Mom-to-Mom Support/What Do I Do If My Child Won’t Listen to Me?

What Do I Do If My Child Won’t Listen to Me?

Mom homeschools reluctant daughter

Is it a discipline issue?

If your student won’t listen to you when you are giving directions, the first step is to make sure this isn’t a subtle (or not-so-subtle) way of disobeying. If your child is resisting your authority, this will show itself in other areas of home life, not just during school hours. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • When I tell my child to do something outside of school time, do they obey promptly without having to be told a second time? Do they whine and complain?
  • Does my child respect my authority, or does he respond to me with a disrespectful expression and/or tone of voice?

If your child doesn’t practice right-away obedience, or if he acts disrespectfully, then he would benefit from more consistent discipline. Consider reading these articles for detailed discipline tips: “Discipline: The Five C’s to a Happy Home” and “Motivating a Reluctant Student.” These will help with establishing consistent discipline in the home.

For more help, we recommend reading Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime (available as a book or audiobook) by Dr Ray Guarendi, a Catholic psychologist and homeschooling father of ten. Besides offering practical tips, Dr Ray also empowers parents by explaining that consistent discipline is the greatest gift you can give your child:

“Discipline . . . is teaching done at the hands of a parent, the most loving, gentle hands most children will ever learn from. Discipline now, and your children won’t be disciplined later—by the world, by people who don’t love them with a fraction of your love. Discipline is the most durable form of love. It lasts a lifetime” (excerpt from Chapter 1).

Obedient but unfocused children

If your child is respectful and obedient outside of lesson time, then it’s possible he is having trouble focusing when you give instructions. Many of us tend to lose our focus when we’re not interested in a subject, when we’re tired, or if we get into the habit of tuning out. Being focused is hard work at any age. Here are some tips for teaching a child who has trouble with this.

Break up school time into 15-minute sessions

Alternate schoolwork with physical activity, chores, enrichment activities, and free time. This is especially helpful for young children; even second and third-graders need lots of physical activity throughout the day. Some children can work steadily for two hours, understanding that they are then free to do as they please for most of the rest of the day. Others are not able to focus steadily for that long. Find your child’s limit of concentration and make sure he is rewarded for pushing himself by getting a break.

Sit beside instead of across from each other

If you are in the habit of sitting across from your child when giving instructions, you might try sitting beside him instead. Think about having a conversation with him as you sit beside him. This means starting with a question. “What do you think we are about to learn? What do you already know about X?” This can be a more engaging method of teaching, and it can inspire the student to invest more of his mind and heart in what he is learning.

Alternate explanations and self-directed work

Alternate explanations and self-directed work, beginning with self-directed work. For instance, you might begin the school day by saying, “Do this review drill first, and then when you have completed it, I’ll explain what you will do next.” This sounds as if it wouldn’t work, but the review drill gets him going, and inertia keeps him going because it will take more effort for him to shut down. He will already be in intellectual motion. In addition, coming to you when he is ready for the next step is a different psychological experience than if you try to get him going immediately with something that requires high concentration.

Allow your child to puzzle out the lessons on his own

If your child tends to tune out your instructions, another idea is to give him the lesson and tell him to ask for help only if he gets stumped. Some children prefer to puzzle out lessons on their own—that may be part of your child’s learning style. Sometimes we tend to over-explain, but usually children are more receptive if they try on their own and then come to us for help. If your child makes the effort to figure out the lesson on his own, he may make mistakes, but that’s okay. Ask him why he chose a particular answer or response. This helps you and him discover how he thinks and where he went astray in the learning process.

Explain the lesson in very short segments

If your child has difficulty with multi-step exercises or concepts, you can try explaining the lesson in very short segments, as short as you can get. After each segment, let him work up to the point where he needs another explanation. This will not work with all children, but it’s worth a try. In addition to helping your child learn to work independently, it also makes your instruction time as efficient as possible.

Obedient but unmotivated children

Some children may be obedient in general but lack motivation. Not every child is self-motivated, but every student should be growing in self-discipline. This virtue is particularly important in education as your child moves into older grades. Motivation is not something that will change overnight; it will take time and continual practice before you see a change.

