Do you have a kid who resists everything you try?

You know the one, they’re fine until you mention that it’s time to sit down and do some math. You ask for a short journal entry about the day’s visit to a guitar factor, which they were so enthusiastic for and talked non-stop about all the way home. You get two sentences: “We went to a guitar factory. It was fun.” Getting them to read for the required thirty minutes a day is like pulling teeth.

You do your best to make it fun. But your best efforts are met with eyes rolled, huffs of breath and maybe even tantrums to accompany the stone wall of refusal.

In education circles these kids are called “reluctant learners.” But I’m here to tell you that there’s no such thing as a reluctant learner.

Kids are born learning and they can’t help it. They are learning every moment they are awake. They aren’t reluctant to learn, but there are a few reasons that they exhibit behavior that makes parents and teachers think that they might be.

Behavior is a symptom of something going on beneath the surface.

The key to turning the tide is in figuring out what’s going on underneath. They might be:

Lacking in Self Confidence

If your child has spent time in a learning environment where they were not particularly successful, it’s possible that they have acquired a limiting belief about their ability, which is causing them not to try. One bad teacher can do serious damage to a child’s self image and willingness to try.


It’s entirely possible that, without an adult sense of perspective on the subject, your child doesn’t see the point of learning a particular thing. Think about playing the piano: hours and hours of tiresome scales are necessary to train fingers and ears, but they’re not fun. If you want to play badly enough, you’ll endure them. If you don’t… well, how many of us quit piano for lack of perspective and boredom? Most of us.

Lacking in Good Habits

Education is half the content and knowledge that we acquire and half the habits that allow us to acquire it. Charlotte Mason said that the habits of attention, self-discipline, and observation were as important (more important?) to cultivate in a student than mastery of a particular subject.

Struggling With a Learning Difference

Don’t jump to the conclusion that your child “doesn’t want to learn” when it is entirely possible that there is some very good reason that learning in a particular way is hard for them. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, sensory, auditory, visual processing and spectrum disorders all affect a child’s learning curve.

Not Getting Enough Exercise

In order to sit and focus on a task like reading or math, most kids need to have an outlet for their physical energy. Are they getting enough exercise? Many kids live primarily indoor lives and are more sedentary than their parents’ generation. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting them moving.

Focused on Other Things

Perhaps your child is consumed by a particular passion at the moment: Dungeons and Dragons, Minecraft, Fortnight, the Harry Potter books, or something else that makes them reluctant to do anything else. While developing the habit of moderation is important, don’t lose sight of the fact that you could use that passion to your advantage.


We live in an era of parenting that subscribes to the gospel of busy-ness for families. If your child is scheduled from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed with activities designed to make them paragons of ability, it’s entirely possible that they just need a break.

Maybe it’s something else entirely… it’s up to you to study your child and figure out what is going on so that you can move forward together. How do you do that? Keep reading.

Figuring out why your child is reluctant to learn:

  • First: Set aside that panic in your chest that your child isn’t learning “enough.” Breathe.
  • Second: Remember that no one cares more about your child or their success than you. You have the ability to figure this out and meet their needs.
  • Third: Remember that your child is learning already. You’re just seeking to get better at directing that within a peaceful relationship.

Here are some things you might try in getting to the root of the problem:

Ask Your Child

It seems ridiculously obvious, but sometimes we forget to ask the other participant in the struggle what’s going on with them. During a period of non-conflict, ask your child, straight up:

  • Why are you struggling with (whatever aspect of learning is difficult)?
  • Is there something I could be doing more of, or better, to help you?
  • What do you most like learning about?
  • What do dislike most about learning (the thing)?
  • Do you have any ideas about how we can make (the thing) easier or more fun to learn?
  • What are your goals for your learning?
  • Who do you most admire? (This will give you clues to their interests, you can use that!)

Don’t forget to follow up with lots of “why” questions to dive deeper. Resist the urge to talk over or through your child’s responses. Genuinely listen. Then sit with what you learn.

Assess Past Experiences

Take a long hard look at your child’s educational background. Did they attend school and have experiences with teachers that damaged their perceptions of learning and robbed them of joy? Have you been butting heads with them for years without adjusting the method of learning or communication, putting in place a pattern of struggle in the relationship? Were they convinced at some point that they “couldn’t” or were they given a limiting label?

Is there anything you can point to that has built a roadblock to learning for your child?

Do One Week of Observation Journalling

Without changing anything, take careful notes on one week of your child’s life, not just your structured learning times and educational interactions. What do they enjoy? What do they do well and with ease? Where are the struggles? When does frustration enter the picture? Note foods eaten and behavioral responses. Note hours of sleep, reading, exercise, screen time, play time and social interaction. Look for patterns. I had a friend growing up with severe learning and attention difficulties that were solved almost entirely by removing red food dye from her diet.

Do a Schooling Detox

Sometimes, the path to perspective is to step away from a struggle entirely. Your child will not suffer in the long run if you take a week, or a month, or a year, off of your educational trajectory. If your child spent time in an institutional schooling situation that was not positive, this can be absolutely vital. Remember that during the detox, your child is still learning.

