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My name is Claudia and I'm a teacher who helps parents with their kids remote and distance learning as well as well as how kids can best learn online and with technology!


Motivating kids who are refusing to do remote learning

Updated: May 26, 2020

a girl focuses on home learning using a laptop

Why kids refuse to do home learning

Over the past ten weeks of teaching online, many kids have put up quite a resistance and just refused to do our remote learning and I have spent a lot of time explaining to parents how to help and encourage their children to learn remotely and helping with parenting and technology issues. We all know that kids can be stubborn sometimes but there are things that us grown-ups can do to help kids come around to our way of thinking and change their minds. You won’t succeed every time but there are lots of things you can do to motivate kids who are refusing to do distance learning.

Children refuse to do as they're told all the time. For some, it has become a routine behaviour and for others, it might come, seemingly, out of nowhere. Usually, kids don’t refuse to do as they are told just to aggravate you, although it may seem that way sometimes! Similarly, they don’t intentionally choose the worst possible moments to refuse to do what you tell them, although they may be incredibly good at picking that exact moment. Children refuse to do as they are told for many different reasons. Sometimes kids refuse to do the most bizarrely trivial things for no apparent reason. (Why don’t you want to put your socks on?) Most of the time though, kids have very valid reasons for not wanting to do things which we can use to our advantage when encouraging kids to join in with their remote learning.

How to get kids to talk about school

Just because their reasons aren’t obvious to us, doesn’t mean there aren’t any and we will need to know what they are so that we can help to change their minds. Investigating why kids are refusing to do something needs to be done gradually and definitely not in any kind of heated moment. Often, finding out the reasons behind a child’s refusal can be as easy as asking them. Have you asked? Have you actually asked your child “Why don’t you want to do this?”? You have? Consider these questions then: Do you frown when you ask? Does your voice get a little sterner? Are you asking or demanding? It’s so easy to show our frustration in the way we talk and act but doing this is not likely to get a useful response from kids.

Pause before you react when your child initially refuses or shows signs of reluctance. Kids can tell when their parents are angry even if they don’t say anything and so if you tense up, put your hands on your face and start to use jerky, sudden movements then your child can see that you are angry and probably won’t want to reveal what’s going on.

Positive ways to talk to your child

Sometimes, as much as it may kill you a little inside, asking your child why they are refusing to do something in a gentle, interested tone with a bright smile on your face may actually get the result that you want. I know this sounds like the complete opposite of what you feel like doing when your child dismisses their online learning again but trust me. Upon refusal, pause to put on your happy, smiley face and ask them as nicely as you can why they don’t want to. Ask them as if they were an adult, not a child. Think about how you would like to be asked if you were them. You can do it. It might not work the first time - your child might be so taken aback by their strangely serene parent that seems to be fine with them saying no that they don't know what to say - but your child won’t be able to help but feel at ease enough to eventually express their feelings.

If you do feel like a confrontation is about to start then try again later. Just say “okay” and shrug off your child’s refusal and go and do something else. I know that this isn’t always possible depending on the situation, but the key is to not let a confrontation start no matter. Later on when you’re watching TV together or at bedtime maybe, you could ask again very gently and without a trace of concern on your face and you might be rewarded with some answers.

My child won’t tell me what’s wrong

Saying something like “Why do you constantly refuse to…?” to a five-year-old is unlikely to get you anywhere because young children probably won’t know what the words ‘constantly’ or ‘refuse’ even mean. Phrase your question in simple terms and try rephrasing it a few times so that your child has more chance of understanding your meaning. You could ask “Why don’t you like it?” or “How come you don’t want to?” or just "Why?".

Speak slowly to make it very clear what you are asking and use positive gestures and body language that show that you would welcome a response from them and are keen to hear it. (Smile broadly and lift the palms of your hands and your shoulders in an asking gesture.) Remember that kids need time to formulate their response - much more time than an adult does. Don’t think that your child isn’t going to answer you just because they don’t reply straight away. My whole class and I have waited whole minutes in painful silence for a child to say what they want to say before.

You might have heard a child excitedly say that they want to tell you something and then take a few moments to actually put the words together mentally to express what they’re so excited out loud. You should try to avoid putting words in kids mouths by using open questions and avoiding suggesting answers for them. Remember though, if your young child won’t tell you what’s wrong they might not know why or they may not know how to explain why.

Positive ways to get kids to respond

How to motivate a child to learn online

A manager who wants to increase the motivation of their workforce might start by considering their employee’s needs. Employees are likely to be demotivated if their physiological and safety needs are not met. Would you still go to work if it didn’t earn you the money you need to pay for food and water and a safe place to live? Children’s motivation for learning is similar because kids have these needs too and, left unsatisfied, they won’t feel up to a Zoom lesson or an online quiz.

