One Mother’s Cure for the Resistant Learner

“What do I have to lose?” she asked herself as she handed her son a pen and paper.

After months of butting heads, months of frustration, months of battling the strong will of her resistant learner, my friend was exhausted.  As a homeschool mom, she wanted nothing more than to teach her son and ignite a passion for learning within him.  But, no matter how “perfect” she planned each day, her enthusiasm was met with his folded arms and set jaw.  He was determined to object to every assignment…to every lesson.  And as the oldest of a handful of other learners, he was setting a very menacing precedence.

“What can I do to reach him?” was her constant inner turmoil.  He was a bright boy with wonderful leadership skills.  He was hardworking and passionate about faith and family.  But, when it came to homeschooling, his passion morphed into antipathy…opposition…RESISTANCE.

Resistant Learner

One day, in a moment of desperation, an idea sparked!

Since he stubbornly challenged how SHE chose to direct his school day…what if HE was given opportunity to direct it?  Not to say that she intended to give up her authority as his mom and teacher, but that she would welcome his input.  It was, after all, HIS education.

She set aside the books for the afternoon and replaced them with a pen and paper.  She invited him to write a list of 5-10 changes he would like to make to their normal school-day routine.  She cautioned him to give REALISTIC suggestions…”play video games all day, everyday” would likely be dismissed by her power of VETO.

“I will do my best to honor your requests…IF you do your best to do your school work WITHOUT COMPLAINT.” she said.

In true first-born style, he accepted the challenge with resolve.  He was being entrusted with the opportunity to “have a say.”  His eyes lit as he squared his shoulders. He felt the pride of a MAN…a man in control.

For a moment, she wanted to reclaim the paper.  What if his “suggestions” were unattainable?  What if he wanted to skip school and just play all day?

Within moments, his list was complete.  He thrust it towards her with conviction.

To her surprise, his list was more than manageable…it was actually quite SIMPLE.  Eight small desires from a boy who just wanted to have a small SAY in the order of his day.

And what was on his uncomplicated plan?

  1. I want a short break between each subject. That is certainly do-able…It will give me a chance to work with your younger brother.
  2. I want to go fishing with Dad after school.  Well, it’s probably not possible to go EVERY day.  But, I’ll see if he can take you out once or twice a week when the weather’s nice.  
  3. I want to pick out 5 or 6 math problems that you will do WITH me, so I don’t have to do it all by myself.  As long as you do the rest without complaint.  I’d be happy to!
  4. I don’t want to do the spelling program that you’ve purchased.  I just want a list of words to memorize each week.  That’s just fine.  But, I get to pick the words.
  5. I never like the suggested writing topics in my language book.  I want to be able to pick the topic myself.  The truth is, it doesn’t really matter WHAT you write about.  You just need to write…and do it correctly.  So sure!  You can pick the topics.
  6. I want you to grade my language and math pages.  I want a SCORE!  I suppose it is nice to see your success in black-and-white.  While I may not have time to grade EVERY page, I will do my best to grade a few each week.
  7. I want a written “to do” list that I can “check off” each day.  Done!
  8. I want to be able to illustrate my Latin and Greek word cards.  If that will help you learn them, then go right ahead.

She smiled, sent him off to enjoy his first “break” of the day, and breathed a sigh of relief. With a knowing grin, she marveled at how his list of “demands” reflected his TYPE A personality.

She looked over his list one more time.  By no means did she want to reward bad behavior, but if there were a few tweaks that could be made to the day to make it run more smoothly FOR EVERYONE, why shouldn’t she try?  Everything on his list was completely do-able and certainly showed that he had taken her challenge seriously and had sincerely wanted just a few simple changes.

It had never occurred to her to put a grade on his paper.  But she could see now how a tangible number, would give him a sense of security in his ability.  It would provide a goal for a very goal-oriented boy.  And allowing him to choose the topic for his language reports?  What would it hurt?  In fact, he’d probably write much better if he were able to write about something that he was passionate about.

For months, he had met her with opposition.  Little did she know, all he wanted was to be able to feel like a little bit of his day was within his own control.

I applaud my dear friend who saw this NEED in her son.  A NEED to be heard.  She could have easily met his resistance with equal resolve.  She could have dug her heals in the sand and matched will for will.  But, by lending a listening ear, she was rewarded with a more compliant learner who was willing to yield to her plans knowing that she cared enough to include HIM in them.

