Mom-to-Mom Support/Motivating a Reluctant Student

Motivating a Reluctant Student

Reluctant student doesn't want to do school work

Do you ever wish that there was a key in the middle of your dear child’s back that could be wound up to get him going? Or do you have a child whose “starter” works but at the rate she’s going, she’ll need two lifetimes to finish her math book? And of course none of us has ever dealt with heart-string-tugging tears. . . . How to motivate a reluctant child is something that most homeschoolers have struggled with at one time or another. Let’s explore some of the best ways to help your reluctant student.

Rule out outside factors


The first step when addressing reluctance is to rule out other possible explanations. For example, ask yourself if you are expecting too much from the student. Perhaps your child is experiencing burnout because of too much work. Some homeschool providers assign too much busy work, which can take away the child’s love for learning and lead to burnout. Burnout is a serious matter, so if you think this is what it might be, you can read about it in more detail in our article “Homeschool Burnout and What to Do About It.” It’s filled with useful information and tips for recovering from burnout.

Not enjoying the subject

One of the key benefits of homeschooling is that you can adapt the education to your child’s needs. If your child finds a particular subject distasteful, you can consider adapting the subject to fit the child’s interests and learning preferences. Some simple adaptations are letting the child choose a different writing prompt or a different work of literature for a book report. Using interactive educational software can engage a struggling or unmotivated student. Computer games provide a painless way to reinforce skills and can also be a reward for slow-pokes when they finish seatwork in a reasonable amount of time. Knowledge of your child’s preferred learning style can help you adapt his education to make it more enjoyable. You can find detailed tips in the article “Homeschooling Students with Different Learning Styles.”

The motivation behind the reluctance

What if you determine that your child is not burned out, and you have adapted subjects to the child’s interests as far as you reasonably can? The next step is to determine what is motivating your child’s reluctance.

Reluctant students generally fall into three categories:

  1. those who are capable but don’t want to do the work
  2. those who are capable but have missed a key element somewhere in the learning process
  3. those who have actual disabilities

To determine which category your child falls into, experiment and see if he can actually do the work. Assign a moderate amount of work (short, but sufficient to show his capability) and offer an irresistibly attractive reward. How he responds will help you determine which category your child falls into. The detailed advice below will help you to know how to assist your child in each of these categories.

1. Capable, but unwilling

If your child suddenly performs for the reward, appearing not to have any difficulty with the assignment, then he is capable but does not want to do the work. This child would profit from praise when he completes the work and consequences when he doesn’t. Set firm, consistent boundaries that are appropriate for your child. That may mean that he must complete one page of work or work steadily for ten minutes before taking a short break of any kind. Be unflinchingly consistent. That’s easy advice to give, but it can be quite hard to implement! See our tips below:

Put away distractions

Put away all distractions and set the work to be completed in front of the student, or let him set a timer for ten minutes. Then he is on his own to get that work done (although you will need to keep him in sight so he doesn’t wander off). He must remain in place until the timer goes off or until the page is done, without any back-and-forth negotiating. If the child is distracted by other people or items in the room, either remove the distractions or move the child to a less distracting location in the house.

Set consequences and rewards

Establish definite consequences for not completing the work and a reward for completing the work. Also, it is important to communicate clearly the boundaries the child may not cross in order to earn a reward and avoid the consequences. Good boundaries include:

  • he may not get up for any reason (short of a real emergency) until the work or time is done
  • he may not complain or attempt to negotiate
  • he may not show a bad attitude
  • he may not talk to you or others except to ask questions necessary to doing his work

A reward for completing the assignment might be ten minutes of free time, a sticker, or a small extra privilege. A consequence of not completing the work might be the loss of a privilege, time out, or a small extra chore. Make sure that your child understands the boundaries, consequences, and rewards before beginning to work.

Follow through with boundaries, consequences, and rewards

The most important thing is to follow through with the rules you set. If you’re not already in the habit, you may need to set boundaries for yourself to help your child by refusing to engage in hovering, negotiating, pleading, or arguing. Your confident and calm use of boundaries will communicate that you take the situation seriously, and he must too.

