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5 Ways to Motivate a Reluctant Learner

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This Ask Me Monday (AMM3) question covers the topics of 1) the first steps in homeschooling, 2) possible reasons for reluctant learning, and 3) ways to motivate a reluctant learner.

Submitted Question:

We’ve been thinking of homeschooling our son, but I’m concerned with his inability to focus and do an assigned task. He does okay at school though. At home, he just won’t do stuff like worksheets or reading without lots of pressure. He is smart and can read. He knows how to do things. He just won’t. He acts like he doesn’t know how to do it. This is a common issue we are facing on many fronts with him.

First Steps in Homeschooling

Find out the homeschooling requirements for your state.

Homeschooling laws vary from state to state. The HSDLA website provides information about homeschooling requirements in each state. The linked page shows you a color coded U.S. map corresponding to the level of homeschool regulation. State specific homeschooling regulations can also be found on each state’s department of education website.

Determine your homeschooling approach.

There are a lot of different ways to approach homeschooling. A home education does not have to mimic what would occur in a traditional school. For your son, I would recommend staying away from all-in-one curriculums or online homeschool programs. It seems like selecting and adapting curriculum based on your child’s learning needs and interests would be a better fit for him.

I highly recommend reading the book, “The Well-Trained Mind.” This book is an excellent resource for homeschoolers and for those who are considering homeschooling. It provides specific information about what to teach and includes suggested resources and curriculum. CLICK HERE to read my full review of this book.

The reasons a learner might be reluctant

I like to take the assumption that children are intrinsically motivated to learn. If a child is reluctant, there is a reason behind it. Finding the reason(s) for reluctance with each individual child or activity may take some detective work. Here are some possible reasons a child is a reluctant learner:

1) The activity is too boring.

I have a child with ADHD and he has about a zero tolerance level for things he considers boring. If he considers an activity boring, I either have to change what I am doing, shorten the activity, and/or increase the payoff for doing it. If you ask your son for specific details about what parts of the activity he doesn’t like, it will become clear if the issue is “too boring.”

2) The child doesn’t see how the activity is relevant.

Some children will participate in activities no matter how they are presented, but others will resist if they cannot see the point. When you really look at some activities closely, you may also have difficulty finding the relevance. If you are homeschooling and the activity is irrelevant, throw it out. If there is a way to change the activity to make it relevant, change it. If your child attends a traditional school, he/she may be stuck doing the activity anyway.

If a close look at an activity reveals relevance, then tell the child why the information is important to learn in that way. Attempt to explain it in a way that the child can relate to.

3) Fear of failure.

Some children may refuse to do work if they have anxiety about the outcomes. It may be they want to get it right, but are afraid of the actual results or of how others will perceive them.

4) Learning challenges.

Learning disabilities and/or ADHD can make some school activities very overwhelming. A child may be missing the skills to complete assignments. A child who has learned the necessary skills may not be able to maintain the focus needed to complete assignments.

5) Problems with executive functioning.

Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that enable a person to complete tasks. In the following video, Amythest Shaber describes executive functioning and executive dysfunction.

A child who is having difficultly with executive functioning may have difficulty with:

  • Completing tasks or work on time
  • Asking for and/or seeking for help when needed
  • Analyzing tasks and information
  • Multitasking
  • Applying previous information to solve new situations
  • Keeping track of time

Executive functioning challenges commonly occur in individuals diagnosed with ADHD. CLICK HERE to read about strategies to help a child with ADHD or an otherwise highly active child.

How to be a reluctant learner detective

I have found that one of the best ways to find out specific reasons why my own children are reluctant to do a learning task is to ask them. I may start with some general questions, but then get more specific to pinpoint the exact issues.

The Proactive and Collaborative Solutions Model described in Ross Greene’s book, “The Explosive Child” provides an excellent framework for asking children the right kinds of questions to support them while we try to understand their experiences.

Reluctant Learner Detective Example

Here is an example that happened to me last week when my son did not want to participate in the art lesson.

Me: Why don’t you want you want to do it?

Son: It’s boring. I hate art.

Me: What parts don’t you like?

Son: I don’t like drawing what they tell me to.

From this conversation, I have concluded that for my son, the reluctance is due to the activity being 1) too boring, and 2) not personally relevant. To fix this problem, I can come up with art activities that are more interesting for him and relevant to his interests. Rather than drawing an object he doesn’t care about, he can learn to draw figures from his favorite video games or select his own drawing subject.

Make adaptations

Once you determine the reason the child is a reluctant learner, you can make accommodations and modifications that will help. Overall, a child’s education should be enjoyable. Taking into account learning needs, attention needs, and individual interests can all help improve intrinsic motivation to complete learning activities.

Ways to Motivate a Reluctant Learner

1) Provide choices (DiCintio & Gee, 1999)

There are a lot of ways to practice and demonstrate learning. Some children absolutely love completing worksheets. Other children may benefit more from oral discussions. Rather than requiring a specific format, provide options for the child to choose from. Here are some examples of format options to practice and demonstrate learning:

  • Answer orally
  • Create a video
  • Make a diorama
  • Make a book
  • Draw a picture with a caption

Choices can also be offered regarding the order of content covered. For example, you could say, “Do you want to do math, handwriting, or reading first today.”

For science, The Well-Trained Mind provides an exploratory framework where the child’s interests are taking into account. For example, the child can choose which animals they want to learn more about. CLICK HERE for a more detailed explanation of this framework.