Sometimes young children aren’t good at recognising their own needs and so they probably not going to be letting you know that they aren’t feeling up to a Zoom lesson because they didn’t sleep well the night before and now they are tired. In the hustle and bustle of daily family life, it’s easy to overlook these needs but it’s important to keep them in mind because they are very demotivating when left unsatisfied but easy to fulfil. Consider whether your child could be hungry, when did they last eat and how much was it? Are they tired? Could they have had a bad night's sleep? Are they ill or coming down with something?

Even your teenager, who can never be bothered, could be feeling tired from staying up late or maybe lethargic from not drinking enough water which could be putting them off doing their distance learning. The UK early years curriculum puts a great emphasis on children’s self-care and recommends that adults help children as young as three years old to manage their own needs and promote an understanding of the effects diet, sleep and exercise can have on their own bodies. If you encourage your kids to be mindful of their own health and how it affects their learning then they are more likely to be able to understand their own lack of motivation and let you know why they don’t feel like doing their remote work.

There are countless other reasons for your kids to be refusing to do distance learning. Some may be related to a sudden transition to learning online, or it could be something about the distance learning itself that they don’t like. Your child might be refusing to do school work during lockdown because of effects being in lockdown have had on you and your family’s lives.

What does distance learning look like?

Distance learning programs can be unique to each school. Some schools provide a sequence of lessons that looks similar to how a normal school day might and for some these might be led by a teacher who is live on camera. Some parents are being provided with lessons to teach their children themselves and some children are connecting directly with their teacher via platforms like Class Dojo or Google Classroom to receive daily tasks and activities in a less structured format. There are varying degrees of emphasis on the parental role vs. the teacher’s role, various levels of direct communication between children and teachers, and varying amounts of work that children are required to complete, depending on your school.

Kids refusing to do online school work

If your child is refusing to do online school work, you will need to take into consideration what your school’s online learning provision looks like as well as how well suited it is to your child in particular. If you’re still in the dark about why your child is reluctant to do online learning, it might help to consider the following questions:

  • Is the work too hard? How can you help them with remote learning?

  • Are they getting too much distance learning work?

  • Are they finding it boring? Do they not seem interested in learning?

  • Is there something they’d much rather do?

  • Is your family in lockdown?

  • Have they undergone sudden changes in their lives recently?

  • Is the technology that they are required to use scaring them

How can parents help with remote learning?

Remember when we were talking about creativity, we said that if the challenge level of an activity is too high then children will not be motivated to do it? If the online learning activities that your child is being asked to do are genuinely too hard for them then they might refuse to even try to complete work or do any school work at all. Parents can help kids with remote learning work by giving appropriate support which can even help your child learn more when completing a task than they might have alone.

The key is to make sure that your support doesn’t remove your child’s active role in the task otherwise they won’t learn anything from it. In other words, don’t do it for them or tell them what to do. Just guide and encourage them. If you find that the work is always too hard, even with your support, then you should definitely let your child’s teacher know. I find it hard to gauge how my students are finding the activities that I set during distance learning and I find feedback from parents is very helpful with this.

Too much distance learning work

The sheer volume of work could be putting your child off doing any of it. Your school might be sending hours and hours of work each day in which case kids would be justified in feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, it is possible that kids feel like they have too much because there are several tasks from different subject teachers but actually the tasks only take five minutes or so to complete. Again, feedback to your teacher with yours and your child’s thoughts. It could be that your child tends to work much faster when they're at school or that the time it takes to do what has been set has been misjudged. Communication between parents and teachers is really important for successful online learning!

We know that kids won’t want to do their work if it's too hard, but this can also be the case when it’s too easy. If the tasks your child is receiving don’t require much active thinking or hands-on action, then they will soon get bored and avoid doing it. For example, watching videos is a very passive task because it doesn't require any action or input from the child. To keep children engaged, teachers are more likely to limit videos to short clips and only use them when they add something important to the lesson.

If your child is finding the work too easy, you should let your teacher know but in the meantime why not try increasing the difficulty yourself? Think about (or ask your child's teacher about) what concept or skill is being reinforced by the task set. With this in mind, you might be able to adjust existing tasks or come up with a more challenging activity that involves the same skill or concept.

If your child’s distance learning work is just not fun then who can blame them for not wanting to do it. Learning should be fun and there are so many ways that you can make learning fun for your kids. Not to mention the multitude of websites, youtube channels and apps that are out there just for kids to learn in fun ways.