Are you faced with a resistant learner?  Could it be that resistance is really just a desperate plea to have input?  To be heard?  Obviously, sometimes a poor attitude is just THAT…a poor attitude, which needs to be dealt with accordingly.  But, what if the poor attitude is merely a result of a child being “provoked to wrath” by never being able to contribute to his/her education?  I can’t guarantee that all your struggles will fade if you relinquish some of the control, but in the words of my friend, “What do you have to lose?”

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  1. Oh, I wonder if it’ll work with MY son?! He’s 8 and it’s been a power struggle all year. Just the mention of school sends him into complaints and whines. I’ve tried and retried different things – the list would be overwhelmingly long to include here – and finally “chalked it up” to his learning challenges with SPD. He’s young, so I don’t know how giving him more say would work…

    1. Jessy, even if this exact solution won’t work for your son at his age, I think it would still be a great idea to just have a conversation with him about why he doesn’t like doing his school work. Maybe on a day when you aren’t doing school and he’s in a good mood, you can just ask him informally, “Hey Mark, can you tell me what you like and what you don’t like about doing school? I’d like to know what you think about it.” Then don’t correct him or fuss at him for his answers. Just listen and make notes of what he says. Later, after you’ve had time to look over his list and really think about it, you might be able to come up with some solutions to his issues. It’s definitely worth a try! I was having the same problems with my son, and I found out that he thought I didn’t like him! School was stressful for us, so I probably fussed at him more than I realized. No wonder he was resistant! (I’m definitely not saying that your son thinks you don’t like him. My point is simply that you can never tell what might be going on in his mind causing him to resist doing school.) Here’s the post if you want to read it: https://hiphomeschoolmoms.com/2012/10/how-to-homeschool-your-teenage-son-and-be-happy-at-the-same-time/ I hope you are able to have a productive discussion with him so you can look forward to doing school instead of having conflict!

      1. I wanted to thank you for your reply, Wendy, and sharing your post about you and your son. I do appreciate it! Perhaps I can turn this around before he gets to 12 with some of the ideas that you shared. But I did have LOL at your description of a “perfect” teenage son and homeschooling. I also have one of those! My oldest son is everything you described: he plans his work, does it completely and timely, and never ever complains.

        1. 🙂 I hope you can turn it around soon too, Jessy! We have our children at home for such a short time when you really think about it, and we want those to be pleasant years. I don’t know why some kiddos are just more difficult than others, but they sure do keep us on our toes! And you are very welcome for the reply. I’m glad to help if I can! I’m glad I made you LOL too! 😉

  2. Thank you for this post! I have a resistant learner, but your post showed me that it’s probably not her… we are doing K12 curriculum and it’s such a tightly scheduled and demanding program that there is no room for doing our school day how WE want to do it. My daughter and I both hate it and can’t wait until it’s over. We are excited to be switching next year to a curriculum that allows us more control over our day! 🙂

    1. Angie, I’ve heard so many folks who use K12 say they have the same problem! K12 is really not a true homeschool curriculum, and it definitely lacks some of the benefits of homeschool curriculums. One of the main benefits of homeschooling is being able to be flexible and to change curriculums or teaching methods or having the ability to change lessons around so that they meet your child’s needs and interests. I hope you find something that works well for your daughter and that she can enjoy! I promise you it will make a huge difference! 🙂

  3. As a smart but difficult child, I would have welcomed some of the somewhat ignorant teachers that could only follow their written regime and could not work out of the box. I had a very high IQ and was bored to death. Once a reached a teacher that realized it was boredom not being bad and hardheaded, she had me help design my study plans (5th grade) and assigned me the task of being a student teacher to a child in the class that had very few friends. I cringed. She had had polio, wore braces, smelled and now I was responsible for her. Mom took me to her house twice a week to work on math and writing with her. This teacher was smart. Years later she showed my mom the scrap book she made for me chronicling all my achievements in school, even when I moved to another town, all my awards at UIL contests, all my awards on all sorts of intelligent tests my senior year, my first marriage, and more. My mom cried. Mrs. Ramsey told her she keeps one book for each child she believed she could turn around and had all the promise of achievements. I did have a great career. And she recognized I was bored. By the 5th grade I was already reading at a 12th grade level. Back then there were no special programs. But she made sure she gave me research projects that I would love and the student teaching to learn to interact with other people…..she was a true teacher and she listened to me and allowed me to help and give in put. She allowed me to be a person. It made me feel so special.

  4. I am struggling with this exact problem. My oldest is in 5K, so this is our first year, and he only completes his work so that he can then play video games. He is a smart and energetic fellow. Every day is an ugly negotiation. He tells me that he is bored and that games are the only thing that he enjoys. I don’t want him doing that all day. I think homeschooling is the best for him, but I worry that this is giving school a bad name in our house. I want my 4 yr old and it little tot to see this is as a great experience.

