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Refusing To Do Homework

Child absolutely refuses to do schoolwork

Hello, my girlfriend's 3rd grade son has become incredibly obstinate when it comes to not doing his schoolwork - at school and at home. He has had problems with this since Kindergarten but because the workload in previous grades was significantly lighter he was able to scrape by. However, his teacher warned last year that if things did not improve drastically she felt he would fail this year. 1st quarter grades just came out and sure enough it's mostly D's and F's. He is a very bright child and demonstrates that when he chooses to do his work, but those instances are few and far between. He doesn't seem to care if he misses out on recess at school, or playtime at home. He gets mad and pouts and even cries but still chooses to sit and do nothing rather than finish his work so he can go play. We have removed any punishment/reward system from the picture as of mid-year last year. He goes to a child watch program after school for 2 hours, but at home the rules are very clear, there is no TV or playtime until homework is complete. When he does do work, it's generally very sloppy and he seems to be writing down an answer just to get it done so he can go play. Obviously we don't let that fly, but when asked to correct those answers or to write an answer legibly he gets very angry again.  

My girlfriend now has him seeing a therapist and I know that this is an issue that likely has, or will, come up in those sessions. He spends every other week with his father so it's difficult to say what happens when he's there, but I can certainly vouch for what goes on in our home. It's almost as if he thinks he can ignore it until it goes away. We have had him do incomplete assignments even after they were already due and explained to him that the purpose of homework is not simply a good grade, but to learn necessary skills in life. You might imagine how well that went over! He took 8 hours over the weekend to complete a science project that he could've finished in an hour had he simply done it. He had already received an F for the project when it wasn't done properly because he insisted to us that he didn't have to do certain parts from the instruction sheet - obviously, we know better than that, but he refused to follow directions. Doing something how he wants to do it rather than how he's asked to do it is a common point of contention. Being a creative spirit and classically trained musician I certainly understand his desire to express himself and disdain for conformity, but I also understand that he needs to learn to follow instructions.

I have sensed some serious self-esteem issues in this child and have wondered if he is afraid that doing his best "won't be good enough." I'm hopeful that his therapy sessions will help but in the meantime he's quickly digging a hole for the second quarter and I don't want to see him fail...I fear that would only encourage his thoughts that he "isn't good enough."
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Frankly, the first thing I thought of was a "learning disability".  Has he ever been tested?  Usually children who "refuse" to do schoolwork are "unable" to complete the tasks assigned.  Just a thought ...
@ jdtm: to my knowledge he's not been tested - I'll ask tonight to clarify, but I know his father is not too keen on medication...kind of a hippy/naturalist.

The only thing that throws me off with the learning disability is that when he makes up his mind to do the work, he actually breezes through it with little to no trouble. That said, when something does stump him he wants the answer given to him instead of us helping him figure it out.
     It really sounds like he has all of the classical symptoms for ADD (except maybe for your second to last sentance).    For a pretty detailed explanation on ADD check out this site - do take your time reading it, and you can follow the provided links for more info.
       http://www.healing-arts.org/children/ADHD/#Additional

      The sad thing is that kids with ADD and intelligence, don't easily get noticed by the school system.   He certainly is exhibiting many of those ADD traits.  It is also a known fact that if something interests a child with ADD/ADHD they can focus on it for hours (video games, etc).
       Bright children with ADD can develop serious self esteem problems.  Its usually because they know (or sense) they are more intelligent than their peers, but can't produce the academic work.  And of course you have the constant daily judging by the school system.
      I wonder what kind of a "therapist" he is seeing?  They should be picking up on his problems fairly quickly.  
      A very strong reason to find out what is going on with him is that you treat someone with ADD very differently than you do someone who is just a lazy or spoiled kid.  You don't necessarily have to do meds.  But if he is diagnosed, the school system must do more to meet his needs via a 504 plan or an IEP.  Furthermore, there are many study techniques that will work for a child with ADD.  I highly suggest that you buy the book,  "The ADD/ ADHD Answer book," by Susan Ashley.   It will give you a whole range of information - and an easier range to read then the kind of technical site I recommended above.
  I hope this helps.  I monitor the ADD / ADHD Community forum consistently (here not as much) so if you have any more questions please feel free to post.  One last thought, if all that you have tried isn't working, its time to take a look at something else.
@ Sandman2:   Thank you for the response...I quickly skimmed the link you provided and will give it, and your other suggestions, more attention tonight and this weekend. I will have to ask my girlfriend about the therapist he's seeing, but a big part of what led to her seeking professional help is this child's perpetually bad attitude. He can be very nasty at times, but at 8 years old frequently has the aggravated tone of a teenager. Scares us to think what those years might be like!! :-)

