Dear Elizabeth
I wonder if you could please give me some advice with home schooling.
My daughter is 7 years old and she enjoys doing most schoolwork and really is no problem at all.
My son is 8. Homework has always been a battle. As soon as ‘home schooling’ was mentioned I knew this would be trouble for me.
Just like homework, he does not want to do it and if I offer rewards nothing makes a difference,  any further conversation about it results in upset and tears.
I don’t want to him to hate me for making him do this every day and I don’t want the battle everyday – but I’m also aware that other parents are being very proactive with their teaching and I’m really worried that my son is going to be really behind when they eventually go back to school.
I would be really grateful for your advice!

Dear Liz
Firstly, thank you for writing. I’m sure tens of thousands of parents are experiencing the same issue. Particularly with children are sensitive, anxious or who are more likely to struggle if they feel ‘controlled.’

Your son is probably feeling bad about himself for behaving like this. You’ll know from the upset and anger that he’s not having fun, and neither are you.

Just quickly though, try not to offer rewards for doing schoolwork. When you do that, it makes your son think that schoolwork is unpleasant, and he needs to be rewarded for doing it. Eventually the satisfaction will come from learning new things, and the sense of pride when he completes a piece of work.

There are so many ways you can help your son. I’ll go through five particularly useful ways that should help.

1. Set up a good routine.

When children (and adults) are anxious, they need security and stability and certainty. Setting up a routine can help them achieve that. So, they know what will happen and when. It may be useful to show your son how to create a weekly chart for Monday to Sunday. With all the hours from the time he gets up, to the time he goes to bed, listed like this:

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

You might like to print the chart off on A4 paper and get your son to fill in the chart. Then get him to write in pencil when he’ll have meals, get dressed and ready, exercise, have downtime, do schoolwork, have screen time, have a shower/bath, get ready for bed, etc. Make a list of things he can do during quiet time and down time.

There is a saying, ‘no involvement, no commitment.’ It means if your son feels you are trying to control him, he’ll rail against it. So, get your son to create the chart and explain he is in charge of it. If he can tell the time, great, if not, you may need to remind him of the time, and say, it’s 8 am, what’s on your chart?

Set a timer. Many children find schoolwork overwhelming. It seems to stretch out forever! So, when your son does schoolwork, set a timer for the amount of time he should work. Start the timer as soon as he is sitting down, ready to work, and understands what he needs to do. As soon as the timer goes off, your son should be able to stop. Change the activity then and preferably do something active or fun.

2. Change how you speak to your son

When children are anxious, upset, or angry, they become more irritable and more likely to be triggered. So, the way you talk to your son needs to be calm, measured and more likely to get the behaviour you want.

  • Empathise with his difficulties. Most adults are struggling to come to terms with Coronavirus. The whole situation is scary. Some children feel overwhelmed because they can’t see their friends, play football, etc. So, really listen, let him explain what is going on for him and let him know you ‘get’ how hard it is:
    • ‘It looks like you’re finding it hard. You’re missing your friends and your grandparents.’
    • ‘It sounds like you don’t want to do your schoolwork right now. It looks like you’re struggling to concentrate.’
    • ‘It looks like you feel that sometimes the work your teacher has set is too hard. I wonder if you’re worried you’ll struggle, so you’d prefer not to start it at all, than discover you can’t do it.’
  • Try not to say no: Children who are struggling with big emotions tend to become more triggered or defiant when they hear a ‘no.’ So, instead of saying ‘no, you can’t have a biscuit’, say ‘yes, when’ or ‘when, then.’
    • Yes, you can have a biscuit when you’ve had your dinner.
    • When you’ve cleared up, then we can go to the park.
  • Or answer a question with a question:
    • Why do you think I can’t agree to that?
    • What else could you do instead?
  • Use Problem Solving: Ask your son to help work out a solution the problem. Write the problem at the top of the page in a neutral way, that doesn’t imply blame. Something like ‘How to complete the schoolwork set by the teacher.’ Ask your son for 10 to 15 possible solutions. Write down all his answers, even the silly or funny ones. If you have any ideas, ask if you can add them at the end. Then ask your son to choose which idea or ideas he would like to try first. If his chosen solution doesn’t work, come back to the list, and try different ideas, until you find what works.
    It is possible your son will help you find a solution you hadn’t thought of, that will be the key to him doing schoolwork at home.
  • Give choices: Help your son by giving him choices so he feels more in control. Don’t give him a choice about whether or not he does the schoolwork but rather when it should be done.
    • ‘There are 3 hours of schoolwork to be done today. I wonder where we should schedule that in?’
    • ‘Do you want to do your English schoolwork before your maths or after?’
  • Be playful: Laughter is a great way to dispel anxious thoughts. Try to have friendly banter and fun, to counterbalance the worries and fears.

