How to Cope When Your Homeschooler Balks at Schoolwork

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What do you do when your child refuses to do his work? It’s frustrating! Learn how to cope when your homeschooler balks at schoolwork.

What do you do when your homeschooled child won’t do his schoolwork? The situation is frustrating, but how to handle it depends on why it’s happening. In most cases, blatant defiance isn’t why your homeschooler is balking at schoolwork.

Homeschooler Balks at Schoolwork

First, determine the cause of the resistance. The coping method you choose will vary if it’s a discipline problem instead of, say, a readiness issue.

Consider factors such as:

  • The age of the child
  • Possible physical or medical issues (ADHD, vision or hearing problems, Asperger’s)
  • Potential learning challenges (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia)
  • Significant changes in the child’s life (divorce, a death in the family, the birth of a sibling, a move)
  • How your current curriculum meshes with his learning style or your teaching style

Once you pinpoint why your homeschooler doesn’t want to do his schoolwork, you can start exploring solutions.

Young Learners

The fact that society dictates that kids start school at age 5 doesn’t mean that’s the right time for all kids. Your child might not be developmentally for formal learning. Customizing each child’s education to his needs is one of the many benefits of homeschooling. For some kids, that may mean delaying formal learning.

If your child is crying or acting angry, frustrated, or bored, you might want to delay formal learning. Instead, spend time exploring the world through active play, hands-on learning and reading engaging stories.

Subject Struggles

Your child may be ready for formal learning in some areas, but not others. We went through a period with my oldest when it was clear that formal spelling lessons were a waste of time. She wasn’t retaining much from the lessons.

Although it made me nervous, we put spelling aside for a year or so. When we came back to it, my daughter’s retention improved. Plus, she still had a good attitude about spelling since I didn’t choose the subject as my hill to die on.

If your child isn’t retaining concepts or seems frustrated, you may need to put the material aside for a while. Give her time to reach a level of developmental readiness.

Focus Issues

Kids often balk at schoolwork when they struggle to focus. When my oldest was in 3rd or 4th grade, it used to take her forever to complete a math worksheet. She wasn’t incapable of doing the work. She just didn’t enjoy math and found it challenging to maintain focus.

The solution for us was a reward system for finishing her work in a reasonable timeframe. After determining that 30 minutes was a fair amount of time to finish, I gave her a starting goal of 45 minutes. That gave her some buffer time and allowed her to feel successful.

Each day that she finished her work before the timer went off, she got to put a sticker on a sheet.  She could trade a few stickers for a small prize, such as a candy bar at the grocery store checkout line. Or, she could save them up for a bigger prize, such as a date night with Mom or Dad.

She quickly realized that she lots more free time if she didn’t drag her feet over math, and we didn’t need a sticker chart.

If your child is dragging through his work, it could be a focus issue. Some solutions include trying a different curriculum, a different approach, or an incentive program. You may also want to consider dietary changes or medication for issues such as ADD and ADHD.

Homeschooler Balks at Schoolwork

Overwhelmed Learners

If your child is dragging his feet over schoolwork, he might be overwhelmed. Some causes include struggling with the material, poor time management skills, or an overloaded schedule (social or academic). Some kids deal with those issues by shutting down.

In this case, you may need to:


Procrastination and dawdling sometimes stem from boredom. Quick, ready learners often benefit from more challenging or engaging materials. Some kids need a different approach to learning such as video-based teaching or literature-based curriculum. Others respond well to opportunities for digging deeper into intriguing topics.

If your student seems bored, consider changing or tweaking your curriculum. You might also look at other ways to teach the material and allow time for chasing rabbit trails as your student explores a topic more thoroughly.

Character Issues

Sometimes balking at schoolwork is a character issue (i.e., your kid really is blatantly and defiantly refusing to do his work).  How to proceed in this case is going to vary from family to family. I’m not even about to tell you how to discipline your kid.

However you decide to proceed, consider the root cause of the defiance. I used to think that homeschooling parents who encouraged others to put schoolwork aside for a time while dealing with character issues were crazy. I mean, that was just going to teach the kids that they could act out and get out of schoolwork, right?

Not necessarily.

Sometimes you need to stop what you’re doing to have a heart-to-heart talk with your child. Often you’ll find out what’s really bothering him, and you can resolve the issue.

And, sometimes, stopping to talk it over will get you nowhere.

When my kids were little, sometimes I sent the defiant kid to his (or her) room until Brian got home. Then, that kid finished schoolwork with Dad while everyone else went on with their day.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that dads should be the heavy disciplinarian or that moms can’t handle a kids’ bad behavior on their own. Sending the kid to his room to wait on Mom if Dad is the at-home parent works, too.

Sometimes it helps the child to have a different parent with a different teaching style. And sometimes it’s better for everyone involved to tag-team with the parent who’s not already frustrated with the situation. 

Like us, kids sometimes need to work out their frustrations. Try taking a walk or giving them a job to do. For example, picking up sticks or trash in the yard gets kids away from the source of their frustration, gives them a physical outlet for relieving it, and offers them a sense of accomplishment.

Emotional Distress

Sometimes emotional struggles manifest themselves during school time. If your child has experienced significant upheaval in his life, he may need a little extra patience. He may also need someone (you, a family friend, another relative, or even a counselor) to talk with to learn more effective coping skills.

Thankfully, we haven’t had many issues with a kid defiantly balking at schoolwork. But we have dealt with learning struggles, readiness issues, emotional distress, and kids feeling overwhelmed. In my experience, taking time to address these, even if it means working through the curriculum at a slower pace, usually resolves the issue without any negative impact.

What suggestions do you have for coping when your homeschooler balks at schoolwork?

updated from an article originally published September 27, 2010

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Kris Bales is a newly-retired homeschool mom and the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest founder (and former owner) of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. Kris and her husband of over 30 years are parents to three amazing homeschool grads. They share their home with three dogs, two cats, a ball python, a bearded dragon, and seven birds.

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One Comment

  1. We’ve been having issues with the balking, and it seemed to be getting worse. We’ve had some serious family issues that I’m sure contribute to the chaos.
    Additionally, I’m certain my daughter has ADD but I’m NOT going to Ritalin her. I have adult friends that were medicated and they have regrets regarding their parents’ decision.
    We’ve tried the coffee/ tea thing and that didn’t much help. We’ve reduced sugars drastically, lean heavy on the protein and that’s helped some.
    Just last week we tried the 200 mg caffeine pill (same as a cup of coffee) and that seems to really be helping.

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