So how do you get your child motivated? In essence, there are two different types of motivation.

External motivation

External motivation comes from outside of the student. This happens when he wants to please his parents or receive a reward for doing his work. This is not the deepest kind of motivation, but it’s a start. Deadlines and consequences are also forms of external motivation, and no one can deny their usefulness! But external motivation generally weakens over time or when it is pitted against strong desires, making it insufficient in the long run.

Internal motivation

Then there is internal motivation, which comes from within the student. When a student is motivated to do something because he wants to or sees inherent value in the act, this is internal motivation (also known as intrinsic motivation). To put it simply, sometimes we do things simply because we like doing them—we find them satisfying or worthwhile. For example, if a student likes to draw, the motivation will come from the enjoyment of drawing. The activity itself rewards the student and offers enough motivation.

Internal motivation to study comes in different forms. The most powerful form is the simple love for learning, a delight in learning new information about the world. All children are born with this love for learning, but it can be stifled by an educational atmosphere that makes learning a chore. See the article “Homeschool Burnout and What to Do About It” for tips on reigniting your children’s love for learning.

Another form of internal motivation is the satisfaction felt in a job well done. The satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best at a task, even if it wasn’t enjoyable, is a type of internal motivation that will be valuable in many different aspects of the child’s life.

The third form of internal motivation doesn’t usually develop until students are older. At a certain point, students become mature enough to be motivated by the fact that studying is necessary to prepare them for their adult lives. This is especially useful for subjects that the student doesn’t enjoy for their own sake. For instance, a student who aspires to be a veterinarian might not enjoy studying algebra. But she approaches her math book with internal motivation because she knows that upper level math is necessary in order to reach her future goals.

How to transition from external to internal motivation

The real task is to transition from external to internal motivation. To begin with, you may have to use some kind of reward system or positive reinforcement techniques that you can easily apply each day. For example, start with giving him an easy-to-achieve reward, such as doing his work well for 20 minutes rewarded with 10 minutes of free time. Then as time goes along, increase the time until the point that he finishes an assignment before he gets a reward. This should help the student focus enough to discover internal motivation for what he is learning.

Even though the student is initially motivated by the reward, he will also begin to experience the pleasure of learning new things and the satisfaction of a job well done. Try to maximize his experience of these internal motivations by making his studies as interesting as possible, with plenty of hands-on enrichment. Design his assignments so they are challenging enough to give him satisfaction when he completes them but not so hard that they’ll create discouragement.

For older students, discuss how their studies are necessary to prepare them for their adult lives. Try to make the discussion concrete by connecting particular subjects to particular aspects of their future goals, or adult life in general. If there is a subject which you believe is necessary but that doesn’t connect to your student’s career goals, explain that you are requiring it because you know that his career goals might change, and you want him to be prepared.

Give encouragement

On days you see that your child isn’t very motivated, it’s important to give him a lot of praise and encouragement. Positive feedback on past assignments may get him motivated and encourage him to start his assignment. If this does not work, then start giving consequences, such as for every minute he dawdles, he loses a minute of his free time. It’s important for the consequence to fit the crime, so don’t go overboard right away.

Are the lessons challenging enough?

Finally, your child may not be listening if the material is too easy for him. A student will become unmotivated if he finds the exercises or instructional level too simple. If the lessons are boring, the student won’t experience the pleasure of learning something new, or the satisfaction of doing his best at a challenging task.

To solve this, start small; if an assignment requires him to write a response to a question, ask him afterward what further questions the assignment raises in his mind. Have him write down one or more of these questions, too, and then answer them more briefly. Consider allowing him to move through lessons more quickly in a subject he finds easy, with the promise of more challenging lessons to come. Intersperse lessons with practical application, such as a video of a teacher applying mathematics in an interesting physics experiment.

When a student’s work is challenging enough, he will enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with successfully completing his work. This will motivate him to continue learning.

Final Thoughts

Not listening is not always a sign of disobedience; sometimes there are outside factors to consider. Find out why the student is not listening and work on motivating him from there.

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