Motivating a Reluctant Learner

This is my 3rd year doing hs w/my son who is 2nd grade (actually 4th if you count preschool)…
I am nearly in tears. My son will only work when I am right by his side, even if he already knows how to do the page. He is so smart, yet hates school. It took him an hour to do 1 little lesson of writing in the language lessons book. How do I do this??? Every year the same. But now this year we have added our Kindergarten son who doesn’t have as much work, but is a distraction to my second grader (I tell my second grader that in school he would be distracted by 30 kids). Plus I have house, appointments, & newborn.
(My son does love science & notebooking, but I have to read that to him….. when does it become him to read it?) Just wondering what I’m doing wrong…. I WANT to homeschool, but I am so upset because I feel I am not accomplishing anything. please help. Thank you.

Hi Crystal,

…It sounds like you are dealing with either a motivation issue, a training issue, or most likely a combination of the two. As I mentioned to you earlier, this is a very common problem but thankfully not insurmountable in any way.

The first thing we would try here would be a system of carrots to reward his budding independence. There are lots of ways to do this, the important thing will be to determine what is compelling to him. Is he saving his money for something? Perhaps you could reward him with a penny for each page of school he does, but a nickel for each one he does without your help. Or perhaps he would like to earn screen time or playtime at the park or… In our family the big reward was a family night every Friday – only those with their schoolwork done could participate.

Once you’ve determined the reward make it really obvious to him what he gets and how. (Sticker charts work really well for some children.)

Also take time to consider what is a reasonable responsibility for him to start with. I wouldn’t necessarily expect him to work independently on all or even most of his subjects next week, but what one or two are within his immediate grasp? Then you’ll just build from there.

Once you’ve figured this out you’ll want to have a heart-to-heart chat with him and explain that he is ready to take on some adult responsibilities now, which means he also gets the benefits of these new rewards. Lay out for him exactly what you expect and what the rewards are. (And of course, by inverse, what exactly happens if he doesn’t get the work done on his own, on time or…)

Make sure the timeframe is a reasonable one for him, and then let him be responsible for managing it. In our case if we wanted to spend all week wasting time that was our choice, but of course we soon discovered that we really would miss out on family night. I don’t think any of us really learned that lesson without at least a few tearful Fridays as we tried to hurry and catch up, only to miss out altogether. It didn’t take long though to realize that this was really how it was going to work, and how to work with the standards.

Some people really balk at the idea of rewards, however, it really is the most natural of consequences. Children in school are rewarded/influenced by the peer pressure, gold stars, shame… Not only that but it is a rare adult who does their work purely out of love for the job. We expect to be rewarded for our work – whether it is the trucker working for his paycheck or the farmer sowing in order to reap a harvest. Children find it understandably difficult to grasp the rewards of their education so until he can fully get that it makes sense to find a way to make learning independently a privilege that is worth the effort.

I should mention one more thing. I’ve assumed throughout all this that the root issue is motivation. You may know that this isn’t the case. It could be a desire for perfection, lack of reading comprehension or something entirely different. By far the most common issue though is motivation, which is why I’ve focused on that.

Joy D.

Joy D.

The oldest of the "Timberdoodle children" I now work full time for the company, filling such roles as marketing manager, curriculum adviser, video producer, etc. I'm a new foster mom with my sisters and in my spare time I enjoy reading and volunteering in the church and as an EMT with the fire department.


  1. Hey Crystal,
    I’m so sorry for your frustration. I too have motivation problems with my boys. The boys are 14 months apart and they are in 2nd and 3rd grade. I have recently taken to writing down all their assignments for the day and then I let them work at their own pace. It is the same idea Joy shared but it doesn’t leave a weeks worth of work homework to get neglected ( worse case scenario). Then I make them sit at the table until they finish. One day we were still doing homework at 8pm but it only happened once so far. We have been doing this for 8 weeks and so far it seems to be working. It is not perfect everyday but it has reduced the stress on my part and on theirs.

  2. Add a timer to the reward idea. Decide – maybe even negotiate with your child – an appropriate time to finish an assignment (or part of an assignment if the whole thing appears to big a bite to him), set the timer and place it where he can see it. He is responsible to finish in the time he agreed for the agreed reward, or – also agreed in advance – consequence for not finishing.

