas, expect lots of ups and downs and give yourself plenty of grace. God’s grace is much deeper than your homework struggles when things are tough, you’re exhausted, and your best efforts seem not to be helping your child. And when you blow it, model do-overs and remind each other that the Spirit of Jesus invites you and your children into His comfort and rest! 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Please reach out if you are feeling stuck! Let us know how we can empathize, encourage, and empower YOU as you parent. You might want to consider coaching, and, as always, we are praying for you.  Contact us with your prayer requests. 


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Jim and Lynne Jackson
Jim and Lynne Jackson
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