What To Do When Your Child Doesn’t Like School—Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My fourth-grader is so done with school. We’ve had our ups and downs with getting through schoolwork before (mostly attributed to ADD), but this kid had usually been able to get through an assignment with a quick pep talk from me about getting to the next grade – like getting to the next level in a video game.

He used to get excited looking forward to college where he would be able to choose his own classes and make his own schedule. Now he tells me he only wants to finish the grades and be done with it. The “new normal” for school is that it’s unbearable. The teacher is doing her best with online lessons, but, sadly, there’s so much missing for him.

Saving For College Anyway

Dear SFCA,

Everything’s harder in a pandemic: teachers teaching, students schooling, and parents parenting. This is a good time for everyone to accept that we all are doing the best we can under the circumstances.

Here are some angles for helping your son deal with the current imperfect situation.

Short-term Motivation

As Mary Poppins famously sings, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” The prospect of sitting through yet another glitchy online session of school may, indeed, be hard for your child to swallow. Help him plan enjoyable activities for his lunch break and at the end of each school day. Homework time should be as short as possible, after an enjoyable break from schooling, with another sweet ending to look forward to. 

Lest you think I’m suggesting a lollipop or cupcake after each trial of endurance, let me clarify. There is pleasure for a child in running, riding a bike, or swinging at the playground. He may enjoy drawing with chalk on the front steps. His favorite thing to do might be rocking out to Bruno Mars. You might arrange a video chat with a much-missed friend or relative. Or you could thrill your son with the opportunity to apprentice in the kitchen for a thoroughly nutritious snack. 

Learning for its Own Sake

You may be aware that the role of a parent includes plenty of teaching, or at least facilitating learning opportunities. Even though you are already helping him to do school from home, there are many other hours that can be filled with fulfilling learning experiences. What are your son’s interests? Get clues from the things that distract him from schooling! Wildlife outside the window? Make and stock a birdfeeder and learn to identify its visitors. Doodling on a paper? Choose cartoonists from the newspaper to study for creating his own stories. Tapping a tune with his pencil? Master the beats of famous percussionists from their recordings.

What craft activities or games can you share from your childhood? Think beyond video games since school is already racking up screen time hours. Here are directions for making a chain from gum or candy wrappers. Although any paper – including magazine pages, will do. Do you know how to play Hinky Pinky?  It’s a word game with rhymes and riddles. Take turns to give a definition (or riddle) for two rhyming words, such as “a rabbit that makes you laugh”. (The answer is “funny bunny”.)  Ask older friends and relatives to teach your son other screen-free things to do that filled their out-of-school hours – whistling with a blade of grass, measuring the distance of a lightning strike (count the seconds between the flash and the boom and multiply by 5 miles), etc. 

What household, gardening / lawncare, or automotive maintenance tasks is he ready for? When he learns new skills that contribute to the family, he gains self-esteem and moves closer to his own independence. That’s the purpose of schooling, by the way.

Looking Beyond

While it’s hard right now to predict even the immediate the future, there are many possible positive alternatives to imagine together. Internet connectivity will improve. School will operate with less screen time and more at-home, hands-on projects. In-person schooling will resume, better than before. Your family will take your chances with home schooling. Or, fourth grade will plod along as it is until Summer Vacation, with a Winter Break and other days off to look forward to for fun family time.

It may be difficult for a fourth-grader to see beyond the rough patch he’s experiencing, so reassure him that this, too, shall pass. In the meantime, empathize with his struggles with online learning. See that he does as much of the unscheduled schoolwork as he can before his frustration sets in, then set it aside for after another break. There’s also an option to turn work in when it’s “good enough” rather than perfect. This isn’t the time for perfect.

Dr. Debbie

Chesapeake Children’s Museum is coordinating (mostly online) discussions and activities inspired by Citizen, an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine starting October 11, 2020. Related books for children, and events for all ages are listed on the CCM webpage and the Facebook page for NEA Big Read Anne Arundel

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.

For more parenting advice from Dr. Debbie, click here.