2) Provide Interactive Learning Experiences

Think of interactive learning experiences as the “fun factor” in learning. Sitting through lectures, filling out worksheets, or watching someone else do something can be downright boring. Use manipulatives or other techniques to get the child involved can enhance the overall learning experience. Completing relevant projects is another way to make the learning experience more interactive.

3) Make instruction relevant

It can be difficult to motivate oneself to learn content that you do not find relevant. Find a way to connect the information to things the child is familiar with. Then explain why knowing that content is important.

4) Make adaptations when needed

Adaptations can take the form of changing the content or the requirements. CLICK HERE to read more about adaptations. An adaptation I commonly make at my house is writing answers down for my children. Some of my children tire quickly from writing. If we are working on science or math, I will write the answers for them. If the focus of the activity is writing or handwriting, then they have to do it themselves. I will shorten the handwriting activity if it is too much for one sitting.

Adaptations can also involve providing a work system (showing how many tasks must be completed and the resulting payoff -such as a break or treat), an activity schedule to show the steps that will occur, or a visual schedule of what will happen during the day. Some children really benefit from knowing what to expect and how long it will take.

5) Provide instruction at the right level.

Instruction should not be too hard or too easy. A child who is sufficiently challenged will be more motivated to learn the content (DiCintio & Gee, 1999). Content that is too difficult may result in a child feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. Content that is too easy may not seem relevant to the child. When a child is instructed at the right level and pace for them, a child is more likely to find success and enjoy learning.


I love learning and hope to instill this same life long love for learning in my children. If a child shows signs of being a reluctant learner, asking the child about their learning experiences should reveal clues about the reasons behind the difficulty. Ways to motivate a reluctant learner include making content challenging, relevant, and interactive. Providing choices and appropriate adaptations can also help.

Ask Me Monday

This blog post is part of my Ask Me Monday series. CLICK HERE to learn more about Ask Me Monday.

To submit a question for Ask Me Monday, send an e-mail to Please put “Ask Me Monday” in the subject line.


DiCintio, M. J. and Gee, S. (1999). Control is the key: Unlocking the motivation of at-risk students. Psychology in the Schools, 36, 231–237.

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28 Replies to “5 Ways to Motivate a Reluctant Learner”

  1. I really needed to read this today. We are all signed up for an online homeschool program, but my daughter can be reluctant to learn when she gets bored. I am hoping that, since she got placed in gifted this year, that we can eliminate the “boring” element. I’m also taking your advice and will add some of my own interactive elements to supplement the provided lessons. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Great suggestions! My son has ADD/ADHD, thankfully he loves school and learning! But when he comes across something that doesn’t interest him, we struggle. Thank you for the informative post!

  3. Great information. So much of this was relevant to my son. He has ADHD and Anxiety and an adrenal gland that is overactive and affects his learning and internal body energy level. But, he is extremely smart and is testing and able to do work 2-3 grade levels above where he is in school. We have thought about homeschooling as well, but aren’t sure it is right for us right now. This is all great info tho, and I think some of it I will be able to incorporate when I am helping him with homework. Thanks for the thorough post!!!

  4. This is great, I feel like this was me growing up and now my 6 yr old is the exact same as me. I will be using some of your info to learn more and try and implement.

  5. I wish I would have found this post a year ago when my daughter was struggling. This will be so helpful for a lot of people. You provide a lot of really great insight here in something that a lot of parents and kids are struggling with. Great job

  6. Your ideas to motivate a reluctant learner are great! They are very similar to the philosophy in which I’m trained in, the Montessori Method. It’s very important to appeal to your child or student and their interests and abilities.

  7. Such a great article, my daughter is teaching me a lot about how to motivate a child to learn. She has taught me even more than I learned when I became a certified teacher! Children are all so different. I love learning what motivates my daughter. It definitely takes a lot of trial and error, and communication!

  8. This is so interesting and I have a mommy friend who could definitely benefit from all this info. Will make sure to share your post with her 🙂

  9. My middle son is on the spectrum. He is a teen now, and these would have been great to have awhile ago. I will even try some now.

  10. I love your suggestion about finding out the issue for the reluctance through questions. I know I am guilty of trying to just push through the reluctance. But sometimes simple questions and modifications to the activity can make a big difference!

  11. These are great tips for someone considering homeschooling! The motivation part is also a good reminder for teachers. I try to provide a lot of student choice in our learning activities. Great post!

  12. I love the provide choices idea! I think back to when I was in school and these were the most favorite projects. My children are in public school, not home-schooled, but they seem to do best with these types of assignments too!

  13. Thank you! This is great information. My son has ADHD & Autism, he is 14 & we have struggled with getting him engaged in learning for years. He is a very smart kid, so traditional worksheets & assignments do completely bore him. We always had to think outside the box to get him on board. I love the books you have recommended as well. “The Explosive Child” helped us so much! Please keep this great information coming!

  14. Great information! Kids can be so different in their style of learning and how they can be impacted by so many different things. Thanks for sharing!

  15. My first daughter is getting closer and closer to the age where I have to make a decision about what to do in terms of schooling for her. Your post (and website) seems to have a lot of information if I choose to forgo the typical, public school route that will be so helpful in the future! She’s very smart but gets frustrated easily so it’s good to know there are resources like your blog if/when I need help with her.

  16. Very good post! I have graduated two of my three children and totally agree with your approach. I love your phrasing about becoming a detective. That is really what it takes to sort it out!

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