Benefits of storytelling for students

Another reason your child is not completing classwork that’s been set, joining in with ‘lessons’ or even talking about school might be that they have some negative feelings going on relating to the school. Our children have experienced a very sudden and serious upheaval in their lives which could be causing some bad feelings, or at the very least take them some time to get used to. Remember that it’s very important to talk through the changes that have taken place. “You used to go to school on the bus in the morning, didn’t you? But you’re staying at home with me now instead, aren’t you?”.

the whole brain child daniel siegel md and tina payne bryson md

Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson recommend helping kids to build connections between the different areas of their brains to help them deal with emotions and encourage reasonable behaviour (The Whole-Brain Child, 2011) which is especially important during new and unusual situations like remote learning. These connections can be fostered through children’s storytelling - but that doesn’t just mean telling your kids stories - kids need to tell stories, most importantly their story, to help them to mature emotionally.

How to promote children’s storytelling skills

Initiate informal conversations relating to your child’s life and changes they may have gone through. Explain the reasons for the changes in a way that they can understand and that doesn’t scare them and remind them that things will return to normal. Use positive language and body language to make some comments that will lead a discussion and hopefully get your child talking too. Talk it through as many times as necessary over many days and maybe even weeks. You can bring up the subject and your child may start to bring it up too. You can draw, paint, write down words, and make things about what’s happened and what’s going to happen.

Your child could also tell their story of being away from school and the story of how they’ll go back to school digitally using tools like iPad apps and Google Earth. Being able to share their stories with friends might help to inspire your child to create and will help to keep them connected socially. This kind of discussion and activity will help your child to sort through the emotions they’re having about being away from school and you might find that they eventually begin to have more of an interest in online learning.

What are the benefits of technology in education

We all know how frustrating technology can be when it’s new to us and when it comes to kids and technology it could be that the technology involved in your child’s distance learning program itself is what’s causing your child to refuse to engage. Aside from being a way to connect kids with their education from anywhere and at any time, there can be many positive effects of using technology on child development. Children using technology can benefit from improved social skills, strengthened motor skills like hand-eye coordination and increased focus for longer periods of time as well as promoting those all-important 21st-century skills like creativity and problem-solving.

6 reasons why students prefer digital content infographic

Technology tips for parents

New things can be scary. Maybe your young child has never used a laptop before and just looking at the big, bright screen full of tiny words and symbols is quite overwhelming for them? Maybe the awkwardness of using a trackpad on a computer for the first time is frustrating for your child? Children may feel uncertain or scared about being live on camera because they’ve never done it before and don't quite understand it yet. You can help your child overcome their technology fears by letting them know that you are in the same boat and you’re going to face the difficulties together and by helping them to be positive about difficulties and turn them into exciting opportunities to learn. Studies show that kids actually prefer digital learning and that educational technology can have a positive impact on academic success.

Try to turn your child’s lack of knowledge and their uncertainty into a positive by making it an opportunity for you to learn something new together. Hint to your child that you’re just as uncertain and overwhelmed as they are (even if you’re not). Say things like “Wow this is confusing isn’t it!” or “Oh dear, I don’t know how to do that.” By sharing in your child's struggles you can make them feel less alone and brave enough to face their fears.

Use the word ‘we’ a lot to make sure that they know that you are going to face the problem together and that you share the responsibility of learning to use the technology. Turn learning about the devices and platforms your child needs to use into an adventure that the two of you are going on together. Encourage a good attitude towards learning by saying things like “Let’s keep trying” or “We can have a go, can’t we?” when you make a mistake or encounter difficulty. Keep the positivity levels high by being lighthearted and finding the humour in things even when you get things wrong. You can also point out the advantages that using technology will have for them, like being able to see your friend’s and teacher’s faces and talk to them. (Or having a cool Minecraft background behind them in video lessons!)

Motivating kids who are refusing to do remote learning

Finding out why kids are refusing to do remote learning is half the battle which is then followed by lots of modelling, positivity and a shared learning journey towards embracing technology together as part of learning. Be mindful of what’s going on in your kid’s lives, what changes have occurred and what their needs are but also encourage open communication and use storytelling to promote children’s emotional well-being and maturity. Don’t feel like you’re the only parent struggling to connect their kids with their online learning and feel free to reach out to me (through one of the many channels available!) with specific queries or issues that you are facing with kids doing remote learning or kids using technology.


What does your child think of online learning? Are they refusing to do it? Have you managed to find out why? I would be very grateful to hear your story about this or any other aspect of online learning with children.



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