How do you do a detox? Tell your child what you are doing and why. Then remove all educational expectations from the child and let them know that they can spend their time as they wish, within your family’s particular parameters for community living.

During a detox I still required my children to do their chores, participate in family activities, honor the screen time boundaries, and make community minded choices. Beyond that, it was up to them.

During the detox, make sure that you are doing your observation journalling, look for patterns.

Assess Your Child’s Habits

In the pendulum swing away from the overbearing and authoritative parenting of previous generations, many families have also moved away from establishing good and productive habits in their children. It’s my view that this is a mistake.

The reality is that we are all developing habits and those habits rule our lives, how we use our time and experience the world, and our eventual success. If we aren’t actively building good habits, negative ones are forming in the void. Here’s an article to read more about the 4 main categories of habits and how we can bring mindfulness to their formation.

It’s possible that your reluctant learner simply has bad habits.

Evaluate Your Biases

Think long and hard about your own educational experience, your expectations of family life, and the lifestyle you have chosen. Consider your own biases around education, child life, and your beliefs regarding the way things are, or should be.

Consider the possibility that the problem does not rest with the child as much as it does with your current approach. These can be big pills to swallow as a parent, but it’s vital that we ask the hard questions and be willing to do the personal work. Ask your partner or a close friend to help you see more clearly where you find your vision clouded.

Get Your Child Tested

If, after careful assessment, observation, and reflection, you believe that there is something more going on with your child, don’t be afraid to go through the process of having your child evaluated. You pediatrician can point you in the right direction. Your local school might have services available for learning evaluation. Don’t be afraid to invite the community to support and assist you and your child in solving the problem and acquiring tools to build towards success.

Strategies for Engaging All Learners

A child is considered a “reluctant learner” when they don’t wish to engage with the educational process. So, how do we get them to engage? Well, there’s not one formula that works for all kids, but there are some general strategies that can help. Remember that there are no quick fixes. It’s likely that it took months or years for the problem to develop, it may take a while to improve it as well.

1. Focus on Relationship

At the end of the 20 year long haul of parenting, what is the most important outcome? Relationship with your child, right? Start by focusing on that.

In periods of non-conflict actively build your relationship with your child through positive interaction and activities, community development within the family, and tool building. A strong relationship is not one that is free of conflict, but it is one where the good outweighs the struggle and both parties feel motivated to keep building forward. Give your child lots of reasons to want to do the work of building their relationship with you forward.

2. Learn About Learning Styles

Do you know your child’s learning style? Take the time to discover it. At least 80% of what you teach your child should be tailored within their learning style. It’s okay to ask them to stretch 20% of the time to strengthen and build their ability to learn in other ways, but for core and key material, as well as anything that is a consistent battle, work within their learning style.

3. Structure for Success

Keep lessons short. Be sure that there are regular milestones that are achievable. Celebrate small victories. Involve your child in structuring their own time and learning plan so that they have ownership and feel empowered in the process.

Motivate periods of intense effort with appropriate rewards. Work up to your goals slowly.

4. Build Confidence

Odds are good that your child knows that you believe they are struggling and not succeeding in a particular area. Begin countering this negative belief by association through positive reinforcement and confident affirmation of ability.

Never talk about the struggle your child is having when they could overhear you.

Express your belief in their ability to overcome and succeed publicly and when you think they aren’t listening (when out with friends and your child is playing within earshot). Point out success. Underscore that struggle and failure are ALWAYS precursors to success. They aren’t a problem, they’re only stepping stones. Of course your child will struggle and fail sometimes, we all do. That’s good! Keep going.

Never, ever, compare your child to anyone else.

5. Build Productive Habits

Habit building takes time and persistence. It isn’t always fun, but it’s vital.

If you’re realizing that you’ve allowed your child to lapse into habits that are now working against him, talk that through and make a plan together to build new, productive habits. Remember to start small and work incrementally at your goal. If the ability to focus on a math lesson, or read for half an hour a day is your goal, then start with just five minutes, set a timer, and celebrate joyfully when the five minute mark is met! Stick with just five minutes every day for the first week, then inch it up two or three minutes at a time every few days until you reach your goal together.

Try This: Let Your Reluctant Learner Teach You

If you’re consistently frustrated with your child’s reluctance to learn in a structured way, surprise them this morning by announcing that you’re giving them a whole week “off” of “school.” (The detox described above)

Then, challenge your child to point out all the things they can learn their own way, in their own time in that free week. Admit the fact that you probably don’t see all the things they are learning and you need their help so that you don’t miss anything really important. Be open to the possibility that “learning” might be conquering the next level in Fortnight and be willing to celebrate anything they identify as learning or success.

For the entire week, refrain from directing or criticizing their learning process in any way. Do the observation journalling exercise (described above) and let your child know that for this week, YOU are the student of THEM.

At the end of the week, set aside time to think deeply and process what you’ve learned, observed, and recorded. Then talk with your child about what they learned in the week and how you can move forward together toward the goals you’ve set for and with your child.

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