mom pointing finger at stubborn child who is refusing to do schoolwork

Inside: You planned your homeschool mom heart out, and now? Your child is refusing to do the schoolwork on the docket for the day (and every day, actually). Before you go completely postal, ask these 5 questions first, for a better, saner response to schoolwork refusal.

I’ll never forget the first time I encountered a child refusing to do school work. It was epic schoolwork refusal – just wait, you’ll see.

Maybe other people have kids who are people-pleasing cherubs like I used to be?

As a child, I absolutely adored the praise of my teachers and my parents. I honestly didn’t mind whatever schoolwork was put in front of me – probably because I loved checking boxes off my to-do list and getting straight A’s more than I minded busywork.

So you can imagine my surprise when I brought my then 6-year-old home her university model school and assigned what I thought to be a ridiculously simple task that first day:

Complete one page of her phonics workbook.

I moved her to a quiet room (because: sibling chaos) and set her up with her schoolwork.

Forty-five minutes later I checked back in…

Not a single question was completed. Not ONE.

She decided that staring out the window for forty-five minutes was more entertaining and worthwhile than doing one page of that phonics worbook.

I was secretly impressed.

That kind of perseverance was admirable…if I didn’t have to decide what to do about it.

When Homeschool Mom Plans Meet Real-Life Child

Summers are a homeschool mom’s playground. I know because the summer before I started homeschooling was

Browsing the interwebs for homeschool curriculum ideas, shopping for homeschool supplies and planning your homeschool year out all the way to Christmas?

Those things are super fun!

The possibilities are endless and the deliveries keep on coming until my kids thing it’s Christmas in July (and it kinda is for homeschoolers everywhere, amiright?!).

I remember the idealism of those early days, the days before I had any idea what homeschooling was actually like.

Or should I say, what homeschooling my real-life kids (not the ones who jumped up and down at my every plan and idea) was going to be like.

The day that all the sparkly homeschool mom plans and curriculum meet real-life kids? Yeah, that’s not so much fun.

Maybe reality doesn’t hit the first day, like it did for me. Or the first week. Or even the first month.

But I guarantee you that by months two or three, your kids will have shown their true colors, and you’ll be reevaluating all the homeschool plans you made.

The newness that is homeschool life has worn off, and your plans hit the fan (if they haven’t yet, trust me, they will).

So what do you DO when your child refuses to do schoolwork?

You could wage all out war and take away all.the.things. #beentheredonethat

You could bribe your way to compliance (I’ll give you candy, screens, money. Just do that darn work!!!) #beentheredonethat

You could threaten to register them for school if they don’t comply. #beentheredonethat

You could lock yourself in the bathroom, eat chocolate and cry (well o.k., maybe for just a minute.) #beentheredonethat too

Or you could take a big step back and a deep breath. You could press pause on all your awesome plans and pour yourself a cup of coffee. Tea, if you must. I won’t judge.

And you can ask these five questions to help you decide how to respond.

mom pointing finger at daughter whose back is turned, refusing to do school work, with text overlay, "5 things to ask when your child refuses to do school - before you completely lose it"

5 Questions to Ask When Your Child Refuses to Do Schoolwork

All of those things above? I tried them all. They didn’t help, at least not long-term.

Those poor responses were a band-aid for homeschool and parenting philosophies that needed to change.

Over the course of a few years, as I encountered schoolwork refusal again with another child, then again with the next, I realized that something deeper needed to change.

I asked myself these questions, and over time, my approach to dealing with schoolwork refusal evolved based on my answers.

1. Why do you want your child to do the schoolwork he/she is refusing to do?

This might seem like a super basic question at first with “duh” type answers.

  • Because my homeschool curriculum guide says we are supposed to do this today.
  • Because the state requires that I teach XYZ subject.
  • Because if they don’t do that assignment now, they can’t do that one tomorrow.

Here’s some honest to goodness truth for you: those aren’t good reasons. And your child knows it.

Kids are smart. They know when they are being given busywork, and they don’t want to do meaningless work anymore than you do.

In school, they just go along with it. Because it’s school, and you won’t be there to pick them up until 3 o’clock. There’s nothing better to do, so why not just do the schoolwork already?

(I mean, some kids find other ways to avoid it and may or may not get into trouble for refusing, but that’s another story.)

But at home? Depending on your parenting approach, they may finally feel free to speak up. They want to have a good reason for the schoolwork they’re being asked to do.

I don’t blame them.

If you don’t know why you want them to do it, and they don’t know why, then seriously, why are you even making it a thing?

Deep down, maybe you’re afraid that they will fall behind. You look into the future and picture your child not knowing the capital of Wyoming and think it will come back to bite your child one day (it’s o.k., I’ve had that fear, too).

Maybe you’re trying to do school at home, and bought a curriculum that looked as close to school as possible.

Maybe you’re afraid of your child having too much free time, so you try to fill it with more and more schoolwork.

Whatever the reason, you owe it to your child to dig deep and come up with an honest answer to this question.

2. Are you feeling personally offended or hurt by your child’s refusal?

The answer to this question may sting a little at first. But your child deserves to have you answer it before your decide on a course of action.

Maybe you fell in love with a particular art project. You looked forward to doing it with your child, you spent a lot of time preparing. You are emotionally invested in this assignment.

And your child is as uninterested as it gets. She could politely go along with very little enthusiasm (but you can tell she doesn’t love it), or best case scenario, kindly ask to be excused from doing it.

Maybe the read-aloud you planned is your favorite childhood book. You can’t wait to share it with your kids!

And they’re bored to tears after the first few pages.

It hurts, right? All that prep time, all that work, and your child refuses to do it?

That beloved book you couldn’t wait to share, and your kids hate it. Ouch.

And I didn’t even mention finances. Paying for homeschool resources your child doesn’t end up using isn’t fun, either.

Another big one to consider: maybe you’re embarrassed because you think your child’s refusal reflects negatively on you as a parent. I’ve been there, and it’s why I’m reading this book right now.

When we are hurt or offended or embarrassed as homeschool parents, we need to tread carefully. If we respond out of hurt, we can seriously damage our relationship with our kids and our homeschools long-term.

Only after we deal with our own junk can we look objectively at the work we’re asking our child to do.

3. What will you gain by forcing your child to do it?

This is a good one to answer because quite honestly, you have a lot to lose if you have to resort to force.

Force can look like threats or withholding something your child wants. Or it can look like bribery, which is still a type of control.

Rewards simply control through seduction rather than force, according to University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and all techniques that rely on control ultimately undermine what children need in order to make good decisions and take responsibility for their actions.

Alfie Kohn (source)

Whenever you have to use force, you risk connection, which I hope is a top homeschool and parenting priority for you.

If you’re going to require your child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do, you better have a good reason for doing so.

4. Is there another way you can approach the same subject or concept?

Sometimes, the problem isn’t the work itself, it’s the way that work is being presented.

Some children think they hate math…until you try something different than the classic math curriculum.

All of these things are alternatives to typical math instruction.

They might not present math concepts linearly, in a way that makes it easy for us adults to check all the “right” boxes, but they do expose your child to math concepts.

Think outside the box. Consider ways other than your preferred style of homeschooling/learning – it’s hard, I know!

Maybe the schoolwork doesn’t need to be done the way you’re trying to get your child to do it.

5. Do they really need to do that assignment right now? Can it wait?

Our modern world is full of arbitrary timelines…and grim warnings for those who don’t meet them.

Schools tell us that our child needs to start reading by age 5, and if he isn’t proficient by 7, look out!

It’s enough to make a homeschool mom super anxious all the time, constantly worrying that you might be failing at this homeschool thing.

But what if they don’t need to do it right now? What if they don’t need to follow the arbitrary timeline?

What if you waited a month to learn how to reduce fractions (and learn how to add, subtract, divide and multiply them in the meantime)? Or held off on reading instruction until your child showed interest?

What if your child hates history right now, at age almost 9? (Me!) Can you let it go for now, believing that he can jump into the next round of Story of the World a year or two from now?

Waiting requires faith, faith that your child will come around or if not, faith that what you thought was so essential, your child really will be o.k. not knowing.

I’ve taken that risk, and I’ve seen it pay off.

My second child didn’t learn to read until just before age 8. Not freaking out at his lack of interest at age 6, then age 7, was hard.

But thankfully I learned from my first – I didn’t push. I patiently waited.

And it paid off when he was finally ready at 7.5 to learn how to read. Because he was eager and ready and saw reading as valuable, learning to read was fast and easy.

So maybe you can borrow my faith/confidence for now? It gets easier – promise.

Related: 21 Brilliant Homeschooling Tips for Beginners

What Do I Do When My Child Refuses to “Do School”?

I’ve dealt with this more than a few times over the past five years. With each child, it looks different.

But one thing I have learned is that while you can force a child to “do schoolwork”, you can’t force learning.

And if they aren’t learning anything, then what’s the point of forcing it? In my experience, it only leads to broken relationships and resistance to learning in any form.

I’ve also learned to hold my homeschool plans loosely, to try not to get emotionally attached to them.

There is always freedom to opt out in our homeschool (because again, you can’t force learning).

Finally, I’ve found that the more freedom I give, the more my kids opt-in to my homeschool plans. And the honor and the freedom I’ve given them is paying off.

For example, my oldest could probably care less about fractions and decimals. But her dad wants her to keep up with math so she can have the basics she needs to keep her options open one day.

So we talked. I shared why we wanted her to learn fractions and decimals this year, and she agreed to learn it.

We are going at her pace, with a very basic Amazon workbook. Sometimes, we skip things, like reducing fractions. For whatever reason, the thought o of reducing fractions makes her anxious.

When your child refuses to do schoolwork, there is always a reason.

It’s up to you to figure out why and to decide whether that schoolwork is actually worth doing in the first place.

And if you decide that it is worth doing, it’s up to you to 1) deal with your own heart stuff (the fear, the hurt, etc.) and to 2) figure out how to assign that schoolwork in a way that honors your child AND you.

You might have to change the way you get the information across. You might have to wait until you child is ready to tackle whatever it is.

So when your child refuses to “do school”, take a deep breath. A solution does exist – one that doesn’t require complicated reward systems, threats, or tears.

Go through these questions. Work the problem, and come up with a solution that honors everyone.

You’ve got this, homeschool mama!

Curious about the approach to homeschooling behind this response? Read THIS post about relaxed homeschooling to learn more!

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