Don’t allow your authority to be broken by giving in when your child pushes the boundaries. If the child insists that he needs a bathroom break, silently bring in a towel for him to sit on. Children need to understand that boundaries are firm and that it is in their best interest to respect those boundaries.

If the work is not completed, you calmly, confidently, and authoritatively dispense the consequences that you established. It is important that these consequences happen automatically and preferably soon (Remember that a child’s sense of time differs from an adult’s sense of time). Try not to show frustration or anger when dispensing consequences—the child needs to know that the problem is not your emotions but rather his own behavior.

You will have to make this new calm, confident, and logical approach the normal way that school—and the home—runs. Your children will not listen to you in school if they don’t listen to you regarding housework and personal behavior.

The idea is not to break children’s wills, but rather to firmly discipline them so that their desires don’t control them and everyone around them. Remember that the discipline you teach your children is what they will need for the rest of their lives to be virtuous, fruitful, and live in community with others.

Internal vs. external motivation

By putting away distractions, setting boundaries, and following through with consequences and rewards, you are providing external motivation for your student. This is not the deepest kind of motivation, but it’s a start. The goal is that the external motivation provided by parental boundaries will allow your student to develop good habits of concentration and diligence. Once these good habits are in place, it will be easier for the student to develop internal motivation. Read the second half of “What Do I Do If My Child Won’t Listen to Me?” for tips on helping your student transition from external to internal motivation.

Bored and tired boy not motivated to do school

2. Capable, but missing important concepts

If your child tries to win the reward, but he is not able to do the work, consider whether he struggles in most of his subjects or just a few. If he only struggles in one or two subjects, then it’s most likely he doesn’t understand how to do the work. In this case, it is best to backtrack to the point at which the child last experienced success. Then move forward gradually to see exactly where the train derailed.

For example, if the child did reasonably well with math in first and second grade but is struggling in third grade, he may not have learned how to regroup, or he might be shaky on the multiplication tables. Practicing those skills should ease some of the resistance to learning. And as new materials are presented each day, be sure to do a few example exercises together. This will let you know immediately if a concept has not been understood.

If your children’s first years of schooling were spent outside the home, without the one-on-one attention that they now receive from you, there are probably at least a few educational gaps that you are only now discovering. Following the steps above can set reluctant students back on track and encourage students and parents alike.

3. Learning disabled

If your child tries to win the reward but is not able to do the work, another explanation may be that he has a learning disability. Just because your child struggles with a subject doesn’t mean you should assume he has a learning disability, of course, and sometimes children are incorrectly labeled as learning disabled when they are simply discouraged by too much work or confused by missing important concepts. Still, there are many children with genuine learning disabilities. Children who have disabilities are likely to struggle in many subjects rather than just one.

This is a fairly good way to distinguish between a child who is unable to do the work because he is missing important concepts and a child with a learning disability: a child with a learning disability is more likely to struggle in many subjects, while a child who is missing important concepts will usually struggle in only one or two subjects.

So if you find that your child is unable to do the work in most of his subjects, despite being offered irresistible rewards, you may want to consider whether he has a learning disability.

This can lead you to additional resources for alleviating his learning challenges. Although there can be particular teaching techniques that help with particular disabilities, the general approach for a child with a learning disability is the same as for a child who is missing important concepts. In both cases, it is best to backtrack to the point at which the child last experienced success and then move forward more slowly to make sure that he is able to retain new concepts.

Final thoughts

These are just some examples of how to motivate reluctant students. Remember to look for outside factors that may be hindering your child, as they often play a vital role in his reluctance. If you think your child may have learning gaps or disabilities, working back to “stable ground”—concepts or levels where the child performs well—will help you discover why your child is experiencing difficulty. The key for curing garden-variety reluctance is to set boundaries and dispense consequences and rewards with calm authority.

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