Managing Resistance to Learning in the Lockdown

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- First came pandemic home-schooling. Now comes an epidemic of Children Refusing to Be Home-Schooled. One of mine inverts into a headstand as soon as an assignment appears, as if tipping upside down is the only escape from lockdown.

If it seems that opposition is growing, it probably is. “Parents previously faced resistance over expectations at home,” says child psychologist Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings. “Now they’re on the hook for school expectations, too, so they’ve got double the resistance.” Yep. Here’s what to do when your kids offer little more than denial and defiance in response to your open-hearted efforts to educate them.

1. Let the behavior slide, and focus on the underlying issue. Greene says resistance communicates a simple message: I’m having difficulty meeting this expectation. Pushback is just the kid’s way of telling you that. Greene suggests making a list of all the assignments a child is struggling with. “One of the pickles we put ourselves in is that we act like it’s a surprise,” says Greene. “It’s only a surprise that they won’t do it the first time. After that, it’s not a surprise anymore.”

Once you have your list, try to find a collaborative solution to each item.

  • Ask your child what’s making it hard to meet each expectation. The reasons may be news to you. Perhaps she doesn’t know how to start sentences, or she fears answering wrong.
  • State your own concerns: Why is it important for this expectation to be met?
  • Come to an agreement that’s both realistic and lets everyone be heard.

2. Loop in the teacher. Conveniently, there’s an expert on teaching your kid. The teacher has known your child for months and may have insight and suggestions. Have the teacher talk to your child one-on-one. “Take yourself out of the power struggle,” says psychologist Bobbi Wegner, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “That way it’s not you vs. your kid.” Your vibe is empathetic teammate: “Oh, it feels so hard to do this assignment!” Be curious about kids’ feelings and get them talking. If possible, let the accountability and consequences come from the teacher.

For children who are strongly resisting, Wegner suggests evaluating whether the schoolwork is essential. Will teachers really fail your child? Prioritize relationships and household calm. “If homework is disrupting that, I would say screw it for the moment,” she says. But don’t inadvertently reward the resistance to schoolwork with screen time and hanging out. Instead, choose engaging or bonding activities such as cooking, games, or nature walks.

3. Make “home-schooling” more like home and less like school. Some children are resisting not homework, but the invasion of an erstwhile sanctuary where they could spend hours playing Minecraft in their pajamas while drinking smoothies. School has bells and hall passes and hand-raising. If you try to borrow institutional structure, some kids balk, or—in the case of one of my children—throw a maraca at mom’s head. “Kids feel like home is a place where they’re not supposed to work so hard,” says Julie Bogart, a 17-year veteran of home-schooling her five children and creator of an online writing program called the Brave Writer. Kids know “there really isn’t a real schedule, and if we create one, it’s kinda fake,” Bogart says.

Instead, incorporate learning into home life.

  • Read to kids while they play with Legos or work on a puzzle.
  • Let them answer math problems while jumping on a trampoline.
  • Set up a writing assignment with dry-erase markers on a window.
  • Write down a story, and have your child trace it.
  • Do dull history questions under the covers together at bedtime, with a flashlight.

“These are all ways to support a child who is feeling profound resistance,” says Bogart. The key question to ask yourself is: How can you create more comfort around the experience? Above all, tread lightly. “This is a cultural trauma,” says Wegner. “Education is important, but it is not No. 1 right now.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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