To further the problems, he was caught stealing at school today for the 2nd time this year - today it was another kid's food, but last month it was a scalpel from the science lab!!!

If I were reading this and didn't know the situation I would think the kid is screaming for attention. I still think that, but I know that he gets positive attention at our house. Weeknights are tight between the kids' mom picking them up, dinner, homework, baths, and bedtime, but examples of us trying to instill a positive influence include all 4 of us sitting down to dinner every night, we go to ballgames in summer, his granddad takes him fishing, we go to a local farm to pick produce, we get together with grandparents for dinner/etc about once a month, we take trips to the arcade, have movie and/or game nights, etc....
i'm a 21 year old male who showed the exact same sign your girl friends son has, when i was his age and heres what happend to overcome it.

i can ensure you that its A.D.D. and that you will probably have to put him on some form of meth-amphetamine. which really does help with the problem.

when i read this, it brought back memories of my past as a child going through school, i could get the A's if i wanted although i just had a complete lack of interest when pertaining to school or chores, i was all about play time and learning skills with my father outside of school, as well i had complete focus for sports, etc... but as soon as it became time to do homework, it just turned into my parents doing all my work, because they didnt want me to fail in grade school. No matter what punishment my parents gave me, it never sunk in, where it be no play time, taking away items, even spanking. nothing made me any more motivated to do anything i did not want to do. i did not care about failing, i just wanted to be happy and make friends. i would lie to my parents and tell them, "oh the teacher said you don't have to do those ones" or "i already did my homework and the teacher let me turn it in early." when it came to reading, i could sit and read a book about pokemon for hours on end but if the story did not intrigue me, then i saw no point in doing it. when i would do homework and my mom was in the room i would work hard as soon as she left i would either start drawing, sit there and day dream about things i could be doing other then this, or sneak my gameboy out. i never was held back because i would do enough work just to skate by, the bare minimum. of course my parents saw this as a problem but never really did anything about it except knowing all my teachers as close as possible so i couldn't lie about homework. eventually highschool rolled around and this is where grades actually meant something, still i really did not care about them, finally though in mid 9th grade my mom took me to a doctors and was practically on her knees pleading "my boy is healthy, athletic, social, smart but he doesn't seem to have any motivation getting his work done, i'm willing to give anything a try at this point." he suggested subscribing me a pill called adderall.  my mom calls them "focus pills" as she hates the name meth-amphetamine. upon day one of taking adderol my life turned around, suddenly i was able to perform the tasks school threw at me, no more C's and D's, and hello A's and B's. I continued to take adderol through high school and graduated with mostly A's and B's a couple C's but a HUGE improvement from the years prior to high school. To this day i take a much more money efficient version of adderall and it has truly saved my future.

truly it is sad we humanity throws drugs at any form of a mental or physical problem in hopes to make it better. but god damn it sure does work, i mean i think i would have flunked out of high school if it hadn't been for the adderol. now in college i'm still continuing to succeed, and the days i dont take my adderol end up with me wasting away the day by doing nothing. long of the short of it, if it hadn't been for my "focus pills," then i wouldn't have a high school diploma, i wouldn't have my own apartment, i wouldn't have a job, or still be in school getting a degree.

if you do wish to go on with giving adderall a try then i suggest getting a very small dosage of 3-5mg amphetamine salt tab (generic adderall) its only 40$ for 3 months of it without med insurance. as opposed to adderall Xr which is a whopping 270$ for 1 month. also it makes you not have an apatite, so make sure he eats a big healthy meal before hand. and make sure hes not on it at least 3 hours before bed time, as you feel absolutely no need to sleep. hope this helps!!!!!!!!

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Child absolutely refuses to do schoolwork
Hello, my girlfriend's 3rd grade son has become incredibly obstinate when it comes to not doing his schoolwork - at school and at home. He has had problems with this since Kindergarten but because the workload in previous grades was significantly lighter he was able to scrape by. However, his teacher warned last year that if things did not improve drastically she felt he would fail this year. 1st quarter grades just came out and sure enough it's mostly D's and F's. He is a very bright child and demonstrates that when he chooses to do his work, but those instances are few and far between. He doesn't seem to care if he misses out on recess at school, or playtime at home. He gets mad and pouts and even cries but still chooses to sit and do nothing rather than finish his work so he can go play. We have removed any punishment/reward system from the picture as of mid-year last year. He goes to a child watch program after school for 2 hours, but at home the rules are very clear, there is no TV or playtime until homework is complete. When he does do work, it's generally very sloppy and he seems to be writing down an answer just to get it done so he can go play. Obviously we don't let that fly, but when asked to correct those answers or to write an answer legibly he gets very angry again.  

My girlfriend now has him seeing a therapist and I know that this is an issue that likely has, or will, come up in those sessions. He spends every other week with his father so it's difficult to say what happens when he's there, but I can certainly vouch for what goes on in our home. It's almost as if he thinks he can ignore it until it goes away. We have had him do incomplete assignments even after they were already due and explained to him that the purpose of homework is not simply a good grade, but to learn necessary skills in life. You might imagine how well that went over! He took 8 hours over the weekend to complete a science project that he could've finished in an hour had he simply done it. He had already received an F for the project when it wasn't done properly because he insisted to us that he didn't have to do certain parts from the instruction sheet - obviously, we know better than that, but he refused to follow directions. Doing something how he wants to do it rather than how he's asked to do it is a common point of contention. Being a creative spirit and classically trained musician I certainly understand his desire to express himself and disdain for conformity, but I also understand that he needs to learn to follow instructions.

I have sensed some serious self-esteem issues in this child and have wondered if he is afraid that doing his best "won't be good enough." I'm hopeful that his therapy sessions will help but in the meantime he's quickly digging a hole for the second quarter and I don't want to see him fail...I fear that would only encourage his thoughts that he "isn't good enough."
Child Behavior Community Resources
How many times have you said something like, “My child can focus on TV, movies or video games for hours, but getting her to complete homework is like pulling teeth”?


Kids, even defiant ones, usually don’t consciously choose to fail. Yet, your child refuses to do her homework, which causes her to fail. Neither you nor your child know why she is sabotaging herself.

Most moms and dads struggle with getting their youngster to complete homework after school.  Rarely is a kid ever eager to get back to work when she returns home from a long day in the classroom. To minimize “homework battles” (i.e., parent-child conflict over homework), you need to understand why your child is resistant to doing homework in the first place. 

Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Your child doesn’t understand the work and needs some extra help. It’s possible that your youngster doesn’t want to do his homework because he really needs help.  Also, it can be challenging for moms and dads to accept that their youngster might need help with homework, because there is often a stigma attached to kids who need tutoring. 
  • Your child is addicted to TV and video games. Moms and dads often find it very difficult to limit these activities. But, understand that playing video games and watching TV doesn’t relax a youngster’s brain.  In fact, it actually over-stimulates the brain and makes it harder for him to learn and retain information.  Too much of watching TV and playing video games contributes to your youngster struggling with school and homework in more ways than one.
  • Your child is exhausted from a long day at school. In the last 10 to 20 years, the needs of kids have not changed, however the pace of life has.  Most moms and dads are busy and have very little down time, which inevitably means that the youngster ends up with less down time too.  He is going to be less likely to be motivated to work when there is chaos all around him.  
  • Your child is not sleeping enough. Sleep is one of the most under-appreciated needs in our society today. When a child doesn’t get enough sleep, it can cause him to be sick more often, lose focus, and have more emotional issues. Kids often need a great deal more sleep than they usually get.  
  • Your child is over-booked with other activities. Moms and dads want their youngster to develop skills other than academics. Because of this, they often sign-up their youngster for extracurricular activities (e.g., sports or arts).  
  • Your child is overwhelmed by your expectations. Moms and dads want their youngster to be well-rounded and to get ahead in life.  Along with this comes getting good grades.  All these expectations can put a lot of pressure on your youngster and may cause him to become burned-out and want to find an escape.


So, what is a parent to do? Below are some tips that will help your child be less neglectful of his homework assignments – BUT – these ideas will take some hard work on your part too:


1. Be a cheerleader. Some children need a little extra boost of confidence. Let’s say your youngster has a big test to study for, but can’t seem to get started. You can help out by running through the first few problems until she gets the hang of it. Or you might brainstorm with your youngster to help her choose a topic for the big paper she has to write. You're not doing the work for her, rather you're helping her to get going so the task doesn't seem so daunting.

2. Be clear and firm, but don’t argue with your kids about homework. Make eye contact and tell them calmly that they are responsible for the work.

3. Choose a powerful incentive that your youngster will recognize as meaningful. This might be extra time on the computer, a special meal, or attending an activity that she is looking forward to. Incentives can be phased out when kids attend to the homework responsibly.

4. Communicate regularly with your youngster's educators so that you can deal with any behavior patterns before they become a major problem.

5. Consider adding in break times (e.g., your child might work on her math homework for 15 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break).

6. Contact the teacher as soon as you suspect that your youngster has a homework problem. Schools have a responsibility to keep moms and dads informed, and you have a right to be upset if you don't find out until report-card time that your youngster is having difficulties. On the other hand, sometimes moms and dads figure out that a problem exists before the teacher does. By alerting the teacher, you can work together to solve a problem in its early stages.

7. Don't do the assignments yourself. It's not your homework – it's your youngster's. Doing assignments for your youngster won't help him understand and use information. And it won't help him become confident in his own abilities. It can be hard for moms and dads to let kids work through problems alone and learn from their mistakes. It's also hard to know where to draw the line between supporting and doing.

8. Engage your youngster in constructive, mind-building activities – any activity that supports learning (e.g., reading, puzzles, educational games, library visits, walks in the neighborhood, trips to the zoo or museums, chores that teach a sense of responsibility, etc.). Join in these activities yourself.

9. Help your youngster get organized. It's a good idea to set a regular time and place for kids to do homework. Also, stick to a routine as much as possible. Put up a calendar in a place where you'll see it often and record assignments on it. Writing out assignments will get him used to the idea of keeping track of what's due and when. You may want to use an assignment book instead of a calendar.

10. If you understand something about the style of learning that suits your youngster, it will be easier for you to help her. If you've never thought about this style, observe your youngster. See if she works better alone or with someone else. If your youngster gets more done when working with someone else, she may want to complete some assignments with a brother or sister or a classmate. (Some homework, however, is meant to be done alone. Check with the teacher if you aren't sure.) Does your youngster learn things best when she can see them? If so, drawing a picture or a chart may help with some assignments. Does your youngster learn things best when she can hear them? She may need to listen to a story or have directions read to her. Too much written material or too many pictures or charts may confuse her. Does your youngster understand some things best when she can handle or move them? An apple cut four or six or eight ways can help kids learn fractions.

11. Involve your child. As your youngster matures, you should involve her in setting expectations, rewards, and consequences. This empowers her, which may improve her self-esteem and reinforce the concept that she is in charge of her own behavior.

12. Keep the house generally quiet during homework time.

13. Kids are more likely to complete assignments successfully when moms and dads monitor homework. How closely you need to monitor depends upon the age of your youngster, how independent she is, and how well she does in school. Whatever the age of your youngster, if assignments are not getting done satisfactorily, more supervision is needed.

14. Look over completed assignments when possible. It's usually a good idea to check to see that your youngster has finished her assignments. If you're not there when an assignment is finished, look it over when you get home. After the teacher returns completed homework, read the comments to see if your youngster has done the assignments satisfactorily.

15. Make sure your child has enough “space” for doing her work. For some children, this will mean a large work space like a kitchen table to spread out their papers and books.

16. Make your youngster responsible for her choices. All privileges are suspended until the work is done, even if it takes all evening.

17. Model good study habits. Kids are more likely to study if they see you reading, writing, and doing things that require thought and effort on your part. Talk with your youngster about what you're reading and writing, even if it's something as simple as making the grocery list. Also, tell them about what you do at work.

18. Offer snacks to keep your youngster “fueled-up” for the work.

19. Pre-teach. It’s easier to prevent negative behaviors in defiant children than to deal with them after they occur. A very effective tool is to pre-teach behavior prior to an event (in this case, doing homework) or potentially vulnerable situation. This involves talking with the child in detail about what will be happening, why, and what her role and expected behaviors will be. Pre-teaching reduces anxiety, clarifies expectations, and builds confidence.

20. Reward the youngster appropriately for good behavior and tasks completed. Set up a clear system of rewards so that your youngster knows what to expect when she completes a task or improves behavior.

21. Seek outside assistance. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by “homework battles,” speak to a professional. It's only natural that you have needs and questions in this process, so seek help when needed.

22. Separate the youngster's behavior from the youngster, using thought rather than feelings. Another way to say this is "disengage" from the defiant behavior. (This doesn’t mean ignore it.) Consistency and follow through on consequences still apply, especially when it comes to “homework refusal.”

23. Set a good example. Children don't always show it, but their parents are very important. They are watching YOUR behavior. Thus, if you are a “follow through” person (i.e., someone who always starts what he finishes), then you will be modeling “task completion” skills for your child, and she will likely follow your lead.

24. Share concerns with the teacher. You may want to contact the teacher if:

  • instructions are unclear
  • neither you nor your youngster can understand the purpose of assignments
  • the assignments are often too hard or too easy
  • the homework is assigned in uneven amounts
  • you can't provide needed supplies or materials 
  • you can't seem to help your youngster get organized to finish the assignments
  • your youngster has missed school and needs to make up assignments
  • your youngster refuses to do her assignments, even though you've tried hard to get her to do them


25. Show an interest. Make time to take your youngster to the library to check out materials needed for homework (and for fun too), and read with your youngster as often as you can. Talk about school and learning activities in family conversations. Ask your youngster what was discussed in class that day. If he doesn't have much to say, try another approach. For example, ask your youngster to read aloud a story he wrote, or discuss the results of a science experiment. Another good way to show your interest is to attend school activities, such as parent-teacher meetings, shows, and sports events. If you can, volunteer to help in the classroom or at special events. Getting to know some classmates and other moms and dads not only shows you're interested, but helps build a network of support for you and your youngster.

26. Talk about the assignments. Ask your youngster questions. Talking can help him think through an assignment and break it down into small, workable parts. Here are some sample questions:

  • Do you understand what you're supposed to do?
  • What do you need to do to finish the assignment?
  • Do you need help in understanding how to do your work?
  • Have you ever done any problems like the ones you're supposed to do right now?
  • Do you have everything you need to do the assignment?
  • Does your answer make sense to you? 


If your youngster is still confused, ask:

  • Are you still having problems? Maybe it would help to take a break or have a snack.
  • Do you need to review your notes (or reread a chapter in your textbook) before you do the assignment? 
  • How far have you gotten on the assignment? Let's try to figure out where you're having a problem.


27. Talk with educators early in the school year. Get acquainted before problems arise, and let educators know that you want to be kept informed. Most schools invite moms and dads to come to parent-teacher conferences or open houses. If your youngster's school doesn't provide such opportunities, call the teacher to set up a meeting.

28. Tie responsibilities to privileges. When your youngster chooses to do her work reliably, she may then expect to participate in activities that interest her.

29. Use a broken record technique to respond to any rebuttal your youngster may offer (e.g., "I hear you, but I want you to start your homework now").

30. Use a timer. Some moms and dads find that using a timer for “homework time” is a good way to build and reinforce structure. Setting a reasonable time limit for completing homework helps train your youngster to expect limitations, even on unpleasant activities like homework. Giving your youngster a time limit for completing his work is useful, especially if you reward finishing on time.

Homework is a major struggle in many homes, but it doesn’t have to be.  Recognizing why your youngster might be fighting it is key to establishing healthy homework habits.  By doing this, you may find you have fewer battles to fight on that front.

My Out-of-Control Child: Help for Defiant Children and Teens

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