  3. Amen to what Pearl says!

    Also, just be patient and stick with him! My older boys made a gradual transition until they were working mostly on their own by 4th and 5th grade except for the things that we enjoyed doing together or that they needed help with. They really got in high gear with self motivated independent learning by jr. high. Second grade may just be a little young, especially for a boy. Now is when he is learning how to learn, and helping him through the transition will pay off, but maybe not right away.

  4. I’m going through the same thing, except this is my first year HSing, and it’s my 3rd grade girl. My 5th grader works very well by herself, and I work very closely with my 1st grader, but my 3rd grader needs constant monitoring to get her work done. Where it will take her siblings an hour to do math, it will take her two. She literally will do one question and then stare off into space until I slap the table to catch her attention or remind her (loudly) that she has to get back to work.

    The other two were losing out because I’d work with her after they were done and they’d just play, so what I did this week (our 5th week) is I told her that once they are done, her time is up, and anything else she has will be “homework”. Today wasn’t bad, about 12 questions in math, and a summary of a story in her reading book, which she is finishing up now. I’m hoping that by losing “fun” time, it will finally occur to her that maybe she should work instead of staring off into space.

  5. My husband, while in elm. school, slacked off on his work. Instead of pushing him through it (completing assignments and turning them in, he was perfectly able to and understood the material), they began to homeschool and didn’t enforce the disciplines. This has carried into his adulthood, setting goals and follow through has been difficult for him. I encourage you that even in the primary years this is important to learn discipline, goal setting, follow through.

    That said, maybe there’s other ways of learning that he would like better for now. online curriculum/software programs? Would Handwriting Without Tears be fun for him, to get in handwriting to perhaps make up for less writing in other subjects? Does he like to listen to you read to learn, pay attention well? (Sonlight) So many curriculums and programs complement Timberdoodle well.

    Motivation. My son doesn’t have a problem with it more than what’s normal. On days when he just doesn’t want to (welcome to real life), I remind him that to do the “fun things” (roller skating, play dates, maybe Awanas or the like), he needs to take care of the work first.

  6. Crystal,
    Lots of good advice has already been posted. My attention was drawn to your article because of your son’s seeming difficulty in concentrating and that he is easily distracted. Here’s another possible avenue to consider. Although 2nd grade may be a little young, especially for a boy, have you considered having your son tested for ADD or ADHD? I am NOT suggesting the use of medication. As a matter of fact, I would highly discourage medication based on our experience. However, if your son does have ADD, knowing that is an issue will be of great help to you and allow you to search for tools to help your child deal with it and succeed.
    Here’s my experience. My husband and I homeschooled our children through high school. I considered my son smart, but he never liked school. I often had to pare lessons down to the essentials just so he could get through them. It always took like what seemed forever to get any assignment done because he was highly distractible. It was incredibly frustrating. Finally, when he was in college, he was diagnosed with ADD. Not the hyperactive kind (ADHD), just plain attention deficit disorder. He had finally understood and could communicate to us that he could not spend more than a few minutes at a time concentrating on anything. It was impossible to make it through an assignment without his mind heading off in multiple directions. Every time he got distracted, it was like starting the assignment all over again. He was frustrated, too! I had thought he had been able to concentrate on things he really liked, but that was not the case. During high school he taught himself an incredible amount about his hobby of computers, but I didn’t realize until later that the way he learned was in short bursts all over the place as far as topics. Even in his favorite things, the ability to concentrate just wasn’t there. After his diagnosis of ADD, he decided to try medication. It did work as far as allowing him to be able to concentrate – he could actually make it through an entire assignment without distraction. However, the side effects were horrible. The medication sent him into a huge depression and seemed to alter his personality a bit. The most obvious effects of the medication took from 1-2 years to wear off, but I’m not sure it hasn’t had lasting effects. However, the knowledge of how his brain works has helped him greatly in being able to manage himself at home and at work. Just as a note of encouragement, he did graduate from college and has a good job today.
    I didn’t mean to write a book, but I wanted to share our experience in the possible case that it could help you. God bless you as you continue homeschooling your children!

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