    1. Hilary, I had the same trouble with my son (now age 16) when he was first starting to homeschool. I wish I had handled it better, but I had no clue what to do. Maybe you can ask your son what he likes and what he would change about “doing school” if he could. You might try giving him a choice of what subjects to do in what order if possible. Also, make sure you don’t have him doing too much work or too much sit-down work at his age. For 5K, I don’t recommend more than 1 to 2 hours of work a day. Even my 5th grader only does about 3 hours (sometimes less) each day. And the majority of his work needs to be active, not sitting quietly and having to concentrate deeply. Most kids, especially boys, just aren’t ready for that at age 5. Hopefully some of these suggestions will help! Also, feel free to visit our Facebook page and ask questions there. 🙂

  5. It really was very comforting to read your article and to know that not everyone has an easy going child. My daughter is almost 11 and her problem is that she’s not very disciplined in her habits and schedule. She was like that as an infant and child, and since she was my first I wasn’t really sure how to get her into routine. Anyways, my biggest problem with her is getting her to stay on task and to be independent. If I give her an assignment to do, she will not complete it on her own unless I’m sitting on her head. I have a toddler as well who is home so obviously I cannot sit with her for 4 hours straight without getting up. She also hates writing and tries to evade her work whenever she can. I’m trying to be flexible with her but I’m starting to feel as if she’s taking my flexibility to mean she doesn’t have to do the work properly. Any suggestions you may have will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  6. My (just turned) 7 yo old a resistant learner. We started with K12 as our first experience with homeschooling and like the other commenter, it was way too intense. I finally pulled him out this month and we are just working on reading, which he struggles with, math and handwriting and will start with a formal curriculum in the fall. It is heartbreaking because one of my homeschooling goals was to help him to love learning and he doesn’t. Right now, he is obedient, but doesn’t enjoy it and is so easily distracted. I’ve felt very alone and inadequate. I’m praying a lot for wisdom and guidance. I feel like homeschool is the right thing for our family and love the lifestyle and flexibility of it, but sometimes worry that I’m not enough for what he needs to be inspired.
    This article was great and let me know I’m not alone. Thanks for posting it.

  7. This is a very encouraging post! I am in the same boat with my first-born son. Sometimes his resistance makes me feel like I’ve failed as a mother to train him properly — but then I also realize much of his expressions of displeasure are due to his temperament and birth order status (i.e. he wants to be in charge!). At times, because of his frequent complaining and arguing, I am tempted to send him off to school! But this looks like a really good solution — especially because if he has a say in how his school day goes, he might also take more ownership in it. Thank you for sharing!!

  8. We are having the same problem. Same scenario. Bright, first born. Boy. Passionate about faith and fam. I’m going to try this. Prayers it goes well.

  9. I have a first born CR boy. Today is the perfect example….why do i have to do this if I have already learned it….. (it’s been an hour and hes moved on to other subjects, but the math still sits there.) We are currently writing sentences. I let each boy give me 5. We will see how it goes, plus it’s a small insight to their learning style (even though I know them, it’s still a challenge to go with them sometimes).

    1. Haha! He just handed me his list. Guess what #1 was…. 1) Don’t review things that I have already proven that I can do.
      Wow, how did I know that was coming! He did ask that I only review with his once a month or so. AND he asked for a spelling bee! WOW I think I can do that.

  10. My daughter, age 8, wanted to go back to school. Although, as a parent, you may not be demanding more work but for them and it can be a culture shock. They are no longer a face in the crowd – it is not one-on-one. It can be very hard to take. I suggest adding some additional resources. I use Evision Education. They have a virtual world that she must “walk” through as an avatar to pick access the work. It also allows her to meet up with other kids her age and work together on projects. She does not feel so alone anymore. I just joined but we love it. We are just doing the monthly resources and it is worth every penny.

  11. I love this! I just had a little snag with my daughter and her writing work. We are doing K this year but she learned to write all of her letters last year. I was having trouble getting her to write words we are working on and then just today I realized in true girl style she wants to write her letters in more of a d’nealin style rather than manuscript…it was so simple and I was so frustrated.

    1. Coral, I’m so glad that it made for an easy fix. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our little ones are unique people with their own unique way of doing things.

