I recently read a blog post on the topic of what to do when the student refuses to work (as in schoolwork). All five of the suggestions were behavioral in nature, working to “get” something out of the child with rewards and consequences. Not one of the suggestions had anything to do with relationships.
My suggestion , “Let’s do it together!”
Allow me to describe an experience from my own family. Early during a school year (a couple of years ago), my son was given two Spanish memorization assignments in a first year Spanish class. One of the assignments is to memorize Romans 8:1-2 in Spanish. The teacher's approach is an immersion approach, and at this point at the beginning of the school year, the students were merely memorizing sounds and syllables without context or meaning, which, in my opinion, is extremely difficult. So rather than lord over him and tell him to get busy, and rather than encourage him with empty "You can do it!" phrases, I decided to join him.
Romans 8 Por lo tanto, ya no hay condenación para los que pertenecen a Cristo Jesús; 2 y porque ustedes pertenecen a él, el poder[a] del Espíritu que da vida los[b] ha libertado del poder del pecado, que lleva a la muerte.
He was resistant and angry about the assignment. Was I irritated with his avoidance of the assignment? Yes. I ignored my own irritation with the fact that he is capable of independent learning and I approached him with a calm “This is not a big deal. We will do this together.”
He is not a learner with special needs, but I pulled out some of my tricks that I use with my homeschooler with special needs for this situation.
1. Put on your detective hat and make some guesses why the child doesn’t want to work. My child didn’t want to invest in the Spanish assignments because he felt overwhelmed and incompetent. He avoided the assignment until the last possible moment, which meant he did not leave himself enough time.
I sat down with my son with the laptop and guided him through the steps that I would go through in order to memorize those verses.
2. The actual homework assignment becomes a background activity. Addressing the issue of feeling overwhelmed and incompetent becomes the primary activity.
3. Stop the action. Stop the resistance and procrastination by starting the assignment in a way that the child may join you with you in the lead.
4. Break down the assignment into manageable pieces. Slow down.
I suggested that he find a web site that would pronounce any phrase in Spanish that he typed. I suggested typing and learning one phrase at a time, listening, repeating, listening, repeating. As he typed in a phrase, I suggested that he make a flash card for himself with the phrase in Spanish in dark marker and the English translation below it in pencil.
He was at a place where he was willing to try anything, although he peppered our interaction with lots of resistance and eye-rolling.
I ignored the resistance and eye-rolling.
5. Do the work alongside your child.
When I took a cake decorating class, the teacher demonstrated for us and worked alongside us. I relied on her demonstration heavily at first. Now, I can work independently. Sometimes, our kids need us to do it with them. They need us to demonstrate.
Back to the Spanish memorization mission: When the voice on the computer spoke a line of the Bible verse, I repeated it aloud with my son. We looked at the flash card together as we read and spoke.
6. STAY CALM. CONFIDENT. Your attitude is always “We can do this”. I want to pull my kid out of the flight-or-flight part of his brain and into thinking mode, active participation mode. When he became upset with himself because he thought he wasn’t memorizing fast enough, I sent him to walk around the house, stretch, anything except look at those flash cards or think about the assignment. I explained that he would learn nothing while upset. The brain isn’t wired to learn in fight-or-flight.
7. Use movement. Sensory integration activities are not just for individuals with sensory processing issues. My son thought I was crazy when I suggested hugging himself (crossing the midline), walking through the house with flash cards in hand, working through the phrases. I insisted on some breaks for nothing but stretching and movement, as well. He found one of his sister’s squeeze balls and held it in one hand to squeeze while he worked on phrases. I suggested he write the phrases several times (he declined this suggestion-and that’s okay. I wanted him to figure out what works best for him.). Chew gum. Suck on a hard candy. Do what works.
8. Spotlight discoveries. Interestingly, he settled into a rocking chair to work on the phrases. The movement did seem to help. I wanted him to notice that, so I said, “I notice that when you move, you get the material more easily.”
There is a benefit to beginning an assignment early to allow time for sleep. The brain needs sleep. I told my boy that. He went to bed that night frustrated that he didn’t quite have all of the selection solidly memorized. I told him we’d get the last little bit in the morning after he’d slept. He was doubtful, but tired, so he went to bed. And yes, we did knock out the last little bit in the morning. He knew the passage better than he thought he did – but he needed that sleep time.
Later, when we memorized a paragraph about a fictional Pedro, I spotlighted that he seemed to be able to memorize a certain amount at one sitting and then he becomes saturated and unable to hold more, and I suggested that he might want to start a day or two earlier, memorizing shorter pieces of the assignment, instead of trying to memorize all of it on the night before it is due, planning not to memorize all of it at once, planning to include sleep time within his studies.
9. Be creative. When my son was stuck memorizing the paragraph about a boy named Pedro in another class assignment, I suggested he sing the phrases. The result was hilarious (I had trouble stifling laughter) yet successful.
10. Look for ways to give your child some of the responsibility for him or her self. At my son’s second memorization assignment, I asked him to listen to the computer pronounce the assignment and make his flash cards before I joined him.
11. Scaffold self-discovery. Ask your child what they think helped the most, what didn’t help.
12. Be available as long as needed. I joined my son for two of the memorization assignments before he was ready to tackle one alone.
When my son was given the next memorization assignment, he began it a night earlier, without me, and he completed the assignment in fewer hours than he’d needed when memorizing text in Spanish in one sitting.
Have a child who is refusing to schoolwork or resisting homework? Don’t lord over them with consequences or dangle rewards and create an us-against-them situation. Instead, join him. The relationship benefits go far beyond learning academic material.
Bill Nason has homework tips in his book and on his Facebook group, Autism Discussion Page: