What to do about a reluctant learner?

What to do about a reluctant learner?

At some point as homeschool teachers we all experience it. Temper tantrums, melt downs, resistance, disobedience or even outright defiance. For some children it occurs daily. For others, it is every once in a while. Even the most well-behaved student may go through times of pushing against the boundaries to see what they can get away with. But for some the melt downs are constant and cause you to question your own competence as a teacher.

What to do? You may feel like throwing your hands up in defeat and sending your child to school. But before you do that, grab a cup of coffee (or tea, or a piece of chocolate) pull up a chair and let’s take a look at what may be the cause of your child’s “reluctance”.

First, you will need to determine whether it is a behavior issue or something else. Consider the following. This is not an exhaustive list, rather a place to get started in your assessment:

Learning disability, sensory issue, or other special needs

There are some excellent articles online that discuss what symptoms or behaviors to look for if you suspect there may be a learning disability involved. You could do a quick Google search to get started. In Grand Cayman there are a few providers that offer assessments. They are listed on this page. Click the link to see them.

Food allergies, intolerance, improper nutrition

If you have ever experienced symptoms from a food intolerance or allergy, you know it can be disruptive to your life and cause grumpiness or surly behavior. On the other hand, ensuring your child has a balanced a nutritionally complete diet can help improve mood and behavior. Take a look at the food your child is eating and assess whether there could be a correlation to their behavior.


Tired = cranky and grumpy. (This goes for both the student and the teacher, right?) Evaluate whether your child is getting enough sleep or if they need an earlier bedtime.

Child is ‘hangry’

Hungry + angry = ‘hangry’. I cannot tell you how many times we get to mid-morning in our schooling and my child will start to display irritable and impatient behavior with our coursework. It does not take much for me to discover he is hungry and is reaching his breaking point. When you are hungry it is impossible to concentrate, let alone be a productive student. Get ahead of the temper tantrums and irritability by planning for a snack time and be flexible to move it sooner if your child is exhibiting ‘hangry’ symptoms.

Behavioral issue

If your child does not fall into any of the above categories, it may be a behavioral issue. Sometimes you have a child who is stubborn, strong willed, and just does not want to do what you are telling them to do. While all of these traits can be very positive as an adult, it is difficult to teach a child who challenges you at every opportunity or simply will not do the work you are assigning. Here are some strategies:

  1. Have a set routine. Our last blog talked more in detail about how to set up a routine for your child. Check it out here. This is important because it brings predictability, comfort and consistency to your child as they learn. Older students can participate in the planning of the routine.
  2. Use a timer. Sometimes we bite off more than our child can chew. Especially at the beginning of the year, trying to spend an hour doing Math may be more than your student can handle and their behavior is telling you that. Use the timer, start off with smaller increments depending on the age of the child (ie. We will work at this for 10 or 15 minutes, and then have a break) and gradually increase the time after you have had some success. You can still reach that goal of an hour of Math, but take your time getting there. For older students, give them a time period in which they need to complete their work. The incentive for finishing early is that they can have free time until their next subject begins.
  3. Frequent Breaks. This is a big one, especially with younger children. It is hard for a young child to sit still and do workbook activities for a long period of time. Use your timer (or the clock) to determine how long you and your student will work, and then take a 20 minute break. Have a walk outside, eat a snack, do some jumping jacks…. Anything to break up the time of needing to sit still and concentrate. For older children and teens, allow them a short break to get up and walk around in between each subject to help clear their mind for the next class.
  4. Offer choices. It is okay to let your child make some decisions in their school day. It is hard for them to argue against a choice THEY made. But be strategic with how you give the choice. “Would you like to do Reading or Science first?” is a much better choice than “What are we doing for school today?” Provide them with two choices that are both acceptable for you, but gives them the ability to participate in the important decisions of their schooling.
  5. Reward System. Incentives are a powerful motivator for some children. Consider offering your child a reward after doing a specified amount of work (or completing certain subjects) without complaining. The rewards do not have to be big or expensive either. It could be stickers, a trip to the park, an extra half hour of break, or a treat.
  6. Be consistent. Children are smart, and are very good at reading adults. They can tell you which parent is more likely to give in first. (our kids know my husband is the ‘softy’ in our family) And they know what behavior to use to get the desired results. Know this, if you consistently give into their demands when they exhibit tantrums, they will continue to have tantrums whenever they do not want to do their school work. However, if you consistently stick with the routine, use timers or stop watches, offer them choices, etc., you ill have much better results than if you only stick to the plan one day and on the next day you give into the tantrum behavior. Remember, even the most well-behaved student will likely have times of pushing against the boundaries to see what they can get away with. Be consistent and stick with it. On the difficult days consider working on each subject for a shorter period of time before calling it quits.
  7. Stay Strong. Separate your role as the teacher from that of the parent. Take the emotions out of it. Remember, you are not the one at fault so don’t take it personally. Recognize it as your child’s behavior (not yours) but do not let it ruin your day.
  8. Have a “Principal”. In our house, I am the teacher and my husband is the principal. Although he is the “softie” as a parent, he certainly isn’t a softie as the principal. When I have reached my limit with one of the children, I bring them to the principal’s office (AKA a visit to see dad). I will state to the principal (in front of the child) what the problem is, and why the behavior is unacceptable. The child will have a chance to say their side of the story as well. The role of the principal is to be an additional level of authority, but also to bring an objective perspective to the situation. My husband has helped reinforce to our children when they are exhibiting unacceptable behavior. But at times it has been helpful to me as the teacher to hear a second opinion. As an objective listener, he is able to give me a fresh view and may suggest an alternative approach to resolving the situation. Having someone who will support and reinforce your authority as a teacher (as well as give an objective point of view) is helpful in addressing any circumstance that arise.

At the end of the day you know your child best. If you have had a particularly challenging day, give yourself a ‘time out’, take a breath and come up with a plan. Remember, a reluctant child is communicating to us through their behavior. Consider whether their behaviors lead you to wonder about a learning disability. Decide if you need to plan a more substantial breakfast and snack time or an earlier bedtime. Evaluate your school routine and determine what you may need to adjust. One of the benefits of homeschooling is that you have the ability to change and adapt to your child’s needs in the way you think will best suit them.

Homeschooling my children has not always been easy, but it has been rewarding to watch each child pull through their difficult times and succeed. We have had (and sometimes continue to have) trying times, but using this list has helped us determine how to move forward in a positive way. We hope this will help turn your reluctant learner around to become a thriving and flourishing student.