3. Help your son cope with his anxiety

Helping children deal with anxiety is such a big topic, there is a separate blog on this which you can read.

4. Reduce sibling rivalry.

One of the things I picked up from your letter is that you also have a daughter, who is doing schoolwork without a fuss. Many parents will notice the same thing. That they have one child who is always the ‘difficult one’ and one who is the ‘easy one.’ Interestingly, your daughter’s compliance may be part of the problem.

Siblings often ‘polarise.’ If one sibling is ‘good’ the other sibling (subconsciously) thinks, ‘I can’t be good at being good, so I’m going to be great at being bad! I don’t want to be like her, so I’m going to be the opposite!’  This is not a conscious decision, but it often result in one child being the ‘angel’ child, and one the ‘devil’ child. Then parents tend to treat them like that, and the behaviour persists. More on how to stop sibling rivalry.

So, what can you do to reduce it?

  • Praise: It’s important to appreciate your son for any good things he does:
    • ‘Hey, you got dressed without me having to tell you. That showed a lot of self-discipline.’
    • ‘You remembered to turn the TV off and start reading. Good self-control!’
    • ‘Even though you were really annoyed with your sister, you just shouted her name, but you didn’t try to hurt her. That showed a lot of restraint.’
  • Unconditional love: It’s vital that both your children feel they are unconditionally loved, and don’t have to ‘earn’ love. Although it is easier to enjoy a child who is behaving well, you know you love your son, even though he is behaving badly. But he may not know that. When a child feels ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ they are likely to behave even worse. So, tell your son:
    • ‘You don’t have to be good to deserve love, I love you all the time, even when you’re being naughty or difficult. Nothing will ever change that.’
    • ‘Sometimes, when I’m angry, you might be thinking that I don’t love you anymore. But that’s not true. I always love you. You don’t earn love, you’re my son, so I always love you.’
  • 15 minutes special time a day: Try to give both your son and daughter 15 minutes a day, when you focus totally on playing, talking, and tuning into their world. A time when you are at your best – fun, attentive and loving.

    Make sure you son knows what time his special time will be, so he can look forward to it. Don’t ever cancel special time. Even if your son has been misbehaving. This should be protected and predictable, so your son knows, no matter what, he will get a happy, fun mum, for 15 minutes every day.

5. Remember your relationship is more important than schoolwork

Having talked about all the ways you can help your son do his schoolwork, remember your relationship with your son is more important.

If your son is kicking off or pushing against you, take a step back from the work. Although you may feel that he will get behind with his work, your mother/son relationship will last the rest of his life. This is a time for staying connected, loving, and supportive.

It is great if you can get him to do his schoolwork. However, the messages of unconditional love you give your son, the acceptance you show for his behaviour, even when it’s challenging, and love you give will be way more important than the schoolwork he completes. The life lessons of resilience, self-acceptance and coping with anxiety will help him in his teenage years and into his adult life.

If your son receives love, support and acceptance, even when he is struggling, he may feel more ready to get on with his schoolwork. Often it melts away the resistance, and because he feels close to you, he is more willing to do what you ask. If he doesn’t, it’s OK. Maintaining a close bond with him, and helping him through the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic is still more important than his schoolwork.

Good luck, and I hope that you can help your son through this, so when social isolation comes to an end, he can start again at school, with some new coping skills and more resilience than before.

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

Need help now? Ready to explore whether investing in some tailor-made parenting sessions would be right for you and your family? Book your FREE 20-minute call with Elizabeth here