  12. I’m really glad this worked for you, but I want to cry. I have sat down with my now 16 year old son over and over during the last 4 years and I get…. Nothing. Or rather “I don’t know.” He failed 9th grade last year entirely. No matter what I did. He did not receive one single credit. Entirely his decision. And now, we’re over a month into school, I’ve changed EVERYTHING, and it has made zero difference. He doesn’t care! His dad is either entirely uninvolved and mad at me, or he’s shouting at him. My heart breaks… Especially as our other 3 children look on.

  13. In fact, being able to choose the topic himself for his writing projects will actually help prepare him for later in school when students are required to choose their own topics. His list is so do-able and it really does show that he doesn’t just not want to do school…he just wants to do it a little differently. Giving our kids a bit of a say is such a great idea to help with resistant learners! Gives them a bit of “ownership” in their education. 🙂

  14. Wow, I must have a seriously strong-willed child. We can give him options or not and he we are often still met with a brick wall. One day he’s all over learning and the next he’s strongly opposed to anything but playing games, building with Legos, playing with transformers, and playing games on the computer. When he picks what he wants to do it’s hard to get him to find something he’s willing to do that is at all educational: he doesn’t like to draw, write, color, cut, paste, or do anything that seems babyish. If we could do science experiments, play outside, and build massive buildings out of whatever we have laying around all day he’d be in heaven but learning to read is boring. Just this week I asked him the sounds of the alphabet. He knew about 5. I was concerned. How have we gotten this far and he only knows 5 of them? Two days later we did it again and he knew all but 3. Clearly the first time around he just wasn’t interested. There is no motivating him. Today he decided to build word families with Duplos. After 20mins of tearing pieces of masking tape and labeling them neatly he wasn’t happy to do the activity. He was just mad that I asked him to stop building a spaceship. No, we can’t add words TO the spaceship because that’s not what his plan included.

    I have no doubts that he’s smart and that he will learn to read but the type of hard headedness I’m facing with this child is like nothing described in any teaching, parenting, or medical book/blog/article I’ve read. If only the child magically responded to love and reason. It just doesn’t work that way…

    1. Jennifer, I know that every child is different, but my son was a lot like yours at that age. (My son is now 20 years old.) After years of struggling with him, I found out that he has Asperger’s and OCD. I don’t know your son, and I’m not suggesting that he has these, but it may be worth seeing a good doctor to find out if there’s something going on that might be causing him to act that way. If it’s simply a behavior issue, then I always suggest putting away your homeschool work for a few months and working on building a strong relationship with your child and getting his behavior under control before starting your homeschool work again. This too may require outside help if you aren’t able to make progress with it yourself. There’s nothing at all wrong with getting help if you and he need it! And it could make a big difference in your homeschool and your lives!

      1. Thank you! It helps to know that there are other kids out there who’ve struggled and they survived! We do get through school but I am constantly adjusting how we do school. It’s somewhat exhausting. I don’t think he has Aspergers or OCD but I do think he has some sensory issues. That may play into his weaknesses (esp with fine motor). He is unbearable if he’s uncomfortable. He’s not just thirsty he’s crying b/c he’s SO thirsty. The same for hungry, hot, cold, bored, etc. As soon as his “needs” are met he’s fine. To me those are wants but to him the drama suggests he finds it much more important. He is sensitive to criticism although he’s been in TKD for about 9months and that has helped. So overall I can’t tell if he has sensory issues, he’s a diva, he’s just disobedient and needs us to come down harder on us (no parenting method really changes these things making me think he’s not trying to get away with something), or if he’s arrogant of how school is (you can’t always choose). It’s hard to tell. When he was younger I thought he didn’t know his colors for the longest time. He just wasn’t interested in colors. I didn’t have to intentionally drill him on colors- he learned them just by context and he wasn’t interested in talking about it. His cognition is normal and possibly advanced. So it comes down to parenting? Child needs an attitude adjustment? Personality? Parent needs an expectations adjustment? It’s tricky! There are the fine balancing acts parents face but the flexibility homeschooling allows is fantastic- sometimes for me as a parent I wish I had less options so it was less complicated but my kids are individuals and what works for one is of no interest to the others. I imagine as he gets older he might do a version of unschooling, picking his own curricula, or being self-paced. I don’t think he’s going to turn out bad- I’m just not sure if there’s enough coffee to get through his younger years when crying and stomping are still legit ways for him to express himself (in his opinion).

        Anywho – thank you for your encouragement! We will certainly keep a watchful eye on him to see if there’s something going on that we can help him through.

        1. You are very welcome! My son has gotten so much better as he’s gotten older, and I’m sure yours will too! That’s not always comforting when they’re still young, but there is hope for the future! 🙂

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